Traces of War: Life and Death in the Ahasha & Sennin Caves on Ie Island


 405512“Dying ain’t so hard for men like you and me, it’s living that’s hard; when all you ever cared about has been butchered or raped. Governments don’t live together, people live together. With governments you don’t always get a fair word or a fair fight. Well I’ve come here to give you either one, or get either one from you. I came here like this so you’ll know my word of death is true. And that my word of life is then true….” ~Josey Wales’ two tales of death and life, The Outlaw Josey Wales

“The only reason my mother didn’t kill me was that she never went to school,” smiled our Okinawan tour guide during a tour of Ahashagama on Ie Jima. “She was never brain-washed by the faculty and the government….” (See Loyal Soul Monument for more on the militarization of Okinawa in the years preceding WWII)  When war came to Okinawa, Setsuko was less than a year old and was hiding with her family on the main island of Okinawa. She had a remarkably chipper attitude about the whole thing; I guess there’s really no other way to really be once you realize that words of life and death can be spoken in such casual ways as they were on Okinawa back in 1945.

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Okinawans continue to tell their wartime accounts least younger generations forget the appalling consequences of war. Like the oral traditions of just a few generations ago, such are the ways the Okinawans preserve the honor and memories of those who tragically lost their lives in such horrifically meaningless ways. With more and more of remaining firsthand witnesses to the carnage passing away, such frightful tales are necessarily being expressed more and more through memorial sites left for future contemplation. At the end of the day, to the Okinawans, the moral of all these chronicles and memorials is the same: the inescapable shocking costs of war.

Alter in the Cave of 1000 People

Alter in the Cave of 1000 People

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, coastal entranceTraces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, memorial stone 2Jody and I recently visited a nearby island to celebrate the beginning of the New Year. Little did I realize the traces of war that remain so blatantly palpable on that tiny piece of earth. Ie Jima, a small island off central Okinawa’s west coast reachable only by boat, memorializes a tale of two caves utilized by the locals as shelter during the Battle of Okinawa. One cave’s narrative involves words of life. At Niya-Thiya Gama (gama means cave), over 1,000 people, while seeking sanctuary inside, survived the invasion and fight on Ie Island throughout the second half of April, 1945. The locals still refer to this cave as Sen-nin Gama, which translates loosely to “The Cave of 1000 People.”

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, Jody at a cave exit to the ocean

Fertility Stone

Fertility Stone

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, site marker plaqueBecause of this miracle of life during Okinawa’s Typhoon of Steel where roughly 1/3rd of all Okinawans died in a few short weeks, inside this cave is located a sacred stone, a fertility stone, sometimes called Kodakara-ishi (子宝石, “Child Stone”). Many come here to harness the “special power” that permeates such “Power Spots,” the phrase the very superstitious Okinawans use to describe such important locales. The stone here is believed to be imbued with a living god, and not only does it help those wishing to conceive new life, but it can foretell gender before birth. According to legend, if a woman who picks up the stone feels that it is heavy, her offspring will be a boy. If the stone feels light, the baby will be a girl.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, sacred power fertility stone and power spot

According to the Japanese sign on the outside of the Niya-Thiya Cave, around March of the Lunar Calendar each year a prayer ritual lead by a female priestess is held inside the cave, although I have not been able to confirm this.

Ahasha Gama

Ahasha Gama

wallTraces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, Jody negotiates an entrance to the cave 2The tale, however, takes a dark, somber turn at Ahashagama (Ahasha Cave) where there are only words of death. Seemingly forgotten after the war, the cave was sealed during the war and left unmolested for over two decades. Many probably wanted to forget what happened there. But finally, and rightfully, the cave was opened and excavated in 1971, twenty-six years after the end of World War II. In short order, the horrific rumors that locals knew to be true was confirmed by forensic analysis: the remains of about 150 people – civilian villagers including men, women and children – were still there, serving silent yet inescapable witness to the mass murder-suicide which occurred there. The Imperial Japanese Army had given the civilians grenades and ordered everyone to kill themselves in order to evade capture. Even so, a few people realized such folly and survived their cavemates’ dreadful demise. Unfortunately, words of death like these are not uncommon on Okinawa where mass suicides and murders were perpetrated over surrender and capture, sometimes by choice, mostly through coercion, and even by force.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, modern cave site 2

AJ201304250011MTraces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, plaque at the entranceOkinawa’s anguish over these widespread civilian suicides is sharpened by the horrible realization that soldiers from Japan’s main islands always encouraged suicide over capture. Worse, they often used intimidation and bullying to pressure many into taking such drastic actions, and at times murdered civilians who refused. In a diorama at Peace Prayer Park, the Okinawa memorial to WWII, a spotlight glints off a bayonet held by a fierce-looking Japanese soldier who stands over an Okinawan family huddled in a cave, the mother trying to smother her baby’s cries. “At the hands of Japanese soldiers, civilians were massacred, forced to kill themselves and each other,” reads the caption. Nearby, a life-size photo shows the grisly aftermath of a family killed by a hand grenade.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, entrance to the cave

On Geruma Island, part of the Kerama Islands just a few miles off Okinawa’s southwestern coast, Takejiro Nakamura attests first-hand to atrocities. In 1945, he was just a boy, a 15-year-old student when the American invasion started.

Jody temps fate with the Sacred Stone!

Jody temps fate with the Sacred Stone!

“For a long time, the Japanese Imperial Army announced that, on other islands, the women had been raped and killed, and the men were tied at the wrists and tanks were driven over them,” he states flatly. He claims that, as Japanese defenses crumbled on his home island in late March 1945, 56 of the 130 residents there committed suicide. Fleeing with family and neighbors, he ended up in one small cave where ten of his fellow citizens had already killed themselves. They decided to do the same.

1,000 Person Cave

1,000 Person Cave

“I heard my sister calling out, ‘Kill me now, hurry’, ” Mr. Nakamura said, recalling how his 20-year-old sister panicked at the approach of American soldiers. His mother took a rope and strangled her. Seeing this, he attempted the same. “I tried to also strangle myself with a rope,” he recalled, lifting his now weather-beaten hands to his neck. “But I kept breathing. It is really tough to kill yourself.” Minutes later, before his mother had time to kill him as well, the Americans took them captive.

Cave Alter

Cave Alter

His mother lived well into her 80’s. “We talked often about the war,” Mr. Nakamura said. “But to the end, she never once talked about killing her daughter….” The iron in such words of death would shatter her already broken heart, nor could it offer any lasting catharsis for her damaged soul. Instead, she, like all those who have suffered war, should always struggle to find words of life.

Words of Life Finally Work

Words of Life Finally Work

“I ain’t promising you nothing extra. I’m just giving you life and you’re giving me life. And I’m saying that men can live together without butchering one another,” Josey says through gritted teeth, squinting but looking the Indian Chief squarely in the eyes.

Ten Bears, in full war paint with his scouts and warriors surrounding Josey, contemplates such words. “It’s sad that governments are chiefed by the double tongues. There is iron in your words of death for all Comanche to see, and so there is iron in your words of life. No signed paper can hold the iron. It must come from men. The words of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life… or death.”

“It shall be life.”

Okinawa’s Valley of Gangala: A Walk to Remember


“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”  ~William Shakespeare

Welcoming Shisa Dogs at Okinawa World

Welcoming Shisa Dogs at Okinawa World

“I think you understand what I say,” started our favorite part of our tour blanketed in the dank darkness of a tunnel as our guide spoke to us in very broken English.  While she spoke for the following few minutes in overly-dramatized Japanese whispers, it soon became apparent that she was telling a ghost story.

And in a voice quite mousy, she started slowly in a whisper, “(gan…………gala).”  Then, with a fastening crescendo, she forcefully muttered, “Gan……Gala.”  And finally, in a full booming declarative spectacle (taking advantage of the tunnel’s acoustics, mind you), she exclaimed, “GAN…GALA!!!”  And like kids anywhere in the world, they both listen to scary stories and don’t…at the same time.

The classic and worldwide reaction to a scary story!

The classic and worldwide reaction to a scary story!

The Valley of Gangala is an ancient and ornate forest that is probably better served as the backdrop for perhaps yet another movie in the Harry Potter series – Harry Potter and the Soki Soba Sorcerer, for instance.  But we only discovered it when we visited the area for our spelunking adventures into Gyokusendo cave.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, dramatic cave entrance

It is literally across the street from its more famous and popular parent attraction, Okinawa World, but it’s every bit as enjoyable…and dispenses with the cave-themed amusement park and commercial shopping arcade that the former offers.  Being more hidden and garnering much less attention, the Valley of Gangala is much more natural in experience and personably rustic.  A pleasant surprise, it also seems to be the center of the ancient history of mankind on Okinawa.

Okinawa's famed "Banana" Spiders

Okinawa’s famed “Banana” Spiders

Be forewarned:  there are a lot of spiders!

The disappointing Cave Café in the background.

The disappointing Cave Café in the background.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, Kevin cave explorer with oil lanternYou reach the starting point by descending into a cave that’s been transformed into a café.  Although you can still find menus online which offer lunch-type fare, only coffees, teas, juices and snacks/desserts are offered now.  It is an amazing setting, and it’s unfortunate that more can’t be done with such a fabulous ambiance.  This sore point isn’t to detract from tea-time under the stalactites, though, before or after your tour.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, cave approach along a stream

300 year-old burial vault

300 year-old burial vault

While the only way to explore the Valley is through a Japanese guide, the Japanese know how to do tours RIGHT.  The seating area where our visit started conveniently had bug repellent available for every two people, and insulted metal bottles of cold jasmine tea were handed out for us to sip as we sauntered through the flora and fauna of the excursion.  Although it was the middle of summer and the middle of a hot summer day when we toured, I don’t really think the bug lotion was actually needed.  The cold and refreshing tea, however, was!

The oil lanterns are such a lovely touch!

The oil lanterns are such a lovely touch!

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, early humans on OkinawaThe tour was entirely in Japanese, but our Japanese host offered us iPod-like receivers and ear buds that provided us with some English explanations along the way.  It was an unexpected and further nice touch.  It turns out that the Valley has been inhabited for over 10,000 years, and may have served as home for what is considered the forerunners of all the Japanese peoples (migrating from the south to the north through the Ryukyu chain), although there are competing theories and the vote is still out.

Early man lived here

Early man lived here

Get your mind out of the gutter.

Get your mind out of the gutter.

It appears size DOES matter.

It appears size DOES matter.

There are two sacred areas in the Valley, both in caves, one large and one small.  Both center on anatomical-like configurations of rock, male and female (use your imagination).  Women would attend to the female parts to pray for family and good childbirth, while males would enter the large dark cave to pray for things more male-centered.  It’s amazing how many ladies in the group seemed like they needed to go up and touch the rather phallic symbol!  The Japanese are not as conservative as they appear.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, cave explorer Jody 2

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, gigantic banyan treeOkinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, Kevin and Jody portrait with the valley's banyan

One of the other highlights of the tour is the huge banyan tree “Ufushu Gajumaru” which grows up and inside a huge natural arch of rock, just down the path from a family burial vault over 300 years old.  But for those of you still wandering about the ghostly story that so enthralled our young and somewhat frightened explorer, the Valley is named for the spooky sound that stones would make when thrown down into the deepest, most haunted caves.  Apparently, no matter the nature of kinship, no one – not even spirits – likes rocks thrown at them!

The Valley of Gangala

Zip:  901-0616

Address:  Japan Okinawa Nanjo City Tamagusuku Maegawa; parking and the valley is located directly opposite of Okinawa world.

Phone (for required reservations):  098-948-4192

Times:  9:00-18:00, but tours are conducted only 4 times a day @ 10:00, 12:00, 14:00 and 16:00; tour time is approximately 80 minutes

Website:  http://www.gangala.com/

To get to Okinawa World and the Valley of Gangala, drive south on the expressway to Haebana Miniami 1C, Take 507 South, turn left on 331 and another left on the 17.  Follow the signs to Okinawa World Cave Park. You’ll see Okinawa World on the right side and the Valley of Gangala on the left; park in the free Okinawa World parking lot.

Okinawa 2014, Okinawa World, Kevin and Jody at the park's entrance

Spetacular Spelunking: Okinawa’s Gyokusendo Cave


“The frame of the cave leads to the frame of man.”  ~Stephen Gardiner

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin in chest-deep water

So, while I’m still med-down from most things I love to do that involve summer-time crystalline waters, swaying palms, sauna-like sun and sea creatures most can only imagine, I’ve had to reinvent how to explore Okinawan waters in different and unexpected ways.  Okinawa offers much more, of course, than the ocean to escape the oppressive heat of summer.

Okinawa 2014, Okinawa World, shisa lion-dogs at the park's entrance

Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, Kevin dropping down into the cavesThe Gyokusendo cave is the second-largest cave system found in Japan and largest on Okinawa, and is open to the public…for a fee (of course).  Water streaming through the rock and down various waterfalls has helped form the stalactites, stalagmites and “flow-stone” over the past 300,000 years.  Hand-railed metal stairs and catwalks make strolling the cave a memorable and easy experience.  Motion detector-operated lights offer dramatic backdrops and psychedelic shows of colors.  The soothing sounds of rushing and falling waters are heard trickling throughout the cavern.

Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, dramatically lit pooling waters

Although the journey can be peaceful, relaxing and quiet (if you let the loud school-children pass you by), the landscape of the cave is foreign at best.  And it’s imposing enough to imagine it a place of other-worldly monsters, so much so that the 1974 Godzilla vs. Mecha Godzilla movie was in part filmed here.

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Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, fantastic pathways through the cavernsAlthough the cave system totals over 5 kilometers of maze-like tunnels and caverns, those accessible by walkway runs for just about 900 meters (about ½ mile).  If you take your time to thoroughly enjoy the journey and take a plethora of photos (like we do), you’ll be in the cave for at least an hour.  And during that 60 minutes or more, if you are like me and find yourself needing facilities in the most inaccessible of places, urinating from the walkway elevated about 3 or 4 feet above the underground stream produces a loud and echoing splash.

Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, soothing path through the cave

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, this way to adventureHowever, that’s not where the adventure ends; rather, it can just begin there.

 

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin coming under a low passageDuring summer months (July and August), Okinawa World offers a special spelunking cave tour that lasts about 90 minutes and takes you to places not normally seen from the walkway.  It requires some uneven trekking and a good deal of energy, so you adventuresome types will find it tons-o-fun.  While not really “spelunking” as I have always imagined it, it’s probably as close as I can get here in Okinawa.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody smiling in the underground caves

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, navigating through the caveOkinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, peaceful Jody excited about exploring the cave!It is more of an off-trail guided tour, but it does meander through the more mystical paths of the Gyokusendo caves.  It does traverse over hidden obstacles along an underground river and some parts of the path are narrow and require a healthy measure of dexterity to navigate.  While the water is not deep, often times you have to duck under obstructions, putting you in the 60 degree water up to your waist.  That certainly makes for a cool-cool summertime activity.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin in chest-deep water

The stalagmites and stalactites are hard not to touch, but when they take up to three years to grow just one millimeter, the slightest touch can destroy hundreds of years of nature’s finest work.  Some of the growths are measured in many meters inside the cave!

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody navigates a very tight passage

There are some critters in the cave, although we didn’t see any of them other than the small bats that silently fly overhead.  While they often stay at the caverns’ ceilings, there were some surprising near-misses as these winged creatures flew up and down the passages.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, soda straws on the cave's ceiling

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, crawling through low ceilingsOkinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody navigates a very tight passageYou’ll need yen for on-site locker rentals, and if you are bringing a camera, it needs to be completely waterproof (housed or amphibious).  Pants and a long-sleeved shirt are required, and for good reason – it will save you from more than a few potential scrapes and contusions.  Footwear choice, perhaps, is the most important decision; I wore waterproof, closed-toed sandals, but almost rolled my ankles any number of times.  Gloves are also a nice touch, since some of the rocks you may grab for footing are sharp and/or slippery.  We wore parts of our scuba wetsuits, but that was overkill; of course since you’ll be wet to your waist or chest, you’ll need a change of clothes and a towel.  There are hot-water showers (with soap and shampoo) offered as part of the admission fee, and parking is free.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody pauses in the cave's passage

If you’re looking for an unusual and unusually-cool (figuratively and literally) adventure on Okinawa, be sure to not to miss this one.  For me, it was good to be back in the water.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin and Jody couples cave exploration

 

Okinawa World

Phone:  098-949-7421

E-mail:  info@gyokusendo.co.jp

Times:  9:00-18:30 (April-October), 1700 closing in Winter.  Last admission 30 minutes prior to closing.

Website:  http://www.gyokusendo.co.jp

The spelunking tour is NOT recommended for people with knee or back problems and pregnant women.  Child must be at least six to participate.  Although we were under the impression that this was only available through MCCS+, you can reserve directly through the caves.