Jan 29, 2018
Taking a piece of the Ryukyus home with you: My top 5 mementos from Okinawa
Okinawa is hands down the most unique of Japan’s 47 prefectures given its history as the former Ryukyu Kingdom, its culture that incorporates elements from China, Thailand, and other ancient Asiatic kingdoms, and its tropical climate. It’s uniqueness makes for an incredibly memorable trip, but if you're like me, you like to have at least a little memento to remind you of the places you love.
Though Okinawa has many options, I'd like to offer you my short list of favorite things to bring home from Okinawa:
#1 & 2: Shisa Dogs (always buy in pairs!)
Although Shisa statues are found in other parts of Japan and other Asiatic cultures, I have never been anywhere where they are so much a part of the fabric of cultural identity. It seems like an Okinawan house is not complete without a pair of Shisa (one with mouth open, one with mouth closed) adorning the entry way or roof. As such, they make an interesting souvenir to bring back to your own home.
You can find shisa statues in just about any souvenir shop (or at the airport), but I like the more unique versions you can find in smaller artisan shops scattered throughout the island (to find gems like the one below). But be sure to get two: the Shisa with the mouth open is supposed to keep the bad spirits out, while the one with mouth closed is supposed to keep the good spirits in.
Okinawan salt cookies may be my favorite meibutsu confectionary in all of Japan. These little cookies have a soft and crumbly texture similar to shortbread cookies, but pack a ton more flavor. The Okinawan sea salt provides a tasty contrast to the sweetness of the cookie. Other than the standard option, You can find chinsuko in a variety of flavors including brown sugar, Okinawan sweet potato, and milk, among others.
While you can find chinsuko all through the island at various souvenir shops and supermarkets, I recommend picking yours up at the airport, where you will have the best range of chinsuko options.
#4: Ryukyu glassware
Awamori is Okinawa’s signature liquor, and, like many other spirits, there is a specific type of glass from which it is traditionally drunk. Awamori cups made from Ryukyu glass make great souvenirs because they often come in unique shapes and colors—themselves reflections of Okinawa’s vibrant culture. Of course you can bring home a bottle of Awamori with you as well, but the glass has a bit more permanence and is a great souvenir even if you do not drink alcohol.
Like chinsuko, you can find a variety of Awamori glasses at the airport, but I recommend trying your hand at making your own at Ryukyu Glass Village. A short glass blowing experience will only cost you about 1600 yen, giving you a memory and a memento in one fell swoop. Even if you don't want to do the hands on experience there, you'll be able to find the widest range of Ryukyu glassware options.
#5: Sanshin Music
While some folks may know of the Shamisen, one of Japan’s most cherished traditional stringed instruments (think Kubo and the Two Strings), fewer know about its Okinawan cousin, the Sanshin. Using snake hides for the drum of the instrument, the sanshin produces a sound that has come to embody traditional Okinawan music.
Listening to the sanshin always transports me back to Okinawa, if only for a few moments, and I am sure it will have the same effect for most of you. The airport again offers a variety of Sanshin albums, but if you are a true music lover and want to bring an actual sanshin home with you, there are plenty of places to where you can purchase an authentic sanshin from between 20,000-35,000 yen (like Chindami Shamisen Shop on the map below):
Hitting the books once again as a Ph.D. student in Niigata Prefecture. Although I've lived in Japan many years, life as a student in this country is a first.
Blessed Dad. Lucky Husband. Happy Gaijin (most of the time).
Making your own Ryukyu glass sounds way more fun than just buying one. If I go to the main island someday I'll have to try it.