Experiencing Traditional Culture on Okinawa’s Taketomi Island

Tin Nu breathing, Ishigaki pork, and shiisas on Taketomi Island
Experiencing Okinawa’s Taketomi Island
Epicure & Culture

The view of the pool at HOSHINOYA Resorts on Taketomi Island.

"We create a culture here based on traditions while coexisting with nature," explains Kyoko, the marketing representative for HOSHINOYA Resorts, which includes the property we’re currently touring, HOSHINOYA Okinawa. "The design of the property is based on the traditions and heritage of Taketomi Island."

Of the hundreds of islands in Okinawa, Taketomi is the only one to truly preserve the ancient traditions. The island is heritage listed, and as you walk through the village you’ll notice the buildings all look alike: red-tiled roofs, one-story homes, narrow coral and sand roads, and coral lined yards.

While the Japanese are often touted as a stressed people, the people of Taketomi Island are the complete opposite, relaxed and laid-back. With only 323 people on the island, everyone knows each other and works together. Goods are made by hand using local resources and services are provided with passion and a smile.

At HOSHINOYA Okinawa, this traditional culture is reflected not only through the design of the property, but also the services and amenities. The self-contained villas are actually luxury ryokans, featuring tatami mats, futon beds, zori sandals, shoji sliding wood doors with paper screens, and Yukata robes worn as leisure wear around the property.

When we get to my ryokan, I notice a menacing lion on the roof.

"That’s a shiisa," explains Kyoko. "You’ll find it on every house in the village and on our property. It protects you from bad fortune.”"

Apparently, some of these shiisas also hold objects that are good luck. After venturing around the property, I find a ball, a pinwheel and a ladder. The ball represents how when a person gets into their 70s they’re as well rounded as a ball, while the pinwheel signifies the child inside when a person gets into their 80s. Additionally, the ladder symbolizes the steps people take to reach their goals and their accomplishments in their 50s and 60s.

As I go to walk onto the yard of my villa, which has a partial standalone wall sitting in front of it, Kyoko stops me.

"You must enter to the left of the coral wall," she explains. "The right side is for gods only."

At the door, I’m instructed to take off my shoes and replace them with the slippers provided. I feel instantly at peace as I step inside, taking in the room’s light wood walls, naturally dim lighting, and traditional touches. An oversized stand-alone tub sits in the center of the room and I see two over-sized tea bags containing bath herbs. I know what I’ll be doing after dinner.

Dinner

The restaurant at HOSHINOYA Okinawa showcases an innovative type of cuisine brought to the island by the resort. Called Ryukyu Nouvelle, it makes use of French techniques, typical Okinawa foods, and local ingredients, including herbs and produce from their on-site garden.

As I walk into the upscale restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the in-ground pool and lush forest, I’m brought a hot towel and washi paper menu. The dishes are innovative, with traditional staples like Ishigaki beef and Okinawa potatoes, and I feel excited to sample true Taketomi culture.

The amuse-bushe for the night is a hearty piece of fresh marinated tuna from Yaeyama Island with green onion compote. The fish tastes like it was caught five minutes ago, while the onion gives the dish a bit of contrast. This is followed by a roasted Ise lobster from Taketomi, flavored with tropical spice as well as a protein-rich slice of juicy Ishigaki miya pork, served with an organic side salad.

By now I’m feeling satiated and happy, although the freshness of the food leaves me curious as to what other creative dishes the chef can come up with using only local ingredients. My question is answered as a steaming bowl of clam and winter melon is placed in front of me. The fruit adds a slight bitterness to the sweet and salty clams, making it a delicious dish of contrast.

More courses are brought out — butter-roasted Mibai Okinawan grouper dressed with coulis of Island spinach; oven-roasted Yanburu chicken topped with Tancan tangerine marmalade and Yaima miso paste served with Island potato and banana purée on the side; and seafood taco rice flavored with local vine-ripened tomatoes. I have never been much of a vegetable person, but when they’re fresh from the garden it’s amazing how they can enhance a meal.

My sweet tooth smiles once the desserts are brought. The Avant Dessert is a compote of tropical fruits, fragranced with sweet hibiscus, followed by a scrumptious Ishigaki Mango Tarte Tatin served with Jimami peanut ice cream. Knowing it’s sustainably prepared leads to me to believe I’m eating healthy, and I choose not to stray from this line of thinking as I finish every bit of ice cream and pie.

Say Ahhh...

After dinner, Kyoko and I head out by the pool for some Tin Nu Deep Breathing, or "Breathing of the Sky" exercises. It’s one of the many cultural activities offered by the resort, some others including morning Yonna Deep Breathing on the beach, a water buffalo cart ride, making cultural handicrafts, and traditional weaving. Tin Nu breathing is designed to relax the body before bedtime while releasing toxins from the body through controlled breathing. With a bit of light from the pool illuminating our yoga mats, we breathe in through our mouths for four counts then exhale for eight, expanding and contracting our bellies. We begin standing, then sit Indian-style and practice our breathing while rolling in a circular motion on our backsides. From there, we’re instructed to reach as high as we can for the moon to grab its power and bring it into our bodies. By the time we get to the lay-down position I’m so relaxed I think I may pass out.

The instructor, Tokiko, tells us an old story from Taketomi Island and the Yaeyama Archipelago of the Star Child, which Kyoko translates for me. Once upon a time there was a mother and father star, who had a baby star. While they told the God of Sky, who gave approval, they didn’t tell God of Ocean. God of Ocean became very angry, using a big snake to kill the baby star. The snake’s feces became fossils, which is why you find star-shaped sand on the beaches of Taketomi. Because the mother and father star were sad, God of Sky put baby star into the sky as a fossil, which is why you see stars in the sky. It’s also why once a year the servants of God on Taketomi Island put the star-shaped sand in an "aroma pot" and give the sand a prayer in an "On" or "Shrine of God."

Back in my room, I steep my tea bags for a soothing bath. Submerging my body in scents of locally sourced lemon grass, fennel, dill, and pineapple mint, I feel completely immersed in Taketomi culture. And with the island’s traditional weaving culture to locally sourced food to the pure pride these people have in their heritage, it’s a beautiful feeling to have.

— Jessica Festa, Epicure & Culture

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