The man on a bicycle at the end of the lane, singing shima uta (island songs), bows as deeply as he thinks, gives me a spirited greeting and, speeding past, resumes his melody.
Smiles here in Okinawa are generally of the unforced variety and greetings a daily commonality. Eye contact elicits at the very minimum a nod or polite bow. Inbred warmth and courtesy have not yet been leached out by modern habits of introspection.
But then the people here really are a different breed. Physiological differences are soon noted in rounder features, and large eyes. More beards are sported here, darker complexions, features carrying hints and tints of other places: Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia; all the people who ever docked here.
The emerald greens and sapphire blues of the sea and coral of Okinawa lent the chain its name, the Ryukyu Islands, chosen by the ancient Chinese to mean “circle of jewels.” However, the beauty of the epithet belies the island’s troubled history of warfare, discrimination and colonization. The narrator of Kushi Fusako’s short story ‘Memoirs of a Declining Ryukyuan Woman’, observes, “We always seem to be at the tail end of history, dragged along roads already ruined by others.” Efforts to stamp out traditional Okinawan customs by the mainland Japanese government were only partially successful, though. Tattooing the back of hands (a visibly verifiable custom) soon disappeared, but the abolition on consulting yuta (female shamans) was less successful. Mostly obliterated in WWII, Naha (Okinawa’s principal city), is in some senses a modern urban center, with efficient services, a first rate airport, and even a monorail. Facing the East China Sea, its historical credentials suggest a culture that is nothing if not polychromatic.
Chinese goodwill settlers put their roots down in Naha as early as 1393, when a permanent delegation of officials was sent from Peking to live in the city’s Kume district. Their dissemination of skills in governance, shipbuilding, the Chinese language, foods, music and religion created a new social ecology. By the early 15th century, with King Sho Hashi uniting the Ryukyu Islands under one rule, Naha’s natural harbor, overflowing with ships from China and Southeast Asia, was the undisputed commercial center of a kingdom that, while expected to pay tribute to China and choosing to model its own court life on that of Peking’s royalty, remained an effectively independent domain.
The expansion of trade under the second Sho Dynasty (under King Sho Shin) consolidated power and the city’s overseas trade. All of this ended in 1609 with the invasion of Japanese samurai sent by the Satsuma Clan in Kagoshima. Forced to pay heavy taxes and subjected to the growing influence of Japanese culture, Okinawa’s economy floundered, and the once proud residents of Naha now found themselves materially and emotionally depleted.
Okinawa’s fate was sealed with the overthrow of the royal dynasty in the late 19th century. This resulted in the final king, Sho Tai, being taken hostage. Naha’s royal enclave at Shuri was left to molder. The coup de grace came with the American bombing of Naha, resulting in the total destruction of the palace grounds. Akira Yoshimura’s 1967 novel ‘Typhoon of Steel,’ about the American campaign to capture Okinawa, vividly describes the scene of destruction and carnage close to Shuri, where lush sub-tropical flora and landscapes are transformed by “countless explosions making it seem as though hundreds of volcanoes were erupting at once.”
Naturally, there isn’t a great deal of pre-war architecture left in Naha, but the traditional residences that remain are characteristically squat, heavily tiled houses made from volcanic rock, surrounded by stout, palisade-like walls designed to protect the inhabitants against the potential havoc caused by the typhoon winds and rains that can lash the islands in September and October.
The back streets of Naha strongly reminded me of Indochina and some of the sleepier Mekong River towns in northern Thailand. This is seen in the flat-roofed cement buildings, houses with airy, columned balconies and thick banisters that hadn’t been painted in years, homes standing in earth gardens of banana frond, mango, yellow and red hibiscus, and bougainvillea. Concrete buildings had acquired character from the action of salt and wind, changing the whites, peeling magnolia and lost pastels of their surfaces into the resemblance of blanched coral or chalk. Broken roofs were sealed with mortar and birdlime. Many of these bone-white buildings were streaked with mildew. The walls of frailer homes, covered in weatherboarding that had been worn down and stripped, left dry and brittle by the sea air, seemed hardly strong enough to support their heavy, tiled roofs. Some owners had painted their wooden properties, the white or blue contrasting nicely with the orange rows of overlapping tile.
Standing on the elevated fortifications of Shuri Castle even in the mid 19th-century, one could cast an eye over the port at Naha, where several Chinese junks would have been harbored. Confucian temples were still standing. Even earlier visitors would have been startled by other Asian elements, such as the fashion for wearing Malaysian turbans. The port would have presented a colorful scene, with a continuous coming and going of foreign crews and delegates, stevedores loading up ships with silks, gold-dusted fans, ceramic ware, and dried foods destined for Siam, Malacca, Java, Patani and other Southeast Asian ports of call.
The fortunes of the island seem to have been connected to the fate of the castle. When it flourished, so did its economy and culture; when it was overseen by outside forces, its health went into decline. Now fully restored to its former glory, and with a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, Shuri Castle has reclaimed its cultural centrality. The highlight of the restoration is the stunningly vivid throne rooms and double-roof of the Seiden, the royal palace. More authentic than the Seiden are the stone fortifications that snake across the hill, and a number of outer and inner gates. Although busloads of tourists routinely throng the famous double-roofed Shurei-no-mon, the inner Kankai-mon, a guardhouse flanked by limestone walls, is an equal if not superior example of Okinawan masonry work.
The construction of the castle was an arduous experience for those brought in for the labor. Okinawan writer Kishaba Jun describes the scene in a short story of his called ‘Dark Flowers’, in which corvee labor units made up of peasant farmers, “marched in long columns, dragging logs and stones, and many died from starvation and sunstroke…. Under the relentless gaze of bailiffs, the farmers, nearly dead from exhaustion, collapsed in the shade of trees beside the road to give their bodies a brief rest.”
Beyond the walls of the castle, an island pavilion stands in a walled pond surrounded by trees. Built in 1492 as part of the massive Enkaku-ji (a memorial temple of the second Sho Dynasty) little remains of the original temple building save a few shell-pocked walls, the casualty of more recewarfare. The remaining stone features are set in green and leafy glades, a blessing in the summer months when the sun can be fierce.
Greenery, in fact, has returned to Naha in abundance, as it usually does in the sub-tropics, where the speed of recovery is extraordinary. Private gardens in the city are necessarily small, but intensely planted with their tropical flowers and fruit trees. Two formal gardens can be found in Naha. The first, aptly enough, is a Chinese garden, the Fukushu-en. Containing reconstructions of buildings from the province of Fukien, the sections of this semi-botanical garden are linked by moon doorways, carp ponds, stone paths and the kind of fantastically shaped limestone rocks one associates with the southern Chinese gardens of Shuzhou and Hangzhou.
Larger and more assertively Okinawan, but with strong Chinese influences, are the grounds of the second residence of the Ryukyu royal families, Shikina-en. A large formal garden constructed in the 18th century, a set of wooden buildings and terraces with orange-tiled roofing stand near the entrance to the garden. Chinese delegates would once gather here for the coronation of Ryukyuan kings. A circular landscape in the manner of an Edo period stroll garden, one shore has a hexagonal, Chinese-style pavilion (known as the Rokkaku-do) dominating the central area of the garden. The entire garden was painstakingly reconstructed, using many of the original materials after being totally obliterated in WWII. The garden was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000.
The British potter Bernard Leach visited the city before the war, waxing lyrical at its sub-tropical climate, writing that it was a place where craftsmen still worked by hand. His co-potter and friend, Yanagi Soetsu, could still describe Naha as a “dream city” after visiting in 1930. Writer David Scott, visiting in the late 1980s, found little of beauty in the prefectural capital, but this was more than made up for by its laissez faire atmosphere: “…the jumbled mixture of hotels, temples, McDonald hamburger bars, ice-cream parlors, jogging GIs, Shinto shrines, Japanese tourists, strip joints, karate dojos, old men and women in kimonos, crop-headed marines and dense traffic fit comfortably together. It is easy to feel relaxed there. Like the cities of South East Asia, its lassitude is as seductive as its culture.”
This mood can be sensed along Naha’s famous Kokusai Dori, a street that began life as a black market after the war, when it was known as Miracle Mile. It continues to be the island’s main commercial center, an unrivaled shopping bonanza, with every conceivable kind of Okinawan goods on display. Visitors are inevitably drawn to its food and drink offerings.
If Kokusai Dori wets your appetite for the edible side of Naha, the Makishi Public Market will sate it. This is the city’s kitchen, where local produce is sold from stalls run in some cases by the same families for generations. The emphasis here is on freshness, with a cornucopia of tropical fruits and sea products, including umi budo (sea grapes) and gurukun, the island’s most typical fish. This being Okinawa, a visit to the butchers’ section (where pork is always king) is fitting. Rafute, slowly cooked pork belly is succulent; pig’s cheek jerky is a challenge to outsiders, comparable with preparations like pig’s tongue flavored with awamori.
People who are enthusiastic about ceramics usually head straight for the Tsuboya district close to both Kokusai Dori and Heiwa Dori. This is where Okinawan pottery was first created in the 15th century, a tradition that is alive and well. An old water pump stands at the entrance to the district, on a spot that used to be a well used by artisans. The nearby Tsuboya Ceramics Museum, with historical displays and a clear narrative of the craft’s development, is a good place to start an exploration of the area. There is a stone staircase next to the museum leading to an ancient prayer site, home to the gods who protect the district. East of here is Feinu Kama, the last surviving kiln used for baking arayachi (unglazed pottery).
In the historical Kume area there is a statue of Kohshi. With its roots in China, but evolving to include aspects of Shinto, Buddhism and Taoist thinking, ancestor worship remains a key element in the spiritual life of Okinawans, visible in this contemporary city of Naha, where neglect of rituals results in misfortune, and where yuta are still commonly consulted for advice on important matters such as marriage, fertility and health.
On shiimii, the 15th day of the third month according to the old lunar calendar, families congregate around their ancestral tombs to pray and consume large amounts of food and drink in a feast honoring the deceased. Not far from Shuri Park, at the Royal Mausoleum called Tama Udon, is the well-preserved site of the tomb for the second Sho Dynasty. The room to the left after entering was strictly reserved for kings and queens, the right room used for the placement of the bones of other members of the family.
The Okinawan royal family may have lost all their privileges and titles with the seizure of the islands and dissolution of the kingdom, but a moment of historical continuity can be briefly glimpsed during shiimii, when descendents of the royal family visit Tama Udon to pay their respects to their ancestors, and a past that has all but vanished behind the limestone walls of the tomb.
Story and photos by Stephen Mansfield
From J SELECT Magazine, June 2010