The previous post described the first half of my walk today through Shuri’s Hijigaabira. This next part will focus on the second half where I took the Kinjo-cho ishidatami michi, the more famous of the Shuri stone paths which miraculously survived the Battle of Okinawa. It is quite scenic and reminiscent of the Ryukuan era, with many traditional Okinawan features.
Along the descent, there are some pricey cafe spots in addition to the historical sites. They offer fantastic views should you choose to grab a snack or drink there, though I have never tried any of the food or drinks… I usually just get a vending machine drink from the top of the path before entering.
There are several signs for botanicals, some very large old akagi (acacia) trees estimated to be more than 200 years old, utaki (places of worship), and gaa (water springs/wells). Partway down there will also be a rest house; if you remove your shoes you can enter and sit for awhile. The whole path has preserved characteristics of traditional Ryukuan architecture.
After exiting the stone path, it was time to head back, however we continued to pass some more historic sites along the way. First is the 金城橋 Kanagusuku-bashi (bridge). There are also some shokudo restaurants around this area where you can try local Okinawan food.
Further along we passed 前道(メーミチ) Mehmichi where many gaa (water springs) were abundant in the Ryukyuan era. Apparently there used to be (and still are a few now) tofu shops along here, which made use of the high quality spring water.
Imgur album for Kinjo-cho ishidatami michi, including hijigaabira and the Shuri flower exhibit:
The other day, I went to a ganban-yoku, bedrock bath. This is like a heated stone spa room, supposedly good for circulation, weight-loss, detoxing, and all sorts of other health things. The stones are said to emit far-infrared rays, minus ions and to possess other healing qualities. It is considered a “bath without the water.” The only water is your sweat! Anyway, it felt pretty good and I got the massage combination package (only ~4000yen for 90 minutes of ganban-yoku plus 1 hour whole body massage). I made reservations online through hotpepper beauty and was able to use my discount to make it even cheaper.
So first, same as the onsen, enter and remove your shoes, placing them in a locker or cubby. The front desk will check you in, get you towels/sauna clothes, etc. At this particular place, there was an outside locker for valuables so I put my purse in it. Inside the women’s section I went to my cubby area, showered, and changed into sauna clothes (called samue サムエ, or 作務衣).
To use the bedrock bath, bring the large towel you were given and spread it out at one of the spots; lie on top of this. It is so you don’t sweat on the floor and keep the area clean. There are little wooden headrests, too. The poster recommended 5 minutes lying on the stomach, 10 minutes on the back, and then a 5 minute in between break, repeating several times. Make sure to sip plenty of water in between as well to stay hydrated, plus it helps you sweat more.
Though the stone floor is quite warm, the air temperature is pretty good and it does not get stuffy like a regular sauna. I sweated quite nicely and enjoyed the quiet time. There were probably 6 -7 other women there at the same time, but as typical in Japan, it was very quiet as this is a time to relax. In between goes, there were some comfy chairs and magazines to browse through.
Afterwards, I had the massage, which was felt pretty good after some stressful days (weeks, months) of work and school. My muscles have definitely relaxed and loosened out some of the knots. I think even my body circulation feels better after all of that, I felt pretty refreshed afterwards. A good place to de-stress and recharge.
Finishing up, there was a shower area and the vanity area for freshening up. Though you aren’t supposed to shower after the ganbanyoku, only before entering… I guess this is “clean sweat” and you are only supposed to wipe it off with a towel. Just change back into your clothes, put the dirty clothes and towels in the laundry bin and check out.
By the way, the place I went is called Thingara and they also offers a men’s section; sometimes these places are women-only, so this is a good place to take a husband or boyfriend as well. They also offer hot yoga, though I assume it is held in Japanese, you could always try to join them anyway. There are quite a few other ganban-yoku around Okinawa, so if you don’t live or stay near Kitanakagusuku, you have some other options to check out (just put 岩盤浴 into google maps).
Another bonus to these bedrock baths are that if you have tattoo, the sauna clothes cover it, so I don’t think most places have any sort of tattoo policy, unlike many of the onsen.
Okinawa has its own style of sumo, which is actually different from Japanese sumo. This post focuses on Japanese sumo. I should add a post for Okinawa-style sumo sometime.
This year, for the second time, the national sumo association is doing an exposition in Okinawa at the Convention Center in Ginowan. It was my first time to see mainland sumo in person, so it was pretty exciting. Obviously my experience is nothing like the real tournaments and arenas in the mainland, but it was fun nonetheless. I can’t talk much about rules or certain wrestlers, just my experience as a regular person watching sumo for the first time.
I purchased the tickets at FamilyMart in advance, like with any other concert, event, or sports ticket here in Okinawa. My husband also decided he wanted to get the pre-order omiyage set with the bento, cushion, and other goods. The tickets and omiyage set were not cheap, but I figure it might be the only chance we have to go to sumo, so might as well enjoy it to the fullest.
When we arrived on Saturday, all of the flags were lining the path and there were some food/drink and souvenir vendors outside. When we showed the tickets we got wristbands so we could leave and re-renter the venue; very convenient! Shoes were removed as soon as you stepped inside and put into a little bag. We also picked up our omiyage set just inside the door. Although the arena is small, it was filled with excitement.
We were escorted to our “box” which in this case was taped out on the floor; in a real arena it would be an actual tiered areas and separated from your neighbor by some bars. When I bought tickets, I bought the ペアマス Pair masu (mat), which is admission for 2 people where you sit in 1 “box” containing enough space for people to sit on cushions. Since we only got 1 omiyage set with 1 cushion, I brought along my zabuton 座布団 (Japanese flat seat cushion) that I purchased from the Daiso. You could purchase the souvenir sumo cushion for 1000yen at the venue, but I figure I saved myself 900yen.
When we settled into our seats, we checked out the omiyage set お土産セット. It came with quite a bit; the sumo cushion, a calendar, 2 rice bowls, a souvenir poster of all the sumo wrestlers, a bottle of tea, and a deluxe bento all in a nice bag that could be reused. We removed the cushion and food/drink, then my husband ran the bag back to the car so it wouldn’t take up space in our box (because honestly, the boxes were not the big).
We did not arrive at opening time since there were several hours of practice and such going on; I just couldn’t imagine hanging out for a total of 7 hours. We arrived during the last portion of the practices, so it was closer to a total of 4.5 hours in the arena for us.
After the practices ended, the kids sumo started; this where the very small kids in training come out and play with the wrestlers. It is actually a bit hilarious. Next was some more practice, and then the shokkiri 初切 (comic sumo performance). They also brought out the guy that demonstrated how to tie the wrestler’s hair, and some of the wrestlers demonstrated how to tie the yokozuna’s belt.
Finally it was time for some of the ceremonial stuff; there were processions in, introduction of wrestlers, singing, drumming, etc. The yokozuna were brought in separately and postured for the audience.
The tournament now began; wrestlers came down the aisle, were introduced, threw salt, etc. The bouts were fairly short, though we did get quite a few exciting ones that lasted longer, much to the hoots and hollers of the audience. Some were pushed out of the ring, others tossed. One almost landed in the audience. At the end of each bout the referee recognized the winner. At the end of the tournament, the tournament winner performed a bow-twirling and afterwards was rewarded with cash, a barrel of nihonshu 日本酒 (Japanese sake), and a slab of pork.
The nice part about the set up in the arena is that you can get up and walk around, get refreshment, use the restroom, stretch your legs at pretty much any point. At any time, only about 60-70% of people were actually seated, and it was common to mill about.
Every year in my neighborhood after Obon, near the village office a Tug-of-war 綱引き (tsunahiki) is held. The idea is similar to the larger Tug-of-Wars held in Naha, Itoman, and Yonabaru, except on an obviously much smaller scale. The name of the event in this town is called Marujina マールジナ.
The village starts makes the two ends of the rope, and sets up a small area with free shave ice and drinks (including beer). Around 6 pm, everyone starts to assemble, and eisa music plays on the loudspeakers (which no joke, are definitely left over sound equipment from the 60s, crackly speakers and all). We were lucky this year with no rain– the previous 2 years festivities were cut short due to rain.
We dressed in jinbei 甚平, although almost no one except the very small children dress up for this event, because I feel that I might as well enjoy it properly. So wearing my jinbei, I grabbed a tenugui (towel), uchiwa (fan), and a beer, and walked down the street to the event. Of course, being foreigners we stick out, and wearing jinbei even more so, but that’s okay, probably people see the effort to appreciate local culture/traditions and feel more comfortable talking us. Of course the minute we arrive, shave ice and drinks are thrust upon us (not that I minded). Kids were frolicking about, getting excited, while the adults were catching up on chatting. Throughout the festival we spoke to a few of our neighbors who are always a bit interested in the foreign couple living in this rural area (all of our neighbors are Japanese/Okinawan… the only few other foreigners in the village live a few neighborhoods down from us or up the hill by the university).
Around 6:30 the Gaaee ガーエー starts. Gaaee means something like “winner’s triumphant shout.” Basically it entails guys carry a large, heavy bamboo pole decorated with flags and flowers and other decorations, called hatagashira 旗頭. Hatagashira are an example of the traditional Okinawan culture. They are symbols created to represent a the success of a village. Supposedly, during the pole competition, the gods land on the top of the hatagashira and assist in the tugging of the rope during the tug-of-war. Some of the guys grabbed my husband and helped him try; my husband commented how incredibly top-heavy it is and that it definitely takes more skill than you might imagine.
In our village we have the adults gaaee, as well as a children’s gaaee. The children are given much smaller hatagashira, and are assisted by adults. The children’s symbols are a sunflower and a hibiscus. It is sort of cute, like they are in training for later when they are older.
Sometime around 7 or so, the rope was set up and the procession of uniting the two ends began. Once the ropes were close enough, fires were lit, the pin was inserted, and of course, the tugging began! After the first round, the gaaee started back up again for awhile until round 2 for the children. Many of the adults helped the children during their round (the rope is so heavy!). After this round, again, the gaaee finished off the ceremony. Some adults stuck around, as they were having karaoke in the community center, but since we had work in the morning (and plus no one wants to hear me sing) we headed off home.
It was a particularly exciting and energetic event this year, probably since it is the first time in awhile we had good weather for this event! Besides the pictures, there is a video link here of the Tug of War and here for a preview of Gaaee.
うちなーファーム Uchinaa farm is located in Itoman (southern part of Okinawa main island). It has many animals to see and pet, as well as “wine” tasting, and some tourist activities. Entrance fee is cheaper for residents (100y off) so only 500y for adults.
The farm produces 4 types of fruit wines: shikwasa, mango, passionfruit, and acerola. I like passionfruit the best, nice and dry. Acerola and mango were very sweet to me.
There is a large walking course to follow. They have horses, ponies, a zebra, donkeys, water buffalo, cows, goats, pigs, kangaroos. They also have some cats and meerkats (so cute!), as well as a red panda, capybara, rabbits, gerbils… it is almost like a mini-zoo. It was a cute way to spend a morning, even if it was a bit hot outside. There are also some activities such as tractor ride, pony rides, water buffalo cart, etc.
There is also a restaurant and cafe, but we skipped this and went to a local shokudo. Overall, it was a really nice place for a date: walking around the pasture, seeing animals, and tasting some fruit wines.
You may also see the kanji written as 大綱曳 or 大綱挽 for the Great Tug-of-War events here in Okinawa. It became a tradition for every village in Okinawa to hold these tug-of-war events at the end of summer, beginning of autumn. In the lunar calendar, it is traditional to hold tug-of-war in the 6th or 8th month, although that is not always the case today. Originally it started as a way to pray to keep away the insects from damaging the crops, for rain, and for a good harvest.
Enormous ropes woven from straw are created for each team. Preceding the event are processions on each side with large banners on decorated poles (called hatagashira 旗頭), people in colorful costumes, and eisa dance/music or chanting, known as gaaee ガーエー, meaning something like “winner’s triumphant shout.” Basically it entails guys carry a large, heavy bamboo pole decorated with flags and flowers and other decorations, called hatagashira 旗頭. Hatagashira are an example of the traditional Okinawan culture. They are symbols created to represent a the success of a village. Supposedly, during the pole competition, the gods land on the top of the hatagashira and assist in the tugging of the rope during the tug-of-war.
To start the event, each team (divided into “East” and “West”) will bring their ropes together and a “pin” is inserted to keep the two looped ends together. Then the tugging will begin, with cheers and shouts on each end, the leaders of each team encouraging their side. After the time is up, they will determine who pulled the furthest and declare a side the winner. Afterwards, it is good luck to take pieces of the rope home with you and turn them into decorative charms to protect the household. You see a lot of people bringing their own scissors or pocket knives to cut of pieces as soon as the tug of war ends. Officially, only authorized people are supposed to have knives for rope-cutting, but… I don’t that stops most people.
There is the largest event in Naha every year, the Sunday before Sports Day (a national holiday in October). I went once and found this one to be really too crowded; now I much prefer the tsunahiki in Yonabaru town, usually occuring before Obon at the very end of July or beginning of August. It is still a large event, but less tourists and more locals. There is also a large event in Itoman every year on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, a day known as Juugoya/Tsukimi (again mostly locals, not so many tourists). There are even several small tsunahiki events, one is held in my village every year (related post here). It is still a rather large rope but not nearly the size of the larger events. These events are great fun, so if you are in Okinawa be sure to participate in one of them!
This is the sound of eisa. Anyone who has lived in Okinawa will recognize it immediately.
As summer approaches, so does matsuri season. Eisa is a synonymous with the summer matsuri season here in Okinawa. Eisa エイサー is a type of “bon dance,” 盆踊り (bon odori). Bon, or Obon, (written in kanji as 御盆 or お盆) is an important time of year for Japanese people; it is a time to honor and commemorate their ancestors. They believe that each year during Obon, the ancestor spirits return to our world to visit relatives. Bon occurs the 13th through the 15th day of the 7th month of the year; for many places this is July (according to the solar calendar), however in Okinawa, it is celebrated according to the lunar calendar, so it occurs sometime in August or September. I will leave the details of customs and traditions related to Okinawan Obon holiday for another blog post, and for now focus on eisa. During Obon in Okinawa, many eisa troupes will perform all around the island to bid farewell as their ancestors leave to Earth to return again to the heavens. There is a local group that travels down our neighborhood and town, stopping at various points to perform; we are sure to watch them as they dance, chant, whistle, and play drums in front of the convenience store across the street.
Due to the large Japanese population in Hawai’i, Obon is also commonly celebrated all over Hawai’i throughout the summer months– so this holiday and bon dance in general is not really new to me, but I have learned about some of the more Okinawan traditions and especially eisa dance.
Although eisa originates as a bon dance, it is performed throughout the year and is considered an important aspect of Okinawan/Ryukuan culture. There are several eisa clubs around the island, and they are especially busy during the summer matsuri season. Already at my university they are practicing for summer during lunch and early afternoon, so I have some entertainment these days while I eat.
There are guys (and sometimes girls) playing larger (taiko) drums, as well as those with smaller hand drums. Usually the females are dressed in simple yukata with Ryukyuan designs. At least one of the guys will be dresses as “Chondara” (Okinawan clowns).
The role of the chondara is to cheer the dancers on and entertaining the audience, as well as guiding the group in the right direction. Sometimes also to scare the small children a bit.
The sounds of eisa wafting through the evening air, while sitting outside and drinking a beer sometimes feels a bit nostalgic as strange as that seems. It has that feeling, that summer has indeed arrived, and will soon be gone so be sure to enjoy the (hot and humid) weather now and the carefree feeling of lazy summer days, because soon it will be replaced by chilly fall and winter winds.
There are a fair number of temples (tera 寺) and shrines (jinja 神社) in Okinawa, however, most of them are maybe not as historic or grand as you might see on the mainland.
成田山福泉寺 Naritasan Fukusenji is the temple in my town. It sits upon the hill facing the ocean. I visit there during important yearly events, such as New Years and Setsubun.
Omamori お守り are amulets or protective charms you can purchase from the temple. They come in many forms, colors, types; some are for safe driving, some for success in school, some are for health, some for love… There are some traditions around these, which some people do not necessarily observe. After a year (usually, but I will not lie, I often keep mine longer than that), you should take back to a temple to have them perform a ritual and burn it, and then obviously purchase a new one. I usually only keep my New Years omamori for a year and then return them during the next New Year; others, especially ones from places I have visited, such as Kyoto, I tend to keep until they look a bit worn.
Wood prayer boards, called ema 絵馬, are often sold as well (more common at shrines, but temples nowadays often sell these as well). You write messages of prayer, such as wishes for happiness, health, success in school, love/marriage, safety, etc, and hang them up by the shrine (so the gods, or “kami” 神, can receive them). The ema have pictures representing the temple, or perhaps the zodiac year, on the back; usually there are a few designs you can choose from. There are no real rules as to what or how to write on an ema, so just have fun.
How to pray at a Shinto Shrine (temples are less rigid, although some of the procedure can be the same):
purify oneself at the water pavilion: using your right hand, take a ladle, and scoop water. Pour a little over you left hand, then switch an pour over your right hand, then in your left hand take some water from the ladle and rinse your mouth, and finally empty the remaining water (on the ground, not back into the water basin). You should only scoop water once. When you finish, use your hand towel to dry you hands. You will notice many people in Japan carry around small personal towels in their bags, and if you visit, I highly recommend also having one for instances such as these.
toss a coin gently into the offering box (preferably with hole in it, 5円 or 50 円)
ring the bell (if there is one)
And done! Pretty easy. All being said, sometimes procedure can switch up depending on where you are, so just follow what locals do when you feel uncertain.
Lastly, let’s cover drawing fortunes, known as omikuji おみくじ. There will be a box or a coin slot machine labeled おみくじ. Some places will have English fortunes, some only Japanese. It is usually 100円, although it can be more if it comes with a small charm of some sort (if it is a small frog charm, put it in your wallet, it is said to “attract” money). Fortunes will have a category, ranging in different types of luck, from very good to very bad:
Great blessing (dai-kichi, 大吉)
Middle blessing (chuu-kichi, 中吉)
Small blessing (shou-kichi, 小吉)
Blessing (kichi, 吉)
Half-blessing (han-kichi, 半吉)
Ending blessing (sue-kichi, 末吉)
Ending small blessing (sue-shou-kichi, 末小吉)
Curse (kyou, 凶)
Small curse (shou-kyou, 小凶)
Half-curse (han-kyou, 半凶)
Ending curse (sue-kyou, 末凶)
Great curse (dai-kyou, 大凶)
On the rest of the paper, it describes your luck or fortune in various aspects of your life. Most of the Japanese used is fairly complicated, so it is good if you can have someone fluent explain it to you. Once you read your fortune, if it is bad, you tie it to a tree branch at the shrine or temple, to stave off the curse; if it is good, you keep it close to you (in your wallet or purse perhaps). That being said, I have also heard if it is good you tie it to a tree branch in order for it to come true! So, I think sometimes, there are no “right” or “wrong” ways. Just have fun.
While there are many small shrines scattered around, here are the addresses for the “larger” temples and shrines worth visiting in Okinawa:
Kume-jima probably ranks as our #1 trip among the outer islands of Okinawa (so far). Honestly, it was a combination of things, but it was a pretty great trip away from the hustle and bustle of life.
There are 2 ways of getting to Kume-jima: 4 hour ferry ride or 35 minute plane ride. Not going to lie… take the plane, it is so much better. It was about 150$ roundtrip, so yes, it is more expensive, but it is a very short ride. The ferry is cheaper by half, but over 4x the travel time. So… for me, no questions.
After a short plane ride, we arrived and rented a car. There is a tourist map, which points out the major sites; these can be done in a day, but take it slow and enjoy. It is a beautiful island. Some of the sights may not be terribly interesting, but just enjoy the raw beauty of this island. There are some magnificent views and crystal clear water. Check out the tatami rocks that make an interesting pattern on the beach, and look for some sea turtles. Maybe check out the local awamori distillery.
We coincided our trip with the season of ホタル or 蛍, pronounced hotaru meaning “firefly” (month of May). Okay, yes, I planned my entire trip around fireflies! But Kume-jima is home to rare and special fireflies, so it very much worth it! As matter of fact, the mascot for Kume-jima is a firefly! Be sure to visit the firefly museum during the day, and then the park areas (close to water) in the evening when the magical little fireflies come out. It is really special to experience this sort of beauty, once the sun sets and they start flitting about with bursts of light. Also, the guy at the museum is an alumni of Ryukyu Daigaku and speaks some English, so please visit him! He will tell you many interesting facts and explain why fireflies here in Kume-jima are special.
We stayed at Eef Beach Hotel, and while not grand by any means, it was comfortable and close to restaurants, as well as a nice beach to stroll around. There is a supposedly nicer hotel on the airport side of the island, but we chose quaintness over luxury.
For food, well, you better like either shrimp or local Okinawa grub because there is not much else. Kume-jima is known for 海老 (えび or エビ “ebi”), meaning shrimp. It is fresh! My husband ate shrimp for both lunches and dinner we were on the island. You can get it a number of ways; grilled, battered and fried in tempura, cooked in butter… it is a popular food here, so it is highly recommended you try it. Some of the restaurants have English menus and some do not, so take a chance and just stop in, order whatever is recommended that day. Preferably shrimp. I will post some addresses of the best meals we had later.
Natsu-matsuri. Matsuri 祭り (or just 祭) means festival, and natsu 夏 means “summer.”
In Japan, summer seems to start around July 15th, and so does the matsuri season. In Okinawa, there are usually multiple matsuri every weekend through September and even into October. Almost every Saturday and Sunday night the sky will be illuminated by fireworks (hanabi 花火) and the sounds of Okinawan eisa dance (エイサー) echo in the night air. In Okinawa, you will see the strings of Orion lanterns illuminating the paths and and smells will waft from the tents hawking foods.
Every town and village will host their own matsuri; men and women, from children to older folks will wear yukata 浴衣 and jinbei 甚平. Even I own a very classy black jinbei with Hello Kitty x OnePiece on it. Err, well, it is sort of tomboyish, but I find it cute and comfortable… I am pretty sure I would feel weird in a girly yukata. As a note, many westerners do not seem to realize the difference between kimono 着物 and yukata 浴衣. Kimono is very formal and layered, it would be odd to see kimono outside of formal events like weddings, graduations, or New Years Day. Yukata are light and thin, perfect for summer! They are more casual and are easier to put on. And wayyyy cheaper! Formal kimono are usually thousands of dollars (and therefore many people simply rent them instead of buying).
There are performances, games, food, and of course drinks of the alcoholic variety! Oh and they always hand out fans (うちわ uchiwa) as a means of advertising.
If you are in Okinawa or Japan during the summer season, you must attend one.