PADI Master Instructor Honors Lives Lost on USS Emmons in Okinawa


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Photo: Kevin King

Written by PADI Course Director, Kenneth Redifer 

Although “hero” is a strong characterization, especially given the ubiquitous military presence that’s found here on the island of Okinawa, Japan where I am currently residing, there is a PADI dive professional here that is worthy of recognition.

Kevin King, PADI Master Instructor, has been singlehandedly instrumental in the successful implementation of the distinctive specialty USS Emmons Diver. Kevin authored the supporting documents for this specialty, had them approved in late 2015, and started offering this specialty in January of 2016. In the first twelve months it was available, Kevin has certified no less than 44 divers, who, almost to the person, rave about its content and his delivery.

You may not be aware, but Okinawa boasts one of the only US Navy combatants sunk in war, but which remains within recreational scuba diving limits. On the night of April 6/7, 1945, the Emmons was struck by no less than five Japanese kamikazes in less than two minutes. Her fate sealed, the ship was intentionally sunk in the early morning hours, but only after 60 crew-members were either killed or missing.

Photo: Kevin King

Her wreck was lost to the fog of war and dulling effects of time, only to be “rediscovered” by American divers in 2001, when Kevin was stationed on Okinawa as a Naval Flight Officer on active duty with the US Navy.

Kevin returned to Japan again for another tour of duty from 2004-2006, and again visited the wreck of Emmons. But it wasn’t until he retired and returned to Okinawa in 2013 that the idea for this specialty started to take root: a need existed for a comprehensive historic overview of not just the death of a ship and its crew, but of their rich and passionate lives. AND, to boot, divers needed more knowledge, skills and abilities to better and more safely handle the various contingencies that are often encountered on this deep wreck in open blue-water Ocean.

Photo: Kevin King

Although the Emmons has remained a popular dive destination since 2001, almost no one who dove her really knew what transpired to bring here to the depths of the East China Sea in 1945. Kevin felt it exceedingly important for those that visit this war grave to know, respect and honor not just those who fell here, but those who survived and carried wounds for the rest of their lives. This is especially true in Okinawa since the vast majority of divers visiting her wreck are or were active duty service members from every branch. Kevin, being a 20-year US Navy combat veteran and a college military history minor provides a rich, detailed examination of not just the ship and her crew, but of the context of the time. The result is an engaging, interactive, and powerful 2-hour historical presentation that peaks and holds peoples’ interest. Kevin provides a detailed student guide with a summary of his PowerPoint-based talk.

Photo: Kevin King

But that wasn’t enough for Kevin. He also realized that many divers had been and continue to be injured diving the Emmons, and more focused knowledge development and training with better efficacy was needed to prepare divers for conditions that are often encountered there. First and foremost, it is a very deep wreck; the ship rests on her starboard side in anywhere from 140-150 fsw (30 meters) to the bottom. Low visibility and very strong, unpredictable currents are often found, and conditions can change radically even during a single dive.

Photo: Kevin King

Given these basic dive parameters, Kevin’s specialty requires DEEP and EANx as prerequisites. He then integrated knowledge and skills from the PADI Self Reliant, PADI Tec and Delayed Surface Marker Buoy diver specialties. The Specialty is concluded by issuing each diver a ship’s coin, which can be brought down to her wreck on two guided dives. Kevin then provides a personalized certification card which he designed and had custom printed, and certifies divers same-day using ePIC online.

Photo: Kevin King

Photo: Kevin King

But that still wasn’t enough for Kevin. Being a US Navy veteran, Kevin feels a special bond to the entire crew of the Emmons, those alive and dead. He decided to return 50% of his proceeds of each certified diver back to the USS Emmons Association in support of their annual scholarship fund, a competitive program that delivers money to descendants of USS Emmons crew-members. In the first year of this distinctive specialty, Kevin was able to directly gift $2,200 to the association.

While Kevin’s Distinctive Specialty is one of the more popular on Okinawa, what matters most is the impact it is having back home. An excerpt from a letter from Mr. Tom Hoffman, Director, USS Emmons Association, highlights this impact:

“I am infinitely grateful to the men and women who use their diving expertise to honor the sacrifices made in the Emmons’ defense of freedom. To know that Emmons’ resting place is in the hands of such caring people is pleasing and fulfilling. Though I cannot visit the wreck myself, my certainty that the divers care deeply for our connection to the Emmons is the next best thing. It is truly spectacular that those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country are being honored in the utmost manner.”

Photo: Kevin King

Sayonara, Okinawa!


“Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” ~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Recently Jody and I had to say our goodbyes to our beloved Okinawa, a land that we called home for the last 3.5 years.  I’ve written extensively about saying goodbyes during our last couple of international shifts.  One when we left Pensacola, Florida, the only place I really ever planted some roots since leaving my childhood home for college in 1984 (see Sayonara Amerika).  And just recently when we left Japan for our return to the states once again (see Goodbye).

Jody’s Hospital Crowd

Saying a proper “goodbye” to people, places, and even things has become more and more important to me as time has passed.  We marked our departure for the Orient back in 2013 with an Asian costume themed party to indelibly mark that occasion.  And we decided to do the same upon leaving Asia for ‘Murica just last month.

Terrace at Sea Garden

Renting out one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants Sea Garden, we invited a slew of our closest friends and coworkers.  Unfortunately for everyone, it seems that just the notion of wearing a costume kept more than a few people from attending.  But then again, in such a setting you get to see just who your closest friends and coworkers really are.  It IS important to say goodbye, and express it properly, a concept lost on so many people today who remain eternally rushed in their lives, taking things much too seriously as they neglect the things that really matter.  In any case, we had a wonderful time, and will cherish these bookend parties to our Far East Fling for the rest of our lives!

Party Goers

So, as I sit here in our pet-friendly hotel room in Jacksonville, North Carolina, passing the time until we can sign a lease and move into our temporary home for the next 20 months, I look fondly back on my latest time in Okinawa…and slowly shift my gaze to the future here in the coastal Carolinas.  But I’m already starting to scheme about the party we will throw upon our return to the Florida Panhandle in  late 2018.

Dorthy Says There’s No Place Like Home!

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Goodbye!


“Dream as if you’ll live forever……live as if you’ll die today.” ~James Dean

Saying “Goodbye” is important.  Much more than most of us will allow.

In the skydiving world, we say goodbye to each other every single time we jump.  Because it could very well be the last jump we ever make.  It’s not a somber occasion, or even stressful.  No, the goodbyes are said energetically, with beaming smiles and eye contact that says “I love you, brother/sister, and if I don’t see you again, remember me in this moment.”  It’s about embracing life and living it fully and in the moment.  But unfortunately, this jumper’s farewell with a very good friend of mine a week before moving to Okinawa in 2013 was our last.  I am so very thankful that we got to say goodbye to each other.  And, in this case, in our own very unique way.  Read about it in Blue Skies, Black Death.

That story, which recalls my permanent goodbye with Jimmy, instantly makes me happy and warm whenever I think about him, and I do often.  That’s one reason why I take saying goodbye so seriously.  The word “goodbye” used to convey a much more serious sense of finality than it does today in the electronic age of connectedness.  Originally, it was said as a contraction of “God be with ye,” which conveys a blessing of safe travels and life.  “Farewell” comes from the antiquated “fare thee well,” yet another blessing we find today in “be well”.  But these send-offs also can also almost be a plea.  And to those of you that bid me and Jody adieu at our costumed “Sayonara” party, I salute you for coming out to say a fun-filled cheerio.  If you don’t see me again, I plead with you to remember me in that moment!

But now it is time for me to say goodbye to Okinawa.  I may not be back, after living here three different times and for over seven years total.  I’m filled with anticipation and I’m excited:  after living on Okinawa the last 3.5 years, Jody and I are moving, and moving to an area new to both of us (Camp Lejeune).  Don’t me wrong:  we don’t want to go, and we don’t want to go there.  But we have to.  Yes, it’s not what we wanted or expected, but it will allow me a wonderful new opportunity to continue pursuing my passion as a professional scuba diver, this time among the wrecks scattered off the coast of North Carolina.  But the fact remains I have to say goodbye to some people who and places which have come to mean a great deal to me.  Which always makes my heart hurt….

The military-industrial complex is not known for their stable, static jobs.  Active duty people continually transfer in and out through the proverbial revolving door.  Contractors come and go with contracts and sequestration, and even Government Service (GS) employees often relocate with either of these categories of people.  But even so, when the stable instability that is life associated with the military becomes even more unbalanced, what does it all mean?  The roles that people play are in reality easily replaced, but seldom is the person.  Once you know someone, it’s hard to unknow them—you might grow apart, your relationship might change, but if you know someone, have chosen to know someone, you will always know that person’s character.  It’s critical to us all, whatever our social constructs, that goodbyes resulting in significant change be acknowledged.  So we say goodbye, sometimes formally, often times as an expression of intimacy.  Goodbyes, especially among an affectionate cohort, can weigh heavily.  While you may officially say goodbye to such a someone once (or twice), you’ll continue to say goodbye, emotionally and mentally.  It’s a continual process.

So, at great risk of leaving important people off this list (and please take no offense), I say these goodbyes, in no particular order.  Ken Redifer, you’ve been a fantastic PADI Course Director and mentor to me along the way.  You have challenged me to be better at every turn, and trusted me with your students at every level.  I can’t think you enough for shepherding me along the way.  To Jessica Mills, my “Scuba Wife,” I value every moment together, even though as your surrogate Big Brother I probably annoyed you to no end.  You will do fine at the IE and will quickly mature into a kick-ass instructor!  Matt Lewis, you have been one of my closest allies here on Okinawa, and I’m ecstatic to leave both my Adopted Dive Site and the USS Emmons Diver Specialty in your capable hands.  I will not forget those final dives on that serene shipwreck with you.  Darlene Fong, my “Scuba Momma,” thank you for the tec training and 130fsw+ companionship along the way.  I will miss our trips out to the USS Emmons together!   Ben Favorite, a fellow retired flier and brother-in-arms, you have been a wonderful friend and solid dive buddy.  Here’s looking to Truk again in 2019.  Do me a favor and please do work too hard!  Rob and Wendy, thanks for introducing us to Ishigaki and the manta-scramble.  And Rob, my IDC cohort from back-in-the-day, you still owe me lunch!  For our dive industry professionals, including Mark of the Crystal Blue and Tony of Torii Scuba Locker, thanks for your assistance and pirate adventures on the high seas.  To my fellow instructors (including candidates sitting for their IE this coming weekend) and Certified Assistants with whom I have worked or taught – including Jeff R., Dale F., Kim N., Scott H., Gary J., Chris W., Mike H., Matt M., Jose R., Jayce G., Jimmy P., Brian P., Kurt R., Chuck D., Roger, Noorin, Louis, Troy, Sarah, Patricia S., Kim H., Rebecca R., Ben S., Barbara S., Cory J., Ty, Asako and Bruce, thank you for all the laughs and good times in and around the pools, seas and oceans of Okinawa.  And to the Divemasters who elected to train under me still located here (Ben, Jessica, Jacoby, Lewis, Gerardo, Peter and Cory), thank you for your trust in confidence in making your move to the pro side.  Mindy, I couldn’t let your broken foot go without a mention; thanks for all your help with my branding and website.  Ms. Ana, of course, one of my all-time favorite divers and former students, thank you for trusting me to safely introduce you to the amazing underwater world.  Your smile and passion about diving whenever I see you brightens my heart and lightens my day!  And, a special call-out to two individuals who need to become PADI Instructors:  Rich Kearney and Gerardo DeLucia.  You both have exactly what it takes, and I see you as perfect fits in our tribe.  Don’t put it off; I waited about 30 years too long….

Goodbye, to each and every one of you.

I no longer struggle with goodbyes.  Saying a heartfelt goodbye forces us to recognize a change in our path, an acknowledgment that we’re choosing (or sometimes being forced) to change the vector of our lives.  The very reason goodbyes are hard for so many people is the very reason we actually need to do them, and do them well:  because they matter.

Imbibing goodbyes is as much a part of the human experience as breathing.  Let them serve as goodness in your life, helping you to leave better, whole, and more loving.  All goodbyes contain a blessing.  Use them to make each goodbye count – even if you are just ducking out to the corner store.  Each fleeting goodbye can turn out to be a goodbye forever.

Blue Skies & Happy Bubbles, Kevin, Okinawa 2017

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Okinawa’s Hedo Point: Go North, Young Man


“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Colors of the Spirit, Found Underwater at Okinawa's Hedo Point

The Colors of the Spirit, Found Underwater at Okinawa’s Hedo Point

A drive north along Okinawa’s rugged coastline mimicked by Highway 58 can be quite refreshing, at least once north of Nago, having left behind the hustle and bustle red-lighted, gridlocked traffic of southern Okinawa in the rearview mirror.  But sometimes, contrary to the cliché, it’s not really about the journey after all; this long drive north is just a pleasurable expedition to a must-experience destination:  Hedo Point.  While the view from this Cape may be captivating, it’s the serenity of hearing the rhythmic crashing of the ocean’s waves lapping at the shore from our campsite on the beach that compelled us on this visit.

Cape Hedo Annotated; Beach Camping is on the Crescent Sandy Area at Bottom

Cape Hedo Annotated; Beach Camping is on the Crescent Sandy Area at Bottom

Cape Hedo (辺戸岬 Hedo-misaki), or Hedo Point, is the northernmost point of Okinawa Island.  A narrowing spit of land jutting out north from the island’s tip, it faces the South China Sea on its west flank, and the Pacific Ocean on its east.  Hedo is part of Okinawa “Dai Sekirinzan Quasi-National Park,” a prefectural nature preserve first established in 1965.  This landside park is worth the travel alone, but that wasn’t the intent of this particular trip.  No, this time my friends and I were off to camp and scuba dive at our gentlemanly leisure in this place of known jagged beauty, above and below the waves.

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As one of the island’s most prominent landmarks, the area and adjacent park attracts visitors who come to enjoy their sheer beauty and challenging environment.  Offering a mixture of luscious green temperate rain forest, craggy cliffs scattered among high hills, and a seemingly ever-present ocean breeze, people arrive to enjoy breathtaking panoramas of Okinawa’s island life.  Even Commodore Perry, full of the bravado characteristics of his “gun-boat diplomacy” of the time, couldn’t resist its charms and visited (but recorded it as “Cape Hope”) during his expedition to Japan.  For our group, however, it was all about the near-virgin diving found here, and, when not diving, an opportunity to camp on a beach mere meters away from high tide!

Looking Over Our Beach Towards the Point

Looking Over Our Beach Towards the Point

Be forewarned:  the point doesn’t offer much in the way of amenities, except for maybe the most basic public toilets, a few stalls that sell food on what appears to be a relatively random basis, and, of course, Okinawa’s ubiquitous vending machines.  None of which are anywhere near the beach.  You can’t even expect a convenience store, which seem to dot every other square kilometer of Okinawa much further to the South.  If you plan to spend any time here, come prepared!

Paved Access Ends Here

Paved Access Ends Here

Camping here is rather unique and particularly refreshing, since you can camp right on the beach.  In fact, you can DRIVE your supplies directly to your campsite, located on a rather expansive crescent-shaped beach, complete with easy-to-get firewood and stones to act as a fire break.  HOWEVER, please don’t attempt to drive here unless you have full 4-wheel drive.  We watched a tourist drive a smaller type station-wagon onto the sand only to get promptly stuck.  Without any tow ropes, we couldn’t offer assistance.  Lucky for this couple, the beach sees visitors from time-to-time, and a Japanese-plated 4-wheeler was able to pull their care to the sanctuary of paved road with a proper tow, but only after a good hour or so of being stranded.

Water and Terrain Found at Hedo Point

Water and Terrain Found at Hedo Point

One other comment for you brothers and sisters in uniform:  I wouldn’t tell “dad” about your plans to camp at Hedo, at least if you are Marine Corps.  Two of our dive buddies were forced to get a “motel” (and that term is used only in the very loosest sense in this isolated part of Okinawa) about 20 minutes away since, according to the wisdom of the Corps, camping on anything but an “official” campsite is not legal.  Except for and to the Okinawans.  Go figure….  It’s ridiculous restrictions like these that make me lovingly hug my DD-214 a little tighter almost every single night.

Campfire, Smores, Various Adult Beverages, and Tall Tales!

Campfire, Smores, Various Adult Beverages, and Tall Tales!

Access to this beach is easily found on overhead imagery anyone can view on Google; it is a short side-street drive from the point proper.  We could find no rules or regulations about camping here, and built fires for the duration with firewood and stones easily collected from within a couple of hundred meters of our site.  We were the only over-night guests, and we only saw maybe seven other people (no divers though) during our entire weekend stay!

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28928401894_f893d3bb29_bCape Hedo offers exhilarating diving as well, but maybe not for novices.  Here the Pacific Ocean meets the East China Sea, one of many reasons that makes this area so interesting to scuba divers.  From the Cape’s observation point high on the cliffs, the undulating underwater terrain can be spied through the area’s clear waters, at least on a calm day.  Which leads to this important tip:  do NOT tempt fate here by diving in the wrong conditions.  Hedo is generally known only as a summer-time dive spot when gentler winds blow mostly out of the south and east.  In contrast, through much of the winter, the northwest winds and seas make this site unsafe to dive.  To complicate matters, strong currents are encountered once offshore, and rips can develop in the tunneling recesses found nearer to shore which make this geography so interesting to now explore.  Hedo hosts particularly unforgiving seas, so take heed and respect the elements.

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28928373444_00ca8390b2_bOn a clear day Yoron Island, the next major land-mass in the Ryukyu Island chain, can be seen on the horizon to the north.  Yoron used to be the symbolic demarcation point between Japan and Okinawa during the days of American Occupation of the latter (the former reverted to Japanese sovereignty shortly after the end of WWII).  Reversion activists frequently gathered at Cape Hedo to set watch fires, answered in turn by similarly minded people on Yoron.  A fact to which most Americans remain complete unaware (even those stationed here in the Military), control of Okinawa reverted to Japan only in 1972.  A monument, erected in 1976, to this the reinstatement of Okinawa’s sovereignty now stands tall overlooking the sea to the north.

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28930706873_a092030870_bWe camped in the fall, hoping to avoid the oppressive heat and humidity of high summer.  Even though temperatures were moderated by a fast-approaching tropical storm, It never really cooled off at night.  I had assumed that between the breeze and temps in the low 80s, we would sleep well.  I assumed wrong.  What I didn’t factor was having to close up my tent due to rain.  Without that ventilating breeze blowing through my temporary domicile, I sweated way too much to sleep well through most of the night.  Between that and laying on undulating beach sand (should’ve leveled it more carefully!) without the benefit of any type of bedroll or padding all made for a very rough night of sleep indeed.  Luckily, we were planning a dive just after sunrise, with breakfast to follow.

Watch Out for Surprisingly Deep Pools, Especially at Night

Watch Out for Surprisingly Deep Pools, Especially at Night

29473209771_ac56798459_bThe inlet formed by the inward-bending crescent of the beach is chock full of crevasses, providing the opportunity to explore some unique underwater terrain.  There are huge, labyrinth-like landscapes here found almost immediately after dropping under the waves.  A note of caution about entries; there are some very deep and narrow crevasses that are quite masked by what appears to be a relatively flat, stable and shallow shelf.  Falling into one unprepared can be quite a shock at best, and potentially dangerous at worst.  Watch your footing, and watch the wave breaks, especially at night.  Trek the reef here with a BCD inflated to comfortably support you and your kit should you be surprised.  Moving to the “center” of the beach were a wash from the shoreline can be seen offers the earliest and perhaps the easiest entry, but a long walk at low tide.  And like all areas with such washes, this is also prime areas where rips can occur.

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We camped for two nights, which provided us 1.5 days to dive.  We elected to bring six tanks each, and arriving late afternoon on the first day we spent our time setting up camp, cooking dinner, and drinking by the fire until the rain chased us off.  The next day saw four dives in almost perfect sea conditions, while we only dove twice in the morning of our departure day.

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One of the funniest things to happen while we were there was the unexpected growth and quick approach of a tropical depression, which made a run at Okinawa from the south.  We had checked the weather prior to departure, but once on-site, our weather became a simple matter of looking at the ocean, 20 meters away.  Although we did note that the winds had increased, and rain showers started here and there, we thought little of it because the seas in our crescent bay were completely protected from the somewhat gusty southerly winds.  In fact, on our last day, with the winds picking up even more, the seas actually got calmer since the wind was, in effect, countering what little waves were coming in from the north.

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On our surface interval on our last day, one of our buddies, a retired Army pilot and contractor here on Okinawa, got a call from a coworker asking what we were doing up there diving in “Danger”.  Of course hearing only a one-sided conversation, all I heard was Ben replying, “What are you talking about Danger, it’s beautiful here!”  There wasn’t much more to the phone call, and I think most of us dismissed that comment as a jealous someone trying to ruin our fun with a rather low-brow prank.

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Well, he wasn’t pulling our leg after all!  We had expected to enjoy one of Okinawa’s gorgeous sun-sets over the East China sea during our drive home south along Highway 58.   But that was not to be.  As we excited the protected northern-facing bowl that our campsite sat in and crossed over the slight ridge to get back to the coastal highway, we were met with angry skies, gusting winds, and growing seas.  During the roughly three-hour drive home, the weather became downright nasty.  The storm hit us that evening.

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So, having been deprived of that sunset, I’ll have to plan this trip all over again.  Except this time I’ll bring a bedroll, more scuba tanks, and perhaps check the weather a little bit more closely….

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Love and Radiance:  Sunflowers of the Ryukyus


“The sunflower bathes its flesh in golden oil, languidly craning up so high – oh how small the sun” ~Tanka poem by Yugure Maeda

MIyakojima Sunflower Field

MIyakojima Sunflower Field

Jody and I were out exploring the rustic coast of Miyakojima during a recent island getaway, with no particular destination in mind.  Heading down one of the many detours we took that afternoon, we happened upon a tall, shimmering field of sunflowers begging for attention.  Of course we had to stop… and stop we did!

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27324539151_6bbb25bba7_bThe Sunflower (ヒマワリhimawari) is a popular plant in Japan, cultivated here since the 17th century.  Over time, it has come to represent respect, passionate love, and radiance, not surprisingly.  As a countless mass of yellow and green, they were certainly standing tall that day, busily basking in the glimmering rays of the sun.

Radiance and Sunflowers

Radiance and Sunflowers

27358829101_8b6fd30fcf_bNot only did Jody happened to be wearing just the right dress for the occasion, she also happily obliged my request for an impromptu modeling shoot.  Usually reserved and quite contained, Jody seemed to absorbed some of the flowers’ radiance, then reflected that back to the iris of my waiting camera.  The flowers spoke silently to us, as they do for so many others, an essence of such plants true the world over.  But more so in Japan.  So much so in fact that the Japanese have developed a symbolic language of flowers called hanakotoba.

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26823387523_4c9bdf3e89_bHanakotoba (花言葉) is the Japanese language of flowers, or more correctly, the ancient art of assigning meanings to flowers.  Historically, and in many societies, flowers were given meaningful codes and not-so-secret passwords.  If you wanted some to know you were interested in courtship?  Wear this one.  Want to express condolences for another’s loss or suffering?  Wear that one.  This interpretation of nature takes account of the overall psychological effects and even physiological reactions which can happen under the influences of a flowering plant’s color, texture, and smell.  In other words, flowers can directly convey emotion, and communicate quite clearly without the need or use of more pedestrian words.  More mystically, flowers are often used to express that which cannot be spoken.

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27120015580_47ce4d0a95_bThese pictures are already some of my fondest memories of Okinawa this time around (See Paradise Lost for a less happy memory).  The low afternoon sun and the temperate breeze made our time in the flowering field not just comfortable, but comforting.  There’s just something about sunflowers that is special.  I’m not sure if it’s connected to childhood memories or just their sheer size…or both.  Well, it’s probably because I got to capture my beautiful wife among them and freeze the moment for all time.

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27154089480_6e3e0fe7bc_bIn Japan, flowers are not just given to women.  And when they are given, the act is not taken nearly as lightly as it is in the United States.  The underlying meaning of the flower given determines the message sent – and hopefully received.  Communicating without words can often ease tension and break the ice which is often stifling and thick and permeates many aspects of Japanese socialization.

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For me, the sunflowers speak to Jody, whispering to her of her radiance and beauty.  Things in her case for me that are best expressed through nature as they cannot be fully appreciated through spoken word alone.

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Hatsumode:  New Year’s Shrine Visit


“Church is who we are, not where we go….” ~Unknown

Year of the Rooster at Futenma Shrine

Year of the Rooster at Futenma Shrine

Shrine Entrance

Shrine Entrance

Jody and I headed out with every intention to visit our local Shinto Shrine on New Year’s Eve – one of the most important dates to celebrate in Japan and much of the Far East – to hear the ringing of the shrine’s bells.  Futenma Gongen is just a short drive from where we live, and a Shrine that Jody can see from the Navy Hospital on Camp Foster where she works.  However, with me coming down with a serious case of the flu/respiratory infection, we opted instead to visit the shrine as most Japanese do, in the few days following New Year’s Day.  After all, it is bad form in Japan for anyone to go to “church” impure and soiled with sickness….

Talisman for the New Year

Talisman for the New Year, including evidently lucky-dice!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-proud-celebrationsHatsumode (初詣) in Japan is the first visit to a shrine or temple during the first few days of January where family and relatives pray together for a fortunate year ahead.  Some of the most popular shrines (shrines are Shinto in Japan) and temples (which are Buddhist here) organize festivities with stalls that sell food, provide carnival-type games for this kids, and offer souvenirs and sweets like you might find at an old-tyme American county fair (See Shinto Shrines and Snake Oils for more).  And yes, I did have to get a great big bag of cotton candy, just as popular here as anywhere else in the world.

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Each year the shrine puts up a large ornately painted wood plaque with the New Year’s zodiac. This Year: Year of the Rooster!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-leaving-ema-wmWe went off to see the shrine for the first time during the afternoon of January 2nd.  Luckily we approached it from the direction where people queued up for entrance, and after passing a line extending at least a kilometer, we decided to come back on a more…reasonable day.  No doubt god understands.  Returning a couple of days later after Jody got off work we found the shrine still bustling with people, but with really no lines at all.  While this probably doesn’t meet the strict intent of visiting by the 3rd, we weren’t alone; there were plenty of Japanese doing the exact same thing!

Jody's Fortune, Not as Good as Mine!

Jody’s Fortune, Not as Good as Mine!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-tied-fortunes-wmPart of such a visit usually involved purchasing omikuji, which are fortune-telling strips of paper, selected by reaching in and hand-drawing one out of a large box of bound fortunes.  Jody and I each selected our fortunes, and after reading and sharing what lay in store for us (pretty much all good, like most fortunes), we left ours tied on wires strung near the shrine’s special pine tree.

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new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-new-year-talismans-2-wmThere are also a whole slew of talisman and lucky charms that can be purchased for a small donation, all of which promise to offer increased safety for drivers, prosperity in business, healthy babies for pregnant women, and even good exam results for students!  Of course most focus on love and health, rightfully so.  Jody and I decided to purchase two ema, small wooden plaques on which prayers can be inscribed.  One was to leave at the shrine with our prayer welcoming in the New Year, and the other to take home to add to our collection of ema we’ve collected from across Asian over the last 3.5 years.

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Leaving Our Ema

Leaving Our Ema

Prayers are also offered at the shrine or temple’s main altar.  After throwing some coins into a tamper-resistant donation collection box which can be found in front of every altar no matter how large or small, parishioners than grab a thick robe hanging down nearby and swirl it around to ring a connected bell a few times.  Finally, the faithful bow twice, clap their hands twice in front of their chest, pray, and when finished, bow one more time in respect prior to leaving.  Luckily for us Westerners, this procedure is pretty much the same at either Shinto Shrines or Buddhist Temples.  This time around, since the Shrine remained a crowded buzz of activity, Jody and I passed on offering prayers at the altar.

Leaving Our Ema

Leaving Our Ema

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-kabura-ya-new-year-arrownew-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-kabura-ya-turnip-headed-arrow-bulbFinally, we selected our New Year Kabura-ya (鏑矢, “turnip-headed arrow”).  This represents a particular type of arrow used by the samurai class of feudal lords of long-ago Japan.  Originally a way to announce approach and send messages, the bulbs on these arrow heads were designed to make a particular sound when fired.  Over time legend grew that such jangles could chase away bad kami, basically evil spirits.  Today, even carrying such an arrow, or placing it in your home can ward against evil spirits.  Our arrow rests safely and purposefully near the entrance to our condo.

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It’s true that church is not where we go.  While Jody and I are neither Shinto nor even church-goers at home, there is value is maintaining such positive, almost secular traditions, that are hinged at welcoming a future full of health and prosperity.  Church is, in fact, who we are and will be in the coming New Year of the Rooster 2017.

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Happy New Year from the Kings!