Intimidation: Shisa of Okinawa


 “Straightforwardness intimidates people. They prefer the veneer, despite what they claim.”  ~ Donna Lynn Hope 

This is NOT an Intimidating Shisa

This is NOT an Intimidating Shisa

Intimidation,” the artist said upon walking up as he noticed me admiring a large set of traditionally styled and fired clay Okinawan Shisa dogs. “That what I call,” he continued in very broken English, still much better than my skoshi Japanese.

There is a story surrounding both Okinawan Shisa lion-dogs and the ones Jody “owed” me from so poorly mistreating the ones I brought home from Okinawa back in 2001. See The Cat-Dogs of Okinawa for that back-story. Long story short: Jody thought the dogs were rather creepy, and relegated the indoor set I had to the harsh Pensacola outdoors for the 2+ years I lived with her before moving to Okinawa. Needless to say, I have been looking intently for just the right set, without much luck since coming to Okinawa in the summer of 2013.

My dated - and damaged - set of Shisa from 2001

My dated – and damaged – set of Shisa from 2001

Jody, since moving to Okinawa and seeing just how ubiquitous these protectors are in this corner of the Far East, had finally come around to the idea of the lion-dogs as effective spiritual guards of the household. She finally, in the last few months, moved past favoring the “cuter” stylized dogs portrayed in more playful stances, lacking the teeth-filled grimaces of the more frightening lions. And she knew that I really wanted a uniquely Okinawan set, a pair of guardians that we could take with us from the Far East to wherever we happened to hang our hats.

Now to get Jody past her dislike of hats. But that’s for another story….

Jody really does look so cute in hats!

Jody really does look so cute in hats!

Camp Foster, one of the really large Marine Corps bases here on Okinawa, was holding a Spring Festival this past April, where the Marine Corps invited onto base a whole host of Okinawan vendors who could offer a wide variety of wares for perusal and purchase. The Festival started on Friday, and continued over the rest of the weekend at the base’s field house, a huge facility which ended up being filled with more product and crafts then we expected.

We stopped by late Friday afternoon, after attending a rather sad memorial service for one of Jody’s co-worker’s untimely demise. As you might imagine, we weren’t in the best frame of mind to do some serious shopping. However, to ease our troubled spirits, we decided to grab some comfort food and take a slow walk around, taking in all that the vendors had to offer. There was some Tibetan furniture that immediately caught our eye, and we engaged the vendor is some light haggling, something so common in the Far East but almost wholly missing on Okinawa. See Opportunity Knocks for more on our previous purchases from this Korean family.

We continued on and found other interesting Okinawan crafts, and decided that we would return the next day and take a longer gander at the merchandise on offer.

But then we spotted them. The dogs. The ones that immediately caught my eye.

Okinawa Shisa 2015, Shisa purchase intimidation WM

They were large, expensive, and yes, intimidating. And there didn’t appear to be any wiggle room on the price….

We returned the next day, and the two Tibetan items that we were clearly interested in had been sold, and at prices that were offered to us the previous evening. We had learned the hard lesson of Okinawa once again: if you see a unique item of the Far East that speaks to you, get it while you can. We rounded the facility again, where Jody bought some rather large antique kokeshi dolls. And we again stopped by to revisit the Shisa that had so captured my imagination.

Okinawa Shisa 2015, Shisa purchase intimidation face 2 WM

The vendor was, and I’m sure this is a loose translation, Soul (Soulful Handwork Pottery Art). The Potter, Sano Toshio, is one of the more acclaimed on the island which still uses the old traditional Okinawan ways of pottery. He has won numerous awards, including the highest prize at the 2014 Okinawa Prefecture Craft Pubic Exhibition. His work can be seen at his personal website and the shop’s blog.

The dogs are at once intimidating. Their stance is one in which they are ready to fight, ready to pounce with teeth frighteningly displayed along with their fixed stare. They are made in and using traditional Okinawan ways, finished with highly stylized twists and turns, lacking the refined finishing and glazes of what many westerners consider higher-end pottery. Until very recently I had not favored such earthenware, but have come to really appreciate such works as truly and only Okinawan. These examples were actually perfect.

Okinawa Shisa 2015, Shisa purchase intimidation 2 WM

But still that price. I wasn’t ready to spend so much money on something I could see being broken on yet another military move back to the states. We left that Saturday afternoon, and decided to return Sunday to take one last look around.

Unlike the furniture and some other items we were potentially interested in the days prior, the dogs were still there. It appeared Sano-san wasn’t moving much product, so perhaps he would be more willing to drop his price. But I had also had a change of heart. In the last 24 hours I really thought about the idea of value, about what was worth an expenditure of treasure and what wasn’t. For example, we didn’t hesitate to spend large sums on travel. And for specialized scuba diving equipment that allows for deeper and longer explorations of the deep. In such context, the price becomes not just tolerable, but congruent with the valued offered by such works of art.

Okinawa Apr 2015, New Shisa, Shisa purchase intimidation face WM

Intimidation resides safely in our home. As treasured Okinawan customary works of art they are impossible not to admire. But it is only in their physically menacing presence that the moving power of these protectors can be truly felt. It’s hard to put a price on protection.

See more Okinawan Shisa dogs in my Flickr photo-stream here.

Pop Life Circus


Okinawa POP Circus 2015, Jody welcome to POP Circus

“Pop life, Everybody needs a thrill

Pop life We all got a space 2 fill

Pop life Everybody can’t be on top

But life it ain’t real funky Unless it’s got that pop” ~ Prince, Pop Life song lyrics

 “Every country gets the circus it deserves. Spain gets bullfights. Italy gets the Catholic Church. America gets Hollywood.” ~ Erica Jong

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And Okinawa gets PoP Circus’ “World Circus Festival”, a performance under the Big Top with lends an air of mystique and excitement for kids of all ages.  Established in 1996, PoP Circus – the “Pursuit of Pleasure” – consists of over 30 performers making up various acts, and is eagerly received in Okinawa as an innovative and extravagant performance.

Okinawa POP Circus 2015, world circus festival WM

While PoP Circus is marketed as a spectacular to amaze and thrill, it will appear initially as nothing more than a low-scale, poor quality knockoff of the much more well-known and praise-worthy Cirque du Soleil. It occurs in, however, a much smaller venue, one that creates an intimacy between spectator and performer under the not easily missed illuminated purple Big Top. While it may lack the powerful live music, overdone intrigue and gaudy costumes, there is at least no obscure French storyline to try and decipher….

Okinawa POP Circus 2015, Jody at PoP circus big-top

16513_705775022868557_3321045115409053877_nOkinawa POP Circus 2015, snack banners bilingual WMSome of the starring attractions include a pair of romantic aerial ballet dancers who circle the audience while performing acrobatics suspended by flowing ribbon anchored to Big Top’s overhead. Two Chinese Acrobats perform an incredibly breathtaking feat of balance, strength and contortion in a display of stamina and grace that is hard to beat and which rivals any of the type I’ve ever seen.

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Really, the Confederate Battleflag?!?

Really, the Confederate Battleflag?!?

Of course a circus wouldn’t be a circus without a spastic collection of bungling clowns. While the festival’s are billed as comically entertaining, I still find clowns – the whole idea – creepy at best. Kids, however, seems to always approve through their joyous laughter and smiling faces. And the Japanese, as innocent as they are, expressed loud approval to the clowning around.

No, Clown, you can't have my cotton candy....

No, Clown, you can’t have my cotton candy….

10690090_1050498828300807_4268954099007393626_n11017874_709183169194409_8864077044129416114_nYes there is a dog show starring lots of dogs large and small, and while it may be somewhat predictable, it’s fast pace of tricks one after another make it a surety as a crowd-pleaser.  A young flying trapeze troop from Australia, the Flying Aces, performs almost 40 feet overhead, and a group of Russians pretending to be Celtic (go figure) perform on a set of swings that we never had on the playground as kid!.

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Okinawa POP Circus 2015, souvenir book WMOkinawa POP Circus 2015, circus souvenirsMaking a prolonged stop in Okinawa every two or three years, they are now performing at Onoyama Park in Naha City. But don’t wait too much longer; they are only here through the 6th of April! The World Circus Festival is running its 2-hour show daily except Wednesdays, with weekday shows at 1320 and 1900, Saturday shows at 1030, 1320, and 1900, while Sunday shows are at 1030, 1320, and 1600. The Circus tent is located at the eastern corner of Onoyama park in Naha (). Beware there is very limited parking available at the park and surrounding vicinity, but a convenient monorail stop is located adjacent to the park.

Lots of Yummy Goodies!

Lots of Yummy Goodies!

Okinawa POP Circus 2015, show costs and timesOkinawa POP Circus 2015, welcome to Pop Circus WMAdvance tickets for adults are ¥2,500 (¥2,800 at the gate), while tickets for kids age three through junior high school are ¥1,200 (¥1,500 at the gate).  Special Boxes for up to 4 are available for extra fees of ¥5,000 and ¥4,000, depending on exactly how close to the stage you want to be seated.  Reserved bleacher seats with center views are an additional ¥800, the option we elected since the cheap seats’ views are pretty badly blocked by various Big Top support structures. The official website is www.pop-circus.co.jp/ and offers minimal information in English. If you want a sneak-peak of the performances, check out their Facebook page (in Japanese).

See you there!

See you there!

Pi Day in Japan, a Math-lete’s Dream!


“Curves:  the loveliest distance between two points.” ~ Mae West

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William Jones, an 18th century self-taught mathematician, was the first to realize that the decimal 3.141592…, the number approximating the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter, never ends, but continues on randomly without any repetition. “The exact proportion between the diameter and the circumference can never be expressed in numbers,” he wrote. He recognized that this important proportion needed its own symbol, and thus began every math-lete’s love affair with pi….

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Saturday, March 14, 2015, was “National” Pi Day, a sometimes rational celebration of the irrational figure that describes the most sublime feature of circles. National Pi Day, although wholly unofficial, is a holiday that, in my opinion, serves three important if not incongruent purposes. For fellow mathletes like me, it’s a chance to celebrate a love of numbers naturally found in nature, proof that god in whatever form you believe (or not), is a geometrician. For those analogs challenged by this digital slant of the world, the holiday offers at the same time a chance to partake in the more literal if not delicious culinary desserts of the same-sounding homonym. And here in Japan, it coincides with the celebration of “White Day,” the Far East’s formal equivalent of Valentine’s Day, but this one only for the lady-folk. See White Day for a full explanation of how Japan interprets the West’s day of love and lovers.

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But this particular year hosts no ordinary Pi Day. In fact, March 14th of this year marks a once-in-a-century occurrence: at precisely 09:26:53 wherever you happen to be (local time), the date and time will read 3.14.15 9:26:53. I hear you asking, “Whoop-dee-do Basil, what’s it all mean!?” Those ten digits are exactly the first 10 digits of pi! This rather random coincidence ignites passion across the globe, and for most of us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime affair worthy of marking in some odd fashion or another.

What goes well with Alien Crop Circle?  Pi!  Or so it seems....

Crop Circles even enjoy Pi, or so it seems….

But what’s so special about the non-edible version of pi that seemingly connects so easily to so many people? It’s not like differential equations (i.e., calculus) are on anyone’s hit parade, or that a statistical two-tail alpha test of significance rocks everyone’s boat. No, pi strikes a chord with people of all backgrounds, educations, and cultures. Part of its allure lies in its very simplicity, infused with the mysterious flair of things supernatural: a circle, nature’s simple shape of infinite perfection, is defined by something that can never be known with complete precision, so much so that we represent it only as a symbol. Pi is not just irrational, it’s transcendental, and its infinite value holds true no matter the circle in question.

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Almost everything is in Japanese

Almost everything is in Japanese

Okinawa White Day 2015, Mary's leaf pies are deliciousOf course Pi Day every year coincides with “White Day” here in Japan, a fun-filled day of candies and gifts for girlfriends and wives (may they never meet), which Jody and I celebrate in style and excess in some surely rational approximation of what the Japanese irrationally may or may not do. It’s hard to even know what you’re buying when everything is in Japanese, none of which can easily be read (even the Google photo-translate feature fails miserably). Thank goodness for the samples which are openly displayed in most stores! Most of the photos featured here are from the gifts Jody received this White Day as small Far Eastern Flirtations reminiscent of my growing love for and steadfast commitment to her since first meeting back in the late summer of 2010.

White Day presents for Jody

White Day presents for Jody

Okinawa White Day 2015, 3-14 White DayAnd in that meeting there is even deeper meaning for us personally, one more delicious than pie, more intriguing than the most sublime mathematics, and certainly something worth celebrating often throughout the year. Our own personal Ultimate Pi Day, one of Epic proportions and profound meaning. You see, when Jody and I first met, it was for a “pie date.” Let me elucidate.

Flowers on White Day

Flowers on White Day

Okinawa White Day 2015, fun and delicious gummy-aid for nurse JodyMeeting online through Match.com in early 2010, Jody and I had corresponded on and off for about 6 months prior to her transfer from Cuba to Pensacola, Florida, which happened later that summer. We were certainly interested in each other, but the timing of Jody’s arrival combined with my own schedule and our uncoordinated travel plans proved a challenge that would frustrate any attempt in jump-starting any type of relationship.

White Day Wrapping!

White Day Wrapping!

Okinawa White Day 2015, surprise flowers fcee7d6bf94730deb82a971eb4776dbbBut I was eager to do just that. Besides being a woman with almost every quality I was searching for, and certainly there was clear and unambiguous chemistry present, Jody’s curves – from her enticing bluest of blue eyes, to the arc of her smile, to the sexy arch of her foot, to her fertility doll geometry – her curves come close to outstripping the very transcendental nature of pi itself! As Mae West so perfectly stated, “the loveliest distance between two points is a curve,” and Jody’s are any mathlete’s dream.

Spring Time Happy Joy Chocolates

Spring Time Happy Joy Chocolates

Okinawa White Day 2015, Gugelhupf cakeJody had arrived in town while I was away on a business trip, and the day after my return she was traveling up north on a couple of weeks of leave. While she was to be on leave, I was starting my own much-needed vacation, a 3-week trip to New Zealand to skydive, ice climb, and do other things extreme. It turned out that we had only one night consisting of just a couple of hours to try and hook up…but not for that kind of pie (wink). If we didn’t get a chance to see each other on that particular Wednesday night, it would be about 5 weeks until we had a chance to see each other again. Neither of us was willing to wait.

Cloisonné Tea Pot Gift Set

Cloisonné Tea Pot Gift Set

Okinawa White Day 2015, cupcake chocolates shpolaWe made plans to meet, and since she lived way out in “west-west Pensacola” (Beulah, FL), and because of the limited time we had to dedicate to a first date, we decided to meet locally for pie. Jody likes pie (and ALL kinds of desserts as it turns out!), and commented that she had had a hard time finding any good pie while stationed for the last 18 months at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Favorite Framed Photos for Jody's Office

Favorite Framed Photos for Jody’s Office

Okinawa White Day 2015, Warming Heart CommunicationSo, I chose a local diner mid-way between where we lived. It was an easy place for Jody to find in the dark back roads of quasi-Alabama, and an easy drive using simple primary roads. I believe we agreed on a time around 9 pm, and upon our arrival (we were both early – a good sign!), we found the diner closed…of course. Pensacola is a small, conservative town, and many local businesses close down early. This Mom & Pop joint was no exception.

White Day Far East Flirtations

White Day Far East Flirtations

Okinawa White Day 2015, beautiful chocolatesCracker Barrel was nearby, an eatery sure to have delicious homemade pie, but it too was also closing. In that part of town there are not many other options. Being out on a first-date, I needed desperately to leave a lasting impression while doing my darndest to woo this woman. I had a feeling that boyfriends, past, present and potentially future were part of her travels plans starting the very next day. Luckily for me, there was a Ruby Tuesdays nearby, and although I’m not one to turn to chain restaurants for food or value, this was one place that stayed open serving dependable, late-night dessert. We were quickly seated at a table for two, and our great love affair started right then and there, blossoming over the pie we were served. A truly epic Pie Day for the books.

Okinawa White Day 2015, Jody with her presents

Like my fondness for Jody, pi/pie days of every flavor have all become even more magically intoxicating. And as surely as pi continues on and on forever, so too does my love for this woman called “Wife.” Happy White Day Jody King!

At least there's chocolate with booze!

At least there’s chocolate with booze!

Now, if we only could find really GOOD pie here in Japan! (wink)

Happy White Day, Wife

Happy White Day, Wife

Okinawan Traces of War: Ie Island’s Municipal Pawn Shop


“The isolated pawn casts gloom over the entire chessboard.”  ~ Aaron Nimzowitsch

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The pawn in chess is the game’s most numerous piece, meant to represent foot infantry, and generally is considered its weakest. In historical terms the pawn actually reflected the rag-tag nature of medieval foot combatants: that of simply armed peasants. Chess begins with pawns shielding all the other pieces, the higher strata’s of society.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, Jody biking by 2 WM

lonelypawn-180031So too was the “Municipal Pawn Shop” on the Japanese island of Ie (pronounced “EEE-a”), part of the Okinawan prefecture and located only mere kilometers off Okinawa’s central west coast. Iejima was invaded by the U.S. Army’s 77th Infantry Division in April of 1945 as a supporting action to the larger Battle of Okinawa occurring around the Ryukyu Islands, but primarily on Okinawa proper. Read more about Weather the Typhoon of Steel from some of my other blogs.

The Pawn Shop is located down towards the lower left.

The Pawn Shop is located down towards the lower left.

bloody_chess_by_thanatosofnicte-d494k17The beaches of Ie, like Okinawa’s, were not defended. Rather, the 5,000-7,000 Japanese defenders had dug into well-fortified positions inland, but also utilized natural caves wherever they occurred. During the fierce fighting that occurred on Iejima, the Americans suffered 1,120 casualties, including 172 KIA. The Japanese military suffered about 5,000 casualties, including 4,706 KIA. Only 149 Japanese prisoners were taken. Of note is that legendary photojournalist and war correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed on Iejima during combat operations which occurred there (see my blog The Demise of Ernie Pyle for more).

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, holed structure WM

bloody-chess-2-e1340760928315But the civilians on Iejima, like the pawns in chess, paid the real price: about 1,500 civilians were killed, between 1/3rd and ½ of the island’s residents. The Americans found it impossible to tell friend from foe, as the Japanese armed many of the locals. There were also terrible instances of widespread civilian suicides as dictated by the crazed code “death over surrender” of the then Imperial Japanese mindset.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, battle damage WM

Unlike other chess pieces which can usually be moved to a safer position if they find themselves at risk, a poorly positioned pawn is limited in options and usually remains at risk. This certainly held true for Iejima’s “Municipal Pawn Shop.”

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, holed wall WM

The ruins made a great stop during our bike ride around the island.

Rest Stop

Built in 1929 during the height of the Great Depression (from which the world suffered), using local stone and reinforced concrete, the “pawnshop” was managed locally as a kind of welfare safety net for the island’s poor, suffering unusually hard under the era’s crushing loan interest rates. In that capacity, it served the locals as a pseudo-bank based on pawning material, primarily aimed at assisting local farmers.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, Jody biking by WM

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, destroyed in color WMDuring the battle for Iejima, the pawnshop found itself poorly positioned on the frontlines, set on a steep slope at the foot of the island’s Mount Gusuku. Due to its rugged construction, unusual in the Okinawan villages of the time, it was used as a reinforced fighting position by defending Japanese troops. Obviously, such a position is going to suffer significant damage. Actually, it’s amazing that it survived at all. Almost every other structure on the island was, in fact, destroyed.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, wall damage WM

Alter or Ashes???

Alter or Ashes???

Unrestored in the manner of the Hiroshima Atomic Dome, the pawnshop today serves as a silent but haunting reminder of the harrowing last days of World War II and all those who suffered – American, Japanese, and Okinawan – on what had been a small and peaceful island-farming community. It is said to be the only remaining building on the island untouched (externally) since the war.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, missing wall WM

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, battle damaged WM“Pawn” often means “one who is easily manipulated” or “one who is sacrificed for a larger purpose.” “Pawn” is also used metaphorically to indicate unimportance or outright disposability. For the Japanese and Okinawans who found themselves isolated and trapped on Iejima in the spring of 1945 as mere shields for the homeland, this was most certainly their tragic case.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, two stories of destruction WM

 

Read more about the “Capture of Ie Shima” from the Army’s own historical record: http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/okinawa/chapter7.htm

Find more pictures of Okinawan WWII Battlesites in my Flickr stream here:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/divemasterking2000/sets/72157646178657021/

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.

cherry-blossom-sakura-tree-schoolgirl-petals-japan-shinkai-makoto-anime-and-fantasy

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

“Above the East China Sea,” a Book Review


“Children, I’m singing you the story of Miyako

The beautiful, the blue, the deepening indigo,

And the red soil made from crushed bodies

That lay down their genealogy of bones.

The Spirits are whispering to you: all of this is what is.”

~from The Ocean of the Dead, by Yonaha Mikio

Princess Lilly Girls

Princess Lilly Girls

Above the East China Sea is one of the few books – in English – that takes place on Okinawa and doesn’t directly involve the “Typhoon of Steel” which struck that island paradise in 1945. Yes, war flows throughout the book, and at first glance it could be branded as yet another attempt at telling the dramatically sad tale of the Princess Lilly Corps and other such sufferings of the Okinawan people. Alternatively, the work could also over-simplistically be viewed as a “coming of age story” as its central characters are both teenaged girls.

But it is so much more…than either. Intertwining dual storylines of two troubled teenaged girls, one modern American and the other an Okinawan teenager of 1945, the book cleverly makes a spiritual connection between these lives which, at first, seem rather incongruous, both in focus and in time.

A Princess Lilly

A Princess Lilly

The real star of this book, however, is the Okinawan culture, and how it bonds lives across seventy years and offers healing to those which have suffered profound loss through its enduring strength of ancient tradition combined with the redeeming power of family love.

Describing the main characters or the horrors of war that serve as the backdrop for half the story is really not necessary here. Read the book! Needless to say, I have visited and blogged, first-hand, about exactly the things the author, Sarah Bird, does so well in describing through her written words. See my blogs about the Typhoon of Steel, Haebaru Tunnel Hospital and the Princess Lilly Corps for photo essays that may help illuminate some of the harsher aspects of Above the East China Sea which may be hard for a reader to wrap their minds around.

Today's Peace Prayer Park, with the "suicide cliffs" in the background

Today’s Peace Prayer Park, with the “suicide cliffs” in the background

Having spent now three tours with the US Military on Okinawa, and well into my 7th year living on this island that my kids and I call our “second home,” I feel that I’m pretty well-versed on Okinawan culture because I chose to be by taking a very active role in trying to experience and understand it. The vast number of Americans that pass through Okinawa though, have not. It’s all too easy for ego-centric Americans to assume it’s just another part of Japan, and that somehow we have the right to do what we will since America did, after all, win a war “they” started.

But Sarah offers some great insights to Okinawa and its wonderful cultural heritage. Okinawans are not Japanese, no more than Hawaiians are descended from North America; they offered no violence and took part in no aggression outside of their historical kingdom’s boundaries until invaded and subdued by the Japanese. And they remain caught in the middle between American and Japan, just like they were back in WWII.

Princess Lilly classmates and teachers before the war

Princess Lilly classmates and teachers before the war

Sure, the characters may be a bit overdone and over-the-top in personality and deed. Yes, there are some incongruities with time and place. Some elements of the culture are somewhat artificially combined. And certainly there is little comment on the ultra-slow moving traffic! But all these minor transgressions are rather easily forgotten. Besides, one really has to know the geography of the island and the scheduling of festivals to truly appreciate these small nuances.

bird1Above the East China Sea is a remarkable tale of not just how war, loss and suffering shapes lives, but its central themes of family, friendship, and love all transcend time. When placed within the rich tapestry of the Okinawa culture and heritage, Sarah does a rather clever melding of stories from East and West concurrently and rather obliquely from both spiritual and human planes. And even though I have a solid working knowledge of the cultural aspects of the book’s storyline from my knowledge and experience with the Okinawans, Sarah’s chronicle remained suspenseful until the very end of the novel. My only issue? Perhaps the story came together, finally, just a little too cleanly and too easily…. But most importantly, Sarah shows great deference to what I believe she feels as an obligation to be respectful to Okinawans. She is hugely successful in portraying their beliefs, their history, and their culture as accurately as possibly. And therein lies the genius of this book!


Sarah is the author of eight novels. The ninth, Above the East China Sea, was published in 2014. Sarah has been selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers series; a Dobie-Paisano Fellowship; New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember list; Elle Magazine Reader’s Prize; People Magazine’s Page Turners; Library Journal’s Best Novels; and a National Magazine Silver Award for her columns in Texas Monthly. In 2012 Sarah was voted Best Austin Author for the fourth time by the readers of the Austin Chronicle; was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame; and received the Illumine Award for Excellence in Fiction from the Austin Library Foundation. In 2013 she was selected to be The University of Texas’ Libraries Distinguished Author speaker, and was featured on NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour.

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She has written screenplays for Paramount, CBS, Warner Bros, National Geographic, ABC, TNT, Hemdale Studio, and several independent producers. Sarah’s screen adaptation of her sixth novel, The Flamenco Academy, is currently in development as well as two original screenplays. She has contributed articles to The New York Times, Salon, O Magazine, and is a columnist for Texas Monthly. Sarah, who moved all over the world growing up with her air force family, lives in Austin, Texas.