The Okinawa Prefecture, in the southernmost province of Japan, counts three main archipelagos: the Okinawa Islands, the Miyako Islands and the Yaeyamaislands, forming all together the Ryukyu Islands. I know it can be confusing but try to differentiate Okinawa Island, the Okinawa Islands, the Okinawa Prefecture!
Before becoming a Japanese Prefecture in 1879, Okinawa 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.
Okinawa 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 would make sense!
- My top 5 dive sites in Okinawa Island
- Scuba diving in Okinawa from the city of Naha
- Scuba diving in Okinawa from Onna Village
The itinerary for my first trip to Okinawa Island
Since most of the dive sites around Okinawa main islands are either in the Kerama Islands 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. It is usually recommended to rent a car in Okinawa but decided not to do in the end it as there was already many things to see in Naha and Onna. Besides, the staff of the scuba diving centre pick you up to drive to a new dive site each day, so you got to know a lot of the island this way.
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 from Naha to Onna (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.
My top 5 dive sites in Okinawa Island
There are more than 10 places 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, 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.
My dive parameters
- Manza Dream Hole: 28 m deep – 39 minutes bottom time – water temperature 25°C
- Manza Mini Dream: 19 m deep – 46 minutes bottom time – water temperature 25°C
#2 – Tokashiki Island, Kerama National Park
The Kerama Islands are a national park just an hour away west from Naha. If you are looking for dream beaches and crystal clear waters, this is the place to go in the Okinawa islands.
The visibility in Tokashiki Island was the best I’ve seen, up to 40 m. The reefs of Tokashiki island display splendid hard corals and majestic sea fans. Sea turtles are often spotted while diving in the Kerama Islands.
The Kerama National Park is by far one of the best diving areas in Japan, and it deserves I write a full article in the near future.
My dive parameters:
- Tokashiki: maximum depth 16 m deep – 52 minutes bottom time – water temperature 26°C
#3 – Zamami Island, Kerama National Park
Zamami might be the most popular of the Kerama Islands and offer great dive sites, I found Tokashiki to be slightly better due to its beautiful coral reefs. However, the number of sea turtles and giant sea anemones with their families of clownfish, tomato anemonefish or orange anemonefish was impressive.
Generally speaking, the marine life I saw during my dives was representative of the Pacific Ocean: spotted sweet-lips, black-tip grouper, honeycomb grouper, black side hawkfish, blue anthias, butterflyfish, trumpet fish, sea snake, goatfish, tomato anemonefish, fire dartfish, colourful feather stars, and so on!
My dive parameters:
- Zamami: maximum depth 15 m deep – 44 minutes bottom time – water temperature 26°C
#4 – 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 in 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.
My dive parameters
- USS Emmons dive #1: maximum depth 40 m deep – 36 minutes bottom time – water temperature 24°C
- USS Emmons dive #2: maximum depth 40 m deep – 35 minutes bottom time – water temperature 24°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.
My dive parameters
- Blue Cave dive#1: maximum depth 25 m deep – 40 minutes bottom time – water temperature 25°C
- Blue Cave dive #2: maximum depth 17 m deep – 44 minutes bottom time – water temperature 27°C
Scuba diving in Okinawa from the city of Naha
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
- Shuri Castle
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.
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.
- 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.
- Kokusai Dori
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:
- Okashi-Goten confectionery 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 reasons for the long life expectancy here in Okinawa.
- 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.
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.
Where to stay in Naha?
As a big city, Naha offers the highest number of options for accommodation. I found 2 perfect places for independent travellers. Both places are central, close to Miebashi monorail station and Kokusai shopping street.
Guesthouse Grand Naha, prices from 15€ a night:
- The Grand Naha hostel is the most affordable option in Naha.
- I chose a single bed in the female dorm for 20€ a night. 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.
- The roof-top terrace is perfect for a quiet nap in the sun
Estinate Hotel, Prices are from 60€ a night:
- If you need more comfort but you want to keep it in a reasonable budget, the Estinate hotel 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 backside 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.
Scuba diving in Okinawa from Onna Village
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
- Cape Manzamo
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.
- Nabee Beach
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!
Where to stay in Onna?
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.
Pension Weekend, prices from 35€ a night:
- The Pension weekend house was old-fashioned inside, but I liked its cosy atmosphere.
- I had my own room with en-suite bathroom and a balcony, and for 5,000¥.
- Room rate also included breakfast, one morning it was 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.
Kariyushi Resort, prices from 120€ a night:
- The Kariyushi Resort is one of the stops of the Limousine bus between Naha and Onna, so I had the opportunity to visit the grounds on my arrival and departure.
- Located on the top of the hills, the large building has luxurious installations and an incredible view of the sea.
- Perfect choice for those who want to splurge a bit.
When is the best season to go scuba diving in 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).
How to go 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 the ANA Experience Fare for foreign 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. You can also book with the same principle with the JAL Explorer Pass.
More scuba diving adventures in the outer islands of 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 for me to return would be 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:
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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 cover picture by Tetsuro of Honu Honu Divers.
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