Okinawa New Year a Time of Tradition, Food and Sunrises
26 December 2016
New year in Okinawa and the surrounding islands is no less important than it is for mainland Japan. Stretching from December 28th to January 3rd, it is Japan’s longest holiday and is generally seen as a time to be spent with family. In that respect Okinawa is no different. What sets Okinawa apart from the mainland, besides its mild sub-tropical climate, are the unique trappings of Okinawan culture that find their way into the various celebrations. Let’s take a look at some of these Okinawa New Year traditions to find out what makes them so special.


Okinawan New Year Food

Like their Japanese counterparts, Okinawa New Year traditions are elaborate and highly ritualized. The most important aspect of the New Year’s celebration, referred to as Oshogatsu in Japanese, is the traditional New Year’s food, known as osechi. Okinawans enjoy osechi in much the same way mainland Japanese do, preparing the food items days in advance and serving them ornately in lacquered boxes known as juubako.  Each dish has its own special meaning, brimming with cultural and historical import.


New Year Dishes for Health, Long Life and Prosperity

For example, kazunoko are tiny herring eggs which symbolize success and prosperity for your offspring. Kuromame, which signifies good health arising from hard work, is made from sweet, soft black beans with a slight flavor of soy sauce (known in Japan as shoyu). Tazukuri are tiny dried sardines cooked with rice wine (sake) and a variety of seasonings, served in anticipation of a bountiful catch and a rich harvest. Konbumaki is basically a sushi roll stuffed with salmon or chicken signifying general good luck in the year to come and ebi, or shrimp, is eaten symbolically to promote long life, since the whiskers of the shrimp are reminiscent of an old man’s beard.

One of the most important components of New Year’s fare is toshikoshi, a dish of long noodles eaten to signify a long, healthy life in the coming year. In the mainland, any type of soba noodles will suffice, but Okinawans have a preference for their local version, Okinawa soba, served in a rich broth with soki (boiled pork rib) or san-mai niku (pork bellies cut so as to form three layers).  In addition to their twist on toshikoshi, Okinawans also serve nakamijiru, a tasty Okinawan-style soup made with sliced pig intestines that is far more delectable than it sounds.  Other Okinawan components of the feast include inamuruchi (diced pork in a white miso soup), rafute (soft pork belly similar to san-mai niku but sliced more thickly) and kubuirichi, which is stir-fried seaweed cooked, not surprisingly, with pork bellies.


The New Year in Okinawa Goes by the Lunar Calendar

Besides the food, one main difference between mainland Japan and Okinawa New Year is found in the date of the celebration itself. In traditional Okinawan culture, the New Year, which they call Toushinuyuru, is celebrated according to the Chinese lunar calendar, which puts the date somewhere between January 21st to February 20th.

Celebrating Miruku

During the Lunar New Year, Ryukyu Mura holds a fun-filled event celebrating the Okinawan god Miruku, who, as the legend goes, travels over the ocean with the rising sun and brings blessings to the people for the year to come. A representation of Miruku is floated at the head of a parade of eisa drummers who pound their taiko drums to the accompaniment of sanshin players and kimono-clad dancers, who shout out in traditional rhythms.

Shuri Castle Ceremony

Ryukyu Mura is not the only place where a traveller can get a taste of the New Year in Okinawa.  If you’d like a taste of history, you can visit Shuri Castle on the morning of New Year’s Day (on the Julian calendar) to witness a reenactment of the kind of New Year’s religious ceremony common in the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom. If you’d prefer a more low-key event, you can visit Itomon, the southernmost city in Okinawa where, on lunar New Year’s Eve, rows of tents are often set up matsuri-style and revelers can buy all kinds of traditional treats. Just remember, Okinawa New Year’s events such as these are rarely advertised widely, so you won’t necessarily be able to find them easily. But fear not.  If you ask the locals, they’ll do their best to point you in the right direction.


Okinawa New Year Religious Rites

Across Japan, the coming of the New Year is deeply entwined with religious practices, whether Shinto, Buddhist or other faiths. During the New Year in Okinawa, the religious ceremonies are led by noro, or priestesses, chosen from volunteers among the local women. They light incense, lead processions and oversee various rituals at holy sites. One such site is a shrine atop a hill on Hamahiga Island, considered one of the most spiritually significant places in Okinawa.

Paying Tribute to the Creator Gods

At the base of the hill, prayers are written out and tied to the pine trees which stand near the large torii gate at the bottom of the steps. At the top of the hill, a shrine dedicated to Shirumichu, the male creator god, is the site of somber holy rituals. In Hamahiga’s fishing port, colorful flags are attached to the boats in hopes of safe journeys and rich hauls of fish. Visitors can also pay tribute to the gravesite of Amamichu, the female creator god, located on a tiny coral island connected to Hamahigajima by a short walking path.

Wakamiji, the First Water of the Okinawa New Year

One uniquely Okinawan twist to New Year, celebrated all over the island in different ways, is that of wakamiji, the first water drawn in the new year traditionally used to cleanse houses and people, is also used to make tea brewed for the ancestors. Wakamiji is thought to bring back strength and restore youth. Another difference between mainland culture and that of Okinawa is the use of garlic to ward away evil spirits. Exactly how the garlic is used seems to depend the region in which people celebrate. In Itoman, families chop the garlic and  deposit it in small piles to prevent epidemics. Around Nakagusuku, toward the centre of the main island, people take the garlic to shrines as an offering to the ancestors. In other regions, garlic roots are worn on the ears as part of a ritual cleansing when leaving the house.


Hatsumode and Hatsuhinode

Hatsumode, the first yearly visit to a shrine, is as popular a tradition during the Okinawa New Year as it is in the rest of Japan. On the main island, the most popular shrines to visit are Naminoue Jinja and Gokoku Jinja in Naha, as well as Futenma Jinja a bit further north (be careful of this one, because parking is limited). Travelers to the outer islands can visit shrines like this historic Miyako Jinga on Miyakojima.  At all of the shrines, visitors can purchase omikuji, little papers printed with fortunes for the new year, which are drawn at random, read, then tied to pine trees or specialized racks set up just for the purpose. 

Celebrants who manage to beat the crowds and get to the shrine before sunrise often head for the east coast to view Hatsuhinode, which means “first sunrise.” Nanjo city in the south is a popular place for hatsuhinode, since it is near Okinawa’s holiest religious site, Seifa-Utaki. Other popular spots are Cape Chinen Park, an outcropping of rock surrounded by cliffs and ocean on three sides overlooking Kudakajima, an island of historical and spiritual significance off Okinawa’s east coast. For travelers willing to take the long trip north and hike through rugged terrain, Daisekirinzan mountain is an excellent place to watch the sunrise. Known to the locals as Ashimui, it is immortalized in Ryukyu legend as the place where the gods first descended to Okinawa. Considered one of the first sites on the island to be declared sacred by Okinawans centuries before the Ryukyu Kingdom, there are over 40 holy prayer spots and the sunrise can be viewed from atop a rugged limestone mountain. 

Especially if you happen to be staying on Miyakojima during the Okinawa New Year, you may want to try and catch the sunrise at Cape Higashi Henna Zaki, a gorgeous stretch of land jutting out into the sea that features a lighthouse, it’s history steeped in romance. The cape is ranked as one of Okinawa’s 13 most beautiful locales, so it is obviously well worth getting up early for.


The New Year in Okinawa Just the Beginning of a Beautiful Journey

As spectacular as the Okinawan New Year sunrise can be, it is merely the beginning of a full year of natural wonders. And unlike in the mainland, where spring is several long, cold months away, Okinawans are counting the days until cherry blossom season gets under way and the hillsides erupt in a breathtaking explosion of pink.  But be advised, Okinawa’s subtropical winter charms are no secret, so travelers looking for an escape from the icy climes of the north should book their tickets early.


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