Okinawa: The exotic Japan


The islands of Okinawa: the only part of Japan that enjoys a subtropical oceanic climate. The region is blessed with clear blue oceans, plentiful deposits of coral reef and mangrove forests, as well as the largest subtropical laurel forest in all of Japan, called ‘Yanbaru’, located in the northern area of the main island. With such an abundance of unique flora, a wide variety of distinct fauna can be found, including Okinawa rails and Iriomote wildcats, as well as being home to other nationally protected species in the southernmost islands of Japan, one of the most precious ecosystems on the planet.

In the year 2000, the islands’ Gusuku sites and related properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, nine sites in total scattered throughout the islands that have captivated the hearts of visitors with their majestic soaring ramparts and eternal romantic appeal, were designated as

UNESCO World Heritage Sites, while in 2010, Kumiodori — established as a form of entertainment to greet envoys from China during the islands’ Ryukyu Kingdom period of history — was registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. The islands — formerly their own independent kingdom — have been gaining attention worldwide in recent years for retaining and perpetuating all of the unique cultural artefacts that make Okinawa so special, its music, dance, colourful handicrafts, and diet (which is said to lengthen lifespan). The islands of Okinawa are exotic in and of their own right to the people of Japan. Every year the country welcomes a huge number of visitors, both from the rest of Japan and from abroad, and providesthem with the gift of new discoveries.





Traditional Dance & Music


The island of dance and music

The islands of Okinawa have become known as an archipelago of song and dance because of all the varieties of performing arts that have been passed down through successive generations of islanders, from the eisa dances held to mark the end of the bon season, to kumiodori — which has been called ‘Okinawan opera’ — the islands’ rich tradition of dance has been popular since ancient times at all levels of Okinawan society.




UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

The islands are home to musical theatre traditions melding together music (performed with instruments such as the sanshin, koto, flute, kokyu, and drums), spoken dialogue, and dance. This form of entertainment was originally developed to be performed before envoys from China visiting the Okinawa royal family. It has since become one of the islanders’ chief cultural artefacts and is proudly performed for people from all over the world.




Ryukyuan Dance

This style of performing art was encourage and patronized by the royal Ryukyu government to create a form of entertainment that could prove helpful when the kingdom was conducting foreign diplomacy. In addition to traditional, classical dance, Ryukyuan Dance includes the ‘zo odori’ as well as other creative individual styles of dance that were primarily developed by individual dancers after World War II.



Folk Performing Arts

Forms of folk entertainment have been directly handed down from generation to generation throughout the archipelago that comprises Okinawa. Even today the people of the various islands continue to hold these events, performances, and rites featuring a wide range of different performing art styles.



Transmission and Development of Ryukyu Culture

Okinawa has numerous of traditional crafts handed down since the days of Ryukyu Kingdom, such as pottery, lacquerware, dyed goods, and textiles. There are also an increasing number of works produced by young artists, which combine a new aesthetic sensibility while carrying on the traditions maintained since long ago.


やちむん(焼物) と呼ばれる陶器、漆器、染物など、沖縄には琉球王国の時代から受け継がれてきた様々なジャンルの伝統工芸があります。そして現代の若手アーティストたちもまた、長年の伝統を保ちながら、新たな美的感受性を生かして作品を制作し続けています。

Yachimun (pottery)

Having a serene sense of warmth, while this form of earthenware is praised for its practicality, the variant known as Tsuboya ware is also renowned for its high level of artistry and serves as the medium of choice for many living National Treasure potters.



Bingata (dyed goods)

Sumptuary laws originally forbade anyone except royalty and warriors from wearing bingata garments, representative of dyed goods in Okinawa, and famous for their rich, brilliant, attractive colours, including yellow, red, blue, purple, and violet.



Ryukyu Lacquerware

An important export of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, this elegant traditional handicraft was a favourite of the royal family. Using a combination of scarlet and black, the pieces display wild, free-spirit, and vivid patterns.




Okinawa is home to the martial art of karate, famous everywhere and practiced by 130 million people worldwide. Through difficult, disciplined training, practitioners temper their bodies, polish their spirits and sharpen their minds through a martial art that places great emphasis on decorum and politeness. Karate, also called “the martial art of peace”, will be featured in
the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the Festival of Peace.



Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu

Okinawa was originally home to the Kingdom of Ryukyu which produced many cultural landmarks and has its own unique heritage and history that has risen in popularity throughout the world. One symbol of Okinawa’s vibrant past are the Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, registered in 2000 as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and made up of five Gusuku (castles) and four sites of ancient ruins.



Shuri-jo site

Formerly the seat of Ryukyu royalty, this palace remains a symbol of the islands’ vibrant and colourful culture with its scarlet-toned colour scheme.



Sefa Utaki

Sacred area where Ryukyu royalty would hold important national events during the Ryukyu Kingdom Period, the area is still revered and adored by vast numbers of people.



Nakagusuku-jo site

This Gusuku-style castle was completed during the 15th century and features technically magnificent curving walls that overlook both the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean.



A Wellspring of Longevity: Kusuimun

Since antiquity, the people of Okinawa have believed that health springs from the medicinal properties of diet, and this positive philosophy towards healthy eating can best be described in the islanders’ own word, “Kusuimun”, which means dishes that act as medicine, suggesting that good food will lead to good health and a long life. The cuisine of the islands has long been recognized for providing balanced diets as well as helping extend the lifespan of those who follow them in their regular diet.




This distilled spirit has been made according to traditional brewing techniques handed down since the days when kings and queens ruled the islands of Okinawa. Made using black koji mold originating from Okinawa as well as rice-malt made from indica rice imported mostly from Thailand, an unrefined mash is then created using water and yeast and fermented for two weeks, making a completely mash-based spirit. As time passes and the liquor matures it acquires a milder, more mellow aroma and is reborn as “vintage awamori.” The drink is an excellent accompaniment not just to Okinawan cuisine but also to both Japanese and Western dishes, helping to enhance their intrinsic flavour.




One of Okinawa’s most famous dishes combines tofu, meat, and a variety of different vegetables all sautéed together to make Champuru, whilst the rest of the islands’ cuisine features dishes made with pork, seaweed, and locally caught fresh fish.



Prefecture information

Okinawa Prefecture, made up of 160 different islands, is located in the lower southern half of the Nansei Archipelago which extends from the tip of Kyushu to Taiwan. With its excellent access from major East Asian cities, it acts as a southern entrance to Japan. The country was formerly an independent entity known as the Kingdom of Ryukyu, which vigorously engaged in trade with other surrounding nations. After World War II, the island fell under United States occupation whereupon the cultures of East and West began to mix and intermingle, giving birth to a unique cultural identity. The only prefecture of Japan that is classified as subtropical, Okinawa enjoys a year-round warm climate, often attracting a yearly amount of over 9.5 million visitors to the islands’ gorgeous blue oceans, rich verdure, and unique culture.



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