The hidden tradition of Okinawa. What is a “Fukaki Sabani”?
The traditional skill handed down by the craftsmen
Connecting with the romance of Uminchu, a close report of a 100km journey to "Kumejima on a Kumibune"
>Day 1 (Okinawa Main Island Itoman to Tokashiki Island)
>Day 2 (Tokashiki Island to Tonaki Island)
>Day 3 (Tonaki Island to Kumejima)
For people who want to enjoy the history and see the actual Sabani

Itoman City is located at the southernmost part of the main island of Okinawa.
It is known as the "Town of Uminchu", a place where the "Uminchu" (fisherman in Okinawan word) culture strongly remains, and famous traditional events such as the "Itoman Harley" are being held until today.
From this leading port town of Okinawa, we will introduce the "Fukaki Sabani", a traditional small wooden boat formerly used by the Uminchu for fishing. In this article, we will closely cover this traditional boat, where we will be learning about the building process and the passion of the Sabani carpenters, followed by a report on a 100km sea voyage experience on the Sabani.
Let's explore the history and romance of the Itoman Uminchu through Okinawa's hidden traditional handcraft, Fukaki Sabani.

(Photo Courtesy: PHOTOWAVE)

The hidden tradition of Okinawa. What is a “Fukaki Sabani”?

Known for large catch of tuna and squid, Itoman Port is the only port in Okinawa to be designated as a specific third-kind fishing port (ports that are especially important for the development of marine-product industry). With numerous Roadside Stations(Michinoeki) and restaurants throughout the city, it is recognized by many people as the place for enjoying fresh and delicious seafood.
Fukaki Sabani is a traditional handcraft remaining in the "City of Uminchu".

The successful history of Itoman Uminchu

Image of Hon Hagi

A Fukaki Sabani of a Itoman Hagi (Hon Hagi) sailing through the sea (Photo Courtesy: Itoman Fukaki Sabani Promotion Association)

In the past, the Itoman area flourished as a fishing town since the period when Okinawa was known by its former name, Ryukyu Kingdom.
A historical document of that time remains, describing the Ryuku Wang Fu accepting envoys sent from the Chinese Dynasty called Sakuho-shi, and the fishermen of Itoman being ordered to gather fish and shellfish to present them.
It is said that even the Wang Fu acknowledged these Itoman Uminchu to be "knowing everything about the sea".

Furthermore, numerous records back then shows the Itoman Uminchu rescuing people lost in the sea time. From these facts, you can tell how widespread their fishery site was, along with an image of the vigorous and brave Itoman Uminchu sailing through the rough seas causing accidents at sea.  

Flag of The Great Tug of War in Itoman

The word “Peoples of the Sea” is shown on a flag raised before the start of the Great Tug of War in Itoman, held every year on August 15th (old calendar)

Up until today, land reclamation has been done repeatedly, mainly in the western region of Itoman.
Many people migrated to Itoman during this process, from those living in nearby rural villages, and others from Naha region aiming to start a new business in Itoman.
As time went on, the City of Uminchu became more and more crowded.

What is a “Sabani”?

Itoman Harley

”Itoman Harley” is a traditional event taking place at the Itoman Port, annually on May 4th(old calendar)

Sabani refers to the boat used by Uminchu.
As for the origin of the word "Sabani", the most dominant opinion is from the idea that it's a combination of two Okinawan words, "N-ni" or "Buni" meaning a boat, along with "Saba" standing for sharks. By combining them, we come up with "Sabanni", meaning "boat used for shark fishing", which was later on shortened to today’s pronunciation, "Sabani".
Back then, Uminchu went out fishing using the "Fukaki Sabani", which sailed through the ocean by putting up a sail to catch the wind, and using paddles called wakes, to row and advance the boat.

Looking back into the history of Itoman Uminchu during the Ryukyu Kingdom, a Sabani called "Marukinni", built by hollowing out an entire tree trunk was used. However, since large trees are needed for the manufacturing of Marukinni, it was prohibited later on due to shipbuilding restrictions.
After the Haihan-chiken (abolition of feudal domains and the establishment of prefectures) at around 1880 and the Ryukyu Kingdom became the Okinawa prefecture, Kame Uehara of Itoman created a prototype of a boat from a cedar board used for flooring. Kanehara Toku, who was formerly a Marukinni craftsman added improvements to it, and a boat called "Haginni" was born. This boat has been passed on by several generations, and is recognized as the original form of today's traditional Sabani, "Itoman Hagi (Hon Hagi)".

Other than the Itoman Hagi, it is said that a total of three types of Haginni exists, which are "Nanyou Hagi", and "Nakama Hagi (Ainukuu)", each differenciated by the construction method.
Out of the three, the Itoman Hagi was the all-time favorite choice for the Uminchu, as it shows high performance when sailing through rough ocean waves. In addition to that, it even has great maneuverability in shallow water, along with high endurance. 

Riding smoothly through large waves with the sails hoisted, not only is the Fukaki Sabani of Itoman Hagi high in functionality, but the breathtaking scenery of the boats floating through the beautiful ocean of Okinawa is regarded as a traditional artwork, which resonates directly to people's heart.

According to historical materials after the Meiji period, it is said that the Itoman Uminchu expanded their scope of activity in search of fishing spots, reaching out to the Yaeyama region, Taiwan, and the Kyushu area.
This expansion continues even further, in an attempt to achieve success and wealth through opening up new abroad fishing spots such as the South Sea Islands, Philippine Islands, and Singapore.

Haginni and the sea

The Itoman Uminchu expanded their areas of activity on the sea
A longing toward the brave and high-spirited Itoman Uminchu who shared their lives with the sea.
The history of fishermen from a small island country of "Ryukyu", challenging the wilderness of the open sea with their body alone was not a well-known, yet unique and interesting story of Okinawa.

However, engine-equipped boats and the advent of FRP(Fiber Reinforced Plastic) replaced the existing traditional sailboats over time and became mainstream, resulting in a hold back for the  Uminchu to use the wooden Sabani.

Throughout their history, Itoman Uminchu has expanded their active fields across numerous waters.
From here on, we will feature on the "Fukaki Sabani", the small wooden boat which brought about a great epoch among the Uminchu

The traditional skill handed down by the craftsmen

"Fukaki Sabani" is the only small wooden sailing boat left in Japan.
As of now, these boats are not used for fishing, thus the number of active Sabani craftsmen has decreased to a degree where one hand would be enough to count them all.
Among them, the Sabani shipwright Kiyoshi Oshiro and his apprentice Kazuaki Takara are the only ones who inherit the cultivated skills to build the original "Itoman Hagi" used by the Itoman Uminchu.

Mr. Kiyoshi Oshiro, the Sabani carpenter

Mr. Kiyoshi Oshiro, the Sabani carpenter

There are no blueprints for building a Sabani, meaning all skills must be learned through experience.
The "Haginni" created by the shipwright Toku Kaneshiro during the Meiji era became the "Itoman Hagi", and the traditional skill has been passed down from the craftsmen to their disciples through the years up until today.

How the only boat in Japan built "Without a Single Screw" is made

Let's look into the features in the production process of the Itoman Hagi.

Mr. Oshiro and Mr. Takara

Mr. Kiyoshi Oshiro and his disciple Mr. Kazuaki Takara(Photo Courtesy: Itoman Fukaki Sabani Promotion Association)

The curves of the Sabani is produced by actually bending a wooden board, therefore a strong and flexible cedar from Miyazaki known as the "Obisugi" is said to be the best fit for this purpose.
The process begins by creating the boat's side part(Harakeegi), from lining up two long Obisugi boards and bending them gradually whilst pouring boiling water.
Pressure will be applied carefully on the boards so that the curves become symmetrical.
During this procedure, decisions such as the amount of pressure applied, the quantity of hot water, and how to shape and curve the board are all made based on the Sabani carpenter’s experience.
This bending of the cedar boards is a big feature among the building of an Itoman Hagi.

The boards are bent by pouring boiling hot water

A curve is created by pouring boiling hot water on the side board of the boat(Photo Courtesy: Itoman Fukaki Sabani Promotion Association)

Coming up next is the hollowing out of the timber, which will later be used for the boat's bottom(Sukujii).
Using a plane, the timber will be shaved from the inside to form shapes, which is a feature remaining from the building methods of the Marukinni.

The board being shaved

The optimal shape is formed through the skills acquired from long experience(Photo Courtesy: Itoman Fukaki Sabani Promotion Association)

Once the side(Harakeegi) and the bottom(Sukujii) of the boat are completed, small adjustments will be made so that they will fit perfectly upon assembling.
Any gaps will be filled through the process of inserting a saw between the two boards, and grinding them against each other.

Adjusting the side and the bottom of the boat

Adjusting the side and the bottom of the boat to fit(Photo Courtesy: Itoman Fukaki Sabani Promotion Association)

Then, it will be joined together by using a bonding material made from wood called "Funlu (Fundu)", and bamboo nails called "Lukugi".
This is how a well made boat is built. The appearance is so smooth and even looking, to the extent of it making us feel as if it was made from a single board.

The fact that only wooden materials are used when joining the two boards, is another important feature of the Itoman Hagi Sabani.
Avoiding any sort of metals such as screws, prevents the boat from rusting and thus enhances its durability.

The Funlu made from wood

The Funlu used for joining cedar boards is made from wood(Photo Courtesy: Itoman Fukaki Sabani Promotion Association)

The driving force of the sail is maximized by the perfect curve and balance of the boat, allowing it to ride powerfully through the high waves of the open sea, as well as sailing efficiently on days when the wind is low.
Don't forget that this masterpiece is created by using only the artisan's experience and pure sense, making the precise and beautiful skill of the Sabani carpenter seem even more beyond human power.
Granted with the perfect utility and functionality, you can say that the Sabani was a traditional craft destined to support the Itoman Uminchu, so that they can achieve success through their challenge beyond the sea of Okinawa.

Sabanis used for many years

Sabanis of Itoman Hagi showing no sign of water leakage and damage after being used for many years/small>

Connecting with the romance of Uminchu, a close report of a 100km journey to "Kumejima on a Kumibune"

The Sabani carpenter Kiyoshi Oshiro had a long held plan in mind related to Itoman Uminchu.
This was, to travel across the sea from Itoman to Kumeshima on a "Kumibune".
"Kumibune" is a connecting boat, with two Sabanis jointed side by side next to each other.

Sailing across the ocean on a Kumibune

Exploring the history of the Uminchu through a voyage on a Sabani, the creation of inherited skills.

There's actually a description about the early 1800s in an old Chinese document, stating "two fishing boats from Itoman village arrives at Zhejiang Province of China", and "Four connecting boats of Itoman drifts to Fuzhou, China".
Judging from this record, Mr. Oshiro came up with an assumption that "In view of the fishing grounds and the Black current at that time, it's unlikely for an ordinary fishing boat to unintentionally reach the shores of Zhejiang and Fuzhou. The Itoman Uminchu must have had a particular reason to head for China, maybe under the purpose of performing a special mission from the Wang Fu or stow away."
He began to consider that there's a high possibility of boats travelling back and forth from Itoman to China deliberately back then.

If this is true, he thought that the Uminchu must have stopped by Kumejima of Okinawa, since it's located right in between the straight line connecting Itoman and China.
In an attempt to trace the routes of the Itoman Uminchu, he decided to carry out a 100km voyage from Itoman to Kumejima, on a Kumibune.

Mr. Takara

Mr. Takara, the captain of the “A Kumibune trip from Itoman to Kumejima”, and a disciple of Mr. Oshiro

This time, our writer from THE GATE was specially allowed to participate in "A Kumibune trip from Itoman to Kumejima".
Through closely reporting this 100km journey on a Kumibune, we will be tracing the romantic experience of the Uminchu.

What it was like in the morning of the day of departure

With the Sabani lined up and jointed , the Kumibune was all set and ready by the morning of the day of departure
【Travel Schedule】
Day 1: From Itoman to Tokashiki Aharen port
Day 2: From Tokasihi Aharen port to Tonaki port
Day 3: From Tonaki port to Kumejima Kaneshiro port
*A Sabani Riding experience was provided for children on each island

Praying for the safety of this trip at the “Hakugindo”

Hakugindo, Itoman city

At the Hakugindo in Itoman city

Hakugindo is a guardian god worshiped with firm religious faith by the Itoman Uminchu.
Our journey starts by praying for the safety of this trip before departure.

Day 1 (Okinawa Main Island Itoman to Tokashiki Island)

The offshore of Itoman

The offshore of Itoman

The wind is a bit against us. Right after departing from Itoman, we were already encountering strong waves countless times.
But with two Sabanis connected, the Kumibune was so stable that we didn’t have to worry about getting turned over.

The route planned for the first day from Itoman to Tokashiki Island is said to have been a familiar area for the Itoman Uminchu at that time, where they would come and go on a daily basis as if it was their backyard.

After boarding, we were surprised to see how the Sabani cut through the waves.
The Sabani used for this Kumibune are both an Itoman Hagi built by Mr. Oshiro.
The beautiful appearance of the Sabani, along with its actual performance and speed are well known among anyone who rides the Sabani, but I didn't imagine that it would still be able to maneuver through the heaving waves of the open sea so smoothly even with two boats connected.

A scene from the boat riding experience at Tokashiki Island

A boat riding experience with the children of Tokashiki Island

After arriving at Tokashiki Island, we ran a Sabani boarding experience for the local children.
The Fukaki Sabani drifts elegantly through the ocean against the island landscape.

Day 2 (Tokashiki Island to Tonaki Island)

The sea condition of Day 2

The sea was relatively calm on this day

On the second day, we left Tokashiki Island and headed for Tonaki Island.
This time, the wind was favorable, making it a gentle voyage compared to the day before.

The Fukaki Sabani sails by using force generated from the wind and oars.
Back then during the Ryukyu Kingdom, weather forecasts didn't exist.
So upon planning a voyage, it was said that the Itoman Uminchu predicted the weather according to the lunar calendar and personal experience.

The sail of the Kumibune

The Kumibune advances using forces of the tailwind

The boat sails close to the wind, progressing without the need of rowing.
A humming vibration sound indicating that the boat is advancing can be heard from the bottom of the boat.

It was a day, where I was able to enjoy the bodily sensation of the boat being carried by the wind, 
and cutting through the waves without engines. Along with the vibration of the boat drifting across the ocean, this was something you can only experience through actually sailing on a Fukaki Sabani.

Inserting the wake into the ocean

Inserting the wake into a truly clear cobalt blue ocean

After a relaxing cruise across the calm sea, we arrived at Tonaki Island.
Tonaki Island is known for its thorough adjustment of city-lots since long ago, with houses in the residential area are lined up in an orderly manner.
It's also famous for its scenery of an old rural village during the night time, where it lights up illuminated by the footlights.

Strolling in Tonaki Island

Strolling in Tonaki Island
As the saying "Sashimi becomes the staple diet in an island surrounded by the sea" states, we have been served endless amounts of sashimi on all islands that we visited.
Enjoying the fresh sashimi is an exclusive pleasure you can only appreciate in a sea‐girt isle.

Bonitos heaped on a plate

We received a hearty hospitality in every island we visited

Day 3 (Tonaki Island to Kumejima)

On the third and final day of our journey, we head from Tonaki Island to Kumejima.
The Kumibune sailing through the nasty sea

The Fukaki Sabani sailing through the nasty sea on our way from Tonaki Island to Kumejima

Although we already knew that the weather would be stormy as of yesterday, the thought that the people in Kumejima would be waiting and looking forward to the arrival of the Sabani pushed us to decide our departure.
Unlike the calm weather seen yesterday, the sea condition was horrendous, with strong winds and high waves reaching near 3 to 4 meters.
For safety reasons, our trip from Tonaki to Kumejima was partially towed by an escort boat.
On this day, I boarded the escort boat equipped with an engine. Throughout our cruise, there were times when the Kumibune disappeared into the waves, with the sail being the only visible object to tell where it was.

The Sabani advancing by riding on the waves

Advancing toward the port of Kumejima

Through our journey from Itoman to Kumejima and traveling through the islands in between, we were finally able to follow the sea route which is said to be used by the Itoman Uminchu.
After all, I felt that I was able to experience the Itoman Uminchu's actual voyage to China through my skin.
I’m certain that Mr. Oshiro's idea of "Sailing from Itoman to China" will come true some day, and the magnificent success of the Itoman Uminchu will be rediscovered and brought back to life.

For people who want to enjoy the history and see the actual Sabani

We've followed through the history and the building of the Sabani, along with the romance of the Uminchu passed on until today. If you're planning a visit to Okinawa, you should definitely take a look at the real Sabani.
Finally, let us introduce you some recommended facilities and events held in Okinawa.

Visiting the “Oceanic Culture Museum” where boats built by Mr. Oshiro is exhibited

Oceanic Culture Museum

Oceanic Culture Museum(Photo Courtesy: Okinawa Commemorative National Government Park)

You can meet the authentic Itoman Hagi Sabani built by Mr. Oshiro at the "Oceanic Culture Museum" located within the Ocean Expo Park where the famous Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium also stands.

A photo of three Haginis lined up

An Itoman Hagi (Hon Hagi) with sails put up, and a Nanyou Hagi is displayed. (Photo Courtesy: Okinawa Commemorative National Government Park)

Nearly 750 materials are displayed here, 
Here, you can learn about the history of the Pacific Rim, which has a close relationship with the origins of Japan and Okinawa. 
There's also a section where you can actually board a Sabani and take photos, where you can experience the touch and impact of them up close.

The “Sabani Sailing Race”, the event where Fukaki Sabani riders gather

Fukaki Sabani

The view of the Fukaki Sabani sailing through the blue ocean is beautiful (Photo Courtesy: PHOTOWAVE)

At the "Sabani Sailing Race" held annually in early summer, you can watch the Sabani sail through the ocean.
Sabani carpenters also participate in this 40km race starting at Zamami Island and heading to Naha, with Mr. Oshiro and Mr. Takara both taking part every year with their own Sabani.
The aim of this race is to inherit the Sabani culture and improve maneuvering skills, but Mr. Oshiro also aims to test the performance of his boat by participating in the race himself, so that he can further improve his Sabani building technique.

A shot from the award ceremony

At the race held in 2019, Mr. Kiyoshi Oshiro’s team won the Sabani Class race (Photo Courtesy: PHOTOWAVE)

The scenery of the Sabani running through the oceans of Kerama Islands makes us feel as if we've time travelled back in time, and witnessing the Uminchu in lively motion on the old Okinawan sea.
Why not go out to watch the Sabani advancing powerfully through the ocean waves nearby.

An adventure to experience the romance of the Itoman seaman in Okinawa

With a perfected functional beauty, Fukaki Sabani is a traditional craft of Okinawa still present until today.
You should definitely experience this adventure to connect with the brave spirits of the Uminchu who advanced out to the foreign seas, and to feel the history, culture of Itoman.