Many thanks to Stephanie Montague, author of the Poppin’ Smoke website, for sharing her expertise! Find the link to her site in her bio, at the end of this post!
One of the most accessible destinations in the Pacific for retirees flying Space-A is Okinawa, Japan. Although many travelers visiting Japan for the first time have Tokyo at the top of their list, Okinawa is well worth a visit.
Okinawa is a cluster of islands in the Pacific, about 2 hours south of mainland Japan by plane. It boasts beautiful scenery, a sub-tropical climate, amazing marine life, and gorgeous beaches. Think of Okinawa as a less-expensive version of Hawaii. With the combination of outdoor, historic, and cultural activities, you could easily spend a week or more in Okinawa and never run out of things to do!
It’s helpful to understand the layout of Okinawa so you can plan your visit and decide where to stay. The main island is about 70 miles from top to bottom. Naha, the capital, is on the southern third of the island. The cluster of U.S. military bases is in the lower central area of the island (about 45 minutes north of Naha). The northern part of Okinawa is more rural. It has far fewer inhabitants, and much of the land is subtropical forest.
What to Do in Okinawa
We’ve been to Okinawa twice (so far). The first time was when we were flying Space-A back to the U.S. after spending 3 weeks in mainland Japan. We hopped from Yokota Air Base to Okinawa and stayed for about a week on Kadena Air Base.
Our second visit to Okinawa was in December 2017. We rented an Airbnb apartment in Nago, a small city on the northern part of the island and a good base from which to explore the beautiful nature on northern Okinawa.
Here are some places we visited in Okinawa that I recommend:
This is the northernmost point on the main island of Okinawa. Cape Hedo is where the East China Sea meets the Pacific Ocean, and the views from the cliffs are stunning. Walk along the short trails to catch the scenery from different vantage points, then follow the road down to the quiet beach at the base of the cliffs.
Hiji Falls is the island’s tallest waterfall and one of the most recommended sites in Okinawa. The hike to the falls is beautiful and takes 30 – 40 minutes. It’s not particularly strenuous and is suitable for all ages, but be careful, because the trail is often wet and slippery in patches.
This amazing aquarium has some of the most unusual marine life you will ever see. One of the main attractions is their huge tank of whale sharks, manta rays, and other large fish. You can also see beautiful coral, giant squid, and other unique sea creatures. Outside the main building are a manatee pool, a sea turtle pool, and a dolphin lagoon. Pro tip: you can save about $6 per person on adult admission if you arrive after 16:00. Click here for the aquarium’s hours and admission prices.
Located on the top of a small mountain at the end of a winding road, this restaurant is famous for its incredible panoramic views of Okinawa. The pizza is tasty, but the view is definitely the main event. It’s a short drive from Churaumi Aquarium, so it makes for a great lunch spot before or after your visit. Pro-tip: use Google maps to navigate there rather than trying to follow signage or directions.
These ancient castle ruins date from the 14th century and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle walls are amazingly well-preserved, and you can wander through the various rooms of what was once an immense structure. One of the best parts of Nakagusuka Castle is the amazing 360 views of the island.
Only a short drive from Nakagusuku Castle is the Nakamura House, an example of a traditional Japanese farmhouse. You can walk through all of the rooms of this large and beautiful old home and imagine exactly how it looked when it was bustling with activity. Nakamura House also has a gift shop where you can relax, have tea, and enjoy traditional Japanese sweets.
If you’re a golfer, Okinawa is a great travel destination! The island has many golf courses, but look no further than Kadena for a world-class par 72 course with incredibly low green fees. Banyan Tree is the larger of two golf courses at Kadena and is located right on the base (the other course, Chibana, is a par 3 located just outside the gate).
This dive shop and aquatic center is located just a mile from Kadena. You can rent any type of marine equipment, including boats, jet-skis, stand-up paddles boards, snorkeling and SCUBA equipment, kayaks, and fishing gear. You can also take their course to obtain your SCUBA certification or, if you are already certified, join one of their cool diving trips. After a day on the water, enjoy a meal overlooking the ocean at Seaside Ristorante.
This street is frequently recommended as a “must-see” in Naha. While very touristy, it’s a great place to buy souvenirs and gifts. Most stores have free tastes of the many traditional Okinawan treats available for sale, so you could easily fill up by visiting multiple stores on this street.
Those are the sites we’ve been able to experience so far. We still have a long list of other Okinawa destinations to see on future visits, including the WWII memorials (south of Naha), Kouri Island (it’s a short drive from the aquarium, but we didn’t have a chance to see it), and Miyako Island, one of the many smaller islands that make up Okinawa and must be accessed by plane.
There are hundreds of things to do in Okinawa for all ages and interests, so take your pick!
Where to Stay in Okinawa
Kadena Air Base
If you fly to Okinawa Space-A (more on that below), you will most likely land at Kadena. Kadena has two lodging option: Shogun Inn and Navy Gateway Inns and Suites (marked on this map as the “Habu Hilton”). You can walk to the latter, but the Shogun Inn is far from the terminal. Some of the other U.S. military bases in the area also have lodging, but Kadena is the largest and has the most facilities. Retirees can use all MWR and base services, including the mess hall, which makes staying there incredibly convenient. The tradeoff of staying on base is that you don’t get much of the Japanese experience.
A better way to get a more authentic experience and a true taste of Japan is to use Airbnb. You can find apartments all over the island, including in Naha, near the bases, and in Nago, where we stayed. Our apartment in Nago was about $35 per night, which was significantly cheaper than staying on base and saved us a lot of time driving to attractions on the northern part of the island. If you’re new to Airbnb, here is the checklist we use to help us choose apartments in Japan and around the world.
Another option on Okinawa is Okuma Beach, a U.S. military recreation facility. It’s on the northern part of Okinawa, near Hiji Falls (about a 90-minute drive from Kadena). They offer a variety of beach and marine activities, including jet ski rental, glass bottom boat tours, and snorkeling. Okuma Beach also has tennis, golf, and Go-Karting. Lodging options include cottages, cabins, bungalows, and individual studios/suites.
The most frequent flights directly to Okinawa are from Travis AFB and JB Hickam. You can also take the Patriot Express from Seattle Tacoma (SeaTac) International Airport. If you’re starting from somewhere else in the Pacific, there are frequent hops from Yokota and Guam.
You must have your passport stamped by Japanese Immigration within 24 hours of entering and leaving Japan. When arriving in Okinawa, a military customs agent will take you to the Japanese Customs & Immigration Office to have your passport stamped. If you arrive outside of the Immigration Office’s business hours (0600 – 0000 daily), you are responsible for going there on your own the next day. The office is about 15 minutes from the terminal. A taxi costs about $30 round trip.
When leaving Kadena, you can’t get the departure stamp in your passport until you already have your boarding pass. As soon as you are manifested on a flight, you must go straight to the immigration office so you can be back at the terminal in time for boarding. We kept our rental car until the last minute and arranged for the agency to pick it up from the terminal parking lot. This arrangement allowed us to drive ourselves to the immigration office. The other option is to take a taxi.
Japan has several low-cost airlines that can be an incredible bargain if you’re traveling to Okinawa from somewhere else in Asia. Even if you’re on mainland Japan, unless you are right near Yokota, it might be more cost-effective to fly from a local airport to Naha. Our recent flights from Fukuoka (the southwestern part of mainland Japan) to Naha were less than $50 each round trip on Peach Aviation. Vanilla Air is another low-cost carrier that flies into Naha.
If you plan to spend any period of time on Okinawa, you will want to rent a car. Even if you stay on Kadena, a car is necessary because there is no base shuttle, and the base is very spread-out.
To rent a car in Japan, you must obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) before you arrive. IDPs cost $20, and all you need are a valid U.S. driver’s license and two passport-size photos.
On our most recent trip to Okinawa, we got a great deal at Grace Rental Car in Naha. Their vehicles were brand-new, and the company had a convenient free shuttle to and from Naha airport. You can book your reservation via their website, which has an English version.
If you’re flying Space-A to Okinawa, renting on base may be a better idea. There is a Times Car Rental in the lobby of the Shogun Inn. It might be more expensive than Grace, but when flying out from Kadena, if you are able to drive yourselves to the immigration office and leave the car in the terminal parking lot as we did, you will save a lot of time, money, and hassle!
Tips for Driving in Okinawa
The Japanese drive on the left side of the road. The driver’s seat and steering wheel are on the right side of the vehicle. It takes some getting used to, so I recommend practicing on base to get the hang of it. Fortunately, the Japanese are generally more patient and less aggressive than drivers in the average American city. No one blasted us with their horn or gave us the finger when we made mistakes.
When driving around the island, there are some very scenic routes that hug the coast and offer incredible views. I recommend doing these drives at least once or whenever you have time. There is also an expressway that runs down the center of Okinawa. It is much faster, but it has tolls and it’s not nearly as scenic.
For more details on traveling Space-A to Japan, read 8 Things to Know About Space-A Japan.
For hundreds of other ideas for things to do in Okinawa, visit Okinawa Hai, a website created by members of the U.S. military community.
Stephanie Montague is the founder of Poppin’ Smoke, a website designed to help members of the military community take advantage of their military benefits to travel. Stephanie and her husband have been traveling the world since he retired from the Army in 2015. Through Poppin’ Smoke, Stephanie shares everything she and her husband learn about traveling Space-A, using military benefits and facilities while abroad, and getting the most out of travel experiences.