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Itoman Uminchu Kobo (Arts & Crafts Center): A Lively Museum Sharing the History and Culture of the Itoman Uminchu (Fishermen)
post : 2019.07.24 23:00
Approximately 20 minutes south from Naha Airport by car on Bypass Route 331 is Itoman City, an area known for its long-established fisheries industry and the people at the center of it, the Uminchu, literally meaning “people of the seas”. In this city, you’ll find a very unique museum called Uminchu Arts & Crafts Center, dedicated to the local Uminchu fishermen. The history of Itoman and its Uminchu can be traced back to the period when Okinawa was once the independent Kingdom of the Ryukyus, a time when the Royal Shuri Government encouraged the growth of agriculture across the islands. Itoman area was the exception of this policy and fisheries were granted. This museum plays an important role in the preservation of the history and culture of the Itoman Uminchu, and to pass this on to the future generations.
Displayed within the museum are various tools that were actually used by the Itoman Uminchu, including the traditional Sabani, a small wooden boat with a mast, the Mikagan (pronounced mee-ka-gan) underwater goggles which is the original model of the goggles used in competitive swimming today, as well as the Yutui (pronounced yoo-tu-ee), a tool that was used to scoop out the seawater collected on the boat.
Mr. Ken Uehara, the chairman of the incorporated nonprofit organization, Hamasuuki,that operates the museum says the visitors to the museum are not just ocean lovers, but also researchers, scholars, writers and various others from different fields. “We see many people g here at the museum, and many are very interested in the Mikagan goggles.”
The Mikagan were invented at a time when the word “goggle” didn’t exist yet, and when all the Uminchu engaged in diving and fishing without any protection for their eyes. This caused eye troubles for many, including loss of vision. A local Itoman Uminchu by the name of Yasutaro Tamagusuku, who was known as “Edison of Itoman”, invented the Mikagan goggles in 1884. The original Mikagan were made with a plant called monpanoki (called hamasuuki in the Okinawan language) and sometimes called velvetleaf soldierbush in English. With the invention of the Mikagan, the range of fishing by the local Uminchu greatly expanded and saw significant increase in the amount of catch. We can say without exaggerating that the Mikagan completely changed the fishing industry supported by the local Uminchu. At the enthronement ceremony of the Showa Emperor in 1928, Yasutaro the inventor was presented with the Dairei Commemorative Medal for his contribution to the fisheries industry. The Mikagan was an important and significant invention for not just the Uminchu of Itoman, but for a great number of people at that time in history.
Following the Mikagan, visitors to the museum are interested in the Sabani. The Itoman Uminchu were experts at catching sharks, too, and the Sabani is derived from the words Saba (meaning shark in the local language) and Nni which means boat. From its name, we can see that the offshore fishing of sharks, squids, sea cucumbers and others were abundant at that time, as these were goods that were traded with China the Ryukyu Kingdom period.
Today, the number of Uminchu that set out sea on the wooden, masted Sabani that is on display here at the museum, is likely zero. However, more and more people are embracing the Sabani as a marine sport. The movement to preserve and hand down the traditional marine culture of Sabani in Okinawa, and for the promotion and expansion of the Sabani is growing. There are Sabani races held at the Minami Hama Park in Shiozaki, Itoman, and also the Sabani race that starts from Zamami Island to offshore Naha Port and they have become popular events with participating teams gathering here from not just in Okinawa, but also from outside of the prefecture. The numerous Sabani floating on the blues seas of Okinawa is a sight to behold. If you get a chance, don’t miss the opportunity to see this for yourself.
The Yutui and Ueku are the next exhibits that catch the interest of the visitors. Yutui got its name from Yu (hot water) Tui (collect), as the seawater that collects on the bottom of the Sabani boats become very warm under the hot Okinawa sun. Yutui used today are made with plastic cleanser bottles that have been cut and shaped to do the job, but in the old days, Yutui was made from the trunk of Ryukyu pine tree and shaped to fit the curved bottom of the Sabani.
Ueku or the paddles are still used today and can be seen in action at Harii (or Hare) dragon boat races that are held throughout Okinawa. The Yutui on display at the museum, on the other hand, are now rare tools that were once used out at sea. They functioned not only as a tool to rid the boat bottom of seawater, but also as a cutting board and dish for the fishermen’s meals. One of Japan’s greatest thinkers and who is known as the godfather of the folk music movement, Muneyoshi Yanagi, once spoke of the Yutui and said “There is no other wooden craft as ingenious as the Yutui.”
Today, the only person remaining in Itoman who can make the Mikagan and Yutui is Ken-san. His knowledge of each and every tool used by the Uminchu and the history behind them is incredible, and his episodes of the Mikagan, Sabani, Yutui, Ueku, the food, shells, and fishing were so detailed and interesting that I could write an article for each of them.
Ken-san and his stories were enough for me to want to come back to the museum over and over again. The Itoman Uminchu Kobo Arts and Crafts Center was not just a museum, I felt, but truly a living museum. All the numerous and interesting tools created through the wisdom of the Uminchu and displayed there were definitely wonderful to learn about, but I was most intrigued by the man who runs the museum, the very unique and charming Ken Uehara. When visiting, give them a call and see if he’ll be there.
From the stories and historical episodes that Ken-san shared with me, I want to share with the reader on the Itoman style of saluting. In Okinawa, you’ll hear people saying “Kari!” when saying “cheers,” but in the city of Uminchu, it’s a little different. In the local Itoman language, a big catch is expressed as “Kobangira”, and so when you’re in Itoman and hear the locals exclaim, “Kobangira Nigayabira (let’s hope for a big catch)!” raise your glass and join in the salute. Give it a try tonight when you’re enjoying some Awamori!
Itoman Uminchu Kobo (Arts & Crafts Center)
Address: 1-4-11 Nishizaki, Itoman City, Okinawa, Within Itoman Umi-no Furusato Park (South Side)
Hours: 9:00 to 12:00 (entry up to 11:30) & 14:00 to 17:00 (entry up to 16:30)
Closed: Mondays (open if Monday falls on a holiday), also closed for special events including Itoman Hare (Dragon Boat Festival), Lunar Obon & New Year’s
*Please note they may be closed for other occasions when we are hosting events, etc.
Admission: 300 Yen / Adult, 100 Yen / Elementary, Jr. & High School Student
Okinawa CLIP photo writer, Mika Asaka