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Ryukyu glass: Truly original Okinawa specialty

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2012-04-06

It’s been called unique, different, beautiful, pop art and “the perfect souvenir to remember Okinawa by”, and they all fit the definition of Okinawa’s trademark cottage industry, Ryukyu Glass.

Ryukyu glass emerged from the aftermath of World War II, when Okinawans were struggling and looking for ways to rebuild their shattered lives. Everyday household items were in short supply, including dishes and glassware, leading people to scavenge for goods being thrown away by U.S. military personnel on the island.

The unlikely American discard that has become the trademark for Okinawa’s beauty and handicrafts was the lowly CocaCola bottle. The soft drinks brought to the island were consumed by military personnel, and the bottles tossed aside. They were quickly snatched up and the tops cut off to create drinking glasses. From there, the inspirations of Okinawans led to the bottles being melted down and used in glassblowing, transforming the bottles into a variety of glass products that were created with all the imperfections, impurities and bubbles in the process.

Okinawans had initially become involved in glassware production during the Meiji Period, 1868-1912, but until World War II the products were pretty much utilitarian items like medicine bottles and lamp chimneys. They were anything but creative, but filled a need.

Enter the Americans again, who saw the glassware being produced from those pesky CocaCola and other soft drink bottles tossed from the U.S. bases, saw their beauty, and began buying them up to take home. Throughout the post-war years, Okinawa refined the glassblowing techniques, creating more and more different items that went beyond everyday life requirements. They designed candle holders and vases, decorative plates, bowls and glasses. And the Americans kept on buying, and the word began spreading.

Once Okinawa returned to Japan in 1972, the Ryukyu glass gained an even stronger foothold as souvenirs not only for the military enclaves, but for tourists. Craftsmen became so good they became artisans—Seikichi Inamine, Masao Tobaru and Koei Oshiro, to name a few whose works are in great demand—and further popularized the colorful, warm tone glass products. While those impurities and bubbles were once viewed as faults that lessened the value, it turned out that those very qualities made people clamor for more. Craftsmen nodded in approval, and began using those bubbles as one of their techniques to express and describe their beautiful ocean and East China Sea. To them, and to tens of thousands who have purchased Ryukyu glass, the bubbles are synonymous with the beautiful sea surrounding the Okinawa Islands.

Recognizing Ryukyu glass as an Okinawa signature, six companies banded together in 1983 to create the Ryukyu Glass Craft Cooperative Association, which two years later further redefined itself as the Ryukyu Glass Craft Cooperative Work Association. Artisan Kouei Oshiro in 1990 was designated “The Living Master Hand” by the Japanese Ministry of Labor, a first for Ryukyu glass.

Today, Ryukyu glass is highly sought after, and pretty much a ‘must’ for foreigners—including the military communities—to take home as a remembrance of time on Okinawa. Make no mistake though, Ryukyu glass is NOT a tourist thing; it’s proudly used and on display in many, if not most, Okinawan homes.

The more fun part of Ryukyu glass is that it’s more than a product to be purchased in a store. Ryukyu glassware can be created by everyone, and many people take advantage of those opportunities. In Itoman City, Ryukyu Glass Craft not only sells and manufactures original glassware, but offers ordinary people the opportunity create their own pieces. But first, meander through the glass factory, the Glass Gallery and the Outlet Shop and see what others have created.

Ryukyu glass is offered for sale across Okinawa, with prices varying according to quality and color. Often, the artisan’s work are more expensive. Ryukyu glassware’s become so popular, it’s even being produced in Vietnam factories under the watchful eye of Okinawan Ryukyu glass experts. All original Okinawa-made Ryukyu glass has a Gold sticker on it, while those items produced in Vietnam are tagged with a Silver sticker. It’s still Ryukyu glass, but doesn’t pack the “this is truly Okinawan” image you may want.

A quick explanation of how glassware comes to be, and then you can begin contemplating what kind of cup or plate you’d like to create (and earn bragging rights back home). Ryukyu Glass begins with Silica sand, which is mixed with a chemical before being poured into a dissolving furnace that’s cranked up to between 1,300~1,400 degrees Celsius. Once the glass is dissolved, then it’s your turn.

A blowing pipe dips into the dissolved glass, and then you blow into the tube, forming some sort of oval, cylindrical or even round bubble and putting the dissolved glass into an iron form. From there, the glass is cut from the pipe and it’s time for the shaping and sizing by holding the rod and immersing the glass into a brick kiln. Once the product’s the way you want it, the glass is slowly cooled down, as the kiln is running about 600 degrees Celsius. Once cooled, the glasses are washed and inspected, and are ready to be carried away. That last step typically has to wait a couple days to insure the glassware is properly cooled.

Am I serious? Absolutely! You can do it. Glass Blowing Workshops are offered regularly, with workshop fees starting at ¥1,500 for a simple glass, and going up the more creating you want the art piece to be, and the color you want. It only takes a few minutes to actually create the piece, usually about five minutes. Oh yes, you’ll be given a pair of gloves and an arm support for protection.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and fun to do. Even the drive south from the central region, where the bases are, to southern Okinawa is a beautiful experience, so don’t forget the camera. Head south on Route 331 toward Itoman from Naha Airport. Continue toward Himeyuri no To from Itoman Rotary, and past Nanbu Hospital. Ryukyu Glass Craft will be on the right hand side of Route 331.

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