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Kokusai Street's new life on Sundays

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2010-04-15

Kokusai Dori--downtown Naha’s main street--is enhancing its reputation as the island’s most fabulous shopping district, and it’s getting better and better as the local merchants’ association introduces more changes.

The city’s most popular tourist district—and a favorite with the locals, we might add—is adding new stores, shops and restaurants, and aggressively promoting its car-free Sundays begun three years ago this month. The traffic-free hub runs from Palette Kumoji on the street’s southern edge to Makishi Monorail Station on the north end. On traffic-free Sundays, there are two ways to enjoy Kokusai Street: walk or take the free shuttle buses and pedicabs that make their way up and down the street from noon to 6 p.m. each Sunday.

What makes Kokusai Street so special is the diversity and variety of places to visit. It’s a tourist heaven, with souvenir shops offering up all of Okinawa’s home grown and produced goods, not to mention the dozens and dozens of shops carrying the popular Awamori, Okinawa’s liquor version of sake. Restaurants, cafes and coffee shops abound as well, with entrees geared to every palette and set of taste buds.

The Kokusai Street Shopping Arcade Association got the ball rolling on transforming their street into something really special about four years ago, after they figured “we had to do something as shoppers moved outside central Naha to the new shopping venues popping up all over the island.” Their ideas have become profitable for the hundreds of stores, shops and vendors who ply their trade daily, trying to attract the thousands of tourists who make their way up and down the 1.6 kilometer long strip.

The no-traffic concept was a boon to shoppers, and once a system was worked out by the merchants association, has proven popular. The initial idea was to ban vehicles from the street outright, but that proved a bit touchy because more than 1,000 buses travel the street daily. Instead, Sundays are traffic-free, with parking areas and taxis available on side streets.

Kokusai’s a family friendly experience, with areas set aside for kids to play, draw art on the street, and watch puppet shows. There are ten separate locations set aside on Kokusai Street for local performers who want to show off their talents—at least most of them really think they have some—on major street corners. On any given Sunday, the merchants association estimates more than 30,000 visitors are making their way downtown.

Kokusai Street has been the hub of Okinawa’s shopping for decades. Originally named for the long defunct Kokusai Theater, it was dubbed “the miracle mile” for its fresh look. That was way back in 1953, though, and a lot has changed. Merchants were proud of the street’s bright, fresh look then, and they’re radiating smiles now at the new, fresh look being applied. Kokusai’s been the setting for thousands of public events and festivals attended by literally millions of visitors. The 10,000 Eisa Dancers Festival in August and the Great Naha Tug-of-War on nearby Highway 58 after a heavily attended parade takes place in October.

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