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Shell Ginger


Photo: TARUMI Kengo

“Hello,” “Nice to meet you” and hand your business card—a typical exchange, however in Okinawa, sometimes people then look at each other and smile, “Oh, you too?” That is when their cards are made of matching shell ginger paper. And what’s more, when they see that their minsā-weaved card cases are matching as well, all reserves are thrown away: “Indeed, uchinā-made is great!” 

Shell ginger papers are made of shell ginger fibers. Its brown fibers blend in sporadically on the pale cream color, giving them each a special expression. 

Shell ginger is a plant belonging to Zingiberaceae, also called san-nin in dialect. Its glossy firm leaves—known as the mūchī-gāsa—are used to wrap Okinawan rice cake, mūchī. When the season of mūchī (December 8th of the lunar calendar) arrives, we can see children wrap the mūchī with a shell ginger leaf bigger than their hands in every nursery or kindergarten in Okinawa. As the mūchī gets steamed, the unique refreshing scent of shell ginger rises from the mūchī and gives an accent to its simple taste. 

In the bygone days, children used to hold shell ginger flowers in their mouths to blow them—like how we do with Chinese lantern plants—and enjoy the sound. My mother is a kindergarten teacher and had a chance to let the kids in her class try. Unfortunately, no one could blow the sound. It seems like children nowadays can get to know the shell ginger only during the once-a-year mūchī season. Shell ginger used to grow everywhere in the past; we would just pick them from the backyard or the mountains nearby when the mūchī season came. Now, it is difficult to find them growing in cities and to save time, many buy a washed and bundled packet in the market. 

Meanwhile, shell ginger’s insect repellent, deodorization, and antibacterial effects are coming into the spotlight in various fields. Shell ginger paper is used daily for business cards or postcards, or for containers to keep important papers. Its fiber is used for tatami mats, as well as in very breathable textiles of natural coloring to make clothes and handbags. Essence extracted from its leaves is employed for soba noodles, cakes, and rice cakes. More and more products are developed using their beautiful green color and unique flavor. Chatan city has announced itself as the “country of shell ginger” which has led to the birth of  “Chatan San-nin Ondo” sung by Itsumi Group1, and the whole city is revitalized by projects relying on shell ginger.

If children could get to know this plant on other occasions than the mūchī season, one day, we might be able to hear the sound of them blowing the shell ginger.2

Editor’s Note:

  1. A vocal group of Okinawan mothers.
  2. On the Daitō Islands exists a unique species, Daito Gettou (Daito Shell Ginger), Alpinia zerumbet var. excelsa. This plant is a specialty of these islands, used for essence oil, soap, and snack flavor.