Here's how to take on the 'Hawaii of Japan'
Sub-tropical beauty, local flavour and Ryukyu heritage merge in Okinawa’s main city.
- June 2018
You can’t do Okinawa, often dubbed the ‘Hawaii of Japan’, without visiting a beach. Beat the crowds and the midday sun with an early morning trip from Naha to Cape Zanpa opens in new window, a 30-minute drive to the north. The beach here is one of the prettiest on the island, with fine, soft sand and clear, blue water. Anti-jellyfish nets, lifeguards, a beach house for snacks and showers, rental parasols and activities such as banana boat rides make it especially good for families.
Head back to central Naha for the Makishi Public Market opens in new window, just off the main thoroughfare Kokusai-dori, to discover some of the weird and wonderful produce that makes Okinawan food so distinct – from tropical fruit and a vibrant array of seafood and seaweed through to pigs’ ears and trotters. Don’t miss the food court on the second floor for casual Okinawan comfort food such as soki soba, a bowl of noodles in hot broth topped with melty pork-rib meat.
Check out the colourful shops on Kokusai-dori, which range from touristy to traditional craft outlets. If you need a beer to cool down with, try Helios, a brewpub that highlights how far and wide the craft beer boom has spread in Japan. Its five year-round brews include a refreshing German-style lager and a British pale ale, plus the signature Goya Dry, which packs a kick from its use of Okinawan bitter gourd (goya) in the mash. For a very different vibe take a short walk to the Tsuboya pottery district. Start with the Tsuboya Pottery Museum opens in new window to get a sense of the variety of made locally Tsuboya-yaki and its deep roots here, then browse the ceramic shops on Tsuboya’s main drag. Helios on Facebook opens in new window
Okinawa was an independent kingdom called Ryukyu from 1429 to 1879. Take a short trip on the metro out of central Naha to Shurijo Castle opens in new window, a mix of ruins, reconstructions and other attractions, and one of the more interesting Ryukyu sites on the main island. The hilltop location affords great views back over Naha, and although the current structures are 1990s replicas of the late 1300s originals, the vivid red design is strikingly different to castles elsewhere in Japan.
Before leaving Shuri, eat at Ashibiuna, which specialises in classic Okinawan flavours opens in new window. It occupies a storied wooden building on land that has a history stretching back to the 15th century Ryukyu Kingdom, with low tables looking out onto a landscaped garden. If you are feeling brave, try the mimiga (vinegared pig ear), tonsoku (stewed trotter) or raw goat washed down with some of the fiery local awamori spirit. At the very least, try the goya-champuru, a stir-fry of bitter gourd, pork, tofu and egg.