Closer to Taipei than Tokyo, Okinawa is a chain of islands stretching from Taiwan to Kyushu. Once an independent nation, known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, it prospered as a natural sea lane between China, Japan and all of Southeast Asia and the influences of these cultures are evident today.

A day of driving the main island (there are 160 islands in total) could give a visitor the feeling they have traveled through a time machine. From the high-rise hotels and office buildings in the capitol city of Naha, past the McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donut Shops you’d loose count of the wooden-framed, red-tiled roof homes you passed.

Within an hour you could visit any one of five UNESCO World Heritage Castle Sites, drive to the mountainous north, visit Five Star Resorts, or find a secluded beach. You are just as likely to see someone clad in a kimono as you are to see someone wearing a bikini. There may be people wearing traditional garments, beating drums and playing the three-stringed sanshin (a ukulele-like instrument) and singing in a language even the Japanese don’t comprehend. You are just as likely to run across youth singing rap or break dancing.

Early to mid-morning, you may hear trucks driving around slowly and playing loud music; it’s the trash collection day. You could run across smaller trucks with loudspeakers blaring, “Yaki imo, yaki imo, oishii, oishii, yaki imo”. Baked Okinawan sweet potato, purple in color, wrapped in foil and cooked in a wood-burning smoker, right on the back of a pickup truck, that’s what the driver is shouting about.

Evenings, softer music may be coming from a box-shaped mini truck parked halfway down a street or in an apartment complex parking lot. That’d be a bread and pastry truck and it seems they attract a crowd of young mothers and children. Men, farmers, fishermen, construction workers tend to socialize over a drink or two with their coworkers before heading home.

In the fields you are more likely to see sugar cane and rice being planted, cultivated and harvested by hand, rather than with machinery. Along the coasts fishermen and egrets may be spotted side by side, seeking the same catch. During low tide, people may be seen hand-picking mussels and shells from the mud flats. At high tide or in deeper waters, scuba divers, wake boarders, jet and water-skiers, kayakers and snorkelers take advantage of the crystal-clear waters.

Year round, just about every Sunday on Okinawa a sport more popular than Japanese Sumo Wrestling takes place. Bullfighting, not the type with Matadors, knives and blood; two bulls in a ring compete against each other. It’s similar, in many respects, to human Sumo, only these wrestlers weigh around a ton apiece. They are pampered like family pets and everyone gets to go home alive.

May to November is Festival Season on this island. There are flower festivals, health festivals, dragon boats, sunshine, planting, harvest, sea, and fertility festivals. I’ve been to beer festivals, children’s festivals, bug and animal festivals, ancestor worship festivals, religious and maybe even sacrilegious festivals. There are just too many festivals to remember so, over the course of the next year, I’ll try and post some photos and explanations as to how all these events relate to the culture of my home, Okinawa, Japan.

This is Mike’s first post for PocketCultures. Originally from the USA, Mike has lived in Okinawa for 30 years and will be writing about Japan. Find him on Ryukumike’s Blog, or admire his photos on Mike’s Ryuku Gallery.

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About the author

Mike is a freelance photographer and writer who has been living in Okinawa, Japan for over 30 years.