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.

Cherry Blossoms: Budding Beliefs of Traditional Japan


“The individual is ephemeral, races and nations come and pass away, but man remains. Therein lies the profound difference between the individual and the whole.” ~ Nikola Tesla

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“Ooooh, oooh, cherry blossom, sakura HAI!!” Setsuko proclaimed just about every time she spied a cherry tree readying to bloom. Her expression was like that which could be found on any American kid’s face on Christmas morning. Except Setsuko is Okinawan, and she’s almost 71.

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The Okinawans and Japanese have a deep-rooted love affair with cherry blossoms. Festivals honoring the blossoms are widely held, complete with a carni-like atmosphere reminiscent of our tri-county fair back home. In fact, it’s one of the few times on Okinawa that cotton candy is easily found. And lucky for me, during this time of year it’s even easier for me to devour!

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491413-bigthumbnailA cherry blossom is the flower of any of several trees of genus Prunus, particularly the Japanese Cherry Tree, Prunus serrulata. The blossoms are referred to as sakura in Japanese. The blossoming begins in Okinawa in January and spreads north as warmer temperatures slowly walk into higher latitudes throughout the spring, reaching Kyoto and Tokyo at the end of March or the beginning of April. A few weeks later they finally spread into higher altitudes and to Hokkaidō, the northern most of the Japanese main islands.

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japanese_cherry_blossom__by_ging3r295-d45w2odThe Japanese and Okinawans pay particularly close attention to blossom forecasts each year. The many festivals celebrating the flowers arrival are carefully planned around such predictions, and people here in this island-nation turn out in huge masses at parks, shrines, temples and castles with family and friends to hold flower-viewing parties. Hanami (花見, “flower viewing”) or sakura matsuri (“cherry blossom festival”) celebrate the beauty and evanescent nature of the cherry blossom, a custom which dates back many centuries in Japan, possibly to as early as the third century CE.

The Kings hangin' with the Ryukyu King at Nakijin Castle

The Kings hangin’ with the Ryukyu King at Nakijin Castle

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, sakura blossoms WMJody and I attended one of the more scenic areas to view sakura on Okinawa, a flower viewing festival at Nakijin Castle just outside of Nago on the Motobu peninsula of Okinawa. The castle ruins, perched high on a jungle-covered ridge overlooking the East China Sea, serves as a dramatic backdrop for the festivities. A large greenspace just outside of the gusuku is set with a stage for traditional music and dance, highlighted against theatrically lit castle walls. Inside the ramparts, the pathways are lined with glowing candles every foot or so, while up-lights illuminate the cherry trees lining the bastion’s ancient entryway.

500bd93475ed790b6ce79ad9a88ae44bOkinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, up close and in full bloom 2 WMIn Japan, cherry blossoms sometimes symbolize clouds as they bloom en masse, but more often they are a central and enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life, an aspect of Japanese cultural tradition steeped with Buddhist influence, embodied in the concept of mono no aware dating back to the 18th century CE.

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, Jody in the sakura light

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, castle pathways 2 WMLast year Jody and I attended this jubilee on a lazy Sunday afternoon at the very start of the 2-week sakura matsuri period in late January. Although the blossoms were not yet in full bloom, there were very few people in attendance, making for a rather peacefully pleasant visit to the fortress.

The surprising line waiting to go in!

The surprising line waiting to go in!

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, castle pathway at dusk WMThis year we went on the last weekend of the viewing period and on a Saturday night, arriving about ninety minutes before sunset. We bought our tickets (cheap!), had a quick bite to eat, and headed into the ruins, showing some friends (new to the island) the ropes. As the sun set, Okinawan music wafted across the stone-fitted walls, filling the wintery cold winds with soft sounds of the island as multicolored lights illumined the trees and bulwarks alike. The cherry blossoms themselves were bathed in bright white to ensure their full brilliance. The festival became a fest for all the senses.

The Castle's Main Pathway

The Castle’s Main Pathway

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, up close and in full bloom WMMono no aware (物の哀れ), literally “the pathos of things” but also translated as “an empathy toward things” or “a sensitivity to ephemera,” is a Japanese phrase which acknowledges an awareness of impermanence (無常, mujō). This acceptance of the transience of all things lends a gentle wistfulness to the Japanese. The fleetingness of the blossoms, their extreme beauty and quick death all have often been associated with mortality. Thus, sakura have become richly symbolic, constantly appearing in Japanese art, song, manga, anime, and film.

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, colored walls WM

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, sakura blossom closeupWhat we didn’t realize, however, was just how many Japanese and Okinawans partake in such festivities. Attempting to leave the castle through its main cherry-tree lined footpath, we were jammed shoulder to shoulder with frolicking picture-takers, cooing and “aaaaah-ing!” with every firing of a camera flash. The going was slow, and upon exiting the fortresses’ exterior rampart, we realized why: there were literally thousands of people standing in line waiting to get in!

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, castle pathways WM

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle Jody enjoys the blossomsDeciding to thaw ourselves before our one hour and forty minute drive home, we stepped into a local soba house and were lucky enough to get a table for two with no waiting. Warming our bellies with steaming pork broth and the thick savory noodles of Okinawan soki soba, we laughed at how we ourselves had acted just like Setsuko upon seeing the dramatically-displayed cherry blossoms.

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle blossoms in bloom WM

But unlike sakura matsuri mono no aware, Okinawa and its commemorations have become a permanent part of our souls.

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, Jody with sakura

Geishun (迎春): Welcome Spring and the New Year!


“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The New Year is perhaps the most important time of the year in Japan, akin to the way the West views Christmas. At the end of the year, the Japanese traditionally say, “I wish you will have a good new year,” or in Japanese (formally), “Yoi otoshi o omukae kudasai (よいお年をお迎えください).”

Although we’ve been flirting with the New Year as the world always does for the whole of December, the Year of the Sheep is fully upon us. And, being the Far East Flirts that Jody and I are, we celebrated differently this year than we did last (See Candy is Dandy but Liquor is Quicker to read about our past flings).

This year Jody and I took another island-hoping jaunt to another remote near-by island (see Tropical Trek to read about another), this time Ie (pronounced “Eeee-A”) Island. Taking the military up on one of their pre-arranged good-deal tour packages, we embarked on our 2-night stay at a Japanese “resort” over the New Year’s. And our journey – and the festivities were both full of surprises.

Celebratory Dinner!

Celebratory Dinner!

The Japanese New Year (正月, Shōgatsu) is an annual festival in Japan, similar to others celebrated elsewhere across the globe. Since 1873 the Japanese New Year has been celebrated according to the western Gregorian calendar on January 1, or New Year’s Day (元日, Ganjitsu). However, much of Okinawa, being much more closely aligned throughout history with China rather than with the Empire of Japan, still recognizes their New Year as the contemporary Chinese lunar New Year, which varies based on the moon but usually occurs in late January or sometime in the first half of February. It’s a pretty good convention; why have only one New Years in a year when you can have TWO?!?

Finding ourselves on Ie Island in the heart of a very elderly and rural population, the customs and traditions surround the Welcoming of Spring (which the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrates) were well represented, and in which we eagerly participated.

Soba for Long Life in the New Year...and beyond.

Soba for Long Life in the New Year…and beyond.

The night of the countdown, the hotel served us fresh dishes of buckwheat soba noodles, to be topped off with steaming broth. The stretching and consuming of the long noodles are representative life stretching well into the future. Although feasting on soba noodles is traditionally done after ringing in the New Year, our resort made the traditional dish available starting at 10pm. Of course, after our Korean BBQ feast that only started just a couple of hours prior, we had to literally find the room in our bloated bellies, else we tempt the darker side of fate in the coming year.

Traditional New Year decorations in Japan

Traditional New Year decorations in Japan

Bubbly makes everything better.

Bubbly makes everything better.

The hotel offered typical Japanese fun and games during New Year’s Eve in a bonenkai party of sorts (read Bad Year? Fogetabout it! for more on how the Japanese dismiss their troubles of the past), to which such fanciful fun is typically reserved. We missed the – and here I am not kidding – the “Rock, Paper, Scissors” game, and interrupted the “Guess what’s in the Box” amusement with our late arrival. Although I was the first to win at bingo, just before midnight Jody and I retired to our room for a more private countdown and personal kiss (or two).

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, zoni soup, explanation at the YYY ResortIe Island New Years 2014-2015, zoni soup, broth, taro, spinach and rice cakesNew Year’s Day, however, came with a whole host of celebratory events. January 1st and 2nd are generally regarded as feast days throughout Japan, and our hotel didn’t fail us in this regard. A hugely popular dish made and consumed during the day’s festivities is ozōni (お雑煮), a soup centered around mochi rice cakes. Our soup at breakfast was served with soft-boiled taro and some fresh spinach, topped with a salty clear broth.

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, pounding rice for mochi rice cakes on New Years

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, Kevin and Jody pounding rice for rice cakesHowever, it’s not just the consumption of mochi that is important; it’s the actual creation of the cake from raw rice that’s the heart of this long-lived ritual. In Japan rice is more than food; it’s considered a sacred grain. According to Shinto belief, the ritualistic act of creating mochi invites kami (gods and spirits) to visit. The mochi themselves are thought to contain the presence of kami; and as such they represent perfection and purity and are believed to imbue the eater with these qualities. The ceremony involving these cakes starts with boiling sticky rice (餅米, mochigome) and placing it into a wooden bucket-like container called a usu (臼). The rice along with large, heavy wooden mallets called kine (杵) are both hand-patted with hot water so the rice won’t stick. Using these kine held high overhead, two or more people take turns pulverizing the rice, a cadence being necessary to avoid simultaneous strikes.

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, dusting mochi rice cakes with flour WM

After a period of beating, the rice is turned and folded by hand, and then beaten once again. This rhythmic cycle goes on again and again until the rice becomes a sticky white dough, when it is finally transformed into spheroid-like solid dumplings. Although the dough is usually made before New Year’s Day, the hotel allowed the guests to participate in this important tradition on January 1st itself. Served as kinako mochi and coated with brown sugar powder and soy flour, such treats are eaten specifically for good luck in the coming year.

Breaking open the New Year's sake barrel.

Breaking open the New Year’s sake barrel.

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, Kevin toasting the New Year with sake fresh from the opened barrelIe Island New Years 2014-2015, toasting the New Year with sake in a traditional wooden cup (masu)Traditional Japanese culture also makes frequent use of sake as a way to observe special events, and is perfect for toasting a New Year. Our sake was served to us from a freshly opened large timber barrel and presented in a traditional small square wooden cup called a masu. Sipping our generous portions of chilled sake on a blistery cold and windy New Year’s Day definitely helped keep us – or at least our spirits – warm and toasty. As rice represents the soul of Japan, sake brewed from rice represents its very essence.

Waiting for First Sun of the New Year on Mt. Gusuku

Waiting for First Sun of the New Year on Mt. Gusuku

There are also a whole plethora of things to celebrate as the “first” of the New Year. Perhaps foremost of these firsts is the “first sun” (hatsuhi) or “first sunrise,” which Jody and I celebrated (or attempted to) together from the top of Mount Gusuku, the highest perch on Ie Island affording a full 360 degree panoramic view of the East China Sea and Okinawa Island. Although the previous day’s 300 step hike up the steep slope was under clear, blue skies, the overcast and scattered rain showers of New Year’s morn kept the disc of the sun well-hidden; our first twilight will just have to suffice!

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, Kevin and Jody looking for first sun hatsuhi on top of Mount Gusuku

We were still able to share a few quiet moments together in silent contemplation on that mountaintop, only to be broken by our “first laughter” (waraizome). In Japan, like most any place else on the planet, starting the New Year with a smile is considered a very good sign. And this year, I plan on smiling more than ever. So, from the Far East Fling to you and yours,

Happy New Year!

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!

あけましておめでとうございます。

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Poison or Placenta? What’s YOUR Choice….


“Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.” ~Paracelsus

rat-poison

Luckily, my rat poison was in pill form.

Reading the fine print on some meds I had been prescribed, I come across a term that I find…interesting. “Hey Jody, what is “Porcine Intestinal Mucosa?”

“Pig gut,” comes Jody’s flat reply. Right. That’s where I know that word from. Swine.

Japan offers pill form of their unappetizing meds as well.

Japan offers pill form of their unappetizing meds as well.

I think I owe Japan an apology. I recently wrote a blog (see Placenta: Prescription or Placebo) that might have dissed, however slight, the role that placenta-based supplements play here in the Far East. Placenta, as in that gross stuff that comes out as the after-birth in us (female) mammals. But seriously, is making a drug out of that organic matter any worse than using, say, beef lung, pig intestines, or RAT POISON?

Coumadin, Warfarin, Rat Poison.  No difference!!

Coumadin, Warfarin, Rat Poison. No difference!!

Rat poison. I finally get to stop taking the rat poison…more gently referred to as Coumadin…that I’ve been taking for that last 6 months and 10 days. I’m deemed healthy enough to stop my anticoagulation treatment! (see Offshore Okinawa, A Scuba Diver’s Paradise to Lose for some background on my serious illness suffered this summer)

I really hate needles....

Lovenox must be injection. Man I really hate needles….

But that’s only the start. The previous blood thinner — an often used-misnomer for drugs that actually stop your blood from clotting — I, or more honestly mostly my caretaker-extraordinaire beautiful-nurse-wife Jody was shooting into my belly – Lovenox – was made from, no less, the intestines of pigs.

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And the IV drip anticoagulant I was given during my hospital stay in June, heparin, is derived from mucosal tissues of slaughtered meat animals, such as porcine (pig) intestines or bovine (cattle) lungs. Nice how the manufacturers decide to use uncommon nomenclature for such unsavory source ingredients. Coincidence? I think not.

It's surprisingly affordable.  Why do the Rx versions cost so dang much???

It’s surprisingly affordable. Why do the Rx versions cost so dang much???

Coumadin (a name brand of Warfarin), is an anticoagulant normally used in the prevention of thrombosis, the formation of blood clots in blood vessels. But get this: it was initially introduced in 1948 as a rodent pesticide, and can still be found used for this purpose. Urban legend says that the human medicinal benefit wasn’t recognized until some poor Army sap tried to commit suicide by overdosing on the staff, but whose condition was completely reversed by mere injections of vitamin K. And the only reason I knew to even look this up was a nurse-friend of my wife’s, when she found out I was on the drug, said with a large knowing smile, “Oh, the rat poison!”

No taking aspirin to help with those raging headaches.  Wait, about that drinking....

No taking aspirin to help with those raging headaches. Wait, about that drinking….

Warfarin is both odorless and tasteless, and is effective when mixed with food bait because rodents will return to the bait and continue to feed over a period of days until a lethal dose is accumulated. In order for us humans to stay alive while we feed on a handful of pills, we just have to go for weekly blood tests to make sure a “lethal dose is NOT accumulated.”

bear facepalm

So, life comes down to relevance. One animal gives a life so that drugs can be made to save people. One culture develops a fetish for placenta-based products sold, not as the fountain of thick mucuousy-looking-goo which they feature in their commercials, but more as a fountain of youth of sorts. Other medical communities develop life-saving medical drugs, but based on other no-less appetizing parts of other sacrificed animals.

The dichotomy, though, is that relevance is not absolute and is often just two sides of the very same coin. Flipped on one side, a drug kills rodents. But tossing it upside-down and suddenly the same drug, using the exact same biological action, can save humans. Having the coin flipped the right way in my case, I sure am glad to be returned to better health.

May or may not be about Placenta (I'm rusty on reading Japanese), but it's the same idea.  I think.

May or may not be about Placenta (I’m rusty on reading Japanese), but it’s the same idea. I think.

And I’m glad to give Japan a respectful break about their placenta fetish. There actually might really be something to it….

Okinawa Halloween Costume COSPLAY: 50 Shades of Cute


“Clothes make a statement. Costumes tell a story.” ~Mason Cooley

Their Story?  Evil Gingerkids, of course!

Their Story? Evil Gingerkids, of course!

Halloween 2014, Mihama Costume Contest, walking dead women zombies15520835520_408295eeb7_bThe ghosts and ghouls, manga-attired friends and whole families of anime characters all parade down the runway to the excited gasps of the massive crowd assembled for the All Hallows Eve festivities. From Transformers to dead Goth/Emo weddings, the spectators all gawked at the getup gamut on display.  Edward Scissorhands receives approving applause from the audience, a good sign that he would be a finalist.  And so went the pageantry for the next two hours.

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We are often asked if the Japanese and the Okinawans celebrate many of the holidays that we in the United States accept as the underpinnings of life. Halloween is one of the more interesting days where the East can mask themselves in costumed celebration of All Hallows Eve.  And paint me paranormal, boy do they ever!

Halloween 2014, Mihama Costume Contest, female ghoul ghost

American-Village-Halloween

Zombification:  the danger of listening to too much AFN

Zombification: the danger of listening to too much AFN

The local heavily western-influenced “American Village” and “Carnival Park” at Mihama held their annual Halloween costume contest last week, this year actually on Halloween proper. Compared to the rain and cold of last year (see COSPLAY in Japan), the weather was nearly perfect for such merriment.  So good, in fact, that there were about five times as many people out this year, most of which seemed to be little witches, miniature pumpkins, or young ghouls trick-or-treating throughout the huge commercial complex.  For the contest, Okinawa closes the main road in the area for pedestrian-only traffic.  There a large stage is assembled, funneling down the street transformed into a long runway for costumed contestants to strut their stuff.

Beautiful veiled witch.

Beautifully veiled.  But clearly thinking about her next curse to cast.

It seems we Americans give the day a bad name.

It seems we Americans give the day a bad name.

15086308713_ed15f92dc5_bHalloween, or Hallowe’en (a contraction of “All Hallows’ Evening”), is of course celebrated annually on October 31st, itself also the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day, a liturgical time dedicated to remembering the dead, specifically Saints (“hallows”). A timeless focus of All Hallows’ Eve is the use of humor and ridicule to confront the powerful inevitability of death.  Although origins are debated, and whether your trace them to pagan, Gaelic, or Christian roots, it matters little.  Such connections have long been lost in antiquity.

I'm not sure if this is the typical Ugly American here, or a costume.

I’m not sure if this is the typical Ugly American here, or a costume.

Halloween 2014, Mihama Costume Contest, walking dead women zombiesHalloween 2014, Mihama Costume Contest, masked beautyAnd besides, with the fantasy of spectacular dress and anonymity promised by masks and makeup, such connections are today unimportant in what in Japan is a wholly secular day. But the Okinawan people, and to a lesser extent the Japanese as well, are very superstitious people, well-attuned with death and the afterlife.  Thus, it has been easy for both cultures to integrate Halloween with full force.  Starting in the late afternoon on October 31st, one can spy car loads of Japanese kids in costume being dropped off all along our neighborhood seawall to go trick-or-treating alongside their American counterparts.

Halloween 2014, Mihama Costume Contest, devilish

BUT, it is the vigor and energy the Japanese put into their costumes which truly amazes. There were over 250 costumed-entries for the contest this year, most entries consisting of a group of friends or even whole families.  But what really surprises is the shear variety and number of people just out and about in costume, both to enjoy and participate in the revelries.

Sexy, cute AND shy! A winning combination.

Sexy, cute AND shy! A winning combination.

American Slut:  C'mon, Indians didn't wear heels....

American Sluttiness: C’mon, Indians didn’t wear heels….

American Sluttiness: Barney is a cross-dresser???

American Sluttiness: Barney is a cross-dresser???

But having spent now two recent Halloween’s here in Okinawa, Jody and I have reached an interesting conclusion: while America has taken sexy to slutty extremes, the Japanese (and Okinawans) have taken sexy on an opposite trajectory to cute!  Fifty shades of gray here start with White (innocence), as opposed to our Black (decadence).  It’s a refreshing spin to see that Asian women here continue to walk on the more subdued side of the blurry gray line between sluttiness and seductress.  While the Japanese certainly have their perverted fetishes (as we all do), they manage to continue to hang onto a level of innocence and naivety that is…well…cute.  See Absolute Territory for a seductive take on Japanese sexy cuteness.

The Ultimate American Sluttiness:  sexifying Burt and Ernie.

Ultimate American Sluttiness: giving Burt and Ernie moobs.

Those girls got guns.

Those girls got guns.

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They probably would be more successful capturing with their fish-NETs than with their sidearms.

Another obvious theme that bleeds apparent in costumes here is the Japanese fascination with guns and weapons. The uber-violent past of the Japanese people notwithstanding, today it requires permission to even possess a folding knife over 6 cm of blade length (15 cm for fixed blades), and even then they cannot be carried (the penalty is up to two years in prison).  Similarly, almost no one in Japan owns a gun.  Most kinds are point-blank illegal, with onerous restrictions on buying (expensive and administratively hard) and maintaining (they must be stored with government officials) the few that are allowed (mostly for hunting).

Armed...with hot-shorts.

Armed…with hot-shorts.

Now that's a gun!

Now that’s a gun!

Transfixed by this Transformer costume!

Transfixed by this Transformer costume!

Even the country’s infamous, mafia-like Yakuza organized crime “gang” tend to forgo guns, and instead resort to beatings and stabbings. With what result?  In 2006 there were only TWO firearm-related homicides. In ALL of Japan.  And when there were 22 total in 2007, National scandal and embarrassment ensued.  For comparison, in 2008 there were almost 600 Americans killed by guns…that had been accidentally discharged….  Where is our outrage, shame and scandal??  However, with most things made taboo, there is a strong undercurrent in Japan concerning guns.  And nowhere does this show more than in their costumes!  And notice that their guns lack the silly orange-colored barrels and plugs that ruined our toy-guns when we were kids.

I missed these nurses this year!

I missed these nurses this year!

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My choice for 1st Runner-up!

My choice for 1st Runner-up!

Of course the Japanese are already into cosplay (costume play), which primarily centers on hugely popular and well-known (and often mega-violent) anime and manga characters. BUT, they certainly have adopted well our Halloween traditions, where I’m happy to report that really, for a change, nothing much was lost in translation.  Although there was a clear absence of sexy-cute Japanese nurses this year, and while he certainly lacks a more refined sex appeal, Edward Scissorhands easily sheared away the competition to get my vote.

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I’m not sure who won, but he should’ve!

See Halloween OkiStyle for another local blogger’s take on this year’s Okinawan Halloween Scene.

For more of my photos from this year’s contest, see Mihama 2014 Halloween Costume Contest on Flickr.

Geisha & Maiko vs. Hose & Heels: Working Women of Gion, Kyoto


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“The biggest industry in Japan is not shipbuilding, producing cultured pearls, or manufacturing transistor radios or cameras. It is entertainment.”  ~Boye De Mente, Some Prefer Geisha

“Geishas are not submissive and subservient, but in fact they are some of the most financially and emotionally successful and strongest women in Japan, and traditionally have been so.” ~Iwasaki Mineko, Geisha, A Life

“There is currently no western equivalent for a geisha—they are truly the most impeccable form of Japanese art.” ~Kenneth Champeon, The Floating World

Modern Hostesses and "Snacks"

Modern Hostesses and “Snacks”

Japan-travel-Kyoto-Pontocho-Alley-visitWhat is up with all the prom dates and late-night flower shops?” I ask Jody as we wander the streets in and around Gion.  Women, or more correctly young girls, scurry about the streets in their über high heels and hipster nylon leg fashion, dressed to the nines for a ball extravaganza that never seems to materialize…while flower arrangements that more resemble funeral ornamentation are whisked away to the many small bars that dot each alleyway.  Perhaps the Japanese are subconsciously mourning the loss of their old ways.

Kyoto has a fetish obsession with nylons, which I admit I enjoy

Kyoto has a fetish obsession with nylons, which I admit I enjoy

FCP%20Legs%20Beautiful-smallJust after sunset something odd happens on the outskirts of Gion in Kyoto, the original capital city of Japan and still it’s cultural and religious center.  Young ladies frequent the numerous small nylon and pantyhose shops found there, dressing up on their way to “work” as hostesses and “snack bar” girls, far from the geisha ideal and sensuality of the past.  The ever-resourceful Japan has invented the “snack bar” (basic bars, older women) and “hostess club” (plush lounges, younger women), both places that come pre-stocked with attractive women, where drunk men can find female companionship without worrying about breaking the ice – or even rejection, and women can get paid for babysitting inebriated and males with low self-esteem.  Leave it to fickle Japan to work out such a regressive lose-lose system.

Me and Jody in front of the Yasaka Shrine

Me and Jody in front of the Yasaka Shrine

Traditional wooden nameplates of Maiko

Traditional wooden nameplates of Maiko

Gion (祇園, ぎおん) is a small historical district of Kyoto, Japan, dating back to the Middle Ages.  Centered in front of the nearby Yasaka Shrine, the neighborhood was designed and built to accommodate the needs of travelers and visitors to the shrine, and then evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan.  Jody and were fortunate enough to stay on the very outskirts of Gion in an old, authentic Machiya (see Timeless Townhouse to read about that adventure!).

A collage of our Machiya stay in Gion

A collage of our Machiya stay in Gion

Geisha neckGeisha (芸者), geiko (芸子) or geigi (芸妓) are traditional Japanese female entertainers who act in general terms as hostesses, but whose skills center on perfecting and performing various Japanese arts such as classical music, traditional dance, skillful games and intelligent conversation.  The word consists of two kanji characters, 芸 (gei) meaning “art” and 者 (sha) meaning “person” or “doer.”  The most literal translation is “artist,” “performing artist,” or “artisan.”  The geisha of the Gion district (and in Kyoto generally) actually call themselves geiko, more directly meaning “a child of the arts” or “a woman of art.”

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then-now-geishaContrast this with Japan today, which offers various flavors of hostess clubs and “snacks.” Many young Japanese women work as kyabajō (キャバ嬢), literally “cabaret girl” (although there is no dancing or nudity), and most use a professional name genji-na (源氏名).  The Japanese hostesses of fast-paced, impersonal modernity, rather than highlighting traditional high culture and ideals of sensuality, instead are relegated to lighting cigarettes, pouring drinks, offering flirtation more than wit, and singing karaoke pop songs to entertain today’s average Japanese Joe Sixpack.  Although such hostesses are often said to be the “modern counterpart of geishas,” these groups of women are literally worlds and time apart.

Sadly, not Geisha...or even Maiko.

Sadly, not Geisha…or even Maiko.

672px-Maiko_in_GionMaiko (舞子 or 舞妓), literally “dance child”) are apprentice geisha, and actually are the one who wear the white make-up and elaborate kimono and hair dress which we in the west hold as the popular image of geisha.  A year’s training leads to a woman’s debut as a maiko, and under modern Japanese law, all must be 18 years of age, except for those in Kyoto, where women can apprentice as early as age 15 (as opposed to age 3 or 5 a century ago).

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14195691615_ccc5a28e7c_bShiroNuriSeriesMaiko are considered one of the great sights of Japanese tourism, and although most westerners don’t’ realize, they look very different from fully qualified geisha.  The scarlet-fringed collar of a maiko’s kimono hangs very loosely in the back to accentuate the nape of the neck, a primary erotic area in Japanese sexuality.  She wears the same white makeup for her face on her nape, leaving two or sometimes three stripes of bare skin exposed.  Her kimono is bright and colorful with an elaborately tied obi hanging down to her ankles.  She takes very small steps and wears traditional wooden shoes called okobo which stand nearly ten centimeters high (4 inches).  There are five different hairstyles of a maiko, all impossibly ornate and complex, each marking a different stage of her apprenticeship.  Around the age of 20–22, the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha in a ceremony called “turning of the collar” (erikae) where white replaces red.

The whole idea behind Japanese Hostess clubs and Snack bars....

The whole idea behind Japanese Hostess clubs and Snack bars….

60947212_66fb58d83c_mattachmentModern hostesses’ professional wear consists generally of very short skirts or cocktail dresses, but range to prom-like gowns, both looks completed with stylized “big hair,” sexy high heels, and what only can be described as a fetished-obsession with nylons and pantyhose.   These girls drink with customers, sharing in a percentage of drink sales. For example, a patron purchases a $20 drink for the hostess (in addition to his own), which usually are non-alcoholic concoctions and guarantees the hostess’s undivided attention for the subsequent 30-45 minutes.

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ShiroNuriSeries14584584159_e22d477ea9_bIn modern times the traditional makeup of apprentice geisha is unmistakable, though established geisha generally only wear full white makeup during special performances.  This makeup features a thick white base with red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows.  The application of makeup is hard to perfect and consumes vast amounts of time, and is applied before dressing to avoid dirtying a kimono.

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Yikes.

Yikes.

Not a geisha

Not a geisha

Personal introductions to geisha and maiko were, and still are often required today.  However, modern patrons of hostess clubs are greeted warmly (if not insincerely) at the door and invited directly in.  At some establishments, a customer is able to choose his specific female companion, but that decision is most often left to the house’s mamasan, herself once a hostess who’s worked her way up cleaning splashes off the glass ceiling and into management.  In either case, the hostesses usually rotate after a certain amount of time or number of drinks, offering customers a chance to see a fresh face.  Personally speaking, I have always been assigned a “snack” in a “Snack Bar,” but have had choice in the Okinawan Hostess Clubs I’ve visited.  For the experience.  And nothing more!

There is no greater insult to Geisha than this.

There is no greater insult to Geisha than this.

A mature and established Geisha and her Maiko.

A mature and established Geisha and her Maiko.

airfrance3A maiko’s eyes and eyebrows are drawn in; the eyebrows and edges of the eyes are colored black, and red is applied around her eyes.  The lips are filled in, but not in our more familiar Western style, but instead red and white is used to create various optical illusions and representations, such as a flower’s bud. Maiko wear this heavy makeup almost constantly, but it does change over time to a more subdued style to better reflect her maturity and to help display her own natural beauty.  For formal occasions, mature geisha still apply white make-up, but for geisha over thirty, the heavy white make-up is only worn during the special dances that require it.

Well, I was wrong.  Manson as a Geisha is indeed worse....

Well, I was wrong. Manson as a Geisha is indeed worse….

Katie, you're no geisha....

Katie, you’re no geisha….

There is one way in which geisha and their loosely modern equivalents seem to converge: in addition to their on-site duties, hostesses are generally obliged to engage in paid dates called dōhan (同伴) with their patrons outside of the bar, beyond regular working hours.  Although characterized much differently, maiko and geisha are also paid for such alone time.  While the intersection of prostitution and both geisha and hostesses remain vague and unsure, the fact is that sometimes sex occurs on these “paid dates.”  Although such an arrangement of sex for money is clearly dictated by geisha, there are ongoing concerns about human trafficking and sexual slavery with hostesses, particularly those of non-Japanese citizenship.  Note that since Japanese law narrowly defines prostitution specifically as “intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment,” non-coital services remain legal and are widely offered and available.  If only Clinton had been President in Japan, he actually wouldn’t have had sex with that woman!

Monica, not a Geisha.

Monica, not a Geisha.

Geisha Girls from our "Sayonara" going-away party last year

Geisha Girls from our “Sayonara” going-away party last year

13933417728_f4b9093d88_bUnfortunately, in modern Japan, geisha and maiko are now a rare sight.  In the 1920s, there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today, there are far fewer, with most estimates between 1,000 and 2,000.  World War II heralded a huge decline, especially after 1944 when geisha teahouses, bars and houses were all forced shut by the government so that everyone could work in factories in support of the war effort.  At the end of the war such facilities were reopened, but geisha as a label was irreversibly defamed as common prostitutes began referring to themselves as “geisha girls” during Japan’s post-war occupation.  An association which the American GIs bought, hook, line and sinker.

I'm pretty sure this Geisha and Maiko are the real deal.

I’m pretty sure this Geisha and Maiko are the real deal.

Our "real" sighting!

Our “real” sighting!

14606602998_d3487a96e9_bThe most common (mistaken) sightings are those of tourists who pay a fee to be dressed and made up as a maiko.  The Gion neighborhood in Kyoto has five hanamachi (“flower towns”), or geiko districts, and despite the geisha’s considerable decline in the last hundred years, Gion remains famous for the preservation of forms of traditional architecture and entertainment, and remains one of the places in Japan where a foreigner has a good chance of actually seeing a geisha.  While we did see plenty of woman playing the part, we maybe, just maybe saw one in a rickshaw…and I’m almost positive we followed a maiko and her geisha for a block or two (see below).

Not as sure about this one....

Not as sure about this one….

Personally speaking, the intrigue and sensuality of geisha and maiko, regardless of how backwards and repressive some in the West may think such lifestyles are, should and will always outclass and outlast the rather demeaning heels and hose of the snacks and hostesses that now frequent the streets of Kyoto.  I feel for the Japanese women today who, although they most likely think they are exercising free-choice in pursuit of their destinies, have given up so much status, income and power of the past.

vintage geisha girls

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At least they are dressed well for the funeral. And how’bout those flowers….

Me and Jody with our performing Maiko for the night.

Me and Jody with our performing Maiko for the night.