Q: Peter, I am considering traveling with my niece to Okinawa, Japan. She is traveling for her job, and there will be large pockets of time when I am left to find things to do while she is at work. I have researched some of the activities that are available but must admit many of them are unclear as to access. Can you suggest some places that I may visit in my "free" time? Also, where is a good place to do currency exchange in Okinawa?
–Ellie Gee, Washington, D.C.
A: Okinawa is a compact 400-square-mile island with a warm, subtropical climate, numerous ancient monuments, historic World War II sites, and abundant opportunities for water sports and outdoor recreation.
The island has relatively good transportation options, so it's fairly easy to get around and see the sights. Most visitors start in the capital city, Naha, which is home to the international airport and many of the island's best cultural activities.
You can get around Naha by taxi or city bus. To get from the airport to central Naha, the Okinawa Monorail is another option. Sights in Naha include the 14th-century Shurijo Castle complex, which includes the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and the Enkakuji and Bezaitendo temples; the fashionable Kokusai Street with its cafés, souvenir shops, and boutiques; and Shikinaen Garden, a former vacation estate for the royal family.
For day trips outside of the city, you can either try your luck at the Naha Bus Terminal, or consider renting a car for the duration of your stay. I'd recommend a car because the bus schedules and connections can be difficult to understand. Driving is easy. Road signs are in Japanese and English, and drivers are very polite.
To the south of Naha, check out Tomigusuku Village, which is home to both the Okinawa World theme park and Gyokusendo Cave. Okinawa World tells the story of the island's history and culture, and Gyokusendo is the second-longest cave in Japan. It claims to have 100,000 of the largest stalactites and stalagmites in Asia. Also in the south, in Itoman City, you can visit the Okinawa Peace Park, which displays the names of both Allied and Japanese soldiers who died during the Battle of Okinawa.
In the northern part of the island, Motobu is where you'll find Ocean Expo Park and Churaumi Aquarium, one of the most popular and famous aquariums in Japan. Nago City is the location of Nago Pineapple Park, a theme park that cultivates more than 100 types of pineapples. In Kunigami Village, in the northernmost district of Okinawa, you can explore Hiji Falls, Okinawa's largest waterfall. Getting to Hiji, you have an easy, hour-long hike through the stunning Yanbaru Forest.
Changing money is best done in Naha when you arrive. The city has a number of large banks, which offer exchange rates that are more favorable than those the airport kiosks offer. I normally advise people to not rely too much on cash when traveling abroad and instead use credit and debit cards, but in Japan, debit cards can be hard to use.
Few of the Japanese banks and merchants use equivalent electronic transaction networks to those in the United States. The exceptions are the ATM machines at the post offices, which are gradually being updated to accommodate international credit and debit cards.
So bring some cash and travelers' checks, and change them into yen when you arrive. That way, you'll have backup in case you can't use plastic. And try to bring a few different credit and debit cards, preferably each one connected with a different network—such as Plus, Star, Interlink, or Cirrus.