The islands of Okinawa stand out as having a wide variety of arts and crafts that cannot be found anywhere else in Japan. Once the Kingdom of the Ryukyus, a distinct local culture flourished, with strong influences from China, Indonesia, and other neighbors, who traded dyes, tools, and techniques. Many of these beautiful handicrafts survive today, so when in Okinawa, skip the mass produced souvenirs, and have fun making your own instead.
Here are Five of the Most Popular Arts and Crafts to Try When in Okinawa
– This 500-year-old art form, whereby cloth is dyed using elaborate hand-cut stencils, was once reserved for Ryukyu royalty. Bingata had a long and tumultuous history in Okinawa, and almost died out completely during World War II. Thanks to the efforts of local artists, bingata is making a big comeback, and tourists can make their own beautiful work of art to take home.
Where to Make Bingata
Naha City Traditional Arts and Crafts Center
– Who would have thought that the curvy structure of corals could create such lovely patterns? Try your hand at Sango Zome: 'sango' meaning coral, and 'zome' meaning dyeing. The coral (which has washed up on the beach, not taken from a reef) is used as a stamp, whereby you tightly wrap material over the coral, and use dyes to transfer the designs to the cloth. It is so easy that even kids can do it! Makes fantastic t-shirts.
Where to Do Sango Zome
Nelo Hotsuma on Flickr
– Imagine sipping some nice, cold awamori (Okinawa liquor) out of a beautiful glass that you made yourself. The process is actually quite short – you choose a color, the staff put the glass material into a red-hot kiln, take it out, and then you blow down a long tube to make it take its shape. Mine came out a bit lopsided, but still, it was fun! It takes three days for the glass to cool, so make sure to go there on the first day of your holiday, not your last.
Where to Try Glass Blowing
Ryukyu Glass Factory
– Since the 14th century, pottery has been an important cultural asset of Okinawa. The two pottery meccas, Tsuboya in Naha and Yachimun Village in Yomitan, sell fantastic (and expensive!) creations. Nowadays many large attractions across the island – such as the Aquarium, Ryukyu Village, Okinawa World, and even some hotels – offer simple pottery classes for tourists. Without a doubt the most easy activity is making your own shisa. They make a perfect souvenir, and protect your home too.
Where to Paint Your Own Shisa
Ryukyu Gama Shisa Park
Kokusai Dori (various shops)
– Known as 'Aizome' in Japanese, the distinctive blue color of indigo comes from 'Ai', a local leafy plant. Tourists can try out making beautiful handkerchiefs, scarves, and other small cloth items using tie-dye techniques. The items dry fairly quickly in the sun and makes a pretty souvenir that is easy to take back home.
Where to Try Indigo Dyeing
Okinawa World (Gyokusendo Caves)