Virtually every tourist who visits Okinawa will make the compulsory pilgrimage to Kokusai (international) Street just to walk around and browse all the tourist traps along the way. Many westerners will stop at one of several McDonald’s restaurants along the way just to look for the subtle cultural differences in the menu. Still others will probably stop and sit on the patio at the Starbucks Coffee shop just to watch all the people walking by. But all of that is too safe and sterile for me. If you’ve made the trip this far, the least you could do is throw a little caution to the wind and explore. A good place to start is right across Kokusai Street from the Mitsukoshi Department Store at the Heiwa Dori. This is a covered side street just off the main drag and the main entrance into an adventure for all the senses. Near the entrance, you won’t notice too much that’s all that different from all the tourist traps along the main street. But if you go a little deeper into it and past all the tourist traps you will enter what the locals know as the Naha “Ichiba” or market.
It’s a whole maze of covered streets that served as the main marketplace for the city for many years. Before all of the large commercial malls were built, this was the place where shoppers (locals and tourists) could get out of the elements and shop till they dropped. It’s a labyrinth of small and medium sized family owned as well as quaint little mom and pop stores selling anything and everything. Some stores are not much larger than a clothes rack and display case. It’s a place that is alive with color and just bustling with activity. Many of the streets are more like alleys and sometimes not much wider than a narrow department store isle. This is when you have to begin using your other senses to take in all the stimuli. Breathe in deep and smell the aroma of burning incense or the scent of freshly cooked tempura from the Obento shop just around the next corner.
Stop along the way and taste a Sataandagi or Okinawan doughnut. Rather than eating at one of the many chain restaurants, why not experience some of the local cuisine at a kissaten or at one of the many friendly mom and pop shokudo’s located throughout the market. The Naha Ichiba is a bustling place with people constantly moving to and fro. You’ll have to be careful that you’re not run over by a delivery driver on a scooter. Watch out when a special price is announced at the vegetable market. Little old ladies have been known to assault people in order to get to the front of the line before supplies run out. Lastly, be on the lookout for large tour groups.
You’ll know them from the fashionably uniformed tour guide holding a brightly colored flag and followed by twenty or more camera clad and shopping bag toting vacationers. Here, just like they are everywhere, they are often the targets of thieves and pickpockets. If you’re coming to Okinawa, Naha Ichiba is conveniently accessible by monorail with two stops at the Kenchomae station on the southern end of Kokusai Street and the Makishsi station which is just a few blocks walk east of the Heiwa Dori. For travelers using rental cars, there are plenty of parking lots along the main drag or within a short walk. The question for visitor’s to answer is if you go, are you going to make a cursory visit, just to say you’ve seen it, or are you going to take your time and explore it with all your senses so you can say you’ve experienced it? Speaking for myself, I’d have to opt for the latter!