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You Probably Didn't Know These Things About Okinawa

Vegetable superheroes, snake liquor, and fried doughnuts are just some of the things that make Okinawan culture amazing. To learn more about some of the things that make Okinawa's culture so rich and vibrant, read on.

Did You Know These 7 Things About Okinawa?

Have you ever had fried doughnuts at obon and called it dango? Did you know those delicious balls of goodness are actually from a southern island in Japan called Okinawa?

Okinawa is a Japanese prefecture south of mainland Japan. Once a vibrant kingdom (Ryukyu Kingdom), it is now a part of the country of Japan. With its own language, native dishes, and amazing music, it is a beautiful culture to celebrate. We wanted to share some little known facts about this place full of history. This list just scratches the surface of all the traditions and customs of this prefecture.

Two shisa sitting on top of a goya

1. We love bitter melon, and have created an action figure inspired by it.

Goya, or bitter melon, is a green, bumpy, and  cucumber-shaped vegetable that is easily found in Japanese supermarkets. It is known as a superfood and is said to help lower blood pressure and improve digestion. There are countless articles about the health benefits of this vegetable, a common symbol of Okinawa. In 2001, a Japanese drama called Churasan had a character invent this fun hero inspired by the fruit, which became known as Goya-man. You can now find Goya-man in most souvenir shops in Okinawa (I have one at home, too). In addition to having its own action figure, goya is also celebrated on May 8th in Okinawa. We celebrate goya on this day because go means "five" (like the fifth month), and ya is "eight" (yatsu).

High school students rowing in Okinawa. Courtesy of Michelle Hirano

2. We live long lives.

Because of superfoods like goya, among other factors, Okinawans are said to be one of the longest living groups of people. The longevity of Okinawa’s grandmothers are so well known, they created a girl group, KBG84. Inspired by Japan’s AKB48 group, this girl group has an average age of 84. I'm pretty sure my grandmother will even outlive me.

Eating Sata Andagi at Kokusaidori, Okinawa's Downtown

3. Your obon deep fried dango is actually known as sata andagi - and my grandma’s is the best.

You will often find dango stands at obons and matsuri selling deep-fried balls of goodness. These doughnuts are actually from Okinawa and are known as sata andagi. Sata means sugar and andagi is roughly translated to deep fried. It's recently become more popular to add new flavors to the traditional recipe, including matcha andagi and chocolate! My grandmothe'rs is still my favorite, though (check out this Buzzfeed video to see the recipe).

Shisa in Okinawa, Photo Credit: Michelle Hirano

4. Arcanine is based off of shisa, the protectors of Okinawan households.

Shisa are lion-dog protectors of many homes. Growing up, there were always two shisa in my relatives’ homes. I never asked about it, but when I visited Okinawa in the early 2000s, they were everywhere. I learned that there were many folktales about how shisa have helped to protect villages in Okinawa. Most homes have two shisa - a closed mouth female to keep good spirits, and an open mouthed male to scare away bad spirits. Arcanine from Pokémon is modeled after the shisa.

Members practicing Eisa for the Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko group in Los Angeles

5. Okinawa also has its own form of taiko.

You may be familiar with taiko, or Japanese drumming. You will often see a powerful performance where players use two sticks, or bachi, to create strong rhythms. In Okinawa, the traditional form of taiko is called Eisa. The main difference is that players usually use one bachi to play. Eisa has a variety of different drums types and sizes, and there are many festivals where communities come together to play. The art has evolved to include several official eisa groups all over the world. You can learn more about the Los Angeles branch of Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko here. Check out some of their youtube videos.

Awamori in Okinawa

6. Okinawa has its own alcohol.

Awamori is Okinawa’s native alcohol. The distilling process is thought to have originated in Thailand. The main difference between shochu and awamori is that awamori uses long-grain rice. The distilling process uses black koji (mold that is used for miso, soy sauce, etc.), and is stored in clay pots until ready for consumption. You’ll see many souvenir shops in Okinawan have awamori with snakes inside of it (Habushu), but awamori tastes great without it, too.

Okinawan odori (dance) at the Aratani Theater in Little Tokyo. Courtesy of Michelle Hirano

7. Okinawa has its own witches.

Yuta is poorly translated to witches. Okinawa had its native religion influenced by Buddhisim and Shinto beliefs, and within this religion, there are noro (or nuru), priestesses that help with ceremonies. There are also yuta, guides that helped villagers because they were gifted and could communicate with the spirits. Villagers would consult yuta for various things, like finding the most fortunate wedding date, or helping decipher a peculiar event that happened. Both noro and yuta could only be female. Unfortunately, yuta were often persecuted, and most have either gone into hiding, or don't exist anymore. Though I haven't been able to find any in California, there are some that still practice in Peru today.

If you are interested in learning more about the Okinawan culture, make sure to check out the Okinawa Association of America! You can follow them on Instagram and Facebook for some virtual events.

Article featured in this issue:
May 2020
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