After my adventures in Onoyama Park, I made it back to Miebashi in time to catch a guided tour I’d signed up for. Naha Machima~i is an organization that runs small tours (up to five people or so) walking around the streets of Naha, being introduced to lots of great back-street stuff you might never find on your own. I wish I’d had time to take more of these tours – such as to see the backstreets of Oroku that I’d tried looking for earlier in the day – but, unfortunately, most of the tours are only offered once or twice a week.
A typical Okinawan kame-kô-baka (亀甲墓, “turtle shell tomb”), in Midori-ga-oka Park, near Miebashi, in Naha. Okinawan tombs are quite different from funerary practices in Japan, but I am told are quite similar to those in southern China (esp. Fuzhou).
A sign/plaque outside Miebashi Station names a number of historical sites in the area, which I tried to find on my own but never did manage to locate; I was hoping this tour would point them out. In the end, it didn’t, but that’s okay. She took us past a bunch of old graves, hidden in the backstreets of the Miebashi neighborhood, but none, apparently, that are known to belong to particular (known) historical figures. Even so, it was pretty fun. The volunteer tour guide took us down some seriously narrow back-alleys, giving an introduction to a different side of Naha from the main streets I would have otherwise stuck to. I went back, in any case, later, and finally found one of the historical graves I was hoping the tour would cover – that of Tokashiki Sanra – though I never did quite manage to find the grave of Chô Kenkô, both of whom were potters from mainland Asia who came to Ryûkyû in the late 16th century and apparently played a significant role in spreading pottery techniques in the island kingdom. Admittedly, I’d never heard of either of them before this trip, but, there was a plaque outside the station that said these two graves were sites in the area, so I thought I’d go look for them… and in the end, managed to find one!
In any case, the tour ended on Kokusai-dôri, probably the most “main” street in Naha, and easily the most famous. From there, I decided to take off in a different direction, in search of other stuff. Incidentally, I learned on the tour that many of Naha’s major streets are named after prominent establishments (e.g. restaurants, movie theaters, dance halls) located on those streets. Makes sense when you think about it, given that the Japanese (and, I suppose, the Okinawans too) traditionally didn’t name the majority of their streets – when the Americans came and occupied Okinawa for nearly thirty years after WWII, being Americans, they’d want to have something to call the streets, so it makes sense they might have referred to streets by prominent establishments located there, informally at first, and then the name stuck afterwards. In this way, Kokusai-dôri (lit. “International Street”) is not literally directly named after the general concept of being “international,” but rather is named after the Ernie Pyle International Theatre, or ”Ernie Pyle kokusai gekijo”, that once stood where the Mitsukoshi Department Store stands today. Similarly, Okiei-dôri, which intersects with Kokusai-dôri and runs past Miebashi Station, is named after the ”Okinawa eigakan”, or “Okinawa Cinema,” which used to stand on that street and showed Okinawan and Japanese films. Finally, New Paradise dôri, which sounds like something invented purely for the touristy aspect of it, is similarly named after a New Paradise restaurant & dance hall which was popular during the Occupation period.
Meandering away from Kokusai-dôri, and now armed with a much better map (where did I get that from? from the tour guide, maybe?), I happened first upon a sanshin store… I’ve been practicing sanshin for about two years now, and though I wasn’t really looking for anything particular to buy – new strings, replacement pegs, or anything – I kind of wanted to stop in, anyway, share my interest, I dunno. Hope that someone might invite me to stay and hang out and play sanshin with them? I think maybe I was hoping too much. But, anyway, this particular shop, god, I don’t know how to say this without it seeming judgmental or Orientalist/racist or something, but, there was a white guy there who seemed to either run the shop, or maybe his girlfriend (or her family) runs the shop, I wasn’t sure, but, to see a guy like him (a guy like me) seeming so “at home” in a sanshin shop in Okinawa is just very encouraging. And stuff. I don’t know when, or how, or in what capacity I might ever get to live in Japan or Okinawa for any real serious extended length of time, but, on a romantic/idealizing level, boy does it seem great.
Moving on, since this post is bound to be quite long… We chatted a bit, in Japanese, and I poked around in the hopes of maybe buying something, and then I left. Made my way to Jôgaku Park, one of the sites featured in Hokusai’s “Eight Views of Ryûkyû” (1832; based on a 1757 Chinese set of eight views, based on a 1719-1721 set). Unsurprisingly, there was nothing much to see there. Just a cute little public park, with a view out over the city.
My wanderings eventually brought me back to Kenchômae (that is, the area right around the Prefectural Government offices, the State Capitol, if you will), so I decided this was as good a time as any to escape from the heat and check out the Naha City Museum of History. It’s a rather small museum, but, for the niche topic of Okinawan history, it’s quite good. The museum owns several National Treasures, and had a number of them on display, along with many famous/major/important artworks or artifacts of relevance to Ryukyuan history (some of them reproductions of objects held in mainland collections). One highlight of the regular exhibits, I guess, was to get to see Chiyoganemaru, the only named Ryukyuan sword I’ve ever heard of, and I’m assuming the only one that’s a National Treasure. The museum also owns a crown used in the Ryukyuan king’s investiture ceremonies, though this is only on display twice a year, for conservation reasons, though this summer they’ve been rotating through National Treasures. I’m glad I got to see Chiyoganemaru, not that I’m a swords person at all, and they also had a few bingata robes (also National Treasures) on display. I don’t know why, but I’ve always found it difficult to get interested in textiles… I should have been interested, excited, impressed. I wanted to be. I wish I was…
If there’s one big takeaway, though, it’s very interesting to see just how plain and simple (to my eyes, at least) some of these royal garments were. It would seem that on an everyday basis, outside of ceremonial circumstances, the royalty was wearing clothes that really didn’t differ all that much from what commoners might be wearing. That is, I suppose it’s unlikely that a peasant on a farm in some remote rural area would be wearing things in red and yellow – blue is a much cheaper dye. But, the fact that royals wore bashôfu (banana-fiber), and not only silks, and that all classes, from royals down to the peasantry, wore kasuri (ikat, a particular style/mode of dyeing), is very interesting. The museum also had on display reproductions of a series of paintings owned by the Tokyo National Museum, depicting Ryukyuan people of a variety of social classes, and even the Naha and Shuri aristocrats in these images wear what appear to me to be rather basic garments, in blue or (undyed) browns, wrapped simply around the body with a simple sash. Sure, their hairpins might be gold or silver, marking them as being of elite status, but, since, for Ryukyu as much as for Japan, China, or elsewhere, we tend to imagine the most lavish, luxurious, ceremonial mode of dress, or architecture, associating that with a given class, or with the whole culture, it is not only fascinating, but also really important, to be brought down to earth and to begin to get a better understanding of what was actually more typical. I’m glad, then, for that reason, that the museum showed some not so lavish materials, rather than only showing the most beautiful, most luxurious examples they might own (also interesting that these not-so-lavish objects should be designated National Treasures. Is that an indication, perhaps, of just how few Ryukyuan royal garments survive?).
I don’t want to go on too long here as to my experience of the museum, but, suffice it to say that they do a good job of summarizing Okinawan history, and showing some great objects, and there were definitely a few points that I learned that were quite useful for my research.
After the museum, there were still several hours of daylight left, so I headed out for Mie gusuku. This was one of two fortresses which were built to guard the entrance to Naha Harbor; its partner, Yarazamori gusuku, is no more, and frankly, I was surprised that there’d be anything to see of Mie gusuku, given the extent of the destruction in 1945, and the dramatic reshaping of the city (e.g. landfill, etc.) over the course of the entire 20th century. As it turns out, Mie gusuku remains strategically valuable just as it did hundreds of years ago, due to its location and such, and the Japanese government has built watchtowers and such on the site.
It’s a pretty small space, though fully accessible – one can walk right up on top of the bluff, amidst the ruins, though of course the modern watchtower is off-limits – and one can easily imagine it couldn’t have been much larger when the fortress was fully up and running. The above-ground walls, that is, the fortress itself, are pretty much no more, but the stone foundation walls are still somewhat intact, and there’s rubble and such everywhere. In short, there’s not much to see, I suppose, but it’s still a hell of a lot more than half the sites I’ve visited, where there’s, for example, a plaque or a stone marker indicating what used to stand there, and flat-out no surviving indications whatsoever of the site itself. Now, historically, Mie is described as being at the end of a long, thin, earthen embankment built jutting out into the harbor, and it’s depicted as such in various paintings and such as well. To what extent that was actually true, I don’t know, but, while to my surprise it does still sit on the water’s edge and look over the harbor today, the walk leading up to it is very much integrated with the city, and doesn’t jut out very far – there’s no long, thin, embankment.
Beyond that, I’m afraid I’m not sure what else there is to be said about Mie. I gradually made my way back to the hotel, walking through Tsuji (the historical, and current, red-light district) and Kume (the historical center of Chinese high culture & classical learning), as well as the Naminoue area, where several shrines and temples are gathered up together, overlooking the beach. I’d been to Naminoue on my previous trip to Okinawa, but I’m glad I went again; even though there wasn’t much need, I guess, to see those shrines and temples again, I discovered a number of smaller historical markers, memorial stelae, and the like that were certainly of interest, including a gravesite for the Ryukyuan fishermen killed by Taiwanese aborigines in 1871, an incident which nearly sparked all-out war between China and Japan over control of the Ryukyus & of Taiwan; also, a stone dedicated to the founders of the Nomura-ryû school/style of classical sanshin music (the style I was trained in, in Hawaii); and a small park that’s supposedly the site of a series of meetings between Tei Junsoku, Sai On, and Yamada peekumi, some of the most famous scholar-officials in Ryukyuan history. I was hoping, too, that I might manage to get a better picture of Naminoue Shrine, not from within the shrine, but of the shrine, overlooking the water, but, unfortunately, that section of beach was closed for construction.
Me and my very tired feet (and very tanned, but thankfully not sunburned body) then ended the night at a small, backalley hostel called Gekkôsô, which I guess I’ll have to write about another time, as this entry has gotten way too long already.
Tomorrow, Tomari, Kenpaku, and shopping!