Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Where to go during Okinawa’s long rainy season

Rainy season on Okinawa traditionally runs from Golden Week in late April through May and ends around the 15th of June. What made it worse this year is it almost seems as though the season began shortly after the New Year. It’s a safe bet that there have been far more rainy days this year than there has been in recent memory. So much so that the Dams that were less than 70% full a few months ago are full to overflowing.

This year in particular the problem is what to do and where to go during the longer than usual rainy season. With beaches, sunshine and the great outdoors being the main tourist attraction for the island, indoor attractions, or more correctly, low cost indoor attractions on Okinawa are somewhat rare. While I never seem to get tired of visiting the main market in Naha, for many a visitor, this could put one into boredom overload.

One really good opportunity is a drive south to Okinawa World, which includes the famous Gyokusendo cave. It is the largest Okinawan culture theme park on the island. In addition to the cave it features 10 main attractions to include tropical orchards, traditional craft village, Ryukyu glass blowing and pottery kiln. There’s also a large shopping center, Habu snake museum and show, Habu Awamori distillery, and an international award winning brewery.

The Gyokusendo cave is more than 300,000 years old and is the second largest in Japan. The cave, surprisingly not discovered until well after the war, is five kilometers long, with 890 meters open to the public. It claims to have the greatest stalactites and stalagmites in Asia, features many unique formations, including the “Speared Ceiling,” which has more than 20,000 stalactites hanging from the ceiling. At 20 meters wide and 80 meters deep, “Asia Grand Hall” is a giant underground room lined with countless stalagmites.

After exiting the cave, visitors will be on the opposite end of the park by the beautiful tropical orchards lined with indigenous fruit trees and flower gardens. The gardens boast more than 450 tropical trees and produce 100 different fruits such as papaya, mango and odiferous yet surprisingly palatable Dorian. Just be ready to hold your nose and gulp but once you get it past the nostrils, its down-right delectable and rightly named the king of the fruits.

After the gardens, visitors enter the traditional Ryukyu village. Here, visitors have the opportunity to participate in glass blowing and pottery classes. If making the crafts by hand is too arduous, the glass shop and crafts center both have shopping areas where guests can buy a wide variety of handcrafted items, all at outrageous tourist trap prices.

In the Ryukyu village, sightseers will walk through a traditional Okinawan village scene. Inside the different structures, workers, in period costumes, craft items made from a wide variety of natural materials. The village also boasts a brown sugar factory, museum, silver factory and brewery where the award winning Nihedebiru beer is brewed. There’s also a distillery specializing in Habu Awamori sake, known as Okinawa's health elixer.

Near village exit is a pavilion where Eisa dancers perform with large Taiko drums. The performers scream, dance and perform martial arts moves. The performers invite crowd members to come onto the stage and participate and take pictures at the end of the show.

The park is also home to the Habu Park, named after Okinawa’s infamous, indigenous, snake the “Habu.” The park consists of a snake museum, a small zoological garden and a snake show, where visitors have to opportunity to hold a python and see the handlers work up close and personal with a live cobra and Habu. In times past, the main attraction here was a Habu Mongoose fight but modernity has both its benefits as well as its detractors so the fight has been replaced by a swimming race between a mongoose and a “umihabu” or venomous sea snake.

To get to Okinawa World by bus from the Naha bus terminal, visitors should take bus lines 54 and 83 directly to Okinawa World. The trip takes about one hour. Get off at the "Gyokusendo-mae" bus stop, which is in front of the park. There are about 12 round trips per day.

By car, the easiest, yet longer, route is to go south on Highway 58, which will eventually turn into Highway 331. Follow the signs to Peace Prayer Park. About two miles after Peace Prayer Park there will be signs for Gyokusendo Cave.

The park is open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from November to March and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from April to October. Full Admission at the gate is 1600 Yen for adults which includes the cave, the Kingdom Village cultural attractions and the Habu shows. Children up through Junior High school age are half price.

Gyokusendo Cave Video

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