Okinawa's Fall Festivals Celebrate Ryukyu Culture

By Brooks, Iris | The World and I, November 2011 | Go to article overview

Okinawa's Fall Festivals Celebrate Ryukyu Culture


Brooks, Iris, The World and I


November is a time for Thanksgiving rituals in the United States, while seasonal celebrations of another variety happen throughout Okinawa, the archipelago of southern Japan. It was formerly an independent kingdom with active maritime trade routes stretching from China, Korea, and Japan to Thailand and Vietnam. Okinawa's capital city of Naha and the more centrally-located Yomitan, in Japan's most southern prefecture, both celebrate Ryukyu culture and heritage at annual festivals.

Beyond the beaches, botanical gardens, and melting-pot ethnicity of the local population, sub-tropical Okinawa has an inviting culture of its own. Shisa lion-dogs perch on rooftops, alongside doors, and sit flanking gateways. These sculptures ward off evil spirits and guard the homes.

Ancestor spirits are still revered in this birthplace of karate or "way of the open hand." It is a place where real snake oil is said to be a remedy for dry skin and joint pain. The poisonous habu snake is coiled inside the local awamori liquor bottle for its overall curative properties, while its patterned skin acts as a resonant membrane when stretched over a wooden frame to create the traditional three-stringed sanshin lute.

Known for the longevity of its islanders, Okinawa--with approximately 50 inhabited islands--differs from other parts of Japan in relation to its language, music, art, architecture, craft, and cuisine (called the "medicine of life"). Although it has not been independent since 1879, the chain (also known as the Ryukyu Islands) has retained aspects of its distinct, indigenous culture, like the earthenware pottery first made in Okinawa 6,600 years ago.

Playing host to the Shuri-jo Festival is the re-constructed Shuri Castle, a designated World Heritage Site since 2000 along with other historic castle remains. Shuri was originally built between the 13th and 14th centuries, when it served as a political, economic, and cultural center of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879) both for the southern dynasty and later for a united Ryukyu Kingdom. This powerful imperial court culture was not isolated with trade and diplomatic connections to China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia.

Traders exchanged pottery, salt, horses, and precious wood along the silk route, which included Okinawa's important port of Naha during the Great Age of Trade. Destroyed in WWII during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the castle was rebuilt in the 1980s conforming to its architectural style from the early 1700s (according to old paintings).

Today, the Castle and accompanying grounds with outer stonewalls and ceremonial gateways--where the King could pray for a safe journey--are a national park. Displaying a highly decorative facade with a dramatic, flared terracotta red roof, the castle is a three-story wood structure (Taiwan cypress and yew) painted with a vermillion undercoating. Shuri Castle features an architectural mix of Chinese, Japanese, and Okinawan styles.

Art and artifacts from the royal era are exhibited in a feast for the eyes with engraved gold dragons (symbolizing the King), colorful columns, and auspicious painted clouds. The impressive interiors showcase ceremonial objects including a jeweled crown, the elaborate king's throne adorned with protective dragon-heads and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, as well as intricate lacquer ware trays and boxes. The dazzling glossy sheen of the exhibition room stands in stark contrast to some of the simpler tatami-matted areas of the castle, which visitors may view year-round.

Although the Ryukyu Kingdom ended in 1879, every autumn, coinciding with Japan's Culture Day, there is a three-day celebration at the Shuri Castle. It features Ryukyuan classical dance performances, processions, and theatrical recreations of a coronation ceremony with Chinese envoys.

A highlight of the Shuri-jo Festival is a two-hour parade with over 1,000 local re-enactors wearing kimonos in a rainbow of hues.

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