A Blessing from Buddha: Banteay Kdei at Angkor


 Whether one believes in a religion or not,
and whether one believes in rebirth or not,
there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion.
~ Dalai Lama

The Temple's Inner Sanctum

The Temple’s Inner Sanctum

“Come here Lady,” the Buddhist nun said to Jody with an almost toothless smile. Like all nuns of that faith in Cambodia, her head was shaved, just as the male monks do. She was well into her 60s, thin and somewhat feeble, but seemed perfectly and happily suited to be the keeper of her faith at the central Buddhist altar in the Banteay Kdei temple.

Our Buddhist Nun Friend with our Guide

Our Buddhist Nun Friend with our Guide

She reached out her hand to Jody without getting up from the rug-covered stone floor at the base of the statue, and held out two loops of thread, one red and one gold. “Blessing from Buddha,” said more as a statement than a question. How can anyone turn such an offer away?

Blessing Bracelet from Buddha and His Nun

Blessing Bracelet from Buddha and His Nun

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, carved Khmer face WMIt was our third and final day in the Angkor Archeological Park, and the morning had been consumed with exploring the famous, massive and crowded Angkor Wat, a truly moving and spiritual experience for even hardcore atheists. Our Khmer guide had done well in the previous two days, moving from one temple complex to the next in a loose chronological order, approaching each site to both minimize crowds and position light to the best advantage of our cameras. And it appeared that she had saved the iconic tourist site of Cambodia as the climax of our visit to Angkor.

Idyllic Ruins

Idyllic Ruins

But she held back one final surprise. After cooling off and refreshing ourselves at lunch back in the nearby city of Siem Reap, we headed yet again back into the park, to a much lesser known and visited temple called Banteay Kdei.

Like the More Famous Ta Prohm, only BETTER!

Like the More Famous Ta Prohm, only BETTER!

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, doorways WMBanteay Kdei (Khmer: ប្រាសាទបន្ទាយក្តី; “Prasat Banteay Kdei”), means “Citadel of Chambers” (or “Cells”), but is more commonly known as the “Citadel of the Monks.” Built in 12th-13th centuries CE during the reign of Jayavarman VII, the temples’ mixed architectural features are contained within two successive enclosure walls. Within each, visitors will find concentric galleries from which emerge towers. It is believed that the site had been occupied by monks almost constantly since construction through the 1960s.

Still an Active Buddhist Temple

Still an Active Buddhist Temple

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, banded temple tower WMOur guide, like at most of our other visits to the various temples of Angkor, had us enter this center from its rear, where the angled afternoon light danced on the best features of the sanctuary. Compared to some of the other temple complexes nearby, Banteay Kdei is not large, but instead is tightly packed in a series of tight rectangular enclosures. Functioning originally as a Buddhist monastery during, it remains largely unrestored, resulting in an atmosphere similar to the stylistically famous Ta Prohm.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tree root HDR WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, face-topped gate tower WMBanteay Kdei has suffered more deterioration than most other more famous temples found at Angkor, since soft but easy-to-work sandstone was used in much of its construction rather than the harder stone used extensively elsewhere. 13th century vandalism of Buddhist images is apparent and common here, as the temple and region waffled between Buddhism and Hinduism with the changing decrees of differing Khmer rulers through the centuries. Many of the originally vaulted galleries have collapsed at several locations, putting a good portion of the enclosures off-limits.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tranquil wooded ruins WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tree rooted in the ruins WMThe monastery is small and dense, packed in an area of only about 160×200 feet and consists of only a single level, making it easy to explore in its totality. Getting to the central area of the ruins, however, will take a bit time since the outer wall of the complex measures roughly 1000×2300 feet. The temple houses a treasure trove of sculptures in the architectural styles of the Ta Prohm, which it eerily resembles. Except without the paparazzi-like draw of Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider fame of that other hectically crowded place (see Tomb Raiding Angkor for more on Hollywood’s impact on the other side of the globe).

Buddha or the King?

Buddha or the King?

Column Carvings in the Hall of Dancers

Column Carvings in the Hall of Dancers

The smiling faces found here are thought to be of King Jayavarman II, although most visitors seem to be perfectly happy to assume they represent a very happy Buddha. Wall niches are found throughout the facility and many contain figurines of apsara (celestial nymph) and/or devatas (lesser deities) in single poses or in pairs as dancers. The temple is famous for its “Hall of Dancers,” where open courtyards display pillars covered in multitudes of sophisticated carvings of these supernatural females. The temple’s tiny inner sanctum (~9×9 foot square) is flanked by similar carvings and contains traces of long-lost statues. The temple is complete with tumbling and overgrown courtyards, where lichens and defacing oxidation add interesting splashes of color to the already spectacular Khmer architecture.

Apsara and Devatas Everywhere

Apsara and Devatas Everywhere

Within the temple one can find several small shrines safeguarded by female Buddhist nuns, all who offer you blessings and Buddhist-colored red and yellow threaded yarn bracelets, of course all in return for a small donation. We both offered a donation of a dollar or two, received our bracelets, and in return placed a freshly lit stick of incense for Buddha to enjoy.

Incense for Buddha

Incense for Buddha

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, dry fit falling down WMIn close proximity to Ta Prohm and every bit as beautiful (or even more), this temple does not get nearly as many visitors as the former more famous location. Banteay Kdei offers a uniquely quieter appeal than most other Angkorian ruins, a place where a visitor can sense the isolation and oppression of the jungle while they contemplate the many carvings and still-active shrines and altars protected by nuns and often visited by local worshipers. Like Ta Prohm, this temple offers a prime setting for photography, where the scenes are compact and close, and the tourists thin and subdued. In these ways, this set of ruins is the perfect antidote to the crowds suffered at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm. It is, however, located conveniently close to those “big three,” so it’s an easy addition to most any itinerary, and a site visit that should not be missed.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, ruins by the jungle 2 WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, looker WMThe peace, quiet and solitude found here is alone worth the visit. “Tranquility” is not a word that is often used to describe a visit to Angkor, but it should be and can be found at this out-of-the-way place. It may be best to start your day early at this temple, then visit the other more popular sites in the afternoon when the Cambodian heat and humidity has driven those crowds down to more manageable numbers. The ancient breezeways running through the temple’s enclosures allow visitors to lose themselves, literally, in time.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, temple passage WM

Similar in layout to Ta Prohm, but less overtaken by the surrounding jungle, the approach to the ruins is shaded and cool, lined with more Cambodian concessionaires than fellow tourists. Some quality merchandise can be found here, from stone rubbings, to wood carvings, oil paintings, and rice paper reliefs. But of course all the other cheap trinkets and unwanted souvenirs you might expect at such a site can be had as well. After the initial asking price tumbled as we politely haggled (the lack of visitors I think helps drive prices down), Jody and I purchased a rice paper relief, something that had caught my eye the day before.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, wooded ruins WM

I continued to wear my Buddha-Blessing-Bracelet 24/7 after our visit (yarn is very hardy). And only recently lost it when changing out of a wetsuit after a scuba dive. Jody still has hers, but unfortunately can’t wear it to work; worries about possibly leaving it in a patient during surgery or something….

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, one of our favorite temple visits and our last

Even though the physical manifestation of my blessing is gone, the blessing of our visit to the delicate loveliness of Banteay Kdei lives on, in mind and spirit. It’s hard to fathom how anyone could be disappointed by its understated and underrated charms. Make this your final visit, make it in the afternoon, and enter the site from the rear. You will be blessed in more ways than one.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, dwarfed by tree roots WM

For More Photos of Our Visit, See:  Banteay Kdei on Flickr

For More Information, Please See:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banteay_Kdei

http://www.canbypublications.com/siemreap/temples/temp-bankdei.htm

http://www.travelfish.org/sight_profile/cambodia/western_cambodia/siem_reap/angkor/356

Far Eastern X Files: The Yonaguni Monument


A Terrific Free-Diver’s View of the Yonaguni Monument 

“Ooooooooh-Kay, let’s go diving!” our Japanese divemaster from Yonaguni Diving Service (YDS) says in his passable but heavily accented English.

Cheers go up from the eleven of us congregated across the stern of the dive boat, all in great anticipation of this, our first dive not just in Yonaguni but on the famous (or infamous) Yonaguni Monument. Standing on the top rung of the boarding ladder, I can see the mysterious structure looming just there in deep, visible here and there as the waves play peek-a-boo with their shifting patches of blue-black darkness and bright blue refractions.

Dive Briefing

Dive Briefing

“Ichi…,” he calls once cleared by the boat’s Captain, and continues, “…Ni…SAN!!”  On “three” our our leader disappears backwards into the water. The rest of us are not far behind.

The group descends immediately and conducts a rough rendezvous at about 60’, surrounded by giant stones which, at first and quick glance from afar, seemed to broadcast the tell-tale marks of the hand of man. Signaling all okay, our tour of the underwater “ruins” begins.

Me Coming Through "The Gate"

Me Coming Through “The Gate”

Jody at the Gate's Exit

Jody at the Gate’s Exit

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, titan step WM“This is Gate,” our divemaster has written on his underwater slate in good, clear English. He points to an opening in a rock face, at first hidden in the early morning shadows, but clearly there. It is an oppressively small opening, just large enough for divers to swim through, and swim through we all do in a follow-the-leader way, making sure pictures are taken of our emergence into the Monument proper. “That wasn’t’ carved,” I think to myself, and note that it didn’t even appear to have been “constructed,” although many claim it to be an arched gateway entry into the complex. If so, the ancient residents there were taller than leprechauns.

Emerging from the Gate, We have Arrived!

Emerging from the Gate, We have Arrived!

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, twin rocksYonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, Jody checking out the twin columns 2 WMOnce “inside” the complex, we immediately are faced with the “Twin Towers,” sometimes called “columns.” They are not columns, but very large slabs of stone, roughly matched in size and orientation. They are indeed pretty good representations of rectangles, probably about 20 feet (or more) long, and they are more or less aligned with each other, with only a couple of inches of gap between. Images of Stonehenge dance in my mind, and for an instant, I could envision some astrological purpose for such design and placement given their odd resting angle. Or could it be that fractured rock just happen to fall and get wedged in this position??

Jody with the Twin Towers

Jody with the Twin Towers

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, terraces WMYonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, Jody swims for the boat over the monument WMWe round a corner and start to fight the famous Yonaguni current. The waves can be seen crashing against the stones on the surface just overhead. And turning the corner we come face to face with the Monument’s “terrace,” an awe-inspiring sight for anyone, believer or skeptic. Straight lines, sharp angles, and flat surfaces all too perfect to have been formed by Mother Nature alone are all right there, a feast for the eyes. Yes, I do so want to believe. Thinking about similar ruins around the world, one wants to believe that there is an Asian counterpart to Maya temples or the ziggurats of Sumer, or even Atlantis!

Me on the Way Down to the Monument

Me on the Way Down to the Monument

But there’s other magic here besides the possibility of undiscovered ancient civilizations. There are optical illusions, which are often the case in water. Water absorbs colors in natural sunlight very quickly; passing about 30 feet, most of the red, yellow and orange in sunlight is already gone. The dark blues, purples and greens remain, and do well to hide imperfections, much as wearing black does for the movie stars. Sure, from a distance stones seem to be clearly carved and overly ordered, but from up close, this often-taunted “perfection” blurs with the very edges and angles of the rock, themselves covered in fuzzy biological growth that helps complete the illusion from afar.

Group Photo on "The Turtle"

Group Photo on “The Turtle”

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, hovering over the turtle

The Only Turtle I Saw on the Monument....

The Only Turtle I Saw on the Monument….

We come to a shallow point of the ruins referred to as “The Turtle.” Loitering there as a group, I admire the stone formation, but have a very hard time seeing a turtle. In the most abstract sense it is there, but then again…. Turtles have a long and symbolic history in Okinawan history, with even the earth being carried on one’s back. But what appears from a distance to be a carving is really a stretch of anyone’s imagination. Initially the turtle’s head seems to be a finely carved symmetrical triangle with a sharp point, a rarity in nature. That triangular head is matched by another triangular notch in the stone terrace just below, evidence of uncanny alignment.

Japanese Dive Map

Japanese Dive Map

But again, King Neptune and Poseidon’s light show in the underwater world create illusions. The “triangle” is, in fact, pretty well deformed, particularly on one side. And those notches so well aligned? They are not: actually offset from one another, the only alignment comes from a shared fault line in the stone, clear to even the most casual observer upon closer more objective inspection.

Group Photo on a Monument Terrace

Group Photo on a Monument Terrace

After 30 minutes our air supplies are running low. Fighting the wicked currents blowing across the stone (could the currents be responsible for grinding down the flat surfaces over time??) has taken its toll on the dive group, already lower on air than normal since we’re all using smaller scuba cylinders that are standard throughout Japan.

Climbing Back Aboard

Climbing Back Aboard

We surface and our dive boat backs down on the group to pluck us out of the surging sea, crashing up against the rock just tens of meters away. Looking at the islands cliff face just above the monument’s location, I can’t help but see clear resemblance in the stone. Or could it be that a manmade temple complex sank into the ocean in some ancient cataclysmic event lost to time?

“So,” Jody asks once we are back on board the boat and breaking down our gear, “what do you think?”

The Turtle Head's sloppy geometry and clear fracture lines are clearly evident here....

The Turtle Head’s sloppy geometry and clear fracture lines are clearly evident here….

Immediately in my mind the word “NATURAL” flashes bright red with a klaxon horn matching each illumination, must like a modern aircraft cockpit warns a pilot of fact over a fiction which he or she may want to believe. But I think for a few moments, trying not to say anything too extreme or absolute. Nothing good ever comes from such a position.

“Well, it’s pretty clear to me that it’s mostly artificial,” I state flatly, carefully leaving room for debate and inclusion. “Although there are a few things that seem suspect!”

yonaguni_maqueta2

The Yonaguni Monument (与那国島海底地形 Yonaguni-jima Kaitei Chikei, “Yonaguni Island Submarine Topography”) is a massive underwater rock and stone structure off the coast of Yonaguni, the southernmost of the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. There remains a debate whether the site is completely natural, is a natural site that has been modified by human hands, or is wholly a man-made artifact. Since there are those who so badly want to believe, often the site is called in Japanese the “Yonaguni (Island) Submarine Ruins” (与那国(島)海底遺跡 Yonaguni(-jima) Kaitei Iseki) in a nod to those wishing for a more interesting explanation.

yonaguni-header

The Yonaguni Monument divides the masses of people who now visit there, much as it splits the massive ocean flowing by. There are believers and there are skeptics, and not a lot of in-betweens. I didn’t pole our particular tour group to the island; I didn’t want to try and take anyone’s faith away in an idea so grand. And besides, it’s almost impossible to debate people when their strongest evidence is rooted only in faith. Jody I think agrees (mostly) with me.

The idea of a stepped-pyramid is not hard to imagine

The idea of a stepped-pyramid is not hard to imagine

Many if not most scientists note that there is nothing on Yonaguni that can’t be explained by natural processes. Yes, such an explanation is totally pedestrian, but supporting evidence is just too easy to find. Geologists recently have been able to watch, in real-time, typhoons tear away at Yonaguni’s coast and observe how the rock broke apart along horizontal bedding planes, creating level terraces and vertical steps exactly like those found on the Monument. Geologists will also tell you how many rocks, especially those with high mineral content, have incredible regularity, including nearly perfect angles. The contrary argument comes armed with a whole plethora of evidence, including stone tools, post-holes, wedge marks, and incised markings resembling “art.”

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, Jody swimming near the steps

People want to believe, of that there is no doubt. The public pop-culture controversy involving the “Yonaguni Monument” is no different. Though of as a submerged man-made rock formation, remnants of a 10,000 year old Japanese civilization, some have even connected it to the “Lost continent of Mu.”

Never heard of the Continent of Mu until going to Yonaguni

Never heard of the Continent of Mu until going to Yonaguni

The site was “discovered” by dive tour operator Kihachiro Aratake in 1985 as he searched for new sites from which to dive with schooling hammerhead sharks (see A JAW-Some Valentines for our shark adventure at Yonaguni!). And the person most responsible for camp of believers in a 10,000 year-old lost civilization of the lost continent Mu is Masaaki Kimura, a marine geologist at the University of Ryukyus. Over the past 15 years, Kimura has come to the conclusion that this monument is most definitely manmade. According to Kimura, the largest structure at the site appears to be a complicated, monolithic, stepped pyramid that rises from a depth of 82 feet. While he claims the structure resembles a ziggurat, a type of vertically stepped structure found throughout Latin American and in the Middle East, such abstract dots are hard for most people to connect in their perhaps more discerning minds.

uw_02

Some pretty strong leaps of faith in these labels!

And of course there are claims of many additional structures nearby, including a castle, five temple-like structures, and what seems to be a huge stadium, said to be connected by roads and canals…. The cynic in me notes that at one time many if not most people believed the dark lines seen on Mars through early telescopes were clearly roads or canals of a lost yet advanced civilization who once thrived there.

lostcontinentofmu

Mu is the name of an almost wholly made-up “lost” continent whose entire concept was proposed by 19th-century traveler and writer Augustus Le Plongeon. He claimed, based on scant evidence that cannot be reconfirmed or reproduced (think of the Mormon tablets), that several ancient civilizations, such as those of Egypt and Mesoamerica, were created by refugees from Mu—which he originally located in the Atlantic Ocean. This concept was popularized in public opinion and expanded by James Churchward, who asserted that Mu was once located in the Pacific…without any real proof to back such claims. Not surprisingly, Mu in modern times is considered to be an entirely fictional place.

Yet, people so badly want to believe….

Stones of the Bimini Road

Stones of the Bimini Road

bimini-mapGrowing up in South Florida in the 1980s, I remember a “discovery” not unlike that of the Yonaguni Monument. The “Bimini Road,” sometimes called the Bimini Wall, is an underwater rock formation near North Bimini Island, part of the Bahamas chain of islands. The “road” consists of a half-mile long northeast-southwest “linear feature” composed of roughly rectangular to “sub-rectangular” (remember the optical illusion discussion above?) limestone blocks. Various claims attest that this feature is a wall, road, pier, breakwater, or some other man-made structure. Even though there’ been extensive research and investigation into this “road,” credible evidence or arguments for a man-made, ancient origin connected to the lost civilization of Atlantis remain largely lacking.

Yet people continue to believe.

The Cliffs over the Monument

The Cliffs over the Monument

Kimura first estimated that the Yonaguni monument must be at least 10,000 years old, dating it to the 9th century, BCE, predating all the other massive buildings of ancient mankind. This assumed the site was created when it was last dry land during the last Ice Age, a date incongruous with our accepted modern understanding of the spread and development of ancient peoples. In 2007, partly to avoid this rather bothersome problem, he revised his age estimate to 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, more in line with the history of mankind in the region, but a time when sea level then was close to current levels as we experience now. To still allow for the idea of human involvement, he now suggests that after construction above the ocean, earthquakes and other associated tectonic activity submerged the structures to where we find them today. While most scientists, archeologists and anthropologists think all of this rather unlikely, Kimura, who so badly wants to believe, further claims beyond the multiple structures that he can identify, he himself now surmises that the site may be a remnant of the mythical lost continent of Mu, an idea already rooted in dubious origin as discussed above.

I barely had a cell phone signal!

I barely had a cell phone signal!

The existence of an ancient stone working tradition at Yonaguni and other Ryukyu islands is demonstrated by sold tombs and several stone vessels of uncertain age. However, pottery, stone tools and large fireplaces found on Yonaguni are dated only as far back as 2500 BCE. Further, these communities were small and most likely found it very difficult to eke out an existence; such ancient settlements almost certainly lacked the resources, manpower and extra time and energy for building such massive stone monuments.

model of yonaguni  discovery channel magazine   for Voices of the Rocks article

It’s not unfair to say that Kimura has become obsessed with the Yonaguni Monument since first visiting. I’m convinced that at that over time he came to his own personal emotional conclusions, rather than using anything resembling the scientific method to investigate what are really extraordinary claims. He founded the Marine Science and Cultural Heritage Research Association, an organization devoted to proving that the Yonaguni Monument is not merely the natural formation it appears to be to so many, but rather a manmade structure, consisting of a huge network of buildings, castles, monuments, a stadium, and other structures, all connected by an elaborate system of roads and waterways.

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This is exactly the kind of manmade mystery that people love! And the news and mass media of all types have run with the dubious story, trumpeting Kimura’s discovery with clichés like “Scholars mystified” (they really are not), “underwater city” (yet to be proven), and “Japanese Atlantis” (in a silly nod to the dubious idea of the lost continent of Mu). History’s Mysteries on the History Channel produced “Japan’s Mysterious Pyramids,” (I didn’t see any “pyramid” on my dives there) an episode which promoted the idea of a long-lost advanced civilization, but with almost no critique or balanced reporting. And worse, the show Ancient Discoveries aired an episode called “Lost Cities of the Deep,” featuring Yonaguni. And both the BBC and the Discovery Channel have produced loose “documentaries” promoting a rather one-sided view of the Yonaguni Monument as having a mystifying manmade past. And if it’s on TV it must be right, RIGHT?!?

What TV Wants you to Believe

What TV Wants you to Believe

What the Face Really Turned out to Be

What the Face Really Turned out to Be

What People Wanted to Believe about Mars....

What People Wanted to Believe about Mars….

A case-in-point for me personally is the Yonaguni “Face.” Conspiracy theorists love to lock onto the idea of a face carved into the stone of the monument. The face, or “Jacques’ Eyes” as it is sometimes called (named after Jacques Mayol who used to freedive the site), appears on a large round-ish boulder, and consists of two depressions near where eyes might be, but it certainly in no way even remotely resembles a carved head. Examining photographs of the Jacques’ Eyes formation, I remain far from convinced the eyes were carved. They’re large concave depressions without distinct edges, not eye shaped, not symmetrical, misaligned, and not convex like an eyeball. Even an incompetent artist would have done a far better job if eyes were the goal! Even Kimura doesn’t go so far to presume it is a human head or face, even though he does claim that the “eyes” were indeed carved by hand. This whole idea is just way too reminiscent of the “Face on Mars,” which of course turned out to be simply Venus and Zeus playing with celestial light against natural formations. But people so want to believe, right?

The "Face" of Jacques' "Eyes"!

The “Face” of Jacques’ “Eyes”!

We did manage to find Nessie!

We did manage to find Nessie!

Yes, even for me, a believer in science and (naughty) skeptic by nature, I too at times want to believe. I’m addicted to “Finding Sasquatch,” used to search the skies for UFOs while flying and at sea during my time in the Navy, and I actively taunt ghosts wherever they are claimed to lurk in the hopes of having a personal paranormal experience. But alas, to date, nothing out of the ordinary has really happened to me, other than an exciting life well-lived!

the-x-files-i-want-to-believe_34bc56da

Unfortunately, my beliefs don’t extend to the Yonaguni Monument. And it appears I’m not the only skeptic when it comes to Dr. Kimura’s bedrock interpretation. Virtually every marine geologists who have seen the pictures are perfectly satisfied that the formations as-is are fully consistent with those that occur naturally, both on and around Yonaguni, in addition to other parts of the world. Yes, the site is impressive and unusually dramatic, and yes, there are features that make divers do a double-take, but seriously, I quickly came to the conclusion that what we were diving on, over and through was not the work of man, but the hand of god…meaning Mother Nature at her artistic finest. The only thing that made me stop and really consider the possible manmade origins of the monument was initially the triangle of the “Turtle,” but even those hopes were dashed as described above.

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, me swimming along the terraces

At the end of the day, here will be those who believe the Monument is natural, until a “smoking-gun” can be provided as evidence to the otherwise. And there will be true believers, whose faith remains strong, even in the face of mounting evidence contrary to their belief. Sasquatch, the Shroud of Turin, the recent supposed photos of naked aliens running around Mars…. They all point to the same thing: that part of the human condition is wanting so badly that there is more to life that what there just appears to be.  Me – all the cosmic mystery I need as I sit here and work on the final draft of this blog is the purring love of my cat Cleo.  There is no greater proof of the power of life than the tangible bonds we share as part of nature.

A Supposed Photo of an Alien Walking on the Moon

A Supposed Photo of an Alien Walking on the Moon; Do You Believe?

We make it back to dive the Monument one more time. The steep forbidding gothic cliffs above, the eight story tall stone giant below. Again there is awe at the world’s amazing wonders, and yes, even creeping doubt. But I have to conclude, sadly, that Yonaguni, while a terrific rural example of old-tyme and laid-back Ryukyu life which happens to offer amazing sites for scuba divers, just isn’t the seat of an ancient advanced civilization or the Lost Continent of Mu….

Me and Jody Posing on the Monument's Main Terrace

Me and Jody Posing on the Monument’s Main Terrace

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Monument, peaeceful Jody WM

 

For more information, and for sources used in creating this blog, please see the following:

http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4220

Chang, K. “The Formosa Strait in the Neolithic Period.” Kaogu. 1 Jun. 1989, Number 6: 541-550, 569.

Hudson, M., Takamiya, H. “Dental pathology and subsistence change in late prehistoric Okinawa.” Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association. 1 Jan. 2001, Volume 21: 68-76.

Jiao, T. Lost Maritime Cultures: China and the Pacific. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 2007.

Kimura, M. “Yonaguni.” Marine Science and Cultural Heritage Research Association. Dr. Masaaki Kimura, 24 Oct. 2007. Web. 20 Aug. 2010.

Milne, G., Long, A., Bassett, S. “Modelling Holocene relative sea-level observations from the Caribbean and South America.” Quaternary Science Reviews. 1 Jan. 2005, Volume 24, Numbers 10-11: 1183-1202.

Schoch, R. “An Enigmatic Ancient Underwater Structure off the Coast of Yonaguni Island, Japan.” Circular Times. Dr. Colette M. Dowell, 19 Apr. 2006. Web. 20 Aug. 2010.

Dunning, B. “Yonaguni Monument: The Japanese Atlantis.” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 24 Aug 2010. Web. 22 Feb 2015. http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4220

http://www.freediverhd.com/2014/04/yonaguni.html

http://www.scubadiving.com/travel/japan/secrets-yonaguni

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


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

Bloody_chessboard_by_wojtar_stock

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/

Love, Intrigue & Death at Katsuren Castle


“Akusai wa hyaku-nen no fusaku.” Literally:  A bad (or wrong) wife spells a hundred years of bad harvest.  ~Japanese Proverb

Okay, it's not always the woman's fault....

Okay, it’s not always the woman’s fault…. This modern Asian wedding is just an all-around bad idea.

Every day on the way to White Beach back in 1999 I would pass what appeared to be ruins on a hilltop among the urban sprawl of Okinawa’s Katsuren peninsula.  Then for a few weeks, there was intense activity at the site, something which of course peaked my interest.  Finally deciding to play hooky from work one day, I turn my Honda Accord hatchback up the steep, crudely constructed concrete hillside road and barely made the climb to a grass and gravel parking lot.  And then my adventure really began!

Dramatic at Night

Dramatic at Night

It turned out that these ruins, once the site of one of the most significant castles of Okinawa which played a key role in Ryukyu history, were being hastily (and only partially) rebuilt, repaired, restored and cleaned in anticipation of a millennial celebration in early 2000.  And thus began my love affair with this castle that I admired during my daily commute to and from work, and to which I visited often with my family back in the early 2000’s when we lived on Okinawa for almost four years.

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One inescapable aspect of living on Okinawa is that the very ground is dotted with a plethora of intriguing castle ruins, reflecting in the present the rich Ryukyu past when regional kings fought a series of wars over their fiefdoms, eventually leading to the unification of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus.  By some accounts, there are upwards of 500 documented sites that once held a castle, large or small.

Artistic Impression of Katsuren in its Heyday.

Artistic Impression of Katsuren in its Heyday.

8583934564_5464537517_oOkinawan castles are often called gusuku, and are indicated by a “- ” suffix in writing. But “castle” is a bit of misnomer; a gusuku is more akin to fortresses of regional chieftains, dating to a time when Okinawa was independent from Japan, and more aligned with Korea and China.  Except for Shuri Castle, completely destroyed in World War II but impeccably restored to its rightful grandeur, most castles exist as ruins, many just mere crumbling stone walls.  Although little may be visible to the eye, the remains of the day reflect the strong history of Okinawa and remain culturally important.  In fact, all the places where gusuku once stood are regarded as sacred sites, still used as active places of worship and for religious and cultural ceremonies by local residents.

Lord Amawari portrayed in modern times.

Lord Amawari portrayed in modern times.

14519091370_9947c54c7c_bUnfortunately, much of the specific history of most of the sites remains unknown, with little specifics being well-recorded.   Primarily, we know those that had developed into strong fortresses, having been led by powerful chieftains that grew in size and stature by subsuming lesser gusuku.  Three of the most famous chieftains in Okinawan history are Lord Amawari of Katsuren, Lord Gosamaru of Zakimi and Nakagusuku, and Lord Hananchi of Nakijin, all on the main island of Okinawa.  Archaeological excavations at their respective castle sites prove the power and wealth of these Sovereigns, and show their entrenched engagement with China and other Southeast Asian countries.

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14519173368_f6bc538061_bOne of the most popular sites among visitors is Katsuren Castle on Okinawa’s central eastern shore, dating to well before the 15th century. Katsuren Castle (勝連城 Katsuren-gusuku), also Katsuren-jō, is known in the Okinawan language as Kacchin Gusuku. Katsuren Castle was built on a large hill of Ryukyuan limestone, 322 feet above sea level on the Katsuren Peninsula of Okinawa. Not surprisingly, the castle offers magnificent panoramic views of the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. With water on two sides, it is sometimes referred to as the “Ocean Gusuku.” As a sacred site the castle contains a shrine of the Ryukyuan religion dedicated to Kobazukasa.

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14705473812_28e79f13bf_bIts walls, although massive and timeless, couldn’t contain the intense royal intrigue brewing there. According to rich legend and some historical accounting, King Sho Hashi considered the regional chieftain named Lord Aji Amawari of Katsuren, the 10th Lord in succession of Katsuren castle, a powerful rival.  Famous for fostering prosperous international trade, Amawari was also known as a cunning and politicized leader.   Legend has it that he pushed his predecessor, the 9th Katsuren Castle Lord, Lord Mochizuki Aji, off the top of the castle walls.  As Aji was considered a tyrant and was detested by the people, not only did Amawari assume Lordship, he also became a popular savior to the people of Katsuren.

Momoto Fumiagari

Momoto Fumiagari

momotofumiagariKing Hashi sent his daughter, matchless beauty Momoto Fumiagari, to marry the young Lord Amawari, as one means to keep Amawari in check.  Ah, I hear you sigh, a tale as old as time as lovers’ intrigue generally leads to ruin.  But as Awamari’s strength and popularity continued to grow, Hashi then moved his faithful disciple Lord Gosamaru, from Zakimi Castle in the north, to Nakagusuku, just south of Katsuren, to keep a watchful eye on his ambitious son-in-law. Amawari, whose dream was to unify the island under his control, eventually attacked and killed Gosamaru (with Shuri’s support), and then attempted to overthrow King Sho (of Shuri), but was defeated and killed in 1458.

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14702652921_f835efe616_bHowever, like in the genesis of all legends where truth is lost to time, the people of Katsuren today sees things quite differently. Amawari, popular among and compassionate to his people at the time, was a great threat to the King, and thus it was the King who held the hidden agenda.  In another example of revisionist history, the characterization of Amawari is being slowly transformed from one of traitor to hero.  Funny what a few centuries can do to rehabilitate just about anyone’s character.

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007In any case, the 10th Lord of Katsuren Castle, Lord Amawari, was abruptly killed in some sort of politically charged spat, no doubt involving the rivals of Nakagusuku and Shuri castles.  Oh, and surely over the girl (wink).  He was the last powerful personality to infect Katsuren, and the castle slowly fell out of favor and into slow decay.

www.pbase.com/dbh/okinawa; katsuren jo

14702565151_6f594ac651_bThe castle has 4 enclosures, each at a differing elevation. The first is relatively open, with the castle’s walls there being actively rebuilt during our visit.  The 3rd Enclosure, going from bottom to top, is most likely where ceremonies and rituals took place.  Moving up the large wooden staircase to the 2nd Enclosure, visitors find the foundation of a massive pillared building as grand and on par with Shurijo stood here, based on fragments of expensive Chinese and Korean pottery and colorful architectural decorations.  This level served as the core of the castle where the Lord and his Lady resided, and, in effect, served as the public “government” offices for the region.  Moving up some stone stairs to the uppermost 1st Enclosure, one finds the best views and smallest space, used for the safe repository of valuables according to most speculation.

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137516676_UcxJqCRkThe journey to the ruin’s highest level can be completed (mostly) via the modern, handsome and sturdy wooden staircase, but you may also elect the more authentic and exciting journey up the crumbly rock ramp that is immediately adjacent. Be forewarned though, this is not the day to be wearing your laid-pack island-time flip-flops; sturdy shoes for this adventure are a must.  The limestone is jagged and especially slippery when wet.

Altar of Umichimun, the Ryukyu God of Fire

Altar of Umichimun, the Ryukyu God of Fire

IMG_6741_jpgAs a religious site, Katsuren is still very active.  Numerous gods were worshipped in ancient Okinawa, believed to protect the island and the Okinawans in daily life, and many of those are still worshiped today.  Not surprisingly, there are a few altars at Katsuren, which continue to protect the castle and region.  Interestingly, the castle’s kitchen also is the site of the Altar of Umichimun, the Ryukyu God of Fire.  The grounds also hold an entrance to a cave called Ushinujigama (”gama” means cave), which was most likely used as a refuge during war and natural disasters.  Finally, the Tamanomiuji-utaki stone at Katsuren Castle serves as a sacred shrine.  This stone remains an active place of worship, and is believed to connect underground to Ushinujigama, connecting two sacred sites together.

Ushinujigama at Katsuren Castle

Ushinujigama at Katsuren Castle

Katsuren Castle was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, and is one of the nine Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.  It was also declared a Designated Historical Monument (史跡 Shiseki) by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs in 1972.

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Although the wrong wife can lead to the ruin of her husband, hopefully you can visit Katsuren with a mate more well-suited.  And maybe, just maybe she won’t have a power-hungry father with an army at his disposal.  More likely the long journey involving a couple of U-turns, poorly functioning air conditioning and perhaps and a man who won’t ask (or take) directions will be the origin of any relationship rift(s).  Don’t be in a rush to physically get there, even though you have must visit this fascinating site.  The drive there can be frustratingly slow.  Nevertheless, it can be made a scenic and relaxing ride.  So adjust your clocks to Island Time, and take in some of the more rural areas of Okinawan on your way.

I have a good one.  Spouse, I mean.

I have a good one. Spouse, I mean.

But just keep one eye on that spouse of yours…. You never know what schemes may be hatched with the rich Ryukyu Kingdom history and colorful intrigue as their guide!

Watch your spouse, and keep from visiting "Nightmare Castle!"

Watch your spouse, and keep from visiting “Nightmare Castle!”

 

 

Katsuren Castle

Open: Closed Mondays and December 29th – January 3rd.

Address: 3908, Haebaru, Katsuren, Uruma-City, Okinawa Prefecture, 904-2311

Entrance Fee: Free

Phone: 098-978-2201

Directions: Exit the Okinawa Expressway at Okinawa Minami and make a left onto Highway 23.  At the Ikento intersection turn right onto Route 16.  Follow the road straight for several kilometers (be patient – it takes longer than you think or want!) until the roads starts uphill as it gently curves left ninety degrees.  Just after the road curves, you’ll find a sign pointing to the Katsuren Castle ruins on the right, with the museum and parking area on the left.

Map: www.jcastle.info/castle/zoom/110

See my complete set of photos in my Flickr stream here:  Katsuren Castle