Near Camp Shields, plant lovers and those who appreciate greenery will enjoy Tonan Shokubutsu Rakuen, or the Southeast Botanical Gardens. The spacious grounds boast 1,300 kinds of plants and trees, including rare varieties like Alexander Palm, Baobab trees, and Dragon’s Blood trees.

In the wintertime, the botanical gardens also have impressive award-winning illuminations. Since it’s about a 10-minute drive from Camp Shields, you may have visited this beautiful spot. But if you haven’t, you won’t want to miss it.

Growing up on Okinawa, the botanical gardens were a popular attraction during school breaks, but I only visited it a few times over the years. It had been a while, so I recently made my way to check out what new plants and trees the gardens had to offer since my last visit several decades ago.

If, like me, you want to enjoy the gardens first then the illuminations, I recommend arriving at around 3 p.m. The illuminations Tonan Shokubutsu Rakuen start at 5 p.m. and run through May 26.

Feeding animals

The gardens are split into two areas: water and botanical. At the ticket counter, the staff recommended I see the animals in the water garden first since they go back into their homes at 4 p.m.

As I crossed a bridge over a lake to the central part of the garden, the “Bird Performance” was in progress. This act featured two colorful parrots flying back and forth between a hill and a stage set over another lake. I sat on the benches with other visitors to watch the show and noticed a duck dozing off beside me on the ground. I pet the duck and he showed no effort to move or escape. It was as if he was saying having humans around is just business as usual.

When the performance ended, I made my way to the carp-feeding area and bought a pack of feed for 200 yen. I was tossing feed over the pier and noticed that a duck, probably the same one that dozed off by my side, was right behind me on the boardwalk. It did not take long for the bird to begin pecking my legs and quacking. So, there was no choice left but to share the food with the bird.

As soon as I ran out of food, I left the location, trying to escape from the hungry duck, which led me to another spot along the lake where two goats, a big one and a small one, were staring at me. Just like I did for the carp (and the duck), I bought some food (leaves) for 200 yen. I would’ve felt guilty leaving them behind without feeding them, too.

As I held the leaves out, the big goat pushed aside the small one, snatching the food away from my hand. Though it was a bit of struggle, it was fun to sneak food to the small goat while attempting to distract the big goat.

At this point in my visit to the botanical gardens, I’d already spent 400 yen on feeding their animals, so I decided I would stop there. My decisiveness quickly fell apart, however, when I entered Capybara Bokujo, the garden’s capybara ranch.

The ranch is on the water garden’s northwestern corner and inside the wooden fence I could see visitors happily patting the heads of the lovable furry rodents and feeding them cabbage. I couldn’t resist and joined the crowd.

Amber Metcalf, there with her family, said this was one of the first places they visited when they PCSd to Okinawa.

“Whenever we have visitors, we usually bring them to see the capybaras and illuminations,” she said, adding that her family is also a big fan of the turtles at the Kamee Kamee no Sato village in the park.

After Metcalf and her family left, it was my turn to pay up and feed the capybaras. While I was paying 200 yen for a cup of cabbage leaves, a resident capybara approached me from behind. Before I had a chance to hold a leaf to feed it, the rodent stepped on my feet almost as if to prevent me from moving to feed other capybaras.

The sturdy animal was heavy, and though it didn’t hurt to have it standing on my foot, its toe had an iron grip on me. It leaned on my thigh with its buckteeth showing. At this point, I gave up the idea of forcing the animal to move out of the way, and just started feeding it the cabbage.

Two girls offered to help me, and while it was a little embarrassing for me, we ended up laughing about it and soon I was free from the aggressively friendly capybara.

Tropical trees and illuminations

Once my cabbage leaf stash was gone, I had an hour left to enjoy the botanical garden before the start of the illuminations. The Dragon Blood Trees, native to Yemen, nearby had a semi-geometrical shape, providing an otherworldly, fairytale vibe to the place.

In the Botanical Garden section, Alexander Palms from Australia lined the promenade. The exceptional landscape was an incredible contrast to the subtropical surroundings.

At 5 p.m., I was back at the water garden area in time to see the lights slowly illuminate the park. From a hill at the center of the area, I could see the lakes shining with lights in the shape of lotus leaves and flowers. Against the backdrop of the orange skies above, the lakes, boardwalks, and pavilions were shining in various colors.

The illuminations were set up in shapes of flowers, a castle, a coach and big cocktail glasses.

There were even illuminations dedicated to Pokémon. I was mesmerized by the Pikachu, Squirtle and pokeball lights.

After the sun finally set, the park radiated with the beautiful illuminations. The spectacular plants and trees sparkled into the night, a reminder of why Tonan Shokubutsu Rakuen remains a popular attraction even after all these years.

Getting there

GPS Coordinates: 26.375523, 127.806571

Hours: 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. (for daytime attractions), 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. (for illuminations)

Admission Fees (daytime attraction): 1,540 yen (approx.

$10.75, 18 years old and above), 1,050 yen (ages between 13 and 17), 600 yen (ages between 4 and 12)

*Admission Fees for illumination will be 2,150 yen, 1,250 yen, and 750 yen respectively for each age category.

*For those who are planning on enjoying both the daytime attractions and the illuminations, the best option would be 1-Day ticket, which costs 2,800 yen, 1,500 yen, and 1,000 yen respectively.

*Illuminations will continue until May 26.

Check out videos!

VIDEO: Okinawa’s Tonan Shokubutsu Rakuen home to friendly animals, stunning greenery

VIDEO: Still plenty of time to catch Pokémon winter illuminations near Camp Shields

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