When people think of their dream Japanese vacation, and their beachy stays in Okinawa, it isn’t usually pottery that comes to mind. Even if it is, it might be something along the lines of the much more world famous ‘Kintsugi’ style from the mainland, which is the ancient Japanese style of repairing pottery with gold. That style embodies the ‘wabi sabi’ philosophy, or the impermanence of all things. Okinawan pottery, however, like so many other aspects of its culture, does things in its own way, resulting in something distinct and unique to the region. If you want to engage in an important part of Okinawa, you shouldn’t skip this artistic expression.
The word ‘yachimun’, for which the famous attraction in Naha takes its name, is ‘pottery’ in the Okinawan dialect, and is also known as ‘tsuboya’. This style of pottery was brought over from China sometime around the 14th Century and was heavily influenced over the centuries by mainland Japanese and Korean ceramics. That being said, this pottery predates Okinawa becoming incorporated into Japan, and it has maintained its sense of cultural flare. Okinawan pottery has two main types; Ara-yaki and Jo-yaki. Ara-yaki is made in the kiln without prior glazing, which preserves its rustic, original clay appearance. The more common of the two, Jo-yaki, is glazed before entering the kiln to give it a gentle gleam.
Sadly (but probably for the best), after the Pacific War, many kilns were retired due to the pollution generating smoke they spilled. The art form, at this time, became much less commonplace and, in fact, was at risk of disappearing since many of the kilns were completely destroyed. Small, rural villages kept the tradition alive, however, so that we are able to still enjoy it today.
Yachimun Street in Okinawa, only a ten-minute walk from Hondori Street and Heiwa Street and a lovely five-minute walk from the main shopping street of Kokusai Dori, is the actual birthplace of this fusion. This small slice of Naha seems almost frozen in time. As one enters the ceramic center, they can tell so by the colourful ceramics which are embedded in and decorate the pathways to the little, locally owned shops.
These shops are overflowing with hand-made treasures in a myriad of colours that encapsulate island life. Many of the pieces I saw were a blue that was reminiscent of the tropical seas of the region, and can only have taken inspiration from the surroundings. Many of these little shop owners would rather you not snap a photo. This is to preserve the secrets of their family’s art, but sometimes if you ask nicely, you will be allowed to take one so you can remember all the beautiful crafts you see.
Some of the most quintessential items to be found are sake cups and bottles, burners for incense, dishes, plates and flower pots, all of which become more incredible when you remember they were likely made right inside the shop you are currently standing in. That being said, it’s impossible to wander down the traditional and quaint little street and not notice a very large theme… the Okinawan Shisa.
These ‘Lion Dog’ figures which also came over from China are hugely prevalent in the southern culture. These figures absolutely litter the street, as well as stand guard in front of shrines, businesses and souvenir shops all over Okinawa. It is said that, although these Okinawan Shisa, unlike their Chinese counterparts, are genderless, the dog with its mouth closed keeps in good energies while the one with its mouth open scares away the bad ones. The Shisa figures, in various sizes and colours, liter the shelves and the walls of these little pottery shops.
If you finish wandering through the atmospheric Yachimun Street and find you still have not had your fill, you will find near the western entrance a small, unobtrusive building which is actually a pottery museum! For only a few hundred yen (about $3) you can enter to see the exhibits which detail the development of pottery in the area throughout the ages. It’s a fantastic place to go with children, as it also features interactive exhibits where they can touch the pottery and really get to experience it. Let them become immersed in this crucial part of Okinawan life, and do so yourself!
Okinawa has many things that draw people into its culture, but its pottery is something that reminds us it was once its own flourishing kingdom, and that its uniqueness needs to be celebrated in these works of art that can be passed down to future generations. Don’t overlook these clay creations on your next trip to Naha or Okinawan village, and keep your eyes open for the protective Shisa standing watch over entrances you may pass through.