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Shuri Ryusen holds up art of bingata

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2010-05-06

The colors are vivid and bright with Okinawan bingata-dyed and coral-dyed products, and that’s enough to make Hiromi Oshiro smile.

She’s the owner of Shuri Ryusen, leading purveyor of original Okinawa fabrics dyed to perfection with natural plant dyes developed by her father decades ago. It was that research that led to Shuri Ryusen’s creation on the site formerly a residence of one of the Shuri Kingdom’s top three holy princesses appointed by the King. The building designed by Koto Yamaoka as a research institute to develop quality dyes for fabrics, sits at the remains of the Chuzan Gate, a main entrance to the Shuri Castle just up the road.

Yamaoka’s move in 1973 brought development of the powerful dyes now being used by his daughter, who took the business to the next logical step of creating fabrics and products using them. Thirty years since opening Shuri Ryusen, Hiromi Oshiro has more than made the place popular with visitors; she has created a unique niche for the company with her distinct, trademarked products linked to coral.

Coral dying takes the natural pigments developed by Oshiro’s father, and applies them to tee shirts and other products through application over coral. The blues, greens, violets and yellows are stamped with varying size coral, offering a unique design only available at Shuri Ryusen. The environmental rules surrounding coral prohibit its being taken from the sea, but Oshiro’s coral heads used in fabric stamping date back to nearly 30 years, long before restrictions were applied.

Kimonos are a specialty that takes plenty of time to get from Step A to Step X (the finish). The bingata fabric is woven at Shuri Ryusen, a three-month process to create a 13-meter-long product used in the kimono. In cases of delicate, intricate designs, that three-month process could stretch to four or five months, after which the actual design and construction of the fabric takes a few weeks to a few months. A variety of materials ranging from cotton to China grass, bashofu, a woven fabric made from Japanese fiber bananas, and silk, are chosen by the customer for exactly the kimono she’d like.

Creating a kimono—or Kariyushi-wear, for that matter—is a handmade process accomplished by Shuri Ryusen’s artisans. Stencil cutting papers are meticulously cut to the pattern desired, then a series of them—one for each color being used, and there can be as many as 20 of them—are used to mark the fabric with shaded patterns. Botanical dyes are used exclusively to insure the highest quality possible.

Shuri Ryusen is much more than simply a store; it’s an educational and fun experience. Visitors and potential customers can wander the three floors of the facility, and most begin on the third floor, where the coral stamping is done for shirts and other products. It’s also the place where the fabric selection process begins for a garment. The allure and fascination of watching bingata artisans at work can keep curious adults intrigued for long minutes, or even an hour.

The second floor at Shuri Ryusen is a mix of the past and the present. Oshiro has created a blended museum and sales outlet for Okinawa and Japanese artifacts. Lacquerware and pottery, together with antique Japanese carvings and oil paintings, are available for purchase. Also on the second floor is an exhibit depicting how life for a high-ranking princess in the Ryukyu Dynasty probably lived, an insight into the history and culture in the Kingdom’s old capital Shuri.

Shuri Ryusen’s first floor is, more or less, a traditional set of sales showroom, but is complete with a seating area where Hiromi Oshiro’s staff takes time to serve customers Okinawan tea and sweets as they sit around the fireplace. There you’ll find kimonos, coral-dyed and bingata-dyed fabrics and finished goods, hand stamped coral pattern silk scarves, and even small souvenirs.

A fun part of a visit to Shuri Ryusen is an opportunity to “do it yourself” with the coral dye stamping process. Make your own tee shirt, apron, summer shirt or even a tote bag, sitting down the set of more than a dozen different coral stamps to create that individualized product. It only takes 30-40 minutes, and is inexpensive. For a small item such as a handkerchief, the cost is ¥1,000. To create an adult tee shirt or bag, it costs only ¥3,000 and that includes the shirt. For a child, the cost is ¥2,500. You make it, and you take it home with you. Such a deal.

Shuri Ryusen is open seven days a week, 9 a.m.~ 5 p.m. English-speaking staff capabilities are limited during the week—but you’d never guess how warm and friendly every member of Oshiro’s staff is—but full English-qualified staff member is available on Saturdays and Sundays. The bingata store accepts Japanese yen and credit cards. Reservations can be made at (098) 886-1131.

Shuri Ryusen is located at 1-54 Yamakawa-cho in Naha City, not far from the Nikko Grand Hotel. To get there 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. Free parking for a few cars is across the street.

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