Beyond symbolic icons such as limestone castles, centenary citizens, the tricord sanshin and shisa (guardian lion dogs of the Ryukyu) perched on tiled rooftops, Japan’s southernmost archipelago has a distinct culture rooted in the deep history of the Ryukyu kingdom. From eating local longevity foods to participating in natural indigo dye workshops in the mountains, there are many ways for visitors to experience Okinawa’s unique cultural heritage.
Explore the history of Ryukyu at the World Heritage Gusuku
To the north of the Motobu peninsula, the Nakijin-jo Castle Site is one of nine gusuku (Okinawa Fortress) and related properties of the Ryukyu Kingdom, collectively designated a World Cultural Heritage Site, representing 500 years of Ryukyu culture and history. Built in the late 13th century, the site of Nakijin-jo Castle was once the stronghold of Hokuzan, a nation that included the northern Okinawa region and beyond. After a military campaign finally united the Northern, Central, and Southern Kingdoms in 1428, the Ryukyu Kingdom was formed.
Unlike most other castles built with softer coral-based Ryukyu limestone, the Nakijin-jo Castle site was built with unearthed rocks of gray Ryukyu limestone. The sprawling fortress is also an excellent example of nozura-zumian ancient building technique that stacks rocks in their natural shape to build strong, undulating walls.
Further south in Uruma, Katsuren-jo Castle Site is another gusuku included in the list of world cultural heritage sites, perched on a limestone hill surrounded by steep cliffs. Katsuren Gusuku is famous for being the castle where Amawari seized the domain of its original ruler and led it to prosper through overseas trade. For a tantalizing insight into the site and its history, you can watch this video shot from a bird’s eye view and find out more through an interactive virtual tour.
Eat local Okinawan “longevity food”
Okinawa is one of five longevity “blue zones” in the world, where more than a thousand centenarians live healthy and happy lives amid peaceful and abundant nature, and participate in a vibrant and supportive community, eating healthy.
The Okinawan staple food is sweet potatoes, supplemented with green and yellow vegetables, such as goya (bitter melon) and various soy products, such as tofu. Fresh fruits also contribute to this traditional low-calorie diet, rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
On the southeast coast of Yanbaru, which was recently designated as a Natural World Heritage Site, in the village of Higashi, a team of local women created the Azalea and Hirugi Longevity Kitchen provide visitors with healthy food bento box lunch boxes to take away on their outdoor excursions.
Learn about traditional Ryukyu arts and crafts
For a more traditional shopping experience in a Kominka (traditional Japanese-style house), head to Yachimun Cafe Garden Shisa in the mountains of Motobu. The two-story cafe serves up local treats and sells a range of pottery items, surrounded by a hundred different yachimun shisa scattered on the roofs and in the garden.
Another Okinawan craft to experience first-hand is Indigo Ryukyu Dye at Aikaze in the Izumi Mountains of Motobu. The Ryukyu indigo plant has grown naturally since ancient times in this region, and the couple who founded the Aikaze indigo workshop have been practicing the art of natural fermentation dyeing for almost a quarter of a century.
Scratch the soothing sound of Okinawa
The sweet chords of Okinawan’s most popular musical instrument, the three-string piano sanshin, are often accompanied by a soothing voice singing melodic folk songs. A more recent invention is the iconic sanléa combination of the body of the ukulele and the three strings of the sanshin, produced exclusively by machidaya in Yomitan. Through the Voyapon shopyou can buy a sanlele or a sanshin directly from Machidaya and have it delivered directly to your home.
Okinawa’s deep Ryukyu heritage has left many fascinating artifacts to discover and explore, while the archipelago’s enduring craftsmanship and contemporary creators invite visitors to fully experience sights and sounds, tastes and textures. of Okinawa’s past, present and future.
This year the 7th World Uchinanchu Festival (international gathering of people related to Okinawa) will be celebrated in the prefecture.
2022 also marks the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s return to Japan after being occupied by the United States with Ryukyu special exhibitions held in Tokyo and Kyushu.
Sponsored by the Okinawa Prefectural Government and the Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau
We’re running two campaigns to win round-trip plane tickets from Tokyo to Okinawa! Two pairs of tickets, along with other great prizes, will be awarded in each campaign. Check out this link to participate.