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It was a Saturday afternoon, and my trip to the Churaumi Aquarium in Motobu, Okinawa, had proved crowded and chaotic. Yet, there was something about the tranquility I felt staring at strange-looking fish.The view of the Kuroshio Sea Tank offered a serene glimpse of the sea life that call Okinawa waters home.

There is research documenting the effects aquariums have on reducing stress and healing.

Despite the noise, I was able to zone out watching the two whale sharks circle around the tank. They looked calm and weightless. Unlike myself — frazzled, burdened with camera gear and praying the crowds would ease up by the next exhibit.

I would recommend a weekday visit to avoid all the commotion.

The Kuroshio Sea Tank is definitely the aquarium’s main attraction. The tank holds 1.9 million gallons of water and is home to 80 species, including the tiger-print coach whipray and schools of longjaw mackerel. Billed as the second-largest in the world, the aquarium is as impressive as it is mystical with its many underwater curiosities like the spiky, crown-of-thorns Starfish resting on a rock and the creepy moray eel that would occasionally peer out from inside a cave.

The 19-foot-long, giant squid display drew "oohs and aahs" from youngsters fascinated by its eight gangly arms and two sucking tentacles.

A personal favorite was the Shark Research Lab — as a "Jaws" fan and avid watcher of the Discovery Channel’s "Shark Week" I rarely pass up a chance to check out the beasts.

However, I prefer to observe them not from a boat, but behind glass – be it a TV screen or a fish tank. It’s always safer from the outside looking in.

The lab was formaldehyde central with jars of scalloped hammerhead fetuses and dolphin brains aligning the wall.

The popular photo spot was inside the replicated skeletal mouth of a Carcharodon megalodon — a prehistoric giant shark whose mouth was so big it could swallow whales whole.

The aquarium is probably the highlight of the Ocean Expo Park — a sprawling campus of history, horticulture and a white, sandy beach.

The scenic 2½-hour drive takes you right along the coast, past Nago and into the hills of Motobu.

Once there, you can wander the park or utilize the electric tour bus to check out all the stops — which includes the Oceanic Culture Museum and a reconstruction of a native Okinawan village. A day pass is only 200 yen and will take you to all the sites. Most of the sites are free, like the 15-minute dolphin show that runs several times a day. The stands fill up fast so be sure to snag a seat early.

My preference was the Tropical Dream Center, a picturesque landscape of greenhouses filled with exotic flowers and fruits. The garden is known for its orchids and boasts more than 2,000. I found a great relaxing spot at the Lotus Pond. A seating area allowed me to regroup: it was peaceful, quiet, and the aroma from the flowers was soothing. I could hear the whizzing from butterflies and dragonflies passing by. The pond was filled Amazon water lilies so large that small children were placed inside them for photo opportunities.

I ended my tour by hiking up the steps of the spiral observatory – which resembles the kind of odd-shape castle conjured up for fairy tales.

The top of the castle was closed for construction, so I could only walk up 194 marked steps. I still don’t know how many steps it is to the top.

From my view, I could see IE Island and the crashing ocean waves.

Beautiful.

Know and go ...

The Churaumi Aquarium is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Admission: 1,800 yen for adults; 1,200 yen for high school students; and 600 yen for elementary and junior high school students. Discounts available for groups and annual pass members.

For more:www.kaiyouhaku.com/en/index.html or call 098-048-3748

The Tropical Dream Center is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Admission: 670 yen for adults; 340 yen for children. Discounted tickets available with ticket stub from the aquarium.

The Ocean Expo Park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. through September.

Hours for the aquarium and other sites at Ocean Expo Park will change in October. For more visit http://oki-park.jp/en/index.html or call 098-48-2741.

To get there: From Camp Foster or Kadena Air Force Base head north on Highway 58 toward Nago. Hop on the Okinawa Expressway until it ends at the Kyoda Interchange. The interchange will put you back on Highway 58. Take 58 to Highway 449, then to Highway 114. The park is on your left. There is plenty of parking and it is free.


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