Tuesday, March 27, 2012
And now for the highlight of our first day (and maybe the whole Okinawa trip) - Churaumi Aquarium, renowed for having the world's second largest aquarium viewing tank (it was the largest until Dubai took the honour in 2008). Churaumi is also one of the few to have whale sharks in captivity, and is trying to breed them.
"Chura 美ら" means "beautiful" in native Okinawan, and "umi 海" is Japanese for "sea". This "beautiful sea" aquarium is part of the Ocean Expo Park, which is a pretty big place with lots of other non-marine exhibits. In fact, there's a Tropical Dream Center that has over 2,000 orchids, including species not seen in Singapore!
Right at the entrance of Ocean Expo Park, you'll be greeted by a colourful explosion of flowers.
Hard not to be cheered by the sight.
This says "Menso-re ("Welcome!" in the Okinawan dialect) to Ocean Expo Park". The park's been around since 1975, but the aquarium was built in 2002.
Walk the grand sloping staircase down and enjoy the sense of space.
There are travelators on each side in both directions (something we appreciated after traipsing around a lot).
It's a slight walk to the aquarium, but it's no sweat at all for the many schoolkids who come here.
This was also the day that I discovered that in colder weather my DSLR camera gobbles up battery life like crazy. While it lasted four days in sunny Telunas (Indonesia) on a single charge, here in Okinawa, it couldn't take half a day and chose to die soon after we entered the aquarium. So I can't believe it, but I have to settle for iPhone 3Gs photos to show you the epic tank.
Anyway, I thought it would be better if I showed you videos than stills. That's the real appeal of an aquarium, watching fish alive and moving. Sorry the quality isn't better on my iPhone (gah, need 4S, but everyone telling me to wait for iPhone 5!)
Yes, the grand Kuroshio tank with the fish gliding by like ethereal beings - that's 7,500 cubic metres of water there with an acrylic glass panel measuring 8.2m by 22.5m. The viewing panel is 60mm thick! The tank name comes from the Kuroshio current which is what bathes the Okinawan islands and give it life.
More than 16,000 fish live here, including three whale sharks, giant manta rays and lots of tuna. And guess what? The manta rays are breeding here! Four have been born so far! That can only mean happy fish. Animals don't breed unless they feel the environment is safe.
As mentioned earlier, they are gonna try whale shark breeding next. Fingers crossed for baby whale sharks!
We also witnessed a peculiar incident where a deathly pale-looking zebra (or leopard) shark turned belly up, and some other sharks came over to try to help or revive it. Yes, you'll see it around 1:20 after the huge whaleshark glides past.
At first we thought the other sharks were trying to eat it, but they didn't tear it apart. Instead, they seemed to guide it to a safe corner. Visitors were going, "Shin da?" (Is it dead?) and a little boy going, "Oyogi! Oyogi!" (Swim! Swim!).
Some curious sting rays also came to take a look. But the cluster of fellow zebra sharks kept watch over their fallen brother. Amazing.
The tank is indeed breath-taking. I am reminded of the Osaka Kaiyoukan, which also has a huge tank (a whopping seven storeys high) with a whale shark in it. That's where I was first wowed by seeing a live whale shark.
Well, after some time, you see the whale sharks circling around for their nth time, you start to have anthropomorphic pity for the creatures. And start wondering if it's too crowded or if it is really cruel to keep them enclosed like that.
But I feel these exhibits still serve a purpose to inspire the younger generation to learn about these animals and to take care of the marine environment.
There's lots more to the aquarium - a full coral exhibit, deep-sea creatures, micro creatures, giant squid (preserved), huge lobsters with stubby lobsters, and even a shark research lab.
Outside the aquarium are areas for dolphin performances, manatees, and sea turtles.
The Churaumi Aquarium is one of the most visited attractions in Okinawa. You could easily spend a whole day at the Ocean Expo Park, with an afternoon in the aquarium. It's great to take your time and not rush through the exhibits, as there are lots of interesting facts and details to take in. I'm glad we had a few hours here.
For opening hours and ticketing details, please see their website. The aquarium is located on the northern part of Okinawa's main island. Here's how to get there.
This media trip to Okinawa was made possible by CTC Travel, Okinawa Visitors and Convention Bureau, and Okinawa Tourist Service). There are no direct flights from Singapore to Okinawa yet, but CTC Travel organises specially chartered flights and tours.
Posted 11:59 PM
Saturday, March 24, 2012
The grand Cape Manzamo is one of the top tourist scenic spots in Okinawa. It faces the East China Sea and is famous for the elephant shaped rock formation, with the trunk or nose ("zoe no hanna") dipping into the ocean. See? It totally looks like one, although the rock would probably disagree, "Who're you calling an elephant?!"
The weather was still a little chilly when we were there (early March). I have seen in pictures how the waters are gorgeous shades of turquoise during summer.
With this significant icon, you'd assume Manzamo means Great Elephant Rock or some sort, but no. In the local dialect, Manzamo (万座毛) means "ten thousand men sitting on the grassland" - because Ryukyu King Sho Kei who visited in the 18th Century was so impressed with the wide plateau that he dubbed this place Man 万(10,000) Za 座(to sit) Mo 毛(field/grassland) as an indication of its size. That would be one huge picnic.
No mention of the elephant shaped rock by the King. Was it visible back then? Maybe the limestone didn't look like one yet, or maybe the king had not seen many elephants before. I can't help but think that someday the limestone will erode and the elephant will morph into something else. Catch it before it does!
Still, besides the elephant limestone outcrop, there are other rocks equally worthy of your imaginative contemplation.
There's even some good diving to be had here, at the funnily named Toilet Bowl. No, not this one above. There are tide pools with lots of interesting marine life to see, but beware the jagged rocks. There is also a pair of little known twin Jizo statues, (read more at the link).
Plant life here can be a little different as it has to withstand harsh coastal weather.
The whole area reminds me of the Great Ocean Road near Melbourne. It's a pretty place to see, but if you're on a bus tour, you're likely to be hurried off to your next destination without the opportunity to really explore the area.
So off we went, past the souvenir stalls in the parking lot, to our next stop - Nago Pineapple Park.
The main Okinawa island is divided into southern, central and northern zones. Manzamo is in the centre near the town of Onna, and the pineapple park is at Nago just slightly north of it. The southern part, where Naha is, remains the most heavily populated.
We covered a lot of ground on the first day of our media trip (organised by CTC Travel, Okinawa Visitors and Convention Bureau, and Okinawa Tourist Service). The places shown on the map - Manzamo, Nago, Ogimi Village, Churaumi Aquarium - are all more than an hour's drive up north.
OK, here's the Pineapple Park. Well, Singapore's right next to a huge pineapple producer (Johor), so you might wonder if there's anything interesting to glean here.
The theme park is really small - the first part is a driverless buggy ride that brings you on a (very brief) trail to see pineapple plants and related flora. Our tour included commentary in English.
It then deposits you to an even longer trail - pineapple products of all kinds! And free sampling of everything!
Pineapple wine, pineapple jelly, pineapple kasutera (a type of sponge cake), pineapple cookies, pineapple candy, pineapple. Other fruits also get a chance to star - shikuwasa (the local calamansi). If you're interested in the kasutera, wait til you get closer to the end where the Gold Award winner is. The Bronze and Silver ones you'll encounter first, and there are cashiers all along the way, but hold those impulses.
There are even beauty products like soap, pineapple charcoal, etc.
The actual pineapple is exceptionally juicy. I don't know how they manage to pack in that much water into the fruit!
You can even try unusual species like peach pineapple, like these from Ishigaki Island. It really does taste faintly of peach, and is not as tangy as regular pineapple.
I also got to try umibudou or sea grapes, a kind of seaweed. By themselves, they have a cool popping texture, but not much flavour. Dip them in ponzu, however, and it's an explosion of flavour. These are also available outside the pineapple park, of course.
It's hard to make it through the trail without buying something. At the very end there are souvenirs, and at the exit/entrance - ice cream cones, with pineapple as a flavour choice, of course.
Ice cream, we came to realise during our stay, is a big thing in Okinawa.
Park entry fees are 600 yen for adults, 300 yen for children aged 7-12, with a 10 per cent discount for groups.
Next up - Emi no Mise for a traditional and naturally organic Okinawan lunch, and the world's second largest aquarium tank at Churaumi Aquarium!
Posted 1:09 PM
Friday, March 23, 2012
STOP PRESS! Yes, I'm interrupting my Okinawan posts to show you this gleaming beauty, and how you can win one! The KitchenAid Artisan Brushed Nickel Stand Mixer, worth S$1,299 is up for grabs in the TANGS Cook-Off contest.
TANGS is recreating the perfect America family dinner, and you're invited to submit (via Facebook) your favourite Western-themed recipe from that era. You can submit from now til 31 March 2012, so hurry!
The best three recipes will be chosen via public voting from 15 April to 30 April 2012. These three contestants will get to compete in May at TANGS Vivocity to see whose dish is the best. They will each get guidance from renowned chef John See (former chief chef to Aussie Prime Minister John Howard) in preparing their special dish. But everyone will be a winner, as the second and third prizes are also quite enticing.
I superwaaant that KitchenAid mixer. But I cannot win it. Because I am judging the contest! Oh yes, I get to decide (partly) who gets to take home this gorgeous beauty. The judging panel will also include lucky Facebook participants who prefer not to cook but to judge. Just vote for your favourite dish, and you stand a chance to judge the TANGS Cook-Off too!
Check out the TANGS blog for full details, and their Facebook page for participation. Good luck and have fun!
This post is sponsored by TANGS.
Posted 2:15 AM
Thursday, March 22, 2012
We stayed at the JAL City Hotel Naha which is smack dab on Kokusai Street, the shopping belt of the capital.
The hotel is clean, modern and well-appointed. Very decent Western-style business hotel, with English-speaking concierge staff. There's free wi-fi in the lobby (see above), and three computer terminals with Internet access for guests to use.
Hotels in Japan tend to be infamously cramped and small, but this one is quite decent.
The single bed I had was very comfortable. I also like the bedside alarm clock - it has a softly increasing ring that lifts you gently from slumber, instead of jarring you awake. First time I am seeing a comfort robe with buttons instead of a sash.
A writing desk/dresser and a lounging area take up the window end of the room. The TV is all Japanese though. There's some pay TV but it also looks to be Japanese only.
The closet is really tiny and is right next to the door/entrance. I guess it's convenient in that you can hang your coat straight away. They even have a room freshener in spray bottle for you. Nice touch.
The bathroom is easily three times the size of normal hotel bathrooms on mainland Japan. I was surprised when I examined the mirror - the section above the sink is heated, so you won't have steam condensation fogging up the mirror! So thoughtful!
I love Japanese bathtubs - narrower but deep - perfect for that hot soak. Add some bath salts and you can have your little pretend onsen at a temperature you can control.
I later discovered later an interesting booklet in the hotel room advising guests on various aspects of safety. Boring manual? Not in the least!
Cute illustrations accompany the gentle advice on various activities. There are also infectious disease and disaster response pages with emergency contact numbers.
Wow, check out the animals you might encounter! And what to do if you are injured/poisoned by them. Another reminder - no vinegar for sea creature stings. The "habu" or indigenous poisonous snake is particularly interesting. You'll certainly see lots of them. Not alive, but preserved in wine bottles. Will show you some in later posts.
The guide also tells you what animals are "Natural Monuments" - so you don't accidentally take home one of their prized creatures. As many tourists also do self-drive holidays (there isn't a developed rail system in Okinawa), some animals also get knocked down. Drive slowly!
I am a major wildlife fan, so I found all this quite interesting.
But for many of us, the biggest highlight of the hotel was the buffet breakfast at the "Bon Appetit" restaurant. Several of us felt it was often the best meal of the day.
The "Breakfast Viking" (Japanese use "Viking" to denote smorgasbord or buffets) runs from 7 to 10am. Most days we had to be down at 7am itself for breakfast as our itineraries start early (8am-ish), but the buffet was a great incentive to pull ourselves up from bed in the morning!
I zeroed in on the local items. Little did I know I'd grow to like them so much. The local food is generally quite healthy, but tasty.
There is usually a "champuru" (mixed stir-fry) of various vegetables, sometimes with egg and/or tofu. Here's one featuring "goya" the local bittergourd. Back home, bittergourd is not my favourite vegetable, but this goya has made me want to eat more of it.
Here we have papaya champuru on the left. It's interesting to note that papaya is eaten as a vegetable, and not a fruit in Okinawa. On the right, we have a dried Japanese radish daikon "irichi" - something like a braised dish.
This is a Kubu Irichi - kelp stirfried/braised with pork. Kubu is the local dialect name for kombu. I love this, I could just eat loads of it like a noodle dish!
And a bit of fish - salted salmon and grilled saba alternate on days.
There's also kamaboko (boiled fish paste) with hijiki (listed as edible brown algae). On alternate days, it has carrots instead. They taste a bit more chewy than regular fish cake, but are deliciously savoury.
I also enjoyed the okayu - congee or rice porridge - something I usually skip at hotel buffets, but this is such a traditional staple for breakfast in Japan, I was sure they'd do it well. They do. Here you can tell they use good rice, the texture is sheer comfort and there are lots of nice toppings.
You can choose from pickled vegetables and umeboshi or pickled plums (top), natto (middle), furikake with small bait, and shredded dried fish (bottom). I actually ate natto twice! What's happening to me?
You must get to know "andansu" (literally oil miso, but is a sweetish miso with pork bits), and "mozuku" (a stringy seaweed). The mozuku shown here is in dense clumps and intensely umami. There is another version with bigger strands served in sweetened vinegar near the salads. Super tangy, super delicious (although I heard a China woman complain it was too sour).
We also adored the special "mochi" tofu - it's akin to a springy mousse - like no tofu we've had before. I wonder if it's yushi tofu (oboro tofu) which is unsolidified fluffy tofu. Add some soy sauce, chopped spring onions, sesame seeds and enjoy.
If you fancy Japanese curry, you can have some with steamed short-grain rice or breads. There's a live station where they churn out the most perfect sunny side up eggs. The cook is rather shy and tried to escape my camera.
Of course they have Western items to cater to international guests - luxuriously creamy scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, blanched and pan-fried vegetables, but I think I still enjoyed the Okinawan items more.
Plenty of breads, croissants, danishes and rolls.
I love the blue cheese!!! That little innocent knob turned out to be one of the best I've had in a long time!
And the coffee is good. Milk incredible - so rich that a little splash will render your tea/coffee solidly opaque. Juices include that of shikuwasa - a local citrus fruit resembling the calamansi lime, but more fragrant.
Warabi mochi - oh my god, that's what good ones taste like! This beats all the versions I've had in Singapore, including those from high-end restaurants! This one is made with black sugar that the island is famous for.
The sweets section had no cake or heavy dessert but plenty of fruit - lychees, pineapples, bananas and oranges. There's yoghurt and cereals too, but I didn't try those. Lots of greens, salads, mixed beans and dressings.
But you know what? There's not a single deep-fried item in the whole line-up, and amazingly, you don't even miss it! Kudos to that!
The healthy offerings also allowed us to eat to our fill, and yet not feel heavy or satiated.
Eunice and I always made sure we had one full hour for breakfast. It was just too good to miss. Breakfast goes for about 1,800 yen (maybe 1,500 for hotel guests if they decide to add on). The restaurant also has buffet lunches, dinners and a la carte choices.
So yes, I'm very glad we stayed at this hotel. The only downside is the lack of wi-fi in the room. You only get free wi-fi in the hotel lobby, and I mean strictly the hotel lobby, not in the restaurant or any other public areas. There is however, highspeed Internet access via LAN cable in the rooms (bring your own cable or borrow one from the front desk). But if you want to play Draw Something or check WhatsApp on your phone, go downstairs to the lobby!
For shoppers, there is a Coach premium outlet store right at the hotel. My favourite shopping is still at the kombini (convenience store), and there's a Family Mart just a couple of doors away.
Online rates for the hotel go for 8,300 yen (single room, no breakfast) upwards. Prices are all inclusive (no service charge or taxes!).
JAL CITY HOTEL NAHA
〒900-0013 1-3-70 Makishi, Naha-shi, Okinawa
Posted 8:30 AM