Children in Singapore tend to be an urban bunch. It can be hard to convince them of the charms of an outdoorsy holiday overseas when all they often hanker for is the cool comfort of air-conditioned malls or the bright lights of movie theme parks.
But parents should not be deterred from planning a family trip to Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. It is famous for its sunshine, beaches and scenic sights, but there are other attractions that will appeal to kids of all ages.
Here are 10 recommendations for a family holiday in Okinawa.
1. Nago Pineapple Park
Do you recall SpongeBob SquarePants’ pineapple house in the Nickelodeon cartoon? While an incongruous sight on the cartoon — sitting as deep as it does in the Pacific Ocean, the tropical fruit is perfectly and conspicuously at home in Okinawa’s Nago Pineapple Park, a plantation that doubles up as a themed tourist attraction.
Ride a pineapple cart around the 600 sq m park, take photos with pineapple mascots, learn about more than 100 types of pineapples, sample delectable pineapple confectionery and pineapple wine (only for the adults, of course), and find out how a whole pineapple can be eaten or used, without any part of it being wasted.
Where: 1195, Biimata, Nago City
Opening hours: Daily, 9am to 6pm
Admission fee: 600 yen
2. Bios No Oka
This is a nature-themed park, but it is probably a more attractive prospect to city kids because it is less like the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and more like a daylong farmstay.
Resembling a subtropical forest, the park is where you can interact with goats and pigs on a wide open field, ride a train (or rather, a tram dressed up to resemble a train) to learn about Okinawan fruits and vegetables, and take a jungle cruise to experience Okinawan flora and fauna in the wild.
Be sure to set aside at least an hour for your young ones to play at the huge jungle playground made almost entirely of wood — it looks like a playground Robinson Crusoe would have built if he had had children with him while marooned on a deserted island.
You can also take a buffalo cart ride to get around the park. It may travel at a more leisurely pace as compared with the tram, but will afford you the time to snap perfect selfies and wefies with the buffalo while you are riding behind with your family.
Another fun place to take a buffalo cart ride is in Yaeyama Islands, from Iriomote Island to Yubu Island. There, the buffalo actually takes you across shallow waters.
3. Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
Located within the Ocean Expo Park, this is one of the largest marine-themed attractions in the world, and far from being just another aquarium.
One of the sharks found here is an 8.7m-long whale shark, said to be the biggest of its kind in captivity. It is housed in the gigantic Kuroshio Sea tank that measures 35m wide, 27m long and 10m deep. Kids will be wowed, because size matters.
If you need more numbers to impress the kids with, the aquarium is home to some 16,000 fish from 70 different species, and 70 species of corals in 800 colonies.
Even better, it allows your children the chance to see various marine creatures up close. They can hold live starfish and sea cucumbers under the guidance of staff in the Marine Creatures of Inoh section.
Where: 424, Ishikawa, Motobu-cho
Opening hours: Daily, 8.30am to 6.30pm (Oct to Feb), 8.30am to 8pm (March to Sept); closed on the first Wednesday and Thursday of December
Admission fee: 1,850 yen (adult), 1,230 yen (children aged 16 to 18), 610 yen (children aged six to 15), free for children under six years old
4. Discover Okinawan culture
A colourful theme park showcasing traditional Okinawan culture, Ryukyu-Mura, or Ryukyu Village, is the perfect kind of attraction children will love to write about after their school holidays.
Children and adults can dress up as nobles from the Ryukyu era from the 15th to the 19th century, witness buffaloes squeezing sugarcane, gawk at an hour-long parade of traditional entertainment, or take part in a traditional dance.
Where: 1130, Yamada, Onna-son Village
Opening hours: Daily, 8.30am to 5.30pm (Oct to June), 9am to 6pm (July to Sept)
Admission fee: 1,200 yen
5. Visit A&W
Never mind that it is an American fast food restaurant — the Japanese have an inimitable way of putting their own touch on something foreign — enough for this to be considered an attraction of sorts.
Indeed, many travel guides say A&W outlets are special in Okinawa. Since opening its first outlet in 1963, the chain now has 27 branches in the prefecture, each of them offering a slice of quaint Americana in its décor.
The original merchandise sold is also a unique and highly collectible combination of Japan cuteness and American attitude.
6. Shop for crafts and beautiful knick-knacks
It may be important to teach your children about the value of thrift, but taking them on an eye-opening journey to retail shops around Okinawa is a must.
Think of it as a way for them to explore the fabulous world of Japanese design.
There is surely something to admire (and buy) in every shop, be it the pretty handmade matryoshka dolls in Feliz (4-20-11, Miyagi, Urasoe City), elegant bingata shawls in Katachiki (2-4, Gibo-cho, Shuri, Naha City), or whimsical animal figurines in Toy-Road Works (3-6-2, Makishi, Naha City).
7. Try colourful desserts
In Okinawa, your children are likely to want to Instagram almost every dessert they come across.
They will be spoilt for choice too. The original red yam tarts at Okashi Goten Kokusai Dori Matsuo Branch (1-2-5, Matsuo, Naha City) are like tiny works of sculpture, while the brown sugar tarts at Ohacorte Matsuo Store (1-9-47, Matsuo, Naha City) are as exquisite to look at as to eat.
At Blue Seal (1-3-63, Makishi, Naha City), the soft serve with regular ice cream combination is intriguing to look at and tasty too.
8. Canoeing in Yanbaru
It is hard to avoid the great outdoors if you want to truly experience the best that Okinawa has to offer.
But even the most urban child will enjoy being out in the open if the rewards are great enough — which they are in Okinawa.
Go canoeing in the Gesashi River mangrove forest with your children. The waters here are calm and relatively safe. Yet, your children will probably find the canoeing experience more thrilling here, because they are in a real subtropical wilderness.
For a paddling experience in the ocean, go kayaking in the waters of the Kerama islands, where you and your family could also go snorkelling to look for sea turtles.
If you intend to be in Okinawa between December and April, do not miss the whale-watching tour. When humpback whales migrate to the Kerama islands to breed during that time, they are spectacular to watch.
10. Coral painting in Naha
Before you think that you can bring home a painted coral, let us explain. Coral-painting is a fun art experience where children use corals to paint on paper or various items such as a T-shirt or a tote bag.
The intricate textures of different corals make for mesmerising patterns. Try your hand at Shuri Ryusen (1-54, Shuriyamagawacho, Naha), which is open daily from 9am to 6pm.