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Cave spelunking great way to start Gyokusendo visit

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2011-09-23

Japan’s second largest cave, tropical orchards and a close-up view of Okinawan customs and culture are an easy, relaxing sightseeing day on the island’s southside.

Gyokusendo Kingdom Village can be said to “have it all”, and it is not an exaggeration. Located only a half-hour south of the capital city, it offers a visit to the country’s longest stalactite cave. Authorities have done a wonderful job of making nearly two kilometers of cave accessible to visitors. The total cave measures roughly five kilometers, 3.1 miles.

Discovered in 1967, the cave holds more than 1,000,000 stalactites and stalagmites. Gathered Curtains and Speared Ceiling are top attractions, along with the Golden Cup, which measures 31 meters wide and only two meters high.
The cave is very user friendly, with sturdy metal walkways and handrails. At the end of the 45-minutes hike, there’s an escalator to carry visitors to ground level, depositing them outside the Tropical Orchards.

The orchards are another principal Gyokusendo feature, offering more than 450 tropical plants and trees which bear more than 100 types of fruit. When traversing the Gyokusendo facility’s 178,000 square meters, the gardens have a welcome rest stop…a shady outdoor cafe, with countless fresh fruits and drinks for immediate consumption, or to take home.

Adjacent to the orchards are two of the Kingdom Village’s top attractions; hand crafted Ryukyu pottery, kiln fired as you watch, and Ryukyu glass, drawn from the fires and hand blown before your eyes. The best part is that you can tell the artisans you want the piece being made, and they’ll deliver it to the gift shop nearby where you can purchase the vase, glass, dish or other traditional glass item being made.

The centerpiece of the village is a series of cottages built to showcase many of Okinawa’s traditional crafts. You can watch bingata fabric being made, or sanshin three-string banjo/guitars, rice paper being squeezed and produced. There is also a traditional tea ceremony, weaving, and an A-to-Z view of sugar cane transformed to sugar, and to products using brown sugar. A small museum sits in the middle of the village, offering a perspective of Okinawa’s history, which involved dealings with Thailand, Korea and China more than Japan. As you approach the edge of the village, there’s the brewery, producing local Nihede beers in lager and dark forms, and Habu Sake’, Okinawa’s awamori with the snake inside the bottle.

A half-hour at the performance plaza watching Gyokusendo’s ace Eisa Group perform, gets you ready for the second round of exhibits and fun.
The snake house offers another hour-plus learning about Okinawa’s indigenous Habu snake in its three variations, followed by a snakes and mongoose show.
Look for plenty of photo opportunities, as well as shopping at a cavernous souvenirs and products mall. Black pearls and coral are but two of the outstanding bargains available.

And then there is an introduction to a special habu snake awamori liquor.
The awamori is Okinawa’s version of the famous tequila with the worm. Here, the awamori has the snake in the bottle. Poisonous habu snakes are first exposed to a month-long bath in a 60% ethanol solution, then added to the rice liqueur blended with fennel, ginseng and turmeric, some of 13 herbs used in Chinese medicine. More than 5,000 snakes are used each year in producing the exotic liqueur, which many advocates claim has medicinal attributes on a par with the popular Viagra. The 19 amino acids in the habu snake are also said to provide health benefits to those who imbibe.

Gyokusendo is handicapped accessible, except for the cave. Wheelchairs are maneuverable about the Gyokusendo grounds.

The Costs
Admission runs several ways, although we recommend a simple purchase of a Kingdom Village Day Pass, which runs 1,600 for adults and 800 for youngsters. It provides entrance to all facilities. For the Cave and Kingdom Village, the cost is 1,200 for adults and 600 for kids. For the Village only, it’s ¥600 for adults and ¥300 for kids. For the Habu House only, it’s the same; the price is 600 for adults and 300 for kids.

Gyokusendo Kingdom Village in Tamagusuku Village’s Maekawa District is open 365 days a year. April through October, the facilities are open 9 .am. to 6:30 p.m. In winter months, November ~ March, the village closes one-half hour earlier.

Getting There
When coming south from the bases on the Expressway, take the Itoman and Haebaru cutoff just before Exit One. Take it to the end, then follow signs to the CAVE. An alternative is to travel south on Highway 331, until you see the sign for CAVE, which will take you first left on Highway 48, then right on Highway 17 after yet another CAVE sign. Three kilometers farther and you are there.
Another alternative is to take the bus or monorail to downtown Naha, to the Naha Bus Terminal adjacent to Asahibashi Monorail Station. From the bus terminal, take the 45-minute ride to Gyokusendo on Bus 54.

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