“Traveling to Okinawa is expensive,” a Japanese friend once told me. “If I wanted to go to the beach, I could go to a Southeast Asian country for much cheaper.” Mention Okinawa and there are bound to be some people who think that it’s just too far or too expensive to be worth visiting. It’s no longer quite true, though, that going to Okinawa is expensive. I was able to visit Okinawa on a budget, and here’s how!
1. Fly with an LCC (ideally during off-peak seasons).
It’s all thanks to low-cost carriers that going to Okinawa isn’t necessarily costly anymore in the first place! Vanilla Air flies from Tokyo to Naha, and the average fare is about 5,990 yen. I’ve seen prices drop to as low as 2,400 yen due to promo fares and it being off-season, though. I went to Okinawa in mid-September, which is still quite summery for a tropical place like Okinawa, so I paid about 6,500 yen one-way (though that’s still not all that expensive, if you ask me). If you want to go cheapo all the way, go in January or February, or from October to December.
|Tokyo => Okinawa||Jetstar||¥6,418 (US$57)||Details|
|Tokyo => Okinawa||Vanilla Air||¥6,760 (US$60)||Details|
|Tokyo => Okinawa||ANA||¥11,683 (US$103)||Details|
Meanwhile, Peach Air flies to Naha from Fukuoka and Osaka, with prices starting at 4,290 and 4,890 yen. Peach also flies from Osaka to Ishigaki Island, which is known for its beautiful beaches, from 6,590 yen.
|Kansai => Okinawa||Peach||¥4,294 (US$38)||Details|
|Kansai => Okinawa||Jetstar||¥5,419 (US$48)||Details|
|Kansai => Okinawa||ANA||¥11,798 (US$104)||Details|
2. Stick to the main island (or just one island).
There’s a catch to going to Okinawa on the cheap: you might have to forget about going to Okinawa for its beautiful beaches or remote islands (where you can see unspoiled nature). Island-hopping can also get pretty expensive: sometimes, your only option to get from one island to another may be an expensive plane flight because it’s the only way, or a previously existing ferry service was discontinued. For instance, I wanted to go to Ishigaki Island from Naha (the capital of Okinawa), but there were no longer any ferries going back and forth between Ishigaki and Okinawa Island. I had to go from Naha to Ishigaki by plane, and the round trip cost was almost similar to my round-trip Tokyo-Naha flight. Had I availed of even cheaper promo fares, the Naha-Ishigaki round trip would’ve cost more than the Tokyo-Naha round trip.
That may be a bummer, because those are attractions that Okinawa is known for, but even if you just mostly stay within the eponymous main island, you can still appreciate Okinawa. Even if you don’t get to see Okinawa’s beaches or nature much, there’s still a lot to appreciate about Okinawa’s unique culture and traditions. Naha alone already has its own appeal. Its long, bustling shopping street, Kokusai-Dori has a lot of distinctly Okinawan souvenirs and delicacies, such as shisa (a pair of guardian deities that look like lion-dog hybrids) statues and beni-imo (purple yam) snacks. There are also plenty of shops where you can try some Okinawan handicrafts and take home some souvenirs you made yourself!
Take a few turns here and there, and you can find yourself in Makishi Market, where you can see various pig parts being sold, as well as fruits and vegetables that you can’t find in the rest of Japan: goya, or bitter gourd; shiquasa, or Okinawan lime; and so on. Upstairs are some restaurants serving fresh Okinawan food – don’t be put off by how old-school they may look; the food’s delicious! You can even ask some of them to cook raw ingredients bought downstairs.
The majestic Shuri Castle is also definitely worth visiting to see Ryukyuan architecture (Ryukyu being the name of the kingdom that ruled over Okinawa and part of present-day Kagoshima), and if you want to learn about Okinawan culture, go to Okinawa World or Ryukyu Village, which, while touristy, are opportunities for you to see eisa, a lively Okinawan dance; to try some traditional handicraft; and to wear a bingata kimono, which is made of cloth dyed and stenciled Okinawan-style. Okinawa World even has a massive underground cave, Gyokusendo, that you can walk through to see some stalactites and stalagmites.
Beyond Naha but also on the main island is Churaumi Aquarium, a must-see when you’re in Okinawa. This aquarium, one of the largest in the world, has 3 whale sharks, which is a feat considering how big these gentle giants are. Entrance is 1,850 yen, but some hotels have discounted tickets, and the price drops to 1,290 yen after 4 pm.
If beaches are your thing, why don’t you fly directly to Ishigaki using Peach Air? It’s already got enough beaches for you to enjoy the sand and waves.
3. Join a one-day bus tour.
Okinawa only has one railway system: the Okinawa Monorail, also known as the Yui Rail, and it only covers parts of Naha. This leads to another reason for tourists to see Okinawa as expensive and not worth visiting: to go to other places, even if they’re also on the main island, you have to rent a car or take a taxi to get around. But a one-day bus tour can save you the trouble! The tours are not that expensive, costing anywhere between 4,800 yen-less than 10,000 yen, with the pricier options usually being dinner cruises. The tours depart from Naha, and include a guide (who usually cannot speak English, but English audio guides are provided), and a meal. Check out JapaniCan and Okinawa Bus Ltd. for some tour packages.
4. Stay at a guesthouse or hostel.
This may seem like common-sense advice, but you’ll be surprised at how cheap Okinawa’s guesthouse and hostel rooms can get! Some of them can go as low as 1,500 yen a night, because property isn’t as expensive in Okinawa. There’s a chance, though, that you just might get what you paid for, so be careful (unless you really don’t mind sacrificing comfort and cleanliness), and just check the reviews.
Even the hotels can be pretty cheap. Feeling hesitant to pay what seemed like a too-good-to-be-true price for accommodation, I opted for a budget hotel. I stayed in Hotel Stork in Omoromachi, near several shopping malls, which cleverly uses loft-style rooms to save space. The hotel free drinks downstairs, polite and friendly staff, and… rooms for a little less than 3,000 yen a night.