Exploring Okinawa's Caves and Kingdom Village
Whether you have kids or not, the coolest place on the island can be found at Okinawa World. Located about 20 minutes southeast of Naha, in Nanjo, Okinawa World has three major attractions-the Gyhokusendo Caves, Kingdom Village and Habu Museum Park. The signage leading you to the remote entrance is pretty good and it's hard to get lost. If you think you missed a turn, just follow the tour buses. I was trying to follow route 17, but it was easier just to follow the tourist signs.
Gyokusendo Cave is a Designated Natural Monument. It is one of the biggest cave systems in all of Japan, estimated at over 5,000 meters. About 20% is open to the public. It takes about half an hour to walk through the cave.
Just like boarding a cruise ship, prior to entering you get your picture taken--only in Okinawa World your picture is taken with a young Okinawan women dressed in traditional clothing. I have no idea why this is done.
After walking down a long stairway, you begin your journey through the tunnel system. While not cold, the temperature is definitely cooler than above ground. Once on the main cave floor the walk is relatively flat. I saw a number of parents pushing strollers.
I've been to several caves in the Eastern US. The cave systems there have huge caverns and the lighting is done with multiple colored lights for artistic effect.
At Gyokusendo, the underground is simply lit, mostly with white lights. There are few mid-sized cavern areas and what you see isn't that impressive. On the other hand, if you are a big fan of stalagtites you will see plenty of them. The park claims that there are over one million in this cave. I didn't take the time to count. Several dozen have been named due to their intreresting shapes (English translation is provided).
A note of warning: you will get wet. Not "Gallagher" wet, but expect to be dripped on during the entire walk. Much of the open area follows an underground river, with a waterfall included. This is one of many places where you will get pedestrian congestion due to photography. The walkway is not very wide and you will often have to wait for people to take more pictures of stalagtites. Once you get to the end of the system there is an escalator to take you to the top.
You exit the caves, Disney-like, at the tourist shop. This is also the second portion of the park, Kingdom Village. If you want to skip this, you can't, since you are at the opposite end of the park and to get to your car you must walk through Kingdom Village. This is a touristy area where traditional Okinawan arts and crafts are displayed. Compared to some other similar cultural parks, this is done quite well for the most part.
At each of the areas you can see a demonstration of the local craft. Of course, as you move from one area to the next you are forced to pass through a gift shop (note--most of the items for sale were not made on site, but are genuine Okinawan-made). If interested, you could spend a few hours with weaving, glass making, pottery, paper making, etc. My only stop was at the Nanto Brewery where I really, really enjoy a frosty beverage on a hot day.
Four times a day there are demonstrations of traditional folk dance and music. Bring a fan with you as it gets quite stuffy sitting for 25 minutes with a few hundred people. After the show you only have one more shopping area to navigate through before you can head home. Almost at the exit is the Habu (Snake) museum. I'm not a fan of snakes, so I passed on the opportunity.
You can purchase a ticket for all three areas or, like me, just buy a ticket for the caves and Kingdom Village. The cost for all three areas is 1650 yen per adult. For the caves and village you pay just 1250 yen. Child get in for half price. With free parking, relatively inexpensive entry prices and low cost food and drink, at trip to Okinawa World is a pretty good deal.
There is a lot of English language signage throughout the park. Okinawa World opens at 9am and I recommend you get there in the morning so you can leave by early afternoon.
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