Okinawa’s capital, Naha, is often bustling with shoppers during the day and partygoers at night. The bars are buzzing, the food is delicious, and the pace of life is as laidback as it gets in Japan. The island of Okinawa is a subtropical paradise of clear blue skies and balmy weather, but this town offers plenty of things to do besides hitting up the prefecture’s pristine beaches.

    Naha was once the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom, so there's no shortage of ancient sites to explore. It’s also a good idea to leave some space in your suitcase for all the goodies you’ll probably get at lively farmers' markets and thriving traditional crafts shops. Naha might be a popular base for exploring glorious beaches in Okinawa, but this town is an excellent destination in its own right.

    What are the best things to do in Naha?

    1

    Kokusai Dori

    Start the day in Naha’s main shopping street

    The main shopping street of Naha, Kokusai Dori spans around 1.5 km in the town’s centre. Plenty of shops sell just about everything you could imagine, from Okinawan snacks and shisa statues (Ryukyuan guardian lions) to traditional clothes and anime merchandise.

    Shopping option includes both luxury brands and touristy boutiques, so you can expect to see a varied clientele roaming the street. On a sunny day, it's an excellent area to enjoy drinks and people-watching. There are lots of colourful street art to admire in Kokusai Dori, as well as live traditional Okinawan music.

    Location: Kokusai dori, 3 Chome-2 Makishi, Naha, Okinawa, Japan

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    photo by 663highland (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    2

    Tamaudun Mausoleum

    The final resting place of the Ryukyu kings

    Tamaudun Mausoleum, one of 3 royal museums of the Ryukyu Kingdom, houses the remains of 17 kings, along with their wives and children. As you walk around this 16th-century mausoleum, you'll notice carvings of shisa (guardian lions), which protect the tombs from evil spirits, as well as dragons and phoenixes. Look out for the engraved stone just beyond the first gate, which is inscribed with curses against the king's enemies.

    The tombs are sealed to protect the remains, but you can see models of what's behind the doors in the onsite museum, located in the basement of the reception building. It also displays period artefacts like Okinawan urns, historical documents, and photographs of the funeral of Sho Ten, the last crown prince of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

    Location: 1-Chome-3 Shurikinjocho, Naha, Okinawa 903-0815, Japan

    Open: Daily from 9am to 6pm

    Phone: +81 98 885 2861

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    photo by 663highland (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    3

    Tsuboya Pottery District

    Traditional arts and folk crafts produced by local artisans

    Okinawan pottery has been produced in Tsuboya Pottery District since the 17th century. The area's shops produce high-quality pottery that makes for excellent souvenirs. Some also offer hands-on pottery lessons for those who want to learn about the local arts. The Tsuboya Pottery Museum, located at the end of the main street, displays ancient ceramics from various eras of Japan.

    Some of the many beautiful crafts sold in Tsuboya Pottery District include mugs, bowls and pitchers, as well as shisa – Ryukyuan statues resembling a lion and dog. It’s believed that placing pairs of shisha in front of your door can ward off evil spirits. In between the pottery shops are cosy cafes where you can grab a coffee and dessert.

    Location: 1 Chome-21-14 Tsuboya, Naha, Okinawa 902-0065, Japan

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    photo by 663highland (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    4

    Eat Okinawan soba noodles

    Popular Japanese comfort food with fresh seafood

    Soba is a type of thin buckwheat noodle that’s common throughout Japan. The Okinawan version has thicker noodles, served in a broth of edible seaweed, and garnished with pickled ginger. Common toppings include pork belly, scallion and fish cakes.

    You'll find Okinawan soba served at high-end and hole-in-the-wall restaurant across Naha. You can't go wrong with Doraemon in Kokusai Dori – their classic soba dish comes with succulent pork and a side of rice. From the outside, Kamekame Soba might not look like much, but it's often packed with locals enjoying their signature dish. For a classic soba experience, visit Sobe Soba – this traditional Okinawan house is lined with tatami mat instead of the usual tables and chairs.

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    photo by pelican (CC BY-SA 2.0) modified

    5

    Naminoue Shrine

    Shinto shrine on a ridge overlooking the beach

    Naminoue Shrine is perched on a cliff above the sea and was originally a place where fishermen and sailors would pray for a safe voyage. The shrine's beautiful traditional architecture includes a picturesque Torii gate dating from the original construction. Thanks to its clifftop setting, the shrine has panoramic views across the bay.

    Stalls outside the shrine sell amulets and lucky charms that health and good fortune. The leafy grounds and neighbouring Asahigaoka Park are also worth a stroll. It's an excellent place to enjoy some peace and soak up the local culture.

    Location: 1 Chome-25-11 Wakasa, Naha, Okinawa 900-0031, Japan

    Open: 24/7

    Phone: +81 98 868 3697

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    photo by Rickard Törnblad (CC BY-SA 4.0) modified

    6

    Shikina-en Gardens

    Take some time out in this tranquil setting

    The Shikina-en Gardens were the summer residence of Ryukyu kings in the 18th century. The simple wooden palace buildings are surrounded by sweeping lawns and beautifully maintained gardens. The palace is open to visitors who can wander through the airy rooms that open out onto the gardens.

    You can cross the palace’s central koi pond on 2 curved stone bridges. Classic Japanese cherry blossom is abundant at the Shikina-en Gardens, along with unique Okinawan plants like sago palm and Ryukyu pine. The Chinese-style pavilions offer some much-needed shade if you’re visiting on a hot day.

    Location: 421-7 Maaji, Naha, Okinawa 902-0072, Japan

    Open: Thursday–Tuesday from 9am to 5.30pm (closes at 5pm in winter)

    Phone: +81 98 855 5936

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    7

    First Makishi Public Market

    A vibrant market full of tasty treats

    First Makishi Public Market is a traditional wet market with hundreds of stalls selling fresh fish, produce, toys and local crafts. There's an astonishing assortment of foods on offer, including pig's feet, irabu sea snake, sponge gourd, and bitter melon. Vendors are usually happy to offer free samples if you’re curious.

    If you like to buy local foodstuff as souvenirs, First Makishi Public Market has lots of local condiments, packaged snacks, and confectionery. It's also a nice spot for lunch – you can buy fresh seafood in the marketplace and visit one of the upstairs restaurants to have it prepared however you like.  

    Location: 2 Chome-7-10 Matsuo, Naha, Okinawa 900-0014, Japan

    Open: Daily from 10am to 8pm

    Phone: +81 98 867 6560

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    photo by Hajime NAKANO (CC BY 2.0) modified

    8

    Toyosaki Chura Sun Beach

    Swim and sunbathe on this pristine manmade beach

    There are plenty of beaches to choose from on a tropical island like Okinawa. Naha's city beach is very close to a major motorway, which results in a lot of noise. A nice alternative is to take 20-minute taxi ride or 35-minute bus ride to Toyosaki Chura Sun Beach.

    This long sweep of soft white sand is edged with pavilions for shade, while the ocean is a stunning turquoise blue. You'll often see locals enjoying football and volleyball on this manmade beach. The nearby Toyosaki Seaside Park has plenty of kid-friendly activities. However, one of the most popular things to do here is snap pictures of Toyosaki Chura Sun’s magnificent scenery.

    Location: 5-1 Toyosaki, Tomigusuku, Okinawa 901-0225, Japan

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    photo by そらみみ (CC BY-SA 4.0) modified

    9

    Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum

    3 different museums under one roof

    The Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum in Naha lets you explore the history and culture of the prefecture. You can walk into the museum’s natural history section across a glass floor filled with local fish and coral. Historical artefacts on display date back up to 3,000 years – a must-see is an enormous bell that once hung inside the iconic Shuri Castle.

    The art museum displays masterpieces by notable Okinawan and international artists. Audio guides are available in English if you want to learn more about the exhibits. The Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum also offers a hands-on experience room, lectures in the auditorium, a souvenir shop, and a cafe serving unique Okinawan dishes.

    Location: 3 Chome-1-1 Omoromachi, Naha, Okinawa 900-0006, Japan

    Open: Tuesday–Sunday from 9am to 6pm, Friday and Saturday from 9am to 8pm (closed on Mondays)

    Phone: +81 98 941 8200

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    photo by 663highland (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    10

    Makishi

    End the day at a bar or nightclub

    A buzzing district in the centre of Naha, Makishi offers traditional bars, nightclubs and live music venues for you to while away the evening. There are also cocktail joints, craft beer taverns and fun bars offering board games, pool and darts. Try awamori – local rice liquor – at one of the many bars. Do watch out for exotic additions – some bottles contain pickled snakes to enhance the flavour.

    If you're looking for a traditional drinking spot, pop into an izakaya – a casual Japanese bar serving drinks and snack foods, some hosting locals playing traditional Okinawan music. Worth checking out are Koryori Kozakura and Jinjin, both on located on the Kokusai-dori shopping street.

    Location: Makishi, Naha, Okinawa 900-0013, Japan

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    Victoria Hughes | Contributing Writer

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