Steeped in tradition, Okinawa has a firm embrace of the past, writes Hanna Hussein
MY eyes are transfixed by the graceful balletic movements. In their bright, colourful ryusou costumes, the dancers are performing the Ryukyuan dance on a small stage at Suitenrou, a popular restaurant in Kokusai Street serving authentic Ryukyuan cuisine. I’m in Naha, the capital of Okinawa, Japan’s tropical island paradise.
Unlike the typical Japanese kimono, ryusou (or ushinchi in the Okinawan dialect) is made of bashofu, cloth derived from the fibres of basho, a native banana plant.
The fabric is much thinner than the ones used to make kimono, ideal for the sub-tropical weather in Okinawa.
In fact, ryusou is akin to the one used by mainland Japanese for their less formal version of the kimono, the yukata, which both men and women commonly wear to festivals or other events in the summer months.
Another key difference in both kimonos is the styling. While ryusou kimono may feature many different decorations, it normally employs traditional Okinawan patterns such as bingata, kasuri and hana-ori.
There couldn’t a better introduction to Okinawa than the beautiful cultural show.
It’s the first item in our itinerary of our five-day media familiarisation trip to the island, held in conjunction with AirAsia X’s inaugural flight to the island that is dubbed as Japan’s Hawaii.
When AirAsia X launched the Kuala Lumpur-Osaka-Hawaii route three years ago, I had the privilege of joining the inaugural flight and to experience the most desirable island destination on earth.
Now it’s my chance to visit Okinawa and see how the Asian version of Hawaii fares against the real Hawaii.
ROAD TO SHURI
For the historical background of Okinawa, our group, led by tour guide Ai Munakata, heads to Shuri, an old town that flourished as the capital of the Ryukyu kingdom in the past. It’s located about 5km from Naha city centre.
There are a number of ancient sites in the area. One of them is a 500-year-old castle, built by the chief of Ryukyu kingdom. Unfortunately, much of the castle, including the main hall, was ravaged by fire last year.
Sitting on top of a hill overlooking the city, the Shuri-jo Castle had an unusual design unlike any other Japanese castles as it was heavily influenced by a mixture of Chinese and Japanese architecture.
Due to the extensive damage from the fire, we are not able to see the vermilion-colored monument which once served as the royal court and administrative centre of the Ryukyu Kingdom. However, the castle park is still open to the public.
Moving on, we discover Shuri on foot along Kinjo-cho Ishidatami, which is located on the south side of the castle.
Basically, it is a 300-metre traditional stone-paved path which goes downhill. It was was originally more than 5km long, connecting the castle to Shikinaen (where the Ryukyu royalty’s second home was located).
Walking on the bumpy walkway paved with Okinawan limestone, the path leads us to a stunning view of Naha before Ai takes us to see an utaki (a small stone monument).
According to her, each district has its own sacred area where the locals come to pray. Okinawan people believe that their god descends to a tree or a stone which explains why the utaki has no halls like a typical temple.
Here at this particular utaki known as Kinjo-cho Oakagi, there is a huge akagi tree (or bishop wood tree) which is estimated to be more than 300 years old. The locals believe that their god descended here.
Another heritage site in Shuri is the Tamaudun, which is a mausoleum for the Ryuku royal family built in 1501 by King Sho Shin to re-entomb the remains of his father, King Sho En.
According to my guide, in order for the soul to ascend to heaven, family members must carry out an ancient ritual called senkotsu — or washing the bones of the deceased after the entombment — for the soul to be pure.
After the ritual, the bones will be placed in an urn while the kimono worn by the deceased will be burned.
To my surprise, Ai says this ritual is still being practised in Okinawa and is not exclusive to royalty.
The mausoleum has an architectural style of the royal palace of the time —
a building made of limestone with a wooden roof complete with three Shisa lions (mythical dog-like guardians of the Okinawa).
The steps below are filled with coral reefs from Kudaka Island. It’s a sacred isle created by Amamikiyo, the goddess of the Ryukyus.
The last to be entombed here was the former prince of Nakagusuku, Sho Ten.
He was the son of Sho Tai, the last king of the Ryukyu kingdom.
WHERE ROYALS UNWIND
From Shuri, we take a short drive to Shikinaen to visit one of the best-known landscaped gardens on the island.
The Shikinaen Royal Garden, located on a small hill to the south of Shuri Castle, is a retreat for dignitaries.
Stretching over 4.2 hectares, the garden was specially built for the royal family and their guests, especially envoys sent by the emperors of China.
The garden was designed with a winding walking path surrounded by lush greenery, apparently to make the guests feel the huge expanse of the grounds.
The tour begins from the Tsuyo-mon gate at the front. According to Ai, that is not the main gate.
The second gate, which is slightly bigger and called the Sei-mon, is located further inside. It was exclusively used by the royal family and their estemeed guests.
Both gates feature the Yajo style for the roofs, a symbol of status during the era.
From the Sei-mon gate, we follow the winding paved pathway under densely shaded trees. It is a long walk before we arrive at a place which offers a stunning view of the manicured landscape garden featuring a gorgeous pond at the centre.
We continue along the left path which leads us to Udun Palace, a stately wooden villa with a red-tiled roof. The house has
15 rooms complete with a huge kitchen and a tea room.
My favourite part of the house is the Ichiban-za, which is the first room overlooking the pond with a quaint Chinese-style hexagonal bower on a little island.
I cross over the Ishi-bashi stone bridge on the southeastern shore of the pond to get a closer look of the bower.
Not satisfied, I hike to the Kanko-dai observatory to get the best vantage point of the whole garden. It’s breathtaking!
We then head to the southeastern part of the island to visit the most sacred site of the Ryukyu Kingdom to learn more about the Okinawan religion.
It is less than 45 minutes away from the central part of the city. Along the way, Ai tells us a story about the creation of Ryukyu islands.
“Legend has it that the Heavenly Emperor, who lived in the Heavenly Gusuku, looked down on the world and saw that there were no islands. So he ordered Amamikyu, the creation goddess, to create Ryukyu together with her counterpart, Shinerikyu. They were to make mountains, forests and trees,” says Ai.
The duo descended on Kudaka Island, a small island located 5km to the east of Chinen peninsula to begin the formation of Ryukyu. One of their creations is the Sefa Utaki, explains Ai.
Before we reach Sefa Utaki, we drop by at the Nirai Kanai Bridge Observatory for a panaromic view of the Pacific Ocean. The location of the sacred Kudaka (about 5km to the east of the Chinen peninsula) is where the god and goddess first descended from heaven.
From up here, we also get to see the Nirai Kanai bridge, which we will be driving through to get to Sefa Utaki.
The Sefa Utaki serves as one of the key locations of worship in the native religion.
Located on a densely forested hillside, the Sefa Utaki features amazing rock formations which visitors can marvel at by following the walking trails.
According to Ai, men used to be prohibited from entering the sacred place. Even kings have to dress as women to enter.
The Sefa Utaki is also where the Oaraori, or the inauguration of the highest-ranking priestess, was held.
For the ceremony, a big parade involving priestesses from Shurijo Castle will be held where they will visit a few sites at midnight to pray before arriving at Sefa Utaki.
Exploring the whole area takes us about less than two hours but it is definitely a serene and informative walk.
The island of Okinawa used to consist of three rival kingdoms before the unification in 1429 — Nanzan (south), Chuzan (centre) and Hokuzan (north).
Hokuzan was the largest and had the strongest military compared to the other two. This can be seen at Nakijin-jo Site, the castle of the lord of Hokuzan during the Sanzan period.
The history of the Nakijin Castle dates back to the 13th century. Located at an altitude of 100 metres and surrounded by a majestic defence barricade, the castle ground is a massive area with high stone walls and beautiful landscape.
We are so lucky that we get to see the area filled with bright pink Hikan cherries that are blooming all over.
If you expect to see the castle, all that is left are ruins. But in my mind I can imagine how glorious the place was.
It is worth going to the top as you will be rewarded with a beautiful view of the East China Sea and the ruins surrounded by the grand castle walls.
AIRASIA X now flies to Okinawa, Japan, four times weekly via Taipei. It is AirAsia’s sixth international destination in Japan after Tokyo (Haneda and Narita), Osaka, Sapporo, Fukuoka and Nagoya (via Bangkok).
Guests from Kuala Lumpur to Okinawa are not required to obtain a visa during their 75-minutes stopover in Taipei and may return to their seats after clearing a quick security check of their carry-on bags and inflight belongings.
For more information, visit www.airasia.com.