When arriving in Naha, Okinawa, you will immediately feel there is something different about the place and about the people from mainland Japan. In fact, Okinawa today is a mix of Chinese, Japanese, and a sprinkle of American culture all thrown in together.
However, Okinawa was once known as the Kingdome of Ryuku, and was its own separate country, with kings and princesses sitting on their thrones at Shuri-jo castle (now a World Heritage site), and surrounded by statues of shiisa lions to ward off evil spirits and bring in good luck. The Ryuku kings ruled from Shuri-jo from around the 15th century to 1879.
However, Ryuku or Okinawa, as we now know it, not only feels separated from mainland Japan because of history, but also because of economy. Okinawa remains Japan’s poorest region, despite the Japanese government donating millions of yen to turn Okinawa into a vacation paradise.
However, things aren’t too bad for the Okinawan people. They live next to the beach, eat lots of goya, and live long lives. In fact, Okinawan people are said to have the longest life span in the world. It has to be the goya.
This bitter cucumber-like gourd can be found in everything, from goya beer, to goya tea, to goya ice cream. Even goya burgers. The most famous use of goya however, is its appearance in goya champuru (or champo for short), a popular food eaten by Okinawans.
Goya champuru is made from tofu, egg, pork (another Okinawan favorite food), and of course, goya. Some other popular foods in Okinawa that should not be missed are umi-budo (seaweed that look similar to tiny grapes that burst in your mouth like fish eggs), Okinawa soba or Soki soba (the stock of which is made from boiling pork ribs until the meat falls off the bones and the noodles of which are made from pure, wheat flour rather than buckwheat flour, making the noodles lighter in color and thicker), jimamedofu (tofu made from peanuts), and awamori tofu (tofu made from the extremely strong awamori liquor-think of it as a food that makes you really drunk).
To wash all of this down, you will need sanpin-cha (ice cold jasmine tea), Orion beer (the local Okinawan beer that is not popular anywhere but Okinawa), awamori shochu (very strong Japanese vodka made from black malted rice), or if you’re feeling really adventurous, you can try habu-shochu (awamori shochu with a big, dead habu pit viper snake coiled at the bottom of the bottle, which supposedly gives you a lot of “power”).
For dessert you can try Blue Seal Ice Cream (a popular American ice cream), sand cookies made from Okinawa’s unique bright purple yams, a variety of exotic fruits, like dragon fruit or pineapple, or black sugar shaved ice.
You can find any of this and more at one of the many restaurants located on Naha’s main strip, Kokusai-dori. If possible, try to go to one that also offers a live show featuring Ryuku court dance shows or just live music. Songs like Shima-Uta and Nada So So have even reached mainland Japan and the island beats will have you ordering another shot of awamori shochu.
Many people use Naha just as a jump off point for other various destinations in the Okinawan islands such as Miyakojima or Ishigaki island which are further south but don’t overlook Naha as a destination in itself. There are plenty of nice beaches and things to do such as…
1. Dai-Ichi Kosetsu Ichiba. Come here to see all the various pork products being sold, including dried pigs’ faces, internal organs, and so on. There are also tons of snake supplements for sale but it will cost you an arm and a leg. If you don’t like the thought of butchered pork and snake, you can also find a variety of brightly colored exotic fruits and multi-colored fish on sale.
2. Nago Pineapple Park. Ride pineapple pods through fields of pineapple (which take several years to grow into a full one) or just walk (next door is also a tropical bird park). Be sure to get enough walking in because you will be given the opportunity to consume as much pineapple as possible after finishing the tour. You can also sample pineapple wine, pineapple vinegar (good for health and cleansing the blood), pineapple cookies, cakes, and so on.
3. Take a ferry to the Kerama Islands. They are only about an hour away. Here you can swim in crystal clear ocean waters and go snorkeling or scuba-diving, where you might catch a glimpse of Nemo, the colorful clownfish. If it’s the right time of year, you can also see whales.
4. See a festival. In early May, you can watch colorful dragon boats race through the harbor as a prayer for safety and prosperity of local fisherman. Or wait until August 10th, when Naha has its annual city festival with a game of Giant Tug of War, using the biggest handmade rope in the world (as documented by Guiness Book of World Records).
So even if you’re not a beach person and hate pork, it doesn’t matter. There is truly something for everyone in Naha. So grab your cell phone and get that ticket booked.