December 5, 2023

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5 ways to discover traditional Okinawa culture

3 min read

Before it was annexed by Japan, Okinawa and its surrounding islands were part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom. Situated midway between Japan and China and specializing in maritime trade, the Kingdom developed a unique culture blending its homegrown customs with influences from all over East Asia. More recently, during the American occupation in the wake of World War II, Okinawa also began to absorb aspects of Western culture.

Today, Okinawa maintains a strong connection to its past, and many unique customs are still alive and well. Here we highlight some of the prefecture’s most interesting cultural touchstones and five places on the main island where you can discover them yourself.

Eisa Dancing: Okinawa World


Dance to the beat. Photo: PIXTA/ イチロー

Drum performances are popular all across Japan, but eisa takes it to new heights by combining drumming with acrobatic dancing. Watching the dancers, usually dressed in traditional clothing, spin, kick and chant in time to their frenetic drumbeats is a mesmerizing and unique experience.

You can often catch eisa at festival events around Okinawa—particularly from June to August, where regular performances are held during the Obon celebrations, a Buddhist holiday honoring ancestors. But if you’re not on the island at those times, a few places hold regular performances.

One of the most impressive eisa shows is at Okinawa World, a small theme park an hour south of Naha, the prefecture’s capital city. The park runs several shows daily, combining eisa with other musical performances and a traditional Ryukyu-style play.

Okinawa World also includes Gyokusendo Cave—a very large cave where visitors can see stunning stalactites and stalagmites—as well as a zoological area focused on poisonous Habu snakes and a small reconstructed Ryukyu village, where visitors can try hands-on experiences with traditional crafts like weaving and glass blowing.

Maekawa-1336 Tamagusuku, Nanjo, Okinawa – Map

Admission: ¥2,000 for adults, ¥1,000 for children

Open: 9 a.m. – 5.30 p.m. 

Karate: the Karate Kaikan


Learn the ways of karate Photo: PIXTA/キリン

Karate is easily Okinawa’s most famous cultural export. Now practiced by hundreds of millions worldwide, karate evolved from several Chinese-style martial arts within the Ryukyu noble class. It began to spread across the world during the American occupation.

The modern Karate Kaikan in southern Naha is half dojo, half museum and aims to be something of a Mecca for karate lovers and celebrate this proud Okinawa tradition. The Kaikan occasionally holds tournaments and offers fitness classes and karate experiences such as a tile-breaking workshop. Suppose you’d prefer something less physical, though. In that case, you can visit the building’s museum, which goes over the history of karate and displays videos of the many different techniques performed by masters. There’s also an interactive area where visitors can test their strength and try karate training methods, such as walking in iron sandals and punching hard enough to blow out a (virtual) candle.

854-1 Tomigusuku, Okinawa – Map

Admission: ¥310

Open: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Closed on Wed. 

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