Monday, March 11, 2013
Nippon Extremities: Okinawa IX
March 3, 2003
On this, my last day on Okinawa, Keiko showed up early, with Paul in tow. We headed south in Paul's van, listening to a Ryukyu Underground CD that I had. Keiko seemed to hate it. She said that the vocals were merely used as instrumentation and were fragmented. All Okinawa songs tell a story, but here it wasn't allowed to unfold. The soul had been removed.
Our first stop was Seifa Utaki, an immense system of trails cross-crossing one another and deeper into the jungle. The first part was drone-lined and befitting its World Heritage status, but after a large grove, the trails began to spider web outward. I felt like I was walking in the Land of the Lost. At any moment, I expected a dinosaur to pop out. I followed my instincts, coming to a few places I "felt," including a small grove overhung by a tree like a weeping willow. A little beyond this, over a small ridge was an old castle. Before it were three small altars, on each for river, woman, and fire. A little further along was man, and further still, river again. I took another fork and came to a tomb, a cave walled shut with large stones.
Meeting Paul and Keiko again down below, they led me to a triangle cut through the rock. Paul told me to pray, then look left and see what I could do. I passed through, bowing right, center, and left, looking up and across at Kudaka. This altar was for people who couldn't make the trip, as at Nakagusuku. I think Paul's priming made me look hard, but I didn't see anything. However, my attention kept focusing upward, to the rocks and ridge above. When I looked at Paul and Keiko, they were smiling and Paul said, "Let's go." We made the short climb, past a habu warning sign. On top was a small area nestled between two higher crops. One had an altar facing Kudaka, and behind it was a small mirror to catch the sun rising over the island. Paul felt they had once started fires from the reflection in order to cook the morning meal. Again, his asking what I saw ensured I saw nothing. I was thinking, rather than intuiting. However, two stone formations on the beach far below seemed to suggest a road. Paul said that some people saw a road go all the way out to Kudaka. All I saw were cloud reflections moving across the water.
We drove along the coast and down to the shore at Ukinzu Hainzu, a small grove containing two springs. Someone had cordoned off a section of stream leading from one of the springs and had planted rice. The color and features were different than on Honshu. Near the spring on the right were two large stones where the mythical horse god landed when he leapt from Kudaka. Again, my attention was drawn upward. And again Paul asked, "Do you want to go?" We followed the trail up, and where it forked I went left, going up to the main road. It was my first miss of the day, but I wan't getting much of a "read" here. We returned to the fork and went right, leading to another sealed off cave tomb. Paul told me that he'd once seen a white horse here, and another time, Ebisu. For him, the power was strong. While we were talking, I noticed that what I had thought was part of a conch shell, just as there had been at the tomb in Seifa Utaki. Looking closer, I saw the cracks and coloration of cremated bone, obviously a hip. A rock had been removed from the wall, and looking through the opening, we saw a box richly decorated with shisa and Chinese figures. A large pot stood broken to one side, and behind a small wall was a skull. According to the sign, this was the grave of a warrior, no doubt the top local guy. I suddenly went cold, terrified to be near a desecrated grave, so we fled.
We had a quick lunch at Hanabe Chaya, a cafe set on the beach, all tables facing the sea. At high tide, the water must come right up to the tables on the lowest deck. Today at low tide, I walked out on the stones, finding two utaki below the cliffs.
We got doused on the drive back to Naha, watching the storm come in like a wave to break atop us. Two bicycle riders who we passed earlier would be drenched soon. Our last stop of the day was Okinogu, where we found dozens of kaminchu finishing their rituals for the first new lunar month. Since they were delayed by the rain, we were able to join them.
First, we prayed inside the shrine. It was a long prayer, during which it felt like someone was stroking my head on the right side like a cat. As the prayer finished, it felt like the floor bounced slightly below me. Keiki, Paul, and I got up to give an offering. Downstairs we prayed twice, once inside, once out. I was scolded for having my foot on a grate, and I never learned why. There were four nuru here, one of which was a bit gimpy and incredibly old, but moved unbelievably quickly with her cane. The three that I'd met the other day all wished me a good trip, one of them then asked me to translate a book about this very shrine.
I said farewell to Paul, then Keiko took me to the ferry terminal, losing her way, of course. I asked her if her father (one of the top Okinawan musicians of all time) liked Champloose's music. She told me that he hadn't at first, but it had grown on him. She said that musicians who start with an Okinawa background can create successful musical hybrids, but those from outside the islands, such as Ryukyu Underground, or a pair of Ainu who we'd heard on another of my CDs, sounded fake or disjunct. Keiko had often put down Hirayasu Takashi's voice, but he really had the feel for the music, she conceded.
We ate soba at the ferry terminal, both of us tired and not talking much. She'd gotten a lot of sun this week, and I'd begun to notice that she'd been wearing more makeup on stage in order to hide it. We said a quick goodbye, and off she went.
I took a shuttle about two hundred meters to the ship. Most of the passengers were college students on spring break. The two drunkest shared my room, naturally. Later the snores of at least three of them made a riotous symphony. I stood out on deck, watching Naha recede. A plane took off directly over us. The winds crushed me against the rail and when we cleared port, I went in. As I wrote in my journal, an old man gave me two cans of beer then walked off without expecting any conversation in return. Almost everyone on board was drinking, and could barely walk on the violently pitching ship. I imagined what their stomachs were doing. As it was, the ship had already reeked of vomit when we boarded, and one room near mine was suspiciously sealed shut. Back in my room, a single guy watched TV with everyone else slept. A noisy show blared six feet from my head. Unable to sleep due to this, I lay there fuming, until a half-hour later I noticed that he'd gone to sleep without switching it off. I decided that if the ship's rolling got so bad that I had to vomit, I knew along which trajectory it would fly. I scolded another guy for smoking. When I'm tired...
Not like I could sleep anyway. Before going to bed, I went back on deck to stare into the piching darkness. I thought I saw another plane taking off, but it was the light of another boat out on the horizon, rising high in the air, then down below the rail. We must've looked the same to him. Lying in my bunk was less nauseating than siting up. But here too, all was in motion. It it been a simple side to side, it would've been like lying in a hammock. But we seemed to be moving in all direction, at irregular intervals. Sometimes we'd be teetering at a precarious angle, other times we'd smack into a trough. I could hear the captain working the engines, accelerating and decelerating us through the angry water. Twice I was slammed into the wall. Somewhere off, I heard the sound of someone puking. Somehow though, I found sleep.
On the turntable: Natalie Merchant, "The House Carpenter's Daughter"