For most visitors, Naha will most likely be the first or last destination in Okinawa as it is the administrative capital of the islands as well as a travel hub.
The city of Naha, though small, is rather charming.
It’s a pleasant and pretty city to spend a number of days, though it shouldn’t be all that you see of Okinawa Island.
What to See
Any guide to Naha will always start off with the Shuri Castle.
The islands were home to the former Ryukyu Kingdom, and Shuri Castle was the main castle.
Most of the other castles you’ll visit on the island (outside of Naha) are in ruins, but the Shuri Castle is a faithful restoration of what it would have been like back in the day.
You’ll even get some great views of the surrounding city from the castle.
If you’re driving, parking is available at the basement of the castle grounds, and helpfully, there are several car park attendants (a common feature at Okinawa’s main sightseeing attractions) to direct you to available parking lots. We paid ¥320 for parking, and if parking within the castle is full, there are other paid parking lots in the vicinity of the castle too.
If you’re not driving, alight at the ‘Shuri’ monorail station.
Kokusai Dori International Street
Impossible to miss, this is Naha’s main artery, and possibly one of the streets where you’ll really feel like you’re in a big city because of the sheer number of people on this street at any one time.
Lined by palm trees on both sides, it does help to give the street a certain island atmosphere.
The bustling heart of Naha boasts shops selling jewellery, clothing, souvenirs, ice cream, restaurants, cafes, and just about anything you can think of.
Even just taking a stroll down the busy boulevard is rather pleasant, and if you time your visit accordingly, you can catch one of the many famous street events right here.
First Makishi Public Market
Here’s where you’ll find Naha’s freshest seafood, and you can buy seafood there and then and have it cooked for you.
The market closes on Sundays though, mind.
Just a stone’s throw away from the market is also where you’ll find Pork Tamago Onigiri Honten, a popular haunt for, you guessed it, onigiri. You’ll see the American influence with the presence of SPAM in their onigiri.
Tsuboya Pottery Street
Tsuboya is a little neighbourhood in Naha where you’ll find artisan craft shops with a focus on pottery.
Strolling around this neighbourhood is rather lovely as you get to take in a quieter, more relaxed side of Naha.
End your walking tour at the Naha Municipal Tsuboya Pottery Museum if you’re interested in learning more about pottery.
If you need a little spot of greenery to relax in, head to Fukushūen Park, that is yes, named after the Chinese city of Fuzhou.
It’s a Chinese style garden featuring a man-made waterfall, though there is a small admission fee.
What to Do
Taste Okinawan Specialties
If you’re going to try local cuisine, Naha’s where you’ll find lots of it in a small vicinity.
Don’t miss Blue Seal, an ice cream chain that was “born in the USA, raised in Okinawa”.
It’ll be impossible to miss actually, because it’s absolutely everywhere. Not just on Kokusai Dori, not just in Naha, but across the entire island.
Okinawan soba, characterised by it’s light broth and chewy noodles, is usually topped off with marbled slices of pork.
Oh, and of course, pork.
Goya Champuru is also another local specialty, and goya actually refers to bitter melon, said to boast many health benefits after consumption. Champuru refers to a stir-fry dish, so Goya Champuru is bitter melon / bitter gourd served in a stir fry, usually with bean sprouts, tofu, luncheon meat etc. Izakayas are fantastic places to try this dish.
Umibudo (sea grapes) are an Okinawan specialty of seaweed. They resemble fish roe and is consumed as a snack.
Day Trips / Getting Out of Naha
Many visitors hear of the wildly popular Churaumi Aquarium, home to an incredible number of marine life.
However, for this, you’ll have to take a 2 hour bus ride heading north if you’re not driving, as getting out of Naha anywhere without a car of your own will pose a bit of a problem.
I feel a little conflicted about aquariums (or any other centres where animals are kept in captivity) in general, but the centre does contribute to some important research on marine life, and does a fine job detailing Okinawa’s marine ecosystem and the importance of protecting it. I absolutely did not support the dolphin show for obvious reasons though.
Still, if you’re headed here without a car, you’ll take the Yanbaru Express bus.
Okinawa World is a theme park that is famous for it’s Gyokusendo Cave, and there is a staggered pricing scheme according to the attractions you want to visit. Other areas include the Habu Snake area that (unfortunately) also does animal shows, which even outside of the show I’d skip as it wasn’t that interesting. There’s also the Okinawa Ryukyu Village which does have all the features of a bit of a tourist trap.
Basically, head here if you’d like to see the caves, if not, I’d go so far as skip it entirely.
The park is located in Itoman city, south of Naha, so you’ll have to get on another bus if you aren’t driving.
The Kerama Islands are a little slice of paradise in Japan.
The best beaches aren’t really on Okinawa Island, and most certainly not in Naha.
For that, you’ll have to head to the Tomari Port to get a ferry over to any one of the islands.
We decided to do Tokashiki Island and it was absolutely perfect.
If you’d like to slow down to island time even more, consider staying on the islands themselves for a night or two.