Saturday, March 09, 2013
Nippon Extremities: Okinawa VIII
March 2, 2003
I awoke far too early, so I trod the well-worn path to Starbucks, where I talked with a heavy-set man jumpy from too much coffee. Then I killed time at Rainbow Tree until Keiko showed up. We headed south for the first time, through countryside that looked much like I expected, of low grassy mountains sweeping down to tropical vegetation that led to clear water. Houses of two stories with concrete verandas. Along the way, I was happy to spot a center dedicated to I-ching study.
Our destination was a home in a small village below a couple of triangular peaks. There were about a dozen people milling about, across a span of four generations. The men and the older women had just finished the sugar cane harvest for the morning. After lunch, they'd head back out there. We were going out to Kudaka-jima, taking along two little girls and a young woman. After her mother, Keiko's classmate, had killed herself, Keiko essentially adopted her. Though they spoke Japanese, the word 'mommy' punctuated sentences occasionally.
We made the quick crossing to Kudaka in about 30 minutes. I stood at the rail, wind and spray splashing my face. I watched the coral pass beneath the churning wake, before the water color darkened with depth. We passed around a reef, then went over. The island was rocky, the coral cliffs nearest the shore scooped out by millions of waves. We drove up through a village of old, weather-worn homes, the wood and roof tiles bleached nearly white. The yards themselves were lined by walls made of porous volcanic rock. Beyond the village was a single road that led out into the jungle. After only about five minutes, we reached Kudaka's far end. Here the beach was rocky, waves breaking right below us. I jumped down onto the smooth white stones, the water slightly cold, running up to my calves. Some of the rock formations behind me were stunning, one having been hollowed out with a small window showing the blue sky above.
I frolicked around awhile, then we drove to the island's eastern side. Getting out, we followed a path leading through the forest to the beach. Here the sand was round, with a very unusual texture. It was smoother and felt cold. I walked along what must've once been the sides of coral reefs, but were now blackened and highlighted by the green of lichen and fern. Back on the road, we passed a farmer in his bean fields, someone who Keiko had known. Long ago, Shokichi had spent a few years living out here, which made obvious the fact that he'd been touched by the gods. Keiko too often came out here to pray, and every New Year she'd go house to house playing sanshin. No doubt she knew everyone.
We walked out a jungle trail to Ishiki Beach. A small utaki was off to the right. This island is considered Okinawa's garden of Eden, and it was here at Ishiki Beach that the gods enter. An utaki on the beach was in line with a large flat stone midway out the reef. Beyond that, Keiko told me, was Nirai Kanai, Okinawa's paradise, a place that people can't see, but some can feel. I knelt on the beach in front of the utaki and did kokyu meditations for heaven, earth, and man. When I finished, turning around, I found a small piece of coral resembling a bear claw, which I took as a connection with my meeting the Ainu bear god. I asked Keiko if it was okay to take it from here, and she said it was if I felt it was. To be safe, we asked the farmer again, who was one of the few male shamen. He said that only round stones were taboo, since they were used for rituals at the main shrine in the village.
It was to here that we returned, a place where only women are allowed to worship. We drove around, through the incredibly narrow rock lined lanes. (I noticed that all the cars had scratches down both sides.) Keiko pointed out Shokichi's house among the others. After a bowl of soba that we wolfed down in three minutes, we crossed back to Okinawa.
I learned another valuable lesson there. Ishiki Beach was probably the place that I had most wanted to visit, to sense its power. However Kaberu Beach, the first place we stopped, was also sacred, yet I hadn't known. Keiko said that I behaved as if I had known. It seemed to me that it didn't matter if someone before us had drawn inspration from a certain place. While it was important to pay our respects, it should be or own hearts which led us, finding places with meaning to ourselves as we go along though life. While guides were important, it was only ourselves who could walk the path. Nonetheless, the kaminchu hadn't felt the presence of the gods for a couple of years, causing major concern about what calamities might be in store.
We stopped again at Keiko's "daughter's" house, where one by one the men filled in, having finished the day's work. They cleaned up and sat down with a beer. The women cooked, the children studied and played, the old women sat and cackled. The conversation flowed on its own, then as is common, the TV came on and guided it for us. I had seen this scene played out dozens of times, in Kumano, Daito, Oki. However, here it happens every Sunday, not only on holidays. And the faces too were different, almost Native American, in this house in a sun-bleached village between the mountains and the sea.
Back on Kokusai-dori, I went to a diner whose motif was America in the 50's. Movie posters and star's photos lined the walls, including Ernie Pyle, who had been killed on a beach so far away from here. After a cheeseburger and a beer, I was back at Rainbow Tree, talking again to Paul and a couple of others. They had had a rough night apparently , and were starting in again, well ahead of me. They complained about US foreign policy, and how it could be argued that it had contributed to up to 8 million deaths during the '90's. Other nations were lining up against us, carrion to feed on the empire in decline.
I was late to Chakra, and for Champloose. Shokichi was missing, so we were in for an different show altogther, with the three women members of the band on vocals, "Hana" with Keiko on the lead, and the guitarist on piano. It just didn't have the same power, but it was nice to experience a different vibe. SHokichi showed up later to play a stripped down set, punctuated by talks about his daytrip to Hiroshima. Next, Keiko played drums as Takao ripped on sanshin. Keiko claimed that he was the best sanshin player in the world, her father's candle having passed Shokichi by.
We went upstairs once again, and I met Jeff, an Oceanographer who had been working with the Navy for over 35 years. He made a perpetual loop around Asia , nine months a year away from his disintegrating family. We were joined by Chika and Hiromi, the latter surprising me with her English. After awhile I began translating for Jeff, carefully editing out his stereotyping of Asian women, and his rants against the English. He seemed like a nice guy, but his views were long dated. His light touching of cultures, while enviable, was never intense enough to teach him anything. I felt like I was talking to a character in a pre-war novel. I did learn one interesting thing from him. Near Yonaguni there is a pyramid beneath the sea. No one knows whether or not it is man-made, but it seems too perfect to be natural. It is now a prime dive spot.
I talked a while with Sachiko, who up until now I'd seen as the bad sister, and who intimidated me a little. In reality, she was a little shy and not so comfortable with conversation. And once again, Tomoko tried to get me drunk on Awamori.
Keiko and I left around 1:30, but she was intercepted by a woman who wanted to talk business. We followed her to her shop, a new karaoke place just opened that night. I declined food and drink and grew more and more irritable and sleepy. The woman who I had at first taken for 30, in better light showed her age as a weathered beauty. She was the first Okinawan I'd met who seemed fake in her politeness, and just wouldn't shut up. I finally got home after 3:00, again kicking myself for not having gone back an hour earlier. While I'd always loved playing and watching live music, I'd never really liked this nocturnal world and its unnaturalness, and I felt strongly that I didn't want to get used to it.
On the turntable: Santana, "Salsa, Samba, and Santana"