Family fun at Okinawa's fabulous Ocean Expo Park

Photos by Shoji Kudaka
Photos by Shoji Kudaka

Family fun at Okinawa's fabulous Ocean Expo Park

by Shoji Kudaka
Stripes Okinawa

If you grew up on Okinawa like I did, visiting Ocean Expo Park with your family or on a school field trip is probably something you remember.

Since opening to the public in 1976, the park has been a destination for many Okinawans wanting a quick getaway to enjoy many ocean-related exhibits and activities. The large public park in Motobu Peninsula is well known for the Churaumi Aquarium, a popular stop for tourists and locals.

The aquarium is fun and has plenty to see, but there are also other fun activities that you might enjoy while visiting this huge park. However, come prepared because there is a lot to do here, and you might not be able to see all in one day. 

Okichan Theater/Dolphin Lagoon

My first stop during my recent visit to Ocean Expo Park was the Okichan Theater, featuring a dolphin pool with a show and one of the biggest attractions aside from the aquarium.

Due to COVID-19 prevention measures, the dolphin performances have been moved from the theater to the Dolphin Lagoon area. When I arrived, the dolphins were warming up for their show.

According to dolphin trainer Shunya Ikeshima, in addition to the various tricks and moves of the dolphins, the star of the show is Okichan, an Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, after which the theater is named.

Okichan has been performing at the theater since the International Ocean Exposition held at the park in 1975, Ikeshima said. I couldn’t believe it when he told me that the same dolphin from my childhood is the same one that was here today.

Ikeshima estimates that Okichan must be over 50 years old because when she arrived at the theater 48 years ago, she was already a grown dolphin. Watching Okichan perform and interact with her fellow dolphins, one would never imagine that she is a bit older.

During the show, Okichan and other dolphins jumped one after another. Some dolphins skillfully swam backward, and others adorably waved their fins at the audience.

According to Ikeshima, the show helps the dolphins stay healthy as it allows them get exercise, while interacting with the audience keeps their brain simulated and sharp. Though not all dolphins participate in every show, Okichan does because she is the star of the show, which may be why she holds the record for the longest time a dolphin has been kept at an aquarium, noted Ikeshima.

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

Not long after I was impressed with Okichan’s age and energetic performance, I found myself captivated by other kinds of aquatic life at Churaumi Aquarium.

From Okichan Theater, it is about a 5-minute walk to the aquarium. It had been a long time since I set foot in this cool place where I could be sheltered from Okinawa’s strong sun, but I was looking forward to seeing what the aquarium had in store.

Churaumi is a multi-story building and is designed in a way to guide visitors from the third floor, or the shallow waters, down deeper to the second and first floors where deep ocean creatures lurk.

The third floor of the aquarium features displays of small creatures living around shallow-water coral reefs called “inoh” in Okinawan dialect. Inoh is home to tropical fish, sea horses, spotted garden eel and more. The second floor, on the other hand, was dedicated to “The Kuroshio Sea” with a huge 10-meter-deep water tank. The first floor is where visitors will find deep-water fish and creatures with unusual shapes.

On the second-floor, you’ll get a panoramic view of the huge pool and its inhabitants. According to Chizuru Ikegami, a member of the aquarium staff, the tank uses water drawn off the coast near Expo Park, allowing the creatures to still feel close to their natural environment.

Jinta, a whale shark reared for 28 years and now a symbol of the aquarium, soon caught my attention as its 8.8-meter-long body swam around the tank. Other marine life like big reef manta rays also share the space with Jinta. Take an elevator to the bridges that allow you to cross the tank from above for a better look.

On the second floor, visitors can also see other tanks with other sharks and baby sharks raised in artificial wombs. And don’t miss Jinta’s daily feeding in the water tank at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Next, I made my way down to the first floor, for a look at the deep-water creature collection. From down here, visitors can also look up at the huge water tank on the second floor from below. I could see the whale shark and manta rays serenely circling above.

My visit to the aquarium was over in about an hour. I felt a little tired after enjoying watching so many marine creatures. I made sure to take a break for a bottle of Churaumi Soda Pop, a sweet, carbonated drink with a hint of salt. The drink has a beautiful blue color to match the blue waters around Motobu Peninsula.

*Churaumi Soda Pop is available for 150 yen at Blue Manta, a shop adjacent to the Churaumi Aquarium. There is also a vending machine for the beverage by the aquarium.

Tropical Dream Center

The theme of Ocean Expo Park is “sun, flowers, and the sea.” Among its many attractions, the Tropical Dream Center represents the flower portion of the theme as it houses about 1,700 varieties of plants and flowers.

According to Ayano Nakagawa, an Expo Park employee who manages this area, Tropical Dream Center is designed to make visitors feel like they’ve stumbled into ancient ruins in a tropical forest.

Here visitors are greeted by over 2,000 orchids with three of the five greenhouses at the center dedicated to these delicate beauties of many colors, shapes and sizes.  Behind the scenes, 20,000 orchids are farmed daily for the exhibit, so visitors only see the best of the best.

The other two greenhouses are dedicated to other plants, including fruit trees like avocado and mango trees. There’s even some unusual jackfruit trees and trees which grow thick and fragrant citrons. The only downside is that you might not catch the trees when they’re producing any fruit, but the greenhouses do periodically offer seasonal samplings and other activities related to gardening and the harvest.

Beyond the greenhouses, the center has a courtyard with baobab trees growing at one end. According to Nakagawa, some of them grew from seeds someone on staff brought back from Africa. I was temporarily transported to Madagascar by looking at these unique trees with thick trunks and thin branches. In their native land, these unique trees flower, which the trees here at the center have also been able to do, a first in Japan, according to Nakagawa.

A highlight of the second half of my tour around the center was an observatory tower and lotus pond. Up on the tower which has a height of 36 meters, I enjoyed a superb view of the ocean with Ie Island in the distance. The pond had many round lotus leaves floating in it. These leaves can hold up to 80 kilos of weight, Nakagawa said adding that sometimes children under 20 kilograms are allowed to hop and ride the enormous leaves in the pond.

More fun for your family

Ocean Expo Park has many interesting activities to check out and it’s probably difficult to do them all in one day. Though my visit was mostly to see the Okichan Theater, Churaumi Aquarium, and the Tropical Dream Center, there are plenty of other attractions worth adding to your list. The Okinawa Kyoudomura is one of them.

Okinawa Kyoudomura replicates old local Okinawan communities from the times of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Here recreations of old Okinawan houses with tiled roofs and unique structures such as a places of worship called “Kamiasagi,” and a well of worship called “Ugamigaa” allow visitors a look back in time. It is a good way to get acquainted with the architecture and way of life in the olden days of the island.

A short walk away from Kyoudomura is Kaiyobunka-kan Oceanic Culture Museum. Check out various types of canoes, including a huge double Tahitian double-canoe with a length of 17.6 meters.

Near the Churaumi Aquarium and Okichan Theater, “Manatee Pool” and “Sea Turtle Pool” give visitors some time to see some adorable marine mammals and reptiles.

Plan for your visit

If you get hungry, stop by Inoh, a restaurant on the fourth floor of the Churaumi Aquarium. Enjoy a lunch buffet over a superb ocean view. For a light meal, there are cafes in both the aquarium and Tropical Dream Center. The dolphin theater also has Okichan Parlor for some great snacks.

For transportation inside this large park, electric cars shuttle visitors between attractions for 300 yen per ride around every 15 minutes. The Ocean Expo Park doesn’t charge a general admission fee, but each attraction is subject to fees. Emerald Beach on the north end of the park is a nice spot for some swimming and relaxing.

After I wrapped up my day at Ocean Expo Park, I realized I was exhausted but happy to have spent some time at a place I remember fondly from my childhood. Though there have been many changes and renovations, and I’m no longer a grade school student, I realized I still had a lot to learn and fun to have there. Plan a trip now to this extensive park with so many activities your family will love!    

Okichan Theater/Dolphin Lagoon
GPS Coordinates: N 26.692817, E 127.875745 (Okichan Theater); N 26.693395, E 127.875920 (Dolphine Lagoon) *near parking no. 2, 3, 5
Time: 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m.
Free admission

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
GPS Coordinates: N 26.694355, E 127.878076 (near parking no.6,7)
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. (Last admission at 5:30 p.m., The hours are subject to change)
Admission: 1,880 yen for adults, 1,250 yen for high school students, 620 yen for middle and elementary school students, free admission for under six years old.

Tropical Dream Center
GPS Coordinates: N 26.687374, E 127.876107 (near parking no. 8)
Admission: 760 yen for high school students and over, free admission for middle school students and under
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. (Last admission at 6:30 p.m. Hours are subject to change)

Okinawa Kyoudomura
GPS Coordinates: N 26.690466, E 127.876949 (near parking no. 2, 3, 5)
Free admission
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. (The hours are subject to change)

Oceanic Culture Museum
GPS Coordinate: N 26.690403, E 127.878016 (near parking no. 2, 3, 5)
Admission: 190 yen for adults, free admission for middle school students and under.
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. (Last admission at 6:30 p.m. The hours are subject to change)

Manatee Pool
GPS Coordinates: N 26.694797, E 127.876971
Free admission
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. (The hours are subject to change)

Sea Turtle Pool
GPS Coordinates: N 26.694553, E 127.876764
Free admission
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. (The hours are subject to change)

*The gate of the Ocean Expo Park opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 7:30 p.m. (7 p.m. for the surrounding areas of the aquarium) The hours are subject to change.

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