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Experiencing Traditional Culture on Okinawa’s Taketomi Island

Experiencing Traditional Culture on Okinawa’s Taketomi Island

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"We create a culture here based on traditions while coexisting with nature," explains Kyoko, the marketing representative for HOSHINOYA Resorts, which includes the property we’re currently touring, HOSHINOYA Okinawa. "The design of the property is based on the traditions and heritage of Taketomi Island."

Of the hundreds of islands in Okinawa, Taketomi is the only one to truly preserve the ancient traditions. The island is heritage listed, and as you walk through the village you’ll notice the buildings all look alike: red-tiled roofs, one-story homes, narrow coral and sand roads, and coral lined yards.

While the Japanese are often touted as a stressed people, the people of Taketomi Island are the complete opposite, relaxed and laid-back. With only 323 people on the island, everyone knows each other and works together. Goods are made by hand using local resources and services are provided with passion and a smile.

At HOSHINOYA Okinawa, this traditional culture is reflected not only through the design of the property, but also the services and amenities. The self-contained villas are actually luxury ryokans, featuring tatami mats, futon beds, zori sandals, shoji sliding wood doors with paper screens, and Yukata robes worn as leisure wear around the property.

When we get to my ryokan, I notice a menacing lion on the roof.

"That’s a shiisa," explains Kyoko. "You’ll find it on every house in the village and on our property. It protects you from bad fortune.”"

Apparently, some of these shiisas also hold objects that are good luck. After venturing around the property, I find a ball, a pinwheel and a ladder. The ball represents how when a person gets into their 70s they’re as well rounded as a ball, while the pinwheel signifies the child inside when a person gets into their 80s. Additionally, the ladder symbolizes the steps people take to reach their goals and their accomplishments in their 50s and 60s.

As I go to walk onto the yard of my villa, which has a partial standalone wall sitting in front of it, Kyoko stops me.

"You must enter to the left of the coral wall," she explains. "The right side is for gods only."

At the door, I’m instructed to take off my shoes and replace them with the slippers provided. I feel instantly at peace as I step inside, taking in the room’s light wood walls, naturally dim lighting, and traditional touches. An oversized stand-alone tub sits in the center of the room and I see two over-sized tea bags containing bath herbs. I know what I’ll be doing after dinner.


The restaurant at HOSHINOYA Okinawa showcases an innovative type of cuisine brought to the island by the resort. Called Ryukyu Nouvelle, it makes use of French techniques, typical Okinawa foods, and local ingredients, including herbs and produce from their on-site garden.

As I walk into the upscale restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the in-ground pool and lush forest, I’m brought a hot towel and washi paper menu. The dishes are innovative, with traditional staples like Ishigaki beef and Okinawa potatoes, and I feel excited to sample true Taketomi culture.

The amuse-bushe for the night is a hearty piece of fresh marinated tuna from Yaeyama Island with green onion compote. The fish tastes like it was caught five minutes ago, while the onion gives the dish a bit of contrast. This is followed by a roasted Ise lobster from Taketomi, flavored with tropical spice as well as a protein-rich slice of juicy Ishigaki miya pork, served with an organic side salad.

By now I’m feeling satiated and happy, although the freshness of the food leaves me curious as to what other creative dishes the chef can come up with using only local ingredients. My question is answered as a steaming bowl of clam and winter melon is placed in front of me. The fruit adds a slight bitterness to the sweet and salty clams, making it a delicious dish of contrast.

More courses are brought out — butter-roasted Mibai Okinawan grouper dressed with coulis of Island spinach; oven-roasted Yanburu chicken topped with Tancan tangerine marmalade and Yaima miso paste served with Island potato and banana purée on the side; and seafood taco rice flavored with local vine-ripened tomatoes. I have never been much of a vegetable person, but when they’re fresh from the garden it’s amazing how they can enhance a meal.

My sweet tooth smiles once the desserts are brought. The Avant Dessert is a compote of tropical fruits, fragranced with sweet hibiscus, followed by a scrumptious Ishigaki Mango Tarte Tatin served with Jimami peanut ice cream. Knowing it’s sustainably prepared leads to me to believe I’m eating healthy, and I choose not to stray from this line of thinking as I finish every bit of ice cream and pie.

Say Ahhh...

After dinner, Kyoko and I head out by the pool for some Tin Nu Deep Breathing, or "Breathing of the Sky" exercises. It’s one of the many cultural activities offered by the resort, some others including morning Yonna Deep Breathing on the beach, a water buffalo cart ride, making cultural handicrafts, and traditional weaving. Tin Nu breathing is designed to relax the body before bedtime while releasing toxins from the body through controlled breathing. With a bit of light from the pool illuminating our yoga mats, we breathe in through our mouths for four counts then exhale for eight, expanding and contracting our bellies. We begin standing, then sit Indian-style and practice our breathing while rolling in a circular motion on our backsides. From there, we’re instructed to reach as high as we can for the moon to grab its power and bring it into our bodies. By the time we get to the lay-down position I’m so relaxed I think I may pass out.

The instructor, Tokiko, tells us an old story from Taketomi Island and the Yaeyama Archipelago of the Star Child, which Kyoko translates for me. Once upon a time there was a mother and father star, who had a baby star. While they told the God of Sky, who gave approval, they didn’t tell God of Ocean. God of Ocean became very angry, using a big snake to kill the baby star. The snake’s feces became fossils, which is why you find star-shaped sand on the beaches of Taketomi. Because the mother and father star were sad, God of Sky put baby star into the sky as a fossil, which is why you see stars in the sky. It’s also why once a year the servants of God on Taketomi Island put the star-shaped sand in an "aroma pot" and give the sand a prayer in an "On" or "Shrine of God."

Back in my room, I steep my tea bags for a soothing bath. Submerging my body in scents of locally sourced lemon grass, fennel, dill, and pineapple mint, I feel completely immersed in Taketomi culture. And with the island’s traditional weaving culture to locally sourced food to the pure pride these people have in their heritage, it’s a beautiful feeling to have.

— Jessica Festa, Epicure & Culture

More From Epicure & Culture:

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• Tasting Tradition: An Epicurious Guide To Okinawa, Japan

• Sweet Japan: What Is Wagashi?

Taketomi Island – A Complete Travel Guide To Explore This Jewel In Okinawa

Located just a 15-minute boat ride from the port of Ishigaki lies Taketomi Island, one of the gorgeous pristine-clean white sand paradise islands of Yaeyama. The unspoiled landscape, endless blue ocean, stunning beaches, traditional townscape, and calming atmosphere of this island makes it a very popular day trip for visitors staying on Ishigaki island, and even so, you will never come across massive crowds here, nor will you feel as though you’re anywhere but on a paradise island here.

Just like all Okinawan islands, time literally stands still here, so you’ll find that you will be exploring at an extremely leisurely pace, cycling around the entire island and feeling the cool ocean breeze on your face without a worry in the world. Breakfast will turn into lunch, and lunch will turn into dinnertime before you know it because really, the concept of time doesn’t exist here.

We’d be inclined to convince you to visit this island purely for the white sand beach, however, there are a handful of other attractions that might break up your itinerary and give you more of a cultural appreciation for the island life in Taketomi. Whether you visit for a day trip only, or want to make the most of it by staying overnight, we’ve got you covered. We’ve detailed everything before, so fingers crossed you get to visit them all!

Taketomi-Romantic Okinawa Island

Street scene in Taketomi Village

Taketomi, a tiny island in the Yaeyama Islands of Okinawa, is the perfect place for catching a glimpse of traditional Ryukyu culture, which has been well-preserved here.

The Kingdom of Ryukyu was an independent kingdom from the 15th century to the 19th century when the islands came under Japanese rule. For 450 years the Ryukyuan nation and its sea trade-based economy flourished and it developed its very own culture.

It is busy on Taketomi during the day when there are crowds of tourists who make the 10-minute ferry ride from Ishigaki, which is the neighboring island and a transportation hub in the Yaeyama&rsquos. However, once the last ferry back to Ishigaki has left at 5pm, the island goes back to an almost sleepy state of quiet beauty and &ldquoslow life&rdquo.

Just imagine that there are only about 330 inhabitants but they share the island of just over five square kilometers with over 450 cows!

The only village on the island is also named Taketomi, which is quickly reached by a short walk from the ferry terminal.

The village consists of a bunch of houses built in the traditional Ryukyuan style, ie bungalows with terracotta-tiled roofs. The houses are surrounded by rocky walls which are over-grown with colorful hibiscus and bougainvillea.

On top of the roofs there usually sits one, or at the gates two, shiisa, Okinawa&rsquos mythical creature, half lion and half dog, which is a very common decoration in Okinawa. The shiisa is not just a pretty object but serves to protect the house from evil spirits.

In my opinion, walking is the best way to explore Taketomi Island. With a circumference of a little less than 10km one can actually easily cover most parts of the island on foot.

Look out for the school in the middle of the village. Its entrance is decorated with many colorful flowers giving it a very friendly image. Standing there, you wish that your school had been as nice-looking as this one.

Alternatively, you could rent a bicycle on an hourly basis at the ferry terminal. Criss-crossing the small dirt lanes of Taketomi village on bicycle is interesting but you might soon realize that you will be done with your sightseeing in half an hour and hence you might want to slow down a bit, go with the flow and soak up the atmosphere of Taketomi.

The perfect way for doing so is using the highly unusual transport option of riding across the island in a carriage pulled by a buffalo. As you can imagine, this suigyusha is probably the slowest way to get around. So, be patient, sit back, relax and let the buffalo do the walking. The buffalo ride takes 30 minutes and it will set you back at yen 1,000 per person.

During the warmer season, which is almost always, on Okinawa, make your way to the &ldquostar-sand beaches&rdquo of Taketomi. It consists of tens of millions of tiny corals in the shape of stars, hence the name. These beaches are excellent spots for watching a beautiful sunset in case you stay overnight.

While most tourists come for a day or even a half-day trip only, it is worth staying overnight. There are a number of Japanese family-type pensions (minshuku) providing tatami-mat rooms.

Once the crowds of day trippers is gone, the village becomes lovely quiet and you are forgiven for thinking that nothing much has changed here over the years.


Your itinerary begins in Tokyo, the capital of Japan. For a luxurious yet cultural stay, choose the Shangri-La Tokyo. Located next to Tokyo Station, the property features comfortable rooms, authentic cuisine, traditional artwork and spa treatments inspired by ancient Asian curative traditions. Moreover, since not many people speak English in the city, it is worthwhile to hire a guide. We recommend the Tokyo Fixer and Anthony Bourdain’s go-to guide, Shinji Nohara. Instead of offering pre-planned tours, Shinji gets to know you and your interests and guides you from there.

Tokyo is fast-paced and extremely modern with a taste of culture, as well. Walking through the city, you’ll be immersed in skyscrapers, locals in suits and popular fast food chains as well as beautiful gardens, tea houses and Japanese restaurants. Explore Tokyo’s cultural offerings, like partaking in a Japanese tea ceremony, strolling through traditional gardens, paying respect at a Shinto shrine, exploring a cultural museum or watching a sumo match. Those interested in fashion will appreciate taking in the outlandish Harajuku styles found predominantly around Harajuku Station. And of course, make sure to experience Tokyo’s world-renowned nightlife scene. Home to a growing craft beer scene, you can check out microbreweries like Harajuku Taproom owned by Baird Brewing Company, which features an interesting selection of hop-rich beers. More of a cocktail person? In Kagurazaka you’ll find myriad speakeasies serving handcrafted libations hidden in the neighborhood’s alleyways.

Ida Beach, touted as the island’s “most beautiful beach”

The Grounds

HOSHINOYA Taketomi is built with a village kind of layout, with each villa having its own garden and traditional stone walls surrounding. The resort is home to a beautiful restaurant, lounge, garden and beautiful pool which reflects the blue sky during the day. There's also a spa on site too as well as a little observatory deck which is great for watching the sun set.

Cycle Trip around Taketomi Island

The population of Taketomi Island lies around 300 people. This cute little island is know for its traditional Okinawan houses, stone walls and sandy streets. You will love the red-tiles roofs and little shisha guard dog/lion hybrids that guard every building.

The best way to see the place is to rent a bike and hop from beach to beach to relax or snorkel in between.

Another popular activity, which we let you decide for yourself if you find it ethical or not, is taking an ox-cart ride through the village.

We made a little video for you to show you our cycle trip around Taketomi island. Check below to see it and let us know what you think (we speak in Dutch, but we created English subtitles for you!)

What else we did on Taketomi Island…

They do have bigger bikes for us Westerners :)

My favourite Shisha from the island. Go Bikes!

You don’t really need a plan to get around Taketomi Island, dus soak in the beauty around you!

Nagomi Tower

If you’re not afraid of heights and/or constructions that seem to be crumbling under your feet, then make sure to make your way up Nagomi Tower.

There is only room for 2 people at a time, so pick your best friend and enjoy the 360 degree view together:

West Pier

If you cycle straight towards the ocean from the viewpoint, you will hit West Pier first. Not a great beach per sé, but still nice enough for a quick look and a selfie with the amazingly coloured water in the backdrop.

Apparently the blue in the water can take on 7 or 8 different shades! Ooooohhh Pretty!

Kondoi Beach

For the best beach, keep cycling towards Kondoi Beach (the roads really just go in a circle, you can’t go wrong). The water on this beach is quite shallow and great for a dip. At the beginning of the beach, you can park your bike and also find toilets and showers.

To be honest, we’re not really sunbathers (and the weather wasn’t that great -very hot, but not very sunny), so we only stayed here for a short while. Still, long enough to make some friends with a Japanese couple who loved our friend Paul’s Glastonbury’s shirt and could stop talking about music :)

Star Sand Beach (Kaiji beach)

I found the next beach much more interesting, as it was covered with ‘hoshizuna’, or ‘star sand’. Well.. covered… it used to be at least, before they started botteling it up like crazy and selling to tourists (there is still a souvenir stand ON the beach! Hah!)

If you have some patience and sief through the grains, you will see tiny little star-shaped pieces of ‘sand’, which actually is formed from the remains of tiny star-shaped crustations. Very cool!

Cycling back to the village, such great little streets!

Before you return your bike, make sure to visit this lovely lady! She owns a sweets shop and sells super yummy sugared peanuts and cane sugar ice lollies

After all that goodness, we could say we had a lovely day out. Time to get back on the ferry and continue the rest of our adventures in Okinawa.

How to get There?
There is a great Okinawa ferry network around all the islands and to get from Ishigaki Island to Taketomi island, it’s only a short ride.

From the ferry terminal in Ishigaki, there are many desks where you can book a ticket (we did at the one below). There is also a desk with English speaking staff, which is probably the easiest to book from.

How to get Around?
Tatekomi island Japan is super tiny, so the easiest is to rent a bike and take it easy. You can rent a bike from a couple of places and prices range from around ¥300 an hour to ¥1500 for a full day.

Where to Stay?
We didn’t stay on Taketomi island ourselves, as it makes a good enough day trip (there isn’t much more to see), but if you really want to slow down, you can stay in one of the guesthouses in Taketomi village.

Where to Eat?
We had lunch in the harbour of Ishigaki before we head off to Taketomi island Okinawa and it’s probably easy to grab something from the convenient store in Ishigaki before you head out, but there are some small shops scattered around the island where you can get refreshments and a couple of restaurants serving traditional meals.

We do recommend, however, to visit the lovely little shop on the crossing before the viewing platform. It is run by an friendly old lady and she has incredible sugared peanuts and sugar cane icelollies. Must do!

And if nothing else.. there are always the vending machines. Everywhere, seriously.

Planning a Trip to Japan? Here are some great resources:

  • Skyscanner – Find the best flights to Japan
  •– Find the best hotels in Japan
  • World Nomads– Find the best travel insurance
  • Get Your Guide– The most popular tours & activities around Japan
  • ViaHero – Get help planning a trip to Japan from a local
  • Magical Trip – Discover Tokyo, Osaka & Kyoto at night with a local tour guide
  • G Adventures– Group travel to Japan
  • Intrepid Travel– Group travel to Japan


Disclaimer: We were kindly invited by the Okinawa Tourism Board to experience the hospitality, culture, food and nature of Taketomi Island. All photos, videos and opinions are 100% our own, as always.


Okinawa Main Island

Experience Ryukyuan culture, a blend of local history and current trends, and participate in the island's thrilling activities from within the heart of the great outdoors. These are 4 days of treating all five senses by partaking of carefully selected local ingredients in masterful and traditional Ryukyuan dishes.

Travel with Erica Lion

This video shows a woman traveling across Okinawa Main Island, taking in the absolute best of the island’s natural scenery and cuisine.
The contents of the video can also be viewed as a text version.


It was then the moment to leave Okinawa … But just before that, I still went to visit the Ishigaki limestone cave as well as the restaurant Tofu Higa specializing in tofu with a very good franquette setting!

The Tofu Higa restaurant in Ishigaki. Ishigaki limestone cave

There you go, the Yaeyama Islands are far away my favorite part of Okinawa prefecture ! I liked Miyakojima and Okinawa Honto a lot but I really loved Yaeyama!

Win a pair of round-trip tickets from Tokyo to Okinawa! There are two ways to win: Posting your Okinawa memories on social media or completing a quick questionnaire.

In 1986, the residents of Taketomi, in the Yaeyama Islands, stood up to save their island from uncontrolled development by drafting the Taketomi Island Charter. The comprehensive charter encompassed many issues, ranging from land ownership and preservation to the usage of local produce and materials to make souvenirs.

As the young and youthful Okinawans work to preserve their culture and traditions, there are endless ways you can join the trend towards sustainability and explore the unique aspects of Ryukyu culture.

Ryukyuan Dance

Jump to…
(within this article)

Kajadifu Bushi

"Kiyu nu fukurasha ya
Nawuni jana tatiru Tsibudi wuru hananu Tsiyu chata gutu"

Today’s joyous occasion,
To what can we compare it? It’s like a bud waiting to bloom,
Touched by the morning dew.

"Tuchiwa naru matsi nu
Kawaru kutu nesami
Ichi n haru kuriba
Irudu Masaru"

The evergreen pine tree
Stays static forever.
The closer spring comes,
The deeper green it gets.

"Uchi narashi narashi
Yutsidaki wa narashi
Kiyu ya uza njiti
Ashibu urisha"

Clapping and clapping,
We clap a bamboo clapper.
Today, I play for a noble man.
How proud I am!

Chun Jun Bushi

"Wakaritin tageni
Guyin atikara ya
Ituni nuku hana nu
Tsiriti nuchumi"

Even after we part
Should fate have it so,
We will be like flowers
Linked together, never to be torn apart.

Shirashi Haikawa Bushi

"Shirashi haikawa ni
Nagariyuru sakura
Shikuti umisatu ni
Nuchai hakira"

On the surface of the Shirashi river, cherry blossoms float.
Let’s scoop them up to make a lei to put on his shoulder.

Hai Tsikuten Bushi

"Haru ya hana zakayi
Miyama uguyisi nu
Niwi shinudi fukiru
Kuyi nu shurasha"

Spring, flowers are in full bloom.
The nightingale living deep in the mountains seeks the flower’s scent.
How beautiful is the voice of the nightingale.

Binuchi Bushi

"Iju nu ki nu hana ya
Anchurasa sachui
Wanun iju yatuti
Mashira sakana"

The flower of the Iju tree,
Blooms so beautifully.
I wish I were beautiful
Like the Iju flower.


The sea surrounding the islands of Okinawa is renowned for its spectacular beauty. Its lucent aquamarine presents a variety of aspects under the illumination of the sun’s rays. The sea has exerted a constant influence on the life and culture of Okinawa. One might cite the concept of Nirai-Kanai, which plays an important part in native Okinawan religious belief and is conceived as an idealized realm over the seas, as the abode of the gods. People have traditionally believed that happiness and prosperity assured by a plentiful harvest are brought from Nirai-Kanai. The spirit of prayer is expressed in stylized gesture, while prayer itself becomes manifest in song, thereby opening the way to development of the performing arts. To the backdrop of the islands’ history, song and dance have continued down to the present day to serve as vehicles for expression of the thoughts and emotions of the Okinawan people.

Several centuries ago the kingdom of Ryukyu attained a measure of wealth and prosperity as the agent of entrepot trade between China, Southeast Asia and Japan. In the course of the absorption of cultural influences from these nations, an aristocratic Ryukyuan court culture rooted in a distinctively Okinawan aesthetic and sensibility emerged to take its place alongside the great cultures of the world. The traditional performing arts epitomize this culture.

Ryukyuan dance is conventionally classified into four major genres whose stylistic features are products of different socio-historical conditions. First, there is the genre of ‘classical dance’, which is sometimes referred to as ‘court dance.’ Second, there is the genre of zo odori or ‘popular dance’ which emerged after the establishment of Okinawa Prefecture in the late nineteenth century. In contrast to the aristocratic origins of classical dance, this genre is rooted in the daily lives of the common people, whose feelings and attitudes it expresses. Third, we have the genre of ‘modern dance’, denoting dances created primarily in the postwar years. Finally, there is the genre of ‘folk dance’, referring to styles which have been transmitted down the ages in the context of the rituals and festivities of local communities throughout Okinawa.

China and Ryukyu established formal diplomatic relations in 1404. For almost five centuries thereafter, a party of investiture envoys would be sent to Ryukyu by the Chinese emperor to authorize the accession of each new king. The Chinese ambassador would present a certificate of investiture formally recognizing the king’s status as ‘King of Ryukyu’ together with a royal crown. Since navigational conditions meant that the Chinese investiture parties had to stay in Ryukyu for several months, it was incumbent upon the royal government to provide them with hospitality which included banquets at which entertainments prompted the royal government in Shuri to devote much effort to patronage of the performing arts. Such were the conditions under which the genre of ‘classical dance’ developed. The shops which bore the Chinese envoys to Ryukyu were known as ‘crown ships’ (‘ukwanshin’), and the entertainments presented at the banquets held in honor of the envoys came to be referred to as ‘crown ship dances’ (‘ukwanshinudui’).

Classical dance is divided into several subcategories, namely ‘elderly people’s dances’ (rojin odori), intended to augur longevity and a plentiful progeny ‘boy’s dances’ (wakashu odori), items with a propitious content which were performed by boys of about fourteen or fifteen prior to the coming-of-age ceremony ‘women’s dances’ (onna odori), whose restrained gestures present a guise behind which lurk turbulent amorous passions and ‘young men’s dances’ (nisai odori), which have a vigorous masculine quality and incorporate gestures from Okinawan karate as well as influences from Japanese dance styles. During the royal age, dances were performed exclusively by male members of the nobility. Following the first florescence of aristocratic culture during the sixteenth century, the Ryukyuan arts developed a more introspective side in the wake of the Satsuma invasion of 1609 and the subsequent domination of Ryukyu by Satsuma. But the radiance and sophistication of the Ryukyuan aesthetic were, if anything, enhanced during these years. The period of domination by Satsuma, which began in 1609 and lasted until 1879, saw Ryukyu obliged to dispatch frequent ambassadorial parties to the Satsuma capital of Kaogshima and the Japanese capital of Edo on official and ceremonial business. These embassies gave members of the nobility the opportunity to come into firsthand contact with the Japanese performing arts. This experience provided the stimulus for the creation of ‘young men’s dances’ with their clear traces of Japanese influence.

With the forcible dissolution of the Ryukyuan kingdom and the establishment in its place of Okinawa Prefecture in 1879, the traditional social hierarchy disintegrated and the members of the Shuri nobility who had until then been the creators and performers of those manifestations of music, dance and theatre associated with Ryukyuan court culture found themselves deprived of patronage and financial security. Those with skills in the performing arts drifted towards the first Okinawan commercial theatres, which had begun to appear at the end of the nineteenth century in Naha. There they had the opportunity to present performances of classical dance and of Kumiodori, the genre of Ryukyuan classical music drama which had also occupied an important position in the ukwanshinudui entertainments, to audiences consisting primarily of the former class of commoners, who thus gained the opportunity to see Ryukyuan court culture for the first time. But such refined, aristocratic forms soon failed to assuage the thirst of ordinary Okinawans for stage entertainment. In response to these new cultural needs, professional dancers and musicians created the new genre of zo odori (‘popular dance’), based on the daily lives of ordinary people dwelling in farming and fishing communities. In contrast to the restrained and rarefied atmosphere of classical dance, with its stylized and sophisticated aesthetic, zo odori dances convey an atmosphere of radiant emancipation their dynamism gave inestimable delight to Okinawans during a drastically changing era.

The Ryukyuan performing arts have thus flourished in the ages of turbulent change, and a strongly distinctive traditional culture has emerged. No matter how difficult the conditions presented by history, there has been no decline in the creative will to give form to a culture of vivid beauty. One senses here the exceptional determination and farsightedness that enabled Ryukyuans of former times to come to terms with their historical situation.

Costumes present one of the most distinctive manifestations of the aesthetic underlying Ryukyuan dance. In the ‘women’s dances’ of the classical repertoire, the dancers appear on stage clad in kimono made from fabric dyed in the bingata style. The designs are created by means of the application to the fabric of stencils featuring such motifs as flowers, birds, waves, and clouds. This traditional Ryukyuan style of textile-dyeing is noted for its use of highly vivid coloration. The more intense the emotional atmosphere of a dance, the more the motion of the primary colors — red, blue and yellow in particular — seems to get superimposed on the emotional state of the woman who is the subject of the dance, thereby fuelling the imagination of the spectator. There is even greater variety in the range of costumes worn by performers of dances in the zo odori repertoire. Among the costumes are those made from fabric in the kasuri style featuring ‘splashed’ patterns created by weaving with yarns resist-dyed to a shade of dark blue verging on black with natural dye obtained from the Ryukyuan inidgo plant. Others include costumes known as bashofu women with yarns from the Ryukyuan banana tree and characterized by the sense of coolness that they convey, and jofu costumes of high-quality ramie. The methods employed in the production of Ryukyuan textiles were introduced from the distant lands with which Ryukyu maintained relations during the heyday of the nation’s overseas trading activities during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The great skill and ingenious selectivity employed in the introduction of these methods resulted in the creation of craft products of exceptionally fine quality. A variety of accoutrements also came to be used in order, as in the case of the costumes, to emphasize the theme of a particular dance and to enhance its aesthetic effect. One of these is the large floral-shaped hate (hanagasa) which has come in recent times to serve as a symbol for Okinawa. This arrestingly beautiful hat is designed in the shape of an open vermilion flower set above a blue ground decorated with silver wave patterns. In the festive women’s dance Yosutake, the hanagasa epitomizes the radiant female emotions together with the sound of the yosutake castanets which the performers click together as they dance, it conveys a mood of effusive joy. The same hanagasa is used in the classical women’s dance Nufa Bushi, although here it is the vessel into which wistful amorous feelings of great intensity are poured. In the first part of the dance the performer holds the hat in her right hand she focuses the profound, introspective feelings inherent in the role she is playing into her hand gestures. In the latter half she wears the hat to present a further development of the romantic drama. Thus although the same hanagasa is employed in both dances, its symbolism differs greatly in accordance with the respective content of the two dances. The hanazumi tisaji, a length of woven figured fabric, also plays an important role as a symbol of a young woman’s romantic feelings it appears in several items in the zo odori repertoire. It was formerly the custom for a young woman of marriageable age to weave such a scarf-like length of cloth using yarns she would herself have dyed as a token of her romantic interest in a man, to whom she would present the cloth. As well as being a token of her love, the hanazumi tisaji was considered to be imbued with talismanic powers.

Supporting Ryukyuan dance from within and giving direction to each dance is the music performed by a group of musicians (jikata). Owing to the paramount importance in this music of song (uta) and the sanshin lute, this music is often referred to as utasanshin. The sanshin is a three-stringed plucked lute of southern Chinese origin. Ability to perform this instrument was considered an important attribute of a man of culture among members of Shuri nobility. Whereas in Japan, as a byproduct of the samurai tradition, it was often the custom to display a sword as an heirloom in the tokonoma alcove of a living room, in Okinawa the lack of a militaristic tradition and the importance placed on cultural pursuits meant that it was the sanshin which occupied a position similar to that of the Japanese sword as a family heirloom. That a musical instrument rather than a murderous weapon should occupy this position is a reflection of the different orientations of Ryukyuan and Japanese society in the past.

As a small nation maintaining relations with many others during the heyday of its overseas commerce, Ryukyu came to realize that it could not solve disputes in which the nation might become involved through the exercise of military force and that peaceful coexistence was the only path available. The performing arts are the epitome of the peaceful cosmopolitan orientation of Ryukyuan civilization: the instruments of Okinawan music are of both Chinese and Japanese origin, the main musical scale is similar to one of the two scales of Japanese music and has parallels elsewhere in Southeast Asia, while certain of the dance techniques and gestures are of Japanese origin. These elements of varied origins combine to constitute a style of music and dance which is quintessentially Okinawan. The many manifestations of the Okinawan performing arts have served over the centuries down to the present to underpin the spiritual and cultural life of the people of these islands.

Excerpt from RYUKYUAN DANCE, First Edition 1995
Published by
Okinawa Prefectural Culture Promotion Foundation

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