Before I begin my post, I'd like to invite you to see the many new photos I've uploaded to my Flickr page! There are lots more from today's post topic as well as plenty more from our other explorations and adventures. :) And while you're at it, don't forget to check in on Giga-San. He's been getting out and about.
One of the nice things about having a longer school calendar in Japan is that you get more mini vacations spread throughout the year. We also get days off for national holidays, of course. In September, there are two Mondays off: one for Respect for the Aged Day and one for the summer solstice. During "Respect for the Aged weekend," Eric and I took a wonderful and memorable trip up to one of Okinawa's most famous attractions, Churaumi Aquarium and Ocean Expo Park. The whole Expo Park includes five or six attractions (including the aquarium) and is the kind of place I would live in permanently if I could. The aquarium is famous for having the largest underwater viewing tank in the world, and let me tell you, this thing is amazing. We loved our visit here so much that we came back the next day, even though it's about an hour and a half away. (In Okinawa, that's considered far!)
One wonderful aspect of the Expo Park is the parking situation. It's FREE. Yes, that's right. A famous attraction with tons of places to visit and a captive audience, and the parking is free. (Are you listening, Chicago??) You pay separately to get into three of the attractions, but only the aquarium is what I would call a bit expensive (about $18 per person); the other ones give discounts with aquarium ticket stubs and are very modestly priced. The eating situation is also pretty nice. You can buy food at the main entrance in a little cafe, right in front of the amazing ocean viewing tank at their restaurant, or at the beach area's snack bar, or you can pack a picnic and bring your own food. They don't force you to eat their food, and even if you do, it's not too outrageously priced.
OK, on to the attractions! The aquarium is the headliner of the show, and it deserves the praise it receives. While the enormous tank, which contains two sea creatures that I think are just about the coolest in the world (manta rays and whale sharks), is jaw-dropping, the other parts of the museum are great, too. You can even go "behind the scenes" and go up above the huge tank, walking on catwalks while the huge creatures swim beneath you. There are various lectures and feedings you can attend as well. Another area that I loved (when Eric tore me away from the rays and whale sharks) was the Shark Research Lab. This room had tons of specimens of various sharks and one exhibit that I thought was amazingly creative: a life-size plastic shark with about fifteen cross-sections that you could pull out like little drawers and see all of the shark's insides, just like you were dissecting it. Outside of the museum, you can see a dolphin show (no extra fee!), manatees, sea turtles, and other cool critters.
While I would definitely pack up and move into the aquarium if they'd let me, I would also like to put in a request to live permanently at the Tropical Dream Center, another star attraction of the Expo Park. If you've ever been to the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, you know that places with tons of exotic plants can be fascinating and engaging, even without lots of animals or petting zoos or whatever. The Tropical Dream Center goes beyond being just an interesting place with beautiful flowers. The architecture of the entire facility is worth the trip alone. As you walk through the exhibits and see all kinds of special orchids, fruit trees, and local and exotic plant life, you're immersed in this lovely little world that you never want to leave. There's even an awesome twisty-shaped observation tower that gives you a beautiful view of Ie Island, the nearest large-ish island, and the ocean and area all around. What makes a museum or cultural location great is the details, and this place has them in spades. (One example is the stamp rally for kids; see the photos for more information about that.)
The Ocean Expo Park is situated right on the ocean, so one other great place to spend some time while you're there is Emerald Beach. They have three swimming areas and lots of room for picnicking and generally enjoying the ocean. In Okinawa, the ocean is actually warm, due to a giant current that makes it such a spectacular place for diving and snorkeling.
After the beach, on to some culture and history! I don't know if it was because it was toward the end of visiting hours or what, but Eric and I basically had the entire traditional Okinawan village to ourselves. I don't know why there weren't more people enjoying this amazing gem of a living museum! It's like a mini history of Okinawa dating back to the days of the Ryukyu kingdom before Okinawa was claimed by Japan. You can see various eras of farmhouses in Okinawa (absolutely nothing like farmhouses in the U.S.!), plus see the areas of worship a typical village would have, a priestess's home, and the home of a village leader/chief. Each building is full-size and contains all the features that homes, stables, and other buildings of the day would have had. You can go right in, unlike many museums or historic homes in the U.S. where you have to stay behind velvet ropes. Here you just have to take off your shoes, and you can walk through every single building and touch whatever you want. They have buttons on the side of each home that you can press to hear information in Japanese, English, or Chinese while you walk around. During different days and events, you can see ceremonies performed, take classes, and hear music in these beautiful homes. The craftsmanship of this nation is just gorgeous. Everything is so beautifully and carefully made.
The Ocean Expo Park has one more big attraction that we couldn't squeeze in during our two days there, and that's the Tropical and Sub-Tropical Arboretum. We will save that for another visit since we want to see everything again! If there's ever any way you can get over to Okinawa, please don't miss this amazing place. You'll never forget it!