Where to Find Magic in Okinawa’s Naha

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You may not think about going to Naha when planning a trip to Okinawa in Japan, but you should. Planning a trip to Okinawa can be challenging—and not just because of how far-removed the islands of the former Ryukyu Kingdom are from the rest of Japan. The web is filled with mis-information (and downright wrong information!) about Okinawa, in particular when it comes to Naha, the underrated capital of the prefecture.

Larger than you’d imagine, and more “Japanese” than you’d expect given its distance from the mainland, Naha was one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve encountered during the nine trips I’ve taken to Japan so far. Follow these easy suggestions to make sure you enjoy Naha as much as I did.

Okinawa-Naminoue-Shrine

Okinawa Naminoue Shrine – Naha

Naha: Sleep Near a Monorail Station

Naha’s no Tokyo, neither in spirit nor in physicality. It’s bigger than most would think, with a population of more than 300,000, but among its most conspicuously provincial characteristics is that it has only one train: The Naha Monorail, or “Yui Rail,” which operates to just 15 stations.

On the other hand, since it is unmistakably Japanese, the design of the Monorail’s route is masterful enough that it’s close to basically all the nearby attractions. Choose accommodation near a station, be it a hotel in downtown like Naha West Inn, or one of the increasing number of Airbnb apartments in the area.

Naha, Okinawa

Take a Trip Back in Time—or Two

Another common misconception about Okinawa’s capital is that Naha sightseeing opportunities are limited. Among the best counter-examples to this notion are the city’s most important vestiges of culture and history: Shuri Castle and Okinawa Prefectural Museum.

Naha Okinawa Shuri Castle

Naha Okinawa Shuri Castle

While the castle dates back to the 15th century, the museum explains the story of why it’s been re-built twice since then; both give you a taste of the Ryukyu Kingdom that used to exist in this island chain, but has now all but ceased to exist.

Prefectural Museum in Naha Okinawa Japan

Prefectural Museum in Naha Okinawa Japan

Use Local Food to Cope

One of the biggest mis-information offenses I reference in the intro to this piece are reports regarding Naha Japan weather. I chose to visit in winter, which many websites seemed to suggest would be cool (but not cold) and sunny, since the rainy season doesn’t begin until May. Excepting the first few hours of my trip, however, Okinawa was miserably cold, cloudy and damn.

Soba with pork belly in Okinawa, Japan

Soba with pork belly in Okinawa, Japan

The good news is that I found a steaming bowl of Okinawa Soba (served as a soup and with tender pork belly) shortly after the sky darkened. The better news is that I followed it up with a cone of locally-made Blue Seal ice cream (check out the flavors here!), which would’ve tasted even better during Okinawa’s (supposedly) scorching summer months. For a quirkier Okinawa delicacy try Taco Rice, which is made exactly how you imagine it would be.

Taco rice in Okinawa, Japan

Taco rice in Okinawa, Japan

Seek Out Urban Serenity

Naha City isn’t a mega metropolis, but it’s still a densely-populated, relatively busy urban center. On the other hand, it’s easy to find places to disconnect, whether you take a stroll through the lush, 42,000 square-meter Shikina-en Garden, or visit the dramatic seaside Naminoue Shrine (TIP: This Shinto shrine most stunning as seen from the Naminoue Rinko Road bridge just off-shore, or Naminoue Beach below.)

Naha Okinawa Naminoue Shrine

Another tip for enjoying the natural beauty of Naha is to walk when you’re not using the Monorail. Although it’s hilly, Naha has well-maintained sidewalks and even pedestrian-only paths, which are lined with banana and palm trees (and, if you visit in February like I did, cotton-candy pink Okinawan sakura trees!).

Get Out of Town

Speaking of Okinawa’s variant of the classic Japanese cherry blossom tree, you’ll find dozens of them when you visit the most popular of the things to do around Naha: Nakijin Castle Ruins, about two hours north of the city near the town of Nago. On the way back to town, ride the Yanbaru Express bus to Naha’s other most-popular day trip destination, Churaumi Aquarium, home among other marine animals to two very impressive whale sharks (yes, I know it’s sad they live in captivity—what can you do?).

Whale sharks at Churaumi Aquarium in Naha Okinawa

Whale sharks at Churaumi Aquarium in Naha Okinawa

As for the question of the best Naha Okinawa beach to visit, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you have plenty of choices, whether you visit the so-called “Sea Glass Beach” on the south shore of the main island, or ride a ferry to Tokashiki or Ie islands for the day. The bad news is that with the exception of the aforementioned Naminoue Beach near downtown, none of Naha’s beaches are very convenient to reach without your own car.

Cherry blossoms at Nakijin Castle Ruins in Naha Okinawa

Cherry blossoms at Nakijin Castle Ruins in Naha Okinawa

The Bottom Line

Naha’s not Tokyo or even Osaka, but it offers an experience just as excellent as any secondary city in Japan. Whether you appreciate the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom, warm up (and cool down!) with local refreshments or explore take a day trip to destinations outside the city center, two or three days in Naha will delight you—and probably surprise you, too.

Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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