Okinawa Self Drive Travel Guide
Updated: Oct 24, 2022
Comprising over 150 islands in the East China Sea between Japan and Taiwan's mainland, Okinawa is a Japanese prefecture known for its tropical climate, broad beaches and coral reefs; some people even go as far as to call it the Hawaii of the East! Located just 5 hours away from Singapore, the Okinawa main island is a great place for a self-drive road trip.
Why drive in Okinawa? Are there other options to get around the island?
Unless you are intending to just spend a few days in Naha, there is actually the Yui monorail and lots of buses that you can hop on to get to your destination. Outside of Naha, the bus lines also take you to major tourist sites such as the Churaumi Aquarium.
However, the frequency of these buses may be an issue and you may have to resort to taking taxis should you miss the timeslots of these buses. Alternatively, you could join a group bus tour that takes you to quite a few of the attractions outside Naha. Yet, some of us really don't like going to places in a group and would very much prefer the own-time-own-target freestyle way of travelling. Hence, renting a car to drive around the main island is, in our opinion, the best way to experience Okinawa.
For those who do not drive, consider also hiring an 8-hour private car charter!
What is driving in Okinawa like?
Driving in Okinawa is fuss-free and great for Singaporean drivers. The speed limit is modest, with most of the urban areas ranging from 40 to 50 km/h and the expressway (toll roads) go up to 80 km/h; extremely beginner-friendly. Most of the drivers in Okinawa are also extremely patient and nice; should you slow down or want to cut into a major road while on your road trip, they often give way graciously (seeing that you are a rental car).
There is also not much start/stop traffic in Okinawa except for when in Naha. Especially during the peak hours before work and after work, you could be stuck on the roads for quite a while. Should you wish to explore Naha for more than a day, we do recommend that you may just want to return your cars and take the Yui Rail as it can get quite hectic.
Navigating the roads via the in-built GPS in your cars, Google Maps or even Waze is extremely manageable. We don't know how it works but Google Maps were even able to navigate us through narrow and small roads!
Outside Naha, the roads are scenic and you get to drive on beautiful bridges such as the Kourio bridge or the Kaichu-doro Causeway. These bridges are ones we simply don't get in Singapore and when driving on them, it almost seems like you're driving on top of the waters! It is truly an experience in itself!
Prepare your International Driving Permits (IDPs)
Oriental cars in Okinawa are right-hand drive, so there is not much of a transition for Singaporeans as compared to driving in South Korea. The only thing you'll need to prepare before your trip is to get an International Driving Permit (IDP). Japanese car rental companies are quite strict on this so do make sure that you have the required documentations! You do not need your Singapore driving license when you rent a car as the IDP is your license. However, do prepare your passports as they would need them as well!
For Singaporeans, you can either apply your IDP online or head down to the AAS offices to get your IDPs. Applying online is fuss-free as you can do it anytime, anywhere, but do note that it will take about 3-5 days to process and then factor in the time to mail your IDP. If you are doing it last minute, do head straight down to get your IDPs at the AAS office immediately. It costs $20 to get the 1-year IDPs and there's usually hardly any waiting time.
Toll roads or Highways?
Most of Okinawa can be explored on Highway 58 (the scenic sea route) but should you wish to speed up your journey, you can make use of the 57.3km Expressway that takes you from Naha to Nago in just one hour, cutting your travel time by an entire hour! The toll road is albeit a bit expensive, we paid about 1000 yen one-way to get to Nago. But if time is not on your side, it is worth the money! Plus, you do not have to navigate through multiple traffic lights and can go at a much faster speed! If planned right, you will only need to pay this toll once during your trip and we will be sharing our itinerary to inspire yours!
Do take note also that you have to make sure you take the right exit while on the toll roads. Should you take the wrong exit, there is no way in which you can enter back onto the expressway without paying another charge.
How to pay the tolls when you drive on the Okinawa Expressways?
To pay the tolls on the Expressway, there are generally two ways - the Electronic Toll Collection System (ETC) or the General Toll Lanes. For most rental cars, you usually do not have the ETC system installed. The ETC system is also not yet popular with the local Okinawan expressway users.
How the toll system works is that when entering the toll road, you should head towards the General Toll Lanes (usually located on the left hand side of the entrances or exits, demarcated in GREEN) and grab a ticket from the automated ticket dispenser.
After doing so, you basically are left to go onto the expressway and nothing much happens until you decide to exit the expressway. When exiting the toll road, again, you should drive towards either the left-most lane or the middle lane and pass the ticket to the tollbooth attendant. A fee would be shown on the screen to the right of your car and you should pay it by cash. Credit cards should be accepted as well but cash is king in Okinawa.
Once again, it is advisable to head to the General Toll Lanes (located on the left-hand side of the entrances and exits, demarcated in GREEN) as the exclusive ETC lanes will not allow non-ETC holders to pass and that would create unnecessary holdups to the rest of the traffic and inconvenience to you as well!
How about Parking in Okinawa?
We didn't experience much of a problem with parking when in Okinawa. Most places outside Naha are free parking and we made use of that. Even the shopping malls such as Aeon Rycom was free parking! Since we didn't drive in Naha, the only time we had to pay was when we were visiting Cape Maeda (100 yen per hour). One disadvantage though, some of the more popular attractions (such as Okinawa World), the car park lots were extremely limited and once it is full, the staff would then direct you to a further car park which requires a bit more walking!
Another tip for parking outside Naha is that you can make use of the convenience stores such as Family Mart, Lawson, and 7-11s free parking. We did that when we wanted to explore one of the nearby heartland mall. Though definitely not recommended if you want to hang around the malls for hours as that means taking away precious lots from the customers who are popping in and out of the convenience stores.
In Naha, however, parking is often expensive. There is quite an abundance of carpark lots all over the city but navigating through the tiny roads may be a slight problem. They usually charge about 100 yen per 30 minutes but would have a cap (900 yen or so). The most you would likely pay for paying within Naha would then be 900 yen.
In Naha, you should not just park whereever and whenever as well. The parking regulations are quite strict within Naha and you may face fines should you park illegally. Always look for proper car park lots!
Most of the parking machines are easy to use and many do have some form of an English translation or guide.
The other area of concern is overnight parking. Depending on your accommodation, some would grant you free overnight parking. I would say that most of the hotels and even motels do have some lots available. You can either request for one prior to your visit to avoid disappointment.
For us, our accommodation charges a pricey 1000 yen for overnight parking. Even though that was the case, we managed to save quite a bit in terms of our choice of accommodation so it all adds up to be under our budget.
How to book your rental cars?
These three car rental companies allow you to collect and return your car at different locations and is a convenient choice for those who wish to get your hands off the car in the crowded Naha region! We decided to go with Times Rental in the end because it was the cheapest of the lot and there were more palatable car choices in the cheapest band.
Should you wish to broaden your search a little, you could consider going through this car rental comparison site to find the best deals!
Car Collection and Process
After booking your cars, bring along your IDPs and passport when collecting the cars. As we went along with Times Rental, this portion will only be specific to Times Rental, though most other car rental companies should have a similar process.
When at the airport arrival hall, there was a Times Rental Staff holding onto a Times Rental sign. We approached the person and was given a ticket. Thereafter, he told us to head out to Station 1. At this point, we were a little bit confused as he didn't have the best command of English. We headed out but there was no one or vehicle to greet us. We waited for awhile and was assured as we saw a yellow Times Rental shuttle bus approaching!
The driver was friendly and even helped us with our luggage. We boarded the bus, and together with another couple, drove towards the car rental office, located a couple of minutes away from the airport.
Usually, there would be a queue before your number was called but since we were one of the first few, we were immediately ushered to the counter when we arrived. The registration process was quick and all we had to do was to show our IDPs, passport, and also sign a few documents. The Times Rental staff would also brief you on driving in Okinawa and warn you not to park illegally on the island. Thereafter, they would also ask if you would like to purchase an additional coverage (like an insurance for your car). Like most of our driving experiences, we would always opt for the additional coverage. This would mean that if anything (choy!) were to happen to the car, we would not need to fork out anything extra. For those who are extremely experienced could choose to forgo it to save some moolahs, but our mantra's always better safe than sorry!
After paying the additional insurance, you will then be brought to your car. We were allocated the cute blue Nissan Note for the rest of our road trip. When at the car, the staff would get you to check the car, and you should thoroughly check it through and highlight any scratches or dents that are present on the car. Take photographs if you must as these act as a form of evidence or proof, should the car rental company try to pin these dents and scratches on you! We found a few scratches on the side of the vehicle and the staff marked those out in her document. These good procedures were extremely welcomed and appreciated so as to ensure that there is no pushing of the blame should any "new scars" occur.
After all that is done, the staff would also inform you of the basic controls and teach you how you can use the GPS. Although the GPS is supposedly multilingual, most of the instructions were still in Japanese. The main way to navigate the GPS is through mapcodes and Times Rental also provided a handy list with the mapcodes of the major Okinawa attractions. Since we often utilised our phones as our navigator in Singapore, we decided to leave the GPS and rely on our Google Maps and Waze!
Additional Accessories Tips for Driving in Okinawa
Bring along your car charger as they did not provide us with any. Should you want to use your phones as your GPS, bring along your stands from your cars in Singapore as well!
Should you forget any of these, don't fret, head to the nearest Don Quixote in Okinawa and you'll easily find all of these!
Brief Okinawa Self-Drive Itinerary
This driving guide took quite a bit so we've covered more about the what to see, eat, and do in our 5D4N itinerary. Meanwhile, here's a brief self-drive itinerary!
For 3 days, this is a suggested itinerary for a self-drive outside Naha...
Naha Airport > Cape Hedo > Kouri Island > Nakjin Castle Ruins > Churaumi Aquarium
(Stay either in Motobu or Nago; we put ourselves up at Mr. Kinjo in Motobu)
Nago Castle Park / Orion Happy Park / Nago Pineapple Park / Neo Park Okinawa > Busena Marine Park > Cape Manzamo > Cape Maeda > Cape Zanpa > Aeon Mall Rycom > American Village
(Stay in Uruma or Kadena; we put ourselves up at Mr. Kinjo Inn Kadena)
See the American Village in the day > Stateside Town > Okinawa World > Okinawa Outlet Mall > Umikaiji Terrace
(Return the car and stay in Naha; we put ourselves at Hotel WBF Art Stay Naha Kokusai)
3 days are sufficient to see most of the land-based attractions in Okinawa; we would say, allocate a few more days for the island-hopping adventure in the beautiful blue Okinawan waters or just simply a short diving or snorkelling trip to the famed blue cave. 1 extra day should be allocated to explore Naha plus the Shurijo Castle complex.
In total, give yourselves at least 5 days to truly enjoy Okinawa Islands!
All in all, with cheap tickets from Singapore, Okinawa is truly a great destination for a self-drive road trip. Since driving in Okinawa is #samesamebutdifferent from driving in Singapore, it is also a great destinations for beginner drivers.
Have you gone on a self-drive road trip to Okinawa? Share with us your experiences in the comments below!