Thursday, February 14, 2013
Nippon Extremities: Okinawa II
February 24, 2003
I awoke late the next day having slept badly. The bar next door to my hotel went on until the early morning hours. I taxied over to Shuri castle, wandering its circular paths beneath low arches. The remnants of the walls wound all along the hillside. The castle itself was quite impressive from the outside, with a huge Chinese style courtyard fronting a massive structure that was multicolored against the grey stormy sky. Inside, however, was a let-down, with narrow hallways leading in a maze, obviously rebuilt, and filled with tourists moving much too slowly.
At the base of the hill was a single temple building sitting on an island in a small pond. This well weathered building was in drab contrast to the sakura just beginning to bloom into bright pink. The tree was a welcome reminder that spring would come, punctuating the end of what had been a particularly hard winter.
Down the road was Tama Udun, the ancient burial site of the Ryukyu kings. I had the place to myself, this crescent of stone in a quiet forest clearing. Two frightening statues stood on either end, overlooking the gloom that hung about.
I headed downhill along Madamamichi, a series of cobblestone roads webbing out between old tiled houses. Cats lay around everywhere, adding to the already Mediterranean feel. Completely accidentally, I came across my first utaki, a large grove in which stood six 20-meter high trees, their branches crisscrossing high above to form a natural aviary. Near the base of a few of the trees were small stone arches, serving as Torii.
I taxied over to Tsudoya, the pottery area, with its old workshops and ivy-covered lanes. Shishi were everywhere. Next to the oldest kiln, 400 years old and collapsing, was a tea shop. I sat in the shade and drank goya juice (noxiously bitter, like grapefruit gone bad) and watched a cat stalk around, pouncing on a black friend.
After lunch, I met up with Keiko. She had to run a few errands, so I accompanied her to a shoe store where we happened to find a newspaper article about Shokichi's recent trip to Iraq. While there, we ran into an old sanshin master from Kudaka, and his apprentice, with whom we were to meet later in the week.
Afterwards, we went to a dance studio to watch a man work through a waltz with a woman in her '50s. With unusual grace, so poised were her movements that she completely spun her heavyset partner around the room. Books on zen and martial arts speak of holding the head like a string of pearls. Here I was seeing it put into practice, supported by strong back muscles and perhaps 40 years of dancing. Next, Keiko took a turn, giggling as she slipped again and again.
We moved down the street to the market, filled with an array of very colorful and very dead fish. Parts of pigs I never thought edible. Huge lobsters, crabs, and pufferfish. We moved through a series of smaller alleys to a used record shop. When does a musician get used to seeing their own face, or to hearing their own music everywhere?
Walking through town, Keiko knew just about everyone, greeting the old men with "Haisai!" I am used to traveling by thumb, but today it was by her finger. Yet I was happy to be here in the first place. And I almost shouldn't have been due to a language misunderstanding. When Keiko had asked me the night before why I had come to Okinawa, I told it that I had wanted to see live Okinawan music, and to visit power spots. She told me later that she had at first thought that I was some weird foreigner, touring around the island's power factories. Eventually, she caught onto my meaning. (Funny how as I now type this ten years later, 'power spot' is well-recognized part of the Japanese lexicon.)
We picked up her car, then drove to Nami-No-Uegu Shrine, sitting high above the harbor on a hill. It looked and felt like a typical Shinto Shrine, but Keiko assured me that Okinawa is a bit different. Next door was Koshi-byo, my first Confucian Temple in Japan. It consisted of an enclosed grassy area with three small buildings each housing only a table and small altar.
Next up was Okunogu, an unusual temple on a hill in a nearby park. The upper part of the structure was a shrine, the lower building filled with varied Buddhist deities. On a clearing above all was a small series of stones, symbolic of the shamanesses in the area. Keiko knelt in the grass and prayed. Around back was a pond with a couple gods, including Kannon surrounded by multiple Jizo. After I ladled water over the goddess, Keiko seemed curious why. So I told her that I'd lost my son only a few months before. She immediately sprang into action and within minutes we held a short Shinto service upstairs, followed by a similar Buddhist one down in the building below. Afterward, the shamaness who had conducted it explained to me that Shinto represents heaven, and Buddhism, earth. In old times, this was the usual state of spirituality everywhere throughout Japan, but during Meiji, this link had been severed, leaving the gods disembodied and the soul of the Japanese people sacrificed for wealth and power. Only at this shrine did this link continue.
Back on Kokusai-dori, we went into a shop specializing in Okinawan instruments, one long associated with the Kina family. Behind the counter was a young woman from Kyoto, now married to a local. As she played sanshin, Keiko taught me some basic chappa techniques. Keiko's mother came in at one point and they talked about me in the Okinawan language. The mother, hearing of my interest in spirituality, took to me quickly, bemoaning the fact that Japan has lost its soul. Nationality isn't as important as heart, she told me.
Later, Keiko and I went up the street to Jin Jin, a local restaurant run by a guy who looked like a wizard in his long white beard. I tried a variety of Okinawa dishes, including pig's ears. Keiko and I kept our conversation in the realm of the spiritual, including the oddity of our meeting and our obvious connection. She told me that she had noticed me from the stage, and had felt that there was something different about me, that I seemed to be carrying something inside. She told me that with most people, you can't talk about spirit, but with me it was easy. We also talked about strange experiences. She told me that while on Yonaguni, an island supposedly without snakes, a habu had come out and had wrapped itself around the incense holder while the shamanesses were reciting prayers. A similar thing had happened on Miyako. Strange stuff.
After dinner, I walked her a little ways up the road, until I popped into Helios for a couple of beers, and a conversation with an American guy living in Aomori...
On the turntable: Bruce Springsteen, "American Madness"