If you want to learn about the history of modern day Okinawa and the old kingdom of Ryukyu (as the group of islands were called before Japan renamed them in 1879 after annexing them in 1872), you have many opportunities to do so while visiting Japan’s most southern prefecture – museums, historical sites, special exhibitions… and two themed parks called Ryukyu Mura (mura = village) and Okinawa World. Active themed parks still open for business, though both of them seemed to be struggling a bit during my visit in January 2015; a non-urbex trip and a good opportunity to take some photos of potential future abandoned places… Like many visitors of Okinawa I was wondering which of the both to visit – and since even the tourist information near the famous Kokusai Street in Naha wasn’t able or willing to give me clear advice, I checked out both myself.
First I visited *Ryukyu Mura*, about 30 kilometers north of Naha, accessible by bus #120 every 30 minutes (get off at Ryukyu Mura-Mae / 琉球村前 – 1070 Yen for the 80 minutes long ride from Naha Bus Terminal). Open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for an entrance fee of 1200 Yen, the Ryukyu Village is composed of several original Okinawan houses that were dismantled and rebuilt there, plus some original buildings. Despite being a commercial themed park with occasional signs, the place felt rather organic; like a mix of real village and outdoor museum, plus some shops / stalls here and there. While about half of the houses just sat there, the other half was filled with life – people in local / traditional clothes, some offering lessons in dance, arts & crafts or playing instruments. When I passed through the park’s pottery barn, I saw that you were able to make your own shisa there, the infamous lion-dog from Okinawan mythology – 3300 Yen plus shipping (a month later, no overseas shipping!), pretty much the same total amount you pay for pre-made ones in Naha or any other tourist shop. Having no pottery experience whatsoever, but a patient teacher, it took me about 2 hours to make the little fella that is now guarding my desk at work. On the way out I tried a serving of soki soba (the local noodle soup variation featuring spare ribs) at the usual array of restaurants and gift shops. I didn’t visit the on-location snake center (included in the entrance fee) and my timing was a bit off, so I missed the twice a day parades, but overall it was a great day trip that I finished stopping at the Mihama American Village, kind of the US version of Chinatown right across a huge military base, on the way back to Naha. EXTREMELY touristy, but interesting to see…
The next day I visited *Okinawa World*, about 10 kilometers southeast of Naha, accessible by bus #83 every one to two hours (get off at the terminal stop Gyokusendo-Mae / 玉泉洞前 – 580 Yen for the 60 minutes long ride from Naha Bus Terminal). Open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Okinawa World is quite a touristy, commercial place which becomes evident even before you enter as there are several combo tickets available, depending on whether you want to see the village, the cave and / or the snake center – from 620 Yen up to 1650 Yen. Still not interested in snakes, I chose the 1240 Yen option for the village and the cave. The Gyokusendo Cave is a five kilometer long… cave… of which 850 meters are fitted with a metal walkway and countless lights for tourists to enjoy (you can do a free StreetView tour *here*). A nice bonus to what quickly turned out to be a rather small and therefore disappointing Okinawan village. There, pretty much every building was made use of to sell goods or services, much more aggressively than at Ryukyu Mura, where some buildings just sat there, rusting / decaying tools and other exhibits slowly fading away – and yet it would have taken barely 5 minutes to pass through the whole Okinawan World village… which lead to a huge exit building featuring an underwhelming Okinawan buffet (for the very affordable price of 1260 Yen, I guess you get what you pay for…) and a GIGANTIC gift shop. I’ve been to quite a few gift shops in Japan, but this one was without the shadow of a doubt one of the biggest!
The bonus location at Okinawa World was the Valley of Gangala right across the street – a cave / forest walking tour for people who can plan in advance as reservations are needed according to pamphlets and their homepage. I arrived without one 5 minutes after a tour started; too late to catch up, but I was offered to wait 90 minutes for the next tour to get together – which I had to decline politely as I had a plane to catch…
Despite being very similar at their cores, featuring all kinds of hands on experiences, local food and tons of merchandising, my experiences at Okinawa World and Ryukyu Mura were quite different. If you only have half a day to spend or want to go to the Valley of Gangala anyway, you are kind of stuck with the much more commercial Okinawa World, but if you can take your time, I would recommend Ryukyu Mura over Okinawa World at any time (*check out their locations on a GoogleMap*). Okinawa World felt like one of many fake tourist spots you can find all over Japan – while fake churches and fake castles are excusable to some degree, a fake Okinawan village on Okinawa Island is not. And even if some of the houses were not fake, they felt fake. Ryukyu Mura on the other hand had a much more relaxed atmosphere… not all constructions were event or sale spaces, everything there seemed to be a little bit more rustic and run-down, more authentic, less pushy. If you have to choose between Okinawa World and Ryukyu Mura, definitely go to Ryukyu Mura! (And check out their homepage before visiting! Ryukyu Mura offers a similar amount of events and hands-on stuff as Okinawan World, but since they don’t push it on you, you will barely know just by walking through the park…)
If you are actually not that much into those regular tourist things to do, let me remind you of the abandoned places I visited on Okinawa during a previous trip, like the *Nakagusku Hotel Ruin* and the now demolished *Sunset View Inn Shah Bay*!
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