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Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012

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Motobu marvels: The succinctly named "Beach of View" section of Emerald Beach at Motobu. HILLEL WRIGHT PHOTOS

Motobu: A stopover in paradise on the way back home


Special to The Japan Times

An enjoyable experience is worth repeating. So when I finished teaching a two-week Summer Intensive at a university in Tokyo and was ready to return home to Okinawa, I decided to again take the ferry from Kagoshima as I had done the year before.

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The wondrous Churaumi Aquarium located in the Ocean Expo Park at Motobu.

I did, however, make a couple of variations. Last year, I traveled on the Marix Line ferry Queen Coral 8, but this year I booked a passage on the A-Line ferry Akebono. And last year I sailed all the way home to Naha aboard the ferry, but this year I disembarked at Motobu, on the north end of Okinawa Honto (main island) and stayed a couple of nights in this quiet seaside town before going back to the city.

The Marix and A-Line ferries sail on alternate days from Kagoshima Port, at the south end of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. They follow the same route, and both stop at four islands in the Amami Group — Amami Oshima, Tokunoshima, Okinoerabu and Yoronto — as well as Motobu and Naha, Okinawa. The A-Line also sails to Amami Oshima and Naha from Tokyo and Osaka.

I reserved a room at the Motobu Green Park Hotel, located high on a hill overlooking the hotel's golf course and the ocean below, including Ocean Expo Park and Emerald Beach. The room was Western style, with two twin beds and a wonderful view for the very modest cost of ¥6,200 per night. As the room faced due West, I was able to enjoy spectacular sunsets, watching the late-summer sun sink below the far horizon of the East China Sea.

In fact, enjoying the sunset and having dinner were about the extent of my activities on the first night. The ferry docked at Motobu a little before 5 p.m. and a van from Green Park came along to take me to the hotel.

There were a few other guests in the dining room, although apparently the coming of September marks the end of the tourist season. For dinner I chose fresh local, seasonal yaki-zakana (grilled fish fillet), in this case hiramasa (amberjack). A variety of side dishes accompanied the main course, including daruma (young bigeye tuna) sashimi, goya champeru and pork ribs cooked Okinawa style — melt-in-the-mouth tender.

All this and more for ¥2,000. After the rather Spartan meals on the ferry, this was an excellent way to end the week and mark my return to Okinawa.

The next day, I got a bilingual map of Motobu in the lobby and discovered that I could walk to the Emerald Beach/Ocean Expo Park area in a little less that an hour, but the hotel manager kindly offered to drive me. He did, however, suggest that I take a taxi back to the hotel, since it is a steep uphill climb all the way back.

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And a sunset view from my hotel room.

So after the breakfast buffet (¥1,050) we headed down the hill and I was let off at the parking lot of Ocean Expo Park, not far from the Central Gate. At the end of the stone walkway was the Dolphin Theater, part of the popular Churaumi Aquarium located within the park.

Turning northward, I passed the Dolphin Lagoon, the Sea Turtle Pool, the Manatee Pool and finally Turtle Beach, about 400 meters from the Dolphin Theater. Since swimming is not allowed at Turtle Beach, I continued on another 300 meters to Emerald Beach, listed as one of the 100 most beautiful in Japan.

Emerald Beach is a set of white sand beaches on a Y-shaped peninsula. First you reach the "Beach of Rest" on the southern arm of the Y. There is no swimming on this beach either, as it is reserved for those who want to walk on the sand, wade in the water, take photos or, as its handle suggests, simply rest.

Next comes the "Beach of View" in the center of the Y, facing westward at the horizon. The water here is shallow and a swimming area is roped off for children, watched over by a lifeguard in a tower.

Finally, on the northern arm of the Y, comes the "Beach of Play" where you can sunbathe and swim, and where there's a snack bar, changing rooms with lockers, restrooms and showers.

Even though the weather was perfect for the beach, it was not very crowded. The roped-off swimming area was fairly large and deep at the far end and, like the children's beach, there was a lifeguard tower. The water was warm but refreshing and I spent several hours swimming there, water-walking on the "Beach of Rest" and taking photos all around.

Around 3 p.m., I left Emerald Beach and headed back down the walkway for the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. Since I'd already looked in at the Sea Turtle and Manatee pools on my way to Emerald Beach, I went directly to the aquarium building itself.

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Just the ticket: The Akebono loads at Kagoshima for the trip to Motobu. HILLEL WRIGHT

The Churaumi Aquarium building comprises 19,000 sq. meters, with 10,000 sq. meters devoted to the actual aquarium. Its 77 tanks hold 10,000 cu. meters of water. By far the largest and most popular is the 7,500-cu.-meter Kuroshio Sea tank, which houses several giant whale sharks, the world's first aquarium to do so. The Kuroshio Sea tank area also provides theater seating for people who might like to spend a lot of time just watching the whale sharks, rays and other deepwater fish for which that huge tank is home.

Other tanks include the Inoh Touch Pool, an exhibit of littoral creatures such as starfish and sea cucumbers that children are allowed to touch; the Coral Reef tank; the Tropical Fish tank; the Deep Sea tank; and the Shark Research Lab.

The aquarium opens year round, with slightly shorter hours from October to February. Admission is from ¥420 to ¥1,800, and children under 6 go free.

The next day, following information listed for Motobu on the Internet, I waited for a bus to Nago; but when none arrived over an hour past schedule, I phoned the hotel and a staff member drove me to the Nago Bus Terminal, where I caught the highway bus back to Naha, an hour and 45 minutes away.

The locals' warm hospitality made this yet another experience I hope to repeat someday.



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