“The frame of the cave leads to the frame of man.” ~Stephen Gardiner
So, while I’m still med-down from most things I love to do that involve summer-time crystalline waters, swaying palms, sauna-like sun and sea creatures most can only imagine, I’ve had to reinvent how to explore Okinawan waters in different and unexpected ways. Okinawa offers much more, of course, than the ocean to escape the oppressive heat of summer.
The Gyokusendo cave is the second-largest cave system found in Japan and largest on Okinawa, and is open to the public…for a fee (of course). Water streaming through the rock and down various waterfalls has helped form the stalactites, stalagmites and “flow-stone” over the past 300,000 years. Hand-railed metal stairs and catwalks make strolling the cave a memorable and easy experience. Motion detector-operated lights offer dramatic backdrops and psychedelic shows of colors. The soothing sounds of rushing and falling waters are heard trickling throughout the cavern.
Although the journey can be peaceful, relaxing and quiet (if you let the loud school-children pass you by), the landscape of the cave is foreign at best. And it’s imposing enough to imagine it a place of other-worldly monsters, so much so that the 1974 Godzilla vs. Mecha Godzilla movie was in part filmed here.
Although the cave system totals over 5 kilometers of maze-like tunnels and caverns, those accessible by walkway runs for just about 900 meters (about ½ mile). If you take your time to thoroughly enjoy the journey and take a plethora of photos (like we do), you’ll be in the cave for at least an hour. And during that 60 minutes or more, if you are like me and find yourself needing facilities in the most inaccessible of places, urinating from the walkway elevated about 3 or 4 feet above the underground stream produces a loud and echoing splash.
During summer months (July and August), Okinawa World offers a special spelunking cave tour that lasts about 90 minutes and takes you to places not normally seen from the walkway. It requires some uneven trekking and a good deal of energy, so you adventuresome types will find it tons-o-fun. While not really “spelunking” as I have always imagined it, it’s probably as close as I can get here in Okinawa.
It is more of an off-trail guided tour, but it does meander through the more mystical paths of the Gyokusendo caves. It does traverse over hidden obstacles along an underground river and some parts of the path are narrow and require a healthy measure of dexterity to navigate. While the water is not deep, often times you have to duck under obstructions, putting you in the 60 degree water up to your waist. That certainly makes for a cool-cool summertime activity.
The stalagmites and stalactites are hard not to touch, but when they take up to three years to grow just one millimeter, the slightest touch can destroy hundreds of years of nature’s finest work. Some of the growths are measured in many meters inside the cave!
There are some critters in the cave, although we didn’t see any of them other than the small bats that silently fly overhead. While they often stay at the caverns’ ceilings, there were some surprising near-misses as these winged creatures flew up and down the passages.
You’ll need yen for on-site locker rentals, and if you are bringing a camera, it needs to be completely waterproof (housed or amphibious). Pants and a long-sleeved shirt are required, and for good reason – it will save you from more than a few potential scrapes and contusions. Footwear choice, perhaps, is the most important decision; I wore waterproof, closed-toed sandals, but almost rolled my ankles any number of times. Gloves are also a nice touch, since some of the rocks you may grab for footing are sharp and/or slippery. We wore parts of our scuba wetsuits, but that was overkill; of course since you’ll be wet to your waist or chest, you’ll need a change of clothes and a towel. There are hot-water showers (with soap and shampoo) offered as part of the admission fee, and parking is free.
If you’re looking for an unusual and unusually-cool (figuratively and literally) adventure on Okinawa, be sure to not to miss this one. For me, it was good to be back in the water.
Times: 9:00-18:30 (April-October), 1700 closing in Winter. Last admission 30 minutes prior to closing.
The spelunking tour is NOT recommended for people with knee or back problems and pregnant women. Child must be at least six to participate. Although we were under the impression that this was only available through MCCS+, you can reserve directly through the caves.