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Culture

5 Ways to Discover Traditional Okinawa Culture

Sample unique music, food and martial arts in Japan’s southernmost prefecture

By 5 min read

Before it was annexed by Japan, Okinawa and its surrounding islands were part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom. Situated midway between Japan and China and specializing in maritime trade, the Kingdom developed a unique culture blending its homegrown customs with influences from all over East Asia. More recently, during the American occupation in the wake of World War II, Okinawa also began to absorb aspects of Western culture.

Today, Okinawa maintains a strong connection to its past, and many unique customs are still alive and well. Here we highlight some of the prefecture’s most interesting cultural touchstones and five places on the main island where you can discover them yourself.

Eisa Dancing: Okinawa World

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Dance to the beat

Drum performances are popular all across Japan, but eisa takes it to new heights by combining drumming with acrobatic dancing. Watching the dancers, usually dressed in traditional clothing, spin, kick and chant in time to their frenetic drumbeats is a mesmerizing and unique experience.

You can often catch eisa at festival events around Okinawa—particularly from June to August, where regular performances are held during the Obon celebrations, a Buddhist holiday honoring ancestors. But if you’re not on the island at those times, a few places hold regular performances.

One of the most impressive eisa shows is at Okinawa World, a small theme park an hour south of Naha, the prefecture’s capital city. The park runs several shows daily, combining eisa with other musical performances and a traditional Ryukyu-style play.

Okinawa World also includes Gyokusendo Cave—a very large cave where visitors can see stunning stalactites and stalagmites—as well as a zoological area focused on poisonous Habu snakes and a small reconstructed Ryukyu village, where visitors can try hands-on experiences with traditional crafts like weaving and glass blowing.

Maekawa-1336 Tamagusuku, Nanjo, Okinawa - Map
Admission: ¥2,000 for adults, ¥1,000 for children
Open: 9 a.m. – 5.30 p.m.
www.gyokusendo.co.jp.e.aqs.hp.transer.com/okinawaworld 

Karate: the Karate Kaikan

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Learn the ways of Karate

Karate is easily Okinawa’s most famous cultural export. Now practiced by hundreds of millions worldwide, karate evolved from several Chinese-style martial arts within the Ryukyu noble class. It began to spread across the world during the American occupation.

The modern Karate Kaikan in southern Naha is half dojo, half museum and aims to be something of a Mecca for karate lovers and celebrate this proud Okinawa tradition. The Kaikan occasionally holds tournaments and offers fitness classes and karate experiences such as a tile-breaking workshop. Suppose you’d prefer something less physical, though. In that case, you can visit the building’s museum, which goes over the history of karate and displays videos of the many different techniques performed by masters. There’s also an interactive area where visitors can test their strength and try karate training methods, such as walking in iron sandals and punching hard enough to blow out a (virtual) candle.

854-1 Tomigusuku, Okinawa - Map
Admission: ¥310
Open: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Closed on Wed.
karatekaikan.jp/en 

Art and History: Okinawa Prefectural Museum

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Where history meets art

For a primer on what makes Okinawa unique, you can head to the large Okinawa Prefectural Museum in central Naha. The museum’s large history exhibit gives an extensive overview of Okinawa culture from prehistoric times to the modern day, emphasizing how the Ryukyu Islands’ geography and nature have shaped local beliefs and customs. There are also numerous video displays demonstrating traditional folk performances.

Meanwhile, the Art Museum inside the building focuses on showcasing local artists, including pieces from the Ryukyu Kingdom era to the present day.

The Prefectural Museum also hosts special exhibitions that change regularly—but are typically focused on local nature and culture—and an experience room aimed at children.

3-1-1 Omoromachi, Naha, Okinawa - Map
Admission: ¥530 for main museum, ¥400 for art museum
Open: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Sun to Thur), 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. (Fri and Sat). Closed Mon.
okimu.jp/sp/en/ 

Sanshin Music and Ryukyu Living: Ryukyu Mura

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Take a step back in time.

Traditional Okinawan music often centers around the sanshin, a three-stringed banjo-like instrument with a long neck and distinctive snakeskin-covered body, usually accompanied by singing and dancing. Performances can easily be experienced at Ryukyu Mura, another small theme park on the island with a packed daily schedule of sanshin and traditional dance shows. There are also eisa shows, although the eisa at Okinawa World (see above) is longer and slightly more impressive.

Visitors can even try playing a sanshin at one of the park’s many hands-on workshops, including Okinawa craft experiences like pottery and weaving.

Ryukyu Mura’s village itself consists of a collection of traditional Ryukyu houses—many of which are authentic structures moved to the park for preservation. Distinctive aspects of Ryukyu architecture include red-tiled roofs, shisa lion guardian statues (which have become something of a mascot for Okinawa) and hinpun—walls in front of the entrances to larger houses that are said to prevent evil spirits from entering since demons can only move straight forward.

1130 Yamada, Onna, Kunigami District, Okinawa - Map
Admission: ¥1,500 (some hands-on experiences may cost extra)
Open: 9 30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
www.ryukyumura.co.jp/en

Okinawa Food and Music: Kokusaidori Street

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Do as the locals do.

Okinawa cuisine is perhaps the best example of the island blending different cultural influences. Okinawa soba shares much in common with Japanese ramen, but its thick wheat noodles are closer to udon than mainland Japanese soba, and the dish is often topped with particularly chunky pork ribs or belly. Champuru is a dish reminiscent of Chinese stir-fries, combining tofu with vegetables, fish and/or meat. And a more recent invention is taco rice—essentially a Japanese-style rice bowl with American-style taco meat on top (it’s an unusual combination, but it undeniably works).

All these dishes and more are commonplace in Naha, especially around central Kokusaidori Street. While Kokusaidori Street is a very touristy area, it also hosts several restaurants where diners can eat Okinawa food and watch traditional musical performances at the same time—meaning they’re perhaps the easiest way to experience traditional culture if you’re low on time or planning to only stay in Naha. Chinuman and Angama, opposite each other on the western end of the street, are two restaurants offering this option—although note that in some places, you’ll need to pay an additional fee to watch the music.

Angama

1-2-2 Matsuo, Naha, Okinawa - Map
Average cost per person: ¥1,200-2,500, plus ¥1,100 to watch live music
Open: 11 a.m. – 3 p.m., 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. Live music performances from 7 p.m. – 9 p.m.
angama.jcc-okinawa.net/
Chinuman Kokusaidori

3-2-1, Kumoji, Naha, Okinawa - Map
Average cost per person: ¥1,500-¥2,500
Open: 5 p.m. – 12 a.m.
www.chinuman.com/kumoji.php
Do you have a favorite cultural experience from Okinawa? Let us know in the comments!

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