When I visited Naha, I knew I wanted to visit the Churaumi Aquarium because it is pretty famous in Japan. It is touted as one of the best aquariums in Japan and a must see if you are on Okinawa. I made it a point to try to visit and while I wanted to rent a car and drive up, since I was travelling alone it was not economical for me to do so. I found a few bus tours that would take me up there and settled on the Naha Bus company as they had the best tour for me.
The Naha Bus company is one of the bigger bus tour companies in Okinawa. They operate out of the main bus terminal at Asahibashi Station on the Yui Rail. They offer 4 different tours that all depart between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. 3 of the tours head up to Churaumi Aquarium while one does a tour of the southern area of the island. I chose the D Course which heads up to Churaumi Aquarium before making stops at Nakijin Castle and Kouri Ocean Tower. Unfortunately they changed the tour in April 2017, so it is currently going to Kouri Ocean Tower before spending the afternoon at Churaumi Aquarium and then they go to the Glass House in the Forest. While I am writing about my experience of the previous tour plan, I believe a lot of information will be similar, although the Nakijin Castle stop has been removed from the tour.
The first thing you have to do, besides choosing which tour you wish to take, is make a reservation. While you can probably squeeze in if you are travelling alone it is better to make a reservation. The website does have information on making a reservation on your own but the actual page is almost all in Japanese. You can Google Translate it and do well enough. First select the course you want and then click on the “Make a Reservation” button. The first option on the form is to select the date based on the calendar. You then enter your name twice, your phone number, and then e-mail address. After selecting how many people are going, they ask where you are staying. If you are lazy, you can select (その他) which means “other” but this is not a mandatory question. After this they ask what flight you are arriving on and this can be ignored as well.
Once you register you will be sent an e-mail that is full of mistakes in English. You can easily get the gist of the message but some of the information conflicts with the registration site. The only thing you need to know is that you have to arrive at the Naha Bus office before the deadline. The D Course tour departed at 8:30 a.m. (currently listed as 8:40 a.m.) and I had to pay by 8:15 a.m. The information about paying at the airport is a little strange so I just ignored it and had no problems.
I arrived at the Naha Bus office a little before 8 a.m. as I was trying to be safe. It is pretty easy to find as the office is under the escalator. There aren’t too many signs at the bottom of the escalator but there are many signs in front of the office so it isn’t difficult to find. Once inside there were very few people there. They were just boarding the people onto the Course B tour so the payment line was very quiet. Just after 8 a.m. a stream of people came in and the line was out the door. It was a pretty quick line and things died down within 15 minutes.
Once you pay, you are given your but tour ticket as well as your ticket to the Churaumi Aquarium, if it is included with your tour. They have information on where you are sitting so be aware of it. I was put in the back of the bus next to a small family of 3. It was no problem as I could relax and enjoy the view, but the window was pretty small, but at least I had a free seat next to me.
Once we departed the bus terminal we were on our way to the highway. The buses may make a couple stops at a couple hotels along the way before you enter the highway to head up to Nago, the major city in the northern area of Okinawa. All along the Okinawa Expressway our guide was pointing out different points of interest. She was explaining some of the different places we were passing as well as how some of the names came to be.
We also made a short stop at the Igei SA (伊芸SA). The Igei SA is pretty small with nothing much to see or do. We only had 15 minutes which was just enough time for me to stretch my legs, check out the viewpoint behind the main building, and use the facilities before we were back on the road. It only takes a couple hours to go from Naha to the Ocean Expo Park where the Churaumi Aquarium is located.
Before you know it you are at the Ocean Expo Park. We got off the bus and our tour guide funneled us all the way into the park. She still explained a few things along the way, mentioning that we needed to rush a little if we wanted to see the dolphin show. She mentioned the route to the dolphin show and brought the rest of us directly to the entrance of the Churaumi Aquarium. I wasn’t really happy about this as I wanted to take my time getting there and take photos along the way. I think it isn’t a problem but she seemed to be keeping an eye on us so I didn’t want to be a pain by holding up the group. You can always return to the entrance to take photos afterwards as well.
You are given 3 hours at Ocean Expo Park, but in reality you only have about 2.5 hours. You still need to get back to the bus on time or they will leave you. They sound strict about the time but I’m sure they’d wait an extra 5 minutes if needed. We didn’t leave anyone behind. 3 hours is actually pretty short as it takes about an hour to enjoy the Churaumi Aquarium. If you go quickly you can finish within 30 minutes, but if you are like me and you go slowly through things it can take a good hour. Just beware that the crowds are terrible and it may take a long time to see everything.
Note: Due to the change in the tour, I cannot confirm if this tour still allows you 3 hours at the park.
The entire Ocean Expo Park is huge. You really can’t see everything within the time allotted. I walked out to the Emerald Beach where I relaxed for a good 20 minutes before I had to return to the main area. There is a small cetacean gallery after the exit of the Churaumi Aquarium as well as a manatee tank, turtle tank, and dolphin tank. Outside of the main Chuarumi Aquarium; the Tropical Dream Center; and the Oceanic Culture Museum, everything is free.
Once time ran out we were off to the Nakijin Castle ruins. It is a world heritage site where you get to spend an hour for the tour. The tour itself is more restricted as the tour guide takes you up to the main castle area giving short explanations along the way. You enter the main entrance and head up the stairs to the highest area. The guide brought us to 3 different areas of the central area and explained everything. It was a bit annoying in the sense that I wanted to spend more time just taking photos on my own but the information I learned was interesting. For people who don’t speak Japanese it will be a waste of time so do your best to be polite. At the end the guide gave us an option to either keep walking around the castle ruins to take photos or to join her in going to the museum next to the ruins. The museum has an entrance fee but it is included with the admission to the castle, but you need the guide to take you there.
After Nakijin Castle we headed to Kouri Island, a power spot on Okinawa. There are dozens of power spots all over Okinawa and Kouri Island is one of them. For me this was the worst part of the entire tour. We headed up to Kouri Ocean Tower where you basically get an hour in a small place where you start off in a sea shell museum. If you like sea shells, it is a nice place to visit but I wasn’t that interested. You then pass a small shop selling very expensive sea shell jewelry and sculptures before you take the elevator up to the second floor. You can probably just walk up the stairs if you want but it is a bit of a walk. You then get nice views of the area as you get off the elevator. You can then walk up to the top of the tower where you can enjoy the views even more and ring a bell.
Once you finish with the tourist stuff you return to the bottom where you can enjoy a little souvenir shopping and then you are off to waiting for the bus to leave. I finished everything in about 15 minutes so I had a good 45 minutes of boredom. I was expecting to be disappointed by this place but I was disappointed even more than expected. It is a typical tourist site and a place for Naha Bus to get money from the company organizing the place. I was more interested in visiting a small tourist area at the entrance of the island that had interesting looking shops.
After Kouri Ocean Tower you are on your way back to Naha. There are no breaks so they remind you to use the facilities at Kouri Ocean Tower before you leave. The tour cuts through some of the sugar cane fields of Nago before you are back at the highway and racing back to Naha. On the highway the tour guide will come along to see where you would like to get off on the way back. From Makishi Station at the northern end of Kokusai-dori all the way to the Okinawan Prefectural Offices, there are several bus stops and the tour bus will stop at any of them to let you get off. Once you get off the highway, the guide will remind you to get ready so that you do not forget anything.
The Naha Bus tours are really interesting. While I only took the D Course, I really enjoyed it. The information you get along the way is good if you can understand Japanese. They do have audio guides to help you too but I didn’t bother and neither did any of the other foreigners on the bus, although I think they didn’t really understand the Japanese information. For a solo traveller, these bus tours are really nice as renting a car is a bit expensive. Taking a regular highway bus up to the Ocean Expo Park is possible but I heard it is relatively cheaper to take these guided tours, especially if they include the admission to the Churaumi Aquarium. If I am in Naha and I want to go to Churaumi Aquarium, I doubt I will take this tour again as they have changed it and I’m not as interested in it. I might actually consider the B course next time.
- Naha Bus (Official Site – Japanese)
- Naha Bus Tour Page (Official Site – Japanese)
- Naha Bus Tour Page (Officials Site – English)
- Naha Bus – D Course Tour (Official Site – Japanese with English)
- Ocean Expo Park (Official Site – English)
- Ocean Expo Park (Official Site – Japanese)
- Nakijin Castle (Official Site – English)
- Nakijin Castle (Official Site – Japanese)
- Kouri Ocean Tower (Official Site – English)
- Kouri Ocean Tower (Official Site – Japanese)