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Okinawa's International Avenue: A guide to Naha's massive entertainment zone
The Okinawa capital isn't just the port of entry for travelers heading to the beach. It's a place to shop, eat and prowl for oddities
If you travel by air to Okinawa you'll more than likely start and end your journey in Naha, the island prefecture’s capital and largest city.
With a metropolitan area covering most of the southern portion of this subtropical paradise, Naha (population 321,000) has been a port of entry for travelers and goods since the 15th century.
The city's most popular attraction is easily Kokusai Dori (International Avenue), a massive shopping and eating strip that cuts a 1.6 kilometer diagonal across the city center.
Whether you need to buy o-miyage (travel gift) before you return home, want a feel for the local culture before you explore the rest of the island or just grab a greasy burger, Naha’s Kokusai Dori is the place.
Lay of the Kokusai Dori land
Kokusai Dori hasn't been around for long (much of Naha city was destroyed during the fierce battle of Okinawa near the end of World War II).
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Its name was inspired by the "Ernie Pyle International Theater," built after the war in honor of the American journalist who died during the Okinawa invasion.
Today, both locals and foreign travelers pass through this mega-shopping and eating zone, along with resident expats (mostly American and European teachers from local schools) and Okinawa-based U.S. military personnel.
The main Kokusai Street is stuffed with restaurants and shops, from Starbucks to small eateries serving Okinawan classics.
While many of these businesses cater to the tourist trade, locals come to Kokusai Dori to hit the restaurants and clubs located on the avenue and side streets.
Heiwa Dori Shopping Arcade
Home to dozens of small shops and vendors, Kokusai Dori has one of the few remaining covered shopping arcades in Okinawa.
Entering from the Heiwa Dori archway immediately off of the main street, you'll see shops selling brightly colored tropical-style island clothing, glassware and pottery, as well as small restaurants, food vendors and liquor stores selling awamori, Okinawa’s robust rice whiskey.
In one small store, proprietor Kojyou Hidesada proudly displays jars of Habushu (or habu sake); awamori with a well-preserved habu (indigenous pit viper) inside. Thought in local folklore to transfer the snake’s sturdy health and virility to the drinker, most buyers are just fascinated to see a large snake in a jar of whiskey.
As you wind through the many intersecting alleyways of shops and enter the Makishi Market area of Heiwa Dowri, you'll find a commotion of shoppers around the fresh fish and meat market.
This is the place to find both the familiar, strange and never-seen-before varieties of seafood, pork and an assortment of seaweed, vegetables, herbs and spices.
You can pick out your favorite ingredients and have them cooked onsite and sent directly upstairs to a public eating area.
At the very end of Heiwa Dori, as you exit the backside of the mall, Tsuboya district is known for its traditional Okinawa pottery.
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On a street cobbled with smooth limestone rocks cut from ancient Okinawa coral beds, small shops and cafés are mixed in with local residential homes.
The shops offer a variety of Okinawa pottery that includes everything from household dishes and bowls to decorative art pieces and the ubiquitous Shisa dog statues, reputed to guard home entrances and ward off evil spirits.
For a modern shopping experience there's the Omoromachi Shintoshin (New Town) shopping area nearby.
Built on land reclaimed from U.S. base closings, the mega-complex is just north of Kokusai Dori via a short taxi or monorail ride, or about a 10-minute walk.
Omoromachi's offerings include the Naha Main Place mall and an enormous DFS (Duty Free Store) outlet.
When to go, how to get there
Kokusai Dori is almost always lively, but the best days and times to visit are Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons.
Most Sundays the street will be blocked off for pedestrian-only traffic. On these days there are often street performers, food vendors or local festivals featuring young and brightly dressed performers doing traditional folk dance and music.
Getting there: Kokusaidori Street starts at the Naha Bus Terminal and is near Makishi Station on the Okinawa Monorail.