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Japan: Okinawa (Underground Caves)

Okinawa is often referred to as Japan’s Hawaii, but with average yearly temperatures hovering around 72°F and with rainfall averages of 78 inches per year, the island can prove to be a very hot and humid location to visit. Not to fear, there are several popular caves to explore to get away from the heat and humidity of the summer months.

Located just 6 miles south of Naha Airport you will find the Gyokusendo Cave, which is the second largest cave system found in Japan, with over 0.5 miles of passageways open for exploration. Discovered in 1967, this 300,000-year-old cave stretches 3 miles from end to end. Here the temperatures are a cool 69°F year round and visitors can comfortably take in the small streams, waterfalls, stalactites and stalagmites. The cave is actually located beneath a theme park about Okinawan culture called Okinawa World. A craft village, a snake museum and the cave itself are the park’s main attractions. The cave is strategically lit so that the crystal clear pools of water give off a rich, blue glow and the stalactites overhead display a psychedelic show of colors, courtesy of motion detector controlled pinwheel lighting. The cave served as the backdrop for several movies including the 1974 film, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.

During summer months, (July to September), Okinawa World offers daily tours that take you beyond the walkway, into parts of the cave that are normally off-limits. The tour lasts about 90 minutes and involves a fair amount of climbing and submersion into the river, which runs beneath the walkway. Anyone over the age of five is allowed to participate.

Lastly, a special type of awamori (an alcoholic beverage indigenous to Okinawa) is distilled here. Normally the beverage is made from long grain indica rice but the awamori distilled here is made from a very venomous snake called Habu. The beverage is fermented for five years and the consistent temperature of the cave provides an ideal environment for the fermentation process.

The next cave is located in the town of Kin next to the Kin Kannon-do Temple, just down the road from the front gate of Camp Hansen. The Kin Kannon-do Temple is one of the eight famous temples in Okinawa and has a rich history. It is said that in 1552, a Buddhist priest named Nisshu washed ashore during a typhoon as he was traveling back from China. He stayed in Kin Village and expressed his gratitude to the people for their help and generosity by praying for the destruction of the large Habu snakes that lived in the cave and attacked the villager’s domestic animals. Nisshu created three statues: one of Buddha, one of Yukushi (God of Medicine) and one of Kannon (God of Mercy) to be placed in front of the cave. Later a temple was erected near the cave and is still used for wedding ceremonies and funeral services.

After descending down a steep flight of stairs leading into the cave, you discover the sheer beauty of the colorful stalagmites and stalactites. On one level there is a smiling golden Buddha statue and on the next, unimaginable treasures. Like Gyokusendo Cave, the cave at Kin is used to store thousands of bottles of Tatsu Awamori (Dragon Awamori). The bottles are stored for a period of 5 to 10 years and are often tagged with the owner’s name and date in which the bottle went into storage. Some bottles have baby photos or wedding photos. They are retrieved by the owner when the special occasion for which they planned arrives. The bottles typically cost ¥10,000 and are safely locked away behind a gate.

So, when you visit Okinawa, take in the beaches, sunshine, windsurfing and other activities this tropical island has to offer and for a change of pace, descend to subterranean Okinawa and experience the secrets that lay down below. It is an experience you will remember for a lifetime.

 

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