Returning to posting about my adventures in Okinawa this summer: After our half-day tour to Mabuni and Shuri, the East-West Center conference also included a one-day bus tour trip to Ryukyumura and the Ocean Expo Park.
I struggle for what to call Ryukyumura (“Ryukyu Village”). Many sites call it a “theme park,” and to be sure, it has all sorts of theme park style elements. You can get your picture taken in a variety of traditional Ryukyuan royal or aristocratic court costumes, try your hand at making pottery shisa, meet a water buffalo, and watch regular dance performances in the park’s main plaza that are not entirely different from what one sees at Disney. It’s traditional eisa costume, and standard classic or folk music and dances, so they absolutely are displaying “authentic” classical and folk culture, but they also have park staff dressed up as the king and queen… which is certainly neat for getting a sense of what the king and queen might have worn, and, actually, a sense that much of Okinawan classical and folk music and dances known today evolve to one extent or another out of entertainments specifically restricted to the royal court, but still one cannot avoid the theme park vibe, at least to some extent.
But, even so, in some very important senses, it’s really more of an open-air architectural museum, or historical museum park. Many of the buildings in the park are genuine historic buildings, re-moved to the park. So, you’re looking at genuine homes from various different islands or parts of the islands, and from different social classes. And many of them have displays demonstrating various aspects of traditional/historical folk culture, from sanshin music and textile weaving, to goat products and traditional sugar-cane processing using water buffalo labor.
I was actually particularly interested to see all these great historical buildings. While I love that Naha has a considerable degree of the aesthetic, with many buildings having either genuine red clay pottery roof tiles, or emulations of it in other materials, so much of the island was razed in 1945, that I can’t imagine any authentically historical buildings survive within the city, and very few if any have been reconstructed other than at the castle site. So, since I have yet to go to the Nakamura house in Nakagusuku, or to any of the other islands, and since there certainly aren’t any courses or books on Okinawan architecture that I’ve come across in English (with the exception of the gorgeous, thorough, but terribly expensive multi-volume bilingual Okinawa bijutsu zenshû – Okinawan art complete collection), it was really great to get a sort of crash course on Okinawan architecture, and so first-hand, in person.
Many of the homes are registered tangible cultural properties – just one level or so down from Important Cultural Properties, making them, really, in a way, elements of an Okinawan architecture canon. These are the famous buildings people might typically cite as the key surviving examples of historical/traditional Okinawan architecture. The park includes storehouses, a stone pigsty, and, alongside a number of other middling-elite style homes, the Ôshiro house, which was originally built as the home of one of the most powerful scholar-bureaucrat-aristocrats in the kingdom – a member of the Sanshikan.
At Ocean Expo Park: The gate to the house of a jitôdai (O: jitudee), a middle-ranking court aristocrat assigned to the administration of a district within the kingdom. Unlike the jitô who they reported to, and who resided in the royal capital of Shuri, a jitôdai actually lived out in the district to which he was assigned; this house might therefore be the grandest house in the district, or at least the most Okinawan in style (as compared to the local architecture of that island).
To my surprise, the Ocean Expo Park, which we visited later in the day, and which I’ll talk about at a little more length in a separate post, has a wonderfully complementary collection of historical buildings. While Ryukyumura definitely wins for having genuinely historical buildings, since those at Expo Park are (I think?) just modern reproductions, Expo Park has the advantage of showing a much broader variety of types or styles of homes. Between the exhibits at Ryukyumura, the Prefectural Museum, and elsewhere, it can be very easy to think that these beautiful wooden homes, with tatami floors and red tile roofs, are the standard, typical, historical form going back centuries. But, looking at the buildings at Ocean Expo Park, we quickly get the impression that during the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom, all the way up until the 1870s or so, this style of home was restricted to only the elites, and that it was only after the fall of the kingdom that this style spread and became more widely common.
Instead, we are shown farmhouses from Okinawa Island, as well as from other more distant islands (such as Yonaguni), that not only have thatched roofs, but are built chiefly from bamboo, with thin twigs of bamboo tied up together to form walls and floors… it’s a very different look, and a very different feel, from those post-kingdom and elite homes. And, while I am of course hesitant to jump to conclusions about assuming that Ryukyuan anything should be indicative of Japanese history, one cannot help but wonder if there might have been similar differences in mainland Japan. What sorts of historical buildings have I actually seen in Japan? When I’ve seen farmhouses at open-air architecture museums, were these Meiji/post-Meiji farmhouses? Or genuinely what Edo period farmhouses would have looked like? Did farmhouses in Edo period Japan have wooden floors? Tatami? Or were they in one way or another as dramatically different from the samurai homes (and urbanite merchants’ machiya “townhouses”, geisha houses, and other things I’ve seen) as these bamboo thatched huts are from the more elite Ryukyuan homes?
Call it a theme park, or whatever you’d like, but this actually really gave me a lot to think about in terms of imagining what Ryukyuan architecture, and town/villagescapes would have looked like, in the early modern period.