Exploring the Distinctly Un-Japanese World of Okinawa
The Southwest Islands of Japan are known as Okinawa Prefecture. This chain of semitropical islands surrounded by coral reefs was a separate country for most of history and it has a decidedly un-Japanese feel—more Hawaii than Tokyo. Okinawa is also the name of the bustling main island.
With beaches and blue water nearby, Okinawa and its day-trip islands offer indoor and outdoor adventures that will please adults and kids alike. The yearly average temperatures are above 68 degrees F, but visit in summer if you can. If you go between November and April, temperatures can drop to 59 degrees, and the water is too cool for swimming.
Southeast Botanical Gardens
If your kids are ready to make some new plant friends, the Southeast Botanical Gardens (2146 Chibana, Okinawa, Okinawa Prefecture) is the place to head. With over 30,000 trees and shrubs, including some 1,300 different species, everyone will find something that pleases them. Kids will enjoy seeing the exotic plants in lush gardens, and the center offers workshops and crafts to keep them happy. A great place for a stroll, picnic or lunch without spending a lot of money.
Okinawa Zoo (5-7-1 Goya, Okinawa, Okinawa Prefecture) is the southernmost zoo in Japan. Relatively small and inexpensive, the zoo still offers fun and adventure for smaller children with its exhibits, gardens and animals. You'll also find rides, yummy snacks and ponds of fish to feed. The entryway walls are brightly painted with a mural of colorful animals, then you head down to see brightly colored birds like orange kingfishers, and fruit bats, monkeys, giraffes, elephants, hippos kangaroos and an anteater. The younger children will definitely want to visit the petting zoo, open from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Islets Gahi-jima and Agenashiku-jima
When your family arrives on Okinawa island, you are only a short ferry ride away from a pair of uninhabited islands that look like the one Robinson Caruso landed on. Reach these tiny islet gems, named Gahi-jima and Agenashiku-jima, by taking the fast ferry (50 minutes) or the less expensive slow ferry (2 hours) from the capital city of Naha. Bring a picnic lunch since you'll find no restaurants or food vendors on the islands. And don't forget bathing suits and sunscreen.
Another gorgeous tropical island within day-tripping distance from Okinawa island is Kume-jima. If your children love riding the ferries, take the 4-hour float; if not, splurge on a quick flight west to the island. Kume-jima is well worth a visit for top-notch snorkeling possibilities in the stunning coral reefs around the island. You can snorkel through caves and view fascinating rock formations. Don't miss offshore Hatenohama beach, a small pristine sandbar. And be sure to take the causeway from Lume-hima's east coast to Ojima, a sister island with intriguing rock formations, known as Tatami Ishi. They look just like woven straw mats.
Something about the story of Yurigahama is enchanting, and your kids will insist you visit—Yurigahama has grains of sand shaped like stars. It's a small beach off the coast of another tiny island called Yoron-to. Timing is critical for this visit because ephemeral Yurigahama, more like a sandbar than an island, appears only at low tide. Fly from Naha to Yoron, then take a ferry to the mysterious, magical world of Yurigahama. Although you'll have to pay for transport, the beach and its magic are free.
From Alaska to California, from France's Basque Country to Mexico's Pacific Coast, Teo Spengler has dug the soil, planted seeds and helped trees, flowers and veggies thrive. World traveler, professional writer and consummate gardener, Spengler earned a BA from U.C. Santa Cruz, a law degree from Berkeley's Boalt Hall, and an MA and MFA from San Francisco State. She currently divides her life between San Francisco and southwestern France.