The Okinawa Zoo and Wonder Museum


Tucked away in an area known as Goya (not far from Gate 2 Street by Kadena Air Base) is the Okinawa Zoo and Wonder IMG_2577Museum. This is one of the many places that I have known about but for one reason or another never visited until today.

One of the main reasons for visiting, other than my quest to fulfill the needs of my inner child, is because I have received many questions about the Okinawa Zoo and Wonder Museum in the past few months. Most of the questions that I received had a very similar tone; people were concerned about the reviews and comments left on other travel websites. Although some were positive and expressed that the Zoo and Wonder Museum made a great day trip for the family others painted a pretty nasty picture of unhealthy animals in dilapidated cages. With such mixed reviews the only way to truly gain perspective on what type of experience the Zoo and Wonder Museum had to offer was to visit and see for myself.

The first thing you will notice when you enter the large (and extremely adorable) gate to the zoo is a decent size parking lot. Since I arrived right as the zoo was opening there was plenty of parking but it is important to note that as the day presses on the parking lot can fill up quickly. Once you have parked the car and gathered your gear follow the IMG_2473signs to the entrance which is down a large set of stairs (elevator is available). Once you purchase your tickets you’re on your way. At this point you have the option to visit the zoo first or the Wonder Museum. I strongly recommend (especially in the summer months) saving the Wonder Museum for the end.

 

Now that you’re in it’s time to determine the route you want to take. I suppose that if you visit during a time when there are a bunch of people it becomes very obvious which direction you are supposed to go but I was one of about 5 people in the entire zoo at the time which had me lost within about 100 feet of the front gate. (That’s right I’m not ashamed to say it.)

The Okinawa Zoo starts you off pretty easy with some of the animals you probably have seen around Okinawa to include flying foxes, osprey and buzzards. Down the path a bit are various monkeys, IMG_2502emu and even a bear from Hokkaido. The bigger most impressive animals are in the deepest part of the zoo to include elephants, deer, hippos (I really liked the hippos) and giraffes.

Near the end of the zoo itself is the petting zoo. This area has various animals for your kids to pet and play with including goats, chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs and turtles. There was even a dog named “Chunky” but he had not come out to play so early in the day.

Once you’ve washed your hands you’re pretty much done with the zoo. At this point you can head back to the main gate and enjoy the Wonder Museum (extra fee), ride on some kiddy rides or just head out for the day.

After spending a good chunk of time enjoying the zoo and seeing all the animals (at least all the animals who were awake that is) I can say with confidence that those who made such negative comments about this zoo don’t have a leg to stand on. First and foremost it’s important to understand that the Okinawa Zoo is not Disney’s Animal Kingdom; it’s a zoo on the small island of Okinawa. There are animals in cages and enclosures made of concrete to withstand the harsh conditions that we get here in Okinawa. This is not always the pretties thing and can sometimes look old and beat up (much like every other concrete building in Okinawa) but everything was in good shape and most importantly clean. Another thing to note is that although the animals were not in the wide open spaces they may have in their natural habitat they are allotted plenty of space to move around.

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Once I was done with the zoo and found my unconventional way back to the main gate I figured I might as well check out the Wonder Museum. The Wonder Museum is an additional ¥200 for adults, less for children of course, and I have to say worth every penny. . . . although I have to admit I was a bit out of place being a grown adult without a child playing with the various toys and exhibits. After about 45 minutes of channeling my inner child (and resisting the urge to ask a nearby dad to take my picture in an oversized egg shell) I can only describe the Wonder Museum as a place where the line between science and fun is blurred. Sure there was some scientific reason that when I waved my arms various colors were created on a screen in front of my but it wasn’t important. . . . . I was watching myself dance in some sort of psychedelic light show! Groooooovy!

Worn out and knees aching it was time for me to head back home. By this time (roughly 11AM) the parking lot was full and there were many more people just entering. Overall I think this is a great place to spend the day. . . and you certainly can spend the entire day here if you wanted to. There is food, vending machines and even a theater where various shows take place throughout the year. If you’re here in Okinawa and looking for something fun to do one weekend why not give the Okinawa Zoo and Wonder Museum a shot!?

 

Plants + nicoli: It doesn’t get much better than this!


Plants + nicoli is one of those places that I must have driven past a million times but never noticed because of its closet sized IMG_2570store front. In fact, if I had not received a flyer in the mail a few weeks ago I probably would have never thought to stop.

Like other small “hole-in-the-wall” shops Plants + nicoli has a limited menu. They serve smoothies and muffins. . . . that’s it! Seeing how small this shop was when I pulled up I had pretty low expectations as far as selection was concerned. There was a sign outside which displayed three kinds of smoothies and another sign which simply said “American Muffins”. Can’t go wrong right?

Once I got into the actual store I was blown away by the smell. AMAZING! This is the smell of fresh muffins coming out of an oven, none of this mass produced FamilyMart of DunkyD’s nonsense. As I stepped into the store on my right there was a counter with the largest selection of muffins I have ever seen in one place at one time. Everything from Caramel, Mattcha, Chocolate, Chocolate Chip, Banana, Strawberry, Poppyseed . . . . and those were just what I saw right away. There were at least another 3 or 4 rows which were at first blocked from my view by another excited woman and her daughter.

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Above the counter was a chalkboard with a variety of smoothie flavors including coffee based, fruit based and milk based. I could have tried anything on the menu but overjoyed by the smell of amazing muffins I quickly just said mango before I even IMG_2576gave myself the chance to read the rest of the menu. A few short minutes later and I was walking out of there with 4 muffins and a beautiful mango smoothie.

Once I got home it was time to set myself down and enjoy some of this goodness. Ok. . . . ok. . . . I had some of my smoothie in the car but it was melting! The smoothie (¥400) was absolutely delicious and for the size you really can’t beat the price. I then cracked into my Oreo (or more appropriately “sandwich cookie”) mattcha muffin (¥100).

Goodness Gracious! This is what a muffin tastes like fresh out of the oven and I know because I spent almost my entire life up until I moved to Japan working in the family bakery. Moist! Fluffy! Delicious! It really doesn’t get any better than this!

Whether Oyama is your neck of the woods or you have to take the 10 minute drive down this direction you won’t be disappointed with Plants + nicoli!

Gone Fishing!: Bait and Tackle in Central Okinawa


Visit any stretch of Okinawa’s coast and you are bound to see at least one fisherman with his fishing pole in the water waiting for a bite. That being said it should come as no surprise that fishing is a popular activity here in Okinawa and therefore bait and tackle shops can be found pretty much everywhere.

In the central Okinawa area there are two such shops which are not only popular but also conveniently located and easy to find. They are Sannory and Sea Land. This post will take a quick look at both so that if you’re planning on trying to catch dinner the old fashioned way you will be well equipped and good to go!

Sannory サンノリー is a shop with two locations here in Okinawa but the easiest to find is just along Route 58 not far from American Village. What makes it so easy to find? Well, it’s brightly colored, large. . . and oh yeah it looks like a boat!

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Although the building is quite large on the outside Sannory features only one floor of fishing supplies. However, don’t IMG_2278let the previous statement fool you, there is by no means a limited selection of fishing gear.

Much like you would expect, Sannory has an extensive selection of fishing poles, bobbers, hooks, line and lures for everyone from novice first time fishermen (and women) to competition level professionals. What you might not have expected is the assortment of supplies for other types of fishing such as spear fishing and net fishing. There are also selections of supplies to make the fishing experience more enjoyable such as chairs, hats, towels, shoes, clothes and other gear. Once you’ve got a fish you need a place to store it which is also available at Sannory in the wide selection of coolers of all shapes and sizes.

NOTE: Even if you’re not into fishing but looking for a cooler this might be a place to check out as there are a variety of sizes and styles which can be more accommodating than your average “picnic” cooler. 

The staff of Sannory is kind, helpful and always friendly. Although the store does not often have English speakers available there are various English “cues” which may be pointed do at the front counter making it easy to communicate important information.

Sannory takes yen and credit card (only for purchases over ¥5000).

Sea Land シーランド is another popular shop again located on Route 58 not far from American Village. It is very easy to find as it is immediately across the street from Camp Lester and Starbucks.

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IMG_2329Sea Land feels very much like a department store all dedicated to fishing. There are two separate floors dedicated to a variety of fishing goods and supplies from notice to competitive professional.

Everything you could possibly need for fishing is available through the many aisles which also included images of the fishermen and types of fish they caught with particular products (common among fishing supply stores here in Okinawa).

Much like Sannory, Sea Land has a variety of items to include fishing poles, lines, coolers, shoes, clothes and much more making Sea Land a one stop shop for everything you need to go fishing even if you’ve never gone before.

The staff of Sea Land again remind me of department store workers, very busy and not as “mom and pop shop” so some other places I have visited in the past. However, if you had a particular question I am sure they would be happy to help. I was unable to determine whether Sea Land takes credit card particularly because it was not listed at the register so at this time I can say that they only take yen. (Please feel free to comment below if you have any more information on this particular area.)

These are just two basic examples of bait and tackle shops here in Okinawa, however, there are many others with a similar feel and selection throughout the island. If you’re wanting to give fishing a try or if you absolutely love to fish stop by one of these shops and I am sure you won’t be disappointed!

Nature Earth Ocean Space: NEOS


For those of you out there who are serious about outdoor sports, and I do mean serious, NEOS should be on your list of places to check out.  NEOS, Nature Earth Ocean Space, is a store located not far from Ginowan Convention Center.

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NEOS reminds me very much of my favorite outdoors shop back in the US,  L.L.Bean. This two story shop has shoes to kayaks IMG_2328and everything in between.

On the first floor you will find a variety of high quality hiking and outdoors type garments to include shoes, rain gear, hiking shirts, pants and headgear. There are also a variety of backpacks, tents and such.

The second floor has a large variety of equipment for mountain biking and water sports. This also includes children’s basic swim equipment and life vests.

NEOS is a great place for the serious outdoorsman, however, it is not the place for a person looking for low cost of discounted stuff. (If you’re reading this and looking for more basic or discounted goods check out Sports Depot.) 

Overall I love this place and would certainly call it my go-to place for everything I need to spend some quality time in Okinawa’s crystal clear ocean or mountains.

ASHIBINAA – Okinawa Outlet Mall


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Outlet malls were an intricate part of my childhood. In fact it was about this time every year when the whole family would pack into the car and head for either Wrentham Village or Merrimack. We would browse for hours but it was all about getting a few IMG_2318great deals on essentials for the coming school year (usually sensible sneakers, turtle necks and a jeans jacket if I was lucky).

The tradition continues even now that I live in Okinawa thanks to the Ashibinaa Okinawa Outlet Mall.  Much like outlet malls in the US, Ashibinaa is a place where you could spend the day. There is an assortment of shops to include Gucci, Marc Jacobs, Armani, Crocs, Nixon, Billabong, Tommy Hilfiger, Under Armor, COACH, Ralph Lauren, GAP and LeSport. . . . just to name a few.

All that shopping can work up an appetite so why not give one of the restaurants or cafes a try? Some familiar favorites include Baskin Robbins, Italian Tomato Cafe Jr, Starbucks or A&W. There are also a variety of other restaurants and vendors (seasonal) which are sure to please even your family’s pickiest eater.

Ashibinaa isn’t only a great place to replenish the wardrobe or stock up on back to school basics. . . it’s also a great place to get some souvenirs for your friends and family! There are a number of shops that sell goods unique to Okinawa.

IMG_2321Travelers should also take note of the stores throughout the outlet mall with a “Tax Free” sign displayed. These shops shops are duty free for foreigner travelers only who present a passport and spent over ¥10,001. Travelers should also take note of the bus shuttle from Ashibinaa to the Naha Airport. The bus (#95) departs the outlet mall to the airport every hour starting at 10:30 until 19:30. (Fees apply)

Now for the nitty gritty. . . Ashibinaa has everything you need for a pleasant shopping experience. It opens at 10:00 and is completely closed by 20:30. There are coin lockers, designated smoking areas (smoking is prohibited in non-designated areas), mobile phone charging stations, currency exchange centers nursing stations, bathrooms, ATMs and e-money charging stations. There is also Wi-Fi available and an alteration shop. It’s also important to note that Ashibinaa is handicap accessible with elevators. Guide dogs are also welcome, however, pets are not. Finally, Ashibinaa has a large parking area which makes finding parking stress free even midday on a Saturday.

Overall I love the Ashibinaa Okinawa Outlet Mall even though I don’t find myself here often. It’s a great place to window shop or even pick up those necessities you’ve been looking for at a discounted price. . . . and there are some great discounts. If you’re looking for a great place to spend the day and get some shopping done I highly recommend checking out the Ashibinaa Okinawa Outlet Mall.

Discount Grocery Store – AEON Big Express


Grocery stores of all shapes and sizes can be found throughout Okinawa, but none offer the selection and competitive price of AEON Big Express! Located in Okinawa’s south central city of Ginowan, AEON Big Express is an American sized grocery stores with a large selection and discounted pricing to match.

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The best way to describe AEON Big Express is a discount grocery store. Although they have a variety of items that you can find at other IMG_1945stores throughout the island the prices tend to be a bit cheaper here which is a great way to save some money, something increasingly hard to do when purchasing food. Inside AEON Big Express has the feel and shopping experience of an American Big Box store, just without the massive quantities. There are a lot of cardboard boxes of product throughout the store, not everything is organized and there are a lot of people looking for the best possible deal. This can sometimes become very hectic in the busiest parts of the day, especially as more unattended boxes make their way into the center of aisles, but it is manageable if you’re there are the right time.

The layout of AEON Big Express is very much like any other grocery store here in Okinawa. First you will be in the produce section. This section is filled with a variety of produce from all over Japan and some other places as well.

Like other discount stores produce at AEON Big Express is hit or miss. There are times when the produce is fresh, affordable and there is a large variety whereas other time there won’t be much or the produce might look like it has seen better days. Either way I have found that it is a great place to shop especially in the Okinawan summer when local produce is hard to find.

Continuing towards the rear of the store you will find yourself in the fish section. There are a variety of fish products available either fresh or frozen. Pricing is competitive as well. Meats also are available and at decent prices depending on the time of the year and the IMG_1947types of meats that you are wanting to purchase. Like everywhere else in Japan beef is still expensive here as it would be anywhere else.

The entire center of the store is dedicated to everything else you might want out of a grocery store. From dog food to frozen pizza you can find it here. In fact if you’re looking for a killer deal on packaged items then this is the place to check out. You can easily save 10 to 50 yen per item.

AEON Big Express also has a large selection of pre-made foods as well which you can chose from if you’re just passing through and looking for some lunch. Enjoy everything from bento to tempura all fresh and ready for you!

If you want to head out to AEON Big Express there are a few things you should know. First and foremost AEON Big Express is located on the Ginowan Bypass not far from the Ginowan Convention Center. Secondly the store takes yen cash and some credit cards. Some e-money is also excepted here as well. Now for logistics. AEON Big Express is in a shopping center which shares a large parking lot with a handful of other businesses. This can make it hard to find parking especially after 10AM when the other businesses open and most certainly on the weekends. If you want to take advantage of the great discounts it’s best to shop during the week before 10AM if possible.

Have you even shopped at AEON Big Express? Let us know in the comments below!

HottoMotto – Good Food Fast


 

When you think of fast food you probably think about McDonalds, KFC and Burger King. You can find all of these places here in Japan but sometimes a greasy burger doesn’t hit the spot. This is why HottoMotto is one of my favorite places. Not only can you get yourself a good meal but you can get it quick and cheap.

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HottoMotto is a chain restaurant that is located in about 5 of Japan’s prefectures including Okinawa.  And here in Okinawa they are all IMG_1956over the place making them the perfect place to stop and grab a quick bite while out and about exploring the island. HottoMotto serves up one main thing boxed lunches or bento.

Although the locations themselves are small the menu is huge with a ton of options which are sure to please everyone in your family. There are more traditional Japanese style offerings and even something for the picky eater. Kids also have two options both served in cute character boxes and including a toy. Aside from meals there are also a variety of sides available like chicken and fries.

There are a lot of things to love about HottoMotto but the two which keep me going back is the availability and the food. It’s hard not to keep HottoMotto as an option when they are around every corner. On top of that it’s hard to pass up on the IMG_1959assortment of foods that HottoMotto offers. Don’t get me wrong, there are healthier options out there then what you can find at HottoMotto but if you’ve got the choice between some salmon on rice and a whopper then I’m going with the salmon on rice. This is especially important when I am doing things like hiking.

The price doesn’t hurt either. Many of the items on the menu can be purchased for under ¥500 IMG_1968and that’s including a drink. Naturally there are a number of more “up scale” items which can be anywhere from ¥510 to ¥800.

Now that you know what it is that you can get from this awesome little storefront let’s talk about how you can get your hands on some of this goodness. The most popular way to enjoy HottoMotto is to go to the store and order on the spot. This allows you to choose from anything on the menu and have it prepared while you wait. This usually takes from about 3 to 5 minutes but can take longer depending on the size of your order. The second way is to choose from the pre-made items they have available. This may or may not be available at all locations. This selection of items is perfect to grab and go without the wait. Third is to place your order by phone. This is perfect for large groups or if you want something specific without the wait. Ordering over the phone also give you the ability to order party platters. (Note: Platters may need to be ordered in advance.)

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Before running out to HottoMotto to get some lunch or dinner there are a few things you need to know. First and foremost not all locations have English menus available which means that you may just have to “wing it” if you can’t read Japanese. HottoMotto also takes yen cash and SOMETIMES dollars depending on the location. It’s important to ask before ordering what forms of currency are accepted. Finally, and most important, HottoMotto is a carry out location. There are no seats or tables inside the restaurant to enjoy your food while in the shop.

Whether you are on your way back home from a long day of exploring or just don’t want to cook some dinner tonight HottoMotto is a great place to stop by and grab some food for the family!