Okinawa is an amazing destination (our kids still talk about the beach near the villa we rented on Sesoko Island), and the northern, rural part is a lot more fun than the urbanized and industrialzed south. Even if there are quite a few amazing beaches in southern Okinawa too.
But if you are going to Okinawa (or coming back) there are several things which your kids will ask to do, and several that they will want to do if they knew about them. Apart from going to the beach, that is. Not that you could not do that every day, for most of the day. Okinawa is part of Japan, so many of the questions people have about going there are the same. But nevertheless, Okinawa is a bit different.
Despite the balmy weather (pretty much like Hawaii, except when there is a typhoon), there will be rainy day. Okinawa does not have the same seasons as the rest of Japan. There are plenty of things you can do then, but I will come back to those.
But while weather is nice, there are plenty of things you can do apart from going to the beach. Actually, your kids are likely to ask you to spend time on the beach all the time. But just in case they happen to ask for something else, here are a few things they may want to do.
1. Churumi Aquarium
It is somewhat surprising to find a world class aquarium and aquatic museum in northern Okinawa, but this would be the pride of any big city, if it was not located in the northern Okinawan countryside. It is huge, with several rooms and departments showing off the Okinawan sea life. Which is exciting in and off itself, since the islands are isolated enough to create some interesting marine plant and wildlife.
But the thing that steals the attention is the huge tank in the center of the exhibition. It is one of the biggest saltwater tanks in Asia and it is full of the marine life of Okinawa (although your kids will probably be more fascinated by the divers cleaning it). There is a small café by the main tank but you have to be very early to get a table, or wait for several hours (which is not worth it).
While the aquarium is great if it rains, the huge park surrounding it offers a completely different experience for your kids - even if most of the attractions, like the dolphin show and the turtle breeding tanks, are connected to it. The dolphin show is amazing but try to get seats at least 30 minutes before the show starts. In particular if you want good seats.
2. Ocean Expo Park
The Ocean Expo park has several other parts than those which are related to the aquarium, however. There are several traditional Okinawan buildings, but without a guide explaining them it is a bit hard to relate to what you see - entire families, and their animals, used to live in what is smaller than a modern campervan. The Okinawan government had a rule that nobody was allowed to have houses bigger than a certain measure, and it was strictly enforced until the Japanese Meji government formalized their annexation of the islands, ending three hundred years of Satsuma clan rule.
Fun though that is the really interesting thing are two other museums: The Oceanic Culture Museum and planetarium, and the Tropical Dream Center.
The Oceanic Culture Museum in the Motobu Ocean Expo Park is heavily focused on Polynesia and the travels of the Polynesians. As interesting as those are the Polynesians probably never made it to Okinawa, although their predecessors may have. But the museum is fascinating and well executed, with some artifacts behind glass but most of the focus on interactivity and discovery.
The park is full of flowers and plants which are lavishly distributed throughout the park, often bound up in shapes like monkeys, frogs, and footballs. Your kids will love posing in front of them. But the third attraction is not the flowers and plants themselves, it is a greenhouse. Or rather, three greenhouses. You may wonder why anyone would want that in subtropical Okinawa, which surely is hot enough during the season. But not humid enough to grow the more than 2000 orchids you can find here. Another reason to take the little shuttlebus that runs throughout the park is the restaurant at the Tropical Dream Center, as the greenhouses and associated buildings (like a viewing tower) are called. It is much better than the buffet restaurant at the acquarium, not that it is especially bad. But it is a buffet. Your kids will love the sausages and fried chicken, but do make an attempt at making them try at least the “nikujaga” the stew with potatoes and meat.
3. Nakajin Castle Ruins
Okinawa was once divided in several warring states, but they were gradually unified under the king in Naha, the capital of the province today. Then, the Japanese invided and conquered the islands.
Some of the most pitched battles took place near the main castle of the northern kingdom (since the Japanese came from the north, and had already conquered the islands bridging Okinawa and Japan).
Today, the castle is completely destroyed, only the ruins remain. Although they are impressive enough, it is hard to imagine how impressive it must have been when there was a Japanese-style fortress tower, although probably colored red, rising at the center. There is a visitors center which sells drinks and food. The restaurants are extremely crowded but the food is surprisingly reasonable for tourist restaurants. Do not put any spices in the food, Okinawan cooking uses much more spices than mainland Japanese, and not wasabi but the regular chili peppers. The aspic with chilli peppers make a great addition to the noodle dishes - for grownups.
Another interesting feature, which may only be available seasonally, is the kiosk just before the ticket gate. Although to call it a gate may be stretching it. Anyway, keep the fingers of your kids away from the huge shallow pan with a brownish liquid in it. It id going to be hot. But buy a bottle of freshly pressed sugar cane juice (even better if they will press it in front of your kds). And then explain to them that this is how you make sugar, and thanks to all the hard work that goes into it and that the sugar cane only grows in tropical climates, sugar used to be fantastically expensive (not quite worth its weight in gold but sometimes in silver). It was the sugar production that made the Japanese conquer Okinawa, and that kept the Hawaiian kingdom going until the Americans took the islands in a coup.
Let your kids run free among the castle ruins, but make sure that they do not slip or fall. The stones in the paths can be loose here and there. And watch out especially that they do not fall down one of the magical wellsprings that dot the ruins. The Okinawans still worship them.
4. Water Buffalo Ride
Okinawa is in the tropics, and the climate is not just mediterrenean like that of Tokyo and most of mainland Japan, it is actually tropical all year round. This means water buffalo thrive, and just like in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand they are the favorite beast of burden. They are much stronger than cows, and they have much less problems wading in the mud of the rice fields.
In most of the Okinawa archipelago, this means they were once the only dray animals people had access to (except themselves). Horses were rare and expensive. But water buffalo could pull heavy loads, so they were hitched to carts.
As the roads developed and became nicer, some of those carts were used to transport not just goods, but people. Today, the water buffalo rides are probably more associated with the Yaeyama islands to the south, where you can ride the water buffalo cart between Irimote and Yubu island (the only way to get there). But there is also a water buffalo cart ride in northern Okinawa, in the village of Bise just to the north of the Ocean Expo park. The streets of the village are lined with fukugi trees, which makes them feel cool even when the temperature is hot. And the villagers offer rides in their water buffalo carts along the streets.
5. Neo Park
This park is a zoo where you can come close to the animals who roam free throughout the park. But there is also a petting zoo which kids will love, and the only railroad in Okinawa, a remainder of the railroad which once went from Nago to Naha. Today, the original locomotive is used to pull visitors around the park. Most of the animals are birds, and you can feed them (although not from the train). Be careful of your fingers, they may look appetizing.
No Rainforest Without Rain
The main Okinawa island is a very long island - it takes several hours to go from the northern to the southern tip, even if you use the freeway. It is narrow but not so narrow that there is not a lot of nature in the middle. You have rainforests and montaneous vistas, although there are no real mountains.
But there are several more islands than the main Okinawa island. Not all of them are archipelagos in their own right, like the Yaeyama islands to the south. The main island includes Ishigaki, the amazingly beautiful island that feels like a Japanese Hawaii. All of the Okinawan islands are on the same latitude as Hawaii, but as they are closer to the South China Sea, they are susceptible to typhoons. But they blow over quickly. On the other hand, it rains quite a bit in Okinawa. This is a tropical island, after all, and you can not have a rainforest without rain, after all.
In summary, northern Okinawa is a great place to go for a vacation with your kids. We always think of going back to the villa on Sesoko island, with its amazing beaches and the fantastic Villa Kohola. But there are several more amazing beaches, including the breathtaking Emerald Beach next to the Churumi Aquarium in Ocean Expo Park.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Tokyo to Sendai, previously of Bangkong and Honolulu. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning seven - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.