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Breathtaking cave accents Gyokusendo visit

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2006-09-01

Gyokusendo is home to Japan¹s largest cave, and the second largest in all Asia, and is Okinawa¹s best known tourist park.

Gyokusendo Kingdom Village, spread across 178,000 square meters of southern Okinawa countryside, is worth a day to explore the island¹s customs, culture
and history. Tropical orchards, glimpses of Okinawa handicrafts as they were centuries ago, and a peek‹and taste‹at a unique snake liquor, afford visitors a relaxing sightseeing excursion.

Located only a half-hour of Naha, the capital city, Gyokusendo offers a visit to the country¹s longest stalactite cave. There are more than 1,000,000 stalactites, the largest number in any cave in the country.

Gathered Curtains and Speared Ceiling are top attractions, along with the Golden Cup, which measures 31 meters wide and only two meters high.

More than two kilometers of the five-meter-long cave is open for visitors.

The cave, first discovered in 1967, is a safe, user-friendly and relatively easy walk, with safety stairs and handrails throughout the trek. Best of all, there¹s an escalator waiting to carry visitors back to ground level at the end of the 45-minute hike.

The orchards are another popular Gyokusendo spot, featuring more than 450 tropical plants and treas bearing more than 100 types of fruits. The gardens have a welcome rest stopŠa shady outdoor cafEwith countless fresh fruits and drinks ready to quench a thirsty palate, or to take home.

Adjacent to the orchards are two of the Kingdom Village¹s 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 they¹ll deliver it to the nearby gift shop 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 Okinawa¹s traditional crafts. There are opportunities to watch bingata fabric being made, or sanshin three-string banjos fabricated, or rice paper being squeezed and produced. Take in a traditional tea ceremony, weaving, and an A-to-Z view of sugar cane being transformed to sugar, and to products using brown sugar.

There¹s a small museum sitting in the midst of the village, offering a perspective of Okinawa¹s history that involves dealings with Thailand, Korea and China more than Japan. On the edge of the village is a brewery featuring local Nihede beers in both lager and dark forms.

And for the adventurous, there is a snake house offering another hour-plus learning about Okinawa¹s indigenous Habu snake in its three variations, followed by a snakes and mongoose show. And then there is an introduction to a special habu snake awamori liquor.

The awamori is Okinawa¹s 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.

A half-hour at the performance plaza watching Gyokusendo¹s ace Eisa Group perform, gets you ready for the second round of exhibits and fun.

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.

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 Village only, and not the cave or snake house, the cost is ¥1,200 for adults and ¥600 for kids. For the Habu House only, the price is ¥600 for adults and Y300 for kids.

Gyokusendo Kingdom Village in Tamagusuku Village¹s Maekaw District is open 365 days a year. April through October, the facilities are open 9am to
5:30pm. In winter, 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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