L.I.T. Guide to Okinawa: Introduction / 10 things to know before you go
Are you currently researching a possible trip to Okinawa, Japan? Okinawa has been slowly getting the attention of people all over the world. You’ve probably read an article or two about the great number of centenarians (people over the age of 100) living in Ogimi Village. Maybe you saw the documentary Happy, where Okinawa is mentioned as one of the happiest places on earth. Maybe you spotted the turquoise beaches on a certain Facebook video or a photo on Instagram (was it mine?).
After living in Okinawa for 6 years, I’ve decided to put some of my knowledge into one place. I want to help those moving to Okinawa, as well as those planning on visiting this amazing island. “L.I.T. Guide to Okinawa” will be a series of blogposts where I will share: a bit of history, lots of tips, an itinerary, must do’s, must eat, and so much more!!
On this Introduction post you will find a little history lesson, followed by a list of 10 things (I believe) you must know before coming to Okinawa. You ready?
First things first… here’s a bit of background info:
Okinawa Island is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands, located approximately 640km south of Mainland Japan and 500km north of Taiwan. Before being invaded by Japan, the Ryukyu Kingdom was an independent state that ruled from the 15th to 19th century, with strong ties to China. They thrived in maritime trade between Southeast and East Asia. It wasn’t until 1879 that the Ryukyu Islands were officially recognized as the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan.
#1 It is VERY different to Mainland Japan
If you’ve been to Japan… just know Okinawa is very different, thanks to it’s rich history, Chinese and Japanese influences. With their own language and cultural customs the locals actually refer to themselves as Okinawans, before Japanese. They proudly call themselves “uchinanchu” meaning “sea people” in the local dialect. These differences can be seen in their customs, but also in their food, music, etc. They make Okinawa a great place to visit, because you won’t find these things anywhere else in Japan.
#2 Very strong US Military presence
Okinawa was the site of the bloodiest battle of WWII, nicknamed the “Typhoon of Steel”. It lasted 82 days and took the lives of almost 250,000 people. After winning the war, the US military occupied Japan and turned Okinawa into a sort of colony. It was finally given back to the Japanese in 1972.
However, the US military continues to control around 20% of the island. There are actually 15 military bases (of all the branches) in Okinawa. As of 2013 there were approximately 50,000 military personnel stationed on the island, about 40,000 dependents and 5,000 American civilians employed by the US government. Which means you will see a strange number of Americans walking around during your stay.
If you’re a history buff, this means you must make time to visit one or more of the Okinawa Battle sites. More on that on a later post, stay tuned!
#3 More people speak English
Because of the large US military presence, a lot of Okinawans speak English. This is one of the biggest differences between Okinawa and Mainland in my opinion, because usually people do not speak good English in Japan. Of course you’ll always find people that don’t… especially in more rural/non-touristy areas.
Tip: If you find yourself trying to communicate with a non-bilingual Okinawan, don’t fret, they will smile and do everything in their power to help you. Okinawans are even nicer than Japanese, if that’s even possible!!! Another tip: try using the Google Translate app.
#4 You will need either a pocket WIFI or a SIM card!
To be able to use the Google Translate app you’ll need either a pocket WIFI or a SIM card, which you can easily rent at Naha Airport. Weirdly enough free WIFI isn’t really a thing in Japan, so these tools are extremely helpful while traveling anywhere in the country. This is also a must in order to plan to use Google Maps/Apple Maps because…
#5 There is basically no public transportation
Which means renting a car is an absolute must (unless you’ve booked a tour)!! This is another big difference between Mainland Japan and Okinawa. There are local buses, but they aren’t that easy to figure out and taxis can get VERY expensive. There is a monorail… but only in Naha, and trust me, the city is only the tip of the iceberg and most of the fun things to experience/see are outside of Naha.
If you’re US military stationed in Mainland Japan bring your SOFA license. If you’re not, make sure you have/get an international drivers license before traveling to Okinawa.
Did you know we drive on the left hand side in Japan? Ha! It takes some getting used to, but it’s super doable. I wrote a whole post where I gave ‘the inside scoop on driving in Okinawa, Japan“, and explain all the quirks of driving here.
On another note, most rental cars have a GPS included, that can be changed to English and touristy places have been assigned a number which makes it incredibly easy to figure out. But if you have any saved pins on your Google Maps (like I do when I travel) then you’ll need to be able to use your phone to navigate.
#6 Cash Cash Cash is EVERYTHING
Japan in general is a very cash-centric country, so be sure to always have yen on you. You can always get cash from the Japan Post office or at convenience stores (only ¥10,000 bills at a time). Only major touristy places, grocery stores, malls, expressway, take international credit cards.
Tip: I would also advise you to bring a coin purse with you! The Japanese yen has 6 different coins (¥1, ¥5, ¥10, ¥50, ¥100, ¥500), which means you will always have tons of change on hand.
#7 No tipping (my favorite!)
Just like Mainland Japan, tipping in Okinawa is considered rude. Although because of the Americanization of the island some places will have tip jars next to their registers, but it is not mandatory.
#8 Expect to eat so much delicious food
The cafe culture is HUGE in Okinawa and it is a must to partake! Food is usually western or mixed with Okinawan food. I’ve blogged about a few, but feel free to comment below and I’ll send you a list of favorites. Please note:
• Most cafes are really small (some of them are located in what used to be military homes).
• Staffs are usually small as well, so you may have to wait a bit to get your food.
• Menus may be very limited, but trust me this means all of the options are delicious.
• They take food presentation pretty seriously.
• In all restaurants you have to get up and walk to the register to pay.
• Bring yen, because most place do not take credit cards.
#9 Okinawa has subtropical climate
So prepare for sunshine and 100% humidity, unless you come in the winter then you’ll get amazing 50-70 degree weather. Be sure you bring your sunglasses, bathing suit, sunscreen, water shoes (there is more coral than sand on the beaches) and rash guards! Please note that the month of May is considered rainy season, so bring a rain jacket. Also, June 1st – November 30th is considered typhoon season. If you do get stuck here during a typhoon, it’s no big deal. All of the buildings are made of concrete, so it’s pretty safe!
#10 Respect family tombs
Okay this one is pretty random… but I thought it was important. Known as haka in Japanese, these (sometimes) ginormous concrete tombs can be found all over the island, usually in “random” spots. These can be traced back to ancient China and are a constant reminder of the influences China had on Okinawa. Please respect the tombs if/when you stumble upon them.
It is considered very rude to point at a tomb, speak loudly around it and take pictures. It is also considered dangerous to desecrate a tomb with graffiti, or to disturb the offerings or to damage the tomb in any way. It’s also considered dangerous to approach a tomb without proper authority (of a family member) and to visit a tomb at night.
That’s all folks! You’re one step closer to paradise!! I will be sharing more installments of the “L.I.T. Guide to Okinawa” real soon! Stay tuned. If you’re curious you can find more of my Okinawa posts here.