Apart from the pristine blue waters and mouth-watering local delicacies, Okinawa is also known for its traditional arts and culture scene. Tsuboya ware, kijoka bashofu (Okinawan fabric made from banana fiber) and Ryukyu glassware are just a few classic art souvenirs to bring home from this tropical paradise. 

Among these popular Okinawa souvenirs, Ryukyu glassware is distinctive for its bright tropical hues, chubby thick form and static air bubbles. The pieces are one-of-a-kind and symbolize Okinawa’s blue oceans and lush natural surroundings. The most common Ryukyu glassware found in Okinawa shops is tableware, but this art has now also evolved into everyday items such as vases, chandeliers, jewelry, lamps, washbowls and figurines. A better understanding of Ryukyu glassware begins with knowing its roots. 

The History of Ryukyu Glassware

After World War II, Okinawa faced a shortage of resources and materials. Orders for everyday practical glassware and souvenirs increased for stationed military personnel and their families. To keep up with the increasing demand for glassware items, Okinawan glass makers recycled soda, cola and beer bottles discarded by the American military to make glassware. They washed the used bottles, melted them in a furnace and molded them into new glassware. Since the glass they used often contained bits of labels and other impurities, the final glassware product often featured minute air bubbles, unique colors and distorted shapes. To some, bubbles in the glass may seem like a flaw, but in Okinawa, they are characteristic of Ryukyu glassware.

Though Ryukyu glassware is no longer made using old bottles, its signature bubble finish continues to be popular in the region and around the globe.

How is Ryukyu Glassware Made?

The process of making Ryukyu glassware requires experience, patience and skill. Using traditional glassblowing techniques, experienced glass artisans often heat the glass to a high temperature of 1,300-1,500 degrees Celsius. They gather the softened glass from the furnace into a small ball shape. Using what they call the mold blowing method, the artisan uses a blowpipe to blow and inflate the molten glass.

Cutting and widening the glass is the final step. They pay special attention to the timing and the amount of pressure they apply as it could make or break the piece. To prevent cracks, they then leave it in a cool and dark room for up to 48 hours.

Ryukyu Glassware Design and Aesthetics

Ryukyu glassware stands out from other glassware because of its bright, bold colors. The most common ones used to make them are orange, blue, green, purple, brown and light blue. Originally made as souvenirs and everyday tableware for US forces, the glassware has western designs.

Other distinct features of Okinawan glassware include its chubby thickness and tiny orbs that resemble soda bubbles. Its uneven shape, bubbles and cracks are part of its design and charm.

Where to Make Your Own Ryukyu Glassware in Okinawa

When I visited the Onna Glass Studio in Okinawa, I got to witness and experience the step-by-step process of making Ryukyu glassware firsthand. This might sound scary, but the class followed the expert guidance of the artisans who led the workshop.

Ryukyu glass needs about 24 to 48 hours to cool down to prevent cracks. This means that you won’t be able to take home your work on the same day, but most workshop locations can ship it to other regions of Japan after your glass has cooled. If you’re still in Okinawa three days after taking the workshop, you can pop by later in your trip to pick up your item. 

There are several other workshops around Okinawa to make your unique Ryukyu glasswork. 

1. Ryukyu Glass Village

Ryukyu Glass Village is one of Okinawa’s largest and most famous glass factories. It’s been around since 1985 and is the perfect place to shop, learn and make Ryukyu glassware. It also offers other fun workshops such as Shisa coloring, leather engraving, accessory making and more. 

Check the website for more details

2. Ryukyu Glass Kobo Glass Art Ai Nago

This glassware workshop is perfect to book when traveling with family or friends. It’s a cozy studio nestled in the hills. In addition to making your own Ryukyu glassware, you can also purchase some delicate, one-of-a-kind pieces here. 

Check the website for more details

3. Ryukyu Glass Workshop Umikaze

Ryukyu Glass Workshop Umikaze has some of the finest and friendliest skilled craftsmen in Okinawa. Here, you can work alongside them to make your own glass creations. You are welcome to pick the materials, patterns, colors and shapes you like. 

Check the website for more details