Going to Okinawa? A Guide to Traveling to and Around Japan's Tropical Prefecture

Okinawa, Japan's southernmost island prefecture, is incredibly popular amongst tourists as a tropical paradise. The multiple islands that make up the prefecture are famous for their sparkling water, sandy beaches, and eclectic culture, making it an ideal travel destination for travelers from all different countries. But how to reach this warm weather wonderland? The answer changes depending on whether you're coming from Tokyo or Osaka, or even from abroad. And after arriving, how can you get around the islands to revel in all the splendor? Read more below to find out all about transportation to and around Okinawa!

Okinawa

Travel Tips

How to Get to Okinawa

Flying to Okinawa: The Most Common and Time-Efficient Way

Since Okinawa is an island prefecture and is therefore surrounded by water, the most common way people travel to and from the prefecture is by plane. The main island of Okinawa has one airport in its capital city of Naha, and there are several smaller airports on the larger outer islands as well. In this section we will introduce the most traveler-friendly airports in Okinawa Prefecture.

・Flying from Tokyo? See Naha Airport, Painushima Ishigaki Airport, or Miyako Shimojishima Airport Terminal
・Flying from Osaka? See Naha Airport, Painushima Ishigaki Airport, or Miyako Shimojishima Airport Terminal
・Flying from other parts of Japan? See Naha Airport or Painushima Ishigaki Airport
・Flying from overseas? See Naha Airport or Painushima Ishigaki Airport

      

・Naha Airport

The main airport of Okinawa, Naha Airport, is a hub between the main Okinawa island, the rest of Japan, surrounding countries, and even outer Okinawan islands.

This airport has both a domestic and international terminal and hosts major carriers such as ANA and JAL, as well as LCC (low-cost carriers) such as Peach and Jetstar. As Okinawa's main airport, there are also many more airlines with routes to and from Naha. 

Major airlines have many flights flying in and out of the airport every day and have routes between most large airports across Japan. If you are flying domestically to or from Tokyo, there are usually more flight options from Haneda rather than Narita. Kansai Airport in Osaka also has several options for routes to and from Naha Airport. Most other airports, while having routes to and from Naha, may only have one or a couple of flights per day.

The flight between Naha and Haneda airports is about 2.5 hours, and depending on the day and season can cost you between 10,000 yen to 30,000 yen one way (Japanese airline sites such as ANA and JAL often have you choose each of your preferred flight(s) from a timetable that shows you the price of the flight you choose).

There are 14 international destinations and routes coming in from surrounding countries such as South Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand. You don't have to come into Okinawa from Japan; you can make Okinawa a stop to another destination, or make it your first or only stop on a Japan trip!

While there are LCC flights coming in and out of Naha Airport, the flight options are much fewer than the major carriers. Although cheaper, we also recommend leaving yourself plenty of time in your schedule to ensure that you are able to make your flight, as a consequence of a more cost-effective carrier generally means they are not as effective or forgiving on the ground.

Also note that LCC flights fly out of a different terminal than the domestic and international flights, which needs to be reached by shuttle from the airport.

Although you may think an airport on a small, tropical island may be laid back, the time it takes you to reach your gate can vary based on how busy the airport is, so we recommend leaving plenty of time when leaving for the airport (especially when needing to check baggage).


Duration: From Tokyo (Haneda Airport) - Around 2.5 ~ 3 hours
From Osaka (Kansai Airport) - Around 2 ~ 2.5 hours
From other airports and countries - Please check airline websites for more details
Fare: Please check airline websites for more details
Must-see spots: Kokusai-dori, Naminoue Shrine, Shuri Castle Park, Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum, Fukushu-en Park

                

・Painushima Ishigaki Airport

Ishigaki is one of Okinawa's larger outer islands, and it is known for its pristine beaches and gorgeous natural scenery. There are several islands in the cluster around Ishigaki Island that are accessible by ferry, including Taketomi which is famous for its traditional Okinawan aesthetics and ox-drawn carts. Due to Ishigaki also having a higher population count than many of the smaller islands, Ishigaki also hosts a small airport that has flights coming in both domestically and internationally.

Major domestic carriers include ANA, which has routes from Haneda, Nagoya, Kansai, Fukuoka, and Naha, and Japan Transocean Air and Ryukyu Air Commuter (subsidiaries of JAL) with routes between Haneda, Kansai, Naha, Miyako Island, and Yonaguni Island.

Prices vary depending on the season and departing airport, but generally range from 10,000 yen to 30,000 yen for a one-way ticket.

LCC routes include Solaseed Air from Naha, and Peach from Kansai and Narita.

International flights can come in from Taipei (Taoyuan) with China Airlines, or Hong Kong with Hong Kong Express.


Duration: From Naha Airport - Around 1 hour
From Tokyo (Haneda Airport) - Around 3.5 hours
From Osaka (Kansai Airport) - Around 2.5 ~ 3 hours
From other airports and countries - Please check airline websites for more details
Fare: Please check airline websites for more details
Must-see spots: Kabira Bay, Ishigaki Island Limestone Cave, Hirakubosaki Lighthouse, Tamatorizaki Observatory

                   

・Miyako Shimojishima Airport Terminal

Miyakojima, another one of Okinawa's biggest and most popular outer islands, recently opened a small airport that caters to domestic flights. It currently only has routes with ANA, JAL, and JAL subsidiaries (JTA, RAC) flying to and from Tokyo (Haneda), Osaka (Kansai), Naha, Ishigaki, and the Kerama island in Okinawa. There are currently no international routes.

The island frequently welcomes visitors who want to enjoy everything the natural scenery has to offer, delicious local food, and one of the bridges with the most beautiful scenery in Japan!

Naha has the most flight options to Miyakojima, while Haneda and Kansai currently only have one flight per day. Be sure to plan your schedule accordingly if you are looking to fly to or from Tokyo or Kansai!


Duration: From Naha Airport - Around 45 minutes
From Tokyo (Haneda Airport) - Around 3 hours
From Osaka (Kansai Airport) - Around 2 ~ 2.5 hours
From other airports - Please check airline websites for more details
Fare: Please check airline websites for more details
Must-see spots: Cape Higashi-Henna, Kurima Bridge, Yonaha Maehama Beach

Cruise to Okinawa

                      

・Have Time to Spare? Reach Okinawa from Mainland Japan

Although time-consuming, it is possible to reach Okinawa from Kagoshima, Kyushu's southernmost prefecture. The journey takes about a full day one way and stops at Motobu Port (in northern Okinawa Island) and Naha Port (in southern Okinawa Island). 

Tickets range from "special class" to "second class," and the prices are reflected as such, ranging from 34,830 yen to 13,930 yen one way.

If you have 25 hours open and love the open seas, why not relax on a ferry slowly putting over the Pacific Ocean down to Japan's tropical paradise?

 

・Stop in Okinawa During Your International Cruise

Several ports in Okinawa including Naha Port and Ishigaki Port act as a destination for international cruises coming from and heading to surrounding countries, including Hong Kong and Taiwan.

These cruises often last for a couple of months, during which time you can leisurely make your way to the beautiful Pacific destinations while relaxing on the luxury liners!

Traveling Around Okinawa

Although Japan may be known for its extensive and efficient public transportation system, Okinawa is not. Once you reach Okinawa, getting around to different destinations can pose a different challenge. Here are the most common and effective ways both locals and tourists make their way around the island Prefecture.

The Okinawa Urban Monorail

Also affectionately known as the "Yuirail," this monorail runs the length of Naha into the neighboring Urasoe City. This is currently the only rail system in Okinawa and does not run across the entirety of Okinawa Island.

The first stop is Naha Airport, which is connected to the domestic terminal. From there, the route runs through Naha, past many major tourist spots, until Tedako-Uranishi Station in Urasoe City.

Tickets for the monorail are available at the ticket machines in front of the ticket gates at each station. Single-ride tickets are available ranging from 230 yen to 370 yen per ride depending on the length of your ride. The Yuirail also has a One Day Open Ticket which is valid for 24 hours (800 yen for adults, 400 yen for children), and a Two Day Open Ticket which is valid for 48 hours (1,400 yen for adults, 700 yen for children). The ticket machines' language can be set to English, and station attendants are often in their booth if you need any help.

The "Okica" is the Okinawa-specific IC card that was also the only IC card accepted at the monorail until recently. However, it was recently made so that PASMO, Suica, and other Japanese IC cards do work with the Yuirail's machines. If you would like to purchase an Okica, the flat fare to purchase the card is 500 yen, and then money can be loaded onto your card. It can also be used on the buses by tapping it on the card reader upon boarding and exiting the bus.

Decorated with illustrations of famous Okinawan attractions, its cute design can make for a great, memorable souvenir!

Cruise Around in a Rental Car

When you think of Japan, convenient and efficient public transportation may come to mind. However, Okinawa is known as a "car society," with most of its residents relying on cars for transportation rather than trains. It is also arguably the most time-efficient mode of transportation around the island, as you do not have to watch out for time schedules and can drive as close to your desired destination as allowed in one shot. Driving also allows you to access the parts of Okinawa not accessible by public transportation, which is why it is recommended to rent a car when you want to thoroughly explore. However, driving times will likely take longer depending on the traffic in high-density areas such as the off-ramps of the major highway as well as during rush hour.

There are several car rental services in Okinawa, the biggest ones being Times Car Rental, Toyota Rent-a-Car, and Nippon Rent-a-Car. Most of these branches are based in Naha City, but each website has an interactive map where you can find a branch that is most convenient for you.

More often than not, rental cars in Japan are equipped with built-in GPS maps that are generally able to be set in languages other than Japanese such as English. Many times, after finishing the paperwork necessary to complete the car rental process, you will be handed a booklet (offered in several languages including English) that has a description of the local tourist spots and recommended areas. The location in the booklet will be accompanied by a map code, which you can punch into the car's GPS and it will immediately show you the route to your destination.

Some branches, especially the ones with higher tourist traffic, have car magnets available that read "foreigner driving." These could come in handy to let surrounding cars know that you might not be accustomed to the roads or traffic. Sometimes staff will offer this sticker to you without any prompting, but if they do not and you would like a sticker you are always welcome to ask. While car rentals are available to non-Japanese as well, make sure that you have a form of driving license that is valid in Japan. 


Yanbaru Area (Northern Okinawa Island)
Duration:
From Naha (by car) - Around 1~2 hours (depending on traffic)
Must-see spots: Churaumi Aquarium, Nago Pineapple Park, Nakijin Castle Ruins

Bus Your Way Around the Island

To make up for the lack of a railway, Okinawa has an extensive bus system. However, locals like to say that the buses run on "Okinawa time," which means that they often show up later than their timetables have scheduled.

There are several bus systems available that run all over the main island, which include the Naha City Bus (runs within Naha City and its neighboring cities), the Highway Bus (runs within the cities and takes the highway between major stops), the airport buses (make various stops from Nago in northern Okinawa down to the airport in Naha), and various tour buses available for tours around the island and to major attractions such as Churaumi Aquarium on the northern part of Okinawa Island. There is a bus navigation website (that is also available in English) with information on times, routes, and can tell the user where the bus they are waiting for is currently in its route.

Buses have electronic screens that show the next few upcoming bus stops in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean. For the regular city buses, the names of the bus stops are announced by the bus driver, which means it is in Japanese. Keeping your eyes on the screens is the best way to know when to press the button to get off. Buses used for tourism may have pre-recorded announcements in different languages which can notify you when your stop is coming up.

Buses do accept IC cards, but it is always good to have cash (especially change) handy in case there is a discrepancy with the total. For fixed fares such as the tourist buses to and from specific locations, the fare may be collected before the bus departs. However, for the buses with local routes, the fare changes depending on the length of your ride. If you are paying with IC card, you will need to touch your IC card to the reader when you both board and disembark from the bus. If you are paying with cash, you will need to grab a ticket upon boarding and throw that ticket into the machine along with the correct fare when disembarking. While the fare machines can break 1,000 yen bills (note: most buses do not accept 5,000 or 10,000 yen bills), they cannot offer change, so try to have 10 yen coins on you if you want to pay with exact change.


Chatan Area (Central Okinawa Island)
Duration:
From Naha (by bus) - Around 1 hour
Fare: Around 740 ~ 840 yen
Must-see spots: Mihama American Village, Araha Park's Araha Beach, OKICHU


Itoman Area (Southern Okinawa Island)
Duration:
From Naha (by bus) - Around 1 ~ 2 hours 
Fare: Around 900 ~ 1,070 yen
Must-see spots: Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, Himeyuri Peace Museum, Okinawa Peace Memorial Park

Making Your Way to the Outer Islands

The outer Okinawan islands are certainly worth a visit, as their beaches, scenery, and hospitality rival the main island's. Certain islands will give you a glimpse into more traditional Okinawan life as well, as the people are more arguably more closely connected with traditional Okinawan customs. Red tiles decorate local buildings, and locals break into song and dance with the right amount of food and alcohol.

Because of the size and population, many of the smaller Okinawan islands do not have airports, or their airports do not accept many flights. Because of this, the easiest way to make it to many of these islands is by ferry.

All of these islands are famous for the beautiful beaches and natural scenery that has not been overly touched by humans, but each island also has its own characteristics that draw visitors to them. 

Take a Short Flight

As mentioned above, several of Okinawa's outer islands have small airports (such as Ishigaki's and Miyakojima's airports mentioned above), and below are a couple of outer island airports that only cater to inter-island flights. Hop on a short flight and wander around the islands as your final destination, or use them as a transfer point to another outer island!

 

・Kumejima Airport

Kumejima is located to the west of Naha and is less than 100km (62mi) away. Similar to the other outer islands, it is known for its pristine beaches and clear water. Popular spots include the Tatami-ishi (rocks by a beach resembling a tortoise's shell), Hiyajo Banta Cliff, and the Uegusuku Castle Ruins.

Although one of the less populated islands, Kumejima does have a small airport that hosts several flights each day. 

The only airline that caters to Kumejima Airport is JAL, and the flights to and from the island are through its subsidiaries JTA and RAC. The only route available for Kumejima is between Kumejima Airport and Naha Airport.


Duration: From Naha Airport - Around 30 minutes
From Tomari Port (Naha) - Around 3 ~ 4 hours (by ferry)
Fare: Please check airline websites for more details
Must-see spots: Tatami Rock Field, Hiyajo Banja Cliff, Uegusuku Castle Ruins

                    

・Yonaguni Airport

Famous for its beautiful azure waters, Yonaguni Island is incredibly popular amongst diving enthusiasts. There are strange underwater ruins consisting of large slabs of rock in geometric shapes which divers love to explore. For those interested in staying on land, Yonaguni is also home to a herd of miniature horses.

The size of the island is reflected in the airport, which consists of a tiny terminal and tarmac. The only airline option available is Ryukyu Air Commuter, with one flight a day going back and forth between Naha, and three between Ishigaki Airport.


Duration: From Naha Airport - Around 1.5 hours
From Ishigaki Airport - Around 30 minutes
Fare: Please check airline websites for more details
Must-see spots: Yonaguni Monument, Westernmost Point in Japan, Cape Irizaki

Ferry Your Way Out

・Which Outer Islands to Choose From?

The majority of the outer islands in Okinawa have ports that accept ferries coming to and from the main island, as well as between each other. The easiest way to reach most of the outer islands is from Naha Port, as geographically the majority of these islands are located in the southwest of the prefecture.

Islands easily reachable from Naha Port are Zamami, Aguni, Tokashiki, and Tonaki, with Tonaki also leading to Kumejima. 

The outer islands are also part of small island clusters, and reaching the largest of these clusters will allow you to travel in between the smaller ones by ferry as well. The largest of such clusters include Zamami, Miyakojima, and Ishigaki, with Ishigaki also having a route between the diving hotspot Yonaguni.

Motobu Part leads directly to Ie Island and Izena Island, which are even visible from northern Okinawa Island on a sunny day.


Zamami Island
Duration:
From Tomari Port (Naha) - Around 50 minutes by high-speed boat / around 2 hours by ferry
Fare: Around 4,090 yen (for round-trip adult ticket)
Must-see spots: Furuzamami Beach, Mt. Takatsukiyama Observatory

Escape to Okinawa, Japan's Tropical Paradise

Although technically a part of Japan, Okinawa offers an experience unlike the rest of the country. Its vibrant culture, ecosystem, and atmosphere make it an ideal trip for domestic and international tourists alike. 

Although making your way to and around the prefecture may seem difficult, it is a worthwhile journey, and hopefully this guide will help you make your way to and around the island prefecture.

Title image credit (clockwise from top left): rphoto7 / Shutterstock.com, bbipic / Shutterstock.com, TAKAHIRO KUBO / Shutterstock.com, Masami.K /Shutterstock.com

 

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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