One of the attractions I had been looking forward to visiting the most in Okinawa was the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. Now, you might be wondering why a girl from Hawaii — who’s surrounded by marine life and has the Honolulu Aquarium and Maui Ocean Center right at her fingertips — would be interested in going to an aquarium in a foreign country.
The reason? I was eager to see the aquarium’s famous whale sharks — the largest fish in the world!
After seeing the massive creature in a photo that my mom shared with me from her previous trip, as well as a photo on an Instagram influencer’s page, I had to see it for myself.
The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium was the only destination on our itinerary the day we went — mostly because it’s practically on the opposite end of the island so it would take us a few hours to get there and back.
Traveling in our private coach, we made a few stops before actually arriving to the aquarium. The first was at a rest stop, which doesn’t sound very glamorous. But it actually was nicer than you’d think.
In the states, rest stops are just that: literally rest stops with nondescript bathrooms and a lookout point if you’re lucky. The ones I’ve been to in Japan, South Korea and even in Italy were some of the nicest I’d ever been to. They not only have bathrooms, but some of them have food courts, shopping vendors and lookout points.
The one we stopped at here in Okinawa didn’t have any shopping vendors, but it did have an ice cream stand, which I was weirdly ecstatic about, primarily because it sold Blue Seal soft serve. My cousin Mark, who had been to Okinawa before, highly recommended Blue Seal, an Okinawa-unique ice cream company, so I had been on the lookout ever since.
The rest stop also overlooked the water. I managed to snap a quick photo despite the soft serve quickly melting and dripping down my wrist.
After returning to the bus, we then made our way to our next stop: a restaurant with a buffet lunch that served up yakiniku and an interesting assortment of other dishes. This was where I first tried taco rice, an Okinawan staple.
It’s not as complicated as you think. Taco rice is simply taco-flavored ground beef served on a bed of rice, with toppings you would normally put in an actual taco, like shredded cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato and salsa.
A man named Matsuzo Gibo, the owner of King Tacos, is said to have invented it in 1984. And it became a widely popular dish among U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan.
After a filling lunch, a few members of our group did a little browsing at a souvenir shop at the entrance of the restaurant, while the kids and parents in our group checked out a dinosaur museum next door.
Then, we boarded the bus and were off to our final destination: The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium!
Along the way, we passed by a large body of water that was absolutely beautiful to look at. But after my uncle pointed out that dolphin hunters scoured these waters for dolphins to slaughter for food, the beautiful site quickly became marred by the disturbing visuals in my head. Thankfully, he assured us, this practice didn’t happen here anymore.
About an hour later, we arrived at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, located at the Ocean Expo Park.
The bus dropped us off at the upper area of the park, which showed off yet another breathtaking view of the ocean.
We then descended into the aquarium area.
The aquarium itself was larger and more impressive than any I’d ever visited! Navigating the aquarium felt like a journey in an underwater world with every type of fish and ocean animal you could imagine.
Finally, we approached the much-anticipated whale shark tank, where a feeding show was about to begin.
A large crowd flocked to the glass to get a closeup view of the giant creatures. Meanwhile, my mom and I snagged a spot farther up so we could get a wider view.
The three whale sharks circled the giant tank until the feeding started, a process that involved staff dumping plankton and shrimp into their mouths for a good 15 minutes or so.
Seeing the whale shark was beyond my wildest dreams! I don’t think I’d ever seen anything quite as spectacular or larger than life … literally!
After spending another hour or so wandering the rest of the aquarium, it was time for us to head back to the bus. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore the rest of the park, which also included a dolphin lagoon. But hey, I got to see the biggest fish in the world. I’ll take it!