Posts Tagged ‘Okinawa’

Hiring a car in Japan

Friday, July 8th, 2011

During my holiday to Okinawa I hired three cars; one in Naha, one on Tokashiki Island, and one on Ishigaki Island. This is an account of how I hired the cars, and what it is like to drive in Japan.

japan rental cars

Booking a car at a Japanese travel agent

Two of the cars (for Naha and Ishigaki) were booked in advance at a Japanese travel agents in Takamatsu. The travel agency was called KNT and I went there because a Japanese friend told me they were cheap.

japan rent a car brochure

If you want to book anything at a travel agent in Japan you will probably need to speak a reasonable amount of Japanese. There’s a lot of scope for things to go wrong if you aren’t fully understood, or if they don’t fully understand you. If you don’t speak Japanese you might be best off with trying to hire via one of the major car rental companies directly as they may have more English help available.

I wanted the cheapest, smallest car available, each for 24 hours. I decided to hire the cars from Orix Rent-A-Car.

I also wanted to have the cars delivered to myhotel and picked up from the hotel again. The lady in the travel agents was very nice and even phoned up both of my hotels to find out what parking facilities they had for collecting and leaving the car. One hotel had its own free car park. The other had a car park nearby which we’d have to pay to use overnight.

I paid ¥7000 for each of the cars. I was told that in Naha the car would be brought to the hotel, but that at Ishigaki I’d be collected from the hotel by the car hire company.

Naha rental car

In Naha at the agreed time I went to the reception of my hotel. The man from the car hire company appeared, but instead of bringing the car to us, told us that he’d drive us to the car. Maybe we’d misunderstood something the travel agency lady had said.

He drove me to the car hire company and in the office checked my international driving licences (this was before I got full Japanese driving licences), and alien registration cards.

international driving licence

Even though the ¥7000 charge included some kind of insurance, I agreed to pay another ¥525 for some add-on insurance. Not entirely sure what it was for, and if I’d been in an English speaking country I might not have bothered, but here I thought it was best to get all the insurance I could get.

japan rental car insurance agreement

He also gave me a brochure which had some reasonable road maps of Naha in it, and a ¥1000 petrol voucher which could be used at certain petrol stations.

I was told I had to fill the tank just before I finished with the car (Japanese for full tank is ‘mantan’). This car needed ‘regular’ petrol.

And I re-confirmed that I would be leaving it in the hotels car park overnight for them to collect in the morning.

Driving in Naha

The car was an automatic and it took a little while to get used to. If you are used to a manual then the main difference is that you don’t need to worry about the clutch. There is still a gear selector, but all you have to do is move it from ‘park’ to ‘drive’ to get going. There was a third pedal in the car which was for the ‘hand brake’. If you try to drive with the hand brake on then the car starts beeping.

The car had a GPS installed which was very useful as I drove to the North part of Naha to go to the Ocean Expo Park.

Driving on the express way

There is an express way that connects the North and South parts of Naha. Usually you would have to pay to use it, but when I went they were allowing it to be used for free. I still had to get a ticket though.

When you go to join an express way in Japan there are several different lanes you can use. There are ones that will allow you to collect a ticket, and there are ones for cars which have a smartcard payment box installed. These automatic lanes are labelled as ‘ETC’. Do not try to go through one of these lanes unless you have an ‘ETC’ card plugged into the ‘ETC’ unit in the car. The barriers will not open for you!

japan toll gate etc

If you are hiring a car you will probably have to go through the normal ticket barrier.

japan express way toll

The express way in Naha is modern and fast. There aren’t too many cars on it so you get a pleasant clear drive.

At the express way exit (remember don’t use the ‘ETC’ exit unless you have the card) I had to give the ticket to a lady who was on the toll booth. Normally you’d have to pay depending on the distance traveled, but as they were letting everyone use the express way for free there was nothing to pay.

Petrol stations

You will probably have to visit a petrol station at some point. With most car rental companies it is a condition of hire that just before you return the car you have to fill the tank back up. Occasionally (as happened to me on the small island of Tokashiki) I was charged an amount for the mileage I drove instead.

There are two main types of petrol station. Self service ones, and attendant operated ones.

japan petrol station

Before pulling in you should probably know where the petrol cap is and how to open it. The position of the handle isn’t always obvious. On one of my cars the handle could only be accessed by opening the driver’s door!

If it is a self service place just make sure you fill up with the right kind of petrol. Most cars are filled with ‘regular’ (レギュラー) petrol. If it is an attendant operated place then you should ask for a ‘mantan’ (まんタン), which means a full tank.

Keep your receipt. You might need to give it to the car rental company to prove that you filled it right up.

Japan car parking

There are three main types of car park system in Japan.

The first type has car parking spaces with a ‘lock’ that rises between the front and back wheels after the car is parked. The ‘lock’ will rise a minute or two after you park the car to give you a small amount of time to make any adjustments to the car’s position.

japan car parks 1

Usually each space is numbered and there is a main paying station for when you want to collect your car. Sometimes each space will have its own machine. When you want to collect your car you type in the number of your parking space and put in the required amount of money. The ‘lock’ will then lower and you can drive your car away. You may only have a limited time to do this so don’t wait too long! Do check the prices before parking – some can be very expensive. They often have different prices for peak and off-peak hours.

japan car parks 2

The second type is the barrier car park where you collect a ticket on the way in. On the way out you put the ticket in a machine and it tells you how much to pay. When you pay the barrier will open.

The third type is found in built up city areas where there is limited space. You will see tall windowless metal towers dotted about. There are the roulette car parks. You drive you car in through the door and when you leave the car will be rotated inside so that another space becomes free.

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To get the car back there may be an attendant, or there may be a fully automated paying machine. You will then need to reverse your car onto the circular turning table which will spin your car around so you can drive straight out onto the road.

Returning the car

At the end of my Naha driving day I parked in the hotel car park. It was one of those car parking spaces where once you’ve parked the car a barrier rises between the front and back wheels.

As I wasn’t going to be around when the rental company man collected the car I left the keys at the hotel reception, and I also paid the overnight parking charge in advance. All this had been pre-arranged with the car rental company.

The next day when I came back from my day out the car was gone (collected – not stolen!).

Ishigaki rental car

An account of driving around Ishigaki is on this separate post.

Tokashiki rental car

The account of my Tokashiki car rental experience is on this page.

Full Japanese driving licence

I have some information about getting a full Japanese driving licence here.

Naha Kagoshima Ferry

Monday, September 6th, 2010

To get from Naha to Kagoshima you can fly or you can get a 25 hour overnight ferry. I decided on the Naha Kagoshima ferry option.

naha kagoshima ferry

Naha Kagoshima ferry tickets

It cost ¥16,200 for the one way journey, staying in a shared cabin with 8 bunk beds. ¥14,200 was paid when I booked the ferry at the KNT travel agent in Japan. And ¥2000 was to be paid at the ferry terminal as a supplement for having a room, rather than sleeping on the floor. I booked in advance, but you can buy tickets on the day as well. I think the ferry had plenty of free space when I went (early August) – especially in the cabins.

My day started early as I had to be at the ferry terminal between 6am and 6:30am to check in. Naha has quite a few ferry terminals on this side of the island. My ferry was leaving from Naha port near Asahibashi monorail station.

naha kagoshima ferry 01

Inside I went to the check-in area.

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At the check-in I had to present my booking confirmation and fill in a form (‘Boarding Application’) with my name and a few other details. I had to ask the person behind the counter for a cabin, and then I paid the extra ¥2000.

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No one seemed to speak English here, and all the signs were in Japanese, so make sure you get here early so you can get everything sorted.

After I had filled in the form I got my boarding pass. The bits at the front get you onto the boat. And the yellow bit at the back shows that I have paid extra for the cabin.

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Boarding the A-Line ferry

Boarding was at 6:30am so I still had a little time to wait. There is a shop inside the port building if you need any last minute food or drink. At about 6:30am I queued up with the others to get on the ship.

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It was raining and very windy so I had to make a run for it across the concrete to the ships stairs, and then get up the stairs as fast as I could!

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This ship was the フェリーなみのうえ (Naminoue Ferry).

A-line ferry cabin

Inside I showed my ticket to one of the staff. He told me where the room was in Japanese, but as I didn’t quite understand he lead me to where it was. They don’t give you a room key, the room just stays unlocked the whole time. This is the inside of the room. Not visible in the picture on the ceiling is a control for the air conditioning, and another for the speaker volume. I recommend you set the volume to ‘1’ so you hear the announcements without being startled.

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Here is a closer look at one of the beds. There is a light, a hook, a fold-up net shelf, a blanket, and a black leather looking box.

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That black box is your pillow! It is fairly solid, and feels higher than a normal pillow. As it was quite hard I found that I couldn’t lie on my side as it squashed my ear! They do supply paper covers for the pillows for ‘hygiene reasons’, but I found it more comfortable to put the pillow in an old t-shirt. At this stage of the journey I was the only one in the cabin.

If you don’t want to pay the cabin supplement then you get to sleep in one of the large communal sleeping rooms. Each space is numbered so you’ll know which one is yours.

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Sailing from Naha on the A-line ferry

Then the ship set sail. There isn’t very much to do for the 25 hours. You can walk on the deck, there is an upstairs deck as well.

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You can sit on the seats or carpet watching the sea.

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Or you can walk around the two main floors. The upper floor had the cabins and a few communal sleeping rooms. The lower floor had the reception, ship, vending machines, some arcade games, and another sleeping room.

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Food on board

Canteen style meals are served in either the main restaurant, or the breakfast restaurant. You can buy ramen, curry rice, udon, plain rice, tofu and salad.

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You can also get food and drinks from the small shop and vending machines.

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The overall food selection isn’t great so you might need to bring some of your own food.

Loading / unloading

Every three to four hours the boat would pull into another island. Once docked people would leave or board. Fork lift trucks would spring into action taking cargo crates on and off the boat.

naha kagoshima ferry 13

Before the last stop of the day a member of the crew came into my cabin and told me that someone else would be joining. Twenty minutes later a Japanese man came in and claimed his bunk.

I got quite a good sleep on the ferry, much better than my experience on the overnight Bari to Patras ferry that I took some years ago. From that experience I’d learnt that bringing an eye mask and ear plugs is a good idea if you have to share your sleeping space with strangers. Fortunately the Japanese man was very quiet, and the rocking motion of the ship sent me to sleep.

Arriving at Kagoshima

On the reception they update a notice saying when the ship will dock in the next port. Kagoshima was the last stop. The ship was supposed to get into Kagoshima at 8:30am and at 8:40am I was able to leave the boat. I had to give my tickets to a man on the way out – so don’t throw them away when you get on.

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Outside the ferry was a paid shuttle but that took me to Kagoshima JR station.

naha kagoshima ferry 18

One word of warning – after being on a rocking boat for 25 hours I found that I were a bit unstable on my feet for the morning and a bit into the afternoon once I’d disembarked. It was as if I was still on a rocking boat. Allow yourself a bit of time to adjust to solid land again.

More information

More details on the Naha to Kagoshima ferry route are available from the A-line ferry website. You might also hear this company being referred to as ‘Marue Ferry’ group. Specific information on the ship I sailed on can be found here. Using Google Translate may help to make more sense of it.

Three hotels on Okinawa (Naha and Ishigaki)

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Here are some photos of the three hotels we recently stayed at when we visited Naha and Ishigaki (both part of Okinawa).

Hyper Hotel Ishigakijima

First up the Hyper Hotel Ishigakijima which is near the sea and the main city of Ishigaki. It is about 15-20 minutes from the airport by bus. No English was spoken on check in and the man insisted on seeing both of our alien registration cards (normally Japanese hotels only want the ID of the person whose name is on the booking).

hyper hotel ishigakijima 1

The rooms were clean and functional in a business hotel style with most of the usual hotel items. No fridge though.

hyper hotel ishigakijima 2

The bathroom was very generic with a usual Japanese electronic toilet, shower and bath.

hyper hotel ishigakijima 3

Free internet is available if you bring your own computer and LAN cable.

We got a room that faced the sea, but due to building works taking place across the road the view was less than sensational.

hyper hotel ishigakijima 4

A basic breakfast of bread, and rice balls was included in the dining area on the ground floor of the hotel. The hotel also has a coin laundry, very useful if you are travelling light.

Search for hotels on Ishigaki… (on HotelsCombined.com)

Hostel Burney’s Breakfast

Hostel Burney’s Breakfast was an interesting place. As it was a hostel the rooms were cheaper than staying in a hotel, but they were small. The room was almost exactly the same size as two mattresses.

hostel burneys breakfast 2

On one end of the room an old mattress placed on the floor touched three sides of the room. On the other side of the room was some modern looking lights and a computer. The place also has free WiFi if you bring your own computer.

The guy who was running the place was friendly, and spoke much better English than at most of the hotels we’d stayed at on this holiday. The check-in was very quick, and he didn’t seem bothered about seeing our IDs.

hostel burneys breakfast 4

Instead of being numbered the rooms had letters. Some of the electrical, plumbing and building work in this hostel looked very DIY! See the electrical connection on the ceiling in the photo on the left.

hostel burneys breakfast 1

Also in the room the curtain didn’t extend across the window. At least there was air conditioning. You can see where someone has filled in the gap in the window where the air conditioning pipe goes outside.

hostel burneys breakfast 5

As well as private rooms they have a capsule sleeping area, presumably even cheaper.

hostel burneys breakfast 3

There was a shared toilet and shower area, and laundry facilities were available too. This place is fine if you want somewhere cheap and want to be able to meet other travellers, but if you want something more luxurious you’ll need to pay more.

Search for hotels in Naha… (on HotelsCombined.com)

Hotel Rasso Naha Tomari

The Hotel Rasso Naha Tomari is another generic business looking hotel. The staff spoke no English, but we managed to check in with a little Japanese.

hotel rasso naha tomari 1

The Hotel Rasso Naha Tomari is about 15 minutes walk from the Kokusai dori, and near to the port area for visiting Tokashiki Island. Be aware that there are quite a few Hotel Rassos in the area, so make sure you find the correct one.

hotel rasso naha tomari 2

The rooms are smart and clean with free internet. There was no view, so the window served only to let in light.

hotel rasso naha tomari 3

hotel rasso naha tomari 4

They had a breakfast in their dining room downstairs of rice balls and bread. But get there early, once the breakfast runs out they won’t bring more!

Search for hotels in Naha… (on HotelsCombined.com)

Driving around Ishigaki

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

Ishigaki, Okinawa is reachable from Naha Airport via a one hour flight. The island is small and very drivable. Public transport outside the main city is limited so the best way to see the island is to rent a car. You can do a loop of the whole island in a few hours, but if you make stops along the way you can spend a day going round the island.

ishigaki okinawa 07

Near to the city centre is a botanical gardens (left) and a peace bell (right).

ishigaki okinawa 01

In most places the roads are wide, and flat, with very little other traffic. The other people on the road are polite, and don’t get angry if you drive slow, or hold them up by doing a three point turn.

ishigaki okinawa 02

We chose to go around the island clockwise, and follow whichever road was closest to the sea.

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You will get great views from the car, but for some of the famous views such as Kabira Bay can only be seen if you get out of the car, and walk a few minutes.

ishigaki okinawa 08

Some of the beaches are designated as swimming beaches, and have marked out areas for swimming and snorkelling. These beaches do tend to have showers, but don’t tend to have coin lockers, so you’ll need someone to stay on the beach to look after your clothes and valuables. Or you could just risk leaving your clothes on the beach. Japan is very safe compared to other Western countries.

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Here is the lighthouse at the very North of Ishigaki. You can climb up the small hill to get a great view of the sea and the nearby coast line.

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Our Ishigaki rental car cost ¥7000 for 24 hours. We paid an extra ¥525 for insurance, and filling the car back up with petrol (‘Mantan’) when we had finished with it cost another ¥2100.

Tokashiki Island Okinawa

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Tokashiki Island is one of the Kerama Islands off the coast of Naha, Okinawa. If you are visiting Naha and have seen the main attractions Tokashiki Island makes a good day trip away.

tokashiki island okinawa 6

Tokashiki ferry

There are two ferries that will get you to Tokashiki from Tomari Port in Naha city. There is a slow ferry that takes about 70 minutes, and a fast one that takes 35 minutes. You buy your tickets from the building with the green wavy roof. At the time of writing the fast ferry for adults was ¥4620 return, and the slow ferry was ¥3080 return.

tokashiki island okinawa 3

For most of the year there is a single boat of each that can take you to Tokashiki Island in the morning, and take you back to Naha in the late afternoon / early evening. The fast ferry gets you nearly eight hours on the island, and the slow ferry gets you nearly five. If you miss your ferry back then you might be stuck on the island for the night!

Here is the fast ferry (Marine Liner Tokashiki Express) from the inside and outside. There is an upper deck as well where you can feel the sea breeze as the boat bounces along (and it does bounce if the sea is anything but still!).

tokashiki island okinawa 1

Tokashiki hire car

If you really want to see the island you might want to hire a car. On arrival at the Tokashiki port we found a man at the tourist counter in the ferry building who pointed us to the car hire place. We had to go round the building, up some stairs, and into a bar / restaurant. This is where they do the car hire!

Our car cost us ¥4725 for 6 hours, plus ¥1050 for insurance, plus we would need to pay ¥800 minimum for the petrol when we got back. They took the mileage before we left and if we drove more than a certain amount we’d have to pay extra.

tokashiki island okinawa 5

The car was very small, but you don’t want a big car here. The roads are narrow, winding, and hilly. But if you want to see the whole island rather than just visiting a single beach a hire car is the way to go.

Snorkelling on Tokashiki

We wanted to go snorkelling so we made our way to Aharen Beach. We didn’t have any kind of map other than what was in the tourist leaflet, but using that and a compass we managed to find the beach after a few wrong turns.

We parked the car in a quiet grassy square that had other cars parked on it and walked to the beach.

We needed a coin locker and fortunately by the beach is a small camping ground. There you can use a locker for ¥300. There are also showers and an area where you can change. A few of the people around the camp site seemed a little odd; they were gawking at us as if they’d never seen a foreigner before – reminded me of The League of Gentlemen.

Hiring the snorkelling equipment was straight forward. There was a proper stall near the beach where a snorkel, goggles, and flippers could be hired for ¥1000 per set.

After changing and locking our clothes and bags in the coin locker we spent about two hours swimming and snorkelling. They is some good coral in the roped off swimming area, as well as yellow, purple and other multi-coloured fish.

My camera isn’t water proof so I didn’t get any photos of this area, other than these two looking back down the street with the snorkel hire through the rained on car window as we left.

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Driving around Tokashiki

We spent several more hours driving all around the island. By the time we were done we must have driven over most of the island’s roads – it isn’t very big.

There are other things to do on the island (parks, observation points). And in January to March you can get another boat to allow you to whale watch. But we were more interested in having a drive and admiring the scenery. It is very green inland and very blue out to sea.

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Just before our 6 hours was up we returned the car. There was no extra petrol charge as we were within our mileage.

Then we had a drink, before getting the boat back to Naha.

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A good daytrip, and something fun to do if you want to go somewhere quieter than Naha.

Naha, Okinawa

Friday, August 27th, 2010

After flying from Takamatsu Airport we arrived at Naha Airport and got the monorail to the city. We had three full days, staying at two hotels; the Hotel Rasso Naha Tomari and Hostel Burney’s Breakfast (more about them in a future post).

Shuri Castle

Shuri Castle is one of the main attractions in Naha city. The entrance is about a 15 minute walk from the last stop on the tram. It was destroyed during World War II but much has now been rebuilt. More rebuilding is still on-going.

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There are steps in and around the castle so on a hot 33/34 celsius day it is tiring!

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You can probably spend about an hour here if you take your time. There is a café and restaurant area where you can fill up before moving on.

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Chinese garden

At the other end of the city is the Fujushu-en Chinese Garden. It is free to enter and you can spend a pleasant half an hour looking at the plants, flowers, statues and water features.

naha fukushu en chinese garden 02

The former Japanese Navy underground headquarters

The former Japanese Navy underground headquarters saw action during World War II. The tunnels have now been renovated and opened. Getting there is a bit of a mission as the entrance is on top of a hill. You might want to get a taxi here and back.

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There is a museum in which there are exhibits (in English) about the tunnels and Rear Admiral Minoru Ota who along with six other officers killed themselves near the end of the war. The museum is good but I thought they should have given a proper explanation of how Japan entered the war to put the events in these tunnels into context.

The tunnels themselves are very interesting. They were dug by hand using pick axes. You can see where the soldiers lived and worked. They are fairly bare but there are some pictures on the walls to help you imagine what they are like. The photo below right shows some of the damage done by a hand grenade.

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Pineapple Park

If you are going to the Ocean Expo Park and are a fan of pineapples you might want to visit Pineapple Park which is close by. At Pineapple Park is a ride which takes you round a pineapple plantation with commentary (there is English audio available).

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There are some exhibits about pineapples (and also about sea shells for some reason!). Then there is a large shopping area where you can buy all kinds of pineapple cakes, sweets, wines, and drinks.

Along the way you can eat various pineapple foods. They say that you can have ‘all the pineapples you can eat’ but they give the pineapple chunks, cakes and drinks to you in very small portions, so you aren’t likely to overdose on them!

This is a fun stop off on the way to the Ocean Expo Park, and children will like it.

Ocean Expo Park

The Ocean Expo Park is at the North end of Naha. It has an aquarium, beach, museums, and gardens. It is a long way from Naha city (1.5-2 hours) and the different areas in the park are some distance away from each other. The best way to visit it from Naha city is to hire a car and drive there.

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

In the Ocean Expo Park is the large Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. It is a modern and well designed aquarium with all the kinds of fish and sea creatures you’d expect at an aquarium of this scale.

One of the highlights is the huge 7500m³ Kuroshio Tank which has hundreds of fish, whale sharks and mantas.

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Close to the aquarium is the dolphin theatre where you can see regular shows. The dolphin theatre if free to enter, so you don’t have to get a ticket to the aquarium to see them.

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Tropical Dream Center

The Tropical Dream Center is a botanical garden in the Ocean Expo Park. You get a discount on entry if you have visited the aquarium. They have many green houses containing tropical flowers and plants. There were a large number of tropical fruits when we went there.

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There is a building (below, left) that you can go up to get a good aerial view of the park and the sea.

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Kokusai dori and Heiwa dori

The Kokusai dori and Heiwa dori (dori just means street btw) are good places to spend a few hours.

Kokusai dori is a big shopping and restaurant street which is busy during the day, and which becomes more lively at night. It is a good place to go for food in the evenings.

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The Heiwa dori (in the photo above) is a big covered shopping area selling cheap clothes, trinkets and other goods. At the end of the Heiwa dori is the old pottery area.

Overview of Naha holiday

This is what we did on our three full days in Naha.

  • Day 1 – Shuri Castle, underground navy base, Chinese garden.
  • Day 2 – Pineapple Park and the Ocean Expo Park (Churaumi Aquarium and Tropical Dream Center). We rented a car for this day.
  • Day 3 – Visited Tokashiki Island. More about this island in a future post.
  • Evenings – Kokusai dori and Heiwa dori.