Giant Aquarium at the End of the World

Considering the ridiculous heat in Kanazawa, which increased every day, I was looking for something to do without too much heat exposure and came upon the idea to go to Notojima (Shima, or jima means island) it’s an island off the shore at the tip of Ishikawa prefecture but close enough to the shore to be connected by bridges to the mainland. It’s about 70 km from Kanazawa. Across from the island, on the mainland is a famous hot spring spa place called Wakura Onsen.
On the island are two main things to see, a glass manufacturing place and a glass museum and an aquarium. Originally I wanted to check out both, but discussing with the lady at the information desk in Wakura Onsen, it turned out to be logistically impractical because the bus going there is only operating once every two hours. The three kilometers between the two sites seemed impossible to walk considering 35 degrees Celsius humid heat. The lady then recommended to concentrate on the aquarium. I am not big about informing myself in advance of my exploration targets. It’s like, there’s an aquarium, fine, let’s go there. I had no idea how huge the aquarium was and that I would need all three hours I had there. How come there is such a huge aquarium at the end of the world? It’s 16km from the train station and the public bus goes only once every two hours. It’s first of all of course a car destination. Also the hot spa town is getting a regular flow of visitors (in normal, non covid times) and they are probably organizing visits to the aquarium. Nevertheless, the thing’s size baffled me. It was constructed in the late seventies, early eighties during Japan’s bubble time, which also explains its size and it also means that it’s pretty old by now, but it’s also well maintained.
Right at the start you get to see the giant tank with two whale sharks and a multitude of other beasts. It’s cleverly made because you get to see the top of the basin and then spiral your way down alongside plenty of large and small windows. There was some interaction at the top of the basin with this giant dude who was fooling around at the edge of the basin glaring at you. It was a lovely moment of who is looking at whom, the fish inspecting the landlubbers or the other way round?

The two whale sharks are smaller in size, meaning younger than the whale sharks of the even bigger main tank at the Okinawa Churaumi aquarium. I hope the basin is not getting too small for them as they grow.

The whale shark tank seemed younger than the rest of the aquarium, the core part of the original aquarium has another large tank in the classic style, only one way to look at it, from the front. Inside that tank was a swarm of small fish that entertain with the patterns they make. There was feeding time for them too and the explanation lady said there were 10.000 of them. Then there were plenty of smaller tanks with loads of inhabitants and the usual seals, penguins, turtles, also dolphins and otters. The dolphins had two tanks, one for the performing ones, one for the perhaps retired ones, with a glass tunnel through the basin. They also had a giant sea otter and I was surprised by its huge size. In two areas they were working cleverly with mirrors, duplicating the fish and also the tanks with jelly fish. There were only four tanks, but it looked like many more thanks to the mirror reflections.

Last but not least they had a kind of cinema with a tank of swarm fish that was being lit in all colors of the rainbow. I hope the fish don’t mind the constant change in color.
As for visitors, there were quite a few around, but much less than usual I suppose, which became evident during the dolphin show. Four dolphins performed and one seal and the ranks in the outdoor theater were not very full. For me the amount of visitors was kind of just right, a few there so you didn’t feel odd about it, but few enough to be able to enjoy each tank at your own pace.
One way or the other, the aquarium was quite amazing, especially considering it’s remote location and it was well worth the visit.

Okinawa Main Island Report – Part 3

Thanks to the internet I found out that the other island visible from Sesoko beach next to Iejima is also inhabited and that there is a ferry going there. The island is called Minna and the much smaller ferry to it left from a small port called Toguchi not too far away from Motobu port. There were two ferries per day during the winter, one left at 11:00, the other at 17:00. If you go with the one at 11:00 you can catch the ferry back to the main island at 14:00, which is the last ferry leaving back to the mainland.
Minna Island is so far the tiniest inhabited island I have been to. There are fifty or less people living there.
I asked at the harbor whether I can take my bicycle. A guy in the office, who turned out to be the ferry’s captain, said you don’t need a bicycle, you can walk the entirety of the island in one hour and the roads are too bad too. Okay 😉 So I left my bicycle at the harbor. The comment about the roads being “too bad” translated into dirt paths outside the paved hundred meters of village.
The place is insanely beautiful but tiny indeed. In summer they have tourists on the beach, but now people are not swimming due to those venomous creatures around between November and March, so the place is lonely. In summer it must be quite a party island. It’s shaped like a croissant and the inner bay and the beach outside are both fantastic.
I first walked to the crescent bay, then around one arm. Then around the other. They have a school with two or so students on the island and some ten houses nestle around the school. There is no shop and not even a road really.
After two hours you indeed don’t know what to do anymore and I returned to the harbor where the ferry still sat waiting.
Walking up and down the beach I ran into this fellow here, it even walked once in while 😉
Back at the main island at already 14:15, the day was still young and I rode my bicycle inland in search for a forest park. The place is lovely and gave me that jungle feeling of Iriomote island for a few moments.
Then, I was determined to find out more about the mystery of the white buildings of Sesoko below the school which I again had seen from the ship to Minna island. I rode around Sesoko, trying to find a way there and ended up dumping the bicycle and trying on foot, but neglected sugar cane fields full of two and more meters high weed stood between me and the white buildings and I saw no getting through. I was about to give up when I ran into a guy on a scooter who looked like kind of a guard. He stopped and told me that the road I’m on is a dead end. I asked him about the buildings and he said, oh they are part of the failed resort hotel too and off limits. They were supposed to be the bungalow part of the hotel.
Hurray. The mystery was solved and I went back to my bicycle and rode to my functioning hotel. Whatever company tried to develop the resort must have bought the whole northwest corner of the island. What a shame that it now stands there all and rots. It wold have been nice had they torn down the modern ruins and returned the land to the people or the Okinawa government or something.

Churaumi part two
Back to the aquarium on my last day of holidays but a lot of other stuff before that. I bicycled beyond the ocean expo park area to the Bise Furugiya road, an “old” village with dirt paths between the houses that are lined with trees. The trees stand so close together that they produce tree tunnels. In some of the houses regular people are living, while some of the houses are pensions, but I wouldn’t want to live where tourists are wandering over my front yard every day! Amazing.
Then I went back to the Ocean Expo park. At first into a pacific ocean museum, which is mostly Polynesian themed, describing the islanders lives and their canoes. Then I visited a planetarium session about the winter sky in Okinawa with a nice local legend about the Pleiades.
On the way to the botanical garden are traditional Okinawa houses, and yes, times were tough when everything was made from wood and bast fibers. Then on to the botanical garden through the park. Every detail is beautifully designed in this place and it must be such a big amount of work to keep it all up and running. The botanical garden is insanely beautiful with every detail in perfect order. Thousands of orchids and other plants are there to enchant. I think this is one of the best botanical gardens I have seen so far. It only competes with the botanical gardens of Singapore.
Then I returned to the aquarium. I had been there the first time in the morning and noon and had learned that there is whale shark feeding at 15:00 and also 17:00 every day. The guys eat krill. They suck it in together with water and for that purpose they turn to “stand” in the water, which is the only time they do a thing like that. It’s quite impressive to see these eight meter long beasts standing in the water while they eat.
After the feeding there is some krill left and it makes the waters a bit fuzzy. To clear it up they blow oxygen from below the tank, and a pillar of water bubbles rises in its middle. The black manta had its fun with the bubbles and made somersaults inside it.
I hope the plan of making the whale sharks breed works, I would take the opportunity to come back to this aquarium to see a few hundred tiny whale sharks in the tank. 😉 I learned at this second visit that they also have another female whale shark, which is not in the main tank. She is not yet big enough to swim with the two others. Sounds like she is the “spare” candidate in case the two in the tank don’t like each other. 😉 Looking around in the internet shows that actually not that much is known about whale sharks. They might get over 70 years old. They reach sexual maturity only at around 30 years. Well, let’s hope the three in Okinawa will teach us a bit more about their reproduction.
I said good bye to the aquarium and the expo park then and bicycled home to “my” island, where I checked the sunset at the local beach again, but it was too cloudy to see the sun sink, nevertheless the sky and the sea were magnificent.

The next morning, one of the hotel staff brought me to the bus stop for the bus to the airport again and I asked him when the high season is and it indeed is summer. So far I’ve been to Okinawa prefecture only in spring, autumn and now winter, summer is still missing 😉 but, the hotel gentleman said every year they have to bring three, four guests to the hospital with severe sunburns! Okinawan people try to stay indoors during the day and only go out in the morning or the evening while the – he didn’t say stupid, but he meant it – stupid tourists go outside and swim e.g. without t-shirts on to protect themselves against the intense sunlight. If a local goes into the water, they all wear t-shirts, he said. Well, since I’m not only a colored but also a slight natural redhead and get sunburns after five minutes, I usually walk around quite thoroughly dressed even if it’s hot, so I should be fine also in summer 😉
It’s been a great and stress-free trip.
But the next adventure awaits – my “real” holidays of this winter – 70,000 tons of metal! Starting 2nd of February. uhhhh!

Okinawa Main Island Report – Part 2

I had checked for departure times the day before at the port and went there to catch the 11:00 ferry to Iejima together with my bicycle since this is a car ferry. I haven’t been on too many car ferries yet in my life and was amazed that the cars have to drive into the ferry backwards. Gulp. I love my sweet little bicycle that they stored in a corner of the ship.
While I’m a little scared of small boats for less than ten people, I love big or bigger ships and greatly enjoyed the short, 30 min, ride to Iejima.
Arrived there, I went straight to the prominent central mountain, just to take a look, not expecting that you could get on top. But, you can get on top! Someone bothered to build sturdy concrete stairs up to the very top of the mountain.
I always admire the pioneers who put those stairs there in the first place. That must have been quite a job. The stairs are steep and tiring, but the view from the top of the mountain is breathtaking. You see the island in its entirety and the ocean with the other islands around it is amazing. That view alone is worth a trip to Iejima.
I bicycled around a bit and then headed for the western half of the island. Most of it is off limits, US army base….
But before the base is a cave that I wanted to see. The cave was of course used by the villagers on the island during WW2 as a shelter. It also would have been or maybe was an excellent pirate cave 😉
Tired from the stair hike and all the cycling, I enjoyed the boat ride back, but discovered two things on Sesoko island (where my hotel is) while riding past the island on the ferry that I had not noticed yet. A big building in the middle and mysterious white buildings below it.
I bicycled thus around Sesoko and discovered quite a maze of tiny back streets to people’s houses. I found the big building, which turned out to be a school, lol. I was too tired to go looking for the white ones, there were still some days left with more chances to explore 😉
This was New Year’s Eve by the way. I asked in the hotel whether there was a shrine people go to, but the answer was, they go to Nago which is 17 km away one way. Not a reasonable distance for a nightly bicycle ride, so I spent the evening in the hotel.

Churaumi Aquarium
Luckily my hotel was only 6 km away from the main attraction of northern Okinawa, the ocean expo park with its central attraction, the Churaumi Aquarium. Chura means beautiful in Okinawan language and umi means sea, by the way.
I bicycled there after breakfast and arrived at 10:30 in the morning. I went straight to the aquarium, having made sure via internet before that it was open on the first of January. It was open and well visited. It’s main feature is the giant ocean tank, home to numerous creatures with the two stars being two pretty damn big whale sharks. The male one lives in captivity for 21 years already and is now 8.6 meters long. The female is in captivity for nine years and not much smaller than the other. The aquarium is hoping that the two will produce offspring one day. Let’s see!
Apparently the aquarium was majorly overhauled and renewed some fifteen years ago and the building is impressive. I also liked it very much that there is a hidden-away elevator that takes you up to the top of the main tank and you can look inside from above. Very nicely thought of and arranged. I stumbled across the elevator by accident and I bet many people miss it.

Next I had lunch and then visited the manatee and the sea turtle buildings, which are separate from the main aquarium. The manatees looked very cute while making rolls inside the water. A place like that of course also has a dolphin building and show. I watched the show in the fully packed arena of the dolphin place with bus loads of Chinese tourists around me. I’m always a bit cringing at such animal shows, however, a zoo employee once told me in a zoo in Tokyo that e.g. sea lions would get too bored if they have no stimulus like doing tricks in a show. So I hope it’s the same for the dolphins. Well, the shows don’t seem to hurt them, since one of the dolphin ladies was already forty years old, as the show announcer said.
Next I wandered to the “emerald” beach, although I would rather call it sapphire, since the ocean is more blue than green 😉 A very nice stretch of beach, but there were “no swimming” signs around everywhere, saying that from November to March swimming is not allowed due to various animals around, jelly fish, and also other venomous creatures.
I had not seen the planetarium or the arboretum yet, but it was enough for one day and I bicycled back to Sesoko. With the weather being excellent, I rode to the Sesoko beach, which faces west, and enjoyed a very pretty sunset. Only one bank of clouds in the way, but they actually made the sunset nicer.