Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Okinawa Options - Part 2

In late 2010, I visited Okinawa and posted a short summary of some things to do on the southern half of the island.

This time I rented a car and spent the week up north, which is less populous but has a number of interesting attractions that draw the tourists. If you want to get away from the masses, there are some beautiful and secluded beaches. It was too cold to spend much more than a few minutes in the water, but warm enough to enjoy a few hours on the sand, with nobody else in sight.

Ocean Expo Park/Churaumi Aquarium

On the western side of Motobu is Ocean Expo Park, a large open-air complex with several activities, many of which are free. At the north end is the Ocean Zone, with a dolphin lagoon as well as a regularly scheduled dolphin show, a manatee exhibit, and a turtle tank which allows views from underwater. I don't think the turtles enjoy being gawked at though, judging by this fellow's expression.

The south end of the park is the Flowers and Greenery Zone, with a tropical arboretum and an orchid house. In between is the History and Culture Zone, with a native Okinawan house and a culture museum. There is a lot to see here, but the highlight is undoubtedly the Churaumi Aquarium, opened in 2002 and still sparkling. Regular admission is 1,800 yen but after 4 pm this drops to 1,260 yen and the crowds begin to clear up around then as well, making it the best time to arrive.

There are a number of exhibits here, including a coral reef with hundreds of species of fish that saves you the trouble of scuba diving to see them. Most notable though is the Kuroshio Sea tank, which contains nearly 2 million gallons of water along with 3 whale sharks (one in the picture below) and several manta rays, four of which have been bred here. It is truly incredible and you can even go above the tank to hear explanations (in Japanese) of how they keep things working. This is the top attraction on Okinawa and well worth visiting.

Nakijin Castle Ruins

In the 13th century, Okinawa was known as Ryukyu and was divided into three areas, each ruled by a king, who lived in a castle, known as a gusuku. Nakijin was the center of the northern kingdom, and it was here that a large castle fortress was constructed. It was later destroyed during an attack from the central kingdom but the ruins remain today as a tourist attraction that is also a World Heritage site. The castle walls remain (below) and there is a walking path up to the top of the hill.

There is an English brochure that explains in detail the different areas of the ruins, which take about an hour to tour. The wonderful view from the top takes in the East China Sea and the surrounding countryside.

There is also a museum on site, but as it is rather cluttered and without English explanations, it doesn't merit more than a quick walkthrough. At 400 yen, this is a nice way to spend the morning before heading over to the aquarium after lunch.

Okinawa Fruits Land

One of many different fruit-related theme parks near Nago, Okinawa Fruits Land is a small building that houses a number of tropical fruit trees, as well as a butterfly garden (with a single species) and an aviary. It's not very exciting and at 800 yen, rather overpriced. Best to spend time at the Nago Pineapple Park instead.


Not a tourist attraction, rather is a pizza restaurant that is located atop a hill with great views of the seaside far below. Colloquially known as "Pizza in the Sky", the food is very good here, although there is only one variety of pizza available. You can enjoy your meal on picnic tables outside if you prefer, and there are plenty of tables inside as well, a necessity as this place is very popular. The drive up the hill is along a narrow road and might be a small adventure if you are not used to driving in Japan, but once you take your first bite of pizza, you will be thankful you made it.

All in all, Okinawa is a fantastic vacation destination. These are just a few of the possibilities to tempt you to visit. I've been here half a dozen times now and am looking forward to my return as soon as possible.

Sunset from Naha Airport



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