Okinawa, the perfect location for blue sea and white sandy beaches, is also a hugely popular holiday destination for families. There are plenty of ways to experience the great outdoors in Okinawa, from kayaking through the mangrove jungle to snorkelling on beaches visited by sea turtles. For lunch, enjoy a picnic at Alaha Beach, with its distinctively American ambience. In the afternoon, you can take a walk in a cart pulled by water buffalo or board a glass-bottomed boat and take a peek into the crystal-clear sea. Other options include the thrilling experience of gliding on the sea with a zip wire, and a zoo where you can enjoy up-close interaction with animals from all over the world. In wintertime there's whale watching on Zamami Island, and in summer you can even camp on an uninhabited island! Here we introduce some of the highlights that families can enjoy in the endlessly fascinating islands of Okinawa.

    1

    Explore Yambaru's mangroves with a kayak

    In the northern part of the main island of Okinawa you'll find Yambaru Mangrove Forest, a vast site that's been designated as a national natural monument. The stage for the kayak tour is the Kesaji River, which is about a 2-hour drive north of Naha and has some of the largest mangroves on Okinawa Island. The tour begins with a talk explaining how to kayak, so even beginners and young children will be able to enjoy this experience safely. When you're ready, simply paddle out to explore to the wonders of Yambaru Mangrove Forest. Along the way, take a closer look at the thick mangroves and observe the creatures that live by the waterside. Chances are you'll encounter creatures that are officially recognised as natural monuments of Okinawa Prefecture, such as Ishikawa's frog with its beautiful green mottled pattern and the Ryukyu spiny newt, which looks a lot like a mini dinosaur!

    Location: Gesashi, Higashi Village, Okinawa Prefecture 905-1205, Japan

    Open: Hours vary by tour company

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    2

    Snorkelling on Ikei Island, a visiting ground for sea turtles

    Snorkelling on Ikei Island, a visiting ground for sea turtles to spawn their young, is an experience like no other. The island can be accessed by car from the main island across the bridge, so it's convenient yet remote at the same time. The island has a peaceful landscape of sugarcane fields as well as excellent beaches such as Ikei Beach and Oodomari Beach. The bustling Ikei Beach is full of marine activities to enjoy. Oodomari Beach, meanwhile, has 600 metres of pristine sand and a clear blue sea. Bring your own snorkelling gear and observe the sea creatures at will, or take a snorkel tour from Ikei Beach. The sea turtle spawning season is from May to August. During these months there's a good chance you'll encounter sea turtles that come to the shallows.

    Location: Yonashiroikei, Uruma City, Okinawa Prefecture 904-2421, Japan

    Open: Swimming time at Ikei Beach is from 10 am to 5 pm.

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    3

    Take a tour of Bios Hill on a water buffalo cart

    About a 90-minute drive from Naha Airport, Bios Hill in Uruma City is a park where children and grown-ups alike can play and learn in the subtropical forest. The highlight here is the experience of touring the inside of the park on a swaying water buffalo cart. Children under the age of 4 can ride for free. This is a great way for whole families to enjoy looking at the seasonal flowers and ferns together. Kids who are into vehicles will love the experience of visiting the farm on a bright red road train. You can also collect stamps and answer quiz questions on a walk, ride on the extra-large swings installed in 5 locations throughout the park, and climb a huge climbing frame made of natural wood.

    Location: 961-30 Ishikawa Kadekaru, Uruma City, Okinawa Prefecture 904-1114, Japan

    Open: Daily from 9 am to 6 pm (last admission is at 5 pm)

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    4

    Picnic at Alaha Beach

    A 5-minute drive from American Village, Alaha Beach in Chatan is a town beach with handy facilities like showers and toilets. With an international crowd living in the area, the atmosphere at this beach is exotic and inclusive at the same time. There are plenty of fashionable cafes and places to eat nearby, so it's easy to grab some sandwiches, burgers, tacos or whatever you like and enjoy a simple picnic on the beach, looking out at the ocean. If you're in a group of 15 or more, you can even book a barbecue. The 600-metre-long white sand beach is perfect for volleyball, swimming with floats, or simply setting up a parasol and taking a nap in the shade. All the equipment you could possibly want can be rented. Parents and children can also enjoy jet skiing and various tube-based marine activities.

    Location: 2-21 Chatan, Chatan Town, Nakagami District, Okinawa Prefecture 904-0116, Japan

    Open: Mid-April to mid-October: daily from 9 am to 5.30 pm

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    5

    Busena Marine Park Glass Boat

    At Busena Marine Park, located in the middle of the main island of Okinawa, about 60 kilometres north of Naha Airport, you can experience the world under the sea without getting wet. The only underwater observatory on Okinawa Island, this is the place to be if you want a 360-degree view (from 24 windows of various heights!) of the emerald green sea full of tropical fish. This is a good way of enjoying the sea even on rainy days. And when the weather's nice, you can board a unique whale-shaped glass-bottomed boat and head offshore. The sea is bright and clearly visible through the glass bottom. There's also a guide who gives helpful explanations of the tropical fish on view, which include clownfish, ornate butterflyfish, and Moorish idols. There are 3 boats every hour, so you probably won't need a reservation.

    Location: 1744-1 Kise, Nago City, Okinawa Prefecture 905-0026, Japan

    Open: Glass boat: April—October: daily at 9.10 am to 5.30 pm. November—March: daily from 9.10 am to 5 pm.Underwater observation tower: April—October: daily from 9 am to 6 pm. November—March: daily from 9 am to 5.30 pm

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    photo by 663highland (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    6

    Camp on the uninhabited Nagannu Island

    Fancy getting away from it all this summer by taking the family to stay on an uninhabited island in Okinawa? About 20 minutes by boat from Tomari Port in Naha City, Nagannu Island is a popular remote island that welcomes hundreds of visitors a day during the peak season. This small white island is made purely of coral sand, surrounded by the emerald green sea. While it's crowded with people enjoying marine activities during the day, once the last boat has departed in the evening, it becomes a quiet uninhabited island. Tents can be rented if you want to stay overnight. There's even a luxurious glamping option with beds provided. And did someone mention a barbecue for dinner?! Nagannu Island has no outdoor lighting, so it's pitch-black at night. Lie on your back, gaze up at the starry sky, and take in the wonders of this magical place.

    Location: Tokashiki Village, Shimajiri District, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan

    Open: Hours vary by tour company

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    7

    Neo Park Okinawa

    No doubt that if you're travelling with children, at some point they'll want a bit of animal fun. At Neo Park Okinawa, an animal theme park in Nago City, children (and parents, of course) can get a close-up view of the actions of creatures from all over the world by going into spaces where the animals are free to move around. One highlight is the "Flamingo Lake" where you'll find the yellow-billed stork, with its charming yellow beak and red face, a rare bird that can only be found here in the whole of Japan. In the "Oceania's Flowers and Birds" area, there are Parma wallabies jumping around and colourful cassowaries running here and there. Go through the tunnel-shaped aquarium with its pirarucu, a giant fish from the Amazon River, and you'll arrive at "Fureai Square". Here you can interact with the world's largest tortoise, the Aldabra giant tortoise, and the world's largest rodent, the capybara.

    Location: 4607-41 Nago, Nago City, Okinawa Prefecture 905-0012, Japan

    Open: Daily from 9 am to 5.30 pm

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    photo by pelican (CC BY-SA 2.0) modified

    8

    Nago Pineapple Park

    Nago Pineapple Park is all about enjoying, learning about, and tasting that most delicious of tropical fruits: the pineapple. Ride the pineapple train through the pineapple fields and head for the park gate. The large garden is full of tropical plants reaching up to the first floor, giving the impression of being lost in a tropical jungle. If you want to take it easy, you can hop on the pineapple cart to travel through the park. There are about 200 kinds of pineapples here, including the small ornamental "princess pineapple" and the bright red "flower pineapple". Of course pineapples aren't just for looking at: they're also yummy to eat! The 37-centimetre-tall Big Pineapple Parfait is a huge dessert for the whole family to share. If you need an excuse, just remember that pineapples are rich in vitamins and citric acid, making them something of a tonic for summer heat fatigue.

    Location: 1195 Biimata, Nago City, Okinawa Prefecture 905-0005, Japan

    Open: Daily from 9 am to 6 pm

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    photo by Laika ac (CC BY-SA 2.0) modified

    9

    Whale watching at Zamami Island

    For a whale encounter, head to Zamami Island. From January to the end of March, humpback whales return to Zamami Island (which is about an hour by high-speed boat from the main island of Okinawa) to breed. An unforgettable experience awaits as you see the elegant mother with her baby whales, and the squirting and impressive jumps of the male whales. On whale watching tours, staff look for whales from the observation deck on the island and guide the boat wirelessly, so there's a very high chance of actually seeing whales here. By carefully observing the rules, such as not getting too close to the whales and not chasing them, the whales seem to recognise the boats as offering protection in these waters to which they migrate every year.

    Location: Zamami, Zamami Village, Shimajiri District, Okinawa Prefecture 901-3402, Japan

    Open: Hours vary by tour company

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    10

    Zipline at PANZA Okinawa

    If you fancy an extraordinary thrill, try gliding on a zipline over the subtle gradations of Okinawa's blue sea. PANZA Okinawa at Sun Marina Beach in Onna Village is the only place in Okinawa where you can experience this. Ziplining is of course a world-famous activity where participants slide down a wire rope while taking in the scenery as it speeds past. Simply put on your harness and helmet and away you go, zipping down the 250-metre-long zipline. This is a really cool way to enjoy the sea breeze and beautiful panoramic views of the sea and sandy beach. The zipline is suitable for children and adults weighing 25 kg or more. If you're feeling super-adventurous, there's another activity called "Go Fall" where you suddenly drop from 13 metres above the ground. This is also available as a set together with the zipline activity.

    Location: Okinawa Sheraton Okinawa Sunmarina Resort, 66-1 Fuchaku, Onna-son, Kunigami-gun, Okinawa Prefecture 904-0494, Japan

    Open: Daily from 9 am to 6 pm (last entry at 5 pm). Hours vary by season.

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