Photos by Shoji Kudaka
Photos by Shoji Kudaka

Yomitan Village Part II: More to do, more to see

by Shoji Kudaka
Stripes Okinawa

Known for its historical sites, incomparable ocean views and unique pottery style, Yomitan Village on the west side of the Yomitan island is chock full of places to visit. The village is easily accessible to Torii Station and Kadena.

 

A look into the Craftsmen’s Commune – Yachimun no Sato  

For a taste of old Okinawa, Yomitan Village’s Yachimun no Sato is one of the best on the island.

The quaint, old-style buildings of this area serve as pottery studios where skilled artisans make the village’s signature traditional craft: “Yachimun,” pottery in Okinawan dialect.

Yachimun no Sato, which means “Home of Yachimun,” is at the epicenter of this craft. According to Yomitan Village’s tourism association, there are 19 studios in the area.

To get to the home of pottery, it is around a 30-minute drive from Camp Foster. Here you can watch artisans at work, but access to the studios is usually restricted unless you book ahead for a tour.

Though Yachimun no Sato is, first and foremost, a production site, the pottery is gaining popularity making it a popular tourist spot in recent years.

The nostalgia of the area draws visitors and the vintage kilns, or “noborigama,” still in use contribute to that nostalgia as well.

This type of kiln remains somewhat common around Japan and is typically installed on a slope with several chambers lined up in a way that makes them look like giant stairs. “Yuntanzan-gama” and “Kita-gama,” are two of Yachimun no Sato’s most famous kilns.

Visitors wanting to purchase pottery pieces can head to several shops adjacent to the studios where they can peruse the handmade cups and plates to shisa dogs which are displayed on shelves.

Today, Yomitan Village is widely recognized as a hot spot for Yachimun pottery, which has a lot to do with Yachimun no Sato. But, this was not always the case.

According to the Yomitan Village Office, an old style of pottery, “Kinayaki,” was once produced in Yomitan around the 1670s. In 1682, the Ryuku Kingdom moved all the kilns to Tsuboya, now a part of Naha City, halting the production of Kinayaki. “Tsuboya Yachimun Dori” in Naha City, is recognized as another tourist spot for the preservation of the kingdom’s history of pottery making.

The kilns didn’t return to Yomitan for another three centuries. In 1980, the opening of the Yuntanza-gama kiln marked this triumphant return which then led to formation of Yachimun no Sato around the kiln.

Four decades since its beginning, Yachimun no Sato continues to be the mecca of Okinawan pottery. A stroll through the quiet streets, lined with old-fashioned houses and watching the area craftsmen work, is a great way to get know a part of Yomitan Village history that endures to this day much like the pottery being created here.

Yachimun no Sato 

GPS Coordinates: 26°24’29.4”N 127°45’14.3”E 
* Free parking 
* Every year in December, a bazaar is held at the location where pottery is on sale for discounted prices. 

 

Zakimi Castle Ruins History and beauty flow on a hill

Back in its heyday, Zakimi Castle in Okinawa was a stronghold for the Chuzan Kingdom in its defense from the north. Today, the ruins of the castle maintain this stronghold, but now it’s over the dozens of tourists that visit for the stunning views every year.

It is because of its great vantage point up on a 120-meter-high hill that the castle was used during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, as a Japanese military anti-aircraft artillery position and, later, a U.S. Forces radar location until it reverted to the local village in the 1970s.

The castle was first constructed in the 15th century during the time of three kingdoms, Hokuzan (North), Chuzan (Central), and Nanzan (South). The Central kingdom used this place as its fortress against the north. Today, only the walls and foundation of the castle, which were restored after World War II, remain.

At around 1.82 acres wide, Zakimi is smaller in comparison to other castles like Nakagusuku or Shuri.  What it lacks in size, however, Zakimi makes up for in fame. It boasts a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation since November 2000 and in 2017, it was picked as one of the Top 100 castles by the Japan Castle Foundation.

The castle, which is composed of two plazas and curving stonewalls, is thought to have a military functionality-oriented design, which makes sense given its history. Unlike other castles in Okinawa, Zakimi castle doesn’t have a place of worship.

The castle has a subdued beauty which is hard to find at other locations in Okinawa. And its views of the coastline in the west, forests and sugar cane fields around the area, and Naha or even Kerama, Kume and Ie islands, are incomparable.

The photogenic castle often hosts entertainment and other events as a “natural theater” location, according to the Yomitan Village Tourism Association.

When I visited, a Taiwanese couple was taking wedding photographs with this historic castle and its picturesque vistas as the perfect backdrop. The area quickly filled up with curious tourists eager to catch a glimpse of what was happening.

Only a 10-minute drive from Torii Station or a 30-minute drive from Camp Foster, visit Zakimi Castle for its history but stay for the stunning views which will enchant you.

Zakimi Castle Ruins 

GPS Coordinates: 26°24’31.4”N 127°44’31.2”E
* Free Admission
* Free Parking available 
* Yuntanza Museum near the entrance of the site offers more information about the castle, artifacts and art related to Yomitan Village history are also on display here. Admission: 200 yen for high school students and above; 160 yen for 65 years or older; free for middle school students and below.

 

Two caves offer distinct looks into island’s history

A short drive from Murasaki Mura are two caves with historical significance: Chibichiri Gama and Shimuku Gama.

These caves were used during World War II and now provide a glimpse into what happened in the early days of the Battle of Okinawa.

On April 1, 1945, as the U.S. military arrived on Yomitan Village’s coast and the initial battle took place, the village saw a total of 740 casualties in that month alone, according to a report by the Okinawa Times.

Chibichiri Gama is a cave with a sad history. As American forces approached, 140 villagers evacuated to the cave, and of those, 83 died as a result of a mass suicide, according to Yomitan Village’s Tourism Association. Because they believed Americans were “kichiku” (Japanese for evil), they decided this was the only alternative to surrendering.

After the war, a stone monument was erected to pay tribute to the deceased. The public can visit, but only the outer part of the cave as entry is prohibited.

The other cave, Shimuku Gama, also has a history, but one in which the fate of the villagers who sought shelter in this cave was quite different.

According to an article by Okinawa Times, about 1,000 villagers took shelter in the cave like those in Chibichiri Gama. However, two Okinawans who had spent time in Hawaii, alerted the locals in the cave that “Americans don’t kill people,” thus encouraging them to surrender.

Visitors can enter Shimuku Gama but make sure to wear athletic shoes and exercise caution.

The difference between life and death marks these two similar caves as worlds apart and 74 years later, continue to serve as a reminder of a tragic time in our shared histories.

Things to know

- Chibichiri Gama 
GPS Coordinates: N 26.405367, E 127.724061
- Shimuku Gama
GPS Coordinates: N 26.402432, E 127.731280

* Chibibichiri Gama has a parking space nearby. 
* The inner part of Chibichiri Gama is off-limits.
* Shimuku Gama is near a local residential area. No parking space is available. 
* Both caves have streams and when it rains, the water level can rise. Inside Shimuku Gama, it is advised to wear sports shoes and carry a flash light and gloves. 

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