Every semester IES Abroad Tokyo takes any program student that wants to go on a 4-day field trip. In the fall semester I believe they go to Kamakura; for spring semester, we all got to go to Okinawa.
Okinawa is an island in the Ryukyu archipelago that is off the southern coast of Japan; it’s about a 2½ hour flight from Tokyo. Okinawa is actually closer to Taiwan than it is to Japan and had close ties to China when it was the independent Ryukyu kingdom, which is why you can see a lot of Chinese influence there even today. It wasn’t until 1879 that the government in Japan decided to annex the entire Ryukyu archipelago. Okinawa is often compared to Hawaii because of the similar climates, beautiful beaches, and prominent US military presence.
What I really liked about our trip was that we didn’t just do touristy things like shop and tour castles. We also got to experience true Okinawan culture, which is distinct from Japanese culture. Some of the fun cultural activities we got to try included playing the sanshin and attempting to do the eisa dance.
The sanshin is a three-stringed Okinawan instrument that kind of reminded me of a banjo because of the long neck and round body, although the body of a sanshin is usually covered in snakeskin. To play it, you traditionally use what’s called a plectrum made out of a material such as the horn of a water buffalo. Not going to lie, the first time I saw it I definitely thought it was a whistle we were supposed to blow on as part of the song… You can see the pictures I posted as examples of what the sanshin and plectrum look like.
Playing the sanshin was a bit of a challenge, even for the few of us that could read music because you aren’t supposed to look down at the sanshin when you are playing (which was really difficult). Also, the music was all written in kanji so instead of music notes on the sheet there would be lines of kanji, each one representing a different finger position. Still, it was a lot of fun and we all managed to get through an entire song after only an hour of learning how to play.
We were also able to visit Meio University and watch some college students perform the traditional Okinawan eisa dance. It is performed by a group of 20-30 young men and/or women and involves chanting, singing, and playing the drums. There are large, medium, and small-sized drums and they all require a whole lot of energy to play. We didn’t time the performance but we’re pretty sure it lasted about 10-15 minutes, and I think they can go even longer than that. All of us IES students were also given the opportunity to learn part of the dance from the students but we only did it for a few minutes or so, which was actually nice because the drums are a lot heavier than they look.
During the trip we also got to visit a bunch of other places, including the American Village, Okinawa Churami Aquarium, Peace Memorial Museum, Manzamou cliff, and Ryukyu glass village. Overall it was a really fun trip and I wish we could have stayed longer than four days!
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<p>Mikaela is a junior at Indiana University majoring in International Studies and East Asian Languages & Cultures. Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, she has spent the past few years enjoying life as a Hoosier while dreaming of the day she finally got to go abroad. Traveling is one of her greatest passions and she looks forward to exploring not only Tokyo but as much of Japan as possible during her semester abroad. She is actively involved in both her sorority and International Studies Honor Society, and enjoys reading, hiking, and drinking tea in her free time. She is so excited for the adventure that lies ahead and can’t wait to share it with everyone!</p>