Below we introduce a selection of ten activities, including traditional crafts, traditional costumes, and food culture, that allow you to experience the traditions of Okinawa. Which tradition would you like to experience?
Soak up the tropical atmosphere by taking a commemorative photo in Ryuso
Traditional Okinawan costumes are called “Ryuso.” According to a caste system established by the Ryukyu dynasty in the 16th century, the color, pattern, and fabric of clothes marked the social status of the wearer. As with the attire, hairstyles and hairpins also varied. Traditional costumes from the Ryukyu dynasty era are collectively called “Ryuso” or “Uchinaasugai” in Okinawan. Because of the subtropical climate, Okinawans didn’t adopt Japanese style clothing. They used a thin waistband instead of a wide sash often used with a kimono (Japanese clothing). The cuffs are loose and the gap between the body and the garment is well ventilated making the clothing cool to wear. The material is often gorgeous, brightly colored dyed textile called Bingata. Dressing up in a traditional Okinawan dress is sure to be a costume experience you will want to remember.
Try creating a shisa, a protective deity regarded as the symbol of Okinawa
It’s no exaggeration to say that shisa, which adorns rooftops and house gates everywhere, is the symbol of Okinawa. Shisa, also called “shishi,” is like a lion that pushes his opponent with all its might. It’s believed that shisa, is a guardian that, from its perch on the roofs and gates, drives away demons and bad luck. Shisa was introduced from China to Okinawa sometime in the 13th and 14th centuries. In addition to being on roofs or by gates, some shisa are placed at village entrances or on hills to protect the whole village or town. You can try your hand in making Shisa at a traditional Yachimun pottery studio. Be aware though that while making shisa is one of Okinawa’s traditional crafts, the clay takes time to dry and bake, so we recommend painting a ready-made Shisa that can be done easily in one sitting. How about creating a genuine handmade guardian deity as a souvenir of your trip?
Get in tune with the sound of Okinawa’s heart
With a history believed to date back about 600 years, Sanshin is a traditional instrument ingrained in the history and culture of the Ryukyus. In the early 17th century, the Ryukyu Kingdom officially adopted the sanshin as a court instrument, used to convey hospitality and at other events. The warrior clans who were bearers of the sanshin playing tradition lost their status in 1879 due to the abolition of the caste system, and sanshin was free to be played by the general public. Eventually, it became widely used in village festivals and performances. Currently, Sanshin is played in a wide variety of music genres, including classical Ryukyu music, Ryukyu opera, folk songs, performing folk arts, and pop music. It has an essential role in the performance of Kumiodori, a registered performing art on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Sanshin’s simple tone is attractive to many people. So, why don’t you try your hand at playing some Okinawan tunes on a sanshin?
Dancing in unison is an opportunity for friendship
When dancing Kachashi, raise your hands above your head and swing left and right. One of the most popular folk dances in Okinawa, Uchinanchu (Okinawan people) break into Kachashi on various occasions, such as wedding celebrations and party finales. To be precise, dancing is called “Attchamae,” and the music that plays at that time is “Kachashi.” The name “Kachashi” is derived from the word meaning “to stir,” and it’s very easy to dance. With both hands above the head, the woman keeps her hand open, and the man just folds his fists, and then they move side-to-side waving their arms as though to stir the sky. Within the prefecture, you can easily enjoy Kachashi in traditional events and places like festivals, theme parks, and izakayas. It’s a dance that can be a catalyst for interaction with local people. Please enjoy the sense of unity when dancing together.
“Eating is living.” A Blue Zone food experience
Okinawa, which had diplomatic relations with China, Southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan since the Ryukyu Kingdom era, has a food culture that is heavily influenced by those countries. In particular, China has been a strong influence, and Okinawan cuisine developed with a heavy focus on pork. Okinawan cuisine is called “Ryukyu cuisine” and is mainly divided into “Court Cuisine,” eaten by the royal families, and the “cuisine of common people.” The common people’s dishes, which make use of the wisdom created by poverty, are nutritious, use ingredients without waste, and teach how to eat ingredients that benefit from the nature and sunshine of Okinawa, have attracted attention in recent years. One of the reasons that Okinawa is called a Blue Zone is because of this diet. In Okinawa, food is referred to in the Okinawan language as “Kusuimun” and “Nuchigusui” meaning something like “medicine” or “medicine for life.” Both words describe ideas that eating is a cure for illness. Why don’t you treat yourself to some deliciously healthy Ryukyu cuisine?
Immerse yourself in colorful dyeing technique
Believed to originate in the 14th and 15th centuries, Bingata is a collective term for Okinawan dyeing that emerged in the rich natural climate of the islands and has been nurtured through unique techniques. During the Ryukyu Kingdom era, when trade with foreign countries flourished, trading goods included Indian calicos, Java calicos, and flower cloths made of Chinese pattern paper. Under the protection of the Ryukyu Royal Government, bingata textiles were used for ceremonial costumes and dresses of the Ryukyu royalty, warriors, and women. Skilled painters and engravers shared sketches and patterns to further enhance the crimson bingata patterns. Women of the royalty and nobility often wore the resulting brilliant red-patterned costumes. The vivid colors, bold color schemes, and the simplicity of the shapes are part of bingata’s distinctive charm, and many people still love these dyes. Why don’t immerse yourself in the Ryukyu Bingata, a colorful dyeing technique that is quintessentially Okinawan?
Making hanaui coasters that have a history stretching back 600 years
Yuntanza hanaui is a distinctive textile based on the dyeing and weaving techniques adopted from various South East Asian countries and China during the Ryukyu Kingdom era. However, all knowledge and techniques of making the Yuntanza hanaui gradually faded over time and were all but forgotten after the Battle of Okinawa. In 1964, a group of passionate women in Yomitan Village working together succeeded in reviving its dyeing and weaving techniques that had been dormant for almost 90 years. It is now certified as Intangible Cultural Property designated by the Okinawa Prefecture and Traditional Handicraft designated by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. Experience hanaui weaving with its 600 years of history.
Simple texture, the best handwork. Making silk coasters
“Tsumugi” is an abbreviation of “Tsumugiori,” a silk fabric made by taking out yarn from a silkworm cocoon and spinning it into strong yarn. It’s a popular and stylish cloth with a dark and deep hue devoid of silky luster. Kume Island is said to be the birthplace of the Japanese “tsumugi” with its history dating back to the end of the 14th century. According to old scripts, seafarers from China drifted to Kume Island prompting islanders to go to China and learn sericulture, eventually returning to start tsumugi production. Later, artisans from Japan made great strides in developing the technology further. With such a history, coasters made of Kumejima Tsumugi would be a very special souvenir.
Kumejima Tsumugi no Sato Yuimaru-kan*Only in Japanese
Adding to traditional technology, the challenge of new dyeing techniques
“Bingata” is a traditional dyeing technique that dates back to the Ryukyu Kingdom era. Shuri Ryusen, a business located in Shuri, Naha City, is well known for their use of coral dyeing, which evolved independently from the traditional techniques of bingata. Founded in 1973, Ryusen opened the first dyeing plant and laboratory in Okinawa. Its aim is the “revival of bingata and development and transmission of dyeing technologies.” It’s also the only place where you can experience coral dyeing. You can combine designs from coral fossils of various sizes, large and small, and dye clothes using a dyeing tool called “tampo” with various dyeing liquids, arranging coral patterns to complete the work. Why don’t you try a special dyeing experience that can be enjoyed by both children and adults?
Handmade traditional snacks as souvenirs
Beni imo is a sweet potato known as a traditional Okinawan ingredient. Mostly reddish-purple and a healthy ingredient that contains anthocyanins, which are said to be excellent antioxidants. Rich in dietary fiber and minerals, the sweet potato is also attracting attention as a useful food rich in polyphenols. In the past, umuny (mashed sweet potatoes cooked ball-shaped like kinton sweets) was a staple food, but nowadays they are usually eaten steamed or deep-fried. One of the most popular Okinawa souvenirs is the original sweet potato confectionery Okashigoten’s red sweet potato tart. Okashigoten sells sweet potato tarts that both children and adults love. The only sweet potato tart gifts in the world, they are very popular as souvenirs. Why don’t you send a package of the vividly purple tarts as a souvenir from your Okinawa trip?