There will be more details later, but let me just summariza out Okinawa trip quickly.
Is Okinawa worth visiting?
Definitely yes. Even though it has been a part of Japan for 150 years, and defacto was a part of Japan for 300 years before that, the archipelago is unique in its culture, especially the music and the cuisine. And then, there is the nature and climate.
But make no mistake: You are in Japan. With slightly different food, but Okinawa is Japan. Japanese culture is everywhere, and people drive on the left side of the road.
What is the weather like?
Okinawa is on the same latitude as Hawaii, but it does not have trade winds providing natural air conditioning. It can become really hot, even in spring. Not for nothing can you grow tropical vegetables like mango, guava, pineapple and passionfruit anywhere. Do not be surprised to find a papaya tree in the back yard.
But it can also be really cold (relatively speaking) in winter. Not that you would get snow, but Okinawa becomes part of the same air mass as northeast China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan. That means colder air seeping in from Siberia via China in winter, and typhoons in late summer and fall. And tropical heat in between. Which makes for great days on the beach, if you manage to miss out on the rain. Just like Hawaii, it rains quite often. Every few days. And these can be tropical rains, not the drizzle you might get in places like New York, Boston, London or Berlin. Although there can be days of endless gray drizzle too. And the weather can change fast in Okinawa. This is an island in the middle of the ocean, after all. You need to plan for the shifting weather too.
Where did we stay?
We stayed on Sesoko Island, a small island attached to the nearest town of Motobu by an impressive bridge. As a family of six, we needed something bigger than a hotel room, and Villa Kohola delivered. You have to be prepared to cook for yourself, but there is a barbecue at the back of the property. And you get both sea view and walking distance to a very nice (public) beach.
The barbecue area (and meat that is a lot cheaper than in mainland Japan, although you should try grilling fish, too) is one of the reasons you may enjoy cooking for yourself. The breakfast is another. If your kids are like mine, they would be plowing through the breakfast buffet, picking up everything not bolted to the table and eating possibly some yoghurt and a sausage. It is easier and more convenient to make your own breakfast, even if you have to wash up afterwards.
Where did we shop?
We made most of our shopping in the Motobu Aeon The Big Express, mostly because it was the supermarket closest to the bridge to Sesoko Island. You should buy your edible and drinkable souvenirs there. It is much cheaper than the gift shop at the airport.
Even if you can not read the labels, you will recognize the produce, the fish, and the meat. And bread. Yoghurt packs often say yoghurt in the alphabet, even if most of the text is in Japanese. And cereal is recognizably cereal after some checking (you are not supposed to squeeze the merchandise though), so shopping both for breakfast and barbecue dinner is easy. If you do not want to use the rice cooker that comes with the kitchen, buy a ready-cooked pack of rice which you heat in the microwave. Or even better, the onigiri - rice balls wrapped in nori seaweed with a tasty filling - that are the ubiquitous Japanese snack. Or lunch.
Okinawa is also the Japanese home of an innovation you may have encountered in Hawaii, in case you have ever been there: the spam musubi. Okinawans love the grilled slab of spam on top of a rice ball and wrapped with a strip of nori seaweed every way as much as Hawaiians.
You will find prices in Okinawan supermarkets really reasonable. For many items, especially those which are produced in Okinawa, the prices are lower than those of mainland Japan. It helps that Okinawa is a little more than a day from the nearest main island by ship, instead of isolated in the middle of the ocean, like Hawaii.
How did we get there?
We flew Vanilla Air from Tokyo to Naha, the capital of Okinawa. It takes only about two hours. Actually, we then continued on ANA to Ishigakijima, and came back three days later. There are direct flights to Ishigaki, but not with Vanilla Air, and there were reasons we could not use them that I will explain later (although one of them was that Peach Air only allows you to book for five people at once, which is unpractical if you are a family of six).
Vanilla Air is not bad for a low-cost carrier, but you have to plan ahead and think about what you pay for. And you will be coming and going through the LCC terminals at both Narita and Naha airports. Which has some disadvantages, in particular at Naha airport. There is no restaurant in the checkin area (only a cafe serving specialty coffee, beer and ice cream). And the restaurants in the main waiting hall leave a lot to desire. You are better off buying some onigiri in a convenience store on the way if you want to feed your children, which is likely to happen if you are flying near lunchtime. Because there is no food aboard, unless you pay exorbitant inflight prices. And do not forget to buy plenty of water for your kids in the gift shop after security control. The airplane air dries you out and even more so if you are a child.
What should you eat?
Okinawan cooking is famous for a few dishes: Goya Champuru, a mixture of bitter gourd or winter melon (it seems to have several English names), tofu, fried egg, and spam. It may not sound appetizing but it is. And then there is okinawa soba, which is not buckwheat noodles like in the rest of Japan, but more similar to ramen, although a lot thicker and chewier (but not as much as udon). It is typically served in a broth with a couple of thick slices of soy-braised pork belly. Pork is another Okinawa speciality, and it is truly succulent.
But then there are the fishes. It is a rare supermarket where you can not find fresh fish, and Okinawa is no exception. But the fish here are not the same as those further north, since the seas surrounding Okinawa are much warmer than those where other Japanese fishermen cast their nets.
And the produce. Japanese people have almost the same attitude to vegetables as fish - they will not tolerate anything that is not as fresh as it can be. Unless it is seriously marked down.
Fruit in Okinawa is even better than the vegetables, but it is not available in restaurants (except for specialty cafes). Buy it in the supermarket and give to your kids as a snack or at breakfast.
How did we get around?
I rented a Toyota Voxy but we would have been much happier if we had stayed with the Nissan Serena we had before. Still, it worked and there were no problems fitting three grownups and three child seats, and our luggage. Child seats is a requirement for kids under six in Japan, and unless they are as tall as my biggest daughter (who can get by in a booster seat and actually does not fit in a normal child seat any more) they should not use booster seats.
When you drive in Okinawa, you have to be prepared to spend quite a bit on gasoline, due to the distance to the airport. We had to fill up twice. And differently from the rest of Japan, there are no trains here. Only the monorail that provides public transport in Naha city. There are buses, both long distance and local, but for a big family who wants to see things on their own, that is not an option.
What is there to do for toddlers?
Apart from jumping on the sofas, there were good outdoor play opportunities on the grounds in Villa Kohola, but no swings or anything. You have to remember Okinawa is subtropical, though, and that means sun block during the day and insect repellent as soon as the sun sets, or it gets even the slightest bit cloudy.
When your toddlers get tired of the beach (as if that might happen), you can drive for 20 minutes to get to the Ocean Expo Park. That is also highly recommended for rainy days. The Churumi Aquarium is both impressive and educational, and if that does not keep your kids entertained for the entire day, add the Tropical Dream Center (also rain-free).
One issue with Sesoko Island is that there is no place except the beach to go. When our kids were still in strollers, we (or at least me) enjoyed long walks. That is not an option in the rural surroundings of Sesoko Island. There are no sidewalks except on the road to the beach (where toddlers can walk quite safely), but the roads throughout the island are typical Japanese country roads, well paved but with half-meter deep ditches on either side. And people drive fast, completely without regard for potential pedestrians. It means the options for walking a stroller, as well as running for marathon training or similar, are quite limited.
Do we recommend an Okinawa vacation?
Absolutely! Okinawa has a lot to offer beyond its fantastic beaches, and while the sights may not be next door, they are really amazing - once you get away from the heavy urbanization of the Naha area and southern Okinawa.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four and a half - 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.