Okinawa takes pride in its unique Ryukyu culture which features a large number of handicrafts and dishes that have been passed down over generations to our days. For this article we have selected 5 souvenirs with a feeling of the Ryukyu culture that you will find only in Okinawa.
1. Ryukyu Glass Crafts
Ryukyu glass is very well known as a traditional handicraft of Okinawa as well as a local brand. The brightly colored and thick glass is characterized by the air bubbles and unique crack patterns that form within it. Ryukyu glass started to be manufactured after the Second World War. It was made by recycling colored glass bottles, such as the kind of beer bottles that became especially abundant after the war, which resulted in the characteristic thickness and air bubbles of the glass which often turned out to be the same color as the bottle used to make it. Originally, a glass product with air bubbles and cracks would have considered to be defective. However, in the case of Ryukyu glass, these defects came to be considered part of the "originality" of the product, and Ryukyu glass continues to be made and developed even today. Glasses are a typical souvenir, and since all of them are made by hand, there are no two identical glasses - they all are slightly different even when it comes to colors and thickness. It is a good idea to take your time to examine them to choose the one that you like best. Besides glasses, there are also plates, flower vessels, necklaces, and other items - make sure to take your time to find your own unique Ryukyu glass product when you visit Okinawa!
Awamori is a distilled alcoholic beverage that originated in Okinawa, and it is made with rice and black malt. The beverage has a history of over 600 years, and it is considered to be the oldest distilled alcoholic beverage of Japan. It is characterized by a unique flavor and body. Its flavor, which tastes like an extract of the characteristic flavor of rice, could be said to be the most original aspect of awamori. There are many different types of awamori with alcohol contents ranging from a relatively low 20% to higher types with a 40% of alcohol, which means that there are also many different ways of drinking it. In addition, awamori that has been stored for over 3 years is called "kusu", and in kusu there are many variations of jukuseiko (fragrance of matured sake), ranging from sweeter aromas like those of vanilla and cocoa to ocean-like aromas like those of kelp. Many awamori stores in Okinawa allow you to taste it before purchasing, and it is available in the menu of most restaurants as well, so you can easily find your favorite. You may feel like a bottle of awamori is too heavy to bring home as a souvenir, but mini bottles are also available for purchase. Drinking and comparing awamori as much as you like is something that you may only be able to do in Okinawa. Make sure to find your favorite!
3. Shiisa (Okinawan lion)
When you visit Okinawa, you will see "shiisa" (Okinawan lions) just about everywhere. The shiisa is a legendary beast in the form of a lion that serves as a talisman to keep evil spirits that may harm houses, people, and villages away. The "History of the Ryukyu Kingdom," a history book from the era of the administration of the Ryukyu Kingdom states that in 1689 there were many fires in Tomori-mura. The troubled people of the village consulted with a feng shui master, and he said that Mt. Yaese, which sits over the village, was a volcano. According to the story, the people of the village installed a shiisa lion looking in the direction of the mountain, and fires stopped occurring. After this, the concept of the shiisa lion as a guardian deity spread all over Okinawa, and you can still find them everywhere even today. As a rule, a shiisa male is placed on the right and a shiisa female is placed on the left when on display. In Okinawa, they can often be found in public spaces, the rooftops of houses, and on gates. However, in recent years, there are many small-sized shiisa lions available for purchase for those who want to display them inside their homes. In addition, some workshops offer visitors the opportunity to make and paint their own shiisa lion, an activity that will surely make for a great memory of their trips.
4. Bingata Products
"Bingata" is a traditional method of dyeing representative of Okinawa. It is said that "bin" makes reference to colors in general, and that "gata" refers to various patterns. The method is estimated to have originated in the 13th century, and it started as a way of hand-dyeing women's full dresses and costumes for ancient divine rituals. It is different from other traditional methods in the fact that pigments are used for the colors, it uses dye sinking techniques that includes molds used to engrave the patterns into the fabric, and unique colors. It seems that this method incorporates techniques from other Asian countries, which could have been brought to Okinawa during the time when it was the Ryukyu Kingdom and it held prosperous trade relations with overseas. The unique and bright colors used in bingata represent the colorful and poignant nature of the sea, sky, mountains, and greenery of Okinawa. The splendid and sophisticated bingata dyed products are very popular among tourists both from other parts of Japan and from overseas, and many of them purchase them as souvenirs. There are many different types of products, many of which can be used on a daily basis, such as fans, handkerchiefs, scarfs, and handbags among others. We recommend adding some bingata to your regular wardrobe to enjoy its bright colors.
5. Sata Andagi
Sata Andagi are one of the most representative sweets of Okinawa. Made with plenty of sugar, these are deep-fried buns similar to large doughnut holes. It is said that this sweet was created when the Court chefs during the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom traveled to Fuzhou in China, as well as Kagoshima to learn new techniques. Sata Andagi are thoroughly deep fried at a low temperature, so the outside is crunchy and the inside is fluffy and moist. Another characteristic of this sweet is that its surface cracks while it is being deep fried. This symbolizes "women" and is considered to be auspicious in Okinawan culture, so these sweets are served as a treat during celebrations. They last for about a week at room temperature, which makes them a perfect souvenir. Regular sata andagi are made using refined white sugar, but there are many other variations, such as brown sugar sata andagi, and sata andagi with purple yam, turmeric, or pumpkin mixed in the dough. These sweets are bite-sized, which makes them ideal as a casual snack - we recommend trying out all the different flavors.
Did you enjoy the article? Both handicrafts that can be used for a long time and food and drinks unique to Okinawa are full of its long history and traditions, which have been passed down over several generations. Make sure to try them out for yourself.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.