The English translation for Kokusai is “International” and Kokusai Dori is Okinawa’s most famous shopping street. It runs for many blocks between Route 29 at one end and the Ryubo Department store at the other end. It is lined with restaurants and shops and is almost always busy. Most of the stores stay open very late and the street has an exciting energy. As in any international city there are the usual souvenir and T Shirt shops but there are many stores selling goods unique to Okinawa.
Awamori: You will find many shops, selling Awamori, the traditional Okinawan liquor that is distilled from rice. Hundreds of varieties fill shelves floor to ceiling and at the front of these shops huge glass jugs are filled with the potent liquid with a “Habu Snake” preserved in the bottle. (And I thought the worm in the tequila bottle was a bit much!) Pricing varies greatly depending on the age of the awamori, the proof and the maker.
Music: There are quite a few music stores selling recordings as well as traditional Okinawan instruments; the sanshin and taiko drum. The finer sanshins have genuine stretched snake skin over the body of the instrument but to the snake’s relief, more and more sanshins are made using faux printed snake skin.
Okinawan Laquerware: There are several fine shops selling beautiful red and black laquerware.
Ryukyu Glass: There are many glass blowing studios in Okinawa and you will find shops representing and selling the work from many of these studios.
Shisas: Almost every shop on Kokusai Dori has its token Shisas, but there are shops selling nothing but these guardian creatures. They come in all sizes and all qualities but always in pairs, one male with mouth open, and one female with mouth closed. They are neither dog nor lion but a guardian creature unique to Okinawa. There are several Shisa studios in nearby Tsuboya where you can watch the artisans create these magical creatures or create one of your own. Every artisan and studio has its own unique style of Shisa. Don’t go home without a pair!
Okinawan Pottery: Kokusai Dori is a great place to pick up a piece or two of hand made pottery or you can stroll to nearby Tsuboya and visit some of the individual pottery studios where the work is made.
Textiles: Traditional bingata is a dye resisting process using stencils, dyes and wax to create colorful patterns on fabric. Ask questions before you purchase a bingata to make certain that you are getting what you are paying for. The genuine bingata is quite expensive but inexpensive printed versions are for sale as well. Silks: Rolls of Kimono silks are available for the discerning shopper. Many are machine woven but some are hand-woven and signed by the artist. These rolls of fabric can cost many hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Okinawa has a rich textile history and if textiles are your interest you will find shops on Kokusai Dori selling Bashofu and Suri-Ori as well as many other types of fabrics both antique and contemporary.
Clothing: Most of the mainstream clothing stores carry casual island attire. Much of the clothing is made in Indonesia and China but there are some trendy boutiques on the side streets just off of Kokusai Dori where you will find contemporary Okinawan designer clothing. There are a multitude of T Shirt shops. My favorite of the T Shirt shops is “Habu Box.” Their T Shirts are not inexpensive, but the graphics are unique and the quality good.
Jewelry: There are many gift shops selling costume jewelry and you will find several fine jewelry stores selling coral and pearl jewelry. There are a few scattered jewelry boutiques on Kokusi Dori, but nothing notable.
The Makishi Public Market and Heiwadori Street
The Makishi Public Market is the old market place of Naha. This covered market arcade is a labyrinth of alley ways lined with small shops. The main alley on the north end of the market place is called Heiwadori, translated “Peace Street”. The entrance to Heiwadori is off of Kokusai Dori directly opposite Mitsukoshi Department Store. Prices in Heiwadori may be slightly less than along Kokusai Dori but be careful not to lose your way. Several arteries of this market open onto Kokusai Dori so don’t limit yourself to just exploring Heiwadori. You can easily find the Makishi Public Food Market, by heading down the Heiwadori arcade and turning right at the corner of the curtain shop. You will enter the market through doors on the left and be in a gourmet’s paradise. If you are faint of heart and not accustom to local markets, the meat section with the skinned pig faces and body parts hanging on display may cause you to squirm; but all is fresh and clean. You can select a fish and have fresh sashimi prepared for you on the spot. Fresh vegetables and fruits abound, and hot sweet bean fish and Okinawan donuts are cooked on the spot. It is a wonderfully unique experience.
Tsuboya Ceramic District
It’s a short walk to the Tsuboya district from Kokusai Dori. Enter at Heiwadori and walk all the way to the end of the covered market. Keep to the left and you will emerge from the covered market into the Tsuboya pottery district. This district dates back to the 15th century and the shops here have been passed down from family to family for centuries. You will be able to purchase directly from the studio in this area. The district is very charming, with ancient red tile roofed houses and stone walls. Take your time to wander this district and to explore some of the twisting walkways and alleys. Magic awaits you.
Mitsukoshi Department Store:
Mitsukoshi Department Store stands proudly on Kokusai Dori. It is an established Department Store with class and you can escape the bustle and noise of Kokusai Dori when you step inside the glass doors. The usual aroma of cosmetics and fragrances hit your senses at ground level and the sparkle of boutique jewelry reflects in the polished floors. An escalator will take you up to all 7 floors. The top floor is my favorite where you can purchase traditional Okinawan crafts, fabrics and clothing. There is a marketplace in the basement with an amazing array of packaged boutique foods and a high end carry out delicatessen.
Ryubo Department Store:
At the end of Kokusi Dori is the large Ryubo Department Store. The basement is a gourmet’s delight with carry out items and beautifully packaged “Omiyages.” Omiyage means “gift” and it is customary to take a gift of food whenever you visit someone’s home. This has created a huge industry of beautifully packaged foods and the basement of this department store has choice Omiyages for sale. The ground floor is devoted to cosmetics, fragrances and designer jewelry, but when you glide up the escalator you can step off into children’s ware, designer ware, sports ware etc. The top floor is again my favorite with a selection of traditional Okinawan and Japanese crafts and clothing.
** Note: One of my favorite things about Okinawa is not being pestered when I shop. Although you will be greeted with a cheerful “Irrashaimase,” (Please come in) you will not be pressured to buy. You will left alone to browse, but in return for this privilege, most prices are not negotiable. Okinawa may have some of the flavor of a third world country, but it is not. The exception might be if you are shopping at an independent store. The owner may offer you an item at a discount or if and are considering purchasing a expensive item or a number of items, you may graciously ask “Is this the best price?” Hardcore haggling is not a part of this culture any more than tipping is. As a culture of courtesy, the interpersonal experience is as important as the purchase. --marty