Okinawa Island Guide

Everything on Okinawa Island from A to Z | culture-lifestyle

Okinawa Island Guide

Culture & lifestyle

Okinawan spirit: eisa

Eisa dancing is performed on the last day of the three-day Obon celebration to bid farewell to the ancestors’ spirits (michi-junee). To most Uchinanchu (Okinawans), this day is a most chim-dondon (exciting) occasion. Young men and women travel around residential streets and business areas dancing eisa, accompanied by drums, folk songs, chants and whistling. Eisa was originally performed so that people could give the spirits a good send-off. Around 30 young men and women dance eisa at any one time, singing, chanting and playing drums to the strains of a sanshin.

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Karate: the martial art of Okinawa

Okinawa is the birthplace of karate. The actual meaning of karate in Japanese is “empty hand.” However, the Okinawans first elaborated “te” (hand), their own unique art of self-defense devoid of weapons, which later developed into karate. Created in the former Ryukyu Kingdom and spread from Okinawa to Japan and then to the world, karate today is said to have more than 50 million fans in more than 140 countries. Karate is characterized by the use of fists, toes, elbows and knife-like hands.

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The ultimate longevity meal that you can enjoy nowhere but here

Ever since the publication of “The Okinawa Program,” which investigates Okinawan longevity, the island has experienced a steady influx of longevity and anti-aging researchers seeking to better understand the causes of this long life expectancy. After coming to Okinawa they always, without fail, visit the restaurant Emi no Mise in Ogimi Village.

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Haarii — dragon boat races

Haarii (or haaree in Itoman City, dragon boat races) are festivals for fishermen, who live with danger, to pray for a safe voyage and a good catch and to thank the sea for its blessings. Fishermen compete against each other during haarii in sabani (small dragon-shaped fishing boats). Haarii, which have been held by fishermen in Itoman City and Naha City for hundreds of years, are traditional events celebrated by people who live with the sea. Viewing the haarii of today is like watching the fishermen of old who used to cross the seas of Asia in their small craft.

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The art of Okinawan dance

While Noh, a traditional Japanese theatrical form, is well known as Japanese-style opera, Okinawa also possesses a type of classical drama, Ryukyuan dance, which features dance, music and dialogue and is often compared to Western opera. Advantageously positioned amongst China, Southeast Asia and Japan, the Ryukyu Kingdom flourished in its day.

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Tug-of-war

Long ago, tugs-of-war were held throughout the island to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and to pray for rain. The tug-of-war was a community ritual in which people of all ages took part, symbolizing Okinawa’s spirit of yuimaaru (cooperation). After World War II, pulling the rope in a cooperative effort among villagers was revived as a local festival. The largest and best known of all these events is the Naha Great Tug-of-War, with a more than 500-year history. This giant rope used for the match measures 200 meters in length, weighs 40 tons and was listed in the Guinness World Records as the world’s largest rice straw rope used in a tug-of-war for 10 years, from 1995-2005.

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A serious bullfight

Bullfighting is a unique cultural feature of Okinawa. It has existed as local entertainment for over 100 years and also survived during the difficult days of World War II. In an Okinawan bullfight two bulls are matched against each other, unlike Spanish bullfights, where a matador faces the bull. Matches are not orchestrated, resulting in a true test of bovine strength and endurance. The popularity of bullfighting started to wane in the ’70s, but in recent years it has experienced a revival and has become a popular tourist attraction. A match ranges from a quick one that finishes in a few seconds to a heated battle that stretches out to over half an hour, which causes tournament length to vary from two-and-a-half to four hours. One bull wins the match when his opponent runs away. In fighting, the bulls demonstrate their own special moves to beat the opponent. A well-done technique resulting in victory prompts the audience to enthusiastic roars.

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The roots of Okinawan music

Most Okinawan minyo have no known author, but many new shimauta are still being written every year. Okinawan music includes many old work songs, heartrending ballads and lively kachaashii dance tunes as well as more modern experiments which are often the result of overseas influences. The songs also vary greatly from island to island. In addition to Okinawa itself, the outer island groups of Miyako and Yaeyama as well as Amami to the north all have their own distinctive songs and individual sounds.

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Shisa

A typical sight in Okinawa is that of a shisa sitting on a red tile roof against the bright blue sky. Shisa are placed not only on the roofs and at the front doors of houses, but also at the entrances to villages and buildings throughout the island.

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The traditional Okinawan turtleback tomb

The peculiarly shaped Okinawan tombs known as kamekoubaka, so called because the shape of the tomb resembles a turtle’s shell, represent a woman’s womb, stemming from the belief that people return to their mother’s womb after death. In Okinawa, where people believe in ancestor worship, the tomb is not only a place for rest but also plays a part in the spiritual support of the living. Incidentally, it is often said that someone who has gotten sick or died did so because they didn’t take adequate care of the family tomb or because they didn’t hold a sufficient number of ceremonies for the ancestors.

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