Churaumi Aquarium (美ら海 beautiful ocean aquarium) is one of the premiere tourist attractions in Okinawa prefecture. The large aquarium is located within the even larger and interesting Ocean Expo Park on the Motobu Peninsula. Boasting one of the worlds largest indoor tanks, the stars of the complex are three whale sharks housed with many other fish of varying sizes.
Though I’ve lived in Okinawa for over five years, I had my first opportunity to visit Churaumi only this past weekend. The aquarium is very easy to find since there are easy-to-read signs pointing the way on major streets from Naha. For a scenic route, take route 58 north and follow the signs. For a quicker trip try the expressway (it’s a toll road).
The surprising thing about the Ocean Expo park is the sheer size of it. We went in November which was after the peak season so we had little trouble with traffic or even finding a parking space. Other friends noted that they’ve had problems with that during the summer months. We met the first designated parking lot quite far from the actual aquarium, though there are many attractions along the way, and a tram-car you can hire for 200yen/day. If you’re going during non-peak seasons, just drive up to the closest parking lot!
The whole complex is cunningly designed for the efficient flow of attendees. From the entry there are wide walkways, pavilions, stairs, fountains, and play areas that allow people to move at their own pace without blocking others’ way. Once you make it past various information booths, restaurants, and flowering sea life you’ll find escalators that will take you down to the entrance of the aquarium itself.
The fees can change but entry is usually about 1800 yen for adults, though a year’s pass is 3600. If you plan on going more than once, it makes sense to get a passport. Through the gates you’re immediately immersed in the oceanic experience at a tank of touchable sea life. Throughout you’ll walk past multiple tanks of various sizes grouped by sea depth before finding yourself at the vaulting main tank. Here, crowd control truly comes together as there are seats, switchback ramps and a wide area on the floor to give everyone time to stop, watch, and take pictures.
There is also a large shark exhibit you can checkout before heading down to the main floor. In addition to many specimens and interactive learning guides, there is a large tank of various sharks including lemon and tiger sharks. Outside the shark lab the path leads down to the main tank where you can watch the whale sharks, rays, fish, and other animals swirl through the waters.
Once you’re ready to move on, there are a few other exhibits including life near the bottom of the sea. There is also a cafe with seating around the bottom of the main tank for those that have a bit of extra time.
Finally, the path ends at an extravagant gift shop with everything from individually packaged snacks (great for omiyage) to plushes and clothes. Unfortunately we were limited by time so we kept our visit to the aquarium, and finished within about 2 hours. There is easily plenty to fill a day or more, but you can customize your trip to your schedule. If you visit Okinawa, be sure to check out Churaumi!