Shuri gate


New Year's in Okinawa: How Are Celebrations Different Than in Mainland Japan?

“Ii soowachi deeiburu!”

Get ready for 2019, the “Year of the Pig.” Would you like to try something different this New Years? Why not venture out this season and spend it where tradition, festivities and even sunny spring-like mornings meet?

It’s time to plan your last minute New Year's holiday trip to Okinawa. Our temperatures are just right this year! Throw on a light jacket and enjoy O-shogatsu (New Year's) without being freezing cold. Here are a few things you can experience at the start of the New Year on the beautiful Ryukyu islands, which differ from mainland O-shogatsu.

Hanging Okinawan crafts
Ready for the island during New Years?

"Ii soowachi deeiburu" — the Okinawan New Year’s Greeting

Japanese use the phrase Yoi otoshi wo (良いお年を) to say bye to friends and co-workers before the New Year. It could be translated as “Have a great New Year” or “Looking forward to the New Year.” The Okinawa hōgen (dialect) uses the phrase Ii soogwachi deebiiru (良い正月でーびーる), to express the same greeting. Come out and greet a few Okinawa workers with this phrase.

Photo by 663highland on Wikimedia Commons.

Toshikoshi New Year’s Soba - quite different in Okinawa

When you go out to eat soba in Okinawa, you usually do not go out to eat buckwheat noodles. You go out and eat the real Ryukyu Suba (dialect for Soba). It is the trademark of the island and the thick noodles resemble udon, while the broth is closer to Ramen. Okinawa Soba is served with pork, fish cake, green onions and San-mai-niku (三枚肉), literally soft and juicy three-layered-meat. If you feel adventurous, you can also choose the Soki soba (pig feet soba). This kind of noodles is traditionally eaten at midnight of January 1st of the new year, as the Okinawan’s toshi-koshi soba.

Okinawan Soki soba
Try some yummy Okinawa Soba for New Years! Photo by ayustety via Flickr

Going to a temple

Shinto shrines can be found all over Okinawa. Not so much Buddhist temples. The Okinawans travel and visit the Shinto shrines in the first days of the New Year to make their prayers and observe their “hatsumode”, the first shrine visit of the year. An older Japanese lady told me that Buddhist temples are so rare in Okinawa, because the Okinawans are Shintoists. They choose the shrine they want to make prayers at and travel there during O-shogatsu.

Futenma Shrine worship hall
The Shrine in Futenma.

The New Year’s meal - Get ready for a whole new “osechi-ryouri” experience

Osechi-ryouri (御節料理) means New Year’s cuisine and the Okinawa New Year’s celebration food is something you just have to come to the sunny island for. It is typically the same food you will find in usanmi (feast boxes), so you don’t have to employ your own Okinawa obaachan cook to enjoy the Ryukyu food.

Here is what the osechi-ryouri contains: Oranges/mikans (みかん, also called daidai 橙), which are sold in bags right before the holidays, since they are an important symbol of the festivities. (Daidai means “generation to generation.”) You also eat sweet black beans (kuromame, 黒豆), sweet chestnut mash with sweat potatoes (kuri kinton, 栗きんとん), sliced Okinawan kamaboko (fishcake, かまぼこ), konbu (昆布) seaweed, tied in knots, sweet egg and fishcake pancakes, called datemaki (伊達巻), even sardines (tazukuri, 田作り), shrimp (ebi, 海老) and tradtional Japanese mochi rice cakes. Another Okinawa favorite is the nakamijiru (中身汁), pork intestines soup, which is really an acquired taste if you are a foreigner and haven’t grown up eating these kind of foods. But fret not, you can always have Okinawa Soba instead.

Coming to Okinawa for the holidays is a wonderful idea and since it is still Japan, you can still experience the traditional Japanese holiday — the New Year’s decorations, Hatsuhinode (the first sunrise of the year), even the New Year’s sales. But Okinawa is so special with its deeply rooted island culture, the friendly islanders, and of course, the mild weather.

Okinawan osechi ryori New Year's food
The Osechi-Ryouri. Would you try it? Photo credit:

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