Okinawa, Japan is world-famous for its beautiful scenery, accessible coral reefs and unique cuisine. In other words, it’s perfect for a family vacation!
Since moving to Japan, we have wanted to take Royce and Jeannie to Okinawa. This year seemed like a great time! To make it more perfect, Royce was recently inspired to snorkel and asked for a snorkel for his birthday. His birthday fell on a long weekend and we made a plan to visit Okinawa and enjoy much of what it has to offer.
Check out our post on how we taught our 3-year-old to snorkel!
Our original plan consisted of staying Friday night in Fukuoka and flying out Saturday morning (flights were full from Iwakuni), then flying back Tuesday. Typhoon Kong-Rey (King Kong! The best typhoon name ever!) finished hitting Okinawa on Friday, and we were hoping to fly out of Fukuoka before Kong-Rey hit the city.
After a long night of sleeping in our car (thanks to our own error of booking a hotel for the wrong night) our flight made it out and we arrived early Saturday morning at Naha airport.
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There was a public bus that took us to our hotel – it took about 2 hours. We weren’t planning to rent a car since we were staying at the Okinawa Marriott Resort and Spa. We were planning on taking another bus to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. Between the pools and walking down to the beach we figured we wouldn’t need to go anywhere else.
We arrived early and couldn’t go right to our room, but we ate an early lunch in the lobby restaurant. The food was good; the atmosphere was fun and relaxing. It felt good to be on vacation.
Our luggage was set aside to be sent up to our room, and we went to the pool. Royce was so excited because he was finally able to start practicing with his snorkeling mask! The Marriott has an indoor pool and an outdoor pool with two slides. The water was significantly warmer inside so that’s where we spent most of our time.
After getting settled upstairs (our first room smelled like smoke and we were quickly taken to a new, more spacious room) we got ready for dinner.
The All Star Buffet at the Marriott is French-Italian and delicious – but not cheap, at ¥4200 per adult. However, the quality and diversity made us feel like we should have paid more! Dozens of hors d’oeuvres, rich cheeses, pastas, meats, some mandatory Japanese dishes to keep things familiar, numerous fresh breads, a large selection of greens/fruits/dressings/etc at the salad bar and enough fine desserts to satisfy any sweet tooth awaited us. Bonus- kids under 6 eat for free!
If you are craving Greek food while in Okinawa, be sure to book a reservation at The Little Greek Kitchen – it’s one of our favorite restaurants in Okinawa.
We ate our fill and went to bed early. We were all pretty tired and excited for a good night’s sleep!
Breakfast was also a buffet, included in our room reservation. I like finding these deals because it makes morning traveling much more relaxing. Instead of worrying about what the kids are going to eat first thing in the morning, it’s already taken care of.
We saw a sign for a rental car option through the hotel concierge and decided to look into it. It ended up making sense for our aquarium and snorkeling plans. I would always rather have my own car so we can be on our own schedule, not worrying about bus times and making it to the stop and taking the extra time to stop at all the stops along the way. So we rented the car. It proved to be well worth it!
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
The majority of Day 2 we planned to be at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. It was about an hour drive by car from our hotel. We were planning on making a day of it so we left right after breakfast.
Since we rented the car, we were able to go to Lawson and purchase our tickets at a discounted rate. We paid ¥3400 total instead of ¥3700. Children under 6 are free! Hours for the aquarium are from 8:30-18:30 (October – February) or 8:30-20:00 (March – September).
When we descended the first aquarium escalator, an employee pointed to a sign he was holding, letting us know there was a dolphin show starting soon. We headed over to that right away to get good seats. The kids and Matt went down to the glass to get an up-close look and watch the dolphins swim and jump. When the show started the kids were laughing and grinning from ear to ear as the dolphins jumped and spun and did all their tricks. Royce has now proclaimed he wants to be a “dolphin saver” when he grows up (Matt wanted to be a poacher-fighting veterinarian until he was 14)!
The dolphin show was free to watch. We didn’t have to show our tickets at all yet. You can also see the turtle and manatee exhibit for free. We didn’t show our ticket until we actually went inside the aquarium.
Pro tip: Find out when you first get there what time dolphin shows are, and show up 20-30 minutes early for good seats!
The first exhibit to see as you walk in has starfish and sea cucumbers that you are allowed to reach in and feel. This was pretty crowded and I thought about bypassing it but I’m glad we didn’t. The kids really liked being hands-on.
We continued to walk through, there were several small tanks with special fish that we didn’t take a lot of time to look at. The kids really liked seeing animals that they recognized. Royce learned what a school of fish is and kept pointing them out every time he saw one.
The main attraction is a giant, nearly 2,000,000 gallon tank filled with large fish, sharks, manta rays/sting rays and two whale sharks! The glass is two feet thick! It was a mind-bogglingly large tank. There is a restaurant where you can eat right next to the glass when you get to the bottom. Worth making a reservation for as it seems to fill up fast!
There is a shark area around the next corner that has fierce-looking larger sharks – tiger sharks, bull sharks and others – in it. Some of the sharks look pretty beat up with fins hanging on by a thread or bite marks on their sides. Definitely not the tank you want to accidentally fall into!
When we got to the large tank we saw that we had just missed the opportunity to go to the top of the tank to watch the whale sharks from above. They only do it at certain times and we had just missed it. We didn’t want to wait another 6 hours for the next opportunity. If we were to do it again, we would probably send someone through the aquarium quickly to make reservations at the restaurant and see what time they are letting people to the top so we don’t miss out!
There is much more than the aquarium, and you could easily explore all day. They have a park where the kids played for a bit. There is a trolley (¥200 for a day pass) that will take you to 13 different stops. There is a Tropical Dream Center arboretum with 2,000 orchids, the Tropical and Subtropical Arboretum and a Oceanic Cultural Museum to name a few!
Pro tip: There are certain hours where you are able to watch the whale sharks from the top of the tank. Find out when it is open because we just missed it!
Anettai Chaya and Snorkeling
It was about 1300 and the kids were pretty hungry. We tried to go to “Pizza in the Sky” but there was an hour wait. We went down the road to another restaurant that looked good and it turned out to be great! Anettai Chaya had a setting that was magical. It was set on a hill overlooking the ocean.
They had several tables set up outside in their own cabana-like areas. We put the kids in the hammock to keep them from touching everything but they enjoyed it! The food tasted great and was beautifully arranged!
Since we rented the car we wanted to make sure to take advantage of our time with it, and we did! We went to Gorilla Chop to snorkel and spent the rest of the afternoon at the beach.
This was Royce’s first time using his mask in the ocean. We didn’t have him try out the snorkel yet, it was so fun watching him learn. I’m excited for Jeannie to learn too, I can see this being something we do together as a family often!
We met some friends for dinner at the Chinese restaurant in our hotel and thoroughly enjoyed all we could eat – mango-mayonnaise shrimp, melt-in-your-mouth pork belly cubes, tender beef tongue, dim sum, boiled jellyfish (cool, firm and refreshing), wagyu fried rice, mapo tofu, Chinese medicinal soup, almond jelly ice cream, sesame balls, wagyu beef, bitter melon with shrimp – just to name some of the dishes we tried! Everything – except the shrimp with the bitter melon – was a big hit with the whole table.
The whole reason we were here was for this day: Royce’s birthday! He was so excited to get a snorkel and we wanted to make this a really special day for him.
The second typhoon in a week went through Okinawa the day before we arrived. It was lucky that we were able to have such beautiful weather. The water may have been a little cloudier than what is normal for Okinawa, but it was way clearer than the California water we are used to. Plus, it was still the beautiful aquamarine that you imagine when you think of a perfect tropical island!
Cape Maeda/Maeda Flats is a popular place to snorkel so we headed here for the big day. Popular is an understatement! There were so many people here, and for good reason. It was a great place for Royce to get in the water.
We have been building up to this for awhile, but we were super proud when Royce simply put the snorkel in his mouth and went for it – and did great! It helped that he was using a nice snorkel that didn’t get water in his mouth. We all love our Cressi snorkels.
It was magical being able to snorkel together. We saw tons of tropical fish, enjoyed the water, coral and sun, and when Royce got cold after 30 minutes, we scoured the beach for shells.
See our post about how we taught our 3-year-old to snorkel!
Nap time was especially important for Jeannie today because we were going to be staying up late, so while Jeannie took a nap in the hotel room, Royce and I went down to the pool for some more swimming.
This was a day all about Royce so we went back to the beach near our hotel so he could find more shells, or “treasures,” as he calls them. It was a wonderful afternoon playing in the sand, finding shells and ocean glass, catching hermit crabs and trying to keep the kids dry, followed by a beautiful sunset!
The buffet at the hotel was delicious again. A cheerful waitress brought Royce a special plate full of desserts with a sign made of chocolate that said “Happy Birthday.” She even sang to him. It was very sweet and made him feel very special.
We love living in Iwakuni but are so glad that Okinawa is just a short flight away. The beaches were so nice, the weather was perfect, and the memories will last a lifetime. It was a great way to spend a long weekend as a family!
Check out this post about things to do in Bangkok, Thailand with kids.
Plan your trip:
-We thought it wouldn’t be necessary to rent a car, but we found it extremely useful. Definitely consider it, but know that there is a bus that goes to most of the hotels.
-Having a direct flight is nice, so plan ahead to get the best flight possible!
-Bring snorkeling gear
-Meals at hotels simplify planning and logistics
Have you been to Okinawa? Tell us your favorite beach to go snorkeling!