Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Great Castle Bust

This post was originally posted on JPG Magazine website 16 October 2008.

I really love this place, Okinawa that is. I like to call it the Goya Republic but that's another story altogether. It's got its own rich history and dynamic culture. The people here are as much locked in a time warp as they are on the cutting edge of societal evolution. It's a place where the ying and yang collide, do battle and find that harmonic balance that we all seem to seek in our lives. In short, it's wondrous and I can't think of a place I'd rather be.

I'm a bit of a history buff as well as being addicted to the photography bug. A recent convert who was lucky enough to stumble on a way to make a few Yen out of a hobby, I spend a fair portion of my time travelling around this wonderful island documenting the history and culture with my camera. It only seemed natural that Shuri Castle, home plate of the medieval Kingdom of the Ryukyus' would be on my list of stops to shoot some pictures.
My friend and photography mentor Mike accompanies me on many of my photographic sojourns. Both of us are retired military, married to local girls and addicted to the shutter. Our once a week escape from the humdrum has taken us from majestic unbridled beauty of the far northern regions of this tiny island to the historical southern battlegrounds and everywhere in between. It just so happened that today, we finally made it all the way up to Shuri Castle.

But the day started off with a bad omen. My wife who is addicted to her television dramas the way I am to the camera loves to check the morning news and horoscopes. This morning my sign was number 12 on the list and she begged me not to go. Perhaps just this once I should have relented.

But Wednesday's are my photography days, the weather was supposed to be cruddy but the sun was shining nicely and being mid October, the sultry summer heat had finally abated. It was only supposed to get up to around 80 and having rained the day before and with more rain expected the next two days I just had to get out of the house. Who knows when I'd get the chance again? Next week was just too far off to wait.

I picked up my friend and we headed south to the big city and the castle. Shuri is a borough of the Capital City of Naha and perched on a ridge high above the city. The castle grounds are home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites. There is the castle itself, the Sonohyan Utaki and the royal tombs. If all went well, we could cover all three of these sites in one day.

The castle is also one of the major tourist attractions in Okinawa and undergoing a long and arduous restoration process. It was utterly destroyed during the battle of Okinawa during WWII. Two of the three spheres are now complete with only the royal residence still to be completed. It's a massive structure and a marvel to see.

We arrived at the underground parking complex around 10 am. We picked up our brochures (English Language) and asked one of the many attendants if photography was permitted. She assured us it was but pointed out on the brochure's map the one area of the museum where it was not. We both looked over the information and agreed to ourselves that complying with that restriction was not going to be a problem for us. We took our cameras and tripods and made our way to the castle gates.

Everything was going swimmingly well as we made our way about the castle grounds. We were a bit like kids in a candy store setting up our tripods and snapping away the shutters like madmen on a mission from God. We happily complied and put our cameras away in their carrying cases when we reached the restricted zone. Even inside this building there were signs in multiple languages that clearly stated where one could and where one could not photograph the castle.

When we reached the Seiden, the building where the King actually held court and where photography was clearly marked as being allowed, we set up out tripods again and shot the throne room from every conceivable angle. From there we made our way up the very steep steps to the second level and the King's private chambers. Again we were taking our photographs where allowed and happy to comply with the rules. Everything was going great, or so we thought.

It was just as I was getting ready to move on when a guard approached and asked if I understood Japanese. I mentioned that I spoke a little and he asked me if I was a professional photographer or an amateur. Since I do provide some content as a freelance writer for the local paper and some of my photographs are published from time to time, I stated that I was a professional. Honesty is always the best policy, isn't it? Suddenly his countenance changed and his expression became that which reminded me of my boot camp Company Commander all those many years ago. I knew as soon as I mentioned that that we were both in deep Kim chi!

He mentioned that we had to stop immediately and follow him! We packed up our gear and sheepishly followed him out of the castle, across the grounds, down through the underground parking complex and across the main street, about a quarter of a mile to the castle administration offices. The security man was a short squat looking fellow and a bit on the rotund side to put it lightly. Along the way my friend and I debated whether to make a run for it. My friend told me "When I went to jail before, it was for something I deserved, it was for a helluva lot worse than this, aint no way he can catch us and no way in hell I'm letting them take my camera from me!"

Once in the offices, we finally met someone who could speak some English. Instead of one of the younger ladies who undoubtedly had several years of it in school, this was an older and very elegant looking lady who looked to be in her early 60's. Since most Okinawan women, our wives excluded, age gracefully she may have even been older than that. In perfect English she explained that in order to take pictures for publication, we needed to have a release from them. It was all just a formality. Our fears had been for nothing.

Afterward, we were escorted back to the castle by the same guard who escorted us out. Unfortunately by this time, the skies had started to change for the worse. Ourselves a little worse for the wear from the experience, decided that we'd come back another time to finish the job. But a word to the wise for you all, even in a public place, just because it says you can photograph something doesn't mean you can photograph it for profit. Oh yeah and when your wife says that it's not a good day for you to go out. Once in a while, as painful as it can be to think of that, it might be wise to listen to her.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Growin Bananas Here

When I retired from active duty my wife and I settled down to an old style Okinawan farmhouse in the countryside. It belonged to her grandparents and had set empty for a few years after grandpa passed away. While the house is structurally sound, it is an old house and having sat empty it needed some maintenance, upgrades and required a lot of cleaning up. After the immediate house needs were taken care of, the next thing on our agenda was to take care of the property immediately around it. This meant repairing the lawn and deciding what plants to grow and where.

Of course my wife was more interested in flowers and making the place look aesthetically pleasing. My number one concern was survival and making ends meet with my reduced retirement income. Complicating the situation further was that, by tradition, everything done in Okinawa must take into consideration the tenets of Feng Shui. Flowers and plants by nature of their colors dictate where they can be grown around the property.

Certain colors are planted to the east, others to the west and so on. If done properly, this is believed not only to bring good luck but ensures health and happiness. Grandpa lived to age 99 as did grandma who passed on just recently. Knowing that Okinawans have a real zest for living and more centenarians per square millimeter than any other place on the planet, I decided that just maybe there might actually be something to it and agreed, as if I really had a choice to begin with.

We had pretty much finished working our way around the property but, when we got to the wall along the west side of the property, we ran into a little dilemma. Her flowers had trumped my fruits and vegetables by about an eleven to one margin so I insisted that we must grow something edible at this spot. We also wanted something that would grow quickly to provide a little bit of shade from the afternoon summer sun. That left the lemon trees I had seen and wanted out of the equation. While the color was right, I wasn’t sure that I had another forty or so years left in me to wait for them to be tall enough to provide the shade we wanted. About the only thing left that fit the bill was banana plants.

The great thing about bananas is they grow like crazy. In just six months, our little two foot tall trees had grown into tall leafy trees. Exceeding my expectations, they not only provided the shade I had hoped for but they also helped by adding to our privacy along the street side of the property. We had only had them for about six months when the first banana laden fruit stalk appeared. Just about that time we also noticed new banana trees sprouting from the ground about the base of the original plants.

It took another six months for the bananas to fill out and be ready for harvesting. High in fiber and potassium, they are perhaps one of the world’s most perfect foods. Perhaps that is just one reason why runners will nibble them along the way during cross country races and marathons. To fully ripen them you just chop off the stalk and hang them out of the sun for a few days till they start to turn yellow.

The bad thing about bananas are that they are very fragile plants and highly susceptible to wind damage from typhoons. We lucked out the first year as there weren’t many typhoons that passed this way. The few that did were still small storms as they passed by our island paradise and the trees were not that tall yet so the brick wall along the road where they were planted provided some additional protection.

The next year our trees had quadrupled in number and had grown quite tall. We addressed the potential wind damage problem by tying ropes around the now elephant leg sized tree trunks and tying them to each other. That way if a typhoon came through, they would act like a splint and support each other. The three storms that came and went that season did strip all the branches and leaves off of them but, the trees stood through the storms and sprouted new branches and leaves very quickly.

The biggest dilemma of all is they multiply faster than rabbits. We started with just three little trees and got fruit from all of them. They were all tasty as can be but still, it’s pretty hard to eat a whole bunch of bananas by yourself. We improvised and blended some into drinks to include the adult variety, we gave some away to friends and neighbors and even froze some to use as treats for all the nieces and nephews. The real problem now is that in just three years, our three little trees have multiplied into a small forest and eight of the trees need to be harvested soon. Looks like its going to be a long, very fruity and fiber filled summer.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Gohan Yo!

This post first appeared on JPG Magazine website 02 July, 2008.

There is a whole industry on "Wellness" today. Many hospitals and medical facilities have wellness directors, coordinators, providers, advisors, councilors and technicians. We've been bombarded for years with books on diet and healthy living. Late night television is saturated with infomercials touting the latest and greatest product to reduce your waistline and make you live longer. There are so many books and products out there for people to choose from. Which one is telling us the truth? They can't all possibly work can they?

If you were to ask me, I'd have to say the answer is yes, and no! For every huckster out there just trying to make a buck off of you, the answer is definitely no! But, for every legitimate advertisement out there, the answer is yes, sort of, however, it's pretty clear that there is no magic bullet that will save us from our eventual demise or guarantee a long, happy and productive life.
Even where I live, here on the main island of Okinawa Japan, where there are more centenarians per square meter than any other place on the planet, I can tell you from my own observations that the matter is one of not nature vs. nurture but one of nature and nurture. They work in synergy with and compliment each other.

Just yesterday my friend Mike and I got together to go out and shoot our cameras. He's the photography student and as for me, it compliments my current vocation. Anyway, we happened to be heading home that afternoon when we stopped in the small farming community of Igei.

The local rice crop was being harvested. It was quite a site to see all these little postage stamp sized fields golden with rice ripe for the harvest. As we drove around the tiny access roads to find the right angle to shoot and capture this spectacle from, as well as find a place to get out of the blazing sun, we saw a host of men and women working the fields.

On top of it all, it was undoubtedly the hottest day of the year thus far. Yet for as far as the eye could see, little old men and women were out there covered from head to toe, to keep from being burnt to a crisp by the sun, harvesting the crop largely by hand. Again, these were not young people doing this labor intensive work in the hot July sun. It's a pretty safe estimate that the youngest of all of the people we saw and spoke with that day were well into their sixty's. Many were much older than that.

The whole spectacle reassured to me that the real secret to longevity and a healthy life style doesn't come in a pill and it doesn't require you to make wholesale lifestyle changes either. It's all about staying active after you retire. For that matter, it's about staying physically active throughout your life.

The interesting part to watch was that while they worked throughout the blazing hot afternoon, they weren't working themselves to death either. It was steady as she goes through out the day. They took breaks as they needed and there wasn't some supervisor watching them and cracking a whip either. You could even say that the work pace was painfully slow to watch at times.

In short, I have just one little piece of advice. Physical exertion is good for you! I repeat; physical exertion is good for you. You don't need to go out and spend hundreds of dollars or (in Japan several Man Yen) and join that health club either. The remarkable thing about these folks was that while the work was hard, the pace wasn't break neck. They walked or rode their bicycles out to the fields and worked at a slow and steady pace.

Okay, so now I know some of you are saying, yeah, but I live in the city and commute for hours to and from work every day. When do I have the time to do anything like that? My answer, you do, you've just filled that time with other things that are really less important. Some of you decided to stop at the local choke and puke or watering hole to relieve your stress in a less than productive way. Others have gone home to turn on the tube, sit in your lazy boy and soak yourself in some suds. I know from where I speak. In military parlance, "been there, done that and got a tee shirt to prove it!"

A better and more productive way to relieve that stress would be to do something around the house. Start with that "honey do" list that's piling up with so many chores that you keep putting off. Don't have a honey do list, get off your "fat arse" and go for a walk around the block. How about spending some time with your kids? Go play catch or run them around in the back yard or city park for a little bit.

The whole thing is we have gotten so far away from ourselves and our families that we are killing ourselves. Salvation doesn't come in a pill. It's time to stop doing what is convenient and do what is right. This is one thing that we can learn from the Okinawan people. Be active, stay active and live a longer, healthier life.

Here's some photo art created from a photo like the ones you see above. If you like it, you can have it printed and shipped to you as a poster or you can go all out and have it matted and framed for you by the experts. The choice of how you like to have it is yours. Thats what we are all about at Goya Republic. Freedom to choose!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Caution! Artists at Work!

The Following is from a photo-essay originally published on JPG Magazine website 21 April 2008.

The people of Okinawa Japan are perhaps some of the most creative artisans the world knows today. On top of all that, they are probably some of the most resilient people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting in my life. They survived a living hell they now refer to as the "Typhoon of Steel" Most people know it as "the Battle of Okinawa." To them it was a hellish nightmare and the total devastation of their island paradise. (Roughly a quarter million people were killed during the three month long struggle).

In spite of this, they bounced back and displayed amazing grace in the process. One of the ways in which that artistic genius and resiliency met and manifested itself is in the art of Ryukyu Glassware. Before the war there was no glass manufacturing industry on Okinawa to speak of. Afterward and in the wake of total devastation they had nothing. Well, nothing except for a lot of empty and broken whiskey, beer and soda bottles left over from all the American GI's.

There weren't enough of them for it to be worthwhile for more than a handful of people to gather and collect the deposits as a way to be able to support themselves. That's where entrepreneurial genius and art met. By taking one mans waste and turning it into art (as well as something everyone needed) they created an entire industry and helped to rebuild their little corner of the world.

Today the local glassware industry is tailored to the tourist trade. While Ryukyu glass is still very highly prized and quite expensive, the many tourists who visit desire lower cost goods to send home as souvenirs. Now much of what is sold in the stores comes from outsourced manufacturers in third world countries such as Vietnam. But the chance to see this art form in action as well as take an active part in the creation of something still brings the people in and is a great pleasure to watch.

There are several glass factories like the one you see here scattered across the island. This one just so happens to be the most successful. It's located down in far southern Itoman City not far from Cape Kyan or Kyan Misaki. If you're on Okinawa, it's one of those must see tourist traps. For a small fee, you can take part in the glass blowing process like the young lady in the first picture. They also have a small pottery shop where you can make your own gifts.

Speaking of art and gifts, below is a photographic piece of art that I am very proud of. Click on the picture and it will take you to my store where you can have this digital art piece printed in the media of your choice as well as the size you desire. You can even have it matted and framed in a wide variety of materials too. Check it out!

West meets East and then travels West again

The following is from a photo-essay first posted on JPG Magazine website 10 September, 2008.

Okinawa Island is home to about a million people. Add about 30,000 American GIs and add to that their families, then add a few more American civilian base workers and then to top it all off, throw in about 6 million tourists annually and you've got a lot of people to feed and a diverse palate to satisfy.

The American population on the island peaked during the Vietnam conflict and there were plenty of hungry GI's to feed. Some folks wanted to experiment and try the local cuisine. Others preferred a taste from home. Some enterprising Okinawan businessman met the need by combining Mexican style Tacos, which had already been introduced to Okinawa and was wildly popular with the American GI's, with the Japanese staple of Rice. It was a match made in Heaven! It's safe to say it probably made them very rich too.
Over the years people experimented with the basic dish and came up with some interesting variations. One such variation was to take the popular taco rice cheese and send it back across the international date line for a little more westernization. By replacing the rice with a humongous hamburger burger bun, the Taco Cheese Burger was born. Though not really a "burger" in the traditional sense, this little experiment is extremely popular, not only with the many GI's who frequent the haunts near the U.S. bases, but a favorite with the many tourists who visit this island paradise each year. Looks like they got another hit on their hands!

This particular photo-essay came about after my friend and I finished doing a photo shoot on a hot summer's day. We were near his home base in Kin Cho or Kin Town near the massive U.S. Marine Corps Base at Camp Hansen.

The place we stopped at is called "King Tacos" and its one of the more successful chains of that sort. Though the taste is not anywhere reminiscent of anything you're likely to find at a Taco Bell or any of the more familiar chains, it is tasty enough.

It's very typical in Japanese culture to take something foreign, adopt it, change it just a little and as such, make it part of Japanese culture. Such is the case with American cuisine.

For anyone coming to Okinawa, and that includes any of our many Japanese friends reading this with the help of the translation widget, Be advised that Kin town has sort of a "Dodge City" and Wild West" reputation. While there is the large "entertainment district" of bars and restaurants that cater to the many GI's in the area, let me just deflate that bubble just a little bit. That reputation is a remnant of days long past. While there are still a few shenanigans that take place, the old town aint what it used to be.

These days Kin is but a shadow of it's former glory, or should I say infamy. Most days its a sleepy outpost with a host of shuttered storefronts and businesses barely able to survive. That is in a way why the King Tacos restaurant is sort of an abberation. This little business is thriving while others are barely scraping by and an even larger number are closed down completely. Drive past the area on any day of the week and while most of the other businesses will be closed, this one is open for business and usually packed with customers. That in itself is enough to make one want to stop in and try to figure out why.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

First Moon

Normally I like to post pictures with my essays on this blog but the nature of this subject prevents that.

To begin with, let me start by saying that February 10th 2009 marked the first full moon of the Chinese New Year. On Okinawa that particular date is of great importance. This is especially true if your family lost a loved one during the preceding year. It marks the first New Year in Heaven for the departed. According to local traditions, it’s a time for the family to gather and remember.

Such was the case for our household. This October last, we lost my wife’s grandmother on her mother’s side of the family. She had been bed ridden and living in a nursing home for the last several years. It wasn’t that she was an invalid; it’s just that at 99 years of age, she couldn’t care for herself or her house anymore. The house was an old style traditional Okinawan farm house in the countryside, that couldn’t be efficiently or economically brought up to the standards a woman in her condition needed.

For example, being an old style house, it had a privy out back along with the shower and laundry room. Now don’t get the idea that just because it was out back behind the house that it didn’t have modern plumbing. When the house was originally constructed forty plus years before, that was the case but through the years, she and grandpa did make some necessary improvements. For example, a few years before she became bed ridden, the kitchen floor, which was at a lower level than the rest of the house, was raised and the interior made barrier free.

Anyway, her husband passed on a few years before and she would have been alone. None of the other close relatives lived near enough to check up on her regularly so a decision was made to care for her in a home for the aged. When I retired from active duty a few years later, we took up residence at the house but by that time Obaa, or “granny” had developed more conditions related to her age that precluded her ever coming home. Still we cared for the house and made sure that everything remained just as it was, not only for her benefit but for the various ceremonies related to Ojii’s or grandpa’s passing only a few years before.

The Okinawan culture is a hybrid of sorts. It is a unique blend of many Asian cultures and even though they are technically Japanese, the culture is most strongly influenced by China. Even though Buddhist temples now dot the landscape, Taoist traditions are prevalent and along with the indigenous shamanistic practices, this blend of tradition and faith permeate virtually every aspect of the culture. Even though I’m an outsider and practice a different faith, I still believe it important to respect the traditions that these people hold dear.

The day started early. My wife who seems to be a lunatic at times and being the time of the full moon was up at 2am cooking and preparing the traditional dishes required for the day’s events. At sunrise I began cleaning the yard and preparing the area for the day. My in-laws arrived around 8am and from there we went to the family crypt at the village edge to cut weeds and police the area. My mother-in-law placed fresh flowers at the tomb and prayed to her ancestors for success in the coming year.

Even though my wife prepared a feast, the tiny kitchen couldn’t quite handle the whole load so certain traditional items were catered. Fortunately for us, one of her cousins is in the business of catering events of this sort. The catered items included a large selection of fish tempura, san-mai-nikku, kamabokko, gobo and tofu. Guests started arriving around 10am. Each of them came first to light a little incense at the Butsudan or family altar found in most Japanese homes and offer a prayer. Each left a small amount of money in an envelope and then dined on the traditional fare. Some stayed and fellowshipped for hours and others stayed only a few moments.

By mid afternoon, the Sake and Beer started to flow, first with some of the gentlemen guests and then with my wife’s uncle and father who of course had to join in. I quit drinking a few years ago and missed out on all the fun. This fellowship continued well into the evening hours. My mother-in-law whose mother’s passing we were commemorating acted as the hostess while my wife and her aunt, my mother-in-laws younger sister, prepared dishes for what seemed to be a never ending flow of guests. My limited Japanese precluded me from participating too much but I made myself useful in the kitchen washing and drying a never ending supply of dishes.

The last guest of the day departed around 9pm. From that point on it was just myself, my wife, my in-laws and my wife’s aunt and uncle. It was late in the evening and too much sake had flowed for them to make driving home an option. Futon’s were spread out on the tatami matted floors in the ichi and ni-banza’s, first and second rooms, but the fellowship, as well as a little more consumption of sake continued well into the night.

Later this year, in accordance with the local traditions, we’ll gather again for Ojii-San’s nana-kai-ki, or the seventh year since his passing. A few short months after that, we’ll all gather again for Obaa-San’s first full year in heaven. From that point after, we’ll gather periodically to commemorate the lives of these two people. This will continue until the 33rd year of their passing. In addition, there is also the Seimei festival in April. This is when local tradition says that families visit the departed at the gravesite and have what could best be described as a picnic with the ancestors. Let us not forget the Obon holidays in August wherein the spirits of the ancestors are invited back into the family home for a three day visit.

These traditions may seem strange to most westerners but they have hundreds of years of practice and meaning to the people of Okinawa. Here it’s all about family. Maintaining these traditions and more importantly, the family honor is in large part of the glue that has held this culture together through the centuries.

Here's a nice little photo I took earlier in the year that's available through my association with Zazzle. Check it out as well as some of the other items we offer. Every little bit helps to support this and my other blogs and websites.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Rights of Spring Japan Style

I've decided to add some pictures to this post with the abbreviated text to the original post below. I couldn't resist adding these pictures because I think they very well illustrate just how important Cherry Blossom time is in Japan. This photo I especially love not just for the composition but for the expression on this lads face. Spring is here and everything is new again. The joys of youth and discovery are in his eyes.

Ohanami or cherry blossom viewing is a special time here. The trees are all adorned in the bright pink blossoms that last for only a few days. Everyone is out and enjoying the spring like temperatures and are just full of life. Here a Chinese Girl poses for a pict taken by her girlfriends just off camera to the right.

This series of photos was taken in Yogi Park in Downtown Naha, Okinawa, Japan aka the Goya Republic. Along the small river are approximately 400 cherry trees that blossom every February and Early March. Typically the best places to view are the mountains of the northern region of the island. Unfortunately not everyone will drive all the way up north to see them. Every year the city if Naha holds a festival in the park. It's dwarfed by the massive festivals up in Nago, Motobu and Nakijin but for city dwellers who like to gather in the park, this location is ideal.

I call this photo "lovers in Spring." He's probably a college geek explaining to her all the scientific information about the trees and the history. By the look in her eyes, all she sees is beauty.

Here are a couple of shots I took of some blossoms up close so you could see just what a cherry blossom looks like. Amazingly they only blossom like this for a very short time, two or three days before they just float away on the winds and give way to the fresh green of spring. It's no wonder that the Cherry Blossom became the symbol of the ancient Japanese Samurai. Why you ask? Because they were warriors and often laid down their lives at the time of their full glory. Very seldom did a Samaurai live to a ripe old age.

Below is some text from a post that appeared in JPG Magazine dot com website. Since the fate of that organization is still up in the air, I'll be moving those photo essays to this blog one at a time and also adding more photo essays about life on Okinawa. Enjoy....
Every spring in Japan the hearts and minds of people all across the nation turn to two things, baseball or yakyu as its known in the Japanese language and cherry blossom viewing which is known as Ohanami. Baseball comes to Okinawa in the form of spring training for the Japanese professional teams and everyone locally is hyped that once again a local team is slated to compete in the annual Koshien spring high school tournament in Osaka. But we’re not here to talk about baseball today, that’s another story.

Ohanami literally translates to mean flower viewing and is a big event every spring all across Japan. In olden times poets used to write about the cherry blossoms and how their fleeting existence serves to remind us of the transience of our own lives. Steeped in tradition, this symbolism is not lost on the modern-day Japanese. Each year families, friends and colleagues will make plans to have a friendly get-together under the cherry trees.

In mainland Japan, these gatherings often take place in the early evening hours after work or on the weekends. The celebration takes on an almost picnic like atmosphere as people spread out large tarpaulins under the blossom-laden trees and drink copious amounts of beer and sake. Typically seasonal foods are consumed and sometimes people sing songs to celebrate the occasion. In mainland Japan these parties have gotten a reputation for getting a bit raucous and sometimes the police have to be called in to quell the noise.

The trees here on Okinawa are a different variety of cherry tree than up in mainland. There the blossoms are whiter in appearance and take on a normal process of appearing first in the southern regions and then moving northward and into the higher elevations as the warmer spring temperatures reach the higher latitudes. On Okinawa, the blooming process takes a bit of a strange twist. Here they begin blossoming in the northern regions and higher altitudes first, then they make their way southward and on into the lower latitudes.

Okinawa is proud that they can lay claim to the very first Ohanami celebration in Japan every year. Festivals are held in Motobu Town at Mt. Yaedake, Nakijin Village at Nakijin Castle Ruins and the grand daddy of them all is the giant Cherry Blossom Festival held in Nago City and the Ruins of Nago Castle in the central park area near the Orion Brewery. Down south festivals are held at Yogi Park in Naha city and Yaese Town in far southern Okinawa.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Hedo Majesty

This post is originally from an article submitted to "The Okinawan" Magazine and printed in their Fall 2008 issue.

The siren call of Okinawa grabbed a hold of me a long time ago. The fantastic scenery as well as the diversity of wildlife are something to behold and cherished. Learning more about and documenting the rich history, culture and the traditions of people of Okinawa has become a passion for me. One of the ways I do this is with my camera. The other is by writing about the things I see and hear as I travel around this island paradise.

The people of Okinawa are a lively lot. Not only do they live extremely long lives, they are extremely rich and satisfying lives. The kindness of the Okinawan people is legendary and their hospitality seems to know no bounds. They are a festive bunch and as such, I really enjoy going to exciting places like festivals and tourist attractions to document traditional activities and shoot people photos of daily activities.

My friend Mike, on the other hand, loves to shoot wildlife. Like a child with a brand new toy, he is out virtually every day with his camera as he daily walks his dogs along the shore near his home. He routinely emails me with his latest capture of a heron skimming the shoreline or an osprey diving into the surf and coming out with huge fish clutched in its talons.

One passion we do share is scenic photography. Together, we’ve been able to capture some fabulous landscapes, awe inspiring sunrises as well as spectacular sunsets. We’ve developed a particular fondness for shooting the full moon. Moon viewings are a tradition in Okinawa during the fall months. This is particularly true of the “August moon” (where have I heard that before?) or eighth moon of the Chinese calendar, which usually falls in September.

We’re also somewhat enamored with traditional Okinawan lifestyle. We both have a fondness for the traditional style houses and daily activities in the older and more rural communities. As mike likes to say, that’s the “Real Okinawa!” We always make it a point to get together and get out at least once a week to shoot photos. Mike really has the artist’s eye. To say I’m jealous of his ability, let alone his camera capabilities would be an understatement.

The challenge for the two of us is now to find a place to shoot photos that satisfies as many of our genre interests as possible. There are many places across the island that meets at least one or more of our requirements. The rule of thumb has been, if you want to shoot and document culture and history, head south. If you want to shoot and document culture, scenic beauty and wildlife, head north.

There is one place here that, in my opinion, stands alone for its natural beauty and abundant wildlife. It’s a remote location and also a well known tourist attraction in its own right. Kunigami village is located at the far northern end of Okinawa Honto. More specifically, for this trip we wanted to make a trip and shoot photos out at Hedo Misaki. To my own surprise, we not only saw some fantastic scenery, we discovered a little bit of history on our journey too.

Hedo Misaki was for many years the end of the world for the people of Okinawa. During the years the island fell under American administration, one needed a passport to leave the island to go beyond this point. A huge stone obelisk erected at the cape stands as a reminder of a time when the country was separated.

On clear days from this vantage point, one can see Yoron island in the distance. Today Yoron is part of Kagoshima Prefecture but prior to 1609, it too was a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, as Okinawa was then known. For many years after the war, once a year the residents of Yoron, along with residents of Kunigami village would climb into small boats and meet at the latitude that marked the border between the two. After the reversion, in addition to the stone obelisk, a small but somewhat odd looking statue was erected to commemorate the long standing friendship and historical ties between the villagers of Kunigami and Yoron.

What is perhaps most striking about the vistas one sees in Hedo are the rock formations. Most people seem to think that Okinawa Honto is made up almost entirely of fossilized coral. The truth be known, that only applies to the southern third of the island. The northern two-thirds of the island are made up of primarily sandstone, mudstone and metamorphic rock that have been thrust up by the subduction of the Philippine plate under the Asian plate. A plaque at Chibana “Gusuku” or “castle” in Okinawa City marks the spot where the geological transformation takes place.

This is what gives the northern Okinawa coastline its rugged beauty as well as its higher elevations. Because the rocks are very old and as a result of the weathering effect of time and the elements, the formations here are extremely jagged, all the more picturesque and at the same time, all the more dangerous. Though rock slides are rare, they are still quite possible because the old rock formations are so fragile. Even still, it’s not uncommon to see visitors at the cape going beyond the barriers and out to the far edges of the cliffs for photo opportunities as well as to take a peek down to the coral reefs below.

In addition to the vistas at Hedo, from this vantage point looking back toward the village of Hedo, there is a rather unique looking observation tower that resembles a giant Yonbaru Kuina. The Kuina, also called the “Okinawa Rail” is a flightless bird unique to the far northern extremes of Okinawa and an endangered species. They are extremely shy and opportunities for photos of these birds in the wild are exceptionally rare. As such, many opt for a trip to this unique observation point for a quick photo op.

The cliffs at Hedo are majestic in their own right but looking south from the tip of the island one cannot help but notice the majesty of the escarpment known as Kongou Sekirinzan. This rugged outcropping of rocks sitting high above the cape has become an attraction in its own right. The property was purchased some years ago by the same organization that runs the “Okinawa World” tourist attraction which is home to the famous Gokusendo Cave.

A controversy arose when the new ownership group decided to improve the facility to enhance tourism. Locals fought against the plans as the hills held great religious significance. The park is home to several “Utaki” or “holy places” where the locals would worship and perform rituals according to the traditions of the indigenous Okinawa religion. The region is also believed to have at one time been home to “Holy person(s)” or mountain priests known in the Japanese language as “Yamabushi.”

There is a modest fee to see this eco-park that boasts five hiking trails, one of which is barrier free. The jagged rock formations are spectacular. To access the park, one has to stop at the entrance center and after paying the price of admission, take a bone jarring bus ride to visitor’s center near the top of the escarpment. When your hiking fix has been fully satisfied, visitors have the option to ride the bus back down the hill or walk the last trail that winds down the mountain and past several old and majestic “Gajimaru” or “Banyan” trees.

Along at least one of the hiking trails, visitors will pass right by worship altars that are still in use to this day. There are many majestic rock formations. One particularly jagged formation is said to resemble a flash of lightning and yet another known as “Picasso rock” resembles two lovers embracing for a kiss. One trail takes visitors near the very top and offers a fantastic view of the cape as well as the surrounding islands of Yoron, Izena and Iheya.

There is bus service available way out here but, anyone who wants to make a trip to this remote region will probably prefer to drive. But before returning to civilization, I would recommend one more stop. Just a two minute drive from Kongou Sekirinzan is a fantastic overlook point called Kayauchibanta. The name, when translated from the original “Hogen” or “Okinawa dialect,” means that if you scatter straw to the winds it will scatter everywhere. I know, not real original or inspiring but then again don’t blame me, I didn’t make it up!

This is another outstanding scenic point that sits high on the cliffs above the East China Sea side and overlooks the sleepy little fishing village of Ginama. If you want to take a spectacular photo of a sunset, this is the place for it. This spot is most often missed by people because the tunnel shortcut that now takes people from Ginama up to Hedo Misaki passes directly underneath it.

Hedo Misaki is also a popular destination for young people during the New Year celebration. Not only is it the most northern point on Okinawa, it is also one of the more eastern points too. As such, it is a popular place to gather and celebrate or just camp out and see the first sun rise of the year.

Photographers interested in visiting should plan on spending the whole day. In addition to its spectacular sunrises and sunsets, the early morning or late afternoon light, as a result of the lower angle of the sun, cuts down on glare as well as makes the colors of your photographs much more vivid. If a visit to Okinawa is in your plans anytime soon, I’d strongly recommend a visit to the Hedo region. It has it all for a variety of appetites and deserves to be explored.

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