When one hears the word Japan, we don’t normally associate it with crystal clear water. Little do we know that the two dozen or so islands of Okinawa (also known as Ryukyu) arc through crystal-blue tropical waters from southern Japan to Taiwan. The seas surrounding Okinawa’s islands are considered among the world’s most beautiful, with coral reefs and abundant marine wildlife. Consequently, snorkeling and scuba diving are popular here.
Having been here before when I was a child, I was determined to go back to this vastly unexplored island. Naha Airport (Okinawa’s primary airport) has multiple flights a day from most of Japan’s major cities, and flights also operate from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and China. I took a connection flight from Taiwan Taiyuan International Airport, which only took about 3 hours.
Okinawa is further divided into three major island groups. Unfortunately, I only had time to visit the main island, but even then, I was able to re-experience a taste of Asian paradise. Here are a few spots on this island that I’d recommend:
The Ocean Expo Park (see #2 on this list) includes many tourist attractions within, but the most popular one is definitely the Churaumi Aquarium. This aquarium is spread out over three floors with the entrance on the third floor and the exit on the first floor. Directly after the entrance is a pool where visitors can touch living starfish and seashells with their own hands (something I’ve loved doing since I was a kid).
Then, there is a tank with the world’s first large scale exhibit of living coral. After a huge maze there is a gigantic tank, which has a volume capacity of 7,500 cubic metres. Visitors can also view this tank from multiple directions, for example, from the Aqua Room through a large acrylic window. Here was where I sat for a long time watching the world’s biggest fish- whale sharks– in multiple numbers swim by. Churaumi Aquarium was the world’s first aquarium to have multiple whale sharks in captivity. It was also the first to succeed in keeping and reproducing multiple manta rays (which can grow to around 7 metres). If you’re lucky you might also spot some dolphins in this tank. I unfortunately didn’t have much luck, as they were swimming on the opposite corner to where I was sitting and eating lunch. My journey ended with a section of ‘into the deep sea’. This place was an absolute paradise for aquarium lovers, as it’s one of the biggest in the world.
Ocean Expo Park
There are other sections within the Ocean Expo Park (that are free!!), which unfortunately I didn’t have enough time for. I did however see a lot of the other marine-related sections. For example, there are seven species of sea turtle, and this Ocean Expo Park has 4 of them!
I also watched a dolphin show, which had two types of dolphins in it. I’ve watched a lot of dolphin shows before in at least 5 different countries, but what struck me about this one was that they had a species called false killer whale, which I’ve never seen before. I may be a little biased, but these false killer whales were, I believe, able to jump a lot higher than their showpartners- bottlenose dolphins– and were also able to do more creative tricks.
I have also never seen a manatee before, so it was very exciting for me to view these creatures both above and under water.
Shuri Castle was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom built in the 1300s before it got destroyed during World War 2. Fortunately, it had undergone reconstructions in 1992 and is now the #1 tourist destination in Okinawa and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This site has many gates that eventually lead to a plaza on a hilltop surrounded by three buildings (Seiden, Hokuden and Nanden). The interiors of Hokuden and Nanden are now museums which exhibit the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom as well as its interactions with mainland Japan and China. Historical artifacts, both made on the island and received during foreign trade, are also on display. The interiors of Seiden had been reconstructed to replicate its original style, which visitors can feel like a king and even see a replica of the throne and crown.
Southeast Botanical Gardens
Southeast Botanical Gardens is an expansive park of about two square kilometres that showcases a myriad of plants, ponds and animals. Due to Okinawa’s subtropical climate, the garden is able to grow a wide variety of species with origins from around the world. This garden is separated into two parts- botanical and water. Because the biggest part is the water garden, I spent a lot of my time here walking along the hillside trails and taking in the picturesque view.
I have a soft spot for small animals, so I of course had to see these here without a hesitation. Their creatures ranged from Okinawan pigs to rodents to goats to monkeys. These areas were perfect for the kids, and the inner kids like me! Not to mention the friendly staff members who offered us some food to feed the animals wherever we went! The staff at this place were honestly the most genuine and helpful people I’ve met. When it started raining suddenly, one staff member even went around the garden and gave every visitor an umbrella and led them to a restricted entry spot just to get shelter!
Okinawa World is a theme park that encompasses all aspects of the Okinawan culture. The park’s main attractions are its natural cave, craft village and snake museum. Some of my definite highlights include: watching traditional Okinawan performances, snapping a shot with me holding a python, and admiring traditional crafting skills such as glass blowing and pottery.
My personal favourite was however the Gyokusendo Cave. The inside of the cave is beautiful, to say the least, with countless numbers of stalagmites and stalactites and bizarre rock formations. I love imagining how long these formations took to look like what they look like now. The only criticism I have is that I would’ve preferred it to be better lit, especially for those elderlies who visited the cave (and there were a lot of them!).
Shikinaen Garden was built in the 18th Century as the second residence of the Ryukyu king. It’s relatively small and simple, with a traditional Japanese landscape style including a central pond. While the garden is designed in a style similar to elsewhere in Japan, the architecture and flora are uniquely Okinawan. It also got destroyed in World War 2, and took about 20 years to restore. In 2000, it was added onto the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Here is just a brief list of some of the places I loved about Okinawa. If you’ve also been to Okinawa and have other highly recommended places, please comment below.