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Mesmerized by Okinawa's dramatic underground caves
iReporter Michael Lynch takes a tour of the ancient caves in Okinawa and discovers glowing streams, psychedelic stalactites and lots of bottles of booze
With an average yearly temperature of 22 Celsius and over 2,000mm (78 inches) of rainfall per year, the island of Okinawa is a humid location to visit, to say the least.
Click the image above for more pictures of these spectacular caves
Windsurfing, swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, jet skiing and boating are popular and for those not interested in aquatic events there are five UNESCO Castle sites to visit and festivals of one sort or another throughout the warmer months.
Like all tropical islands, there will be rainy days or unbearably hot and humid days when no traveler wants to venture outside the comforts of the hotel room. That’s not a vacation!
But sometimes it is worth lacing up a good pair of walking shoes to visit the underground caves ...
Just 10 kilometers south of Naha Airport this cave can be reached by bus or car in less than an hour. It is the second-largest cave system found in Japan and has over 800 meters of passageways open to the public.
The cave has small streams, waterfalls, stalactites and stalagmites that have been forming over the past 300,000 years. It is well lit and designed with safety of visitors in mind.
Hand-railed metal stairs and walkways make walking the length of this attraction enjoyable. But caution is advised. The passages may be slippery in places where moisture has accumulated on the chromed decking.
Motion detectors operate pin-wheel controlled lighting, putting on a psychedelic show of colors on the moist stone icicles (stalactites) overhead. Small streams and waterfalls may be heard trickling throughout the cavern and, in places, pools of water give off a rich, blue glow from strategically placed underwater lights.
Peaceful, relaxing and quiet as it may be, it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize monsters in the shapes and shadows of some of the unusual rock formations. Movie producers capitalized on this idea back in 1974 and filmed portions of a Godzilla movie here.
Gyokusendo Cave, 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. (November-March: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.) ¥1,200 (US$13.60) for cave and Okinawa World Village. Facilities: restrooms, gift Shops, restaurant. Parking: free and unlimited. For more information on Gyokusendo Cave, please visit www.japan-guide.com or www.okinawa-information.com.
Kin Kannon-do Temple and Cave
The least foot-friendly of these three caves, the Kin (Kannon) Temple makes up for its short touring distance with some surprises inside and an unusual history.
Sturdy walking shoes, not flip-flops or sandals, are advised to prevent an ankle-twist or fall when going to the depths of this cave.
Back in 1522, a Buddhist missionary, traveling from China to Japan, was rescued from a shipwreck during a typhoon by the villagers of Kin. During his stay, he established the Kin Temple. A gold Buddha Statue donated by the missionary sits smiling just a short distance down inside the cave.
The descent into this cave is fairly steep, some handrails are provided along the steps but, soon enough visitors are on earthen flooring. It can be slippery anywhere along the way whether it's wet or not.
En route various places where incense has been burned and offerings indicate someone has been worshiping at a sacred site. Once you arrive on fairly level terrain, you discover some special treasures.
There are thousands of 1.8-liter bottles of Tatsu Awamori (the Okinawa version of Sake) being aged and stored in the cool depths of the cave. People pay ¥10,000 (US$113) for a bottle and storage in the wooden racks lining the walls at the end of the cave for a period of anywhere from 5 to 10 years.
The “Keep” bottles are tagged with the owner’s name and the date they were stored. Some have baby pictures or wedding photos attached, others just a name and the date.
They will be retrieved by the owner whenever the special occasion they planned for arrives, maybe a child’s graduation or coming of age or anniversary party.
As I trek my way cautiously back up the slippery stairway to the entrance, I stop at the level of the smiling Buddha Statue, who appears to be guarding the treasures below and think, “Yeah, I’d be smiling, too!”
Kin Kannon-do Temple and Cave, tel. +81 (0)98 968 2438 (Kin Distillery), open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., ¥400 (US$4.52). Facilities: restrooms and gift shop. Parking: available street and rear of Temple. For more information on Kin Kannon-do Temple, please visit www.showcaves.com.
Café Gold Hall and Caves
Located on cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Kin Village, this attraction could easily tempt a traveler to spend an entire day here.
The hillside, honeycombed with caves and passageways, was transformed by a recycling genius into a treasure trove of sculptured artworks. Forty years in the making hasn’t brought an end to this masterpiece.
There are still woodcarvers, stone artisans, pottery collectors and bonsai gardeners employed on the premises daily.
Thousands of stone and wood-carved figures, representing the spirits, culture and nature of the Ryukyu Islands are displayed in well lit rooms and hallways above, around and leading to the stalactite- and stalagmite-adorned caverns below.
The tour begins and ends at the café which is on the second floor of the structure atop the caves. Even if a visitor took a quick dash through the attractions without stopping to admire or photograph anything, after an hour or two of wandering through the mazes and several levels of elevation, the café is a welcoming site and a great place to stop and have a light meal along with some refreshments.
Café Gold Hall and Caves, tel. +81 (0)98 968 3546, open daily, 10 a.m.-midnight. Admission: ¥800 (US$9), Groups (for 10 people or more): ¥500. Food: ¥300-¥700 light lunch or sandwich. Parking: free (available for up to 20 vehicles).
For more information on Café Gold Hall and Caves, please visit www.plat-okinawa.jp.
Note: During periods of severe inclement weather (typhoon) these facilities may be closed. It is always best to check with your travel office or contact the site by telephone if in doubt.
(Originally published January 2011, updated January 2013)
About the author: Michael Lynch is a photographer and freelance writer living in Okinawa, Japan. Published in numerous magazines, he is a regular contributor to Apogee Photo Magazine, The Matador Travel Network and Pocket Cultures.
For more information, visit www.mikesryukyugallery.com.
For more information, visit www.mikesryukyugallery.com.