Okinawan Culture 01 - Shimi

Shimi, the grave-sweeping festival can be seen across the island in April

During the weekends in April, you may see Okinawan local people gathered and eating foods in courtyards in front of their tortoise-shaped family tombs. This is one of the big traditions amongst Okinawan people called Shimi(清明) festival. The word Shimi(清明), or Qingming in Chinese, is a name for the 5th solar term of the traditional East Asian lunisolar calendar, which divides a year into 24 solar terms. The 5th solar term falls on the second half of February, or the first half of March in the lunar calendar, which is early April in the Western calendar. Each character in the word, "清" and "明" means "refreshing" and "bright". Therefore the word Shimi(清明) means "time of the year when heaven and earth are filled up with fresh and bright air".

Photo credit: http://www.kankou-nanjo.okinawa/

Shimi(清明) festival is a family festival which is held during the two-week period roughly after 5th April in the Western calendar, which is the day the 5th solar term in the lunisolar calendar begins. It is a memorial service for the family's ancestors. On the day of their family's Shimi(清明) day, the whole family sweeps and washes their ancestral tomb, provides offerings to the dead, and afterward they enjoy eating food brought from their houses in the courtyard of the tomb. By showing the whole family gets on well with each other while sharing foods in front of the tomb their ancestors are enshrined, they demonstrate their filial piety to their ancestors. One thing that mustn't be forgotten is to show gratitude towards the tutelary god of the place for allowing them to use the place for enshrining our ancestors.

For the Shimi(清明) festival, traditional boxed food called “Usanmi(御三味)” is prepared. Usanmi is a style of food for offerings to the gods and ancestors, which consists of ingredients harvested in the “sky, soil, and sea”. Usanmi food is normally packaged in lacquered wooden square boxes. These boxes are stacked up and brought to the tomb. 

A typical Usanmi box contains fish cakes(processed fish paste), deep-fried tofu, tempuras, grey sweet potatoes, kelp, burdocks, konjac(jelly-like food made from corm of konjac potatoes), pork belly(with skin).
Along with Usanmi food, a box of mochi, rice cakes are brought to the tomb. It is a normal practice to put 9 or 15 rice cakes in a box. Numbers which cannot be divided by 2 are considered numbers with good fortune. 

Photo credit: https://www.okinawastory.jp/

Another interesting point of this Okinawan tradition is that Uchikabi, yellow-coloured papers with debossed circles which are considered the money in heaven(see picture below), are burned to be sent to the ancestors. These papers are sold at supermarkets in Okinawa.

Photo credit: https://www.okinawastory.jp/

Photo credit: https://ryukyushimpo.jp/

During the Shimi(清明) festival period, some roads, including the Okinawa Expressway are expected to be jammed due to the families driving to their ancestral tombs. Below is a photo of a road sign that says “Traffic jam expected at Kyoda IC on 8th April due to Shimi”.

この時期に起こる沖縄県内での渋滞「清明渋滞」って? – 沖縄の海と空にかこまれた暮らし

Photo credit: https://shisa1969.com