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.

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