If you’re planning an upcoming trip to Okinawa, you may be caught off-guard with how different things work from the rest of Japan. I recently spent a week there for the Golden Week holidays, and read every travel site and guide book I could find. They all suggested the same places to see, the same foods to try, and some even seemed to be exact copies of each other.
My boyfriend and I sat down the weekend before embarking on our trip, and planned out our itinerary for the six days that we would be in Okinawa. He’s a seasoned traveler, and Japanese, so we thought it would be pretty smooth sailing.
For the most part, it was, but we ran into a few hiccups along the way that we weren’t expecting. Most of the problems we encountered weren’t mentioned in any of the resources we checked out, so we figured that if they surprised us, they’ll probably surprise others as well.
Here are some of the differences between Okinawa and the rest of Japan, and how you can prepare for them:
Pasmo and Suica Cards Aren’t Accepted
Anyone that has lived in or visited a major city in Japan will know just how prevalent and useful these two IC cards are. You can use them to pay for most modes of transportation, whether it’s the train, bus, or taxi.
You can also use Pasmo and Suica cards to make purchases at stores. All of the main convenience stores and many shops have a small panel where you just tap your card after they’ve shown you the total, and it gets deducted from the available balance that you’ve preloaded onto it.
They’re very quick and simple to use, and we thought that they were accepted everywhere in Japan.
We found out as soon as we arrived in Okinawa that we were wrong.
There was a huge crowd of people standing outside of the ticket gates to Naha’s monorail. Naha is the main city of Okinawa, and only has one monorail that runs between 15 stations from the airport to Shuri (where the castle is).
In most of Japan, train stations accept Pasmo or Suica cards, so as long as you have at least one of them, you can tap it on the sensor at the gate, and walk through without having to waste time figuring out how much the fare is.
It will display your balance on a small screen as you pass through, and you just need to remember to recharge it when you get low.
Okinawa uses a completely different card system from the rest of Japan. The Okica (Okinawa Card), can be purchased to use for the monorail, and maybe some of the buses, but I’ll explain what I mean by “some” later!
The main difference between the Okica, Pasmo, and Suica cards is that Okica can only be purchased in preset amounts. You can buy a card worth 1,000/2,000/3,000/4,000/5,000/10,000 yen. After the initial purchase, you can reload the card in 1,000 yen units up to a maximum of 30,000 yen.
In contrast, Pasmo and Suica cards have the option to be charged in increments of 10 yen, and you can add as little or as much as you like, up to a maximum of around 20,000 yen. Also, Okica can’t be used in any of the local shops or stores.
It’s only really useful if you plan on using the monorail a ton, but you’re better off buying a one-day pass if you end up spending more than 800 yen per day on traveling. A one-day pass is 800 yen for adults, and 400 yen for children under the age of 12. You can find out more information from the official Okica website.
How to get an Okica (Okinawa Card)
If you’re thinking about snagging one of these babies, just head to the nearest ticket vending machine at a monorail station, and you can pick up an Okica for a deposit of 500 yen.
Before leaving Okinawa, you can hand the card in for a refund by taking it to one of the counter windows, and talking with the staff.
Alternatively, you may choose to keep it, because the designs are very cute and unique after all. You may decide to save it as a souvenir, or use it again if you loved Okinawa and want to return in the future!
How Paper Tickets Are Different in Okinawa
Signing up for another IC card may sound like a hassle to you. If so, you can go the traditional route, and buy a paper ticket for the monorail and not have to deal with Okinawa’s special card system.
Usually when you buy a paper ticket in Japan, you insert it into a slot at the front of the gate, and then it is spat out the other end while allowing you to pass. In Okinawa, however, there is only an electronic panel with a small white square printed on it.
It took me and my boyfriend a few seconds to realize that we actually had to scan the tickets, and that there was a small QR code on one side of them. You have to line this QR code up with the white square, and because they’re both small, it’s a bit tricky to line them up perfectly if you’re in a rush.
It took me about two tries to get mine to scan, and then the familiar blue light came on indicating that I could enter the gate to the monorail.
Normal fares from our Airbnb to the main sightseeing areas such as Mashiki and Shuri Castle were between 230-350 yen. You can expect to pay this much if you’re traveling within five stations or so. The further you travel, the more expensive it will be. This leads us to our next big surprise.
Buses in Okinawa Charge By The Distance
When you ride any of the major buses in Yokohama, you just get charged a flat rate of 220 yen for cash, and 216 yen for IC cards when you board. Tokyo is pretty much the same. You can ride the bus for as far as you like, and the fee doesn’t change.
The Okinawa bus system is more like what you’d expect when riding a train. Bus stops that are closer cost less money than stops that are further away. We took a bus from Furujima Station to Okinawa World, and it took us over an hour and cost 830 yen one way!
The way to figure out how much to pay for the bus is by taking a ticket from the machine by the door when you first enter. It’ll display a number on it that corresponds to the bus stop you got on at.
The screen at the front of the bus will show all of the ticket numbers, and how much you must pay to get off at the current stop. The price goes up each time the bus reaches a new stop. But, here’s the strange thing, the final stop at the bus terminal was cheaper than the stop before it!
And, the bus stops were less than a 3 minute walk apart! So, if you plan on getting off somewhere near the end of the bus route in Okinawa, it might be cheaper for you to just ride it all the way to the very end.
Buses in Okinawa Only Have One Door
The way that passengers board and get off buses in Japan varies quite a bit depending on the town you’re in, and the companies that are responsible for running them. I ride buses just about every day.
They’re the most common form of transportation for me, and I use them significantly more than I do the trains. In Yokohama, you board most buses from the front, and exit from the back. Occasionally you’ll bump into a company that does it the other way around, but all of the buses have at least two doors.
In Okinawa, the buses only have one door, so anyone that is getting off, does so first. If you want to board a bus, you have to wait and check to see if anyone is paying and preparing to get off before you go up the steps.
I have mixed feelings about this. I understand why this way is more convenient for the fare system they have. It would be a nuisance to have people forget to grab a ticket if the ticket machine is in the rear, or get off without paying the correct amount.
But, it takes significantly longer for people in the back of the bus to get off, and leaves fewer options for exiting if there’s an emergency.
Buses in Okinawa Require Exact Change
One really troublesome aspect about the bus system in Okinawa, is that you need to put exact change into the machine before getting off. This wouldn’t be a problem if they charged a flat rate like most other systems in mainland Japan, but as I mentioned before, the fares vary.
So imagine you have a 500 yen coin on you, but the fare comes to 440. You must put precisely 440 yen into the machine, or everything breaks down! Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but that’s what it felt like. So, what do you do if you have too much money?
There are actually two machines for money that you use at the front of the bus. One is for paying the fare, and the other is for breaking down your money into smaller change. When you’re ready to get off of the bus, walk up to the front, and put your 500 yen coin or 1,000 yen note into the exchange machine.
Once it spits out the smaller coins you need, check the number on your bus ticket to see how much you owe. Then place your fare money AND the ticket into the fare machine. Yup, drop the paper ticket in too! Then you’re free to go.
Buses in Okinawa Only Run Once an Hour
Last, but not least, the buses in Okinawa typically only run about once an hour and sometimes less. Each bus stop will have a schedule showing which buses will come, and their destinations.
I suggest paying special attention to their holiday timetables, because half of the buses don’t run on weekends or national holidays. The last thing you want to do is stand around waiting for hours before realizing the bus isn’t even coming!
Most destinations can’t be reached in Okinawa by monorail, so you’ll either have to opt for taking a bus or renting a car to get around. Buses can be a bit of a hassle, but you’ll save a lot of money.
Google Maps wasn’t useful when I tried looking up information on bus routes while I was there, so you’ll either have to rely on Japanese sites, or reading the nearby signs.
Despite how this post may sound, getting around Okinawa isn’t that difficult and doesn’t have to be that expensive. Rental cars are definitely the way to go for traveling long distances, but the monorail is the best option for the Naha City area.
If you’ve been to Okinawa before, what was your experience like?
How did you get around?