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Driving in Okinawa: seriously easy-going

DriveMiyako
If you are planning a trip to the main island of Okinawa (Oki Honto) and want to have some freedom to travel outside of Naha, you will need to rent a car. The only rail system on the island is the Yui Rail Monorail in Naha (which runs from the airport to Shuri Castle). The bus system is also rather limited. Everyone drives here.
Even if you have driven in Japan before, there are some things you need to know before planning to drive in Okinawa. Nobody’s in a hurry here; it’s island life and the driving pace is far more relaxed than what you are used to. So when in Okinawa… do as the Okinawans do.

“Oh man, it’s total gridlock!”

Plan for any trip to take extra time (beyond what the guide book says) and do not expect to get anywhere fast. The speed limits are generally about 40km/h (max. 80km.h on the Oki Expressway). Expect traffic to be heavy, especially at weekends, and avoid rush-hour* if at all possible.
*NOTE: On Highway 58 (the main artery of Okinawa) between the hours of 0730-0900 and 1730-1900, the far left lane is strictly for Bus and Motorcycle use only.
Here’s some experienced advice for planning your flight arrival and car pick-up time:
Traffic Jams – If you intend to drive north of Naha on the day of your arrival, plan to be on the road before 4pm. From 4.30pm-7pm, it’s going to be bumper-to bumper, and no fun at all. It should take you about 1 hour 30 minutes to get to Oki City on a normal drive. Double that time during rush-hour. Once you get north of Oki City you should be ok. Surprisingly, it’s so built up between Naha and Oki City, you’ll hardly notice the crossover. Get on the road before 4pm, and your drive should be pleasant enough.
Parking Spaces – Plan an early arrival, if you wish to save on parking. Hotel parking spaces are at a premium in Naha and Okinawa City. Most city hotels here have stacked parking, which by its very nature causes delays. Even if your hotel does have an outside parking facility, expect it to be full by 9pm.
Also, don’t expect to find many parking opportunities en-route. (After all, the drive-through was invented in Okinawa!) Should you find yourself in need of a pit-stop – a convenience store such as FamilyMart is probably your best bet. Overall, if you park illegally, do expect consequences. (This also includes shops / restaurants you are not a patron of). Be mindful of water hydrants especially.
Finding parking anywhere in Naha can be tricky, if not annoying. So, if you plan to eat before you drive, my STRESS-FREE recommendation would be to pop over to Ashibina Outlet Mall, where open parking is plentiful (recommended: KARA KARA Okinawan Buffet Lunch … fresh, vegetarian-friendly, and the best labeled introduction to Okinawan cuisine EVER! If you are anxious to get on the road, you will find plenty of fast food options (e.g. KFC) on the left-hand side, once you clear Naha. American Village will also have plenty of parking, but access is a bit of a headache, especially if you wish to avoid traffic.
Car accidents – there are lots of tourists (and Americans obviously) in Okinawa so, even if you are used to driving in Japan, be aware that your fellow road users may not be used to driving on the left side of the road! I have heard this first-hand both from ALTs living on Honto and from Chinese tourists (who suffered a mishap on their first day out). Pay particular attention at intersections, which is where most accidents occur.
The 3-lane traffic going north through Naha, can feel a bit intimidating at first so you do need to keep your eyes on the road. Drunk driving is a serious social issue in Okinawa and consequently the penalties are extra strong. Passengers also get fined. Most employers have a zero tolerance rule (i.e. you will lose-your- job if you are caught!)
DriveMiyako 2
Safety – Do not leave your car unlocked, or valuable items in view.
Slippery when wet – Okinawan roads are made of limestone so be extra careful on rainy days. The Okinawans know this and traffic will go much slower, especially during Typhoon season (June through October). Keep a close eye on the weather forecasts, so that you know when to expect heavier traffic.
http://www.jma.go.jp/jma/indexe.html
There is no need to drink and drive – If you decide to take a drink, you don’t have to drive. Just call a Daiko Taxi Service. You ride in the Daiko taxi as a passenger while a second Daiko operator drives your vehicle behind the taxi to your final destination.

Okinawa Taxi and Daiko Phone
098-970- 8888

See also:
TRANSPORTATION IN OKINAWA
http://en.okinawastory.jp/access/transportation_in_okinawa/
TRAVEL TIME AROUND OKINAWA
http://en.okinawastory.jp/access/transportation_in_okinawa/rentacar/#licenses
OKINWA TOURIST INFO
http://www.visitokinawa.jp

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