I’m going to be completely honest when I say that Japan always seemed like more a “dream destination” to me than a place I would realistically visit with children, partly because of the time of the flight, and partly because of the cost to get there. But when I found out that my sister and her family would be stationed in Okinawa, suddenly things changed. I began to contemplate when would be the best time to visit. And if we would be going during the three years of their tour, that would mean taking the big girls, because they would never let us live it down if we left them at home for this trip. But then I was also pregnant, and it meant factoring in when would work best with a baby as well, so that’s how we ended up in Japan when we did. More on the practicalities later, but suffice to say that I always knew that we would end up visiting Okinawa as part of our trip, something that most visitors to Japan don’t get to say. Since this part of the trip was more family-focused and there were other confounding factors, there won’t be quite as many recommendations, but I still feel pretty good about all the information I’m about to put into your faces!
We stayed in some first class digs on this portion of the trip, but unfortunately it’s not the kind of place where most people will be able to stay. Because we got to take advantage of the fact that my sister and her family are living in Okinawa, the chances of your being able to stay with them are slim to none, unless you are my mom or one of my sister’s friends, in which case I can say with confidence that it’s a lovely experience. Otherwise…I’m not sure what to tell you, except I know that there are plenty of hotels and Airbnbs available?
This list is going to be a lot shorter than my other entries, because while we were visiting, there was definitely some illness spreading its way through the kiddos. Not only did my niece get sick, but Baby B also vomited in public a couple times, which meant that our outings were cut short, and we had some mornings spent at home doing lots of laundry. Also, most activities we chose to do were those that were of interest to children since we were now three-to-four adults and FIVE kiddos!
Futenma Shrine – After a morning spent mostly doing laundry we wanted to get out and do a couple things that were near each other, so after lunch (see second item below), we crossed the street and visited this shrine. It’s not a big one, but it has the distinction of having one of it’s prayer areas tucked away in a cave behind and below the main building of the shrine. It’s really interesting to see. It isn’t the most impressive shrine we saw, but if you happen to be in the area, it’s well worth popping over and putting your name on the list to be taken down to the cave. [Open 9:30am-6pm; 1-chōme-27-10 Futenma, Ginowan-shi, Okinawa 901-2202, Japan; FREE]
Nakagusuku-jo Castle – We got to entrance of this World Heritage Site…and then things fell apart. I was literally handing over money so we could wander around the grounds looking at the ruins of an old castle when little B decided to puke over my shoulder. To say I was mortified was an understatement. I pulled my money back, and the lady at the counter instead pulled out a watering can and cleaned up the baby vomit. Oof. I’m so disappointed we didn’t get to go in, but it looked like it would have been a fun place to wander around for an hour or two. [Open 8:30am-5pm daily; 503 Ogusuku, Kitanakagusuku, Nakagami-gun, Okinawa 901-2314, Japan; 400¥ for adults, 300¥ for ages 12-17, 200¥ for ages 5-11, free for ages 4 and under]
Shuri-jo Castle – The next day when everyone was feeling better, we made our way to one of the most famous tourist destinations on Okinawa. This castle was originally built sometime in the early 1400s (and has been rebuilt a number of times since, including after WWII), and was the seat of the Ryukyu kingdom which united the Okinawan islands. It’s a large historical site, and it has a great kids interactive activity where they need to find stamps at various points around the castle grounds. If you find them all, you can turn in your page for a sheet of stickers and another stationary treat. [Open 8am-7:30pm daily; 1 Chome-2 Shurikinjocho, Naha, Okinawa 903-0815, Japan; 820¥ for adults, 620¥ for ages 14-17, 310¥ for ages 7-13, free for ages 6 and under]
Daiso – Not a tourist destination, but a shop. This is going to sound super silly, but it’s essentially the Japanese equivalent of the dollar store. Everything in here sells for ¥108, which is about $1. But they’ve got all kinds of cool things that you associate with Japan that you couldn’t get anywhere in the US. Super cute stationary, a wide selection of Japanese candies and snacks. Household goods. It’s all just pretty great. If you’re trying to think of a place to get souvenirs or snacks to share with friends, try to find a Daiso. It is both cheap, and has the most amazing selection. I only wish we had more time (Baby girl was fading fast), because I could have easily spent hours in this shop. And guess what – they have locations in the US as well! [Open 10am-10pm; This location is Japan, 〒901-2305 Okinawa, Nakagami-gun, Kitanakagusuku, アワセ 土地区画整理事業区域内4街区 イオンモール沖縄ライカム Village B; locations across Japan, the US, and the world!]
Ocean Expo Park – This is a large open oceanside public space that houses a couple museums and the aquarium, but also has a lot that’s open to the public. There’s a dolphin show that that doesn’t require tickets to watch, there are sea turtles (that we didn’t get a chance to see), gardens and lovely vistas. A worthwhile stroll if you happen to be in the area for some other reason. [Open 8am – 6pm; 424番地 Ishikawa, Motobu, Kunigami-gun, Okinawa 905-0206, Japan; open park areas are FREE]
Okinawa Churami Aquarium – This was why we drove all the way up to the northwest part of Okinawa, and it was well worth it. This aquarium houses a lot of amazing sea creatures from the Pacific, and it was great to see. They have a very large tank (pictured above) where you can watch the whale sharks swimming around. As you can probably tell from that picture, it’s a very crowded place (lots of Chinese tourists, I think?), so keep an eye on your group, especially if there are kids to keep track of. [Open 8:30am – 7pm daily; 424 Ishikawa, Motobu, Kunigami-gun, Okinawa 905-0206, Japan; 1850¥ for adults, 1230¥ for ages 14-17, 610¥ for ages 7-13, free for ages 6 and under]
Nago Pineapple Park – We weren’t quite ready to head home yet, and so my sister suggested the pineapple park. When we asked her to describe it to see if we wanted to go, she had a hard time, and now I understand why. It’s part agrotourism (see pineapples growing, try our pineapple products!) and part Japan being it’s most Japan self. See the shuttle above pulling in. This video of their theme song, where you can also catch a glimpse of their mascots. We had to move through pretty quickly for the sake of the baby, but again, would have been worth spending a little extra time to really savor (but more like…2 hours instead of the 1 hour we gave it). [Open 9am – 5:30pm daily; 1195 Biimata, Nago, Okinawa 905-0005, Japan; 850¥ for ages 14 and up, 600¥ for ages 12-14, 450¥ for ages 5-11, free for ages 4 and under]
There are also a lot fewer restaurants listed here than other entries, because we ate in a lot. This is the major cost-saver for this part of the trip, and for any trip. If you don’t have to go out for meals, you save a lot of money. For this reason, we didn’t feel bad about paying for everyone on a couple of the more expensive nights…
WaGyu Café KAPUKA – This was dinner our first night, and was so pleasant. This cafe has lot of creative seating outdoors (think poufs, hammocks, or giant peacock chairs), but more traditional seating indoors. The food is fresh and vibrant, with lots of options that appeal to a range of ages. My sister says it’s particularly good for brunch [Open 9am – 10pm; Japan, 〒904-0115 Okinawa, Nakagami-gun, Chatan, Mihama, ５１−１ マカイリゾート]
King Tacos – When the US military stayed on Okinawa after the end of WWII, they began to influence the local culture in unexpected ways. Tacos themselves were apparently introduced during the 1950s in Okinawa, and in the early 1980s, King Tacos introduced the Okinawan people and the American personnel stationed there to taco rice – taco seasoned ground beef on a bed of rice, covered with cheese, lettuce and salsa. I feel like such an American for loving it, but gosh darn it, it was delicious. And seems to be the kind of thing we could easily recreate at home… [Open 10am – 11:30pm; This location 1-chōme-24-6 Futenma, Ginowan-shi, Okinawa 901-2202, Japan, locations across Okinawa]
Niwa Cafe – On our second evening in town, my sister had arranged for the two of us to take a cooking class together. One of the Marine wives who is half Japanese used to translate a recipe from a local cafe owner for military wives and their friends, allowing everyone to make something traditional, and take it home to feed their family later, and get a yummy meal after prepping the items. We made gyoza (which everyone would eat a couple days later), and I got the recipe…which is somewhere in my things. The cafe it was held at was adorable, and the chef and her husband who run the cafe together were delightful. If you’re in the area, I know they would have a tasty meal for you in a cozy, quiet spot. [Open 11am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday, 6:30pm-10pm Friday and Saturdays, closed Sundays and Mondays; 1-chōme-8-13 Ishikawaakebono, Uruma, Okinawa 904-1107, Japan]
Blue Seal Ice Cream – Apparently, Blue Seal ice cream was originally created solely for the US military stationed in Okinawa. Eventually it would be available to the Okinawan public, and would transfer to local ownership, but it’s a tasty treat nonetheless. There are all your regular flavors, but some local specialties as well, including Okinawan Salt cookie flavor (which I had – SO GOOD!), and beni-mo (the purple sweet potato which grows on the island). Worth a visit if you see one, and if you happen to visit on the 20th of the month, that’s Big Dip Day – ice cream is 2 scoops for the price of one! [Open 10am – late (12am or later); This location 1-chōme-5-8 Mihama, Chatan, Nakagami-gun, Okinawa 904-0115, Japan; locations across Japan]
Yakiniku Goen – Somehow I had not heard about Yakiniku before, but it is Japanese barbecue, which is cooked on the table at an open grate. This chain (there are many) lets you order different levels of food, and you can then essentially get as much as you like within the choices of your level, and it’s all one price. We were able to get all kinds of tasty meats, and a variety of different things that the Baby would eat as well (who cares that waffles are meant as dessert food here – baby eats waffles!). Everyone had so much fun cooking their own food that now the Boy and I are trying to figure out a time when it would be reasonable to visit the yakiniku restaurant that recently opened in Arlington. [Open 11am – 11pm; This location 545-3 Kamiseido, Chatan, Nakagami-gun, Okinawa 904-0101, Japan; locations across Okinawa]
Mother Coffee – This should have been a more relaxing breakfast, but I was stressed, and so anyone who was with us for this breakfast will tell you that our visit to Mother Coffee was tense. BUT, the food was delicious – they’re known for their dutch baby pancakes. And this is where we discovered that Baby B enjoys a hot corn soup in the morning given the opportunity, because she ate nearly all of mine. A super chill little place, but be warned that there’s not much parking next to the restaurant itself, and you may need to park on the VERY steep hill near the sign. [Open 8am – 5pm, closed Thursdays; 字瑞慶覧-588 Zukeran, Kitanakagusuku, Nakagami-gun, Okinawa 901-2317, Japan]
Anettai Chaya (Hammock Garden) – After visiting the aquarium, we were hungry for lunch, but wanted to avoid the crowds of foreign tourists (HA!), so made our way up to a cafe that my sister had heard about from a friend. It turned out to be super relaxing and beautiful. We sat on a balcony area overlooking that lovely view, eating wonderfully fresh and tasty food, and generally just breathing deeply and feeling relaxed. And yes – there are hammocks. And lots of areas where you could sit out in the garden. This was a perfect final meal out and was just such a literal breath of fresh air. [Open 11am – 6:30 pm, closed Thursdays; Japan, 〒905-0215 Okinawa, Kunigami-gun, Motobu, Nobaru, 国頭郡本部町野原 60番地]
I’m not sure if I conveyed it properly, but Okinawa was SO different from our experience in Kyoto. Not only is it a warmer climate, but it’s a much more relaxing experience in general. We joked that Okinawa is like the Florida of Japan – warmer, relaxed, and without any public transportation. It’s a place that I think would be surprising to most American visitors because we have no idea what to expect. I’ll let you watch this short clip from the Anthony Bourdain Okinawa episode, because he sums things up pretty darn well.
In two weeks – Tokyo!