I highly recommend renting a car for most people coming to Okinawa, especially if you’ll be traveling outside the Naha area while in Okinawa. Though Okinawa has public transportation options, it’s definitely car culture here.
When to Consider Renting a Car in Okinawa
- You’re planning on venturing outside of Naha (which I’d recommend for anyone traveling here)
- You’re traveling any time between April and November
- You’re traveling with kids (navigating the buses with kiddos will really test your limits)
- You place a high value on flexibility and independence when you travel
- Have zero to mild anxiety about driving internationally
When to Consider NOT Renting a Car
- If you’ll be staying in Naha only
- If you’re visiting between November and March and on an extremely tight budget
- If you’re relocating here and have a sponsor or trusted friend to help get you around during the first month
- Don’t mind arriving late to destinations due to missing a bus or misunderstanding bus schedules
- Prefer to travel with locals and get a taste of the bus life
- The thought of driving internationally causes you too much anxiety
- If you’re the type of person that says, “Sun, rain, humidity…bring it on. I love to travel in the elements.”
In this article, I’ll first address renting a car vs. other options. Then I’ll go into what it’s like to drive a car in Okinawa and the pros and cons of renting a car here. Lastly, I’ll go into important things you should know when renting a car and driving in Okinawa.
Renting a Car vs. Other Options
The main reason I recommend renting a car in Okinawa is due to the limited amount of alternatives that you have:
Okinawa Urban Monorail (“Yui Rail”)
Okinawa has the laid back monorail system that serves the Naha area only. Its tracks are just 10.6 miles (17 km) long, with 19 stations. You can learn more about the Okinawa Urban Monorail here.
The monorail is a great option when you’re exploring Naha. In fact, if you’ll be sightseeing around Naha for the day, it might be better to ditch your car during that time.
With a rental car in Naha, it can be a pain to find parking, you’ll have to pay for parking, and traffic can get annoying. All of this can be avoided if you instead walk and use the monorail.
Outside of Naha, however, the monorail is simply not an option. You’ll have to find something else.
Okinawa does have an extensive bus system, however, if you’re just visiting, navigating the bus system can soak up a lot of precious beach and soba eating time.
The bus system will bring you to pretty much every city and village on the island, however in order to get to many of the worthwhile sites, you’re going to be walking a long way or taking a taxi for the final leg.
Another reason why I discourage taking the bus is because of the humidity. The wintertime is fine, but once the humidity starts hitting (usually May/April – October/November), you can find yourself drenched in sweat from just a five-minute bus-stop wait.
Another reason not to rely on the bus is beach gear and post-swim grime. If you’re hitting the beaches, you’re likely going to have a few things to lug around: a towel, snorkel gear, swimsuit, a change of clothes. This is a lot to carry around on a bus all day.
Also, when you get out of the water, you’re going to want to rinse off. If you don’t, you’re left with the grimey feeling of salt, sand, and sunscreen. That’s a long bus ride home.
Note for SOFA Status (military-related personnel): The Marine Corps. runs its own bus between the Marine bases on Okinawa. This might be a temporary option when relocating here. According to their homepage, the bus is open to military, military dependents, and civilian employees, but it’s for mission-related purposes only. Here is more info on The Green Line.
A taxi is an option, but it’s expensive to rely on to go everywhere. Also, if you’re going to less populated locations on the island, you’re going to need to call a taxi. The wait can take a while.
I recommend a taxi for short trips, when you’re wanting to get back to your hotel quickly or when you want to get to and from a restaurant quickly.
A bike is an option, however roads in Japan are very narrow. Even though Japanese drivers are known for being polite and driving slow, their tolerance for space is much different than the average Westerner’s.
What may be considered “pushing me off the road” back home, may actually be the norm here in Okinawa.
In addition to space tolerance, you also need to consider the weather. The heat, humidity, and sun can be intense in the summer months, and the rain is always a factor in Okinawa. It can come out of nowhere, and downpours can be intense.
A bike is a great option for a small day trip in certain areas, but not the best option to rely on for most people visiting and transitioning to Okinawa. At least, at first.
What’s it Like Driving in Okinawa (the Good)?
If you’re leaning towards renting a car, you may be wondering what it’s like to drive here. In general, the driving is pretty easy:
Slow Speed Limits
Okinawa has very slow speed limits. The expressway (the only highway on the island) has a speed limit of 50 mph (80 kph). Major roads have speed limits of around 30 to 37 mph (50 – 60 kph), and minor roads are typically around 22 mph (35 kph).
Slow speed limits are great for foreigners who are new to the island. For folks who have relocated to Okinawa, the slow speed limits are nice at first but it quickly becomes frustrating. Then after a while, it becomes the norm and easier to tolerate.
Okinawans are very polite, making it a great place to rent a car as a foreigner.
When you’re waiting to turn on to a busy road or needing to change lanes, drivers are usually great about letting you in. You’ll often see people turn on their hazard lights for a couple of seconds, which translates to “Thank you.” When someone lets you in, this a nice gesture to show your appreciation to the driver behind you.
Honking is Rare
Because Japanese culture is very much non-confrontational, you’ll rarely hear a horn here. Even if the light turns green and the car at the front of the line isn’t paying intention, more times than not, the cars in line will patiently wait until the person realizes the light is green.
Being a foreigner and new to the roads here, the lack of honking takes a lot of the pressure off. Even if you’re holding people up, most of the time no one will let you know. You’ll be met with patience.
Navigating the Language Barrier
With GPS and English road signs, navigating the island is relatively easy.
Google Maps is alive and well in Okinawa, and is generally pretty accurate. If you don’t have Google Maps on your phone or don’t plan to have wifi or cell phone access, most rental cars come with a GPS navigation. And most of them come equipped with an English option (make sure to double-check this when booking the car).
Most major intersections are in Japanese and English. So, you don’t have to be too worried about the language barrier. Also, most major roads are numbered, so even if the English name is too hard to remember, you have a number as a subsitute.
The hardest part about navigating is that Okinawa is not setup up in a square grid, like many U.S. cities. Instead, it’s curvey and a bit random. So, for people just arriving, you can get turned around easily.
If you want the flexibility and independence a rental car offers, but are still a little apprehensive about driving, you can read more about that here: Is Driving in Okinawa Easy? Tips from an American in Okinawa.
What’s it Like Driving in Okinawa (the Bad)?
Traffic can get pretty bad in Okinawa. Especially in Naha and the central part of the island, where the major U.S. military bases sit.
For the most part, traffic is predictable. During the week, traffic starts to build-up around 7:00 am and goes until around 8:30 am. In the afternoon, traffic starts building around 4:00 pm and last until around 7:00 pm.
On the weekend, traffic doesn’t usually start until 9:00 or 10:00 am.
When you do hit traffic, you can expect your travel time to increase by 1.5 to 2 times.
Left-Hand Side Driving
In Okinawa (and all of Japan), they drive on the left-hand side of the road. For those of us used to driving on the right-hand side, just the thought of driving on the opposite side of the road can cause anxiety.
On the bright side, Okinawa is perhaps the best place to learn how to drive on the left. With low-speed limits and polite drivers, it’s a very forgiving place to drive.
Although traffic is generally a headache, as a newbie, this buys you more time to think and gives you more people to follow the lead of.
Narrow Roads and Small Spaces
A road that may only appear large enough for one car, is actually a two-way road. But, it works. Somehow.
Also, parking spaces are very narrow, making it difficult to park, getting in and out of your car can be tight, which means your chances of denting another car or vice versa is high.
Advantages of Renting a Car in Okinawa
If you want to go somewhere spur of the moment, you jump in your car, fire up the GPS and go. No need to wait for a bus or plan for a taxi.
You’ll See More
If you have a car, you’re simply going to see more in Okinawa. Outside of Naha and the central part of the island, public transportation is sporadic. In a car, you won’t be spending any time waiting or trying to figure out the bus system.
In addition, you’ll have access to those harder to reach beaches (which are usually the best beaches) and you’ll get to drive to the other nearby islands like Miyagi and Ikei.
Comfort and Convenience
When you have a car you can keep your entire day’s worth of supplies in your car rather than stuffed into a backpack. And in Okinawa, the list of supplies can be pretty long: water, sunscreen, change of clothes, snorkel gear, surfboard, hat, sunglasses, food, etc.
In the summer months, it’s also nice to jump in a car and have instant air conditioning.
Disadvantages of Renting a Car in Okinawa
If you’ve never been to or driven in Okinawa and you’re a normal human being, you’ll probably experience a little (or a lot) of stress when you first get behind the wheel. As mentioned earlier, the most common sources of stress when driving in Okinawa:
- Driving on the left side
- Narrow roads
- Easy to lose your sense of direction because of the curvey, non-grid setup
- Confusing intersection signals – some intersection lights aren’t the most intuitive, making it hard to know when it’s ok to turn and when it’s not
Depending on your travel itinerary, renting a car might not be the most cost-effective way to travel in Okinawa. For example, if you’re staying in Naha for a couple of nights and then spend a few nights at on all-inclusive hotel, you’ll probably just use the car a couple of times for a 5-night stay. Not the best use of money.
Also, the expressway is another added cost if you want to avoid traffic on the island. It can cost up to $10 for the longer drives.
Parking costs can also add up especially in more densely populated areas of the island that tend to charge you to park your car.
Responsibility and Risk
In most cases, all goes as planned. But, in case you get in an accident, it won’t be fun handling all the legal matters. Your vacation will be shot.
If you’ve decided that renting a car is for you, there are a few other things that are important to know.
To drive in Okinawa you’ll need:
- 18 y.o. or older
- International driving permit
- SOFA license (for military-related personnel)
International Driving Permit
For American’s, you can get your IDP at any American Automobile Association (AAA).
To do it in-person all you need to do is:
- Fill out a quick and simple application
- 2 passport-sized pictures (which you can also get taken at AAA for a fee)
- Present your U.S. driver’s license
- Pay $20
If you want to do it by mail:
- Complete the application
- Obtain 2 passport-sized pictures and sign them on the back
- $20 check or money order
- A copy of your U.S. driver’s license (front and back)
You can also get your IDP from the American Automobile Touring Alliance.
If you’re in the military, a dependent of someone who is, or a civilian employee/contractor, you’ll likely be eligible to obtain a SOFA license.
To get your SOFA license you’ll need:
- Attend the newcomer’s orientation (USMC Newcomer’s Orientation Info | USAF Newcomer’s Info)
- Pass the test (make sure you study before, here are the materials)
- Present your U.S. driver’s license
You’re free to rent a car with just an IDP before you get your SOFA license or while you have your SOFA license.
What’s the Average Cost to Rent a Car in Okinawa?
Generally, you can expect to pay around $100 per day for a mid-sized rental car. You can find it a little cheaper during the offseason, and a little more during the high-travel season.
Renting a Car in Okinawa
Booking Your Car
Booking your car can easily be done online through major travel booking websites. Just Google “rental car in Okinawa.”
Also, here is a list of the major rental car companies in Okinawa:
Important Options to Consider
The ETC card is an automatic way to pay for the expressway in Okinawa.
With the ETC card you simply drive in the ETC lane when entering and exiting the expressway. The gate will automatically open, allowing you to pass through without needing to stop and pay.
When you turn in your rental car, you will pay what you owe for using the expressway.
The ETC card isn’t necessary to use the expressway though. Without one, you’ll just need to stop and take a ticket from the automatic machine. Then when you exit the expressway, you stop, give your ticket to the attendant and pay the amount on the screen. They take credit cards and cash.
It’s important to consider the size of your car and your luggage. A mini-car or compact car is probably best suited for two people with two pieces of checked luggage, at most.
If you won’t have an internet connection on your smartphone or don’t have the Google Maps app, make sure you get a navigation system and make sure there is an English option.
Most car rental companies will show if the navigation has an English option.
Important Laws to Know
Carry Your Passport and Driver’s License at All Times
If you’re just visiting Okinawa, it’s the law that you have your passport on you at all times. And if you don’t have your International Drivers Permit or SOFA license with you, you’re going to get in some trouble if you’re pulled over.
No Turning Left on a Red Light
In the U.S. you can turn right on a red light. In Okinawa and the rest of Japan, red means stop, even if there’s no traffic coming.
Zero Tolerance for Alcohol and Driving
If you’ve had a drink, be very careful. In Japan and Okinawa, if you blow a .03 BAC, you’ll get handed a DUI. If you blow a .08 BAC, you’ll get handed a DWI.
Even more concerning is the morning-after scenario. Most foreigners get into trouble the morning after a night of drinking. They go to bed, wake up, and think they’re completely sober. But, because the BAC limit is so low, there’s still enough alcohol in their system to blow a .03.
Not fun! If you’ve had a drink, best to wait 24 hours to be 100% sure you’re 100% sober.
Don’t Drive in the Bus Lane
Base lanes can be found on a few of the major roads in Okinawa. You can identify them because the entire lane is painted in green.
Typically these lanes are closed to regular cars from 7:30 am – 9:00 am and 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm, Monday – Friday.
These lanes are regularly monitored by police and you’ll get a ticket if you’re caught.
In a Car Accident, Everyone Shares the Blame in Japan
In Japan, even if you’re rear-ended, you’ll share some of the blame for the accident.
This is very hard for many Westerners to understand because back home, there’s usually just one person to blame.
The only time you won’t share the blame is when you’re parked in a parking lot and someone hits you.
Don’t Use Your Cell Phone While Driving
Japan just stiffened its laws for using a cell phone while driving. If you’re caught, at minimum, you’ll be fined $180.
The law is also worded in a vague way, implying that you can face jail time if a serious accident COULD HAVE been caused.
You can definitely face jail time if you do cause an injury or death. Don’t touch your cell phone while driving.
General Tips for Driving in Okinawa
Get Used to the Car Before Driving it
Before you pull out on the street, take some time and get to know where the controls are and what they do.
In Okinawa, the driver sits on the right side of the car instead of the left. That takes a little getting used to.
Another thing that always gets me, is constantly getting the blinker and windshield wiper controls mixed up. The blinker is on your right hand, the windshield wiper is on your left. Most likely, you’ll hit the windshield wiper when you go to turn. It takes a while.
Prepare Your Directions Before Going
It’s best to minimize distractions as much as possible while driving. This is especially true when driving in a foreign country.
Get your address loaded before you get on the road. If you need to adjust directions, pull over.
Don’t Drive with Jet Lag
If it’s your first time driving on the left hand of the road, it’s probably best to spend the night in Naha if you’ll be getting off a long flight and experiencing jetlag.
Don’t overwhelm your brain with too many new things all at one time.
Fast Lane = Right Lane | Slow Lane = Left Lane
If you want to spot a foreigner driving in Okinawa, it’s usually the car in the fast lane driving slow.
An easy way to remember which is which, is if you’re in the lane close the curb, you’re close to the sidewalk, and people walk slow. So, you’re in the slow lane. If you’re in the lane closest to oncoming traffic, it’s more dangerous, and driving faster is more dangerous. So, you’re in the fast lane.
Watch Out for Motorcycles
There are quite a few motorcycles and scooters here in Okinawa. Sometimes they can seemingly appear out of nowhere and often times they’re driving is very risky.
So, be very careful when you’re pulling out on to a busy street or changing lanes. Best to check your mirrors, glance over your shoulder, and check twice.
Take Your Time When Pulling Into Traffic
Knowing which way to look is the hardest part of adjusting to driving on the left side of the road.
When pulling out into traffic or crossing roads, you need to look right first, as that’s where the traffic closest to you is coming from. This is opposite for folks used to driving on the right side of the road.
Look twice, maybe three times, because you’re going to look the wrong way quite a few times before you adjust.
Park by Backing In
Most Japanese park by backing into parking spots. This makes it easier to get out in tight parking spots.
Not mandatory, but definitely helps when pulling out.
In my opinion, the benefits of renting a car far outweigh the negatives in Okinawa. Your trip here will be far more enjoyable.
So, book your rental car, follow the tips above, and enjoy Okinawa!