Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, October 28, 2011

The 2011 Okinawa Trip, Day One

"No! Ryukyu is peaceful! We have no weapons! You couldn't possibly..."
"You have a better target? A military target? Then name the island!"

* * *

For hundreds of years, despite its status as an important and wealthy trade hub, the Ryukyu Kingdom was indeed peaceful and weaponless. Even when the Satsuma clan from Japan invaded during the latter's Sengoku (Warring States) Period from the 15th to 17th centuries, the Ryukyu offered no resistance and were thus allowed to go on living as they had before as long as they paid the Satsuma daimyo tribute. (History tells that when Emperor Napoleon of France heard about the Ryukyu Kingdom, he was so flustered by the idea of a peaceful, weaponless nation that he threw a tantrum!) All this changed when the Emperor of Japan finally reclaimed full control of his country from the shoguns at the end of the 19th century, ushering in the Meiji Period. Emperor Meiji forced all of Japan's various provinces and autonomous domains to submit to his Western-influenced political system. The king of the Ryukyus was forced to abdicate and relocate to the new Imperial capital in Tokyo, where he served as both a minister and a hostage. The Emperor also took away the name of the Ryukyu Kingdom and replaced it with one of his own choosing:
* * *
(Note: I'm under orders from the Principal of Ye Olde Academy not to post any pictures on this blog which show faces of students and/or the name of the school clearly enough to be recognized. That limits my picture selection, but that's the way it is.)

I admit that I was as much worried as excited about the coming of the school trip to Okinawa. I'd been on several such school trips in the past, but they'd always been to Hiroshima and Kyoto. I'd always enjoyed those, but, American as I am (and neither apathetic nor mindlessly patriotic enough to be immune), going to Hiroshima was never easy. I had a feeling that Okinawa was going to be even worse.

I leave home just as the sun is starting to rise on the morning of October 25th. It's a bit chilly in my light shirt and school windbreaker, but I know Okinawa is going to be quite a bit hotter, so I'm compromising. I get about a quarter mile down the road when I realize that I've gone off without my camera, so I whip a U-turn on the empty street and head back. I manage to get to Ye Olde Academy just in time, which means that the rest of our trip staff has already been there for at least ten minutes (which will later turn out to be one of the themes of the entire trip). There is a short ceremony and a briefing, after which we head down to the lower parking lot where the buses are waiting. Some students are already there waiting, too, though the main mass of Grade 9 (quirky fanfare) is only just starting to arrive. There is a lot of tension and anticipation in the air; a lot of the kids have never been on a long-distance trip before (or even a short-distance one, in some cases). Departure time finally arrives, and the Principal gives us a formal sending off before each class goes to its bus. Soon our caravan is heading off under mottled skies bound for Haneda Airport in Tokyo.

Any school trip is an exercise in "hurry up and wait", but this time it is particularly bad. The airport is packed with school groups going on similar trips, and at least two others are sharing our plane. Moving is difficult and requires deft maneuvering. All the restrooms have lines going out into the hall. I have yet another bad feeling about this. In fact, I have several.

The flight to Naha Airport takes about two hours, most of which I mercifully sleep through. Landing is extremely rough. As soon as we leave the plane, we're immediately hit with proof that we are now a lot closer to the tropics than Ibaraki, and layers of clothing are quickly peeled off. Each class is put on its bus and introduced to the guide who will be a companion for the next four days.

Our guide is a very intriguing woman, youngish but of uncertain age, who I quickly note reminds me a lot of my longtime internet friend Selba. Not only is she good at keeping up an interesting monologue punctuated with bits of Okinawan language and folklore, but she has a fantastic singing voice. She keeps us all very much entertained as we make our way to our first stop...and the first hammer blow on my conscience:

Kadena Air Force Base, USAF
The bus goes past a swath of barbed-wire-topped walls and fences that seem to go on and on forever. All of the buildings on the other side of the wall are the same cream color and have numbers on them. I also see a number of people there who are clearly Westerners. The guide explains that that is the famous Kadena Air Force Base, and that it is technically US territory complete with a California zip code. After a while, the bus arrives at a "rest stop" that has a four-story observation tower placed so as to offer an excellent view of the base.

There, an unbelievably (or perhaps deceptively) short distance away, are at least three runways. Behind them are rows and rows of low, blast-shielded hangars. Further away can be seen the various command, control, and radar installations that keep it all going as well as what are probably storage facilities. The complex is huge...and it's right in the middle of the town. In fact, as we're soon told, the base and its various attached facilities and reservations now account for around 80% of the total area of the town of Kadena.

As we watch, a group of USAF F-15C fighters performs practice maneuvers, coming in only about a dozen meters over the runway before suddenly pulling up hard into a chandelle. There are several planes involved, and as each one does the hard, climbing turn, it points its twin turbofans right at us...and right at the residential area behind us...blasting us with that ear-splitting roar. Meanwhile, another trio of F-15s is circling around overhead. Apparently such maneuvers go on almost all day almost every day. They also sometimes get supplemented with the odd P-3, C-130, or C-5 coming in or out. Reportedly F-22s come in from time to time, too, among just about anything else the USAF uses other than strategic bombers.

You have to understand that I'm normally an aviation buff. I could sit and watch maneuvers like that all day. I fully understand the importance of the Kadena base, too, along with the USMC Futenma Air Station situated right in the middle of another town not too far away. It's still depressing. The fact that Okinawa, formerly a nation of peace, got stuck with that burden is sad. The fact that local governments and people in mainland Japan staunchly refuse to allow any percentage of those bases to be relocated to their areas is sadder. But then again, perhaps the saddest thing of all is that those bases were not originally established by the US military, but by that of Imperial Japan during World War II. The US simply took over the existing facilities when Okinawa fell. In that respect, one could say that even though Okinawa is part of Japan, it has been made a victim of Japan.

I didn't take any pictures. I just wasn't in the mood.

Ryukyu Village
After driving further north into the less-developed hokubu (northern part) of the island, we arrive at Ryukyu Village, a theme park based on the original Ryukyu culture.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 1

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 2

Some of the buildings there are modern but modeled after the ancient style, such is this small exhibition hall showing a gigantic rope made to get a Guinness World Record.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 3

However, many if not most of the structures there are authentic, old ones that were located and transplanted.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 4

Take, for example, this house that was built in the late 19th century. There are some there that are even older.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 6

Between the thick jungle and sometimes weird rock formations, there were some pretty eerie places.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 7

There was also a display and small research center there devoted to the habu, an aggressive and very dangerous species of pit viper native to Okinawa. Since ancient times, they've been notorious for crawling into homes and storerooms, especially at night. They're prone to attack, are able to strike out to a range almost equal to the full length of their body, and have very powerful venom. Apparently mongooses were brought over from India in the early 20th century to help eradicate them. Now modern medicine means that the habu's bite is rarely fatal, and the mongoose is starting to cause environmental problems.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 9

Many of the facilities in the park are craft studios. The pottery studio makes, among other things, pots crowned by the traditional Okinawan "shi-sa", or demon dog. This one has its head stuck in the pot! Normally a sucker for handmade items, I still managed to come out of there without buying much.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 12

Then there are the traditional arts, such is this ancient-style sugar cane press, powered by a water buffalo.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 13

The inner circle of the park. Different types of roof representing different periods of time can be seen.

Still feeling a bit bummed, I get some fresh coconut/mango juice at a stall, but it only perks me up a little, so I decide to leave the park ten minutes before the buses are due to depart.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 14

The sky is already turning nasty.

Manzamo Point

2011 Okinawa Manzamo Point 1

We then drive a bit further north to Manzamo Point, a famous sightseeing spot. Its cliffs are full of bizarre rock formations such as this elephant-like natural arch.

2011 Okinawa Manzamo Point 3

Looking the other direction, you can see one of the smaller satellite islands. Okinawa's seas are famous for being colorful, but it doesn't help when the sky is gray...

2011 Okinawa Manzamo Point 6

Going around the point and looking into the cove to the north, you can see these stones. There are many like them, i.e. worn down at surf level so they look like they're sitting on top of the water. However, these two have a sacred rope between them, meaning they're believed to be an abode of spirits.

After scouting the nearby gift tents (and not buying anything), I get on my bus with the rest of my class, and we head out to our hotel for the next couple of days.

2011 Okinawa Nago 1

This is the view from my hotel balcony...and I have the room all to myself. Of course, the teenage punks I have for neighbors really need to go boom, but whatever. They're having a good time.



  • Well, whatever happens, you had a nice room. Thanks for the commentary.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 1:51 PM  

  • Most interesting. I've been wanting to go down there for some time. There are interesting parallels with the Ryukyu Kingdom and what we learned of the Ainu in Hokkaido this summer - especially regards the way they were treated by Japan in the Meiji era.

    Your hotel room view makes me want to don a mask and fins. :)

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:09 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home