It is one of these places where it is not so straightforward to organise a scuba diving trip. There are so many islands in the prefecture of Okinawa, so many scuba diving experiences, at different periods of the year: it became somehow overwhelming to answer “What? Where? When?” As this was the first trip of a long series to Okinawa Prefecture, I thought a first-timer guide to scuba diving in Okinawa made sense!
Okinawa singular history
Okinawa Prefecture is the combination of several archipelagos: Okinawa Archipelago, the Kerama Archipelago, the Miyako Archipelago and the Yaema Archipelago, which form all together the Ryukyu Islands. Before becoming a Japanese Prefecture in 1879, it used to be an independent country: the Ryukyu Kingdom. From the 15th Century, the Ryukyu Kings were paying tribute to the Chinese Emperor. Hence there is a strong Chinese influence in the local Okinawan culture.
After the painful events Okinawa went through during WWII, there is no doubt that you are in Japan when you walk in the streets of Naha today, but with a twist. You can read a good summary of Okinawa complicated history here.
The itinerary for my first trip to Okinawa
As my first trip to Okinawa was part of a longer trip to Japan, I flew from Tokyo. However, you can find today great deals through China if you’re planning only to visit Okinawa. From Japan, they are two low-cost carriers Jetstar and Vanilla which make you fly to Okinawa for really cheap if you book in advance and if you have no check-in luggage. I was precisely in the opposite case. I’m travelling with my scuba diving gear and I wanted to keep some flexibility as June is right in the middle of the rainy season.
So I took the opportunity of ANA special domestic fares for visitors (you need to live abroad, be on a tourist visa and have an international return flight ticket to Japan). The price is fixed, and you can book until 3 days before departure! In the case of Okinawa, the price is set at 10,800¥ (84€/£74) and includes a 20 kg check-in bag. In the case of the low-cost company, I would have to pay extra for my check-in bag, and I would lose any flexibility as the rates would keep increasing if I waited longer to decide when to go. So it didn’t cost me more, in the end, to choose flying with ANA thanks to this special fare.
Since most of the dive sites around Okinawa main islands are either in the Kerama Islands, a National Park 1h boat ride away from Naha Harbour, or in the northern part of the islands around Onna Village, I decided to share my time between these two places to check how it feels to stay and dive from each.
Local transportation by bus is available but limited. In addition to the local buses, I found the “limousine bus” service linking Naha Airport to the luxury resorts of the island to be quite convenient. You don’t need to be a customer of these resorts to take it. As it makes fewer stops than the local bus, you only need 1h30 to go to Onna from Naha (it’s 1 hour by car, and 3 hours by local bus) and I only paid 1900¥ (about 15€/£13) which is just a bit more expensive than the local bus.
I wanted initially to rent a car but decided finally not to do it because there was already many things to see in Naha and Onna, and as the scuba diving centre is always picking you up to drive to a new dive site each day, you got to know a lot of the island this way.
My top 5 scuba dives in Okinawa main island
There are more than 10 spots where you can go scuba diving in Okinawa. During the 10 days of my trip, I dived 13 times at 10 different dive sites with 2 different scuba diving centres in Naha and Onna. Here are my top 5 locations in the order of my preference.
#1 Dream Hole & Mini Dream, Cape Manza
I took these 2 dive sites as #1 because they are next to each other and they both blew my mind. It was beautiful and exciting at the same time. It’s been a while I haven’t seen a coral reef striving this much. The dives start at 5 m deep only, with plenty of daylight you can appreciate the diversity and colours of the reefs. This dive site was the main reason why Okinawa made it to my list of the best diving in Asia-Pacific.
In both cases, there is a chimney descending through the reef. The only difference is that Dream Hole is much deeper, the chimney takes you from 5 m to 25 m, whereas in the case of Mini Dream, it goes from 5 m to 15 m. As you descend the chimney you must be in absolute control of your buoyancy and compensate your ear frequently. Make sure you’re bringing a torchlight with you as the caverns inside these tunnels are full of marine life such a soldierfish, royal angelfish and nudibranchs.
After the exit of the tunnel of Dream Hole, at my deepest point (28 m) I saw a few big yellow gorgonians and many gracious feather stars hanging on their piece of coral. As you ascend again to the top of the reef, you’ll see a giant jacuzzi coming from the reef; these are the bubbles released by the scuba divers in the caverns.
Be aware, scuba diving centres may only take scuba divers who can demonstrate good buoyancy control. So they may take you to an easier dive site first to check how you are doing.
Manza Dream Hole parameters: 28 m deep – 39 minutes bottom time – water temperature 25°C
Manza Mini Dream parameters: 19 m deep – 46 minutes bottom time – water temperature 25°C
#2 USS Emmons shipwreck, Kouri Island
The USS Emmons is an American destroyer minesweeper who served during WWII. Following a fierce attack of the Japanese “kamikaze” plane on the 6ht of April 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa, the ship is severely damaged. The American Navy decides on the next day to scuttle it to avoid the ship falling into their enemy’s hands. 60 sailors lost their lives on the USS Emmons, so the shipwreck is now a military sanctuary, so penetration is not allowed at all. If you are interested into WWII history, please google “Battle of Okinawa” which gives many insights of why today, Okinawa Prefecture is still apart in Japan. You can also visit the Peace Memorial in Itoman, just a little south of Naha.
The ship is 100 m long. Usually, you will explore it in 2 dives, starting by the bow on the first dive and finishing by the stern on the second dive. We were lucky to be the only one in Kouri Island to dive the USS Emmons that day, with good weather and good visibility, but the current was strong. We used the middle buoy on the first dive. We swam into the current to the bow and the anchor. I used quite a lot of air doing so, especially at an average depth of 35 m. I still managed to take some great pictures. Once we drifted back to the line, we went back in no time. After an hour and a half of surface interval at the harbour, we went back to the wreck with a plan adapted to the current conditions. We would start the dive at the buoy of the bow, and do a 100m drift dive along the shipwreck at 35m deep!
Be aware, scuba diving centres may only take scuba divers who can demonstrate good buoyancy control and especially low air consumption. So they may take you to an easier dive site first to check how you are doing.
USS Emmons dive #1 parameters: 41 m deep – 36 minutes bottom time – water temperature 24°C
USS Emmons dive #2 parameters: 40 m deep – 35 minutes bottom time – water temperature 24°C
#3 & #4 Zamami & Tokashiki, Kerama Islands
The Kerama Islands are a national park just an hour west from Naha. If you were looking for dream beaches, crystal clear water and wild nature, this is the place to go around Okinawa main island. Keep also an eye as you sail to the Kerama Islands of the many flying fish jumping above water!
Zamami might be the most popular of the islands; I can easily understand why as it had the most beautiful beaches and this is where you have the highest chance to see a turtle.
The visibility was excellent, especially in Tokashiki island, up to 40 m, and the reefs look like the fingers of a hand, with sand patches alternating with a stripe of corals. The marine life I saw during my dives was so diverse and representative of the Pacific Ocean: spotted sweet-lips, black-tip grouper, honeycomb grouper, black side hawkfish, blue anthias, butterfly fish, trumpet fish, sea snake, goatfish, tomato anemonefish, fire dartfish, hermit-crab, feather star, orange anemone fish, and so on!
Zamami dive parameters: 15 m deep – 44 minutes bottom time – water temperature 26°C
Tokashiki dive parameters: 16 m deep – 52 minutes bottom time – water temperature 26°C
#5 The Blue Cave, Cape Maeda
Often listed as #1 dive site in Okinawa main island, this place makes it only to the bottom of my list for one reason: it is overcrowded. Don’t take me wrong, it is a nice site, but I think this site now feels it has been abandoned to mass tourism. The damage done to the reef by too many snorkelers and DSD is obvious.
June is low season, so local people seeing my pictures and videos told me I was lucky to enjoy the cave with so little people. “So little people?” For me, it was already overwhelming. Apparently, in July/August and during the weekends, there can be up to 1000 divers and snorkelers at the site with people waiting in line at the entrance of the cave.
The Blue Cave is still an interesting site. While it is not the most amazing blue cave I’ve seen across the world, there is so much marine life inside: soldierfish and juvenile batfish. Talking about batfish, you can see a couple of beautiful adult ones in the blue as you make your safety stop before going back to the boat.
Blue Cave dive#1 parameters: 25 m deep – 40 minutes bottom time – water temperature 25°C
Blue Cave dive #2 parameters: 17 m deep – 44 minutes bottom time – water temperature 27°C
Naha, scuba diving in Okinawa from the city
If you want to go scuba diving during the day and having many attractions to visit and many places to go out for dinner, then Naha is the best choice for you. It may not look like a pretty city since everything had to be rebuilt fast after WWII, but I found myself quickly attached to its chilled out atmosphere while having plenty of things to do.
Top things to do in Naha
The top attraction of Naha doesn’t disappoint at all and even exceeded my expectation with a lush green park all around it and a stunning view of the city and the ocean from its top hill position. Thanks to its exhibition you will learn everything about the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom and why the Chinese influence is so significant in the Okinawan culture. Unfortunately, the castle was destroyed during WWII, so the building you visit is a reconstitution that they made as faithful as possible with the original. Entrance is 860¥ (you have a 60¥ discount if you took a 1-day monorail pass) but I don’t regret a single yen, it was my most interesting visit in Okinawa.
Update October 2019 : Unfortunately, while I was exploring Miyakojima, I woke up one morning to learn the disaster that Shuri Castle had burnt down. It was a very emotional moment among people of Okinawa. I have no doubt it will be rebuilt another time from its ashes one day.
Tsuboya Yachimun Dori
Love at first sight with this district I found by surprise. I have a deep love for ceramic craft and seeing so many artists shop all along one little cobblestone street totally got even if, in the end, it made me so sad I couldn’t buy anything, because you know, of all my scuba diving gear and airlines weight restrictions. It is also an excellent place to learn more about the “shisa” these ceramic lions which are so iconic to Okinawa. You will always find two at the gate of each house or building, a male with the mouth open and a female with the mouth closed, they are protecting the people living inside.
Fukushuen Chinese Garden
My first intent was to visit Naminoue Shrine and Beach. While the shrine was adorable with its palm trees, and I got a very lucky prediction there, I liked it, but the beach downstairs didn’t impress me at all. So I remembered about a nearby Chinese Garden. Many people said it was so-so, but I loved it. It is a gift in memory of friendship between Naha and Fuzhou in China, its twin city. This traditional Chinese garden has several pagodas and ponds. During the daytime, the entrance is only 200 ¥, and I had the entire garden to myself, so it was perfect to take pictures.
Gyoku Sendo Cave
12 km southeast from the centre of Naha, these superb natural caves are one of the largest underground systems in Japan. Its entrance is inside the tourist attraction Okinawa World which was built around the caves. What sounded initially like a problem wasn’t so much in the end since the caves were stunning with their millions of stalactites and an underground river beautifully enhanced with coloured lights. Okinawa World is a reconstituted traditional Okinawan village showcasing art craft from all over the archipelago. I wasn’t a big fan of the endless souvenir shops but I have to say I liked my visit (Entrance to the caves and Okinawa World is the same ticket, 1200 ¥). You can go there by bus from Naha, check the timetable at the main bus terminal.
On paper, Kokusai shopping street had everything for me to hate it. Its name directly translates into “international road” so it is geared for foreign tourists! On my second night in Okinawa, I went to explore it, thinking “At least, I have seen it”. Well, I ended walking the entire street (1,2 km) because beyond the many tacky souvenir (omiyage) shops, I found more than a few gems that I’m happy to share with you (sorry, they are all food related!):
- Okashi-Goten confectionary shop: you can taste every single cake, and sweet they make and see the manufacturing of the famous Okinawan “Beni-Imo” Tarts. Beni-Imo is the Okinawan purple yam and is supposed to be one of the reason for the long life expectancy herein Okinawa. My favourite was the steamed beni-imo mochi in shape of a sakura flower, but the steamed mango mochi was to die for too.
- Yukishio salt factory shop: You can find in their main showroom the products made from Miyakojima salt, which is said to have the most mineral element varieties in the world. It includes a soft ice cream shop where you can top it with favoured Miyakojima salts like hibiscus, green tea or even wasabi. I was very reluctant at first to try salty ice cream, but a lovely lady came and told me I could try a small portion for only 280¥ (2€). Well, I loved it so much, I came back the next day. Many people will tell you “Blue Seal” makes the best ice cream in Okinawa, but I have to disagree Yukishio’s was my favourite ice cream with a creamy texture and a slight salted butter caramel taste.
- Yatai-Mura food village: It is just a little aside from the main street, but this food village has the incredible atmosphere of the “yokocho” (side streets with street food) I loved in Tokyo. Each restaurant has a speciality, but you may have to go where you can find a free spot. It is a great place to try an Okinawan speciality called “Umi-budou” (seagrape), a delicious seaweed which as little bubbles that will explode in your mouth with a very crisp taste as you dip it in soy sauce.
Who to dive with in Naha?
I’m so happy I was recommended to contact Tetsuro san, the Japanese owner of Honu Honu Divers. Before moving to Okinawa, he worked for 8 years in Hawaii, so he speaks good English. In his team, he has two other instructors whom one is German and speaks English and French. Tetsuro san will pick you up in the morning either to go to Naha Harbour to go diving in the Kerama Islands or to any site in the northern part of the island (with 1h to 1 hour and a half of driving).
If you want to experience a Japanese full-service style scuba diving centre, Honu Honu Divers is where you should make a booking, at least for the Kerama Islands, since Naha is the most convenient place to go diving there. Tetsuro san is also an excellent underwater photographer and always bring his camera with him, and you will receive for free by email underwater pictures of your dives with him. As an underwater photographer myself, I found it was a significant advantage because he would show me so many cool little critters and he could understand I sometimes needed more time.
3-4-15 Wakasa, Naha-city, Okinawa 900-0031
Phone: +81 – (098)-988-8877
Where to stay in Naha?
As a big city, Naha offers the highest number of options for accommodation. I found 2 perfect places for all travellers, one friendly and spotless dorm, and an affordable boutique hotel for those of you who need to rest from their jet-lag. Both places are central, close to Miebashi monorail station and Kokusai shopping street.
Guesthouse Grand Naha: This hostel is so affordable, and I didn’t even pay for the lowest rate which is for a bunk bed in a mixed dorm. For 15€ a night I got a single bed in the female dorm. The single bed is like the bunk beds but without the top bed, which means you can stand inside and you have a large shelf where you can put all your stuff. The shared bathroom was cute and perfectly clean with all the necessary amenities including a laundry room. There was also a very nice library full of mangas which was perfect for me as a working space.
Estinate Hotel: If you need more comfort but still don’t want to sell your right arm, I found this lovely boutique hotel which has single and double rooms at affordable prices. The hotel lobby is super cosy, and there is a bar/restaurant with plenty of delicious and healthy local food to try with an Okinawan Orion beer. You can also try their BBQ formula (they have a veggie option too) on their terrace at the back side of the hotel. My room was minimalist but stylish, with a comfy bed and desk perfect for me to get some work done. I couldn’t try their mouth-watering breakfast with their big pancakes and fresh fruits because I left too early in the morning to go scuba diving, but they kindly packed for me a delicious veggie/omelette sandwich I ate on the road. The manager is a passionate scuba diver too so don’t hesitate to say hi on my behalf! Prices are from 60€ a night.
Onna, scuba diving in Okinawa from the beach
If you fancy more lovely beaches than concrete buildings, Onna area is the place to go. It is strategically located at the centre of all best dive sites of the main island of Okinawa (except the Kerama Islands), so this is where you will find the highest concentration of scuba diving centres. However, after your scuba diving, sightseeing or sunbathing at the beach, it is quiet, like super quiet. So it depends on what you are looking for. Another advantage is that you will sleep longer in the morning as the dive sites of Manza and Maeda are much closer than from Naha.
Top things to do in Onna
Rather than visiting Cape Maeda which is way too crowded, I decided to take the bus 120 (2 to 3 an hour, be careful not available on Google maps so check the schedule at the bus stop) from my guesthouse, and 15 minutes and 400¥ later I was at Cape Manzamo. Try to avoid the 10 am – 12 pm slot, when the touristy bus tours from Naha visit the spot. I went there a bit after 12 pm, there were still some people, but it was far from being crowded. Good for me, this spot is breath-taking with these high cliffs and arch falling into the transparent turquoise sea.
Here is a little secret I want to share with you: once you have checked the viewpoint, don’t leave right away, look for a road sign on your right indicating a cave named “Uduigama”, 950 m further. When you finally reach Uduigama Cave, you will find a little paradise creek just for yourself or maybe a few fishermen. For information, Uduigama Cave, the “cave of dances”, has historical and cultural importance for Okinawan people as it used to serve as a training place for traditional dances before a festival in August. It doesn’t happen here anymore, but the festival does still start from there every year.
15 minutes walking from Cape Manzamo, the municipal beach of Onna is free entrance to anyone. You only pay for things you want to rent such as sunshade or snorkelling gear. There are soft drinks and ice cream vending machines for an enjoyable afternoon at the beach without spending a fortune. At the end of the dyke protecting the beach, there is a gazebo where you can enjoy a beautiful view of Cape Manzamo. The place is popular but wasn’t too crowded at the time of my visit.
By walking another 2 km, I found that just behind the Okashi-Goten store there was a fabulous little beach I could enjoy for myself with crystal clear water and golden sand. Just make sure you have everything to protect your skin, such as a hat, a rashguard and reef-safe sunscreen (which for information I couldn’t find while in Okinawa), the sun is so strong you would burn in less than 5 minutes.
Kouri Island Bridge
The bridge linking Okinawa mainland to Kouri Island is one of the most iconic views of Okinawa. How lucky this is precisely where the USS Emmons shipwreck is lying! Just ask to make a stop at the viewpoint at the end of your scuba diving day. You can find for lunch plenty of little restaurants to enjoy traditional Okinawan food for as little as 600¥ (4,50€/£4).
Who to dive with in Onna?
Jan is a German instructor who founded with his Japanese wife Tomoko Piranha Divers. They are located in Nakama, a resort area at the north of Onna Village. They define themselves as the place to go if you want some European style diving while in Okinawa. While I was a bit intrigued by the statement at first, it means Do-It-Yourself: prepare your gear, carry your tank and everything, right? Beyond this point which doesn’t bother me at all, as indeed this is what I am used to doing back in Europe, they have DIN tanks which are super rare in Japan.
They can cater for tech divers, and I could witness the excellent level of planning they have on a demanding dive such as the USS Emmons. I was impressed that their instructor and divemaster were carrying deco tanks for the 3 divers including me who showed up that day. It is, of course, the right thing to do, but it was the first time I saw it compared to similar dives I did in the past. Thumbs up to Piranha Divers!
Aza Nakama 2288-243 Prince Palazzo 1F, Onna Village, 904-0401 Okinawa
Where to stay in Onna?
Pension Weekend: Onna is the area where you find most of the luxury resorts of Okinawa main island. So, unfortunately, it also means that between budget and luxury there is not much option in the middle. Airbnb was used by a few people I dived with, but I chose to book the homey pension recommended by Piranha Divers.
Everything was so old-fashioned inside, but I loved it this way. I had my own room with en-suite bathroom and a balcony, and for 5,000¥ (39€/£34) it also included a yummy breakfast, one morning Japanese style and the next one western style. The owners were absolute sweethearts, the lady only spoke Japanese but that was never an issue, her husband spoke good English. They brought me by car the first morning with my scuba diving to the dive centre, and on the last day, they drove me back to the Kariyushi Resort so I could take my bus back to Naha.
When to travel to Okinawa?
As a subtropical region of Japan, water in Okinawa is 20°C at the coldest during wintertime and 30°C in the summer. Okinawa is seasonally subject to strong typhoons in June and September. As a rule of thumb, October is the best period to go scuba diving in Okinawa; water is warm, you avoid the crowds and typhoons are gone.
Although June is low season, it is warm with air temperatures around 30°C with a humidity rate close to 90%. It is always a bit of a gamble regarding typhoon probability but the last week of June is usually a sweet spot, so this is when I decided to go. I had good weather, with maybe 2 short tropical showers in 10 days. I flew to Naha just after a typhoon and came back just before the next one.
If you want to avoid the crowds and higher costs, the peak season you want to stay away from are Chinese New Year(February), Japanese Golden week (end of April/beginning of May), Obon (beginning of August) and the Silver week (September).
My to-do list for my next scuba diving trip to Okinawa
Now I have explored Okinawa main area, I need to explore the outer Okinawa islands such as Ishigaki Island, Miyako Island and Yonaguni Island. The best season to go is in winter when the manta rays visit Ishigaki island and when schools of hammerhead sharks swim around Yonaguni island. I also know now that it is possible to fly direct to Ishigaki from mainland Japan, so this is convenient. The thing is winter is also the period to see the whales in the Kerama Islands. So who knows what my trip will be like?
Update 2019 – here are my latest articles about diving in Okinawa:
- 10 reasons to go diving in Ishigaki and the Yaeyama Islands
- Yonaguni Monument: diving a mysterious underwater city in Okinawa
- Diving Yonaguni: mission hammerhead sharks
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This article was written in partnership with the tourism and convention bureau of Okinawa. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect honestly my experience. Photo credits: Turtle picture and me underwater in the Kerama Islands by Tetsuro of Honu Honu Divers.
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