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.

1jeyy6y

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!

28928383604_3522089372_b

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.

28928380574_c85024efe6_b

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.

28928400024_d84ed7f103_b

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.

28930705473_c645f209f6_b

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.

28928409714_782d9c92b6_b

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.

28930718253_89c3823274_b

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.

29473211271_80a454944d_b

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.

28930719633_a51d0c36ab_b

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….

28928372634_dee462d235_b

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.

yonaguni-2017-yds-yonaguni-diving-service-local-hand-drawn-kubura-map

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….

yonaguni-2017-contemplating-the-heart-breaking-kubura-bari-rocks-wm

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.

yonaguni-2017-matt-at-the-cliffs-of-kuburabari

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….

yonaguni-2017-heart-breaking-kubura-bari-rocks-of-legend

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.

yonaguni-2017-memorial-altar-at-kubura-bari-rocks

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.

yonaguni-2017-angry-seas-at-kugurafurushi

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.

yonaguni-2017-gorge-at-the-kubura-bari-rocks

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!

27154072550_82b42143e7_b

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.

26825851413_07fcf15af7_b

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.

26823379103_93a7e57635_b

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.

27395719485_1d4e1b0146_b

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.

26825842843_f5790072ac_b

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.

26825851413_07fcf15af7_b

 

 

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.

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-year-of-the-rooster

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.

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-leaving-our-fortunes

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.

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-wishes-for-okinawa-from-the-kings-wm

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.

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-kabura-ya-new-year-arrow-to-ward-of-evil

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.

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-jody-and-kevin-ready-for-the-year-of-the-rooster

Happy New Year from the Kings!

Kobe Earthquake Memorial Museum:  A Moving Visit


“We learn geology the morning after the earthquake.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

kobe-2016-earthquake-museum-1-early-morning-disasterkobe-earthquakeOn January 17, 1995 at 5:46 in the dark, cold morning, the city of Kobe and the surrounding area of Osaka, Japan, were rocked by a massive earthquake in what became to be known as “The Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake”.  The region, home to some 3.5 million people and an economic center of Japan, was devastated.  Electricity, water, gas, transport and most emergency services were left inoperable, many for weeks.  Innumerable structures were damaged or destroyed, directly by the quake, or by fires which raged the city afterwards.  Survivors were left to face the cold winter with nothing.  Worst yet, the quake destroyed 249,180 homes, and left 6,434 people dead and another 43,792 injured and in need of medical care.

3555_01

Jody and I have a vested interest in learning about earthquakes; they are an all-too-common occurrence in Okinawa (see Love and the Ring of Fire for more).  The Kobe Earthquake Museum, more officially known as the tongue-twister “The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution” (DRI), was opened in 2002 to commemorate the tragic event and to educate visitors about earthquakes and disaster mitigation and prevention.  The museum includes a theater, life-sized dioramas, and expansive exhibits halls, all of which catalog the cataclysm in great detail.

slide_03

maxresdefault-1Please note that this is not a casual stroll at your own pleasure visit.  Guests are queued for hard start times, where they are shuttled to the upper floors as a group to a movie screening.  Standing in the theater, a powerfully moving bass creates tactile soundscapes, and a 3-dimensional large screen supports stunning visuals, which when combined offer a fairly immersive experience of that fateful morning.  The roughly seven minute movie leaves most speechless.  But keep in mind that in reality the death and destruction depicted took only about 20 seconds….

kobe-2016-earthquake-museum-damaged-trains

After the movie guests are quickly herded through a life-size diorama depicting scenes of damage from the quake.  Personally, these types of displays are some of the most interesting, and I would like to have lingered here, taking in the experience.  Unfortunately, at this point you are on the museum’s time, and out you go.  Oh, and by the way, no photos are allowed in these areas (of course).

kobe-2016-earthquake-museum-memorial-displays

bn-gm010_0116j__j_20150116014629Next guests will find themselves in a large exhibition hall filled with photos, exhibits, and audio commentary detailing every aspect of the disaster and recovery you could imagine.  There are extensive displays on how the people and the government attempted to deal with the devastating effects of the catastrophe.  There are English-speaking docents here, and a free English audio guide is provided, keyed by numbers displayed on the various exhibits.  I must admit, the sheer amount of information presented here is overwhelming; it’s hard to take in so many accounts and data of such an event….  Two of the most moving stories I encountered, and will never forget, both involve the death of a loved-one.  In one, a man recounts that his wife was injured in bed when their home collapsed, and although she was still warm when he put her in his car, she was already cold when he went to remove her at the hospital.  Still more tragic, a sister recalls escaping the collapsed wreckage of her home and locating her sister, still pinned in place by debris.  As a fire started to consume the remains of their home, the sisters had to part, one telling her family to leave her to save their selves, the other having to listen helplessly to her sister die in the flames….

kobe-2016-earthquake-museum-graphic-displays

kobe-2016-earthquake-museum-rebuilding-and-recovery-montage-wmVisitors proceed down in the main building after the exhibit hall, where various other interesting information and simulations are provided.  Crossing a skybridge to a secondary building, the focus shifts to water disasters and how prepare, mitigate and respond more effectively and efficiently to such calamities.  Little things, like anchoring furniture resulted in many escaping the quake uninjured.  There was also a tongue-in-cheek traveling exhibit on, what else, but the potty!  Seriously, after weeks and sometimes months without potable water, human waste became a huge and dangerous problem during recovery efforts.  Games and experiments are offered throughout to help visitors learn about natural disasters and how to minimize risk and damage in future.  The focus in this second facility, however, seems to be more focused on children.

kobe-2016-earthquake-museum-2-days-later

Jody and I spent a morning at the museum, more an archive of first-hand testimonials than almost anything else.  This catalog of suffering goes far in meeting the self-stated goal of the DRI:  ensuring that the lessons of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake are never forgotten.  We left impressed about not just the extent of damage and loss of life, but more indelibly imprinted was how quickly Kobe and the entire area recovered after the tragedy.  A revival made possible only through people helping people, which in the end, is all it takes to make a genuine difference.

kobe-2016-earthquake-museum-jody-at-the-great-hanshin-awaji-earthquake-memorial

Location:  Located in HAT Kobe, a relatively new city district east of the city center.  A ten minute walk from Iwaya Station on the Hanshin Main Line, or in a 15 minute walk from Nada Station on the JR Kobe.

Website:  http://www.dri.ne.jp/en

Hours:

October-June:  09:30 to 17:30

July-September:  09:30 to 18:00

Fridays & Saturdays:  from 09:30 to 19:00

Closed on Mondays, December 31st and January 1st

Admission

Adult:  600 yen, discounts for secondary students, elementary & junior high students free

Himeji Castle: Top Secret Ninja School??


“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” ~Gilbert K. Ches

A Castle in the Clouds

A Castle in the Clouds

James Bond:  “Do you have any commandos here?”  Tiger Tanaka:  “I have much, much better. Ninjas. Top-secret, Bond-san.  This [Himejijo] is my ninja training school.” ~You Only Live Twice

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-armored-door-and-internal-passageway-wmNinja training school or not, Jody and I recently made our way south from our stay in Kobe, Japan, to visit one of Japan’s most iconic castles:  Himeji.  Compared with Nijo castle in Kyoto (see The Last Samurai’s Castle for more), this is much more like castles with which most Westerners would be familiar.  Thick walls full of loop-holes for shooting.  Narrow passages and numerous gates armed with watch-towers and reinforced locking doors.  And a tall, hill-top Keep, full of weapons racks and murder holes through which heavy rocks and boiling oil could be dropped on invaders….

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-beautiful-castle-on-a-hill-2-wm

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-couples-selfie-with-the-white-castle-in-the-skyHimeji Castle (姫路城 Himeji-jō) is a hilltop Japanese castle located in the city of Himeji, Japan.  Regarded as the finest surviving example of historic Japanese castle architecture, it is comprised of a tight defensive network of 83 buildings dating from Japan’s feudal period.  The castle is often locally referred to as Hakuro-jō (“White Egret Castle”) or Shirasagi-jō  (“White Heron Castle”), because of its brilliant white finish and resemblance to a bird taking flight – a somewhat vague analogy in my opinion.

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-castles-entrance-wm

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-castle-rooflines-wmHimeji Castle started as a small hilltop fort in 1333.  Replacing the fort was first a castle called Himeyama  in 1346, which was then remodeled into Himeji Castle in the 16th Century.  In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the same Samurai that built Nijo Castle in Kyoto, awarded the castle to another feudal Lord, who happened to be his son-in-law.  He, in turn, completely rebuilt the castle in the early 1600s to what we see today.  For over 400 years, Himeji Castle has remained largely intact and well-maintained, even throughout the extensive bombing of World War II and the 1995 “Great Hanshin” earthquake, both which seriously damaged nearby Kobe and the surrounding area.

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-castle-skyline-wm

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-climbing-steep-stairs-wmIn fact, the city of Himeji was specifically targeted for bombing in World War II because an important rail terminal and line was located there.  On July 3, 1945, 107 B-29 bombers took off from airfields on captured Guam, Tinian, and Saipan to bomb Himeji.  During the raid, 767 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped on Himeji, destroying almost 65% of its urban area.  Himeji Castle, however, remained remarkably unscathed, even after one firebomb, which failed to ignite, was dropped directly on its roof.  As word of this seeming miracle spread, the castle became to be known as divinely protected.

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-dark-interior-wm

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-on-the-way-to-visit-the-castleHimeji Castle is the largest and most visited castle in Japan, and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is a masterpiece of construction in wood, combining martial function with aesthetic appeal, both in its elegant appearance of white plastered walls, and in the subtlety of the relationships between building dimensions and the multiple layers of rooflines.  In 2015, over 2.8 million people visited, so the castle can be quite crowded.  Our recommendation is stay away during Japanese National holidays and the New Year, and arrive early before tour buses start to que for the afternoon.  On busy days, numbered tickets are issued to control access based on scheduled admission times.  At times, the castle will run out of tickets.

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-castle-eve-and-windows-wm

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-under-an-internal-gate-wmHimeji Castle was abandoned during the Meiji Period in 1871 and some of the castle corridors and gates were destroyed to make room for Japanese army barracks in the ensuing decades.  The castle was next auctioned to a private citizen who wanted it destroyed in order to redevelop the land.  Demolition proved much too expensive, and Himeji was spared.  However, it’s fate still unsecured since Japanese castles had become obsolete and their preservation costly and not a priority during post-WWII recovery.

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-iconic-castle-skyline-wm

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-smiles-at-the-castleThe 6-story main Keep has two massive supporting pillars, one standing in the east and another in the west, each originally single trees of fir and cypress with diameters over three feet.  The inside walls of the Keep are literally covered with weapon racks (武具掛け bugukake), originally for holding matchlocks (17th firearms in Japan) and spears.  Numerous openings below windows can be found in the Keep called “stone-throwing platforms” (石打棚 ishiuchidana) strategically situated over the winding pathway up the hill.   Similarly, angled chutes called “stone drop windows” (石落窓 ishiotoshimado) are found here too, enabling stones or boiling oil to be rained down upon the heads of attackers below.  Within the Keep are small enclosed rooms called “warrior hiding places” (武者隠し mushakakushi), allowing defenders to hide and attack by surprise.

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-internal-passage-wm

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-shinto-shrine-on-the-top-floor-wmOne of the castle’s foremost defensive strategies is found in the design of the confusing maze of narrow pathways leading uphill to the castle’s Keep, as much a psychological barrier as a physical one.  Unable to scale up or penetrate through the steep and tall castle walls, attackers are necessarily funneled into a long, spiral pattern around the keep, an approach covered by loopholes and murder holes the entire way.  Originally there were 84 gates to slow intruders, but today only 21 remain.  Roughly 1,000 loopholes (狭間 sama) in the shape of circles, triangles, squares, and rectangles are still found throughout the castle today.  Partly due to this focus on strong defense, Himeji Castle was never even attacked.

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-kevin-passing-through-a-castle-gate

The castle has been featured extensively in foreign and Japanese films, including the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967), and Ran (1985).  In the television miniseries Shōgun (1980) it served as a stand-in for the fictitious feudal-era Osaka castle featured in the series.

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-visitors-at-the-castle-wm

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-wooded-view-of-the-castle-wmWhile the castle is exquisite from a distance, and impressive from the outside, touring the Keep’s innards is an exercising in climbing up and down steep staircases.  While a visit here is in no way something that should be skipped, just don’t expect much in the way of explanation…or interesting things to see.  In other words, from an architectural and design perspective, seeing a 400-year-old original structure is amazing.  However, the castle is culturally void, having been stripped bare…which is how it is presented today after an extensive rehabilitation earlier this decade.

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-white-castle-top-through-the-woods-wm

That said, Himeji Castle still remains the most spectacular example of an original Japanese castle still in existence.  Even for someone who is not particularly interested in castles or history, a day-trip from Osaka or Kobe to Himeji-jo can be fascinating and well worth the expense and effort.

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-low-clearance-gate

Even if there really isn’t a Bond-san ninja training school located there….

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-at-the-castles-gate

Hemiji-jo

Hours:  Winter 0900–1700, Summer 0900-1800 (April 27–August 31)

Closed December 29-30

Address:  68 Honmachi, Himeji City

Phone:  079-285-1146 (Himeji Castle Management Office)

http://www.himejicastle.jp/en/

Access:  Himeji Castle stands about one kilometer down the broad Otemae-dori Street from Himeji Station.  The castle can be reached from the station’s north exit via a 15-20 minute walk, or five minute ride by bus (100 yen one-way) or taxi (about 650 yen one-way).