My wife turned and looked at me smiling with tears in her eyes. “I feel like I am a part of something ancient right now.” That’s all the confirmation that I needed to know that she finally felt that uprooting our life in Mississippi and leaving everything we’ve ever known to come live amongst the Japanese was all worth it. Just the cultural experience alone was worth the trauma of relocation/immigration.
We were at the annual Yomitan Festival. Yomitan is a village on the island of Okinawa that prides itself on keeping its rich Ryukyu Heritage alive and preserved even though Okinawa has been infused with American culture since the 1940s due to the Battle of Okinawa invasion and then subsequent American occupation.
I like to refer to Yomitan as the Kyoto of Okinawa. For reference, when you think of the picturesque images of Japan with the wooden Pagoda-style castles and homes with paper sliding doors and zen gardens, you are thinking of the city of Kyoto, which is the cultural capital of Japan. Yomitan could be considered the cultural capital of Okinawa. Only in Yomitan can you find replicas of entire Ryukyu-style villages styled in the late 1300s era architecture. These theme parks act as a time ambassador to days long ago.
The annual Yomitan Festival is the largest festival that spends the weekend pooling all the talented Eisa drummers, lion dancers, and sanshin players to put together a massive cultural and traditional performance. Not to mention the exciting sideshows of martial arts demonstrations…by the way, Karate was invented in Okinawa. Cortney’s favorite cultural tie was the bonsai competition. Dozens of horticulturists bring their prized bonsai together for competition and they are all arranged in an immersive walkthrough garden.
The smells from this festival of the food cooking destroyed any inhibitions of a diet one might have had before walking onto the festival grounds. The flavors matched the smells. When I think back on the festival’s food, I chuckle because, in the memory of my mind’s eye, I see myself floating through the air being dragged by my nostrils like Wylie Coyote until I arrive in front of a Yakisoba stand. Yakisoba is a fried noodle dish that packs so much punch of flavor in each bite. Thank God the Japanese typically have smaller portions than America. I could have hurt myself with this dish.
After a long day of revelry, we were finally treated to a grand finale performance. The grand finale of the festival is a reenactment of the arrival of the massive Shinkosen replica, which is a type of ship that sailed from Okinawa to China (calm down…pre-communist China) in order to pay tribute to the emperor in the 1300s. It is said that this was a historically significant journey that established lasting trade lines for the Ryukyu Kingdom for centuries. It brought peace and prosperity to the island for quite some time.
There are many cultural events and sights that we have seen since moving to Japan. Some are cool but only warrant one visit. The Yomitan Festival is one such experience that is worth seeing every year that I choose to live here.
Going to and enjoying this festival is very “on brand” for our family. My coworkers, friends, and family back in Mississippi always refer to us Lamars as the “Festival Family.”
We love going to a festival, farmer’s market, or whatever, whether it is in our town or hours away. Some of my best memories of festivals and activities in and around the Mississippi Gulf Coast are blueberry or muscadine picking in Saucier or Vancleave. We love the Richton Pecan Festival. The MS Gulf Coast Crawfish Festival. The D’Iberville BBQ Throwdown and Biloxi Grillin’ on the Green are also contenders. I guess we can count the numerous Mardi Gras festivities as well as the Biloxi Lighthouse Lighting at Christmas as well.
As I said, we traveled a lot for festivals too. I got hired by a magazine to travel to the Belzoni Catfish Festival one year and our family will never forget the experience. Each year, we traveled to the Elberta, Alabama Sausage Festival. It is a huge fundraiser for the fire department. A friend has a condo near there and would let us stay for free. We would stay the night in Orange Beach and then go to the festival. I was there for the German music, beer, and sausages. I think Cortney would go to see all the firemen preparing the sausages…I think there also might be a PG-13 joke in there somewhere.
What I have found is universal in many places around the world. There is a sense of pride and community, and these boil over into festivals and observances in many ways. No matter where you are in the world, it is my advice that if you truly want to get to know a culture. Celebrate it with them. Odds are, you will fill your belly, laugh, sing, and smile your butt off while creating core memories to carry with you for the rest of your life…or at least until senility consumes you.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of SuperTalk Mississippi Media.