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

The Angelic Villas of Bidadari (Bali)


Bidadari Villas at Ubud is a Balinese destination in and of itself.  It is, at once, a physically amazing place.  Lush, beautifully landscaped grounds surround opulently appointed private townhomes, perfect for a romantic stay or better yet a honeymoon.

Setting Sun from Our Villa

Artistic Accents Abound

As its name implies – “Angel,” Bidadari certainly holds a lease on a little corner of heaven here on earth.  As a high-end resort, it is a unique place by which the remote nature of Bali can best be experienced.  The amazing panoramic views, the unique, spacious and private villas, and an overly attentive staff make these accommodations worth every penny of a costly stay there.  Time melts away as guests are pampered and relaxed.  A stay here is a time of elegance.

Evening Views from our Villa

Balinese Doorways

Drama in Stone

Jody and I quickly fell in love with not just our Villa, but of the place.  Bidadari is mystically located, nestled in a jungle ravine, where rice farmers tending their terraced fields can be enjoyed from each room’s private infinity pool, all overlooking the jungle canopy of the river valley below.  The property is beautifully constructed of the finest materials, situated vertically along a steep ridge, giving each room almost 100% privacy and unadulterated views.  Be forewarned though:  the spa is located all the way at the property’s bottom, and after one of the best massages you’ll have in your life, the climb back up to your room can be a challenge.

In-Room, Private Dining

Private Chef

Surprise Birthday Celebration

The bar for service at Bidadari is set and held to the highest standards, with a personable staff all around and private butler for every room on-call 24/7.  As corny as this may sound, the employees really do seem to possess a genuine desire to provide an exceptional experience at every turn.  Mr. Rana, the site’s manager, makes you feel as welcomed as family, and having our own butler, driver and maid which we personally got to know made us feel completely at home, even in the midst of such luxury.  Each detail of our stay at Bidadari was simply a perfect balance of extravagance, relaxation, and service.

Delicious Room Service

The staff at Bidadari arranged for a diver on multiple days for us, an employee of the resort who was local to the area and spoke very good English.  The vehicles provided are well maintained, and the driver provides welcomed cold bottles of water between stops and sarongs which are required at most temple visits.

Open-Air Breakfast

Breakfast is served each morning open-air in a shaded living area by your secluded pool, and featured fresh fruits and a menu to order set the evening prior.  But it was the “special” meals we ordered which were so unforgettable.  On one occasion, we requested the local grilled sampler of local fare and favorites.  For this meal, a formal dining area was set in our villa, and a grill and private chef actually cooked out meal there not far from our table-side!

Romantic Dinner for Two

The food service at Bidadari will surprise and delight.  Personal and friendly Butlers provide gracious service for each room service menu.  All dining is private and luxurious, delivered to and served in your private villa.  Dining is open-air, complete with stunning vistas of the Ubud valley spied over your private pool.  The chefs at Bidadari source their produce, delivered daily, locally from Ubud Markets, and the room-service menu includes a wide array of Indonesian specialties and a fusion of other international foods.  To compliment the food, a wide array of wines is also offered, including selections from Australia, South Africa, Chile and New Zealand.  And, of course, to help pass the time, a full range of cocktails are just a phone call away.

Dinner in our Room

On another occasion, we decided to pamper ourselves (and to help celebrate Jody’s birthday) and ordered their romantic dinner for two.  Coming “home” after a day of touring we found our villa decorated with rose petals and candles, which really set the ambiance for the rest of our evening.  Needless to say, the food at Bidadari is exceptional, personal, and hand-crafted to order.

Romance

An amazing aspect of a stay at Bidadari is that you truly can feel like the only guests on property.  Given the private dining and pools, limited number of rooms (6 total), and the gated nature of each villa, only on very few occasions did we see anyone else…besides the staff.

Goodnight Desserts each Night

We stayed in Villa Melati.  Entering through iconic Balinese-inspired doors, and passing a fountain providing a soothing sound of splashing water, the main living areas of the villa are encountered.  To the right is a large couch, perfect for napping and watching TV, one of which we did hardly any of (you can guess which one…I hope).  To the left is the private infinity pool and dining area, both with wide views of the ravine across and below.  Passing this area and going downstairs, a fully appointed kitchen is found; moving upstairs the master bathroom and bedroom are found.  The only air-conditioned area is the bedroom, but AC is not really required anywhere else.  The furniture and decor all are designed to complement a stay and highlight the unique culture of Bali.

Napping Couch

But it’s not just Bidadari that makes a holiday here so fantastical.  The Villas are located just outside the mystical Bali village of Ubud, our favorite locale while in Bali.  The property runs a free, on-call shuttle to the village center, about 4 kilometers away, and around a 10-minute drive (or so).

Upstairs Master Suite

Artistic Accents Abound

Ubud’s specific collusion of its particularly beautiful surroundings and gracious way of life have historically made it a haven for celebrities and artists.  But since being spotlighted in the famed book by Elizabeth Gilbert and movie of the same title Eat Pray Love, it has become a destination of choice for peoples from all over the world.  It seems that Ubud, at least for now, has maintained its traditions despite the onslaught of tourism.  Here the Balinese still place offerings gracefully on the side of the road and at every temple.  While they may now ride scooters everywhere (there seem to be about 6 billion motorbikes in Bali!), the Balinese still maintain their traditional beautiful dress.

Balinese Beauty

Ubud is the meditational heart of Bali.  Many come here purely to recharge and recover from the damages of suffering the unsustainable pace of western life.  Private yet open-air yoga studios and schools abound, surrounded by dense green jungles, myriads of rice fields and beautiful tropical gardens.  The village has a very relaxed vibe to it, and seems to actually physically resist those who are rushed in their lives.  Rather, it is a place to relax and live in the moment.  Have a casual meal on one of the many street side cafes or restaurants.  Slowly stroll around and do some window shopping and perhaps a big of haggling.  Or, better yet, just sit idly by with a good book and ingest the colorful and delightful Balinese life that passes you by….

Natural Relaxation

The vision behind the design and construction of Bidadari was focused on private relaxation within the natural foliage and fauna of Bali.  Plans insisted that each villa be totally autonomous, private, and secluded; once the gated entrance is enclosed, guests should be able to relax and indulge their every desire…without ever having to leave.  Nestled into a ridge meandering down to the River Wos, the six multi-story luxury villas are surrounded by breathtaking lush tropical gardens.  The villas have been constructed to artistically blend into a landscape of coconut palms and exotic foliage, undisturbed as much as possible.

Spa Staff

The on-site Bunga Matahari Spa is a captivating and casual stroll down meandering steps deep into the tranquil atmosphere which permeates Bidadari.  The spa is totally secluded, fringed by the running waters of the ravine’s river, and surrounded by the vibrant tropical rain forest and lush gardens that it nourishes.  Relaxing spa treatments and blissful massage unique to Bali are relished while your senses soothed by listening to the rush of the river below.  After your treatment, a warm soaking flower bath for two is drawn so that you can continue to relax while overlooking the river and the hidden valley of Ubud.

Our Spa Room for the Afternoon

To date, for me and I’ll go out on a limb and say this for Jody too, our stay at Bidadari remains our most luxurious holiday, and probably the most enjoyable and memorable.  We stayed for just over a week, and not only was our time at the Villas the highlight of that trip to Bali, it’s one of the highlights of our lives.  If you are wondering if the price of staying there is worth it, yes, absolutely it is.  When we return to Bali we will stay again without a doubt, with much love and eternal thanks.

Check out the Bidadari Villas at Ubud for yourself, or find them on Facebook here.

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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Tragedy at Yonaguni Island


”Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.” ~Robert Kennedy

Life can be full of tragedy, but only if we make it that way.  Every once in a while, there comes along a heartbreaking tale that is almost too hard to believe.  This one I experienced on a remote Ryukyuan island, seemingly far from the harder toils of life.

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Infamous Kuburabari can be found at the top-center of this rather animated map.

Kuburabari, located near the west tip of Yonaguni Island, is near to Kubura village.  An infamous gorge located there is about 60 feet long, 25-30 feet deep, with a width on top of about 10-15 feet.  In the age of the Ryukyu Dynasty, foreign rulers imposed a severe tax based on population throughout this island chain then under their control.  It is said that during these sad times, to avoid an unaffordable increase in population pregnant woman were made to attempt to leap the gorge, ensuring only the strongest mothers and by extension babies survived.  But more directly to the point, to ensure that most of the woman and fetuses didn’t survive the attempt….

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Contemplating the Past

A terrible tale by any stretch of the imagination, something of which to be ashamed.  Perhaps that is why in more recent times the Yonaguni Island Board of Education has claimed the story to be only a local folk tale.  That said, Kubub Bari remains designated as an important prefectural scenic tourism spot, with signage explaining his haunted past, and with a small Buddhist altar located on-site.  Besides, there is always some measure of truth in folklore, else it wouldn’t exist.

When you visit however, you can take the edge of this sadder side of the site by going in the very late afternoon.  You see, the hill the gorge is sliced into also happens to be the last hill in Japan to see the sunset, being on the western portion of the most western island in all of Japan.

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It is said that Satsuma and his clan were ultimately responsible for such a horrific outcome.  Based in the southernmost part of Kyushu, Japan and looking to rebuild their fortunes after defeats in the Japanese home islands, they built 100 warships to carry 3,000 samurai invaders to send to the Ryukyus.  Eleven years before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Port, the Satsuma battleships left on a mission of violence on February 6, 1609.

Satsuma’s troops took over Nakijin Castle on Okinawa, then burned it to the ground as they slaughtered the local peoples they encountered on their way to capital city and castle of Shuri.  On April 1, 1609, Satsuma’s invaders rushed into Shuri Castle. Then Ryukyuan King Sho Nei was arrested and the Kingdom’s treasure and important official documents were stolen.  The Ryukyu Kingdom suddenly came under the control of Satsuma.

Ships of the Type Used by Satsumo

Ships of the Type Used by Satsuma

Removing the deposed Sho Nei and his ministers to Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Satsuma was free to prepared a wholly one-sided treaty, which was imposed on the King’s offices by force.   The Ryukyu’s “Golden Age” of peaceful self-rule had suddenly turned into a Dark Age under Satsuma colonization.  For the next 270 long years, the people of the Ryukyus suffered under Satsuma’s control, paying heavy taxes and impossible tribute to their new, brutal rulers.

Invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 17th Century

Invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 17th Century

All the Kingdom’s people between 15 and 50 years of age now had to pay taxes.  Some tales talk about a “head tax” (jinto-zei) rather than age.  In some villages in the Yaeyama islands (southern-most islands in the Ryukyu chain), stone pillars can still be found by which children were measured; once over the stone’s reach, taxes were to be imposed.  To make things easier, Satsuma blamed the taxes on the deposed King, and claimed to have come to the rescue of the peoples of the Ryukyu Kingdom.   Obviously, these lies and shams became rather obvious when the taxes were never lifted or eased, and, in fact, were not abolished until 1903 and only after a strong petition from the local peoples once under Japanese formal rule starting in 1879.

On Yonaguni Island, some claim that is was Satsuma himself who introduced sad and inhumane methods of population control.  One method was Tonguda, the rice paddy located at the center of the island.  Periodically, all islanders between ages 15 and 50 had to dash to the paddy on some signal, and those who couldn’t get there in a set amount of time were beheaded.  Obviously this most effected the physically handicapped, injured and sick….

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Placard explaining the rocks and small Buddhist altar at far right

yonaguni-2017-kubura-bari-the-jumping-point-for-sadnessyonaguni-2017-kubura-bari-rocks-to-jump-acrossAnother, more infamous method was the one detailed here:  killing of pregnant women.  Periodically, all pregnant women of the island were forced to line up on one side of the Kuburabari ravine.  They were then ordered to attempt to hurdle the ravine by jumping to the other side.  Of course attempting to leap a gap of 10-15 feet was mostly impossible for women in such a state, and most of them died after bashing against the rock of the opposite side and falling deep into the ravine.  If that is not bad enough, there are claims that most of those women who miraculously succeeded their leap of faith ended up suffering miscarriages.  The islanders usually had to pay their taxes in food (mostly rice), and only by reducing the number of mouths to feed could the taxes be afforded.  Similarly, Satsuma realized he could receive maximum tribute if he were to “help” control population.

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Sadly, there is only the smallest memorials altar placed at the site.  Although there is tourist parking and signage explaining the nature of the area, they are as much about observing the sunset here as remembering a darker time.  It seems in a formal sense that Japanese officials have ignored and discarded this shameful history as simple island myths and legends not to be taken literally.

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But the truth is always somewhere in the middle.  For me, myth and legend do not exist in a vacuum.  And I would rather say a silent prayer for all those lost here, rather than ignore the possibilities.  Rather than to act as our guide in life, tragedy can rather result in wisdom for life.

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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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