Okinawa is known for its stunning turquoise beaches and endless coastline, so it's no surprise that most tourists arrive at Naha Airport and immediately leave the city for the resorts. But the vibrant capital city of the Ryukyu Islands is a great place to explore and learn about Okinawa culture, even if you only have one day.
Visitors often rent a car to get around, but if you don't drive, or just have a short layover, have no fear. Naha is well connected by the tiny monorail which, with just two cabins, runs from the airport right up to Shuri Castle. Day passes are ¥800 and good for 24 hours. Taxis are also cheap here, compared to the mainland, so venturing a bit further is doable.
This one-day itinerary relies on the monorail, starts from the furthest point, and ends in the heart of downtown, so that after a long day of sightseeing, you can kick back, watch the sunset at the beach, and maybe even take a dip before going out to enjoy some nightlife.
Naha MonorailMensore! Welcome to Okinawa! And don't forget the sunblock.
8 am: Arrive at Shuri Castle
Sitting proudly above Naha's highest hill is the imposing red-walled Shuri Castle, the seat of the former Ryukyu Kingdom. It's about a 10-minute walk from Shuri Station, so get there early to see the daily Opening of the Gates Ceremony at 8:25, with traditional Ryukyu costumes and music. The castle grounds are free to the public, but it is truly worth paying to enter the stunning Seiden area to see inside the castle. Happen to have a ¥2,000 bill in your wallet? The gates on the bill are none other than Shurei Mon, the main gate to the park.
10 am: Okinawa Prefectural Museum
By now, you have probably realized that Okinawa is completely different from the rest of Japan. Learn how and why at Naha's biggest museum, a few minutes walk from Omoromachi Station. It showcases the rich and at times tragic history of the Ryukyu Kingdom, as well as natural history, archaeology, and local arts and crafts.
12pm: Eat Like a Local
It's lunch time! An easy walk from the museum is Omoro Dunchi, a traditional restaurant built in a beautiful old Okinawan-style wooden house. Meat lovers should try Okinawa Soba with slices of fatty pork or Soki Soba with pork ribs. There's also Goya Champuru, a stir-fry with spam and bitter gourd, or taco rice which is a 'taco' on rice rather than inside a taco. If you have room for dessert, try Bukubuku cha, the unique bubbly Okinawa tea ceremony, or Jimamidofu, a sweet tofu made from almonds.
Oki Soba. Photo by kazuh on Flickr.
1:30pm: Kokusai Dori
The main strip of Naha, Kokusai Dori or International Street is a jam-packed two kilometre stretch of shops, boutiques, restaurants and bars. Explore the maze-like shopping arcades Heiwa Dori and Mutsumi Dori, pop into the Makishi Market to see today's catch, and buy unique Okinawa omiyage like sweet potato Kit Kats, sea salt cookies, and pig ear jerky. If you're lucky, an old grandpa drinking awamori may play you a tune on a sanshin, a three-stringed instrument made with snake skin.
2:30pm: Get Arty Farty
Right in the middle of Kokusai Dori is the Naha Traditional Arts and Crafts Center, where tourists can try their hand at the unique art forms of the islands. Choose from glass blowing, bingata cloth dyeing, weaving, painting lacquerware, or making your own shisa, the ubiquitous pair of mythical lion-dogs that protect almost every home and building in Okinawa. Makes great souvenirs!
4pm: Fukushuen Gardens
Due to its geographic location, Okinawa has been heavily influenced by China. This beautiful lush Chinese garden close to Kokusai Dori has ornate stone pagodas, ponds with hungry coi fish, and a centerpiece waterfall. Bonus tip: if you can find the secret tunnel behind the waterfall, you can take really cool pictures of the bridges.
Fukushuen Garden. Photo by troy_williams on Flickr.
5pm: Naminoue Shrine
This is the most well known and sacred shrine in Naha, nestled in the limestone cliffs above a lovely beach, overlooking the sea. (Try to ignore the big bypass that was unfortunately built in front of it.) Popular for weddings and festivals, it was and is an important site in the Ryukyu Kingdom. Don't forget to buy some omikuji for good luck.
6pm: Naminoue Beach
Right below the shrine is Naha's one and only beach, and despite being in the middle of the city the water is really clean and a great place to take a swim. There are public toilets and showers, and a few shops selling drinks and food, and renting chairs and towels. After all, you can't say you went to Okinawa and didn't go to the beach, right?
7pm: Dinner time
Dust the sand off your feet, jump back on the monorail and head to Akamine Station. Walk past the McDonalds (don't go in!) and choose from a variety of izakayas in the area. If you can get a table, Ibushi Ginjiro is the top pick, so reservations are recommended. Across the road is Kushikado with lots of yummy skewers, and nearby Sai is cheap and cheerful with ¥100 draft beers. Eat up and enjoy!
The Front of Restaurant Ibushi Ginjiro
If it's time to go to the airport, you're lucky because it's just around the corner on the monorail. Sayonara! Have a great flight. But if you need some more nomihodai, there's no shortage of watering holes. For something 'wild', there's Penguin Fairy Bar which actually has live penguins, and Monkey Bar which, you guessed it, has live monkeys. Dojo Bar is a foreigner-friendly pub popular with karate nerds, while Rehab is a Canadian-owned pub. The Sakurazaka district is the new trendy after-hours area, frequented by musicians and artists. Don't forget to set your alarm to wake up in the morning. Happy hangover!