Today marked our last full day in Japan and it was an early start as we had decided to take a tour bus to see some of the sights of Okinawa. Of particular interest to both of us was the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium which is a world class facility and one of the only aquariums in the world to house whale sharks.
We had another convenience store breakfast (hey – they ARE convenient!) and set off to the hotel where the tour bus would pick us up. This was a short walk away and we were the first people to board.
The bus set-up was quite interesting, with us English tourists at the back of the bus so we could listen to the English recordings and see the (very old and dodgy) TV screen showing the corresponding video. Chinese tourists were seated in the middle of the bus and had an earpiece which ostensibly delivered the same information we received in Chinese. And finally the Japanese speakers were at the front of the bus where our guide could just talk to them directly.
I do think the Japanese speakers got the best value for money as the guide kept up a fairly constant stream of banter, even when our screens were silent. I got a lot of sleeping in while we cycled around, picking up other tourists from their designated hotels.
The first stop of the tour was the Nago Pineapple House. This stop was a really cheesy tourist trap, but surprisingly fun with everything pineapple themed you could imagine. A gimmick-y automatic cart rail was running which Nick and I opted out of in favour of walking through the gardens. Aside from pineapples, there were quite a lot of tropical flowers and other things to look at.
Having said this, we would have bypassed the gardens entirely if we had known what was at the end of the shopping area – a pineapple smorgasbord of samples. Anything you can think of that you could possibly get a pineapple flavour into was there. Pineapple wine, pineapple chocolate, pineapple pie, pineapple juices – and everything had a sample. So Nick and I availed ourselves of these quite liberally. A famous Okinawan treat is apparently a pineapple sponge cake. In texture it is much more like a butter cake – its very dense and rich. But the pineapple was very delicately added – it was more in the aroma than in the taste. We really enjoyed that one.
We did actually buy a pineapple on a stick to share – it was really sweet and fresh and tangy! Also gave us some much needed moisture on what was turning out to be a hot day.
Happily, on the way out of this centre, our tour guide purchased us all a small tub of pineapple ice-cream to eat on the bus. I was a huge fan of this as it wasn’t sweet at all and there were a few chunks of pineapple which were deliciously tart mixed into the ice-cream. It was also really creamy and not full of ice crystals like cheap ice-creams can be.
Our next stop was the Ryogujo Butterfly Garden. We also had our included lunch of Okinawan-style noodle soup here. The broth that went with these noodles was really nice and the noodles were really fat from soaking up all the broth. The stop itself was a little ‘meh’ in that it was a (relatively) small enclosure with only 3 types of butterflies we could see. Even more disillusioning – I didn’t realise immediately, but the flowers in the enclosure were all plastic – obviously sprayed with pheromones or similar to make them attractive to the butterflies. The gardens surrounding the enclosure were nice but not as good as some of the tended gardens we have seen previously. Also I didn’t look close enough to check if they were real or not.
After this, it was a very short drive to the main event, the Aquarium. We had about 3 hours to explore it. We were entranced by the wonderful fish varieties on display in the glass enclosures and they had wonderful smaller exhibits to see. Nick was particularly in awe of the whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea. The Aquarium had a couple of whale sharks which they had rescued from fisherman’s nets in the viewing tank. They were so ridiculously big – we were utterly dwarfed by them. It was humbling and exciting to see them at the same time.
Aside from the main viewing tanks, I really enjoyed the exhibits about the bio-luminescent creatures and the deep sea creatures (kept under pressure and temperature controlled displays). There was also an exhibit on different kinds of jellyfish which I found amazing. Some of them had some kind of flickering impulse running through them which I tried to capture on video. Others were also strangely lit up – potentially to lure their prey in.
Another really fascinating display was the shark laboratory. They had a lot of tactile information, such as the skins of different kinds of shark which ranged from a silken feel to sandpaper. They also had a megalodon skull in this area which dwarfs any of the sharks still in the ocean. I was able to stand inside the open jaws without my head really touching the top. Scary!!
We were also incredibly lucky to be able to witness the feeding of the whale sharks and mantas in the viewing tanks. The staff had trained the whale sharks to come when they tapped the water with the feeding poles. They then dropped plankton, mixed with vitamin supplements and other nourishing foods for the fish, into the water and we got to see the whale sharks ‘treading water’ to suck up the plankton with air to ingest it.
Nick was also lucky enough to see a manta ray arrow up to the surface and ‘jump’ into the air before reentering. I unfortunately was looking at something else when this happened but I did see the aftermath of the manta’s reentry. That would have been cool!
Once we regrouped on the bus (a couple almost got left behind as they were almost 10 minutes late getting back!) we had once final surprise stop. A sweet shop.
Again, this was quite fun walking around and trying the samples. We only bought a small lemon cake to split and the samples provided us with enough of a sugar hit for the day. But the guide also bought everyone a sampler here – I think they might have been Okinawan Salt Biscuits, which, despite their name, seemed to be a kind of sweet butter biscuit. I gave my one to Nick though as it smelled really peanut-y and even though peanut is a relatively rare ingredient in Japanese cooking, I decided to be safe rather then sorry. As Nick thought he could detect peanut as well I think I might have dodged a bullet.
We then had a really long and boring process of dropping everyone else off at their hotels. First people on, last people off. But again, I just had a snooze while we were travelling, I felt like I spent most of the day napping on the bus!
Once we jumped out, we decided to go ahead and go straight for dinner as it was quite late (almost 8pm!) and Nick found a nifty little ramen shop sneakily packed at the back of a trendy t-shirt store. The place, again, had no westernised name, but it is called ラーメンちゃんや – Google says this translates to “Ramen-chan” which is quite cute.
They served Okinawan style ramen. Nick had a spicy one and I had one which seemed to have a fish based broth. As far as ramen goes, I think I like mainland Japan (pork broth) the best. Nick concurred with this assessment but overall it was still a very tasty meal! I just wish I’d ordered the spicy one too.
Once back at the Airbnb, we had to pack up and get ready for the day ahead. We decided to put on a load of washing as the place had a washer and dryer. Unfortunately, we didn’t know at the time that Japanese clothes dryers are utter garbage and despite running the clothes through the cycle several times we have some very damp clothes on our hands still. We got very creative with every hanging space we could find in the apartment and prayed everything would be dry by the morning. I didn’t have any time to post the blog last night (hence the late posting!) as we desparately needed to turn in to get some sleep before the flight to Taiwan the next day.
I guess you’ll be sad to be leaving Japan. Wahale sharks are the coolest….