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Traditional Japan: Exploring Culture On Okinawa’s Taketomi Island

Shiisa

Shiisa

While Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture is composed of hundreds of islands, Taketomi Island is said to have the most well-preserved heritage. The island is home to 323 inhabitants, all of whom are extremely proud of their culture and where they come from. In fact, to be a part of the community you either have to have been raised on the island or be accepted. After spending some time on the island myself, I made some interesting cultural discoveries.

The Shiisa Is Powerful

Because the island of Taketomi is heritage-listed, the buildings in the village are all required to look the same. Along with being one-story with coral-lined yards and red-tiled roofs, each one has a shiisa for protection. These animated lion statues protect inhabitants from misfortune and bad weather. You may notice some of them holding an object, either a ball, pinwheel or ladder. While the ladder represents reaching your accomplishments step-by-step at the age of 60, the ball symbolizes how one has control over their world at the age of 70. If you spot a pinwheel, this stands for the circle of life when a person is in their 80s and how they become like a child again.

star sand

Star sand/Living fossils

The Star Child Is On The Beach And In The Sky

Taketomi is one of only two islands in Japan — the other is Iriomote — to have beaches with star-shaped sand. You’ll find this sand on the beach of Kaijihama on the southwestern coast as well as Aiyaruhama on the eastern coast. Although the scientific reason for the sand’s existence is it’s fossils from shells of thousands of tiny crustaceans, the islanders have a mythical story they also like to tell about the Star Child:

Once upon a time there was a mother and father star, who had a baby star. While they told the God of Sky, who gave approval, they didn’t tell God of Ocean. God of Ocean became very angry, using a big snake to kill the baby star. The snake’s feces became fossils, which is why you find star-shaped sand on the beaches of Taketomi. Because the mother and father star were so sad, God of Sky put baby star into the heavens as a fossil, which is why you see stars in the sky.

ishiganto

Ishiganto

Evil Spirits Travel In Straight Lines

Anyone who visits Taketomi will soon realize the locals believe the island is haunted. In fact, you may notice a stone tablet with a small person figure (shown above) called an Ishiganto on the gates of village homes. These are meant to ward against evil, as locals believe Ishiganto have the power to combat it. The idea is evil spirits only travel in straight lines, and these signs tell them to go away from the home when they approach.

On

On

The On Is The Most Sacred Place On The Island

On the island of Taketomi, there are special gates known as on located about the island. Only four designated women are allowed to enter, as this is where it is believe God himself resides. These women are chosen by God, and when they are chosen it is known by all. Inside, the women pray, pay homage to God and plan religious festivals and programs for the island. The most famous of these festivals is the 10-day Tanadui Festival, which is held so locals can pray for their planted seeds to yield a successful harvest. The celebration features singing, dancing and traditional arts.

grave

Grave on Taketomi Island

 

At Death You Return To The Womb

When visiting a cemetery on Taketomi Island, you may notice how large and beautiful the graves are. While it makes the area more aesthetically-pleasing, the real reason for the design of the grave is symbolic. Look closely, and you’ll notice its soft shape, with two long sides that resemble legs. These tombs are meant to represent the body of a woman, as the deceased is replaced back into the mother’s womb.

hoshinoya okinawa

The entrance to one of the traditional villas at HOSHINOYA Okinawa

Gods Enter Separate

In front of many traditional homes, you’ll have an entrance that looks like the one above. The center stone creates two separate entrances, one for the gods to the right, and one for mortals to the left. I learned this at HOSHINOYA Okinawa, a luxury ryokan on Taketomi built to resemble the local village. There are sometimes exceptions if a person is particularly important. For example, one local was so excited to welcome my friends and I as overseas visitors she let us enter through the right, but still made her relative enter through the left.

fresh juice

Fresh juices at HOSHINOYA Okinawa

Everything You Eat & Drink Is Natural & Local

Okinawans live longer than any other population in the world. In fact, many live to be older than 100. This is often attributed to their pure diet of local and natural foods. Meals consist of meats like Ishigaki beef, Yaeyama goat and Ishigaki Miya pork, seafoods such as Ise lobster, Okinawan grouper and Yaeyama Island tuna and produce like Ishigaki mango, Island carrot and Okinawan sweet potatoes. Even drinks are made from scratch using local ingredients.

taketomi weaving

Shimonika weaving at the Mingeikan

Weaving Culture Is Important

At the local Mingeikan, it is possible to learn about local weaving culture from Shimonika and even weave some of your own handicrafts. She uses cotton and local banana leaf to make the thread, with all dye made naturally. The machines are traditional, made of wood and featuring foot pedals. While she makes everything from the kimonos worn in the Tanadui Festival to coasters to towels, her most popular item is a special belt a woman makes for a man. The item features a pattern that means “stay with me forever,” which the woman gives to the man she loves.

buffalo cart ride taketomi

Buffalo cart ride with the driver playing the sanshin

Animals Are Used For Labor, But Respected

One popular way people get around the island is by buffalo cart, which is also a popular tourist attraction. I’ve taken elephant rides in Thailand and truly felt terrible about the way the animals were treated, so when opting for the buffalo cart ride on Taketomi I was nervous. To my surprise, the driver and buffalo worked as a friendly team. In fact, the driver barely did anything, as the buffalo knew her way around the town without help. And when she would get hot, the driver would hop out and hose her down to help hydrate her skin and cool her off.

Have you ever visited Taketomi Island? What was your experience like?

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Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.
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One Comment

  1. Super friendly. Food accomodation quality worth every single yen. Paradise of nature & modern conveniences. Service fair not gouging the visitor.

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