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All the Okinawan Treasures

All the Okinawan Treasures

“So cute! Like a doll!”

Little did I know I’d be hearing this for the next few weeks. It was true. She really could have been one of those little keychain Monchichis dangling off the girls' backpacks on Kokusai-Dori.

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We are in Okinawa, Japan’s lesser-known yet culturally-rich island to the south. Its U.S. military presence and subtropical climate evoke the spirit of Guam or Hawaii much more than the sprawling metropolises we associate with Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Even the sanshin players sounded more like Delta blues guitarists than masters of the ancient Eastern instrument. 

We had flown westward from South America, the second leg of our round-the-world trip. Aside from the percolating jet lag, the trip was uneventful: Sia made friends with the Philippine female weightlifting team, I watched Bradley Cooper in three movies and Michael, ever the polyglot, somehow conjured up a conversation in Japanese with a couple sitting next to us.

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The artist in me is particularly excited to be here. Specifically because Okinawa’s native Ryukyu culture, the indigenous people of this archipelago, have influenced Japanese life that the rest of the world has come to know and love. KarateTaiko drummingBingata-style painting on kimonos, glass-blowing and Yachimun, Okinawa’s nature-based ceramic style centered right here in Naha, the island’s capital city, for the past 800 years.

So many treasures.

"So cute! Like a doll!" said the girls on International Road. We wander around in a jet-lagged, semi-tropical haze through the chaos of Naha's shopping district, escaping into the food stalls for pork-gristle soba. Okinawans are some of the longest-living people on the planet, thanks to a healthy diet of seaweed and pork.

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My favorite stop is the Tsuboya Pottery District, which has been the epicenter for Ryukyu pottery for the past 300 years. Yachimun is spotted in the traditional houses with red earthenware roof tiles, as well as the iconic lion-dog statues known as shisa. Similar to gargoyles, these guardian statuettes stand watch on almost every rooftop in Okinawa. It eventually would turn me into an amateur “clay thrower” after we return to Germany later in the year.

I am enthralled with this prefecture’s painstaking attention to design and its preservation of culture. The Kasekake dancers move so slowly, so precisely, you can hardly tell their motions at all. The specificed labor of a painting a pattern onto silk by hand. The symmetry of ceramics.

Maybe because I always strived for but could never completely achieve it with my own art. Music took discipline, but often I felt guilty that I could never get it quite right. I never hit that “sweet spot” that can take a lifetime to refine. Being surrounded by so much ancestral, yet meticulously-crafted art, confirmed it through and through.
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An absolutely illuminating artisan woman dressed in bright green patterns wave us over so she could meet the baby. She was sitting outside her ceramic studio, watching us. How did her outfit match Sia's perfectly? Her skin was flawless, and I made a mental note to invest in seaweed when we returned to Germany.  

My daughter was sitting on the lap of this glorious octogenarian, each of them bookending life. We were on the other side of the world together, on this little street made out of coral and limestone. We would probably never see each other again. Maybe the sweet spot didn't matter so much.

She turned to me, motioned to Sia, and smiled. I knew what was coming!

"So cute! Like a doll!"

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For a family travel tips in Naha, check out my “Okinawa for Families: A Day of Culture and Art” travel guide with Nugget.

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