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Architecture Adventures at Ryukyumura & Ocean

Expo Park

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.

Despues de un tour de 12 horas en Mabuni y Shuri, el Centro de Conferencias Este-


Aun no me decido que llamar a Ryukyumura (Villa Ryukyu). Muchos sitios web lo
llaman un parque temtico y para estar seguro, tiene todo tipo de elementos tipo
parque temtico. Se pueden sacar fotografas en una variedad de vestimentas tpicas

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 parks main plaza that are not entirely different from
what one sees at Disney. Its 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, its 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, youre 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.

Rooftops of some of the structures in the park.

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 cant 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 arent any courses or books on
Okinawan architecture that Ive come across in English (with the exception of the
gorgeous, thorough, but terribly expensive multi-volume bilingual Okinawa bijutsu
zensh Okinawan art complete collection), it was really great to get a sort of crash
course on Okinawan architecture, and so first-hand, in person.
The shiro House at Ryukyumura, an example of a residence of one of the highest-ranking aristocrat families. Originally built in Shuri by
the Yonabaru family.

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 shiro house, which was originally built as the home of one of the
most powerful scholar-bureaucrat-aristocrats in the kingdom a member of the
Ocean Expo Park: The gate to the house of a jitdai (O: jitudee), a middle-ranking court aristocrat assigned to the administration of a district
within the kingdom. Unlike the jit who they reported to, and who resided in the royal capital of Shuri, a jitdai 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 Ill
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.
A typical farmhouse from the Motobu area, in northern Okinawa Island, at the Ocean Expo Park.

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 its 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 Ive 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 Ive seen) as these bamboo thatched huts
are from the more elite Ryukyuan homes?

Call it a theme park, or whatever youd 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.

Museo de Naha: