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A Day at Nago Pineapple Park in Okinawa

Nago Pineapple Park is one of the most popular experiences in northern Okinawa. It may look like another tacky tourist trap, but prepare to be impressed.

Looking at the website of Nago Pineapple Park, the place seems like a chincey tourist trap, and if you’re allergic to that kind of experience you might find a few things not to like about Nago Pineapple Park. But if you can get past the tawdry commercialism and focus on the beauty of the park itself, you might find it’s worth the trip to Nago.

What Makes Nago Pineapple Park So Impressive?

If you’re into plants, have an appreciation for inspired landscaping and enjoy painstakingly laid out gardens, Nago Pineapple Park is a place you don’t want to miss. As you stretch out in the yellow self-driving electric vehicles (basically decorated golf-carts) that carry you slowly throughout a road lined with trees a recording (in English) informs about the park and the wide assortment of plants cultivated inside it. I won’t lie, I was impressed, and the 11-year-old kids we were with were blown away.

The facility is home not only pineapples, but also large beds of orchids and a cornucopia of other tropical flowers. Once you step off the electric carts and begin to amble along the meandering paths, you discover what a labyrinth the place is inside. There’s an interesting sculpture, water feature, plant or structure at every turn. There’s even a little room where you can go and get up close with butterflies. Honestly, I could have stayed just in that room all day snapping iPhone pics and if my wife hadn’t dragged me out, I probably would have (next time I’ll bring my professional camera).

Tropical flowers everywhere
A whole space just for butterflies

I should note that it was raining the day we went. We had to choose between Nago Pineapple Park and the nearby Dino Park and we chose this place precisely because it was built to allow us to get out of the rain. It was a good decision. I think the wetness added to the magic of the place, making the feeling of being immersed in a tropical rainforest (even if it’s a man-made one) all the more real.

Salty Pineapple Ice Cream

One of the more civilized aspects of the park is that as you stroll past the numerous fountains, statues, massive beds of colorful flowers and even a few rather pretty waterfalls, you’re never far away from a washroom or a place to sit down and eat. When it started to rain hard, we decided to take cover in the wooden seats surrounding a little shop selling Snow Lagoon ice cream. If you visit this shop, get the Salty Pineapple flavor, even though it’s a little more expensive. This is the only place this flavor is sold on the island, and if you’re as much of an ice cream fan as me, it’s almost worth the trip just to try this flavor. I found myself wishing this flavor were available in shops around the island, but on second thought realized the fact that it’s hard to get is a good thing. If it were everywhere, I’d eat way too much of it.

Humble Beginnings and Constant Innovation

As you walk around the larger-than-expected, multi-level interior, it becomes clear just how much capital has been invested in this venture. Of course, it didn’t spring up out of nothing over night. In fact, it started as a simple fruit stand called Nago Pine Garden in 1979. Over the years it grew and the business merged with a larger conglomerate with business tourism interests in Okinawa’s north. Ironically, the park grew and branched out even as pineapple production in Okinawa entered a steep decline.

Or perhaps it’s not ironic at all. The park is an excellent example of how innovation at many levels can turn a declining industry (see below) into opportunities for growth and prosperity. Farmers focused on producing the best possible pineapples, and other pineapple specialists collaborated, bringing their unique talents. Two prime examples of true innovation are pineapple wine, produced right in on the grounds (open for viewing when it’s operating in late summer), and a very special kind of soap made from pineapple char. A sign points out that no part of the pineapple is wasted. Everything gets used.

Pineapple wine is made in-house.
Premium soap from pineapple ash.

A Brief History of Pineapple Cultivation in Okinawa

According to local folklore, pineapple farming began in Okinawa in 1868 when a Dutch ship ran aground in Nago Bay and sent its cargo of pineapples floating toward the shore. That variety of pineapple was apparently much smaller than what we’re used to, but it was a novelty, so farmers saw an opportunity. It’s not clear exactly where things went from there, but once pineapple cultivation became established in Okinawa, farmers understood how well this fruit was adapted to Okinawan conditions. The red soil that covers Okinawa’s northern regions, known as ‘shimajiri’ to local farmers, is not ideal for many kinds of agriculture. However, pineapples seem to do well in it (as well as the sandier soils of Ishigaki and other Okinawan islands to the south). 

Pineapples for sale in Nago.

Pineapples were cultivated in Okinawa throughout the 19th century, but production didn’t take off until the beginning of the 20th century with the growth in popularity of canning. As the Japanese domestic market grew more quickly than foreign suppliers were able to accommodate (thanks in part to import restrictions and other protections), Okinawan farmers gladly switched from sugar cane to fill the gap. Offering a degree of typhoon resistance (a major consideration in Okinawa) and generally being less labor intensive than sugar cane, pineapples offered Okinawan farmers a welcome opportunity to prosper.

The Great Okinawan Pineapple Boom (and Bust)

And prosper they did. As word spread as to how profitable pineapple farming could be, people in lower-paying trades (and even a number of office workers) quit their jobs, acquired land and took up pineapple cultivation. Some locals claim that the pineapple boom even resulted in a teacher shortage as teachers left their jobs to cash in on the growing market. In many cases, their efforts were well rewarded, for a while.

As freezer technology improved and became more efficient, Okinawan pineapple canneries found themselves competing with frozen imports. Liberalization of import restrictions in the early 1970s didn’t improve matters. Farmers adapted by marketing fresh pineapple, but the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese rule in 1972 sent shockwaves through the industry and international oil shocks made production and processing more expensive. The canneries suffered the most and many closed down. Farmers who had suitable land switched back to other crops, but many left the industry altogether.

However, the Okinawan pineapple story did not end in disaster. Farmers innovated by working with agricultural authorities to produce superior varieties and Okinawan pineapple (much like mango) gained a reputation for outstanding quality. It remains difficult to make a living only by farming pineapples, but farmers who are willing to put in the extra work to grow the best-selling varieties claim to be quite successful. And, the innovation born of necessity is what lead to the development of Nago Pineapple Park into the great experience that it is today.

What is close to Nago Pineapple Park?

If you’ve read this far, it’s very likely you’re planning to visit the park, so allow me to provide some suggestions of other things to do that aren’t far away. You can easily spend a whole afternoon in Nago Pineapple park, particularly if you’re the kind of person who likes to take it slowly and enjoy the scenery, but if you like to find lots of things to do at the other end of a long drive, Nago won’t disappoint. Below are some suggestions.

A waterfall by the path
One of many beautiful ponds

If the weather is descent, you could drop by Todoroki Falls just south of the city on your way there, or you could even check out the underwater fish and coral observatory at Busena. If you like a nice view, the lookout platform at Nago Castle Park is a great place and it’s open 24 hours so you don’t have to worry about getting there on time (and it offers an incredible view of Nago Bay, even at night). Nago Pineapple Park isn’t that far from Sesoko island and it’s beaches of golden sand and bountiful coral, so you could take in the park on the way back from a morning in the ocean. In blossom season, you could visit Mt. Yaedake, but be sure to get there long before the sun sets. Yaedake has an observation spot at the top, which (like Nago Castle Park) is open around the clock, and the night view is spectacular.

 

This article was unsolicited and no compensation was received by Okinawa Heartbeat for its publication.

Nago Pineapple Park, Okinawa

1195 Biimata, Nago, Okinawa 905-0005
Nago Pineapple Park Website

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