The Okinawan capital of Naha (那覇) should, in fairness, be a place to get things done and be on one’s way. This is the only large city in a region of Japan that leans heavily on nature – despite being capital of the Ryūkyū kingdom for over four hundred years, wartime destruction and rampant commercialization have colluded to ensure that there’s precious little to see bar bland residential blocks and souvenir shops catering to a near-constant stream of Japanese holiday-makers. Yet, somehow, it’s a great place to kick back.
A fair proportion of the locals you meet will be mainland Japanese, here to trade in a hefty chunk of their previous salary, at least temporarily, for a relaxed lifestyle. Foreign travellers often end up staying far longer than they planned – the weather’s great, the food’s terrific, beaches and bars are never far away, and busting a gut to get somewhere else just wouldn’t be in the Okinawan spirit of things.
There are, of course, a few things to see while you’re here. The beautifully reconstructed Shuri-jō, the old Ryūkyū kings’ small, solid castle, constitutes the city’s major sight and is well worth visiting, the Tsuboya pottery district is fun for a wander, and the Shuri area contains a moderately informative prefectural museum, as well as some original royal graves and stone-paved lanes. Then there’s Naminoue beach, a short curl of sand that would boast grand sea views were it not for the roads firing across the waves a few dozen metres offshore.
Shuri-jō is the venue for traditional Ryūkyū New Year celebrations (Jan 1–3) and the Shuri-jō Festival (Nov 1–3), featuring a parade of Ryūkyū-dynasty clothing, dance displays and other performing arts. The Naha Dragon Boat Race takes place on May 5, while The Naha Festival (Oct 10) includes the world’s largest tug-of-war – using a rope 180m long and 1.5m in diameter – as well as a ten-thousand-strong Eisa folk dance parade down Kokusai-dōri.
Perched on a hill 3km northeast of central Naha, Shuri-jō (首里城) served as the royal residence of the Ryūkyū kings from the early fifteenth century until 1879. Elaborate ceremonies took place in the castle’s opulent throne room, on occasion attended by envoys from China and, later, from Kyūshū. Very little of the original remains, but the present buildings, painstakingly restored in the early 1990s, are certainly worth seeing for their distinctive blend of Chinese and Japanese architecture.
To reach the castle, take bus #1 from Kokusai-dōri or #17 from Naha Bus Terminal (every 15–20min; 30min) and get off near the modern Suimuikan information and shopping centre. Alternatively, you can take the monorail to Shuri Station, where it terminates, and walk fifteen minutes to the castle. You can get a fairly sketchy English-language map of the area from the Suimuikan. It’s also worth popping into the small exhibition room for the interesting bilingual display and the short video about Shuri-jō and Ryūkyū culture (every 20min; free).
The castle’s main entrance lies across the road from the Suimuikan, through the decorative Shurei-mon. This outer gate is a popular spot for group photos, but the inner Kankai-mon is a far more impressive structure, its no-nonsense guard tower flanked by sun-baked limestone walls. Inside there’s yet another defensive wall and no fewer than three more gates – the last now housing the ticket office – before you reach the central courtyard.
Pride of place goes to the Seiden, a double-roofed palace with an immense, colourful porch and two throne halls. From the more elaborate upper throne room, the king, surrounded by gilded dragons writhing against lustrous red and black lacquer, would review his troops or watch ceremonies in the courtyard below. Other buildings house remnants of the dynasty and details of the restoration work, though with only a smattering of English explanations to bring them alive.
Exiting Shuri-jō, a quiet park featuring a stone-walled pond and old trees lies across the road. The pond’s pretty, island pavilion once belonged to Enkaku-ji, which was built in 1492 as the local headquarters of the Rinzai sect; it was said to have been the most impressive structure in the kingdom. Nowadays only a few shell-pocked walls remain of the original temple, east of the pond. Heading northwest, along the banks of an elongated lake, you soon reach the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, or Okinawa-kenritsu Hakubutsukan (沖縄県立博物館), which provides a good overview of local history and culture.