Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending Okinawa Day 2012 in Spitalfields, London. The event celebrates the culture of Okinawa Prefecture; the southernmost prefecture of Japan. Okinawa Prefecture (沖縄県) consists of hundreds of the Ryukyu Islands (琉球諸島 / Ryūkyū-shotō or 南西諸島 / Nansei-shotō) in a chain over 1,000 kilometres long, which extends southwest from Kyūshū (九州) (the southwesternmost of Japan’s main four islands) to Taiwan. Okinawa’s capital, Naha (那覇市), is located in the southern part of Okinawa Island (沖縄本島).
I don’t know much about Okinawa, and haven’t been there (yet!), but every time I have encountered Okinawan culture I have loved it. Yesterday’s event was no exception! It was so refreshing to attend a Japanese event in the UK and actually experience something quite new to me.
The Okinawa Association UK (英国沖縄県人会) was set up 30 years ago, and the event started with the founder, Mr Ishigaki, being awarded with a certificate to mark the occasion.
Mr Tomioka, Executive Director at Japan National Tourism Organization in London, also said a few words, inviting us to enjoy Okinawan culture and to visit Okinawa some day.
Seeing all the beautiful pictures of Okinawa and reading the pamphlets and brochures I picked up, I was certainly sold on the idea of a tropical island holiday. Luckily, the Okinawan people who put the event together brought a little bit of sunshine with them and, although it was breezy, it didn’t rain once!
After Okinawa Day had been officially opened, there was a karate demonstration by the Matsubayashi-Ryu Karate-do from Eastbourne.
Everyone knows karate is from Japan, but did you know Okinawa is actually the birthplace of karate? I didn’t! Here’s more about karate from the Okinawa Tour Guide brochure I picked up at the event:
Okinawa is the birthplace of karate. Developed in the former Ryukyu Kingdom, it spread from Okinawa to Japan and then to the rest of the world and today as 50 million fans in more than 150 countries. It all started in the 13th century, when the indigenous martial art blended with Chinese kung fu.Karate was strengthened following a policy banning weapons declared in the early 1500s and developed mainly in today’s Naha City. In Shuri there was Shuri-te, today’s Shorin-ryu. In Naha it was Naha-te, which later became Goju-ryu. Tomarihad Tomari-te. Other styles such as Uechi-ryu and Ryuei-ryu also emerged. Kobudo, or weaponry, was also developed through the use of various everyday tools. Among these are the staff, the nunchaku and the sickle. In the early 1900s the Chinese characters for the art were changed to today’s characters meaning “empty hand” (空手), as in having neither a weapon nor a desire to fight. Around 1920, karate was introduced to mainland Japan by Okinawan masters, and after WWII it spread around the world to become the popular sport of today. Karate is an inexhaustive art of self-defense. With its main principle being “there is no first attack in karate”, its ultimate goal is the perfection of character through training to the height of human potential of mind, body and spirit. This is reached through the practice of kata, or form and physical conditioning, and the use of tools derived from utensils of daily life such as the water jug. Okinawa is proud of its karate tradition, which comes alive in the dragon boat races and the Naha Festival every fall. Karate movements also influenced eisa drums and Ryukyuan dances. As the birthplace of karate, Okinawa has many monuments dedicated to the masters and more than 400 dojo, or gyms, where karate is passed down from generation to generation.
Later in the day there was also a demonstration from the impressive Okinawa Traditional Goju Ryu Karate-do.
The main attractions for me at Okinawa Day were the music and dance performances. It was really special to have the chance to listen to the London Okinawa Sanshinkai (ロンドン沖縄三線会) play some Okinawan folk music, and also to hear some traditional Ryukyuan classical court music.
For the first time, I was also able to see (and join in!) eisa (エイサー), which is a kind of traditional folk dance.
Eisa is a form of folk dance unique to the people of the Ryukyu Islands. Although it is performed many times throughout the year at various festivals, Eisa performances are concentrated around lunar mid-July. This is a centuries-long tradition, to mark the end of the Obon Festival. It is danced by 20-30 young men and/or women, mainly in a circle to the accompaniment of singing, chanting, and drumming by the dancers, and folk songs played on the sanshin. Three types of drums are used in various combinations, depending upon regional style: the ōdaiko (大太鼓), a large barrel drum; the shimedaiko (締太鼓), a medium-sized drum similar to ones used in Noh theatre; and the paaranku (パーランク), a small hand drum similar to ones used in Buddhist ceremony. The dancers also sometimes play small hand gongs and yotsutake castanets. Eisa dancers wear various costumes, usually according to local tradition and gender of the dancer; modern costumes are often brightly-colored and feature a characteristic, colorful Ryūkyū-style knotted turban. Special vests and leggings are also popular. (Wikipedia)
The dance is very fun and I really enjoyed seeing the clown-like characters (called “chondara”) dancing about drunkenly and trying to get the audience to participate.
There were a few stalls at the event selling food and souvenirs from Okinawa.
There was taco rice (タコライス) - a bed of rice with Mexican tacos, lettuce and meat on top:
And one stall was selling goya yakisoba but, having tried goya (a bitter-tasting vegetable, known as “bitter melon”) before, I passed.
My favourite food of the day was sata andagii (サーターアンダーギー) - a traditional Okinawan doughnut. It’s much harder than Western doughnuts, but the taste is really good.
There was also a rare chance to see Okinawan tea ceremony (ぶくぶく茶 / buku buku cha), which is very different from mainland Japan’s tea ceremony. It is known for its foam-like bubbles which are laid on top of genmai-cha (brown (unpolished) rice tea). It’s sort of the cappuccino of the tea ceremony world.
Overall, I was very impressed with Okinawa Day. It was a small event (smaller than last year apparently) but it was an event full of passion and love for Japan. Last night my dreams were filled with blue skies, blue seas, and the beat of a drum calling me to a tropical paradise…
I took loads of photos as usual, and you can see the best of them here on Flickr: Okinawa Day 2012.