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

Culture Club in Japan: Bunka no Hi


“What sets worlds in motion is the interplay of differences, their attractions and repulsions. Life is plurality, death is uniformity.  By suppressing differences and peculiarities, by eliminating different civilizations and cultures, progress weakens life and favors death.  The ideal of a single civilization for everyone, implicit in the cult of progress and technique, impoverishes and mutilates us.  Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life”

~Octavio Paz

There’s more to Japanese Culture than an SNL skit would lead you to believe

“Thanks for sharing,” Jody coyly says to me as the autumn winds blows and cold drizzle sets in just after sunset. Sure, I checked the weather and told her the high temperature for the day, along with the chance of rain we could suffer.  But she’s a smart, well-educated woman, and clearly should would understand the nighttime lows, especially given we’ve been sleeping with the windows open the last couple of days.

“Cold is a state of mind,” I flatly respond with my oft-repeated joke of how they taught us to embrace cold in Navy SERE (Search, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training. She does nothing but glance disapprovingly in my general direction.

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, somber processional approaches

Earlier, things were different as the processional came into view as it passed over a rise in the roadway on the horizon. Even at this distance, the colors and pageantry of the parade already shine true in the bright afternoon Okinawan sun.  The crowd gathers has the spectacle closes, and slowly the somber sounds of Chinese horns, drums, and hand cymbals grow ever louder, setting the tone and cadence for all involved.  The pace is dignified and slow, and the King and Queen held high in their large, ornate litters.  And so went the Royal Ryukyu procession of guards, warriors, musicians, and dancers for the Chinese Investiture Envoys for the next two hours….

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, golden fans

The Ryukyu King

The Ryukyu King

And his Queen.

And his Queen.

The Shuri Castle Festival is certainly one of the biggest annual events on Okinawa. And there’s no mistake that it’s held in conjunction with the Japanese National Holiday, “Culture Day.”  For a day, the capital city of Naha is transformed into the Ryukyu Kingdom’s old hub.  The Ryukyu Dynasty Parade is truly a splendid sight to see.  A grand parade in brilliant period dress recreates the Ryukyu Kingdom’s most formal and picturesque procession.  In three groups — the dignified King and elegantly beautiful Queen’s procession, the dark and mysterious envoys’ procession, and the colorful and lively traditional arts procession — a throng of almost one thousand costumed period players parade along Kokusai Street in downtown Naha, the same route that has been traveled over the past six centuries.  The costumes are authentic, down to the same stitching used in robes and gowns worn in antiquity.  At the same time, traditional song and dance is performed free of charge and on-site at the castle’s park.  Clearly, to the Okinawans, this is more than just a chance to dress-up; rather, it’s a city-wide embrace and revival of the Ryukyu Dynasty in all its former glory.

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, costumed happy dancers

Culture Day (文化の日, Bunka no Hi) is celebrated annually on November 3.  It is expressly set aside by the government to promote culture and the arts.  Events typically include art exhibitions, parades, and in Tokyo, even an Imperial award ceremony for distinguished artists and scholars.

Please not this kind of Culture Club in Japan!

Please not this kind of Culture Club in Japan!

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Still more to Okinawa than this....

Still more to Okinawa than this….

First held in 1948 to help promulgate the ideals of love of peace and freedom organic to the post WWII Japanese Constitution, its roots go much deeper. November 3 was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1868 when it was called Tenchō-setsu (天長節), a holiday held in honor of the birthday of the reigning emperor.  An interesting aside, the Emperor’s Birthday (天皇誕生日, Tennō Tanjōbi) remains a national holiday here, but with a differing date based on the specific reigning Emperor.  For contemporary Emperor Akihito (born in 1933), it is celebrated on 23 December.  During the reign of Hirohito (Showa period, 1926–1989, the sitting Emperor during WWII), the Emperor’s birthday was observed on 29 April.  Due in part to the nation’s reverence for Hirohito, regardless of how western history taints his role in the incitement and sustainment of World War II throughout Asia and the Pacific, that date remains a public holiday, but was renamed Greenery Day in 1989, and then finally Showa Day in 2007.  Coincidentally, and oddly enough, Showa Day also happens to be the same day in which the Allies’ International Military Tribunal for the Far East condemned key officials of the Imperial Hirohito government during World War II to death, including former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, back in 1946.

Chinese inspired castle decor.

Chinese inspired castle decor.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, Chinese-inspired Seiden of the CastleShurijo Festival Oct 2014, Shurijo, Shurijo Castle FestivalShurijo Castle prospered as the Ryukyu Kingdom’s center of politics, diplomacy and culture for 450 years, well into the late 19th century.  The castle was the residence of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s King and royal family, as well as the headquarters of the Shuri government, which traded with China, Japan and far-reaching Asian countries, shaping forever the distinctly Okinawa society.  Shuri also served as the heart of the kingdom, a center of culture and the arts, where classical court dance was born in order to welcome Chinese envoys and ambassadors.  After the Ryukyu Kingdom was unilaterally annexed by Japan in 1879, the King was removed from power and position, and the castle was relegated for use as a simple barracks for the Japanese army, falling into some significant measure of disrepair.

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Confederates in Japan??

Confederates in Japan??

The more appropriate standard.

The more appropriate standard.

A “National Treasure” before World War II, it was fiercely attacked for three days during the Battle of Okinawa since the Japanese military had located its headquarters in the castle’s underground maze of natural caves and tunnels. On May 27, 1945, Shuri burned for the fourth and last time, and was effectively razed to the ground by intensive shelling and bombardment.  Oddly enough, upon capture a Confederate battle flag was hoisted over the castle by the “Rebel Company,” Alpha Company of the 5th Marine Regiment, and there remained visible for three days until it was ordered removed by Marine General Simon B. Buckner, Jr., himself the son of Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Sr., who felt that all Americans helped to win the battle, and was replaced by a more appropriate standard.  For an interesting take on the role and continuing consternation over this odd intersection of flags, see Should the Rising Sun Finally Set.

Sacred Suimui Utaki

Sacred Suimui Utaki

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, female straw hat dancerAfter the war, plans were set in motion to rebuild and recapture the past. Castle reconstruction began in 1958, and was largely completed in 1992 with the restoration of the complex’s main buildings.  In 2000, along with other gusuku, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  See more on the Castle and other festivals held there in my blog Hidden Harvest Moon.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, dragon-topped Seiden rooftop roofline structure

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, female dancer and minature puppet shishimaiShurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, footstepsJody and I went down early and parked near the castle, then took the city’s monorail over to the parade grounds. We thoroughly enjoyed the parade for close to two hours, trying to take in as much of the show as our overwhelmed senses would allow.  Jody let me jockey for a better photog position, which is thankfully much easier here in Asian surrounded by rather polite Japanese.  While I’m still sorting and sifting through over a thousand photos taken on no less than three cameras, a few selected ones are included here to help demonstrate the pomp of the ritual.

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, Eisa ghost dancer

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, female Yosudake dancer traditional Okinawan costumeShurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, colorful female dancerAfter the parade we decided to try another one of the “Sam’s” eateries, a popular chain here on Okinawa, and enjoyed an overpriced but delicious teppanyaki lunch at Sam’s Anchor Inn while we recharged our bodies and reset our senses. Taking the monorail back to the castle, Jody finally was able to tour the inside of the primary buildings of the castle, and we both attended a few displays of traditional Okinawan arts on the stage nearby.  We were, on the one hand happy that there were very few Americans in attendance, but saddened at the same time by this lack of interest and participation.

King's Throne in the Seiden

King’s Throne in the Seiden

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, male and femaleAlthough Culture Day is statistically one of the best days of the year weather-wise – in Tokyo there have only been three years with rain in something like 40 years – the forecast is often much different in the sub-tropics, including Okinawa. While the rain Sunday night didn’t keep the crowds away, it did cut short our enjoyment of the candle-lit grounds during the Shurijo Castle Illumination.  Jody’s sleeveless blouse, which threatened to lead to sunburn just hours before, was ultimately no match for the strong fall winds and cold rain of early November.

The Shureimon Gate Illuminated

The Shureimon Gate Illuminated

But she sure does have nice shoulders. And besides, it gave me a chance to hold her close as we strolled through the romantically candlelit castle grounds on the way back to our car to zoom away to a steaming bowl of Ramen and freshly fried gyoza.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, Shurijo, Kankaimon gate and castle approach at night

And as we warmed our hearts together on the ride home and over a late dinner, reminiscing, mostly in silence, about the rich fabrics in the colorful cloth of Okinawan culture, I found myself thinking, “Thanks for sharing.”

Thank you, Jody, for sharing this day of culture with me.

See my Flickr Set Shurijo Castle Festival 2014 for more photos as I process and post them.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, male golden fan dance

“Candy is Dandy…but Liquor is Quicker.” ~Willy Wonka


Japanese Hot Tub

Now THAT’s a Hot Tub

“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.” ~W. C. Fields

“O thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil.” ~William Shakespeare, or, any one of the misinformed and less creatively inclined leadership in the modern US miliary

“Wine is bottled poetry.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson

The 'mo lights the 'mo better.  Regardless of the design....

The ‘mo lights the ‘mo better. Regardless of the design….

11922362203_bf0595c424_b11921945005_dd3ac4247c_bThe Itoman Peaceful Illumination Festival “Lights of Peace” is one of Okinawa’s most popular winter holiday events, drawing 50,000 visitors each year.  The venue, located in the south of the island near Itoman City, is beautifully if not haphazardly decorated with ~1.3 million lights, roughly representing the Okinawan population, and carrying the island’s hopes for peace through the night skies.  This year, as part of our New Year Day outing, we visited the 15th annual illumination, after spending the daytime hours at the nearby Okinawa Prefectural Peace Prayer/Memorial Park.

The Itoman Farm "Gift Shop," full of Liquid Holiday Cheer!

The Itoman Farm “Gift Shop,” full of Liquid Holiday Cheer!

img06wineI quickly and excitedly realized, however, the stroke of genius of the illumination’s hosts deciding on holding such an event.  You see, the venue is actually the “Itoman Wine Farm” (糸満観光農園), and although there is a small cover charge for admission to the illumination (250 yennies each), and without doubt their festival is a fun-filled, holiday-spirited family event, I couldn’t help but notice that they were doing a rather brisk wine and wine-related paraphernalia business on not quite the side, but front-and-center! image06p Jody and I were both surprised to find a winery here on Okinawa.  Having spent four years living among the people here, I had never come across or even heard of an indigenous wine made and bottled on the island.  However, Jody and I also both know that almost all places, no matter where you are, make and offer their own wine – although Florida and their local moscatos are barely edible – so shame on us for being so dumbfounded! img05 christs-sake

Sake:  Higher-End Beer Goggles

Sake: Higher-End Beer Goggles

Wine is usually made from fermented grapes, but can also be made from other fruits (fruit wines) or honey (meads).  Wines made from other such produce are named rather directly:  rice wine, pomegranate wine, apple wine and elderberry wine, for instance.  The term “wine” can also refer to starch-fermented or fortified beverages having higher alcohol content, such as sake, which most people immediately think of when they conjure up plans and schemes of imbibing in Japan. Sake or saké is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, sometimes called “rice wine.”  However, the brewing process for sake is much more akin to that of beer, converting starch to sugar for use in fermentation.  So, in this sense, sake is not really a wine at all….  Sorry for raining on your alcohol-infused mental Far Eastern parade.  And to make things even more confusing, the Japanese language uses the word sake (酒, “liquor”) as a reference for most any alcoholic drink, while the beverage called sake in the West is usually here termed nihonshu (日本酒, “Japanese liquor”).

Okinawan Awamori, snake included.

Okinawan Awamori, snake included.

176759899_58cdf77ac4_z11412436355_31c144b435_bOn Okinawa, however, there is an obscure yet popular adult-oriented potion uniquely indigenous to Okinawa:  Awamori (泡盛).  It’s made from long grain rice, and is product of distillation rather than brewing, which makes it more like hard liquor than anything else.  All Awamori made today is from Thai rice, since local production in Japan is no longer sufficient to meet domestic demands (how shameful!).  Awamori is typically 60–90 proof, although the hanazake brand can be as high as 120 proof, making it flammable.  In any case, for all Awamori, the distilled result is typically aged in traditional clay pots to improve flavor and imbue a level of “mellowness.” The most popular way to drink Awamori is with water and ice.  When served in Okinawa, it’s usually accompanied by a container of ice and carafe of water.  Traditionally, Awamori was served in a kara-kara, a small earthen vessel with a small clay marble inside, which would make a distinctive kara-kara sound when the pouring vessel was nearly empty; it is very bad form and rude in Japan to pour from an empty vessel.   While still found on Okinawa, these vessels often now lack such distinctive clay marbles. All of these leads me to a funny tangent….

Drinking with the Boyz! I'm partially hidden at far left....

Drinking with the Boyz, circa 2000! I’m partially hidden at far left….

After months of this, I certainly could use the drink.

After months of this, I certainly could use the drink.

Mayumi - I'm surprised she still speaks to me!

Mayumi – I’m surprised she still speaks to me!

My first time on the island, between 1999-2001, I was the Officer-in-Charge of a detachment of air traffic controllers and operational air intercept specialists that I would serve with for six months at a time.  When not underway, they would live at the Habu Hilton on Kadena Air Base, and of course were a very long way away from home with little here to make them feel homey, let alone welcome.  So, for every det I hosted, I would hold at least one large party at my home, especially around the holidays and the middle of summer.  I, of course, would offer Okinawan Awamori for toasting.  Awamori here is sold in the coolest bottles, and in one-upmanship with Mexico, they have replaced that piddly little worm of same Latino fame with…a full-sized Habu pit viper snake.  Chew on that (before swallowing)!!  Not knowing any better, I would serve the Awamori like one would serve tequila, and my det Sailors, being on detachment and being sailors, would task me to keep up with them while shooting the shots.  Yes, alcohol was yet to be ordained another “Great Evil” in the service, although it certainly was seen already by the leadership as a lessor demon.  So, we would drink, laugh, eat, and drink some more.  And, we all had the worst hangovers the next day, the kind that put you down on the couch for most of the day!  It wasn’t until years later, when I was having dinner with a friend who was married to a Japanese woman Mayumi, that I learned my mistake.  When I took a shot of the Awamori I had ordered at the higher-end Japanese restaurant we found ourselves enjoying in South Beach (Miami), she was literally aghast at my behavior!  She explained that Awamori is to be savored and enjoyed, not gulped, and should always be cut half with water/ice, and then sipped….  It’s hard sometimes to not be the ugly American, even when you try.

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img02yimage01uThe Itoman farm, however, makes neither sake nor Awamori.  It does produce, however, several varieties of fruit wine, including acerola, passion fruit, and Sparkling versions of each, all made with produce grown locally on-island.  The Okinawans believe that acerola wine prevents aging and rejuvenates the skin, while passion fruit wine helps relieve fatigue.  I could’ve used some of this wine to cure my Awamori-induced hangovers.  If I had only known.

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Although no tours were being offered during the illumination, I understand they are available during more normal business times and hours.  Of course they do offer free tastings (some things are the same ‘round the world) in their traditionally red-tiled “wine house,” and have a nice souvenir shop where they of course peddle their wines, but also offer jars of fruit jams and spreads made out of local ingredients like sweet potato, acerola, pineapple, and passion fruit, to name a few.

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img01qimg01yThe Itoman Wine Farm is almost directly across the (main) street from Peace Prayer Park, making it an easy side-excursion.  The huge white windmills are nearly on the farm and are a key landmark to look for since they are simply unmistakable anywhere near the area.  There is plenty of free parking.  Miniature golf, pony rides and horseback riding, and greenhouses hosting fruit trees and local fauna can all be sampled as well daily from 10:00am through 6:00pm.

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Oh, and when it came time to leave the illumination well into the dark, we noticed some odd light beams shooting straight up skyward from the vicinity of the Peace Prayer Park.  We ventured to see, and what we stumbled upon was the “2nd Peaceful Searchlights,” where the park became wrapped in the solemn still and silent darkness, with five powerful beams of light projected skyward breaking through the atmosphere; each beam honoring the victims of the Battle of Okinawa from the five different countries and regions engaged in that conflict:  America, the United Kingdom, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.  Lining the pathways of the park were literally thousands of circular battery-powered LED lights, each placed by hand, marking the way.  Only in Japan could such things be left open to the public without fear of being stolen, kicked, thrown, or otherwise molested.

And we hadn't even started drinking.  Yet.

And we hadn’t even started drinking. Yet.

Jody and I came home with I believe 4 or 5 bottles of Okinawan wine.  While we haven’t yet to partake of this find and discover what poetry this Okinawan potion portends, we are so very joyful to have a winery here to call home.  Our outing, complete with the Tomori Lion encounter (read about that here), our day on Mabuni Hill (an upcoming blog), along with the experience of an Okinawan holiday illumination and peaceful searchlights, was rightfully and wonderfully the Far East Fling flirtation with the first day of the New Year here in Okinawa, Japan.

Ride 2014 Like you Mean It, Jody!!

Ride 2014 Like you Mean It, Jody!!

Hidden Harvest Moon: Rain & the Shurijo Castle Autumn Celebration


Manga Moon

Manga Moon

“But even when the moon looks like it’s waning…it’s actually never changing shape. Don’t ever forget that.” ~Ai Yazawa, Japanese manga author

“I would believe only in a God that knows how to Dance.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche

Far Eastern Spectators

Far Eastern Spectators

Held annually on or about August 15 of the lunar calendar under the Harvest Moon (roughly coinciding with the fall equinox), the Mid-Autumn Celebration reproduces the Mid-Autumn Banquet Celebration, one of seven Sappou Shichien Celebrations once held during the historical Ryukyu Kingdom era which served to entertain and celebrate Sappoushi envoys from China.

More Modern Envoys...of a sort.

More Modern Envoys…of a sort.

Jody and I decided to attend this year’s festivities.  Up to this point, we have been rather overwhelmed with moving and settling on the island, trying to get by with what little we have (still no household goods!!), and with Jody trying to acclimate to her job at the Navy hospital.  However, we had been watching the moon’s slow and steady progression each night towards full glory, and concluded that the spectacle of the historical Shuri Castle, dressed and immersed in traditional Okinawan pageantry, under the harvest full moon during our 2nd wedding anniversary weekend was something we probably shouldn’t miss.  We were even surprised to find out that the admission was free, even though the event takes place in the castle’s central Una forecourt, normally requiring payment to enter.

Far Eastern Myth:  Rabbit in the Moon making Rice Cakes

Far Eastern Myth: Rabbit in the Moon making Rice Cakes

Ukanshin odori (“classic dances”) and Kumi Odori (組踊, Okinawan: Kumi wudui, “ensemble dance”) are performed under the harvest moon, and are a form of narrative traditional Ryukyuan dance.  Originating in the Okinawan capital of Shuri in 1719, the dances are founded on amusement and diversion for Chinese diplomats and envoys that traveled frequently between China and Okinawa at the time.  Tamagusuku Chokun, a Ryūkyū courtier (1684–1734), is credited with the establishment of kumi odori as a frequently presented court demonstration.  An amalgamation of several different types of East Asian dance, the kumi odori has continued to hold important cultural significant in Okinawan society, and remains today a prime example of native art sustained by and through the people of Okinawa.

Jody at the Shuremon Gate

Jody at the Shuremon Gate

Costumes & Pageantry

Costumes & Pageantry

The weekend festivities promised to bring the historical Ryukyu court to life.  Four show sets were programmed to take place Saturday evening between 6:30 and 9:00, each lasting about 45 minutes.  We arrived in plenty of time, and since this was Jody’s first visit to Shuri, we took our time wandering through and up the meandering path to the castle, passing through various ornamented gates and past massive coral blocked walls.  Unfortunately for us, the weather was not cooperating; rain was in the forecast, and overcast conditions prevailed.  The luminous moon was nowhere in sight, especially when our travel-sized umbrellas had to be deployed.

Castle Gate

Castle Gate

The Kingdom of the Ryukyus reigned over Japan’s southwestern islands for approximately 450 years from 1429 to 1879, although political collusion in these islands began to appear earlier in the 12th century, a period corresponding to Japan’s Kamakura era.  Through repeated fighting and reconciliation, local warlords known as aji were gradually reduced in number as power was consolidated by a few.  Finally in 1429, Sho Hashi defeated the major ajis to establish a unified nation, marking the birth of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus and the Sho Dynasty.

A Chinese Shishi Lion

A Chinese Shishi Lion

In the following years, the Ryukyus gradually evolved.  Through robust trade and growing diplomatic ties with China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia, the Ryukyus developed as an ocean-faring nation, with Shurijo Castle as its political, economic and cultural center.

Far Eastern Décor

Far Eastern Décor

During this festival, when twilight has passed, the visual effects of Shurijo Castle Park are spectacular, with visitors able to appreciate the grandeur of the illuminated Seiden State Hall from the adjacent festival location in the hall’s Una Forecourt.  The view from the Western Observatory provides a spectacular and breathtaking evening view of Naha City’s lights from far in the south up the coast to even Cape Zanpa, who’s lighthouse beacon was clearly visible.

View of Naha from Shurijo's Viewpoint

View of Naha from Shurijo’s Viewpoint

Okinawa Aug 2013, Shuri Castle, our view of the stage, mid-Autumn FestivalAs we formally entered the Castle’s inner grounds, we noticed three lines of people just outside the forecourt, one for each of the gated entrances found there.  Noticing that the lines to the right (far side) were shorter, I elected the middle line, not really knowing what to expect.  For those planning to go, get there early and get into the line to the far left; this line provides easiest access to seating on the left side of the stage, where the dancers and musical performers can best be viewed.  The musicians are seated on the right of the stage (as viewed from the audience), facing left, which can obscure the theatrics for some of those seated on the right.

Our View from Stage Left

Our View from Stage Left

Costumed Guard

Costumed Guard

In 1469, some 40 years after the Sho Dynasty assumed power, a coup occurred, resulting in the 2nd Sho Dynasty.  In 1609, the Satsuma Clan of Japan invaded the Ryukyus with a force of 3,000 men and seized Shurijo Castle.  For the following 270 years, the Kingdom of the Ryukyus maintained a nominally tributary relationship with China, historically their main ally and trading partner, while in reality it was controlled by Japan via the Tokugawa Shogunate.  Finally, in 1879, the return to Japanese imperial rule with the Meiji Restoration resulted in the dispatch of troops to oust the Ryukyu King from Shurijo Castle and place Okinawa formally under the Japanese Emperor, officially establishing Okinawa Prefecture and ending forever the Kingdom of the Ryukyus.

Okinawa Aug 2013, Shuri Castle, male performer of the Kajadihu dance, mid-Autumn Festival

Okinawa Aug 2013, Shuri Castle, the beautiful pair from the Shundo dance, mid-Autumn FestivalJody and I were able to attend the first three portions of the program, and unfortunately missed the most impressive dances that occurred later in the evening.  Not wanting to drive (and most likely get lost), pay the tolls (about $6 each way), and mess with parking downtown (quite expensive at the castle), we elected to take a military tour.  And although the provided bus was very nice and the driver excellent, the cost was probably higher than providing our own transportation, and oddly enough, the time of the tour did not coincide with the timing of the programmed events…thanks to the 10pm curfew imposed by the military on its junior personnel.  That combined with rain delays that caused the celebration to being twenty minutes late, resulted in our rather early departure.

Traditional Okinawan Music

Traditional Okinawan Music

Castle Grandeur

Castle Grandeur

Not really knowing what to expect, but having seen other forms of traditional Asian and Asian Pacific Islander dance across the Pacific Rim and within Asia proper, I was somewhat surprised at these particular performances.  The level of pageantry was not as I would have expected or desired (stage decoration, better sound, larger ensembles, period costumed staff), and the dances, while fascinating to watch and experience first-hand in such a powerful and historical location, are almost devoid of emotion and energy…at least by western standards.  Luckily, we had a guide, provided free at the venue, which helped explain what we were seeing and hearing.

Kajadihu Traditional Opening

Kajadihu Traditional Opening

First was Kajadihu, an “auspicious dance customarily performed as the first in programs presented on festive occasions.”  It is said to be the most preferred and popular of all the classical Ryukyuan dances.  It seems to portray a very old Okinawan couple, who moved very slowly, methodically, and nearly in unison, each with a decorated Japanese fan as a hand prop.

Amaka Dance

Amaka Dance

Another dance performed was Amaka, a dance presented along with a song about a married couple vowing their eternal love, although oddly enough, the dance calls for only a solo woman to perform.  This is a type of teodori, a dance emphasizing hand movements without props.  In this song and dance, the loving couple is compared to Mandarin ducks, regarded as a symbol of conjugal affection and fidelity, playing together on a river called Amakawa.

Okinawa Sep 2013, Shuri Castle, performers from the Kajadihu open, mid-autumn festival

Shundo's "Ugly" Pairing

Shundo’s “Ugly” Pairing

Our favorite performance piece of the evening by far was Shundo, which involves two pairs of women artists, a beautiful pairing alongside an “ugly” one!  This is considered a “pair dance” and is the only piece in the Ryukyu classical dances that use masks – to make the ugly pair appear “ugly” – as props.  Although expressed in a humorous way, the melancholy and clunkiness of the ill-favored women runs throughout the work, contrasting with the gracefulness of the admired beauties.

Shundo's More Appealing Pair

Shundo’s More Appealing Pair

Next year we will be much better prepared, logistically and with our own expectations.  And we will hope for clear skies and a bright moon, whose beaming light would clearly make this a more spectacular evening for all to harvest.

Staged Performances

Staged Performances

p07_photo01Left:  Enormous moon sets the scene for “Jade Rabbit—Sun Wukong” from the series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. The giant disk, which became an expressive device in much Japanese painting, is a prominent element here. This image is from the allegorical Chinese novel, Journey to the West (Xi You Ji), in which the immortal monkey, Sun Wukong, transforms into a rabbit to fulfill his quest; the monkey taunts the rabbit in the moon.

Banzai!!!


Banzai!!

The Last Banzai

Banzai:  a traditional Japanese exclamation meaning “ten thousand years,” shortened from a more involved cry to the Emperor of Japan, Tenno Heika Banzai” (天皇陛下萬歲, “Long live the Emperor”).

Emperor Hirohito, World War II Era

Emperor Hirohito, World War II Era

“Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

These last two weeks have been very spiritual in atmosphere and experience for me.  The untimely passing of a close friend and brother skydiver, necessitating such a permanent goodbye on top of an already tough sayonara to my friends and family, has had me reaching both inside and out for a reconnection with a more spiritual dimension of life.  While I cannot attest (nor do I want to) that I am a man of any particular denominational faith, I remain a being of faith…that there is something more that binds us in our shared human experience, which allows us to live on in some form or fashion across epoch and cosmos.  Crudely stated, for me personally, perhaps the best evidence for any god can be found in the unpretentious and pure love of a cat.  Love, in fact, may be the only evidence of a higher power that remains tangible for most, visible to all.

Cleo Loves Me.  Or at Least My Feet.

Cleo Loves Me. Or at Least My Feet.

I was struck at my friend Jimmy’s memorial how much the service, at the Church and at the graveside, centered on the Christian God and in assisting Jimmy in finding salvation through his system of beliefs.  Jim was a devout Catholic, and no matter what is stated here, I wish to take nothing from his faith, something he held so dear.  But the lack of focus, comment, or even celebration of “Jimmy” left me feeling empty and at odds with myself – and the services.  The goodbye that most Western faiths offer is too final, or only offers a “see ya on the other side” where one is expected to wait until their own demise to once again be reunited with departed loved-ones.

I used to think that funerals were quite pedestrian, almost unnecessary.  Until I started to lose friends and shipmates in the Navy, and over time I realized that such services really do not serve the dead any purpose whatsoever, but are for the living.  What “the living” want and need out of such rituals varies, but I believe at a common denominator, they all should assist those still in the realm of life to connect, even if for a moment, with the ether of the dead.

Prayer and Spirituality

Prayer and Spirituality

But what is wrong with conversing with the spiritual world now?  If there is such a dimension, ought there be something more between it and us than simply outwaiting time for death to arrive and reunify?  Certainly I’m not the only one to think so; why else would we visit graves, leave mementos, and converse with the dead so often and for so long?  However, such facets of western faith are not formally recognized (in my experienced) nor practiced (well), and certainly not embraced as a public holiday or part and parcel of American culture.

Then Jody and I relocate to Okinawa.  Amidst the bustle and hustle of our international move, fraught with having to secure off-base housing on the economy, purchasing, registering and insuring two vehicles, and getting Jody checked into work and me checked into the military’s machine here on-island, we arrive exactly at one of the most spiritual times for the Okinawans:  Obon.

Obon in Japan, an Ancestral Family Reunion

Obon in Japan, an Ancestral Family Reunion

Obon (お盆) or just Bon (盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors.  There to be two main types of religion or spiritual tradition in Japan:  Shinto and Buddhism.  While mainland (Honshu) Japan is more Shinto in many areas, Okinawa retains a large Buddhist community, reflecting roots which run deep and long with Korea and China.  This Buddhist-Confucian custom here has evolved into a family-reunion of sorts, and is now a Prefecture (a geographical region akin to a state) holiday during which Okinawans return to ancestral family dwellings after visiting and cleaning family gravesites, after which whose spirits are invited to revisit “home” and reunite with the living.  It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori, which in (and only in) Okinawa is more specifically called Eisa.

Eisa Dance, a Uniquely Okinawan Spiritual Tradition

Eisa Dance, a Uniquely Okinawan Spiritual Tradition

The festival of Obon lasts for three days, but is celebrated at differing times in Japan depending upon where one resides.  When the lunar calendar, used by the Japanese in more ancient times, was changed to the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era (early 20th century), some localities refused to change their spiritual observances, resulting in three different times of Obon. “Shichigatsu Bon” (Bon in July) is based on the solar calendar and is celebrated around the 15th of July in eastern Japan, such as the Kantō region, including Tokyo, Yokohama and the Tohoku areas.  “Hachigatsu Bon” (Bon in August), the most common observance of Bon, is based on the lunar calendar and is celebrated around the 15th of August.  “Kyu Bon” (Old Bon) is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so this observance differs each year.  “Kyu Bon” is celebrated in areas like the northern part of the Kantō region, Chūgoku region, Shikoku, and the Okinawa Prefecture.  In Okinawa, the third day of Bon is a holiday and most businesses are closed mid-week.

Eisa Dancers Guide Spirits in Okinawa

Eisa Dancers Guide Spirits in Okinawa

We arrived on-island on the 16th of August, and just this past week Bon was celebrated here from the 19th through the 21st of August.  At night, just after sundown, you could hear throughout the adjoining neighborhoods the traditional music, drums, and whistling which accompany the celebration of Bon and the performance of Eisa.  During the day gravesites were refreshed and traffic was heavy as families traveled the island to share this special time at childhood homes.

Eisā (エイサー) is a form of Okinawan folk dance originally derived from Bon celebrations.  This dance is performed by the younger people of each community during the Bon festival to honor the spirits of their ancestors, but it certainly doesn’t exclude the older generations, usually seen playing the traditional Okinawa instruments.  It is a vital part both of Bon on Okinawan, being intricately woven into the very cultural fabric here, designed to embrace and guide good spirits, while keeping unmentionables at bay.

Traditional Okinawan Family Tombs

Traditional Okinawan Family Tombs

Days before Obon begins, many families gather to clean their ancestors’ graves to help demonstrate to the spiritual world that all will soon be able to share time in the land of the living.

More Modern Okinawan Tomb Equivalents

More Modern Okinawan Tomb Equivalents

On the first day of Obon known as “unkeh,” chochin lanterns are lit inside houses, and people go to their family’s grave to call their ancestors’ spirits back home (“mukae-bon”).  In some regions, fires called “mukae-bi” are lit at the entrances of houses to help guide the spirits home, brightening up doorways across the island as the living stand in front of their homes to help greet spirits as darkness descends.  Homes are cleaned, and a variety of food offerings are placed at a butsudan

Obon Ancestral Alter

Obon Ancestral Alter

(Buddhist altar) along with the chochin lanterns and colorful and fresh flower arrangements.  In Okinawa, a bundle of 13 short pieces of sugar cane and a long, uncut cane are also placed on the side of the altar; while most offerings of food are made in pairs or in a package, the countable foods like the sugar cane are always given in odd-number increments.  The long piece is said to be used as a walking stick by the spirits as they leave the house and return to their tombs.  That evening, families dine on a porridge-like meal known as “jushi,” offered to and shared with the spirits of their deceased relatives.

Spiritual Nightlight:  Chochin Lantern with Family Crest

Spiritual Nightlight: Chochin Lantern with Family Crest

During the second night (“nakabi”), ancestors are offered three meals.  The day is dedicated to family members visiting with relatives and apologizing to their ancestors for not communicating for so long (read:  CALL YOUR MOMMA).  They pray for forgiveness and offer additional gifts to the spirits.

Okinawan Spiritual Connection:  Prayer & Thanks

Okinawan Spiritual Connection: Prayer & Thanks

The third and final day of Bon (“ukui”), the climax of the family reunification, centers on a farewell dinner which is carefully prepared and placed before the butsudan into a special box called the “jyubako” as a final offering for the spirits, along with sake, tea and other special foods.  The family also prepares the “minnuku,” a special meal made of grass or scraps of

Jyubako Box, Sustainment for the Dead

Jyubako Box, Sustainment for the Dead

food that can be offered to any bad spirits or homeless, wandering spirits which the ancestors might meet on their journey back to the tomb.  To ensure that the spirits will have no needs as they cross back over into the spiritual world, “uchikabi,” money made of paper and stamped with the shape of a coin by a hammer and iron mold is placed on the jyubako.  The entire family – living and dead – comes together in front of the butsudan as the meal is prepared, and incense is burned while the family gives thanks for their good health and prays for the safety, happiness, and prosperity of the family in the year to come.

Spiritual Debt:  Paying the Ferryman

Spiritual Debt: Paying the Ferryman

After the meal, men sing and play a banjo-like instrument made of snakeskin, called the “samisen.”  Just before midnight the ancestral spirits are bid a fond farewell and the paper money is burned by the head of the family and his sons.  They douse the ashes with tea and sake, and place the souvenir foods and the minnuku.  A final pray is made to help ensure the spirits’ safe return to their tomb, and that they will again come back again and visit in the following year.  Family members help return their ancestor’s spirits back to the grave, hanging chochin painted with the family crest to guide the spirits back to their resting places (“okuri-bon”).  In some regions, fires called okuri-bi are lit at entrances of houses to assist in sending back their ancestors’ spirits.  During Obon, the smell of senko incense fills Japanese houses and cemeteries.

Spiritual Flight:  Japanese Crane with Obon Banner

Spiritual Flight: Japanese Crane with Obon Banner

The idea of formal, celebrated, and embraced spiritual reunifications with ancestral familial members has refreshed my feelings about death, loss, and my own spirituality.  I believe we all could do well by taking part of a week each year to not just lament loss in our families or of our friends, or even to celebrate their lives past, but rather take three days to invite those we love back into not just our homes, but into our lives, in celebration of all that was, is, and remains to be.  It is in embracing and inviting such spirituality into our ordinary lives that connects us through time and space, not simply via funerary mass.

Party On:  Spiritual Honor & Celebration

Party On: Spiritual Honor & Celebration

While Jimmy got the sendoff he expected and deserved, and most were able to say a tearful “goodbye,” I choose not to idly wait to “see” him again.  Rather, during Bon next year here in Okinawa, Jimmy, along with my own ancestry, will be welcomed into my life again to be reacquainted and celebrated.  Just don’t tell Jody; most shishi dogs already freak her out (wink)!

Banzai, Jimmy!!

Banzai, Uncle Bob!!

Banzai, Mom!!

It is in this way we all may live for ten thousand years!

What Many Americans Probably Think of Banzai!

What Many Americans Probably Think of Banzai!

PS – thanks to a fellow blogger Maki Photography for use of some wonderful images!