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Building a traditional Okinawan sabani (small fishing boat)
post : 2017.02.06 08:00
On a clear day at the end of 2016, I visited a small sabani factory near the office of the Itoman Fishermen boat facility located in Itoman City on the southeast side of Okinawa Island.
Sabani are Okinawan traditional wooden boats. I had a chance to meet two boat makers, Kiyoshi Oshiro and Kazuaki Takara. Nowadays, very few people can make these traditional craft. The two were at work making boats for the 18th Sabani Boat Race that will be held on July 1 and 2, 2017. I was lucky to be able to see the process.
“Sabani keep the souls left by our old uminchu (fishermen),” said Oshiro. Eight meter-long wood planks took almost all of the space in their workshop. The cedar from Miyazaki prefecture (obisugi) they use is 70-80 years old and must be dried for half-a-year before they can begin making boats with it. I had heard that there is no blue print to make sabani and so I asked Oshiro about that. “I never draft any designs with pens, but I have everything in my brain so I could if I ever need to,” he said confidently. “Accuracy is must for the whole building process.” He should be confident: he is a master builder with 50 years of experiences.
“We will do the initial process for today,” said Oshiro. “The first step is called teendashi.” Oshiro explained that 'teen' means hands in the Okinawan dialect and 'dashi' means 'touch' or 'start.' “Teendashi is our prayer for safety and success,” he said. As they prayed, I felt that the facility felt more like a temple a sabani factory. It's interesting that when a boat is completed, they actually say that the boat is “born” rather than simply finished. Some fishermen used say things such as “I love my sabani more than my wife” or insist that their sabani had a life of its own. Perhaps they believed in a spirit of the wood. Sabani have always been inextricably linked to uminchu—journeying as they do through life together. I kind of understand why they like to say their sturdy companions are “born.”
A tree trunk is used for the bow and positioned toward the east—the direction of the sunrise and new life—which is full of power. Oshiro and Takara arranged adzes, chisels, planes, hammers and other tools on the precious wood. Rice, salt, awamori (Okinawan sake) and fruits were placed in the center. Once everything is set for the small ceremony, they got down on their knees facing east and prayed quietly.
After praying, they chose an adze and tapped the head of wood board three times. The sound must work something like a starting whistle. Oshiro and Takara then began their work.
They sprinkled some rice, salt and awamori little by little on the edge of the wood that would be the boat's head, or bow.
I heard the comforting noises of rice grains dancing on the wood. The salt is used to exorcise bad spirits.
They sprinkled rice and salt as they walked once more around the board, then sat down toward east side and closed eyes as they prayed silently. I watched quietly as the whole sacred process took place in the small workshop. It seemed that regardless of the setting or the number of people, sincere prayers would surely reach God.
The 50-minute ceremony took place in a period between low tide and high tide. In the old days, this was also the time for engagement ceremonies because happiness traditionally comes with high tide. As Okinawa is surrounded by the ocean, people are serious about the power of the sea.
The word “teendashi (described earlier)” is similar to the word “teendati” with the “teen” in the latter word meaning adze and “dati” meaning “to raise.” It's interesting that they are actually “raising the adze” when they perform the ritual of tapping the wood three times with it. The two words are so similar-sounding but even though they are used differently both relate to ceremonies. Even Oshiro inadvertently confuses the two words occasionally.
I believe words are living things that whose usage depends on the people expressing them, where they are from and from what generation they belong.
To be continued…
Okinawa CLIP photo writer: Mika Azumi