A day at Ocean Expo Park

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

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

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

Okichan Theater/Dolphin Lagoon

My first stop on my recent visit to Ocean Expo Park was the Okichan Theater, with a dolphin tank with a show and one of the biggest attractions outside of the aquarium.

Due to COVID-19 prevention measures, dolphin shows 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 dolphins’ various tricks and movements, the star of the show is Okichan, an Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, hence the name of the theater.

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

Ikeshima reckons Okichan must be over 50 because when she came to the theater 48 years ago, she was already an adult dolphin. Watching Okichan play and interact with her fellow dolphins, you’d never imagine she’s a bit older.

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

According to Ikeshima, the show helps the dolphins stay healthy as it allows them to exercise, while the interaction with the audience keeps their brains simulated and sharp. Although not every dolphin takes part in every show, Okichan does so because she is the star of the show, which may explain why she holds the record for the longest time a dolphin has been kept in an aquarium, noted Ikeshima.

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

Soon after being impressed by Okichan’s age and energetic performance, I found myself captivated by other types of aquatic life at the Churaumi Aquarium.

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

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

The third floor of the aquarium features exhibits of small creatures living around shallow coral reefs called “inoh” in Okinawan dialect. Inoh is home to tropical fish, seahorses, spotted garden eels and more. The second floor, meanwhile, was dedicated to “The Sea of ​​Kuroshio” with a huge water tank 10 meters deep. The first floor is where visitors will find deep sea fish and oddly shaped creatures.

On the second floor, you will have a panoramic view of the huge swimming pool and its inhabitants. According to aquarium staff member Chizuru Ikegami, the tank uses water drawn off the coast near Expo Park, allowing the creatures to always feel close to their natural surroundings.

Jinta, a whale shark bred for 28 years and now a symbol of the aquarium, quickly caught my eye as its 8.8 meter long body swam around the tank. Other marine species like large reef manta rays also share space with Jinta. Take an elevator to the bridges that allow you to cross the reservoir from above for a better view.

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

Then I went down to the first floor to take a look at the collection of deep sea creatures. From here, visitors can also view the huge water tank on the second floor from below. I could see the whale shark and manta rays circling serenely overhead.

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

* Churaumi Soda Pop is available for 150 yen at Blue Manta, a shop adjacent to the Churaumi Aquarium. There is also a drink vending machine near 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 floral part of the theme as it houses around 1,700 varieties of plants and flowers.

According to Ayano Nakagawa, an employee of Expo Park who manages this area, Tropical Dream Center is designed to make visitors feel like they have stumbled upon ancient ruins in a rainforest.

Here, visitors are greeted by over 2,000 orchids with three of the center’s five greenhouses dedicated to these delicate beauties of many colors, shapes and sizes. Behind the scenes, 20,000 orchids are grown 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 such as avocado and mango trees. There are even unusual jackfruit trees and trees that grow thick, fragrant lemons. The only downside is that you might not catch the trees when they produce fruit, but the greenhouses periodically offer seasonal sampling and other gardening and harvesting related activities.

Beyond the greenhouses, the center has a courtyard with baobab trees growing at one end. According to Nakagawa, some of them grew from seeds that a staff member brought back from Africa. I was temporarily transported to Madagascar looking at these unique trees with thick trunks and thin branches. In their homeland, these unique trees are blooming, which the trees here at the center were also able to do, a first in Japan, according to Nakagawa.

A highlight of the second half of my tour around the center was an observation tower and a lotus pond. From the top of the tower, which is 36 meters high, I enjoyed a superb view of the ocean with the island in the distance. The pond had many round lotus leaves floating in it. These leaves can hold up to 80 kilograms in weight, Nakagawa said, adding that sometimes children under 20 kilograms are allowed to jump and ride the huge leaves in the pond.

More fun for your family

Ocean Expo Park has a lot of interesting activities to experience and it’s probably hard to do them all in one day. Although my visit was mainly dedicated to the Okichan Theater, Churaumi Aquarium and Tropical Dream Center, there are plenty of other attractions worth adding to your list. Okinawa Kyoudomura is one of them.

Okinawa Kyoudomura reproduces the ancient local communities of Okinawa from the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Here, recreations of ancient Okinawan houses with tiled roofs and unique structures such as a shrine called “Kamiasagi” and a shrine well called “Ugamigaa” allow visitors to step back in time. It’s a good way to get acquainted with the architecture and way of life of the island’s ancient times.

A short walk from Kyoudomura is the Kaiyobunka-kan Ocean Culture Museum. Discover different types of canoes, including a huge double Tahitian double canoe with a length of 17.6 meters.

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

Plan your visit

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

For transportation inside this large park, electric cars shuttle between attractions for 300 yen each way approximately every 15 minutes. Ocean Expo Park does not charge a general admission fee, but each attraction is subject to a fee. Emerald Beach at the north end of the park is a nice place to swim and relax.

After finishing my day at Ocean Expo Park, I realized that I was exhausted but happy to have spent time in a place I remember fondly from childhood. Although there have been many changes and renovations, and I am no longer an elementary student, I realized that I still had a lot to learn and have fun there. Plan a trip now to this expansive park with so many activities your family will love!

Okichan Theater/Dolphin Lagoon
GPS coordinates: N 26.692817, E 127.875745 (Okichan Theatre); 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 ENTRANCE

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
GPS coordinates: N 26.694355, E 127.878076 (near parking n°6.7)
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. (Last admission at 5:30 p.m., Times 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 children under 6 years old.

Tropical Dream Center
GPS coordinates: N 26.687374, E 127.876107 (near parking n°8)
Admission: 760 yen for high school students and above, free admission for middle school students and below
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. (Last admission at 6:30 p.m. Times are subject to change)

Okinawa Kyoudomura
GPS coordinates: N 26.690466, E 127.876949 (near car parks n° 2, 3, 5)
FREE ENTRANCE
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. (times are subject to change)

Oceanian Culture Museum
GPS coordinates: N 26.690403, E 127.878016 (near car parks n° 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. Times are subject to change)

Manatee swimming
GPS coordinates: N 26.694797, E 127.876971
FREE ENTRANCE
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. (Times are subject to change)

sea ​​turtle pool
GPS coordinates: N 26.694553, E 127.876764
FREE ENTRANCE
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. (Times are subject to change)

*The door to the Ocean Expo park opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 7:30 p.m. (7 p.m. for the area around the aquarium) Times are subject to change.

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