Naha: Best Food in Japan?
Naha, the capital of Okinawa, is one of the most interesting cities in Japan but is often overlooked for cities on the mainland. What makes it different? Everything. Okinawan culture, food, and lifestyle is all different from that of Hokkaido, Honshu and Kyushu, and perhaps that is easiest to see in Naha. Let's focus on one of the best things about Okinawa: the food.
The main landmark of Naha, the place that is unavoidable, is the bizarre and wonderful Kokusai-dori (`International Road`). This is a long road that goes straight through the centre of Naha and is packed with bustling stores selling everything from bottles of Okinawan `star` sand to sweet potato tarts and salt cookie flavoured ice-cream. While a lot of these stores sell almost identical things, the whole street is worth a look, and if you get tired you can always nip down a back alley for some street food.
The back streets of Naha are where it`s really at. There are two main covered shopping backstreets that come off of Kokusai-dori just opposite Starbucks- Heiwa-dori is the main one. This is where you get to taste the delicious foods of Naha – the tasty snacks cooked by locals and the exotic tropical fruits the Okinawan islands have to offer. While the back streets have a similar amount of tourist tat to Kokusai-Dori (t-shirts and shell bracelets galore) this is at least where the locals work and often come to buy their own food.
Naha, due to its higher temperature and considerable humidity, has more tropical fruits than mainland Japan. These include dragon fruit, pineapple, mango, watermelon, papaya, and the famous shiquaasa – a lime-like citrus fruit. Down the backstreets it`s easy to find any of these fruits, as well as cafes which combine them and serve up delicious thirst-quenching juices. If you`re lucky, you`ll even see a pineapple smaller than your fist!
Some of the other interesting food items sold in Naha include dried snakes, raw sugar cane (you simply chew on the stem), unidentified beetles, umi-budou (`sea-grapes` - a type of edible seaweed), andaki (fist-sized donut balls in flavours from coconut to caramel), raw brown sugar (in huge slabs), chinsuko (salt-cookies which, like andaki, can come in any flavor), and goya (a horrendously bitter type of melon which looks a bit like a fat cucumber but which tastes nothing of the sort. If you are lucky to find it, down one of the back alleys and on the second floor of a meat and seafood market is a collection of small and cheap restaurants serving up traditional Okinawan cuisine. Chanpuru (Goya or Tofu) is one of the most popular dishes, while those who want to go all-out may instead decide to order the lobster. Make sure to order the local Orion beer while you`re there!
If you prefer ice-cream, head back to Kokusai-dori and to Blue Seal, the most famous ice-cream in Okinawa. This store, while selling all of the long-time favourites like mint choc and strawberry, also has its own unique Okinawan flavours like salt cookie and purple sweet potato. Purple sweet potato (beni-imo) seems to be a thing in Okinawa, and the souvenir you`ll definitely see the most in shops is the beni-imo taruto (`sweet potato tart) – a little pastry boat with sweet, bright purple potato inside. At many souvenir shops in Naha there are little plastic boxes filled with the souvenir foods so you can try before you buy. Use the opportunity and shop around for your fave unique Okinawan treat!
Naha undoubtedly lays claim to the most different traditional Japanese food to the mainland, so the next time you`re wondering where to go for that free weekend or Golden Week holiday, hop on a plane and head to Naha for some wildly different delicacies!