CONTRIBUTED BY CLAIRE BRAY-COLLINS
I’m a sucker for a good adventure. Heck! I’m a sucker for a good old fashioned tourist trap. I don’t mind the kitsch, the crowds or even a few re-enactors meandering about in old-timey garb offering peace-sign-poses for a gaggle of picture-snapping foreigners. My thought is: “Hey, if it’s new to me, it’s worth a peek. I can have fun anywhere”.
However, with my mother’s visit pending, and considering the many pictorials I’ve already emailed to her featuring this big place or that major attraction here on Okinawa, and with a good six months under my belt here in our new home I really began to yearn for a more unique, authentic, experience to share with my mom during her stay. Something more hands-on than a walk through the Yomitan Pottery Village (which was absolutely lovely, by the way), something a little more precious than a vial of salt made at Gala (also a good time—and a recommended outing for off-island visitors), and a touch more personal than painting ready-made Shisa’s at the Makishi Market (though reminiscent of “Color-me-mine”, there is a neat spot a few dozen meters down from the main entrance that would be a stellar activity for the 9-14 yr. old crowd—and great food just meters in any direction) and lastly, I wanted to show her something truly Okinawa. Something… Ryukyu…Traditional and unique. But what?
It so happened that a local friend of mine had recently introduced me to another Okinawan woman whose “meishi” (business card) I put in a safe place and—get this—actually remembered I had it. Hiromi-san is the current proprietor of an amazing traditional Bingata house near Shuri castle: Shuri-Ryusen.
From what I understand, Hiromi-san’s grandfather opened the shop in a building—it’s current location– that used to be part of the Shuri-jo grounds, and made bingata cloth with his own bingata dye “recipes” and methods, which he sold (primarily) for making kimonos. Shuri-Ryusen now offers much more than fabric for sale. It is a wonderful historic landmark and a great venue for viewing and experiencing traditional artistry as well. Located off of route 29 very close to Shuri Castle, the building looks like a large house and has three floors for guests to visit. The first floor houses the gift shop, and displays their beautiful bingata fabric as well as various items made with their fabric. The third floor is a working bingata studio and museum; there is ample information—albeit written mostly in Kanji & Hirigana– about the process, there are shelves full of vials, dried herbs and other substances used to dye the fabric, bolts of fabric in the various stages of production, (and the best part) local artisans engaged in the task of “painting” the gorgeous fabric for sale in the shop. The second floor is a visitors’ studio where people can try their hand at making a special bingata souvenir themselves.
I brought my mom, a good friend and my wee companion “Newt” to Shuri Ryusen on a Tuesday morning. We didn’t call or make an appointment first (though it’s recommended for larger groups—6 or more I’d say off the cuff), we just turned up to poke around and see what was there. The staff was gracious and welcoming, allowing us to wander and watch until we were ready to settle in and give it a go. The bingata activity offered to visitors involves dyeing an item (or items) of your choice with bingata ink using fossilized pieces of coral they have mounted on cement blocks. A staff member demonstrated, and gave us a brief tutorial before letting us “have at it” on our own. I chose to dye a t-shirt, my mother a scarf, and my friend selected a “furoshiki”—a traditional Japanese wrapping cloth (for bentos and such). They also had plain aprons and tote bags to dye as well. It was all at once a fun, relaxing (dare I say therapeutic), and challenging pursuit for each of us. I fully intend on going back with anyone willing to come along. This was the perfect, and truly original Okinawa experience I’d been searching for.
Hours: Shuri Ryusen is open daily from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.
Cost: A D.I.Y. bingata session is 3,000 yen per person per item. We took our time, and weren’t rushed at all; the actual process (for us, one item each working all together at the same table) took roughly an hour (we were the only “tourists” doing bingata at that time, but there was ample room for more). To my knowledge, there is no time limit, but again, for a large party it is best to call and schedule something first.
Payment: They accept Yen and credit cards.
Address: 1-54 Yamakawa-cho in Naha.
Directions from online: Take Hwy 330 to Naha and turn left to Shuri at Asato intersection. Continue all the way up the hill passing Nikko Grand Castle Hotel on the left. At the traffic light take right and then right again at the next light. One more right at the first major intersection and Shuri Ryusen is on the right about 100 meters from the intersection.
Look for the 3-story “house” with a tile roof. The street it’s on is narrow, so hard to miss, but it is narrow, so pay attention! If you pass it, I don’t know how far you’d have to go before being able to turn around. There is limited (5 or 6 cars?) parking directly across the street. If the lot is full, and if you’re able, send someone in to ask where there is more (legal) parking:
“Sumi-masen, mot-to chu-sha-joh wa doko desu ka?” They’ll be happy to help…I had nice young man help back my (comparably) “giant” minivan in to our tiny spot.