With most of Japan already heading into the colder autumn and winter, Okinawa (沖縄) is a suitable option for those who still hanker for the summer’s lingering warmth at this time of the year. In fact, this is one of the best times to be here since the weather is much cooler and rain showers tend to be relatively few and short so you don’t have to worry about your outdoor plans being thwarted by the unpredictable skies. Do you know that there is a place here which offers you 7 distinct attractions featuring the theme of Okinawa’s sun, flowers, and sea that are located close to one another? Join me on this journey to find out about Kaiyouhaku Kouen (海洋博公園) i.e. the Ocean Expo Park and explore what you can enjoy here!
The Ocean Expo Park is a national memorial park in Okinawa’s Motobu-cho (本部町) which was established in September 1976 on the site of the Okinawa International Marine Expo held between July 1975 and January 1976. The Expo ’75 was organized partly in commemoration of the Americans’ handover of Okinawa Prefecture to the Japanese in 1972 and featured a theme about the oceans and the sea which people would like to see in the future. Back then, the site of the expo located in the north of the Okinawan main island spanned 1 million square meters including the surrounding sea.
The highlight of the 1975 Expo was a floating city named Aquapolis designed by Japanese architect Kikutake Kiyonori (菊竹清訓) which tried to imagine how humans could live on the ocean and how future marine communities would be designed. It was constructed at a shipyard in Hiroshima (広島) before being moved to the site of the Expo. By the time the Expo ended in 1976, all the exhibits except the Aquapolis were removed until it dwindled in popularity and was closed in 1993 and scrapped at Shanghai, China in October 2000.
After the Expo, the site became commonly known as Kaiyouhaku Kouen while its official name was changed to Kokuei Okinawa Kinen Kouen (国営沖縄記念公園) i.e. Okinawa Commemorative National Government Park in 1987. Although this is supposedly a government park, the design and maintenance are done by the Okinawa Sougo Jimukyoku ((沖縄総合事務局) i.e. Okinawa General Bureau while the day-to-day operations are handled by the Okinawa Churashima Zaidan (沖縄美ら島財団) i.e. Okinawa Churashima Foundation.
Actually, besides the Ocean Expo Park, the Shurijo area (首里城地区) is also considered to be part of the Kokuei Okinawa Kinen Kouen. The area including Shuri Castle was damaged during the Okinawa Battle in March 1945 during the World War II and restored progressively before part of it was first reopened on 3 November 1992. However, the restoration works required a huge amount of money which would have been difficult for the then-Okinawan Government to bear on its own. As such, there was a proposal to designate the area around the castle as a national park so as to obtain funds for the works. The problem was, Okinawa already had a national park of its own i.e. Ocean Expo Park.
By November 1986, the Shurijo area finally began restoration works after it was included under Kokuei Okinawa Kinen Kouen as a commemorative project for the 20th anniversary of Okinawa’s return to Japan. As such, at the mention of Kokuei Okinawa Kinen Kouen, take note that this is with reference to both the Kaiyouhaku and Shurijo areas.
In line with the theme of Okinawa’s sun, flowers, and sea, there are three main areas within the park:
- History and Culture – Introduces the lives of the people living on island nations in the Pacific Ocean with a focus on the ancient Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa of today featuring about 750 tools and equipment used in daily life. Consists of Kaiyou Bunkakan (海洋文化館) i.e. Oceanic Culture Museum, Okinawa Kyoudomura (おきなわ郷土村) i.e. Traditional Okinawa Village, and Omoro Shokubutsuen (おもろ植物園) i.e. Omoro Arboretum.
- Sea – Features the marine life found within Okinawa and the beautiful sea surrounding the prefecture. Consists of the world-famous Okinawa Churaumi Suizokukan (沖縄美ら海水族館) i.e. Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, Okichan Gekijou (オキちゃん劇場) i.e. Okichan Theater renowned for its dolphin shows, and the Emerald Beach (エメラルドビーチ) which is a man-made white sandy beach spanning 3 hectares and was named one of the top 88 beaches for swimming in 2001 and one of the top 100 beaches in 2006.
- Flowers and Greenery – Showcases flowers and greenery such as orchids and tropical fruit trees all year round with a huge greenhouse. Consists of the Tropical Dream Center (熱帯ドリームセンター), Yuuhi Hiroba (夕陽の広場) i.e. Sunset Square, and Nettai Anettai Toshi Ryokuka Shokubutsuen (熱帯・亜熱帯都市緑化植物園) i.e. Tropical & Subtropical Arboretum.
Entrance to the Ocean Expo Park is free of charge but there are fees applicable if you want to enter the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, Tropical Dream Center, and Oceanic Culture Museum. However, there are some days within the year when they have a free-admission day so you should definitely check out their website for the dates and who is eligible to enjoy this offer.
Take note that there are also bulk discounts and special rates for students, while children below the age of 6 and those with physical disability certificates do not have to pay. There is also another category of discounted tickets at the Churaumi Aquarium i.e. After 4 PM Tickets which will grant you access from 4:00 PM to closing time. For those who are driving to this park, you will be pleased to know that there are no charges at the 9 car parks here.
If you are planning to bring your pets along to enjoy the nature, note that only small dogs and cats kept in a cage or on a leash are allowed. In addition, they cannot be brought inside any of the key facilities except the Tropical Dream Center and Plant Service Center.
If you fancy having a barbecue while looking at the sunset and the East China Sea, you can sign up for a barbecue package (Japanese only) here during the months of April to October. The minimum number of people required to purchase such a package is 10 and most of the equipment can be rented for free. Depending on the weather, the barbecue area will be set at an area within Yuuhi Hiroba. Reservations are to be made at least one month in advance.
Now that you have a basic idea of what you can do at the Ocean Expo Park, how about reading on to know more about the 7 main attractions here?
The Tropical & Subtropical Arboretum spanning about 9 hectares, is located on the southern side of the Ocean Expo Park and was opened in October 1990. The arboretum is divided into two main sections i.e. the 6.8 hectare-wide plant samples section and the Plant Service Center.
In the plant samples section, more than 400 types of plants said to be useful in the urban greening of subtropical regions can be found here so you will be able to see them and learn about their unique characteristics. The plants are further divided into 8 zones with different climate and soil conditions:
- Salt/wind-Tolerant Tree Zone
- Salt/wind-Tolerant Bush Zone
- Salt/wind Tolerant Palm Tree Zone
- Hedge and Vine Tree Zone
- Street Tree Zone
- Ground Cover Plant Zone
- Herb Garden Zone
- Acid-Loving Plants Zone
As for the Plant Service Center, it aims to spread awareness and provides information services regarding urban greening technology. However, due to the closure of the center’s building since 22 February 2016 for maintenance purposes, the information center has since been moved to the arboretum’s entrance while its other services e.g. the library had been canceled.
In case you are thinking that this place would only interest those who are into botany or gardening, you will be surprised that there are other fun activities which you can participate in here.
Firstly, there is a Ground Golf course for visitors where you can sign up for free golfing fun on the short course (8 holes) or the long course (24 holes). Note that you will need to make reservations in advance and that there is a minimum requirement of 10 people before you can use this service. Operation hours differ depending on the season you visit, so if you are coming between October and February, the opening hours will be from 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM, while in the warmer months between March and September, this service will run until 6:30 PM every day.
In addition, there are guided tours for visitors and you can also tap on your artistic instincts by signing up for the free plant craft experience program. Likewise, depending on when you visit, the craft work to be made for that month will differ.
The Tropical Dream Center consists of three greenhouses which showcase more than 2,000 orchids and other tropical and subtropical flowers. There is a free Guided Flower Tour at 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM every day where you will be introduced to the best flowers and fruits to see at the time of your visit.
Other than treating your eyes to a floral feast, settle down at the free resting place called Urizun and take a breather. If you are hungry or thirsty, the tropical fruit cafe Squall serves coffee, tea, tropical drinks, Blue Seal ice cream, and light meals such as taco rice and pancakes. For some retail therapy, the museum shop Nangoku will have something for you. If you don’t want to lug your spoils around, you can arrange for delivery to other prefectures in Japan.
The Traditional Okinawa Village is a reproduction of Okinawan villages during the Ryukyu Kingdom era (around the 17th to 19th century) and consists of private houses, elevated granaries, the utaki (御嶽) i.e. sacred sites, ugamiga (拝井泉) i.e. water wells, and kami-asagi (神アサギ) i.e. a plaza where rites to summon the guardian gods were conducted. In each of the houses within the village, there is a recorded audio guide in Japanese, English, and Chinese which can be triggered by pressing a button. Signages within the village are also written in these three languages. Within the compound of the village, the Omoro Arboretum features 22 types of plants native to Okinawa which also appear in Okinawa’s oldest song collection called “Omorosaushi (おもろさうし).”
Upon arrival at the village, the local elderly ladies of Motobu welcome the visitors by offering them free tea and snacks as traditional music is played on the sanshin. At the jitudeenuyaa (地頭代の家) i.e. the deputy landlord’s residence, you can obtain worksheets intended for primary and junior high school students which help them learn more about the village. You can also download these from the facility’s website (Japanese only) and print them at home before your visit. Last but not least, there are various activities which you can participate in such as the upcoming event on 3rd and 4th December 2016 to learn how to make the Okinawan traditional snack muuchii (鬼餅) i.e. ghost biscuit.
The Oceanic Culture Museum showcases items made during the Okinawa Ocean Expo in 1975 which introduce the history and culture of the people living in the Pacific region. Here, you can find galleries of various themes e.g. housing, food, fishing, clothing, music, dance, and religion providing a wealth of information for those who are interested in learning more about the close relationship between the sea and humans living beside it.
While you are here, don’t forget to check out the canoes and ships used by various island countries in the past and present such as Tahiti Island, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Vanuatu, Indonesia, Taiwan, and of course, Okinawa! Last but not least, you can head to the community zone on the second floor to board the Sabani (サバニ) which is an Okinawan fishing boat and take photos in it.
Housed within the museum is the Planetarium Hall which has a dome-shaped screen showing the beauty of 140 million stars in the night sky as you relax in the reclining seats. Depending on when you visit, the showtimes and titles screened will differ so please check their website for details.
In addition, there is a seasonal program titled “Okinawa no fuyu no hoshizora to monogatari (沖縄の冬の星空と物語)” i.e. “Okinawa’s Beautiful Stars – Okinawa’s starry sky and folktale” which introduces the stars that can be seen in Okinawa during that period and Okinawa’s star-themed folktales. For the upcoming winter season from December to February, the Pleiades which is known as “murikabushi (むりかぶし)” or “muribushi (むりぶし)” in the Okinawan dialect and can be seen from Motobu-cho and the Okinawan folktale “Murikabushi-yunta (むりかぶしゆんた)” will be featured.
If you are a marine animal lover, you’ll probably have a lot of fun at the Okichan Theater! Not only can you see them in action, you can even get up close and personal with these lovely creatures. The centerpiece here is definitely the Okichan Theater with its free dolphin and diver shows happening three to five times a day (depending on the season) set against the background of Okinawa’s brilliant sky and sea. Besides being entertained by the bottlenose dolphins and false killer whales, the commentary will help you understand more about their behavioral traits and abilities so it will be an educational experience filled with fun.
To get closer to the dolphins, head to the Dolphin Lagoon for the 15-minute long observation sessions but note that you won’t be able to touch them. For those who are keen on sea turtles, you should visit the Sea Turtle Pool to see the species native to Okinawa from above and below in the underground observation room. If you are interested in manatees, the Manatee Pool offers you an experience to see them at a close distance and you may be lucky enough to see them being fed by the divers which happen two to three times a day! When you need to take a breather, head to the Churaumi Plaza which has plenty of seating for you and a gallery with specimens of sea animals and corals for your viewing pleasure.
The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium can probably be considered as the jewel of the crown at the Ocean Expo Park as it is such a renowned attraction both in Japan and overseas. Rather than describing what can be found here since some of you may already be quite familiar with this place, I would like to highlight some special services and prior arrangements you can make before your visit so as to enhance your experience at the aquarium:
- Reserve a free audio guide: The aquarium offers free audio guides to its visitors but only on a reservation basis. You should fill in the online form at least 7 days in advance to provide your personal details, visit information, the number of units required, and the language preferred. If you can’t meet the 7-day requirement for some reason, please call them directly at +81-980-48-3748 for inquiries.
- Apply for the annual passport: If you happen to be living in Japan or have plans to visit the aquarium more than twice in a calendar year, the annual passport should suit your needs. As the price of the annual passport is equivalent to two single-entry admission tickets, this will bring you considerable savings if you are a regular visitor.
- Buy your Churaumi Aquarium ticket first before going to Tropical Dream Center: While planning your itinerary, you may wish to take note that entry to Tropical Dream Center will be at half price if you present your Churaumi Aquarium ticket at the point of purchase. As such, do get the aquarium ticket first so as to enjoy the offer.
- Get the Churaumi Observation Guide Sheets: These 10 worksheets containing pictures and information about the marine life can be collected as you walk through the displays. The worksheets are free but to get the original file folder to store them, you will need to pay 540 yen at the Shop Blue Manta and entrance lobby.
- Get the three commemorative stamps: When you reach the exit of the aquarium, turn right and look for a desk which has three commemorative stamps for visitors to chop on the aquarium’s brochure or their personal notebooks. This will be a good memento for you to remember your visit in time to come.
At the mention of Okinawa, its white sandy beaches and blue sea would definitely come to mind. Here at the Ocean Expo Park, you can visit the Emerald Beach which is Y-shaped and made from coral sand that is located at the northern end of the park. Being the only beach within a lagoon in Japan, its pristine water quality has won accolades in various rankings of beaches in Japan. Despite the cold winter approaching, it is still relatively warm in Okinawa so you should have no problems walking along the beach, strolling on the wooden boardwalk called Esplanade, or simply relaxing in the arms of the sunshine, sea, sand, and welcoming breeze. Without the frenzy brought by the summer crowds, you will be able to get a unique experience of being by the beach during a typically colder season.
Having read so much about the Ocean Expo Park, how about making plans to visit the 7 attractions here in the upcoming winter? If you are concerned that you might not be able to see everything in one day, there are various accommodation options nearby so you can easily spend a few days to explore this large park in Okinawa without the hassle of traveling to and fro. Have fun!