Japan harbors not only breathtaking and diverse underwater landscapes, but it’s also home to one of the best aquariums in the world! The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium (churami meaning beautiful clear seas in the Okinawan language) is located on the Okinawan main island, Okinawa Hontou. Until 2005 it was the biggest aquarium in the world, before being taken over by the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.
As you can imagine, with 77 tanks, including some seriously super-sized ones, it offers a quite impressive journey through the underwater world: boasting a variety of sharks, including the polka-dotted friendly giant, the whale shark, and supercool tiger sharks, manta rays, turtles, as well as live coral (notoriously difficult to keep in tanks and sadly with advancing global warming, even in the wild) and their colourful inhabitants. If you aren’t an ocean lover yet, you will be by the end of your visit!
Planning your trip to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium (沖縄美ら海水族館 Okinawa Churaumi Suizokukan) is part of the Ocean Expo Park on the Motobu Peninsula in northern Okinawa Honto, about 90 kilometers from Naha.
Getting from Naha to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
The Yanbaru Express Bus directly connects Naha, the Okinawan capital, with the aquarium. A one-way trip takes just over two hours and costs around ¥2,000. There are six round trips per day.
In central Naha, the bus stops at the Prefectural Office (県庁北口), Tomari Port and Furujima Station on the Yurail monorail, as well as other locations which you can check here.
The bus also leaves directly from Naha Airport. There are also regular buses heading to the aquarium, but they not only take longer and involve transfers which can be confusing, they even cost more.
You can also travel by car, which takes about as long as the express bus, around 2 hours, and adds ¥1,020 in highway tolls to your other fees like fuel and rental costs. So this is only economic with several people sharing the ride.
The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium opens at 8:30 am year-round and closes at 6:30 pm in winter (October–February), and 8 pm in summer (March–September).
Last admission is always 1 hour before closing time. It is open year-round, apart from the first Wednesday of December and the day after.
Admission is ¥1,850 for adults, ¥1,230 for high school students and ¥610 for elementary and junior high school students. Children under 6 are free, but make sure to bring some form of ID for proof of age.
Visitors with disabilities and one caregiver are granted free entry. The aquarium accepts international certificates to show your status, check their website for more details.
To save some cash, get the last admission ticket from 4 pm onward. This still gives you 2.5 hours in winter and 4 hours in summer, which is plenty to explore and see it all. It knocks ¥560 off the adult price, ¥370 off the student price and ¥180 off the junior price.
What to see at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
Plan around 2 hours for your visit. Or more if: 1) it’s very crowded due to high season, 2) you plan on catching any of the shows/talks, or 3) you decide to dine at the aquarium.
The aquarium stretches over three floors with the entrance on the top floor. From here, you work your way down. Directly after the entrance, there is a shallow, open pool where visitors can touch live starfish and seashells. While exciting for kids, the next tank should be more impressive for adults: It is one of world’s largest exhibit of living coral, in all their colorful, psychedelic beauty. They are notoriously difficult to keep and usually aquariums resort to fake coral in their tropical tanks, so this is finally the real deal.
The route then leads to the main Kuroshio tank—and you’ll want to spend quite a bit of your time here. Feeding shows are held twice daily, so check the times so you don’t miss out.
My personal favorite is just around the corner from the big tank—an area dedicated to sharks, including tiger sharks and bull sharks! They are unfortunately known for rare accidents with humans, but are an absolute favorite for marine divers. Take your time admiring them in all their glory here.
In the Journey into the Deep Sea are, be sure to check out the displays of bioluminescent fish, which are also mesmerising.
Shows and other programs
The aquarium offers a range of programs, led by guides or the critters’ caretakers, and they are super interesting and educational. The include tank talks, feeding times, and even films in the on-site theater.
My personal recommendations are 1) the walk above the Kuroshio Tank, giving you a backstage view of the works of an aquarium and 2) the feeding at the big Kuroshio tank to see the whale sharks simply vacuum it all up while the mantas swoop around for any leftovers, all in one big underwater ballet.
Dolphin shows: Why you shouldn’t go and how to support conservation efforts instead
There are dolphin shows in Ocean Expo Park, which are not part of the aquarium and can be visited at an extra cost. But please don’t. Since the documentary Blackfish, it has come to light that it is pure torture for these large and highly intelligent marine mammals to be kept in such confined conditions.
Zoos and aquariums worldwide are closing down their dolphin shows, so please don’t support the ones in front of the doors of Churaumi Aquarium either. Instead, support the aquarium with your entrance, which has a coral cultivating program to help restore the bleached Okinawan reefs and a very successful shark breeding program, contributing to science and conservation, which you can here support, see and breathe yourself.
Okinawa a bit far? Check out the impressive (and closer) Kaiyukan Aquarium—one of our favorite places in Osaka.