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Mangroves of Okinawa: Wansaka Oura Park

The mangroves of Wansaka Oura Park are teeming with beautiful wildlife and the village offers a peaceful encounter with rural Okinawa.

There aren’t many mangroves left in Okinawa. The east coast used to be lined with them, but because of coastal development, few areas remain. While this is terribly, sad I’m not here to preach about wetland conservation (don’t get me started). Rather, I’d like to share an incredible experience I had on the eastern coast of Nago City in Okinawa’s North.

Eager to get out of the city for a day, my wife and I (plus two boys visiting for the weekend as part of a homestay program with HelloWorld) drove up to the township of Oura, where there is a park built around what is left of the natural mangrove forest. Oura Wansaka Park is absolutely a wonder to behold. It’s trees, trees, and more trees, plus a lot of water, or a lot of mud if you go at low tide.

There is a fee for entry, but it’s not steep and the money goes toward preserving the forest and educating visitors about it’s ecological significance, so it is money well spent. 

The Mangroves of Wansaka Oura Park

We went at low tide and I highly recommend this because if you stop on the boardwalk that traverses the mudflat, you can look over the edge and see the fiddler crabs making their way along what would be the bottom of the river mouth. Fiddler crabs (at least the males) are famous for having one large claw which they use to fight each other over mates (and one smaller one for more mundane things like feeding themselves). There are plenty of different species of these tiny crabs, which are only a few centimeters across, and the mudflats are abuzz with them.

Or course, the mudflats are amazing, but trees are the main attraction. At low tide, you can see the characteristic roots of the Ohirugi trees (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza) and mehirugi trees (Kandelia obovata). The boardwalk above the mudflats runs through a forest of these plants and I recommend stopping to take in the rugged beauty of the forest, which extends almost as far as the eye can see from the level of the wooden deck.

Boardwalk through the mangroves
Oura mangrove forest

Interestingly, if you look at the leaf margins closely, you can see that many of them have been eaten away by unseen bugs. This bug damage does not detract from the beauty of the forest. Rather, it reminds visitors of the rich ecology of which the trees form the foundation.

Best view of Wansaka Oura Mangrove
A bridge through the mangrove forest
Leaves provide food for insects

This ecology includes various avian species, including the grey heron and the great egret, as well as crayfish, land-walking goby fish, water snakes (not the banded sea kraits common to the reefs around the island) and some fairly sizable eels. And crabs, armies of crabs. All the aquatic species in the mangrove ecosystem thrive in (or at least tolerate) brackish water, the result of the fresh river water mixing with the ocean when the tide comes in.

At the far end of the mangrove is an old concrete bridge across the Oura river at its shallowest point. Called the Chinka Bridge, it can only be crossed at low tide when the water level is below the bridge. At high tide, the bridge disappears completely.

Chinka Bridge is submerged at high tide

What to see in Oura Township

Oura Township itself is a sleepy little hamlet on the east side of Okinawa main island, accessible from Route 331 (which is the extension of 329 that runs much of the way up the coast). Formally part of Nago City, it was founded sometime in the 1600s during the Ryukyu Kingdom era and a few artifacts from that era can still be found.

Ryukyu Kingdom Era Artesian Well

One such artifact is an artesian well built from stone quarried in Ryukyu times. Located near the steep slope that runs along the eastern edge of the village, it’s not on any online map I could find, but if you get the guidebook where you buy tickets, you can find it in there. Look for the characters 井戸. If you don’t have the guide book, don’t worry. The hamlet is so small that you almost can’t miss it. At the couth end of the Shisa Street (see below), follow the alley ways that lead to the bottom of the slope. If you can’t find it, ask a local, who will proudly point the way (or possibly even take you there personally).

Ancient well in Oura Township
A well built from stone cut in the Ryukyu era.
Steps invite hikers up Oura's eastern slope.

If you find the well, you might see a path inviting you up into the forest that adorns the ridge to the east of the village. It’s hard to resist hiking up this if you the kind of person who likes to explore. We were there with two adventurous Japanese boys from the mainland, so there was no saying no. There is no spectacular view from the top of ridge, but you can get a good look at the little village and the wetland across the main street.

Oura Shisa Street

One less historical but equally interesting attraction is the ‘Shisa Street,’ so named because it is lined with shisa lions made by local children in celebration of the towns elders and placed on the walls that line the street. These are not traditional shisas (although many of those can be found guarding the gates of houses like the rest of Okinawa), but rather googly-eyed shisa-heads that are really quite colorful. She shisa street is on Google maps, but you don’t need a map. Just go left at the first street as you enter the village on your way back from Chinka Bridge (it’s a slight left, breaking off at an angle from the main street).

A shisa on Oura Shisa Street
A colorful shisa on Oura Shisa Street

Farmers' Market

Beside the parking lot to the wetland is a complex that features a tourist center (surprise!!) and a farmers’ market. According to the website (linked at the bottom of the page), the farmers’ market, which boasts a remarkable selection of regionally grown fruits and vegetables, was built through investment by ten of the surrounding villages and provides an important source of income for local producers, so if you visit, be sure to load up your basket to show appreciation. It was closed for renovations the day we trekked the boardwalk and the ridge, but by the time you read this post it is likely open (check the link at the bottom of the page to be sure).

River Mouth View from Route 331

One final note. On the way back to the parking lot from the village (or on the way to the village if you have to double back on the boardwalk because Chinka Bridge is under water), be sure to stop and take in the view from the road bridge toward the ocean. If the clouds are as dramatic as they were on the day we went, it will be hard to tear yourself away.

Oura river flows gently to the ocean.

What is around Wansaka Oura Park?

There isn’t a whole lot to eat in Oura, but we found a little roadside stop that served good, hearty Okinawan food not far from the mangrove. It was close to the Lawson on Route 331 (southeast of the wetland). The complex that includes the farmers’ market also has a restaurant, but it was under renovation along with the rest of the building. You can use an online map to find food, just don’t expect that places in the countryside will actually be open, no matter what Google Maps says about the hours, and anticipate that they might sold out of what you want when you get there. They almost certainly won’t speak English (but will do their very best to serve you) and they might not take credit cards, so have lots of cash on hand.

The mangrove is worth the trip to Nago on its own, but if you’d like to do some other things while you’re in the region, you’re not all that far from the main attractions of Nago City. You can check out the Pineapple Park (tourist trap, but actually awesome), visit Kouri Island or Yagaji Island, or, if you’re in the mood for another mangrove, check out Kin Town. If you feel like continuing north, you’re about an hour from Cape Hedo, the northernmost point of land in Okinawa. And if you’re going that far, you might as well take in the scenic view at Aha Dam or check out Igimi Hakinzo Observation Point. There is literally nothing there but an observation deck (and a washroom, of course), but on trips to Okinawa’s breathtaking north, that’s sometimes the point.

Editor’s Note: Someone asked online if the park allows dogs. Unfortunately, one of the websites associated with the park says ‘no pets or bicycles,’ so it’s best to plan to go without your companion animals.

Wansaka Oura Park

465-7 Oura, Nago, Okinawa 905-2267
Wansaka Oura Park Website

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