Explore Okinawan History and Pottery Traditions
Dive into Okinawan history with a visit to an ancient castle site, and explore a yachimun pottery village
Located on the east coast of the south-central part of Okinawa’s main island, Nakagusukuwan Port offers an ideal base to explore some of the most fascinating and authentic spots of the island, especially if arriving on a cruise ship. Enjoy breathtaking views from the top of timeless ruins and discover how ancient traditions are being kept alive by skilled artisans.
Set on a small hill overlooking Yomitan Village, the Zakimi Castle Site (about 35 minutes from the port by taxi) is a place shrouded in romance and history. The Zakimi Castle Site is best known for its curving stone walls and arched gates which make it one of the most beautiful Okinawan castles, or gusuku, in Okinawa. The castle was built in the 15th century by the famous Ryukyu general Aji, and the ruins have been registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Walk around the grounds to get a feel for what it would have been like to live in a mighty fortress, and admire the walls for their sophisticated masonry. From viewpoints along the walls, visitors can look out across the ruins and out to sea.
If you are keen to learn more about the history of the Zakimi Castle Site, visit the Yuntanza Museum near the entrance of the site. The museum houses more than 60,000 items, including historical documents, works of art, real artifacts, models, and photographs. On the first floor, you will find information about the castle, as well as exhibits related to the natural and cultural heritage of Yomitan Village. The second floor offers the opportunity to gain deeper insight into the history, nature, and folklore of Okinawa, and the facts of the Battle of Okinawa (1945). Here you can also see dioramas recreating a natural cave (gama) used as an air-raid shelter, and a traditional Okinawan turtleback tomb.
Traveling means more than just sightseeing: it is also to experience the culture and tradition of the place you are visiting. Characterized by thick shapes and powerful decorations, yachimun, which means “pottery” in Okinawan, is a traditional craft that embodies the spirit and soul of Okinawa. Earthenware in Okinawa has a history stretching over 6,600 years. The unique yachimun style was influenced through exchange with Japan and other Asian countries, and evolved over the centuries. Today, yachimun is a popular pottery style appreciated by both tourists and locals alike.
Yachimun no Sato (around 10 minutes from the Zakimi Castle Site by taxi), in Yomitan, is a picturesque little village that contains pottery workshops, kilns, and ceramic shops. There are kilns in the traditional noborigama (literally “climbing kiln”) style, the best known of which is the communal kiln located in the middle of the village and shared by many artisans. Watch the artists at work in one of the numerous ateliers, browse the retail shops and bring home an authentic piece of Okinawan craft.
If you still want to enjoy the charms of Okinawan pottery, but your stomach is growling, then head to Pottery & Cafe Gunjo, around five minutes from Yachimun no Sato by taxi. The cafe offers delicious pizzas served on authentic yachimun plates. The place is family run, by a father-son duo. The son is the chef, and the father operates the adjacent Toshingama kiln. All the food is served on pottery made at the kiln, to add a touch of color to your meal and allow you to appreciate the texture of the crockery. Baked in a stone oven in the shape of a shisa guardian lion, the pizza is crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. Be sure to eat it while it is still hot! After you have enjoyed your lunch, take some time to visit the shop, which sells pieces from the Toshingama kiln. From plates and cups for everyday use to shisa guardian lions, the Toshingama kiln carries on the yachimun tradition with a distinctive, modern touch.
After a day full of emotions and inspiring moments, there’s nothing better than a good coffee to relax and unwind. Mame Pole Pole (around 30 minutes from Yachimun no Sato by taxi) serves award-winning coffee. The second-best coffee roaster at the World Coffee Roasting Championships 2018, the locally born owner offers freshly roasted coffee beans and ground coffee in a wide range of expertly crafted blends. One of the shop’s bestsellers is the Gajumaru Blend, inspired by the typical Okinawan banyan tree, characterized by its dark flavor and pleasing aroma. Order the blend that piques your curiosity or let the owner choose for you. If you have more of a sweet tooth, try the shop’s original cafe au lait with brown sugar from Tarama Island. Its uniquely Okinawan taste will be a perfect way to wrap up your day before heading back to the port. The return journey to Nakagusukuwan Port takes around 15 minutes by taxi.
Last updated 2021/12/20
Text by Silvia Telloni
Based in Tokyo with Okinawa in her heart, Silvia Telloni translates and writes in Italian, English and Japanese.