Otherworldly Okinawan capital


Automatic doors open, you step through and the sleek monorail whisks you from the spanking-new air terminal to the profuse lights of the dense urban center. Except for having exchanged wintry weather for the almost-perpetual balmy summer of Okinawa, arrival in Naha at night can seem mightily like the departure from Haneda, only in reverse.

And in the full light of day, the first impression of Okinawa’s capital tends not to ride easily with its poster image of turquoise sea lapping lazily onto a stunning, coral-white beach deserted except for an equally stunning bikini-clad young woman. But after a while, you see beyond the ubiquitous concrete faade of urban Japan, and it becomes clear that you have arrived in a very different part of the country.

The difference becomes evident as you walk along boulevards lined by acacia-like houboku (Delonix regia) trees with their exotic, fine, fernlike leaves. It is yet more apparent in the single-story Okinawan houses, with their distinctive square plans and smart, red-tiled roofs, hidden here and there among the modern cityscape and in the refreshing openness of the inhabitants.

Another of this sultry city’s most distinctive features is the melodic plinkety-plonk sound of the sanshin, the samisen-like instrument that is the sound of Okinawa (unless you’re a fan of Da Pump or Amuro Namie). In Naha, the place where the lilting rhythms of the sanshin are most audibly present is along the city’s main axis, Kokusai-dori. This bright, brash thoroughfare is a mile-long stretch of souvenir stalls, cafes, restaurants, clothes shops and other stores. Running through the heart of the city, Kokusai-dori is a cheerful sort of place that constantly exerts a breezy holiday mood — even though the calendar might reliably inform you that this is January.

As you walk along Kokusai-dori, it is impossible to be unaware of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. Many restaurants have prominent signs that announce “Approved for U.S. Forces” and “Welcome Military Personal,” though the gargantuan portions of the plastic models in the windows would seem to make the signs a tad redundant.

Despite the fact that the U.S. bases are a thorny issue, oddly the U.S. military has itself become a sort of tourist attraction in itself. The number of Army and Navy surplus stores in this area is astounding, and anyone wanting to pick up a few souvenirs — cartridge cases, entrenching tools, gas masks or paratrooper fatigues — for the folks back home will not want for choice around this lively thoroughfare.

Just off Kokusai-dori is Naha’s wonderful Public Market, which, with its bustling atmosphere and the exotica on sale, is colorfully unlike any market in mainland Japan. Here you see piles of passion fruit, mangoes, starfruit, papayas, pineapples and pink and green dragonfruit. Fishmongers sell everything from multicolored reef-fish to yashigani land crabs the size of small cats. The Okinawans like their pork and don’t believe in wasting any part of the animal, as the offerings of trotters, strings of chitterlings and grinning pig heads in the butcher stalls attest. Close your eyes, and from the smell you could believe yourself to be somewhere like Vietnam or the Philippines.

Of course, not all the produce on sale at the market is quite so wholesome. Coiled within many a pot of the local awamori spirit are the bodies of habu, the highly venomous and aggressive vipers found in Okinawa, which are added to lend some extra zest to the firewater. Likewise poisonous are the erabu sea snakes, which are also on sale at the stalls and which Okinawans use to make a soup. Though a less mouth-watering prospect than the pitch-black, bone-dry, shriveled body of a venomous snake is a little hard to imagine.

If the Public Market is the liveliest part of Naha, the grandest bit of the city is at Shuri, at the opposite end of the new monorail from the airport. Following the unification of Okinawa in 1429, Shuri Castle and its surroundings were the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which was nominally a vassal state of China. With its strategic location in the East China Sea, this nation was the prosperous hub of a profitable relay trade, unloading and reshipping the goods of Japan, China, Korea and Southeast Asia. With this rich trade, the Ryukyu Kingdom came in contact with many of the leading cultures of its day and incorporated aspects of these in forging an individual tradition all of its own.

That unique culture is spectacularly evident in Shuri Castle, which, with its startling red hall, is unlike any other structure in Japan and fully warrants its spot on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Originally constructed toward the end of the 14th century, the main hall, the Seiden, burned down and was rebuilt on several occasions. The present hall dates from 1992 and is a faithful reconstruction in traditional materials of the previous Seiden, built in the early 18th century.

As well as the vibrant red color of the palace, a Chinese influence is evident in the 33 dragons that are a distinctive decorative element of the Seiden and were a symbol of royal authority. Rivaling the Seiden for fame is the main gate to Shuri Castle, the Shureimon. Like the Seiden, the Shureimon is also a reconstruction — it was rebuilt following its destruction in the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. The Chinese-influenced Shureimon is a graceful, elegant structure that is considered a symbol of Okinawa and appears on the recently issued 2,000 yen notes.

From the lookout at Shuri Castle the nearby islands of the Keramas can be viewed in fine weather. It is worth making the trip to Naha just for the experience of Shuri Castle and the other aspects of Okinawan life in this engaging city. But if you have the time and money to spare, you get away from the main island to explore the quieter islands of Okinawa and savor Japan at its most exotic.