Here are the highlights of the two bus tours I took on Okinawa:
The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium appears to be Okinawa’s biggest attraction as it was almost impossible to find any bus tours that did not include this stop in their itinerary. It is a giant complex that used to be the world’s biggest aquarium until 2005 and hosts a large variety of sea life from giant sea turtles to whale sharks and manta rays to dolphins.
I was a bit weary about going since aquariums usually don’t have the best track record as far as animal rights are concerned. However, I decided to go since the tours that didn’t stop by the Aquarium seemed less interesting on a whole. It is definitely a fascinating place if you can ignore the possibly iffy ethics of it.
There is a large expo on smaller ocean life like algae, starfishes, and smaller fisher with lots of information about them. However, the main attraction is clearly the giant tank with gigantic sharks, manta rays, and so on. Definitely a fascinating experience.
On top of that, there is endless stuff to discover. You can observe giant and majestic sea turtles, watch a dolphin show (impressive, but I kind of shudder to think what it must take to train dolphins to perform all of these tricks), or just hang out on one of the beautiful parks and beaches that are part of the complex.
Speaking of beaches, I absolutely fell in love with the Okinawan beaches I was able to visit. The water is incredibly clear and in fascinating colors that I had never experienced before, and the sand is unlike anything I’ve ever seen (not that I’ve visited that many beaches in my life). In fact, I don’t think it’s really sand in the conventional sense of the word, but rather small rocks (from coastal reefs) that have washed ashore in fascinating forms and shapes. I could have spent hours just staring at them and identifying differently shaped pieces. I really wanted to take some home with me, but ultimately decided against it since it probably would not have been a great idea to try to fit multiple pounds of rocks into my already overweight carry-on luggage.
This is one downside of guided tours, as we only had a short time to spend at each destination. The water was too cold to go for a swim anyway, but I felt like I could have spent more time just staring at these beautiful beaches.
One of Okinawa’s most famous culinary exports is the purple benimo potato, particularly in pastry form. Hence, many bus tours stop by the large and famous Okashi Goten shop where you can buy a large variety of potato-based treats. Now, a potato-based tarte may sound pretty weird, but trust me on this. They are absolutely delicious and very sweet. The color alone is a sight to behold.
This is a theme park dedicated to showcasing ancient Okinawan culture. It is a recreation of a traditional village in the times of the Ryukyu Empire (i.e. before Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands became a part of Japan). You can take a stroll through the village, enjoy the incredible vegetation surrounding it, and pet a water buffalo.
On top of that, there was also a fascinating exhibition of traditional culture and a drum performance that made you really feel like you were teleported into a different time and place. Highly recommended.
And just to make sure that you don’t actually think that you have been transported back into the ancient Ryukyu kingdom and as a reminder that you are still very much in Japan, there is also a big One Piece Village right in the traditional village. Oh Japan.
Okinawa World and Gyokusendo Cave
Okinawa World is somewhat similar to Ryukyu Mura as it is also a theme park showcasing Okinawan culture and also features a lovely recreation of a Ryukyu village in which you can learn about traditional Okinawan crafts like glass blowing and musical instruments. However, I would definitely say that you should try to visit both of them if possible since I was absolutely fascinated by this culture and both offer plenty of new things that the other one does not.
In the case of Okinawa World, the most noteworthy aspect as probably Gyokusendo Cave. It is a spectacular cave featuring lots of impressive stalactites and -mites.
You can follow the cave for about 850 meters, and it is a fantastic experience. I also loved that the entire theme park is designed around the cave in a very clever fashion. You can enter the cave at the park entrance and exit it at the back of the park and can make your way through the park to get to the entrance again. That way, you don’t have to walk back through the cave to get out again and only have to take each walk once – once through the cave, then once through the park. It’s very economical, and that is certainly necessary as there is a lot of stuff to discover here.
On top of the houses and Okinawan crafts, you can also look at a bunch of Okinawan art and look at a bunch of snake exhibits. You can even take your picture with a white python if that’s your thing.
Sefa Utaki is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was an important place of worship for the native Ryukyu religion.The site is located near a cliff where our bus stopped. Here, you can enjoy a great view of the beach and landscape below.
It is unlike most religious sites I have ever seen, as that religion apparently places a great importance on the worship of nature itself. Sefa Utaki is located in a densely-populated forest that basically feels like a jungle. The flora was unlike anything I had ever seen before and seemed even more ‘exotic’ than everything else I had encountered on Okinawa before.
After going through this lovely ‘jungle’, you end up at some large rock formations. While their significance was completely lost on me at the time and no amount of reading up on it could ever really convey what it must have meant to the followers of this religion, it is still a really beautiful place to visit. To be honest, not knowing much of the backstory at the time, it felt more like an exploration of beautiful nature rather than the visit of a religious site, but it was a worthwhile trip either way.
Of course, I was only able to scratch the surface of what Okinawa has to offer and there are countless other things to discover. As an example, you can read up on the unique graves that can be found on the islands. I am by no means an expert, but I still felt like I got a pretty good impression of Okinawa Isaand and it is an absolutely fascinating place.
Lastly, I have to mention one more aspect of Okinawan culture that left a lasting impression on me. The music. On each of my two bus trips, the tour guide just stood up at some point during the ride and starting singing some traditional songs. This was quite an odd experience at first, but left me quite intrigued. It would take quite a long time until I had time to check it out, but I was finally able to research Okinawan music a bit and really enjoy it. Rimi Natsukawa in particular is a big favorite of mine.