Okinawa’s capital is a Japanese city with an island vibe. Relaxed, small enough to get around on foot, colourful, thousands of restaurants, cafes and bars, and with a unique blend of Japanese and American culture. Here are 11 things to do in Naha.
1 – SHOP & EAT ON INTERNATIONAL STREET
Kokusai Dori Shopping Street, also known as “International Street” is pretty much what you’d expect, with lots of garish stores and restauranteurs trying to beckon you in, but it does have a certain charm. It’s a good place to buy souvenirs, T-shirts, trinkets, cosmetics – and not to mention food. Every Okinawan specialty is here and you can even taste a lot of the goodies before you buy – many stores, like in much of Japan, have tasters you can help yourself to. It’s also where you will find…
2 – THE FRESHEST SASHIMI
A short walk from International Street, First Makishi Fish Market is in the middle of a covered maze of little shopping streets and is where you’ll find Naha’s freshest fish. I’ve been in many fish markets across Asia but this is hands-down the most colourful (and probably the cleanest), with lots of beautiful tropical fish – which tbh I didn’t even know you could eat. They have some fantastically fresh sashimi here for some of the cheapest prices I’ve seen in Japan – a whole plate of tuna sashimi for $3 USD or a mixed platter of various loveliness, big enough for two people, for $8USD. What’s more, you can buy whatever fresh fish you want from the market on the ground level, then head upstairs and pay 500 JPY (around $5USD) per person for a restaurant to cook it up. Oh – and don’t forget to get a selfie with ‘Jennifer’ – a sunglass-sporting pig’s head who has been the market’s mascot for over ten years.
Worry not, the pig’s head is replaced daily.
3 – RIDE THE MONORAIL
By Japanese standards, public transport is relatively thin on the ground in Okinawa, and one solitary monorail line is the closest thing you’ll find to a metro. But it’s a great way to get across Naha, connecting the airport in the West and the castle in the Easy to the city, and you’ll get a great sky-high view of things on the way too.
4 – WANDER UP STONE PATH AND AROUND SHURIJO CASTLE
Probably the most famous tourist spot in Naha, Shurijo castle was built in the 15 century but nigh-on destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, before being restored in 1992. There’s a cute stone path that runs up to the castle entrance from the South, (it is literally a stone path – don’t expect anything more)! Personally I thought 800JPY ($8USD) was a bit steep of an entrance fee so instead we wandered around the area which was really pleasant and as it’s at the top of a hill, you get a great view of Naha.
5 – HAVE A SINFUL ONIGIRI BREAKFAST
Pork Tamago Onigiri Honten, just down a street from International Street (also has a branch at American Village), does one thing, and it does it very well. “Pork egg onigiri” is a kinda rice sandwich, wrapped in seaweed, filled with spam, egg and various other ingredients from mantaiko (cod roe) to fried tofu to mexican beef. It’s a bargain at $2-4 USD depending on what you order, and it’s the perfect breakfast, lunch or even snack (albeit a big one) in between. I almost guarantee you will want to go back again before you leave Naha.
6 – SING YOUR HEART OUT
Like any Japanese city, Naha has plenty to do after dark. One of my favourite past times (usually after a few Orions or awamoris) is to hit a karaoke bar, and Naha has plenty. Japan, unsurprisingly, does karaoke pretty well. The bar will usually have a wireless touch-screen controller which you can use to request tracks from a massive database including thousands – and I mean thousands – of English tracks. And it’s a fair bit of fun too.
7 – TASTE AUTHENTIC OKINAWAN FOOD
Okinawa cuisine isn’t exactly world-renowned but they have a few dishes that are pretty unique. Yuunangi is hands down my favourite Okinawan cuisine restaurant in Naha – must try dishes are bitter gourd fried with egg and spam (sounds questionable but tastes amazing), the slow cooked pork belly (possibly the best pork I’ve ever eaten) and cold grated pigs face with vinegar (not kidding, that is a thing – I found it a bit bland personally but my girlfriend Huong thought it was incredible). I didn’t try it but I have heard that the squid ink risotto is awesome too.
8 – HAVE A GLASS OR TWO OF AWAMORI
Like many places in Asia, Okinawa has it’s own locally brewed spirit. Awamori is made from long grain rice, is usually 30-40% ish, and is usually aged in clay pots giving it a mellow flavour. You’ll often see locals drinking it with a little water over ice. You’ll often also find awamori on restaurant tables – chilli-soaked awamori is a popular yellow/see through condiment that adds a distinct kick to soba or rice. One of the most unique awamori experiences I had was in a bar in the North of Okinawa (they have similar bars in Naha also) where they had awamori taps – yes taps – on every table. For 1000JPY (about $10 USD), you could have three hours of unlimited awamori straight out of a tap right in front of you. Now if that isn’t dangerous, I don’t know what is.
9 – TAKE A DAY TRIP TO THE AMERICAN VILLAGE
An hour up the road from Naha and right next to the largest American military base on the island is Chatan, also known as “American Village”. As soon as you drive or walk into the centre of the town you’ll see why. Garish malls, neon lights, western fast food chains and even a bowling alley are lit up, making for an interesting if slightly bizarre experience. “Am I still in Japan?” was a question I found asking myself.
10 – GORGE ON GREAT VALUE STEAK
The Japanese know how to do a good steak, and Okinawa is awash with steak restaurants. If you can’t decide where to go, Yappari is a safe bet. Really well priced, very casual, good service, unlimited rice and salad, and the cuts are pretty good. Expect to pay around $10USD for a 200g cut.
11 – CHILL OUT AT AN OKINAWAN CAFE
If the visual and auditory bombardment of the international street and its surrounding area becomes too much, step into a nice little Japanese cafe, grab a cup of coffee and escape it all. Japanese coffee varies from super sweet iced coffee you can buy from the street to world-class coffee served up in elegant little coffee houses.
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