The big tease and wait is over. The many signs showing the distance and direction to Southeast Botanical Gardens in Okinawa City are now pointing toward a park that is actually open. Shuttered nearly three years earlier by the previous owner, the facility began anew in July 2013 under new management. Surprisingly, the gardens and grounds are in superb shape and the facilities have undergone an extensive modernization in anticipation of returning tourists flocking to its gates.
Southeast Botanical Gardens is an expansive park of about two square kilometers that showcases subtropical plants, ponds, and a few animals as well. Beautiful gardens like this in Japan can only be seen in Okinawa’s subtropical climate which is the perfect climate for the wide variety of species growing here with origins from around the world.
The atmosphere of the park is akin to that of a large theme park with its very large parking lot, ticket booths, tram, restaurants and concessions, and signs everywhere guiding you to the next area to look for. At the same time though there is a small time homey feel to Southeast Botanical Gardens, like a small intimate museum. Staff members everywhere in the park not only greeted me, but also took time to ask if I had any questions, to explain the features of the park, to take a photo of me, and even to encourage me to post my own photos on their Facebook page. I really like the fan that was given to me when I purchased my admission ticket, as it had a map of the property on one side. The accompanying brochure is a very high quality large booklet with thick cardboard stock and pictures throughout that really impressed me. The brochure is in Japanese, but if you can sound out kana then you won't have too much difficulty with the content therein.
The park divides itself into two zones. The smaller Botanical Garden side is across the entrance road from the parking lot. The much larger Water Garden is not only a series of beautiful ponds but the rolling wooded hills that overlook it and the wide open tree-lined grasslands in between. There is a tram available that will drive visitors around the park with a guide for 500 yen - this is a good way to find out exactly where you will want to explore further after the ride concludes. The Partnership Shop and Café is a building at the entrance of the park that has a gift shop, information desk, the Aloha Blossom Restaurant, and Chibana Gelato frozen treat stand. The park will open its premier Restaurant Peace in October, 2013.
I recommend starting on the Water Park side of Southeast Botanical Gardens. The many trees, flowers and plants along the hillside trails lead to picturesque views of the rest of the park that you won’t want to miss. Descending from the wooded hills there are several bridges over the ponds in the center of the park. Look for several locations where visitors can feed carp, koi and other fish for 100 yen. I was surprised to see many ballpark size open grassy areas throughout the park that are a great spot for having a picnic.
I look forward to visiting the park again in February to see the cherry blossoms throughout the park. But don’t wait too long to visit Southeast Botanical Gardens. Right now as soon as possible is the best time to visit. The tour bus companies have not yet integrated this premier attraction into their schedules; now is a great time to wander through the gardens without having to contend with any vestige of crowds.
Prior to visiting I imagined that the park was likely neglected prior to being purchased by the Tapic Group. It was a pleasant surprise to see that the vast majority of the park had been re-groomed, cleaned, repaired, and painted. The only signs of compromise I could find were too many large spiders on the observation decks, and the Water Garden being completely overtaken by overgrown lily pads and other aquatic plants. I believe these matters will be addressed very soon.
Southeast Botanical Gardens is located in northern Okinawa City just south of the Okinawa Expressway Okinawa-Kita Exit near the intersection of Routes 329 and 26. The park is open each day from 09:00 ~ 22:00 with last admission at 21:00; opening time in July and August is 06:30. Admission is 1,500 yen for adults, 1,000 yen for children ages 12 to 17, 500 yen for children 6 to 11, and free for children five and younger. Comfortable walking shoes and insect repellent are highly recommended must have items for any visit regardless of the time of year.