Okinawa day 2: Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

Both of us were woken by a loud pecking sound at around 6:30 am. Bell and I wondered whether it was the sound of a woodpecker. Since I was unable to get back to sleep, I decided to just get up. My stomach was still not feeling well and I had a stomach ache in the morning, even before I consumed any food. The wise thing to do with an upset stomach would be to eat less. But I was never a wise person. Besides, breakfast was really good.

The wind was stronger than yesterday, so we decided that it would be too cold to go cherry blossom viewing. Armed with a good excuse, we hurried to the restaurant to get out of the wind.

The wife brought out two trays laden with food. Breakfast looked really good!

We had porridge for breakfast which made me very happy. I liked porridge made with Japanese rice. The porridge was cooked together with barley and an Okinawa seaweed called mozuku. The wife said we could ask for a refill and encouraged us to eat more. She said, “Eat more for breakfast and you don’t have to eat lunch!”

The porridge went so well with the rest of the dishes that Bell and I asked for another bowl each.

We had bacon, grilled salmon, pumpkin and a hard-boiled egg where the yolk still remained in semi-liquid form. The bacon and grilled salmon were savory, too salty to eat on their own, but just right when eaten with a mouthful of porridge. Bell liked the bacon very much. I like the pumpkin as it was savory and sweet, actually, it tasted more savory than sweet.

There was a dish of green chilli and small dried anchovies. The wife assured us that the green chilli would not be spicy at all. Even though we were quite sure that the wife would not lie to us, it was still hard to believe that there were non-spicy chilli. I hesitantly took a small piece, put it in my mouth and chewed. Hmm… It’s really not spicy at all!

After I confirmed that the green chilli was really not spicy, I attacked it with gusto. As I have a low tolerance for spicy food, it was liberating to able to enjoy eating chilli without fear of repercussions. Imagine the taste of chilli but without the heat. This was probably the most chilli I had eaten in a single sitting in my life.

I’ve always liked Japanese potato salad and this was no difference. It was creamy and tasty.

The sliced tomatoes were drizzled with vinegar. It was not bad and gave the dish a light flavor.

There were some homemade pickled radish. They were just lightly pickled as they tasted pretty mild and a bit sweet.

Last of all was yogurt with a bit of brown sugar syrup. I would have preferred a bit more brown sugar as I did not really like the tangy taste of yogurt.

After breakfast, we told the wife that we had decided to go to the aquarium as it was too windy and cold to go and view cherry blossoms.

The wife cheerfully replied, “Not to worry, my husband had offered to drive you to the cherry blossoms viewing place. He will drive around the place so you don’t even have to get out of the car. It’s such a pity if you did not manage to see the cherry blossoms as they are in season.”

It was really nice of the owners to go to such lengths for us. We really appreciated it.

After breakfast, Bell and I got to know the dogs better. The wife also joined us on the porch.

Charlie, the Shiba Inu, had a really thick coat of fur. It was as puffy as the quilt, but because Charlie was a grown-up dog, his fur felt a bit rough. Bell said that a Shiba Inu puppy’s fur would be as puffy, but much softer, like a teddy bear soft toy.

Charlie had a quiet, dignified air. The wife told us that even though she was the one who fed Charlie, the dog only listened to her husband. As if to prove her point, Charlie stood up and placed his front paws on the wife’s thigh as if it was a ledge for him to stand on.

Nora stopped barking the moment we sat down and patted her. Turned out that she just wanted attention. I continued patting her and after a while she sat down next to me. After more patting, she laid on her back so that I could rub her tummy. The wife told us that Nora was a stray dog which they adopted. Nora was in a really bad condition when the couple found her. Taking pity on Nora, the husband decided to adopt her. Running my hand over Nora’s round belly, it seemed that Nora was really having a good time now. So the story had a happy ending.

After Bell and I went back to our room to get our stuff, we met the husband at the porch and got into the car. The husband drove us through Motobu town to 八重岳桜の森公園 (Yaedake Sakura no Mori Koen) where the road leading up to the peak was lined with cherry blossom trees. The cherry blossoms were not in full bloom yet, but it was still a pretty sight.

The husband drove to the top and turned into the carpark. There were very few cars and we also did not see many people along the way, probably because it was too cold and windy. The husband made a U-turn and we headed back down the hill. Along the way, he stopped and waited patiently for us to take some photos of the cherry blossoms.

Then he drove us to a Family Mart in Motobu town where we bought tickets to the aquarium. The wife told us that buying the ticket at the convenience store was cheaper than buying it at the aquarium. Bell told me that it was slightly cheaper. After we bought the tickets, the husband drove us to the aquarium. As he drove, he pointed out eateries along the way where we could go for dinner. Today was Tuesday and the Minshuku Sendan’s restaurant was closed. I knew Bell would not mind eating dinner at Minshuku Sendan again, but I would like to try other people’s cooking.

The husband dropped us off at the aquarium. We were all surprised that there were so few cars in the carpark despite it being 10:30 am. We hoped it meant that the aquarium would not be crowded. As we walked towards the entrance, the cold wind triggered another stomach ache. I headed to the nearest toilet and once I was done, we continued on our way.

Near the 沖縄美ら海水族館 (Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium), we saw a lot more people. There were tour groups and students on their field trip. A green whale shark statue marked the entrance to the aquarium.

A carpet decorated with shark outlines led the way to the entrance. There was also a cute seahorse dustbin nearby. All fitting with the maritime theme. I really liked tiny, little touches like this.

Right after the entrance, was Life in Inoh, a touch pool. The water from the touch pool was brought in directly from the sea outside the aquarium. So the temperature of the water in the touch pool was the same temperature as the sea. There were granulated sea stars, blue sea stars, cushion stars and sea cucumbers in the touch pool. A staff used a long pole to push the sea stars to the edges of the tank so that there would be enough sea stars for visitors to touch. I couldn’t help being amused when I thought of frustration of a sea star at being pushed to the edge of the tank. As sea stars moved really slowly, a sea star might have spent a few hours moving to the center of the tank, only to be pushed back to its starting point.

Bell put her hand in the tank first and touched a black sea cucumber. She exclaimed, “It’s really soft!” I wasn’t that keen on getting my hand wet, but after hearing what Bell said, I became interested and reached into the tank to touch a sea cucumber. Like Bell said, it was really soft. Then, because my hand was already in the tank, I touched the other sea stars as well. The sea stars were hard, except for the cushion star which had a tough skin but would give way a little when I pressed it gently.

The first tank near the entrance was of The Coral Sea. The top of the tank was open so the lighting changed according to the weather outside. I thought it was a pretty cool idea and it felt more natural than the forever consistent artificial lights.

We enjoyed ourselves and took our time to look at the exhibits. There were quite a lot of people around, but not so many that we had to wait to view the exhibits. Some of the exhibits were quite interesting and we spent too much time taking blurry photos of fishes.

We were really enthralled by the octopus. It was the most active and entertaining performer in the aquarium. It was curious about the visitors and kept climbing up and down the glass to look at us. As it moved, its color changed, sometimes plain red and sometimes lined with white stripes. Its skin could also go from smooth to bumpy in an instant.

At 1 pm, we took a seat in the Churaumi Theater. While waiting for the show to start, we were able to view the fishes in the Kuroshio Sea tank through a glass window. I thought it was a good idea as it gave the audience something to watch while waiting. There were shows every hour and for our timing, it was a 20 min video clip called “Life in Churaumi”. When it was time, a staff came in and made an announcement, in Japanese of course. Then the curtains closed over the window and a screen was lowered from the ceiling. Even though the video was in Japanese and there were no subtitles, I enjoyed looking at the beautiful scenery. I was also glad for the chance to rest my feet.

The highlight of the aquarium visit was the Kuroshio Sea tank. It was the third largest tank in the world and the acrylic glass was 60 cm thick to hold in all the water. A long winding path led down to the glass pane. Bell went down first as she wanted to take a closer look at the tank while I lingered at the top so that I would get the full view of the tank.

It was dim in the room and I soon lost sight of Bell, who became one with the silhouettes in front of the glass panel.

After a while, I heard two people having a conversation over the PA system. I tried to look for the speakers and then I realized that there was a show going on. A staff was standing at the side, conversing with a female diver swimming in the tank. The diver had brought an underwater camera and what she filmed would appear on the screen above the staff. She seemed to spend quite a bit of time filming a grumpy-looking fish. Not that I blame her because I would probably do the same thing. I find the expression on the fish’s face quite hilarious.

Wanting to take a closer look at the diver, I went down to the tank and found Bell. It was the end of the show and the diver swam pass us as she left.

“Oh, oh, her camera is pointing at us,” said the camera-shy Bell and quickly walked away. I was left alone at the tank. I was so busy trying to take photos of the diver that I forgot to wave back.

After the diver left, I walked away from the crowd and leaned on the railing running along winding path. I am watching the three whale sharks swimming leisurely round and round and was impressed by the size of the fishes and the tank. Bell came and joined me. “This is so cool,” I said. Next to me, Bell nodded her head furiously.

Then we took an elevator up. The carpet in the elevator had pictures of cute marine animals.

The elevator brought us up to the top Kuroshio Sea tank where we could have a behind-the-scenes look at the place. The salty smell of the sea is strong, but it wasn’t unpleasant. The upper part of the tank extended into a big room and we could walk along the paths at the top of the room. I peeped over the railing and saw that there were also other smaller circular tanks below us. Some were empty, but I saw one or two tanks contained sting rays.

There was a model showing how thick was the glass for the Kuroshio Sea tank. That’s my cute little hand in the photo.

We went back down on the elevator and turned the corner to the Aqua Room where there roof was made of acrylic glass so we could see the fishes swimming above us.

The whale sharks looked bigger when we viewed them from the bottom.

From the Aqua Room, we could see some divers cleaning the tank. They were busy scrubbing the floors and the vents. But there was one diver who was not doing any cleaning. Bell said that he must be the head honcho because he was not doing any work.

The diver was playing with two dolphins who kept coming back to the diver for food. Then the diver caught and held on to their tails for quite some time. When he finally let go, the dolphins immediately swam upwards and burst through the surface. We could hear the excited cries of the visitors upstairs.

I wondered aloud, “Where did the dolphins come from?” I’ve spent a long time watching the fishes in the Kuroshio Sea tank and I didn’t see any dolphins. Bell also did not remember seeing any dolphins in the tank until now.

The last area was the deep sea exhibits. The room was very dim and there were many tanks containing strange-looking deep sea creatures. There was also a tank of water where you could dip your hand in to feel the temperature of deep sea water which ranged from 6 ℃ to 18 ℃. Both of us dipped our fingers in the water. It is quite cold. Then I licked my finger and found that it tasted salty.

“Hey, this is seawater!” I said.

Bell stared at me in disbelief. “What did you expect? And why did you lick the seawater?”

I tried to wipe my damp fingers on Bell’s soft gray hoodie. She quickly backed away and glared at me. Then she ignored me as I complained about my poor wet fingers. Luckily, there was a sink in the next room and Bell laughed when I immediately made a beeline for it.

The souvenir shop was near the exit. Since everybody had to pass it on their way out, it was crowded with people. Bell and I bought some small trinkets, but we decided to leave most of the shopping for the souvenir shop near the entrance instead. It was larger and less crowded.

The Manatee Pool was a separate building from the aquarium. The manatees kept in this building are American manatees.

There were two tanks in the building with two manatees in each tank. I found it a bit strange that the water was so green as all the other tanks in the aquarium had such blue water. The males and females were kept separated from each other. The manatees were really round and fat. I thought they were quite cute but they were not very interesting to watch as they just floated around slowly.

From where we exited the Manatee Pool, we could see an island in the distance. This must be Iejima that the wife told us about last night. As I looked at the island, I imagined delicious cows grazing in the fields, watched over by the Sendan owner’s classmate.

Next to the Manatee Pool was the Sea Turtle Pool. The enclosure housed five types of turtles; hawksbill turtles, loggerhead turtles, green sea turtle, Kemp’s Ridley turtles and black turtles. I could tell some of them apart by the shape of their heads but for others, the differences were not so obvious. There was also a small pool for young turtles.

After looking at the sea turtles, we walked towards the Dolphin Lagoon. A small crowd had gathered around the pool. Out of curiosity, we walked closer and realized that there was a show going on. The show was performed by the bottlenose dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin, Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphin and the false killer whale. Bell commented that the false killer whale was quite sad as it did not even had its own name; it was just known as not a killer whale.

The show was fun to watch. The wind was quite strong and every time the marine animals jumped, I could feel a light shower of sea water. The trainers usually warned the audience whenever the performers were going to do a particularly big jump. Of course, whatever he said was in Japanese so we didn’t understand it, but we could tell what was going to happen when we saw the rest taking two big steps backwards.

When the show ended, we went back indoors to get out of the cold wind. I bought a can of coffee from the vending machine. It was made by a local company called Okinawa Bottlers. The design of the can was cheery and the pink flowers made me think of Hawaii.

Bell said that we were very lucky as we managed to catch the show at the Kuroshio Sea exhibit and the performance at the Dolphin Lagoon even though we didn’t plan for it.

It was after 3 pm when the dolphin show ended. Bell and I had not eaten lunch yet, but somehow we did not feel very hungry. The hearty breakfast in the morning managed to fuel us for the day. So we decided to skip lunch and go for an early dinner instead. We went to the bigger souvenir shop at the entrance and bought snacks and souvenirs. We also bought a box of the best selling item, which was sea salt cookies, for the Sendan owners because they were so nice.

The walk back was chilly as the road followed the coastline and the wind was strong. It was too cloudy for a nice sunset but we were able to see rays of light shining from the gaps in the clouds.

It was after 5 pm when we reached a yellow building called 美ら海キッチンぱぱいや. A nearby sign displayed the English name which was Variation Cooking. The wife said that the restaurant served Japanese food and some Okinawa dishes. We were feeling a bit hungry by now so we pushed the door and entered the restaurant. There was nobody else apart from the owner and her friend.

I was delighted to see a photo of the sea grapes in the menu. This time the sea grapes were not drizzled with anything and came with two vinegar dressing on the side. Eaten by itself, the sea grapes were just salty and they tasted better with the dressing. But they were still fun to eat and I liked popping them in my mouth. It’s like popping bubble wrap except this time I could eat it too!

Bell and I ordered curry rice, which came with three slices of pork belly and a poached egg. The curry was nice, but the pork was a bit dry and tough.

After dinner, we hurried back to Minshuku Sendan. The husband was sitting on the porch with his dogs. He stood up when he saw us. He asked, “What time would you like to have breakfast tomorrow?”

I looked at Bell. “Do you want to wake up later? How about 9 am?” Bell nodded. So we proposed 9 am to the husband.

He looked apologetic and said, “Sorry, that’s too late. How about 8:30 am?”

That’s the same timing as today, so it looked like there was no chance for us to sleep later. After agreeing to breakfast at 8:30 am, we went back to our room. After we bathed, we lazed in the room and looked through our purchases.

Bell took out the manatee soft toy she bought at the aquarium souvenir shop. “Look at its face. Isn’t it cute?” she cooed.

Seeing the manatee soft toy reminded me and I rummaged in my luggage. “Ta da!” I cried as I held up a tiny polar bear toy. Manatee, meet Polar!

Then we opened up a box of snacks we bought at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium earlier. It was red sweet potato filling in a pastry boat. The red sweet potato seemed to be a local specialty in Okinawa as we saw many types of snacks made from the red sweet potato. The filling and the pastry were both soft, which was a surprise to us. We expected the pastry to be hard to contrast with the soft filling. It was mildly sweet which made it easy to eat.

We also ate some sea salt cookie samples which the staff at the souvenir shop kindly gave us, probably because we bought quite a few items. The sea salt cookies came in three flavors; original, chocolate and red sweet potato. The cookies were mildly sweet with a tinge of saltiness. They were quite tasty and Bell rather liked them.

As we would be going back to Naha city tomorrow, Bell diligently packed her luggage. I felt lazy as I watched Bell neatly arranged her stuff into her duffel bag. “I will do speed packing tomorrow morning,” I declared as I continued to lay on my bedding.

“Whatever you say,” Bell replied as she continued with her packing.

We also discussed about the plans for tomorrow. We had originally planned to leave for Naha at 3 pm, but since we had already seen all the things we wanted to see, we decided to leave on the earlier 12 pm bus rather than the 3 pm bus as planned. We knew the owners would be busy tomorrow as there were six guests arriving. So we decided that we might as well leave earlier so that we would not get in the way of their preparations. With that settled, we went to bed.

Good night!

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