Floating Torii of Miyajima


Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Kevin for scale of the floating torii's base at low tide WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody seated at the shrine dock's edge (floating Torii) WMStanding at the base of perhaps the most iconic torii in all of Asia, it’s easy to feel the divine dimension which seems to emanate from each and every wooden fiber. The Great Torii (Otorii) of Itsukushima, a Shinto Shrine on the island of Miyajima, like all torii (see Trampled Torii for more), marks the boundary of sacred ground, a physical reminder of the split between the spirit and the human worlds. It also remains as the ceremonial shrine entrance for souls of the departed and the still living alike.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Torii Gate through a boardwalk holga WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, self-portrait at O-Torii GateThe first Otorii at this location was erected in 1168, a little more than 200 meters offshore. Since then, the gate has continually served the larger shrine, although the one we see today dates to a reconstruction of 1875, itself the eight Otorii in the shrine’s long history. Eight rebuilds are not too shabby for 950 years of sitting in the ocean exposed to the elements!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, flirting with the floating Torii WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, peaceful day on the waterfront WM

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, view of the Floating Torii from the rail up the mountain 2 WMThe Otorii is about 55 feet in height, about 80 feet in length at the arch, and weighs a whopping 60 tons. The main pillars are natural camphor, approximately 500 to 600 years old, a tree type known to be resistant to rot and insects. The smaller supporting pillars are natural cedar. The arch has a roof made of cypress bark thatching. Architecturally, today’s design dates back to 1547, and consists of four smaller torii supporting the larger in the style of medieval Ryōbu Shintō (“dual Shinto”), a mix of esoteric Buddhist and Shinto religions.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody and the floating torii 2

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, solitary view of the floating torii 2 WMArguably, the best time to view the Otorii is during high tide, although one must consider lighting as well. When the waters are high, the gate can appear to float dramatically on or over the sea. At dusk the arch can sometimes be beautifully contrasted against the golden skies of the setting sun and distant mountain ranges. During low tide, the waters recede enough to make a relatively dry trek to the Otorii’s base. While the pictures may not be as beautiful, seeing the gate up close and personal is something to behold. The structure is truly a massive one!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, solitary floating torii WM

Shot in the Rain

Shot in the Rain

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, large brass chinese latern at dock's edge WMCruises around Otorii can be hired at the Miyajima ferry terminal at night when the gate is illuminated by powerful lights along the shore. And, if you’re lucky enough to catch a high tide, the boat will even pass under and through the gate!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody with the floating torii in the rain

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody seated at the shrine dock's edge (floating Torii) WMThe structure itself is not sunk or otherwise secured below the seabed, but stands in place strictly under its own substantial weight. Even though, the Great Torii seems all but impervious to the best that Mother Nature can throw at it: it has survived, with little or no damage, storms, typhoons, and even earthquakes.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, night torii in the rain WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, arched Torii WMMiyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, floating tour gate WM

How is this possible? As an engineer, I found this design rather intriguing…if not unlikely. But if you think back 950 years, the technology and tools necessary to build an under-ocean foundation just didn’t exist. Rather, the architect’s strategy focuses on weight that creates pressure, and on wooden joints that offset any potentially destructive forces encountered by absorbing vibration and small displacements of the gate’s various components.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Selfie in the Rain at O-Torii Grand Torii Gate

Self-Timer, Tripod Portrait, Shot in the Rain!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, floating torii WMThe Gate stands on two main and four minor pillars, where the smaller supports act to buttress the larger, giving the structure stability in two dimensions. Its weight acts in the third. Although the pillars themselves are the bases of truly massive trees, another seven tons of weight is added topside by filling the boxed structure below the upper arch with a slew of fist-sized stones that ensure the upper structure stays firmly in place. Then the entire structure is held together by wooden wedges, which absorb motion without unbalancing or otherwise damaging the Torii.

View from the base of Mount Misen

View from the base of Mount Misen

 

Miayjima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, glowing floating torii at night WM

The vermilion color of Shinto Shrines and torii across Japan is believed to help ward off malevolent specters. The lacquer which carries the color also offers some protection from rot and decay, since most torii remain constructed of wood. The sun and the moon are painted on the east and the west (respectively) of the Otorii roof, as implored by Feng Shui in an effort to help further block demons.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, tidal boardwalks WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, chinese lantern and floating torii WMThe theatrical Otorii of Itsukushima Shrine and Miyajima island is one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions for good reason, and is no doubt the most recognizable and celebrated feature for most any visitor. As one of three officially designated most scenic views in all of Japan, it is one not to be missed!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, torii gate to the shrine WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, shooting the floating Torii WM

For more information on the Otorii and Miyajima Island, please see:

http://visit-miyajima-japan.com/en/culture-and-heritage/spiritual-heritage-temples-shrines/le-torii-flottant.html

Day trips from Hiroshima are easily accomplished. Direct two-way ferry service operates between Miyajima and Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, floating Torii through the shrine WM

Japan Time: If You’re Early, You’re Late!


“What time is it? Four thirty. It’s not late, naw, naw; just early, early, EARLY!” ~What Time is it, the Spin Doctors

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The Micro Japanese Sense of Time

We have taken a number of tours during our Far East Fling, some of them with Japanese companies, many American-run ones here on Okinawa, and a few during our trip to Cambodia. And from these experiences I can distill the primary difference between them to just one word: TIME.

“Our tours run on ‘Japan time’. This means that we leave promptly at the published departure time. If you are late, the tour will leave without you and your reservation will be forfeited without refund. Please make your greatest effort to show up on time.” ~From Fuji Mount Guides tour description

Tours around the world usually request that you show up early in an effort to avoid leaving late. The tours here on Okinawa run by the Air Force or Marine Corps recreation teams do just that – “showtime” is 15 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. And yes, Jody and I arrive at the appointed time, but every time I end up asking myself, “Why?!?” Because almost every time someone is late – and I don’t mean like only, say, six minutes early instead of 15. No, they are past the published departure time, yet the American tours wait…. Frustrating.

Mass Transit run by Stop Watches

Mass Transit run by Stop Watches

This doesn’t happen in Japan. We were taking a bus from Hiroshima station to the airport, and of course we arrived a few minutes early. Sitting on the bus I noticed the bus driver closing the exterior luggage doors at about five minutes prior to his scheduled departure time. At one minute prior he released the air brakes and closed the cabin door. As the bus’s clock clicked over, the bus was already moving, leaving the station exactly on time. So, here in Japan, if you are late, you lose. An astounding concept if you ask me. Now, I can just hear all you time-shifting westerners complain that sometimes “shtick happens.” Well, yes it does. And that’s why you are supposed to be early. Really, seriously, and without doubt, there are very few valid reasons for tardiness, particularly when others are relying or depending on your prompt arrival.

Timing by Conductor

Timing by Conductor

In the (American) military there’s an axiom that goes something like, “if you’re on time, you’re late.” Because in the military, some times the essence of life and death itself relies on precise timing. But besides that, I personally hate being tardy. I will almost always choose to be overly early than just a little bit overdue. I, along with a whole slew of others, consider it insulting when someone else doesn’t show due regard and respect for my or a group’s time.

Kure 2015, Japanese Mass Transit, rails 2 WM

In American, especially given the digitally connected generation(s) that makes plans on the fly, punctuality is not sacrosanct. In America’s defense, however, we as a nation are not nearly as bad as some places in the world, but being 10-15 minutes late is often accepted as par for the course. It seems that even in the capitalistically-driven United States that the age-old adage of “time is money” doesn’t always apply, unless, perhaps, tardiness actually costs money, e.g., you miss a tour, you miss the tour.

Even These Guys Run Around on the Clock

Even These Guys Run Around on the Clock

Everyone has those friends, and most have had a girlfriend (or perhaps even a boyfriend) who have wantonly taken advantage of this generally accepted lax attitude toward punctuality. Me? I decided long ago to take a stand and not be such a conformist pushover for such sluggishness. There is nothing wrong with expecting others to respect you as you respect them, and there’s nothing neurotic or compulsive with expecting others to have at least a similar sense of timing. There were and are people in my various circles of family and friends that I openly refuse to make plans with, and there were and are times where I literally would leave…but then only after 10-15 minutes have elapsed since the mutually agreed upon time.

Ferries Also Run to the Minute

Ferries Also Run to the Minute

But when you come to Japan you realize that it’s not just you or most of your military coworkers that are the only ones who care about being on time. Almost the entire country of Japan (less the foreign tourists) is amazingly punctual; it is claimed that Japan is the most punctual nation in the world! And it really is one of the top ten Things Done Right in Japan.

Matters of Time

Matters of Time

The trains here are the stuff of legend, so punctual that one can set a watch by their arrival and departure times. They are (almost) never late. But even the very concept of “late” takes a whole different spin in Japan. If a train is running late by as little as two minutes, the staff will make public apologies. Over five minutes and the staff will issue “delay certificates” (遅延証明書) that will offer an excuse for tardiness at school or work. Why do the Japanese go to such great lengths? Because even such minor delays are quite unthinkable and intolerable.

Capture

A train may run every nine minutes, but it still will have a precise, published timetable, one that would never claim something as ambiguous as “runs every nine minutes.” One reason why the timing of trains is so crucial is the very tight timelines in switching lines to which a strict timetable is indispensable. Some connections are only two minutes, but when timing is downs to seconds, that’s plenty of time to jump from one track to another. Train conductors here literally use stopwatches, and the famed Japanese bullet trains are timed to arrive and depart within 15 seconds of their published time. Not one or two minutes either side mind you; fifteen seconds. The average delay on these trains during FY2012 was only 0.6 minutes – that’s 36 seconds. Only trains with less than a minute’s delay are considered to be “on time” in Japan.

img_26662_air_train_comparison

But it’s just not their mass transit. Make an appointment for your car, or to have something repaired in your home, or for a delivery, and it will, 95% of the time, go down exactly at the appointed time. In the 20+ transactions I’ve had with our building’s handyman, he has only once been late, and that was less than probably 7-8 minutes. I swear that most of the time he arrives early but stays outside the door, only to ring the bell at exactly the appointed time. Really, it’s uncanny.

Ferries are not just Punctual, they are Happy and Fun!

Ferries are not just Punctual, they are Happy and Fun!

I’ve watched the Japanese build, outfit, finish, furnish, stock and open stores in as little as eight weeks. We had to have two walls in our bedroom replaced due to water intrusion. Originally the work was slated, not for the 2 weeks which would be quoted back home, but for two days. At the appointed hour, a team of four workers was waiting outside, gear, tools, and materials in hand and ready to go. Starting at 0830, and taking an hour lunch break, they finished before 5 pm. Initially we thought they were done just for the day. But no, they finished. What they did in less than eight hours – remove an air conditioner, tear out old drywall, apply water sealant and thermal insulation to the inside external wall, remount and finish new drywall, move a duplex electrical outlet, move and remount the air conditioner, paste-up new wall paper, replace baseboard and crown molding, put furniture back, and remove all the debris – never would happen in America. We were astounded; we had counted on multiple days camping out in our living room, or possibly even moving our bed, because of our American-skewed sense of time. But here in Japan, we hardly missed an afternoon.

Trains are On Time and...Nice!

Trains are On Time and…Nice!

Meeting Japanese friends? They will be early…and expect you to be on time. In the off-chance the Japanese do run late, they will call/text right away and offer their explanations and apologies, and you will often see them running the last few meters to try and make up for lost time. Sure between friends or equals there is some leeway, but here being habitually late is regarded as a serious character flaw. The Japanese consider tardiness as an inconvenience to others. To those of higher rank at work or in social status, being late is unthinkable, and at times, unforgivable. Station and hierarchy is central to individual identity in Japan, and time serves as one way to establish and preserve one’s position.

Almost Time to Go

Almost Time to Go

The Japanese essence of time is much more complex, however, than just strict punctuality. The intent of precision timing here is not expected within a linear, Western approach, where speed and accuracy are treasured and tasks broken done in sequential order. Rather, the Japanese divide time into generalized blocks to sustain and respect courtesy and tradition over say, even efficiency. And having a society which is highly homogenous and carefully regulated, very strong pressures are exerted for one to conform in time.

Waiting on Time

Waiting on Time

Whatever you think about time and punctuality, I am in no rush to return back home only to endure house call arrival times being given as 4, 6, or even 8 hour blocks of time. Everyone knows the frustration of waiting an entire morning (“between 0800 and noon”) to get internet or cable TV in America, yet nothing changes because we choose to have no other expectation of timing. Just know that there is a different, better way of honoring time, and it is right here in our Far East Fling.

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Read More about the Japanese Sense of Time:

http://www.businessinsider.com/how-different-cultures-understand-time-2014-5#ixzz3jQUVqJFP

http://english.jr-central.co.jp/about/punctuality.html

A Blessing from Buddha: Banteay Kdei at Angkor


 Whether one believes in a religion or not,
and whether one believes in rebirth or not,
there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion.
~ Dalai Lama

The Temple's Inner Sanctum

The Temple’s Inner Sanctum

“Come here Lady,” the Buddhist nun said to Jody with an almost toothless smile. Like all nuns of that faith in Cambodia, her head was shaved, just as the male monks do. She was well into her 60s, thin and somewhat feeble, but seemed perfectly and happily suited to be the keeper of her faith at the central Buddhist altar in the Banteay Kdei temple.

Our Buddhist Nun Friend with our Guide

Our Buddhist Nun Friend with our Guide

She reached out her hand to Jody without getting up from the rug-covered stone floor at the base of the statue, and held out two loops of thread, one red and one gold. “Blessing from Buddha,” said more as a statement than a question. How can anyone turn such an offer away?

Blessing Bracelet from Buddha and His Nun

Blessing Bracelet from Buddha and His Nun

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, carved Khmer face WMIt was our third and final day in the Angkor Archeological Park, and the morning had been consumed with exploring the famous, massive and crowded Angkor Wat, a truly moving and spiritual experience for even hardcore atheists. Our Khmer guide had done well in the previous two days, moving from one temple complex to the next in a loose chronological order, approaching each site to both minimize crowds and position light to the best advantage of our cameras. And it appeared that she had saved the iconic tourist site of Cambodia as the climax of our visit to Angkor.

Idyllic Ruins

Idyllic Ruins

But she held back one final surprise. After cooling off and refreshing ourselves at lunch back in the nearby city of Siem Reap, we headed yet again back into the park, to a much lesser known and visited temple called Banteay Kdei.

Like the More Famous Ta Prohm, only BETTER!

Like the More Famous Ta Prohm, only BETTER!

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, doorways WMBanteay Kdei (Khmer: ប្រាសាទបន្ទាយក្តី; “Prasat Banteay Kdei”), means “Citadel of Chambers” (or “Cells”), but is more commonly known as the “Citadel of the Monks.” Built in 12th-13th centuries CE during the reign of Jayavarman VII, the temples’ mixed architectural features are contained within two successive enclosure walls. Within each, visitors will find concentric galleries from which emerge towers. It is believed that the site had been occupied by monks almost constantly since construction through the 1960s.

Still an Active Buddhist Temple

Still an Active Buddhist Temple

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, banded temple tower WMOur guide, like at most of our other visits to the various temples of Angkor, had us enter this center from its rear, where the angled afternoon light danced on the best features of the sanctuary. Compared to some of the other temple complexes nearby, Banteay Kdei is not large, but instead is tightly packed in a series of tight rectangular enclosures. Functioning originally as a Buddhist monastery during, it remains largely unrestored, resulting in an atmosphere similar to the stylistically famous Ta Prohm.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tree root HDR WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, face-topped gate tower WMBanteay Kdei has suffered more deterioration than most other more famous temples found at Angkor, since soft but easy-to-work sandstone was used in much of its construction rather than the harder stone used extensively elsewhere. 13th century vandalism of Buddhist images is apparent and common here, as the temple and region waffled between Buddhism and Hinduism with the changing decrees of differing Khmer rulers through the centuries. Many of the originally vaulted galleries have collapsed at several locations, putting a good portion of the enclosures off-limits.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tranquil wooded ruins WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tree rooted in the ruins WMThe monastery is small and dense, packed in an area of only about 160×200 feet and consists of only a single level, making it easy to explore in its totality. Getting to the central area of the ruins, however, will take a bit time since the outer wall of the complex measures roughly 1000×2300 feet. The temple houses a treasure trove of sculptures in the architectural styles of the Ta Prohm, which it eerily resembles. Except without the paparazzi-like draw of Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider fame of that other hectically crowded place (see Tomb Raiding Angkor for more on Hollywood’s impact on the other side of the globe).

Buddha or the King?

Buddha or the King?

Column Carvings in the Hall of Dancers

Column Carvings in the Hall of Dancers

The smiling faces found here are thought to be of King Jayavarman II, although most visitors seem to be perfectly happy to assume they represent a very happy Buddha. Wall niches are found throughout the facility and many contain figurines of apsara (celestial nymph) and/or devatas (lesser deities) in single poses or in pairs as dancers. The temple is famous for its “Hall of Dancers,” where open courtyards display pillars covered in multitudes of sophisticated carvings of these supernatural females. The temple’s tiny inner sanctum (~9×9 foot square) is flanked by similar carvings and contains traces of long-lost statues. The temple is complete with tumbling and overgrown courtyards, where lichens and defacing oxidation add interesting splashes of color to the already spectacular Khmer architecture.

Apsara and Devatas Everywhere

Apsara and Devatas Everywhere

Within the temple one can find several small shrines safeguarded by female Buddhist nuns, all who offer you blessings and Buddhist-colored red and yellow threaded yarn bracelets, of course all in return for a small donation. We both offered a donation of a dollar or two, received our bracelets, and in return placed a freshly lit stick of incense for Buddha to enjoy.

Incense for Buddha

Incense for Buddha

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, dry fit falling down WMIn close proximity to Ta Prohm and every bit as beautiful (or even more), this temple does not get nearly as many visitors as the former more famous location. Banteay Kdei offers a uniquely quieter appeal than most other Angkorian ruins, a place where a visitor can sense the isolation and oppression of the jungle while they contemplate the many carvings and still-active shrines and altars protected by nuns and often visited by local worshipers. Like Ta Prohm, this temple offers a prime setting for photography, where the scenes are compact and close, and the tourists thin and subdued. In these ways, this set of ruins is the perfect antidote to the crowds suffered at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm. It is, however, located conveniently close to those “big three,” so it’s an easy addition to most any itinerary, and a site visit that should not be missed.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, ruins by the jungle 2 WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, looker WMThe peace, quiet and solitude found here is alone worth the visit. “Tranquility” is not a word that is often used to describe a visit to Angkor, but it should be and can be found at this out-of-the-way place. It may be best to start your day early at this temple, then visit the other more popular sites in the afternoon when the Cambodian heat and humidity has driven those crowds down to more manageable numbers. The ancient breezeways running through the temple’s enclosures allow visitors to lose themselves, literally, in time.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, temple passage WM

Similar in layout to Ta Prohm, but less overtaken by the surrounding jungle, the approach to the ruins is shaded and cool, lined with more Cambodian concessionaires than fellow tourists. Some quality merchandise can be found here, from stone rubbings, to wood carvings, oil paintings, and rice paper reliefs. But of course all the other cheap trinkets and unwanted souvenirs you might expect at such a site can be had as well. After the initial asking price tumbled as we politely haggled (the lack of visitors I think helps drive prices down), Jody and I purchased a rice paper relief, something that had caught my eye the day before.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, wooded ruins WM

I continued to wear my Buddha-Blessing-Bracelet 24/7 after our visit (yarn is very hardy). And only recently lost it when changing out of a wetsuit after a scuba dive. Jody still has hers, but unfortunately can’t wear it to work; worries about possibly leaving it in a patient during surgery or something….

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, one of our favorite temple visits and our last

Even though the physical manifestation of my blessing is gone, the blessing of our visit to the delicate loveliness of Banteay Kdei lives on, in mind and spirit. It’s hard to fathom how anyone could be disappointed by its understated and underrated charms. Make this your final visit, make it in the afternoon, and enter the site from the rear. You will be blessed in more ways than one.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, dwarfed by tree roots WM

For More Photos of Our Visit, See:  Banteay Kdei on Flickr

For More Information, Please See:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banteay_Kdei

http://www.canbypublications.com/siemreap/temples/temp-bankdei.htm

http://www.travelfish.org/sight_profile/cambodia/western_cambodia/siem_reap/angkor/356

Seeing Red: Khmer Rouge and The Killing Fields


 Well you’ll work harder | With a gun in your back | For a bowl of rice a day

Slave for soldiers | Till you starve | Then your head is skewered on a stake

Now you can go where people are one | Now you can go where they get things done

What you need, my son…

Is a holiday in Cambodia | Where people dress in black

A holiday in Cambodia | Where you’ll kiss ass or crack

Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot!

And it’s a holiday in Cambodia | Where you’ll do what you’re told

A holiday in Cambodia | Where the slums got so much soul

~ Holiday in Cambodia by the Dead Kennedys

Camboida 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), memorial stupa WM

Buddhist Memorial Stupa

The tall Buddhist memorial stood in relative silence, highlighted against the bright blue skies, appearing to lean in against the fast-moving puffy white clouds. The heat of the morning was coming on strong, keeping most people in close proximity to whatever shade could be had. But it is the chilling sight of the over 8,000 human skulls stacked tier after tier within the memorial stupa that stuns most into the deep, contemplative silence that permeates this place.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), skulls in the stupa WM

Over 8,000 Skulls are Interred within the Stupa

The skulls came from the shallow, sunken mass graves all found within 100 yards of this their final resting place. And all are eerily marked with colored dots to show age, sex, and the weapon which brought their previous owner’s demise.

Camboida 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victim skulls at rest in the pagoda WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), map to the Choeung Ek filling fields WMThe Killing Fields (Khmer: វាលពិឃាត) are a number of sites spread all over Cambodia where collectively more than a million people were systemically murdered and secretly buried by the Khmer Rouge regime during its savage rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. The scale, scope and premeditated nature of these crimes is on a scale that only be rightfully recognized as state-sponsored auto-genocide. Cambodian journalist Dith Pran coined the term “killing fields” after his escape from the regime; the movie of the same name is set against his captivity and suffering under the brutal régime.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave at the Killing Fields (Nath painting

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), women and children mass grave by the killing tree WM

One of the many mass graves.

It is hard to wrap your head around these kinds of numbers. We experience tragedy in America measured normally in single digits (the recent church shootings in the south), or perhaps hundreds (say a plane crash), or in very rare instances, thousands (terrorist attacks of 9-11). However, what would happen in our country and how we would respond and attempt recovery if tragedy visited on a scale that was say 100 or even 1,000 times higher in order of magnitude?

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victim bones WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), show your respect WMAnalysis of 20,000 mass grave sites across Cambodia indicate there are at least 1.3 million victims of summary execution. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from an absolute minimum of 1.7 million dead, but all indications point to a number of somewhere between 2 and 3 million. Even the Khmer Rouge themselves acknowledged that 2 million had been killed—though they attributed those deaths to Vietnam’s subsequent invasion in 1979. Most accounts settle on a likely death toll which approaches 2.2 million. Given that in 1975 the population of Cambodia was somewhere south of 8 million, somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 people alive in the late 1970s was methodically erased by the government. There is not a family in Cambodia that wasn’t personally touch by devastation.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), human remains (teeth) WM

Victims’ teeth we found scattered about.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), do not walk on the mass grave WMOutside, on the grounds of this memorial park, I was equally as stunned to find human teeth and other bone fragments scattered about as if just tossed there just yesterday. Our guide explained to us that there are still so many people buried here in shallow graves that their bones and clothes continue to be resurrected as the ground erodes away with heavy rains and tourists’ many feet. And those exhumations by the Vietnamese in the 1980s only collected skulls and large bones in order to try and assess the magnitude of the murder which occurred there. There are boxes spread across the park so that found bones can be placed for later collection; at other sites, posted signs plead for people not to walk on bones and the mass grave sites.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), don't step on bone WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), jaws and teeth WMThe best known of Cambodia’s many Killing Fields is located at once was the village of Choeung Ek. Today, the site has been almost subsumed by the creeping urban sprawl of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Here visitors find a memorial park and Buddhist stupa (burial tower), built around the mass graves of over 14,000 victims, most of whom were executed after being tortured at the infamous S-21 Prison about 10 miles away in Phnom Penh. Many dozens of exhumed mass graves remain visible.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), rags of victims' clothes WM

Bone fragments are everywhere.

Bone fragments are everywhere.

The place is at once fascinatingly horrifying, and rightfully so. But to think that it is just one of the thousands of other such sites around the country where the Khmer Rouge practiced auto-genocide during the late 1970s is hard to comprehend.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave 450 victims WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victims' stares WMThe Khmer Rouge eventually executed almost everyone suspected of even remote connections with the former or foreign governments, as well as almost every professional and anyone with any type of education…and even those with poor eyesight in a vain effort to genetically improve their mix. Ethnicities which were undesirable, like the Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, and Cham, along with the religious such as Cambodian Christians and the local Buddhist monkhood were equally targeted and suffered almost wholesale destruction. What makes this genocide so abhorrent is that, unlike the Nazis who visited death upon others, the Cambodians did it to themselves.

Victim's clothes still litter the grounds.

Victim’s clothes still litter the grounds.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), killed by hand at the Killing FieldsR.J. Rummel, an acclaimed analyst of worldwide political killings, highlights the Khmer Rouge’s clear genocidal intent. He states that of the estimated 40,000-60,000 monks in 1975, only between 800 and 1,000 survived to carry on their religion. We know for a fact that of 2,680 monks documented living in eight specific monasteries in 1975, a mere 70 remained living as of 1979. The Khmer Rouge destroyed 95 percent of the country’s Buddhist temples, turning them instead into warehouses or using them for other mundane and degrading uses. But it’s much worse, argues Rummel. Within the very short span of a year or so, a small clique of Khmer Rouge criminals managed to effectively wipe out the center of Cambodian culture, along with its spiritual incarnation and its social and governmental institutions.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), the killing fields' killing tree WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), evidence of killing tools WMThe executed were buried in mass graves throughout the country, at night and with loudspeaker music playing in order to help escape detection and hide the crimes. Since ammunition was so prized, executions were most often carried out using farm tools, like spades, axes, iron rods, wagon axles, knives, or at times from simple sharpened bamboo. And in the case of the “killing tree,” small children and infants were swung so their heads were battered by the tree’s hard trunk, then thrown away like garbage into a pit alongside their dead parents. The régime took the approach that if one member of a family was sentenced to death, the whole familial line had to be destroyed to avoid any chance of future revenge; “…to cut the grass you have to remove all the roots.” Another guiding principle of that time was, “better to kill an innocent by mistake than let one enemy go…. To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss….”

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), killing tools WM

Items used in detainment and execution.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), memorial friendship bracelets WM

Friendship bracelets.

Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea (as Cambodia was called under the Khmer Rouge) in 1979, ending this dark reign of terror. Late that year, when United Nations and Red Cross officials were able to physically take stock of the dire situation, a further 2.25 million Cambodians faced death by starvation due to the widespread destruction of Cambodian society under the regime of ousted Prime Minister Pol Pot. International aid saved a large portion of these Cambodians.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), inhuman humans

Small museum on the premises.

Small museum on the premises.

But for me there was a deeper realization during my visit. It’s not just sadness that I felt for the victims still buried or on display at The Killing Fields, but for Cambodia as a whole. The sadness became wider and deeper than I had expected, after realizing that everyone in Cambodia, then and now, was and in many ways, remain a victim. I believe that most everyone were left with nightmares. Even those child soldiers of the régime that were forced to join the revolution, who were then methodically brainwashed and turned to even kill their own parents. Almost every tourist that goes to Cambodia goes to see Angkor Wat; over 30% now go to visit The Killing Fields as well. In an odd congruity, both sites offer a profound sense of spirituality.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave missing heads WM

Bullet casings I found during our visit.

Bullet casings I found during our visit.

We ended up seeing The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and its associated prison S-21 on the same day. Our guide, who was only a small child during the time of The Killing Fields but who suffered personal loss in her own family, called it our “sad-sad” day of visiting Cambodia. And she’s absolutely right: The Killing Fields is not a happy place. Nor is there a happy history or stimulating story to learn about. But like with the other truly horrific events of humanity, we don’t get to pick and choose what should and should not be shared, exactly because it is a shared history. In Cambodian, like most other countries which have suffered a dark, sad past, the view is that light must be allowed to shine in on the darkness, destroying shadows where such evil can continue to lurk.

Friendship Bracelets left in a Spirit House

Friendship Bracelets left in a Spirit House

And in the heat of our Cambodian holiday, the light shines brightly indeed.

Lotus Flower Folding & Enlightenment in Cambodia


“The spirit of the best of men is spotless, like the new lotus in the [muddy] water which does not adhere to it.” ~From the Lalitavistara, a sacred text of the life of Buddha by Dhrarmaraksha (308 AD)

“I worship the Buddha with these flowers; May this virtue be helpful for my emancipation; Just as these flowers fade, Our body will undergo decay.” ~Buddhist Chant upon offering flowers

Hand-Folded Lotus Flower Bouquet

Hand-Folded Lotus Flower Bouquet

“Those petals ARE folded,” I whispered with excitement to Jody as we watched our Cambodian guide quickly fold back the green outer petals of the lotus flower she just purchased at the temple.

We had noticed various lotus flower bouquets in the high-end hotel where we were staying, and Jody was convinced that the green outer petals of the flower were all hand-folded and tucked away to show the flowers’ beautifully colored hearts. I was not yet a believer; some of the bouquets literally have hundreds of flowers, and thinking about the work that goes into folding each individual bud, I thought maybe there was another way or that the folds were a natural result of this flower’s blooming mechanism.

But of course then there is Occam’s Razor, of which I am a firm believer: simply said, all things being equal, the alternative with the least complex assumptions (the simpler one) is usually the “right” one. Yes, these flowers – and bouquets – are all individually hand folded and arranged.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, central tower of a village temple WM

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, temple tower in stone WMWe were visiting the ruins of a 12th century Buddhist temple well off the tourist-beaten path about 20 miles south of Phnom Penh. Ta Prohm, a temple built by Jayavarman VII, was still a very active religious temple, where local poor people were allowed to maintain various Buddhist altars in what’s left of the individual towers of its compact complex. Our guide felt compelled to buy lotus flowers during our visit, and I too joined in with a few American dollars. I had learned earlier in the day, quite surprisingly, that it is the locals in Cambodian who predominantly support beggars, rather than tourists. The purchases weren’t just a form of charity; the items are worldly and long-standing offerings made to Buddha, and there’s little doubt that we all could use a little more karma in our lives.

Buddha is very often depicted sitting on a lotus flower. But why is this particular flower the symbol of such a long-standing philosophy which teeters as a religion?

Huge Buddha on Lotus at Peace Prayerl Park, Okinawa

Huge Buddha on Lotus at Peace Prayerl Park, Okinawa

In Buddhism, the lotus flower represents good fortune. But please don’t think about this in terms of prosperity or abundance as in material wealth. Rather, the flower represents spiritual fortunes in this life…and in the next.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, facial carving WMThe lotus grows in muddy waters, where it rises above its dirty and humble beginnings to blossom to its full potential, attaining a form of natural enlightenment. Coupled in this process of fully flowering is the notion of purification: we are all born into the muddy murkiness and dirty suffering of our physical lives, where we must strive to rise above and purify our spirits. This itself takes faith and perseverance, more important symbolism found in the lotus blossom.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, rustic flowers and gates WMFlowers, especially in a religious context, can be thought of as exceedingly pure, and proper in every respect. They are rich in beautiful colors, emit soothing fragrances, and offer soothing touch. Worldwide, flowers are a supreme source of joy and comfort; they are used in celebration of birth, marriage, and even death. Flowers cover the earth, and can be obtained without engaging in evil or tainted deeds. Even the most humble among us can collect them without fear of depletion and without exchange of monies or other types of barter. Likewise, flowers can be offered without fear of regret or loss (as opposed to, say, tithing), so such offerings can be made with a pure mind and heart.

My Attempt at Lotus Flower Folding

My Attempt at Lotus Flower Folding

But they are offered in a certain way to the Buddha in Cambodia. The unopened bud’s green protective petals are individually peeled back, folded over on themselves and then tucked back under in order to uncover the next layer of wrapping. But soon the inner “heart” of the lotus starts to peek into view, and then is completely revealed, uncovering its sublime beauty for all – especially Buddha – to see and admire.

Jody's Folding her Flower

Jody’s Folding her Flower

I was surprised at how well my folded lotus turned out. Although Jody and I took much longer than our guide did in folding, and ours looked rather like a 5-year-old attempted the task, we were all ready to provide our own offerings at various altars within Ta Phrom.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, folding a lotus flower for Buddha 4 WMCambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, folding a lotus flower for Buddha 3 WMLotus coloring also holds important meaning. White flowers, like in most of the rest of the world, implies purity and perfection, of both the mind and the spirit to the True Nature of Things, called Bodhi in Buddhism. It generally has eight petals corresponding to the Buddhist “Noble Eightfold Path of the Good Law,” and is the lotus on which depicted Buddha’s sit. Red, again like in most of the rest of the world (we are more connected than we are different), refers to compassion and love that is the original nature of the supreme heart (hrdayam). The blue lotus represents the perfection of wisdom, logic and knowledge, all of which are needed to obtain true enlightenment, always displayed only partially opened with its center never fully in view. Pink flowers, or the “Supreme Lotus,” help to recall the history of Buddha and the legends and myth which surround him. And finally, gold, the color which Buddha wears, reflects awakening or enlightenment.

Temple Ruins

Temple Ruins

Our particular flowers were purple, which reflect the magical mysticism found in following the teachings of Buddha. A perfect choice for non-Buddhist lay people with only the most basic understanding of what is not so much a religion but a way of life, one which seems to circumvent most of the thorny issues that make monotheistic faiths so exclusionary, divisive, and generally incompatible with even their own core teachings.

Temple Gate Ruins

Temple Gate Ruins

The growth cycle of the lotus holds other important symbolism in Buddhism, primarily as physical representations of the stages one moves through to attain enlightenment. When closed they represent those in search of enlightenment, while a bloomed and open lotus flower signifies divine rebirth in the form of full enlightenment and self-awareness.

Temple's Central Tower

Temple’s Central Tower

Buddha Altar

Buddha Altar

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, celestial dancer carving 2 WMWe had three flowers to offer to Buddha, one each: our Cambodian guide Thalay’s (her nickname pronounced Tah-lay, where an “h” is not pronounced in Cambodian unless it’s a double consonant), Jody’s, and mine. Thalay offered hers first at the main altar in the temple, always found under the tallest, most central tower. Hers was a ritual we watched closely to help ensure that we didn’t later offend any of the locals…or more importantly, Buddha! She presented her folded lotus, took and lit incense, dropped to her knees and placed her hands together in the Cambodian sompeyar, a form of greeting and show of respect. In praying to Buddha (or showing respect to the King), the hands are held in front of the forehead while the upper body is bowed. Monks are greeted with hands in front of the face, while a standard show or respect is with the hands over the chest. Basically, the higher the hands, the more reverence shown. This type of prayer is very common to both Thailand and Cambodia, countries of the Therevada tradition of Buddhism. In such traditions, the offering of lotus flowers is commonly supplemented by incense and/or candles.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, incense offerings WM

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, crumbling tower WMCambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, facial carving WMThe act of offering is called dana – an act of generosity, itself an emotional and physical expression of veneration not just to the Perfectly Enlightened One (Buddha), but also to Buddhism’s Dharma – The Truth – and to all the other lessor but still Noble Enlightened Ones, like the Bodhisattvas. And since flowers are the some of the most beautiful, pure, and untainted creations of the natural world, they are perfect offerings in most any setting. Even when they fade, they often remain at Buddhist altars as a reminder that all things in this life fade as well; as a Buddhist teaching goes, “whatever is of the nature to arise is also of the nature to cease.”

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, lotus flower for Buddha WM

Jody and I placed our offerings at two smaller altars under minor towers to the sides of the main, central tower of the temple complex where Thalay left hers. When we provided our flower, and in return were given freshly lit incense to also place before the Buddha statue, which often are missing their heads, most stolen eons ago since they are much easier to transport than entire solid-stone effigies.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, lotus flower for Buddha 2 WM

Incense is thought to have a calming effect on the mind, although you must see my blog Serene Sanctuary for quite a different take on the role of incense in Buddhism served up by a head monk himself. In offering incense to Buddha, we are, in essence, offering our own peace of mind. It serves to remind us that we always wish to offer a little bit more patience, calmness, and peace to the world, thereby attaining those qualities for and in ourselves.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, temple attendant WM

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, incense for Buddha WMOf course not being practicing Buddhists, Jody and I only did what we were comfortable doing. I have and always will respect the worlds’ great religions, but I will admit that I feel much more spiritually centered and less conflicted in a Buddhist setting than I do or have in any other religious setting. In making my offering, I paused to reflect on all that I have to be thankful for, and for all that I still have left to do in my own journey forward towards fuller awakening. In no way do I claim to be on the path of enlightenment. Or on any path to that end. What I will admit is that I remain a student to what spirituality can teach me, and love, unity, and peace in our lives is an obtainable goal worthy of which to strive.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, weather stone and wild flowers WM

In the meantime, however, I continue to swim in the muddy waters to which most of us seem relegated. For me, however, the lotus blossoms at the surface become clearer every single day.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, ladies peek WM

 

 

Sources used in this Blog:

http://buddhists.org/buddhist-symbols/the-meaning-of-the-lotus-flower-in-buddhism/

http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/b_lotus.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offering_(Buddhism)

http://www.lotsawahouse.org/tibetan-masters/dodrupchen-III/offering-flowers

https://essenceofbuddhism.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/why-do-buddhists-give-offerings-to-the-buddha/

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/theravada.html

Tashmioo’s Tomb: Please Pray for Him


“A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient.” ~Greek Proverb

“We know little of the things for which we pray.” ~Geoffrey Chaucer

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

“Tashimoo,” the large white sign, sized and placed to be easily seen from the frequently traveled road on Torii Station, began. “Please pray at this blacksmith’s tomb because he made tools for farmers.”

I had driven by this “tomb” probably at least 50 times, and with each pass, my curiosity grew. Who was this blacksmith, and who was responsible for placing and maintaining this sign on an active United States Army station? And where exactly was his tomb at this site? All it appeared to be was a small rise in the ground, serving as root foundation for a very large shade tree and associated sub-tropical jungle.

Deciding to stop and explore his resting place on foot, I realize that this tomb appears to be very old, and basically has been reclaimed by nature. Oddly situated next to a modern American style gas station where a woman was loudly vacuuming her car, I can find no real trace of what I would consider an Okinawan tomb, at least not like those ubiquitous turtle-back mausoleums seen all over the island.

Okinawan Turtleback Tombs (Yomitan)

Okinawan Turtleback Tombs (Yomitan)

Turtle-back tombs are exactly one of those things that make Okinawa…oh so Okinawan. They line hillsides along the coasts, prime property for what in essence are neighborhoods of the dead. But they are not seen in other parts of Japan; they were introduced only in the Ryukyus through Okinawa’s long and prosperous seafaring tradition with China.

Turtle-back tombs or turtle shell tombs (Japanese: 亀甲墓, kamekō-baka) are a particular type of tomb commonly found in some coastal areas of China’s Fujian Province and in Japan’s Ryūkyū Islands. In the original Chinese form, the tomb main chamber’s roof is made to look like the carapace of a tortoise. A vertical stone tombstone bearing the name of the deceased is placed where the turtle’s head would be, and serves as the “door” access to the burial vault.

Smaller, More Literal Turtle Tombs in  China

Smaller, More Literal Turtle Tombs in China

In the Ryūkyūan island chain, the turtle-back tombs are thought to have been introduced from China in the late 17th or early 18th century, but there are academic claims that reach back to their origins in Okinawa to the 15th century. The Ryūkyūan version has the same overall shape and layout, but on a much grander scale. Whereas in China the tombs are for individuals, in Okinawa the enhanced size of the body of the “tortoise” serves most often as a family tomb.

Why a turtle? In China, the turtle has long been considered a sacred animal. The reptile’s shape, with its flat plastron (the belly of the turtle) below and its domed carapace above, is said to represent the universe, at least as it appeared to ancient Chinese. But the interpretation in the Ryukyus has the tomb shaped to resemble a woman’s womb. One of the Eastern Buddhist ideas surrounding death is that it is only another form of rebirth, or a means of returning from whence you came.

Turtle-Back (China) or Womb (Okinawa) Interpretation

Turtle-Back (China) or Womb (Okinawa) Interpretation

Okinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, broken burial urns WMOkinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, overgrown and reclaimed WMBy the 20th century, the turtleback tomb became the predominant burial chamber in most of the Ryūkyū Islands. These tombs contain a burial vault, where bones of many generations of a particular family could repose. In the long-standing tradition of burial in Okinawa, a coffin and body are placed in the central part of the tomb and the vault is sealed with a massive stone. The newly deceased remains there for some number of years until wholly decomposed. At that point, the bones would be washed, usually by young female relatives of the deceased, placed into a large earthenware vessel, and stored on shallow tiered shelves lining the back and sides of the vault’s interior based on seniority. Larger tombs offer up to 150 square feet of burial space.

Preserved Tombs on Kadena AFB

Preserved Tombs on Kadena AFB

Okinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, large shaded tomb WMOkinawa 2015, Kadena Tombs, overgrown tomb WMThere are large preserved tombs on Kadena AFB, complete with placarded information. Stopping there one day, I find a substantial picturesque tomb and a brief, generalized explanation describing the aged, intriguing structure. Although the signage claimed that the tombs were still being utilized today, a closer inspection of their interiors clearly shows that no one is home, living or dead. I can only imagine, perhaps, that the family was whipped out in totality during the Typhoon of Steel which occurred here back in 1945….

Empty Tombs

Empty Tombs

WWII Intelligence on Okinawan Tombs

WWII Intelligence on Okinawan Tombs

That spring, during the Battle of Okinawa, many Okinawan civilians sought refuge from naval and air bombardment of the island inside their ancestors’ tombs (as they also do for typhoons). Later, many of these tombs were also used by the Imperial Japanese defenders of the islands in essence as reinforced fighting positions. (See Turtle Back Tombs for an excellent overview of the role the tombs played in WWII) Pre-invasion military analysis of Okinawa included instructions on the explosive firepower required to destroy such tombs. When you consider the propensity of the Japanese to use the tombs in military roles, grave danger emanated from the literally thousands of turtlebacks that dotted the island of Okinawa.

Militarized Tombs 2

Okinawan Tomb along the Hiji River showing scares of War

Okinawan Tomb along the Hiji River showing scares of War

14560717418_1a6bcfc297_bUnfortunately, war often presents just such dilemmas: should the destruction of local culturally significant sites be avoided at the risk of increased casualties, or should they be leveled to discourage their use and save as many of the invasion force as possible? The way it went, it is the Okinawan people who suffered most. And doubly so. The Japanese, who cared nothing for the welfare of the Okinawan people, occupied, militarized, and sacrificed this island chain as a way to simply slow the Americans down on their march northward to the Japanese homeland. The Japanese were directly responsible for the destruction of almost every important Okinawan cultural relic, either by their own hand or by placing such sites in the crosshairs of the American invasion force. The desecration of tombs – many which were destroyed on the mere suspicion of being military strongholds or hideouts – was a terrible and lasting affront to the Okinawans.

Shiimii Observance at a Family Tomb

Shiimii Observance at a Family Tomb

In Okinawa, where highly superstitious and spiritually attuned people actively engage in ancestor worship, the tomb is not only a place for resting the dead, but a place of tangible joy and transcendent comfort for the living.  One such event is known as Shiimii. Each spring at the beginning of the third Lunar month (the Okinawans still use the traditional Chinese measure of time to mark cultural events) Okinawans participate in memorial services of a sort for their ancestors. But these observances are much less solemn that you might think. The practice is, of course, based on Chinese traditions passed along to the Ryukyus with the Chinese tombs. During this festivity, blood relatives gather at tombs in a family reunion, but one which includes both the living and the dead. The entire site is cleaned and neatened; weeds are pulled, trees are trimmed, bushes cut back and debris and trash removed. Irritated forebears, upset at the tidiness of their eternal home, are believed to cause illness or even death when their descendants don’t take good care of the family tomb or participate in important annual ceremonies which take place there. See Banzai for more on the rituals and rites of honoring the dead in Okinawa.

Buddha Standing Guard

Buddha Standing Guard

Once the site is presentable, a brief ceremony is held which includes prayers and the burning of imitation paper money for the dead to use in the coming year. Then a picnic is enjoyed at the tomb. Family members unpack special Okinawan ceremonial foods like mochi, fruits and pork, along with beer, saké and awamori. Offerings are made first to the resident ancestors, and then the extended family consumes the rest graveside. Children are seen laughing and playing while the adults appreciate their adult beverages. Often a strummed sanshin, the traditional Okinawa three-string instrument, offers a musical background where time-honored folk songs are sung in hogen, the local dialect. This joyous time, one which strengthens and reaffirms kinship and ancestral ties, is cherished by the Okinawans.

Modern Gable-Style Tomb

Modern Gable-Style Tomb

But there’s less and less of the turtleback tombs being constructed on Okinawa. More recent trends, given the exorbitant cost of purchasing land and building large kamekō-baka are to build gables, smaller tombs that more resemble a shrine or small home than animal. And given the reduced floor space available, cremation is now the norm.

Scattered Earthenware and Bones

Scattered Earthenware and Bones

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

Okinawa Apr 2015, Tori Blacksmith Grave, bones shells and urn fragmentsTashimoo, the blacksmith of Yomitan, had neither. His tomb is crudely formed by stacked chunks of ancient coral. Moving up into the manmade elements of his hillside grave, I spy fragments of earthenware and what appears to be bone fragments, possibly animal, but maybe not, scattered in a leveled area immediately against a small coral wall. The site, adjacent to a busy road serving the base’s gas station and across the street from the construction site where the new base headquarters is going to be, is quite shaded and tranquil.

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

And he still has people stopping to pray. In my few moments of silent contemplation of this man’s life – and death – I focus the very nature of his tomb and the fascinating Okinawan interpretation of the circle of life. And I reach a necessary conclusion.

Tashimoo's Tomb

Tashimoo’s Tomb

We all can only hope to be as lucky to be so well-remembered.