Okinawa aquarium holds many of the East China sea's prime inhabitants
By RYOICHI MATSUMOTO | The Yomiuri Shimbun | Published: January 29, 2015
There’s a place that brings the beautiful ocean off Okinawa indoors: the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium at Ocean Expo Park in Motobu.
In the Okinawan dialect, Churaumi means “clear, beautiful seas.”
The aquarium building facing the East China Sea rises up like a gigantic castle, and a stream of people enter as if drawn to it. The aquarium recently logged more than 3 million visitors per year.
“Our large fish tank is one of the biggest in the world,” said Asuka Kinjo, who is in charge of publicity at the aquarium. It contains three whale sharks, one of which, at 8.5 meters and 5.5 tons, holds the world record for the longest surviving whale shark in captivity. The aquarium also contains reef manta rays. Visitors also can see the world’s first large-scale exhibit of coral reproduction, made up of more than 800 coral colonies and about 200 types of tropical fishes.
Various creatures from both shallow and deep parts of the ocean are kept in a total of 77 fish tanks. The facility also boasts a dolphin lagoon, a theater with sea performances, a sea turtle pool and a manatee pool.
“On weekdays, many students from across the nation visit our aquarium on their school excursions, even during off-seasons,” Kinjo said. “If you want to see the fish in a tranquil atmosphere, I suggest you come in the early morning or the early evening on a weekend.”
According to the aquarium’s website, oki-churaumi.jp/en, the facility has re-created the seas around Okinawa down to a depth of about 700 meters, being careful to mimic factors such as light and clarity of the water.
“The exhibits here at our aquarium have been designed to allow visitors to start at the beach and gradually voyage down into the deep sea world, as if taking a dive themselves,” the site says.
Ocean Expo Park, which encompasses the aquarium, is part of the Okinawa Commemorative National Government Park and is located on a 71-hectare lot that was the site of the Okinawa International Ocean Exposition in 1975. It takes more than an hour to walk the vast lot of the Ocean Expo. Luckily trolley buses run between attractions regularly.
The park also encompasses the Tropical Dream Center, featuring rare botanical plants, the Oceanic Culture Museum, a native Okinawan village and a man-made beach. The park showcases the charms of Okinawa Prefecture and is meant to attract tourists not only from other parts of Japan but from around the world.
The town of Motobu used to flourish thanks to its bonito fishing. As a reminder of that time, there are many restaurants that serve Okinawa soba using bonito soup stock.
I happened to come across a monthly handicraft fair in a small marketplace near one of the noodle shops where I ate. They sold such goods as vegetables, home-cooked dishes and breads, and pins made from seashells bearing carved motifs. There was also an improvised flower decoration class.
When I mentioned to Madoka Seta, who was selling handmade daily commodities, that I saw few tourists at the fair, she replied: “That’s the attraction. Items sold here aren’t meant to follow fashion. We all bring what we like and people who like them come and we chat together. I like to spend time relaxing that way.”
Visiting the tourism association in the neighboring Nakijin village, I saw a poster with the catchphrase Nuun Nenshiga in large letters. In the local dialect, that means, “We don’t have anything special, though.”
That’s not true — the village has such attractive tourist spots as the ruins of Nakijin Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, En Matayoshi, association director general, said he would rather promote the village as a place “with nothing special.”
“Recently, more and more people are attracted to (places in) Okinawa that aren’t meant to be tourist destinations,” Matayoshi said. “Our village is warm even in winter. The inns are cheap and not very crowded. It’s good we have nothing special.”
On my way back from Nakijin to Motobu, I saw a roadside stall selling citrus tankan, a type of tangerine grown in the prefecture. The fruit looked tough and difficult to eat, but to my surprise, it was sweet and had a strong aroma.
“We don’t ship them to the mainland, so you should buy it here now,” said tangerine farmer Naohide Urasaki. According to Urasaki, tankan is grown outdoors all year round, so freshly picked tankan is sold even in midwinter.
In this region, which is some distance from Naha and other lively places in the southern part of the main island, I saw a huge showcase for tourists existing side by side with the daily life of local people.
After the summertime bustle and the typhoon season are over, the beach on Sesokojima island in Motobu regains its calm and time slows down again. On a fair day, it might be nice to sit on the beach and do nothing all day other than watch the gentle East China Sea.
Okinawa’s Churaumi Aquarium
The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is located in Ocean Expo Park within the Motobu district at the northwestern tip of Okinawa’s main island. Getting there by car from Naha Airport takes about two hours; by highway bus it takes about three hours.
Ocean Expo Park also includes beaches, tropical and subtropical arboretums, a sea observatory and a native Okinawan village. Small shuttle buses operate between the park’s attractions at least twice an hour
Non-holiday hours at the aquarium are 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. October through February and 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. March through September.
Adults 1,850 yen, high school students 1,230 yen, elementary and junior high students 610 yen, under age 6 admitted free. Discounts are available for students and groups.
The aquarium has a restaurant with a view of the East China Sea and a cafe with a view of interior fish tanks. There also are restaurants at Ocean Expo Park outside the aquarium.
• Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium: phone (0980) 48-3748; website www.oki-churaumi.jp/en
• Ocean Expo Park: phone (0980) 48-2741; website www.oki-park.jp.e.ms.hp.transer.com
• Nago City, Motobu and Nakijin Village: www.oki-islandguide.com/nago-city-motobu-town-nakijin-village
Sources: oki.churaumi.jp/en and oki-park.jp.e.ms.hp.transer.com