Love and Radiance:  Sunflowers of the Ryukyus


“The sunflower bathes its flesh in golden oil, languidly craning up so high – oh how small the sun” ~Tanka poem by Yugure Maeda

MIyakojima Sunflower Field

MIyakojima Sunflower Field

Jody and I were out exploring the rustic coast of Miyakojima during a recent island getaway, with no particular destination in mind.  Heading down one of the many detours we took that afternoon, we happened upon a tall, shimmering field of sunflowers begging for attention.  Of course we had to stop… and stop we did!

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27324539151_6bbb25bba7_bThe Sunflower (ヒマワリhimawari) is a popular plant in Japan, cultivated here since the 17th century.  Over time, it has come to represent respect, passionate love, and radiance, not surprisingly.  As a countless mass of yellow and green, they were certainly standing tall that day, busily basking in the glimmering rays of the sun.

Radiance and Sunflowers

Radiance and Sunflowers

27358829101_8b6fd30fcf_bNot only did Jody happened to be wearing just the right dress for the occasion, she also happily obliged my request for an impromptu modeling shoot.  Usually reserved and quite contained, Jody seemed to absorbed some of the flowers’ radiance, then reflected that back to the iris of my waiting camera.  The flowers spoke silently to us, as they do for so many others, an essence of such plants true the world over.  But more so in Japan.  So much so in fact that the Japanese have developed a symbolic language of flowers called hanakotoba.

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26823387523_4c9bdf3e89_bHanakotoba (花言葉) is the Japanese language of flowers, or more correctly, the ancient art of assigning meanings to flowers.  Historically, and in many societies, flowers were given meaningful codes and not-so-secret passwords.  If you wanted some to know you were interested in courtship?  Wear this one.  Want to express condolences for another’s loss or suffering?  Wear that one.  This interpretation of nature takes account of the overall psychological effects and even physiological reactions which can happen under the influences of a flowering plant’s color, texture, and smell.  In other words, flowers can directly convey emotion, and communicate quite clearly without the need or use of more pedestrian words.  More mystically, flowers are often used to express that which cannot be spoken.

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27120015580_47ce4d0a95_bThese pictures are already some of my fondest memories of Okinawa this time around (See Paradise Lost for a less happy memory).  The low afternoon sun and the temperate breeze made our time in the flowering field not just comfortable, but comforting.  There’s just something about sunflowers that is special.  I’m not sure if it’s connected to childhood memories or just their sheer size…or both.  Well, it’s probably because I got to capture my beautiful wife among them and freeze the moment for all time.

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27154089480_6e3e0fe7bc_bIn Japan, flowers are not just given to women.  And when they are given, the act is not taken nearly as lightly as it is in the United States.  The underlying meaning of the flower given determines the message sent – and hopefully received.  Communicating without words can often ease tension and break the ice which is often stifling and thick and permeates many aspects of Japanese socialization.

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For me, the sunflowers speak to Jody, whispering to her of her radiance and beauty.  Things in her case for me that are best expressed through nature as they cannot be fully appreciated through spoken word alone.

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Birthday Babel in Japan


“If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing it, it would have been permitted.”  ~ Franz Kafka

Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel

“English?” Jody asks the two Japanese women wait staff that were just visible inside the restaurant’s curtain-draped entrance.  Sorrowful smiles graphically illustrated our answer, along with at least two “gomenasai,” Japanese for “sorry.”

It was my birthday, and we were on holiday in Kyoto, Japan.  Jody had asked earlier in the day what I wanted for dinner, and I immediately thought of some good, I mean really authentic Japanese teppanyaki steak.  We had spied a few potential places that day and during our explorations of the days prior, but after checking them out more closely, we dismissed them one-by-one.

Searching for Birthday Dinner in Kyoto

Searching for Birthday Dinner in Kyoto

One was just too small and cramped.  Another looked promising, but the patrons already there were all smoking.  We even asked the tourist police along Shijo Dori, the main commercial throughway marking the northern boundary of the famed Gion area of Kyoto…only to take a taxi to their recommendation…which turned out to be a rather lame take on an Amerasian diner, which apparently served steak, Salisbury style.

“Teppanyaki?” was the next question we placed, in what limited Japanese vocabulary we possess, although Jody is getting better with the apps on her iPhone.  This question was met with frowns and, mostly silence, but through steady eye-contact, the kind that searches for meaning in accents so unfamiliar.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Gion, dark alleyway

We found ourselves at this particular non-descript place after walking what seemed like forever.  Quite honestly, I was becoming downright HANGRY, and Jody’s dwarf alter-ego “Grumpy” was starting to shine through her rather reliably contained exterior as her blood sugar continued to decline.  There was a picture of beef, or maybe it was simply a picture of steak, with an establishment name written only in Kanji that we couldn’t read.  Other than for the word “dinning.”

Our Score with "Dining"!

Our Score with “Dining”!

Until more babel set in.

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“Steak?” was the final question in our trinity of query, placed with great anticipation of a positive response here on the 2nd story of what had become our own personal Tower of Babel.  “Hai-Hai!” came their excited response in almost perfectly synchronized union.  “Steak Dinning?”  Worked for us!  Steak dinning?  Worked for us!  I won’t go into how much babel we expended in trying to figure out what exactly came with our $60 meals….  At some point we caved, and decided to take the adventure this night promised.  And with that we were escorted into our own private dining room, eagerly awaiting whatever it was we were going to have for my birthday dinner.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Kevin's Birthday Dinner, Kobe steak dinner

“Babel,” from the Hebrew word balal, meaning “to jumble, confuse or confound.”  The Tower of Babel forms the focus of a story told in the Book of Genesis of the Bible (Genesis 11:4-9).  According to the story, a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood spoke a single common language.  The people decided to build a city with a tower that would reach to heaven, thereby becoming on par with God.

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In the biblical legend, God came “down” to see the human’s city and the tower they were building.  Recognizing the fallacy of their intent, God knew this “stairway to heaven” would only lead the people astray…and to a hit record thousands of years later that ultimately would unite Rock-n-Roll fans across the globe, regardless of native tongues.  Wanting to check the people’s powerful unity of purpose resulting from their common language, God confused their speech and scattered the people, resulting in the many different tongues and peoples found today across the globe.  It still doesn’t explain how the kangaroos got to Australia, and only to Australia.

Okay, it’s not very religiously sensitive, it’s too long, and ends poorly.  But there are some dang funny parts in this interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babel!

Kevin's Birthday Jan 2014, candy topper decorations for the ice cream!

Kevin's Birthday Jan 2014, Disney happy ice cream party boxKevin's Birthday Jan 2014, yummy Baskin Robbins ice cream celebration!Jody, not wanting to drag all my presents hundreds of miles to Kyoto, celebrated with me on Okinawa prior to our departure.  While dinner that night has long been forgotten, my ice cream jamboree lives on!  Our local Japanese Baskin Robbins has a fully English-speaking staff; babel is not much of an issue in such an Americanized corner of the Ryukyus.  Except for the ice cream tower that, given just a few more scoops, could reach to heaven!  Luckily for us, God doesn’t spite ice cream steeples and Jody and I continue to share a common language…and location.

Our Ice Cream Tower of Goodness

Our Ice Cream Tower of Goodness

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Kevin's Birthday Dinner, sizziling Kobe beef cooked to order!Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Kevin's Birthday Dinner, Kobe Steak and White WineThe birthday dinner turned out to be quite good, filling, and even included a teppanyaki element we so vainly searched for.  Although it was a relatively simple dinner; the salad was absolutely delicious, the rice fresh, and the steak we were able to cook on our own person griddles to our individual tastes.  This particular beef remains the best I’ve had so far in Japan, and given the price we paid for 200 grams (actually, a hearty serving at almost 8 ounces), it was more than likely Kobe.  The steak, heavily marbled in fat, literally melted in our mouths. Top the meal off with a shared bottle of chilled white wine (booze is itself a form of a common, international language), and we had a wonderful time!

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Kevin's Birthday Dinner, Kobe steak dinner spread

Like the biblical tale underscores, communication is such a fundamental element of life.  Although I’m ashamed that I don’t know more Japanese after spending so much time here, technology is starting to fill in my own personal gaps in translation.  In fact, we were able to have a complete conversation with a taxi driver in Kyoto through an app on his iPad.  He would speak Japanese, and the iPad would translate and speak to us in English.  The tablet would then record our speech, and translate it into audible Japanese for the driver.  I wish I know that particular application, because many if not most of the machine translations between Japanese and English are full of…babel.

Machine Translations can be Ridiculous.

Machine Translations can be Ridiculous.

Regardless of the limitations of technology and the barriers of divided language (no thanks to God), we all can still overcome and strive to find power in unity of purpose.  Although perhaps we shouldn’t attempt to physically reach heaven (again), we can and should still find or make our own heavens here on earth, be it a celebratory meal, or something much loftier.  We all should be on guard so that we, as individuals, political parties, religions and even cultures, never build towers of babel so large and imposing that they interfere in a life that should be well-lived, excitedly shared, and passionately loved.  Although there exist many tongues, we all can strive to speak with one voice!

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