A group karate lesson with black belt children as teachers Photo: TAKUYA MACHIDA

Experiencing Okinawa: Some lessons in cultural 'arts'

By Vicki L Beyer

Okinawa Island, the main island of the coral island chain that makes up Japan's southernmost prefecture, is a beautiful, varied place, offering diving and beach experiences, incredible ancient and modern historical sites, and the chance to experience a number of traditional arts. Three "must do" activities are glass blowing, pottery making and karate.

Showroom floor of the Onna Glass Workshop Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Glass Blowing

Given all the sand that surrounds the island, perhaps it was inevitable that glass would come to be made here. In the village of Onna, a popular beach resort area about halfway up Okinawa Island, you can have the experience of glass blowing at the Onna Glass Workshop.

The price depends on the item you select to make, and you have a lot of choice! As we all know, glassware comes in various shapes as well as various colors.

It's advisable to phone ahead and make an appointment. You will get fitted with safety wear and then get onto the workshop floor, where attendants will draw a glowing golden blob of glass from an oven that maintains the molten mess at about 1,200C.

Molten glass just out of the oven Photo: VICKI L BEYER

With the help of an attendant, you blow through a long tube to "inflate" the glass, while the attendant keeps the tube spinning. While some objects can be shaped merely by spinning the tube, for others, the molten glass is placed in a mold while being blown. After the molten glass has the correct shape it is cooled slightly and the shape is adjusted with various tools, while still spinning at the end of the blowing tube.

Shaping the glass Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Eventually your creation is snapped away from the remaining unshaped glass and the blowing tube, a tense moment for the novice, worried that the entire project may shatter. Somehow it remains intact.

A bowl crafted at Tsuboya and a glass made at Onna Glass Workshop Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Blown glass has to be cooled properly and cured in a separate oven, all taking time. You can return the next day to pick up your creation, or arrange to have it shipped to you for an additional charge.

The Onna Glass Workshop also has an extensive showroom of glass art, ranging from tiny glass beads to massive glass panels. One could spend hours just looking around here!

Address: 85 Fuchaku, Onna-son, Kunigami-gun, Okinawa 904-0413

Phone: 098-965-3090

Hours: 8:00-22:00 (daily)

Website: http://www.onna-glass-okinawa.co.jp/english/exp.html

Pottery Making

Naha's Tsuboya district has a long history as a pottery village, with potters and kilns being centered here in the 1680s to support the construction and outfitting of Shuri castle, including producing dishes and other pottery for the royal family of the time. After the destruction of World War II, this Naha district was one of the first to be rebuilt, with potters returning and kilns being restored to help Okinawa's economy recover.

Climbing kiln in Tsuboya Photo: VICKI L BEYER

While some of Tsuboya's climbing (hillside) kilns still exist, they no longer operate, as the smoke they created was too disturbing in the now-crowded neighborhood. But there are still a number of pottery studios in the area, including Tsuboya Pottery Yachimun Dojo, where visitors can have the experience of throwing a pot on a wheel.

A pot takes shape in Tsuboya. Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Under the watchful eye of an instructor, you don an apron and sit at the wheel, a lump of clay already spinning in front of you. After dipping your hands in water, you place your wet hands on the spinning lump of clay and it quickly begins to take on shape. Stick your thumb on top and it easily moves downward, hollowing the lump into a vessel. Run your hands along the outside to shape the vessel into a vase, or a pot, or a bowl. Keep wetting your hands and touching the spinning clay until it takes on the shape you like.

You can just have this experience of shaping the pot and walk away. Or, for an additional fee, the staff will glaze and fire your pot and ship it to you when it's finished. There are a number of glaze designs you can choose from and they even ship internationally.

Address: 1-22-33, Tsuboya, Naha-shi, Okinawa

Phone: 098-866-1635

Hours: 9:30-18:30 (daily; closed on New Year's Day)

Website: https://www.ikutouen.com/english/

Shurei Hall, a traditional karate dojo on the site of the Okinawa Karate Kaikan Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Karate Lessons

Nothing says Okinawa like karate, the traditional martial art that Okinawa claims as its own. Karate literally means "empty hand" and it is a martial art involving stylized movements that require no weapons. Developed over the centuries of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879) and drawing from other Asian martial arts traditions as well (perhaps a demonstration of Okinawa's role as a central trading location for Asia and the Pacific Rim), it could be said to be more defensive than offensive. Although it has a long and proud history, it is really only since the mid-20th century that karate has gone international, now being taught/practiced in 192 countries around the globe.

The Okinawa Karate Kaikan, a beautiful hilltop facility in gleaming white stone echoing traditional Okinawan castles, houses a museum tracing the history and current state of the art. It is also a learning and testing center. If you've never tried it, it's possible to arrange for an introductory lesson, although this is usually only done for groups. There are changing rooms and a stiffly-starched white karate "gi" (complete with white belt, of course) is lent to you for purposes of the lesson. If you've already been practicing karate for some period, you can have your proficiency level tested and confirmed, as well.

Group karate lesson with black belt children as teachers. Photo: TAKUYA MACHIDA

In Okinawa karate was taught as a school subject during the first half of the 20th century and even today most school children receive karate instruction for a number of years. When I tried an introductory lesson with a half dozen others, our instructor was "assisted" by a number of his students, children ranging in age from 10 to 17 who had been practicing karate since around the age of 4 or 5. They were all black belts. My particular "partner" was 11 year old Kazu, who started karate when she was 5. While she never spoke a word to me during the lesson, if I didn't place my hands or feet just right she would give me a solemn look, shake her head in a vehement "no", and then demonstrate the correct position two or three times. If I still got it wrong, she would demonstrate again. She was half my size, but I suspect she could have quickly overpowered me if she wanted to! Rather than find out, I did my best to obey her silent instructions.

Address: 854-1 Tomigusuku, Tomigusuku City, Okinawa 901-0241

Phone: 098-851-1088

Hours: 9:00-17:00 (Closed on Wednesdays, and December 30th through January 3rd)

Website: http://karatekaikan.jp/en/

Whether your visit is long enough to enable you to try all three of these activities, or whether you have to just choose one, you will have fun and see and experience something completely different. What are you waiting for?

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about traveling in and experiencing Japan. Find her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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