This was our longest time at any place on our tour. We had three hours. One would think that’s plenty of time to enjoy an aquarium. But oh, there is so much more to it then that.
The aquarium is built upon the grounds of the Ocean Expo Park. The Ocean Expo Park has many different attractions on it. Let’s say you want to visit the Tropical Arboretum on the Southern part of the park. From the aquarium that’s an over 20 minute walk, that’s if you don’t get lost or turned around on your way. Depending on the route you take it could be 30 minutes.
Let’s start with the aquarium. The tickets to the aquarium were included in our tour. Our tour conductor wanted us to hurry to the Expo Park so that we could see the dolphin show. But first she had to get us from the parking to the aquarium entrance so we had our tickets first. Our tickets were included in our tour but if you go on your own generally tickets to the aquarium are 1,880 yen. To get there it was a twenty minute walk from the parking.
Our tour guide highly suggested we see the dolphin show which wasn’t inside the aquarium. I followed her suggestions went to the theater to see them which I will write about in the next section of this post. When the show was over and I headed back to the aquarium there was a huge rush of people, so many people, heading to the entrancement of the aquarium.
The maps we were given were a bit confusing. They talked about the aquarium being four floors which made it feel huge and I honestly walked back and forth along the path several times trying to figure out how to get up and see more, expecting the aquarium to be similar to the one in Osaka. It was not that big. Or at least it didn’t feel as big as the one in Osaka which is 8 floors in a spiral.
The Okinawa aquarium moves horizontally and rather gently. So you don’t notice moving between floors, especially with the size of the crowd. I feel like their route map found on their website for download here makes more sense then the one in the brochure I was given.
I was convinced that I didn’t have enough time to see everything in the aquarium so I sped past a lot of the stuff at the beginning like the touch pool called Life in Inoh. Inoh is a word in the Okinawan language used to describe “shallow water surrounded by coral reef”. While it’s a bit of a bummer that I missed out on seeing what they had —mostly starfish and sea cucumbers— eating and seeing the stars of the aquarium, the whale sharks, were the priority. So I sped through past the 4th floor straight down to the 2nd floor to eat at the Ocean Blue Cafe.
Because the aquarium is actually a lot smaller than I thought it was the crowds and congestion with getting around made sense. But if you have the time I highly suggest taking a break in the Ocean Blue Cafe, even if it’s just for a drink.
The Ocean Blue Cafe is located right next to the Kuroshio Sea. This is the star of the aquarium. It’s one of the world’s largest tanks and contains several whale sharks and many many manta rays just going about their business. The Ocean Blue cafe is located off to the side of it and allows, depending on your seat, you’ll have a stunning view to enjoy while you enjoy your drink or snack.
If you’re planning to spend your whole day at the Ocean Park here’s what you need to do. Before enjoying the touch pool, before checking out the whale sharks or anything else go straight to the Ocean Blue Cafe and make a reservation.
There are reserved seats and non-reserved seats available. The reserved seats require putting your name on a list as soon as possible and give you the best seats in the cafe, aka seats right up next to the tank. I think if you’ve got the time it’d be absolutely worth it to do. The wait, depending on how busy it is should be about thirty minutes.
If you don’t have the time then you need to watch the seats like a hawk before ordering and then put something down or have someone in your party jump on an available table as soon as possible. After you have a table claimed then and only then get in line to order.
They offer food, drinks, snacks and a few alcoholic beverages. If you want to know what their general menu or prices are check out their online menu here. The menu is in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean. It’s fairly simple since they have the menu plastered onto the counter so you can just point to what you want. I was very hungry so I ordered the one Okinawan special I’d seen often but hadn’t tried yet: taco rice. I also ordered a melon soda. While normally I would’ve jumped on one of their ice creams I had already had pineapple ice cream for essentially a mid-morning snack. (And I still had plans to have more ice cream at Blue Seal)
While I wouldn’t say the taco rice was the best available on the island it was still good in my opinion. I miss salty foods so much living in Korea where most things are sweet and having non-spicy taco fillings on a bed of rice was so nice, even if it had liquid cheese on top. The taco rice was 610 yen and the melon soda was 310 yen. Items like forks, water, napkins and wet tissues are available as self serve next to where you pick up your food. This space is small and can get crowded. If you’re with a group I suggest having someone get all of that while someone else gets the food. Since I was on my own I just waited patiently with my tray and then balanced it all on the way to my seat.
I liked sitting there and enjoying the view. There were a lot of people however and not really any single person seating options, meaning I had a whole table to myself. I did however move all my stuff in case anyone wanted to join me, but no one seemed interested. I also think everyone was nervous about so many people being in such a close space shortly after the announcement of a big virus outbreak. So I also get it. (This was in late January before things became a pandemic.)
The reason why eating became such a rushed goal was that for our tour this 3 hour stop was where we were on our own for lunch. We had to eat here, there was no where else with time for a break to eat an actual meal. Snacks? Yes. Ice cream? Always. But an actual meal? Not really possible.
After my meal I finally relaxed a little. There was so much I wanted to do that there wasn’t time for so I focused on taking in the beauty of the whale sharks and seeing if it was possible to speed walk through the other floors not realizing I’d already traversed through them.
The tank with the whale sharks, aka Kuroshio sea, is made of acrylic that is 8.2 meters high (~27 feet) by 22.5 meters (~74 feet) wide and is 60cm thick. (nearly 2 feet thick!) The goal of this tank is to try and unlock the mysteries of the whale shark, several are housed in this space with the goal of breeding.
The other part of the aquarium that I enjoyed was the Journey into the Deep Sea. There is so much of the ocean that we don’t know or rarely get to see and they’ve managed to replicate that pressure, temperature and depth in order to display a lot of creatures we rarely ever get to see, especially alive. It was really cool to see them and learn more about animals I’d never heard of before.
Another part that was within this section that I enjoyed was the Ocean Planetarium which was about bio-luminescent fish and pretty much anything that glowed as if the stars had fallen in the ocean.
When I finally left the aquarium there wasn’t much time left. I still had to save myself about 20 minutes to get back to the bus because our tour coordinator had promised to leave people behind if we were not on time. (Getting back to Naha on my own would’ve included nearly two and a half hours of public transit or a very expensive hour and a half long taxi) So I bought myself a mango bubble tea and explored the outdoor free pools.
The aquarium is generally open from October through February from 8:30am until 6:30pm. The last admission is at 5:30pm. From March through September the aquarium is open at 8:30-8pm with the last admission at 7pm.
The aquarium is closed on the first Wednesday of December and the following Thursday.
The aquarium however does host The Night Aquarium. The Night Aquarium is from around January 12th through February 28th. Except for February 8th, 14th, 21st and 22nd. The Aquarium closes during the Night Aquarium at 9pm with the last admission at 8pm. Note that this is the information for 2020. If you want to go to the aquarium at night double check the dates it’s available.
Marine pools- Dolphins, Sea Turtles, Manatees oh my!
The first and last thing I did at the ocean Expo Park was visit the free sections related to marine animals. One was to see the dolphin show, which our tour guide had stressed out about making sure we got there in time to see it and the other was to wander past the sea turtles before leaving the park.
First off I don’t know how I feel about these pools. On the one hand I feel like the aquarium talked about how much of it’s effort was put into research and studying animals. On the other hand the ethics of a dolphin show is much: no, don’t do it. Yet if they were going to do it anyway whether I was there or not, for free, without charging admission I wanted to see it for myself.
Because I can’t speak Japanese and I don’t have a degree in marine biology or a deep understanding of dolphins and their needs I can’t say one way or another that the dolphin show or the places the aquariums kept their animals in were good or bad. I don’t know if these were all rescued dolphins who can’t live in the wild or if they were captured and were healthy. Not a clue. But what I do know is that I’ve never seen so many different types of dolphins before, like the false killer whale.
I’m use to the bottle nose dolphins that we see often enough when you look them up online. But these weren’t all bottle nose dolphins. There were so many different kinds that I hadn’t realized existed. Also all the kids and families around me and just the people in general seemed utterly delighted by the show. The show I watched took place at the Okichan Theater but there is also a dolphin lagoon where you can go and see the dolphins.
If the dolphin show is happening while you visit and you want to see it then what our tour conductor suggested was to buy lunch nearby and then take it to your seat so you can eat and watch the show, it’s one of the few spaces where bringing food and drink is allowed.
The other space I visited on my way out was the Sea Turtle Pool which just felt very very sad. The goal seemed once again to be breeding. There were lots of different turtles but with open air pools so you could look down on them which seemed unsafe for the turtles. There was nothing interesting in their pools and the pools themselves seemed rather small. Which is something I felt as well with the dolphins that the space seemed rather small for so many dolphins. But again, I’m not an expert. There were eight types of turtles: hawksbill, loggerhead, green, Olive ridely and black turtles
You do not need to buy a ticket to the aquarium to see the dolphin show, or visit the pools to see the sea turtles, dolphins or manatees. These are free.
To save some time and energy if you’re planning to be the Expo Park for awhile or if there’s a lot to see you can take a trolley. If you want to take it once it’s 100 yen. If you want to take it more than once and get a day pass it’s 200 yen. It comes once every 5-30 minutes and has 13 stops though out the park. There are two different types of trolleys, one which includes a lift and three different routes. You can check out the map and the routes here.
Ocean Expo Park
The land the aquarium is on is the Ocean Expo Park. It was built in 1976 where the 1975 Okinawa International Ocean Exposition had been held. The park itself is huge at “70 hectares (170 acres) and stretches almost 4 km along the coast”. It houses a lot of things to do.
The Tropical Dream Center which costs 760 yen to visit and houses over 2,000 types of orchids as well as other types of flowers and fruit trees. It’s hours vary depending on season but it always opens at 8am. Last admission is at 5:00pm (It closes at 5:30pm) unless it’s summer (March-September) at which point it’s open until 7pm with last admission at 6:30pm. It’s a fifteen minute walk from the aquarium.
Tropical & Subtropical Arboretum is a space that its title says all. It’s a space full of tropical and subtropical plants. There’s also various services to learn about plants from books to tours to a Green Consultation Desk or even some plant crafting.
Banko Forest- I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the phrase “forest bathing”. It’s a term that comes from Japan, a phrase called shinrin-yoku and it essentially means to take in nature. Just going into a forest and enjoying it with all your senses. Not hiking, exercises or pushing yourself but just resting and enjoying it. I mean you don’t hike in your shower, right? Banko is a word that comes from Hatoma Island, one of the islands that makes up Okinawa, specifically part of the Yaeyama Islands. It means “describing a place where people take a nap or exchange information under the shade of a tree or on a platform set up in the tree, enjoying a pleasant breeze in summer.” It is essentially made for shinrin-yoku. It’s suggested as the spot to go for a picnic or moment of rest or to do some crafting.
The Tropical and Subtropical Arboretum and Banko Forest are about a 35 minute walk from the aquarium.
Native Okinawan Village and Omoro Arboretum – Almost every country has their own “step into the past” place for you to visit. This one is for Okinawa. The Native Okinawan Village is a “re-creation of an old community of the 17th to 19th centuries, during the Ryukyu Kingdom era.” The nearby Omoro Arboretum showcases plants from a famous old songbook called Omorosoushi. In this space you can take a lesson on how to play the sanshin (the snake skin three stringed banjo) as well as some dances, and learn about historical Okinawan life as well as get some free candy. It’s about a ten minute walk from the aquarium. It’s free to visit.
Oceanic Culture Museum and Planetarium – The theme of this place is “People traveled the ocean for a new world – culture developed in concert with the ocean,” and it showcases not just Okinawa’s travel and the cultural exchange among the Pacific ocean but also how they traveled and what they used and how they used the stars to navigate. It has a fee of 190 yen to visit and opens at 8:30am. It closes depending on season with Last admission is at 5:00pm (It closes at 5:30pm) unless it’s summer (March-September) at which point it’s open until 7pm with last admission at 6:30pm.
There’s also lots of beautiful green spaces and beaches to visit.
The Expo Park is open from October through February from 8:30am until 6:30pm. The last admission is at 5:30pm. From March through September the park is open at 8:30-8pm with the last admission at 7pm.
The Expo Park is closed on the first Wednesday of December and the following Thursday. There’s so much to do at this park I suggest giving yourself a full day.