The capital of Japan’s sun-drenched Okinawa prefecture, Naha is a bustling and fun-loving city offering a heady mix of shopping, sightseeing, drinking and eating. Here are the top restaurants for experiencing its unique and diverse food culture.
Situated some 644 kilometres (400 miles) from mainland Japan and stretching all the way south towards Taiwan, the Okinawa Islands were once an independent state known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. Its location and history have given rise to a distinctive culture and cuisine that’s quite different from the rest of the country, and lively Naha is the best place to experience it.
When it comes to food, influence from China, Korea and other southeast Asian countries – as well as more recently the USA – can be readily seen in dishes like Okinawa soba, champuru stir-fry and taco rice. In addition, there’s a strong emphasis on the use of locally grown, seasonal ingredients such as umibudou (sea grapes), goya (bitter melon), mozoku (seaweed), shiquasa (citrus fruit) and the famous purple sweet potato beni-imo.
Here are Culture Trip’s recommendations for the best restaurants in Naha to sample the local specialties and diverse cuisines on offer.
This all-vegan restaurant is an oasis of calm just moments from the buzzing throng of Kokusai Dori (International Street). Ideal for those searching for healthy fare, the menu is full of locally sourced, organic ingredients such as millet from Hateruma Island, barley from Yomitan, rice from Iriomote Island and freshly made tofu. These are used to create a mixture of traditional Okinawa dishes like taco rice, and Western-style ones including burgers, curry and paella. Healthy desserts and natural wine are also available. Ukishima Garden’s refined atmosphere and upmarket prices make it perfect for a special night out – try one of the multi-course chef’s menus to really indulge.
One of the countries that has had the biggest influence on Okinawa’s culture and cuisine is China, so it’s no surprise that there are numerous Chinese restaurants in Naha. One of the best is Yang Kyou Fang, centrally located not far from Naha City Hall. Open for both lunch and dinner, its striking interior design will instantly transport you to a back alley in China. The authentic food and reasonable prices keep this restaurant perennially popular with both locals and tourists. There are set menus and à la carte options to choose from – fans of spicy food will love the mapo tofu and Sichuan noodle dishes in particular.
Soba noodles are a much-loved Japanese dish, but Okinawa has its own distinctive version that is well worth a taste. Here, the noodles are made from wheat instead of buckwheat flour, giving them a firm and chewy texture more akin to udon. They’re usually served swimming in a rich, hot broth made with seaweed, dried fish flakes and pork, bursting with toppings such as fishcakes, slow-cooked pork, green onions and pickled ginger. Shuri Soba, located near the iconic Shuri Castle, is a prime spot to try the dish thanks to its reasonable prices, speedy service and delicious handmade noodles.
This authentic Indian restaurant just off Kokusai Dori is open every day for lunch and dinner, with a more extensive menu in the evening. Raja offers a huge variety of curries – including meat, vegetarian and vegan options – as well as different breads, starters and side dishes like samosa and pakora. There are also set menus to choose from, and everything is cooked from scratch so you can adjust the level of spice to suit your taste. The staff are friendly, prices are reasonable, service is quick and the restaurant even hosts regular belly dancing events – so it’s easy to see why it’s popular!
Between Kokusai Dori and the river that runs through Naha, you can find a little slice of Italy. Bacar pizzeria has just two pizzas on its menu: margherita and marinara. This might seem limited, but it has enabled the restaurant to refine its recipes and cooking method to unrivalled perfection. The chef trained in Italy, and uses only the very best ingredients to create crisp and fluffy pizzas that let the flavours sing. Bacar is only open for dinner, and has both table and counter seats available where you can watch your pizza sizzle in the fiery oven before tucking in.
Thanks to the American military presence in Okinawa, there’s a big US influence on the cuisine. Jack’s Steak House has been operating in Naha since the 1950s, and still retains the casual, retro atmosphere of an old American diner. Just five minutes’ walk from Asahibashi station, the huge sign on the wall makes it easy to spot. The unique light system outside lets you know how busy it is: blue for seats available, yellow if seats will be available soon, and red when very busy. As expected, the menu focuses on steak, burgers and other meaty dishes, plus plenty of beer to wash it down with.
This colourful vegan restaurant in the heart of the city has a menu inspired by cuisine from across Asia, including Tibet, Nepal, Vietnam, India and Thailand. Open for dinner only, they use local organic ingredients in their meals, and no white sugar or chemical additives. Diners can choose from set menus and à la carte options, with international dishes like spring rolls, pho and curry, as well as local favourites such as gyoza dumplings, karaage (fried ‘chicken’) and Okinawa soba. It can be a little on the pricey side; however, the food is richly flavoured, lovingly prepared and delicious.
The Ryukyu Kingdom is brought beautifully to life at this refined restaurant in the Kumoji district. Through authentic design, traditional lacquer tableware and multi-course cuisine fit for royalty, diners will find themselves immersed in Okinawa’s history and ancient culture. Similar to Japanese kaiseki meals, you can expect to enjoy a series of small dishes that are meticulously prepared and artistically presented. Local ingredients feature heavily, and both lunch and dinner set menus are available. Prices are expensive, but worth it for the quality of the food and the charm of the atmosphere. Reservations are recommended.
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