Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, November 04, 2011

The 2011 Okinawa Trip, Day Four

(Sorry about the long delay between Day Three and Day Four...; life got in the way again.)

It is said that there have been human inhabitants on the Ryukyu Islands for more than 32,000 years. It's not certain when a Japanese-speaking culture became dominant, but the local tongue diverged from Yamato Japanese sometime before the 7th century to become the Ryukyuan language (now referred to as "Okinawa dialect", though it is a distinct language). It wasn't until the 12th century that true rulers with organized forces appeared, and a couple hundred years of squabbling between them finally ended with the victory of King Sho Hashi and the establishment of the peaceful Ryukyu Kingdom in the 14th century.

Traditional Ryukyuan buildings looked more Chinese than Japanese, and for a good reason. The old Ryukyu Kingdom maintained very close cultural, commercial, and political ties with both Korea and China and was a vassal of the latter. Even after the Satsuma invasion in the 17th century, which brought the Ryukyus under Japanese control, the Ryukyu king continued to give tribute to and hold audience with the Chinese Emperor clear until the Meiji Restoration in the late 1860's asserted the absolute rulership of the Japanese Emperor.

Even today, buildings with traditional Okinawa-style roofs are clearly different from their mainland Japanese counterparts. Not only are the tiles usually a sandy color rather than gray or red-brown, but they are firmly cemented together. (Refer to the pics of Ryukyu Village in Day One for examples.) This makes perfect sense considering Okinawa gets far more typhoons than any other part of Japan.

Sadly, also because of the often violent weather, traditional-style buildings have disappeared from Okinawa even more quickly than in the Japanese mainland. The overwhelming majority of homes in better-developed areas are brick or cement boxes with flattish roofs.

2011 Okinawa typical Naha house

Even so, there are distinct Okinawan features even in modern homes in Naha like this one. Note the statues on the roof over the front porch. They are shi-sa, a sort of demon lion/dog from Okinawan mythology. Ancient houses used to have them on their roofs as a sort of talisman to ward off evil. Nowadays, it is quite common for homes to have them on their gateposts or over their front doors, as can be seen here. Shi-sa usually come in pairs, one with its mouth open, the other with its mouth closed. (It's believed that one of each is best because the one with an open mouth will spread good tidings, whereas the one with its mouth closed doesn't spread evil gossip.) There is no equivalent on the Japanese mainland.

There are other differences to be found, as well. For example, Okinawan houses are almost always of a very pale color if not white. The reason is simple: lighter colors reflect the intense subtropical sun and help keep the home cooler. Virtually every home also has a tank on the roof to collect rainwater since fresh water is rather scarce and wells are almost useless in many areas.


Our visit to Okinawa is near its end. We have only to take a brief tour of a couple of famous and historically significant landmarks before heading to the airport. First on the agenda is the ancient Royal Mausoleum known as "Tamaudun".

Tamaudun was built at the start of the 16th century as a tomb for the kings of the Second Sho Dynasty by the third one of that line. Interestingly, the Second Sho Dynasty had no ties whatsoever to King Sho Hashi at all; rather, it was started by a usurper who had overthrown the throne (overthrone the thrown?) but had assumed the Sho name out of respect for tradition (and a healthy fear of China).

2011 Okinawa Tamaudun 1

Here's a view from just outside the outer wall. The mausoleum was actually carved directly into the rock and then walls built around it.

2011 Okinawa Tamaudun 2

This stone tablet, said to be the second oldest known surviving example of its kind, bears the names of people who were deemed worthy to pass through the gate into the inner keep of the mausoleum without facing divine wrath. We ignored it and went through the gate anyway.

2011 Okinawa Tamaudun 3

The eastern chamber, at left, contains(?) the washed bones of the king and queen. The center chamber, to the right of the tower (crowned by a shi-sa, another of which is out of view to the left), was a temporary tomb where bodies were placed in coffins until the bone-washing ceremony could take place.

2011 Okinawa Tamaudun 4

The western chamber was where the remains of other members of the royal family or important people were placed.

The tombs were crafted to look like ordinary, wooden buildings though they are of stone...and very gloomy looking. Not so the place we went next...

Shurijo, or Shuri Castle, was the seat of power of the Ryukyu Kingdom from the time of its establishment by King Sho Hashi in the 14th century until Emperor Meiji put it under Imperial control in 1879, bringing the kingdom to an end. After the Ryukyu king was forced away to Tokyo to serve as an ambassador and a hostage, Shuri Castle was turned into the command center for the Imperial garrison overseeing the newly-declared Okinawa Prefecture.

Unfortunately, though Shuri Castle had been designated a national historic treasure well before World War II, the Imperial Army continued to use it as its headquarters in Okinawa. During the battle, the massive castle walls held off the American attack until the entire complex was blasted to rubble by a three-day bombardment from the battleship U.S.S. Mississippi.

The castle had apparently been destroyed and rebuilt several times during its lifetime, but after the war the site was used to construct the University of the Ryukyus. Then, just before Okinawa's reversion to Japanese administration, the university was relocated, and the final reconstruction of Shuri Castle was begun in earnest. Using a combination of old drawings and photos, historical records, and the memories of survivors, the entire complex was restored, culminating in the completion of the rebuilt main keep (seiden) in 1992. In 2000 Shuri Castle was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

* * *
Arrival at the last stop on our Okinawa tour proves to be difficult. As I feared, since Shuri Castle is one of the biggest attractions on this island, everyone and his shi-sa is here. All of the upper parking areas are packed, and the innovative underground garage for tour buses is also backed up. Basically, our buses have to wait in line, dump us off, and leave.

After that, we gather in front of the famous Shureimon gate, the front entrance to the castle complex which was also the first of its features rebuilt after World War II. (I don't have a pic I can post here, since all the ones I took show students' faces, so please check out the link.) Then we have only to wait our turn.

2011 Okinawa Shuri Castle 1

At least our wait has the luxury of some pretty flowers with lots of colorful butterflies flitting about them. (It's a shame I can't post the pic I took of a girl with a striking black and orange butterfly perched on her ponytail...) Finally, after what I fancied might be long enough to reconstruct yet another castle structure, we were finally let in. Thus began The Traversing of the Gates.

2011 Okinawa Shuri Castle 2

One of the features of Shuri Castle is its many gates. You have to pass through six of them to get to the inner keep. The outermost ones, not counting Shureimon, are stone arches with narrow wooden defensive structures on top. This one, Zuisenmon, consists of a larger wood structure straddling two limestone walls.

2011 Okinawa Shuri Castle 3

By the time you get to the inner parts, the gates are all wood, such as Koufukumon here, which also served as a residence for one of the magistrates during the Ryukyu era.

2011 Okinawa Shuri Castle 4

By the time you get to Koufukumon, you're rewarded with a wonderful view of the surrounding city. The building in the center of the pic is the Okinawa College of Art, which has traditional Okinawan tile roofs.

2011 Okinawa Shuri Castle 5

Finally...the inner keep (seiden) itself! It shows the Chinese influence on Okinawan architecture more than anything else in the castle complex...but I absolutely CANNOT get a good pic of it. It's certainly a lot bigger than it looks in this shot. Part of the problem is all the temporary structures they have set up for some kind of event. Another problem is that it's hard to find a clear view between all the tour groups. (This pic is the luckiest shot I manage to get before I'm dragged off to yet another obligatory group shot and then jostled between two more school groups.)(Please...check out the link!)(Here's one that also shows some traditional Okinawan-style tile roofs.)

2011 Okinawa Shuri Castle 6

The restored throne room inside the inner keep is sure impressive...far more colorful than anything I've seen in any other Japanese castle. Luckily, photos are allowed in this room.

2011 Okinawa shuri Castle 7

Interestingly, there are places in the walls where new (or at least "newer") construction was built on top of older remains.

2011 Okinawa Shuri Castle 8

Finally...the march back down to the buses. This is NOT my school group. I got separated.

2011 Okinawa Shuri Castle 9

There are still some places where it looks like more reconstruction may happen in the future. Interesting how lost relics of the past might reappear in the future.

I finally find my school group down in the gift shop circle (Figures...) together with at least a dozen other school groups plus a lot of independent tourists. There we wait until our buses are able to get back into the parking garage. Then we board our buses for the last time and make the journey to the airport.

The airport ordeal is uneventful. The flight is smooth, easy, and quick. The bus ride back to Ye Olde Academy is an ear-splitting explosion of "glad to be home" jubilation, class camaraderie, and off-key singing. Delivering the kids to their parents in the south parking lot is the usual frosty chaos. As for me, I'm feeling the usual after-trip blues but focusing on trying to find wayward wanderers...and being ignored. Nothing new here. Move along...move along...

The trip is over. The kids have tomorrow off. Not me, though...I still have a class full of 11th graders to teach. I also have my Halloween preparations to take care of over the course of two a country where Halloween is only barely acknowledged. Maybe I'll be lucky and manage to squeeze in just a bit of rest before Monday calls me out yet again.



  • Ahh, what a nice trip to Okinawa, the last frontier of Japan. It's nice to see that they managed to preserve all those old buildings while building new, modern houses in the island. And it looks like houses there are not unlike the ones in other Japanese cities.

    By Anonymous Drew Hohmann, at 11:16 PM  

  • Hi, Drew! Welcome!

    Actually, Okinawan houses tend to be similar to those of the rest of Japan in some ways but different in others. For example, traditional tile roofs in Okinawa (which are quickly disappearing) are firmly cemented the point where the mortar is fully visible. In other parts of Japan tiles are only lightly cemented with mortar that is fully concealed (which is why most tile roofs within two hundred miles of the epicenter of the March earthquake [like mine] suffered damage). Houses in most of Japan are more often of dark colors, but Okinawan houses are always a very pale color if not white. Okinawan houses also tend to be boxier than those of the Japanese mainland.

    Yes, it's very good that so many old buildings were either rescued or rebuilt. The Okinawa battle left sadly little, which was inevitable but still regrettable.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:43 PM  

  • Thank you for this series of posts about your trip. You have provided a a lot of information to your readers that is most interesting and educational.

    The ban on posting pics of student faces is so odd. I can understand it some context, but not entirely.

    Even K has told me to not post so many pics of her and to stop using her full name and revert to just "K" as I did early on. This is paranoia (as I view it) and is a sad development. As I asked "K", "Am I only to take pictures of a Japan devoid of humans?" What is the point of trying to blog and document a my life in a country if I don't include any people?

    Personally, I find it rather creepy. Like the photos that Faye Dunaway's character took in the movie "Three Days of the Condor" - empty parks, empty streets, empty park benches. Like scene from "On the Beach", as if humanity had been wiped out.

    Anyway, thanks again for this series of posts. It has been most enlightening.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 9:56 PM  

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