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Archive for the ‘旅行’ Category

A continuation from my last post – today, a quick rundown of some of the many things I would love to see and do on Okinawa Island and its small neighboring islands; I hope that some of you might share similar interests, or might, after visiting Okinawa yourself, develop an interest.

(Click map to embiggen.)

*Okinawa Island
I went to Okinawa once before, just for a few days, exploring the capital city of Naha, which has grown to contain the historical capital of Shuri. The city is as modern as any provincial city in Japan, and parts of it in fact feel not all that different. There are apartment buildings, shopping malls, all the things you’d expect to find in a modern city.

The Okinawa Monorail, or Yui Rail, runs from Naha Airport to Shuri, and there are plans underway to extend it further; in my limited experience, I think it should be able to take you to pretty much anywhere in Naha City that you’d want to go.

The main attraction in Shuri, not immediately outside the last stop on the monorail, but a short walk away, is Shuri Castle, the former royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, utterly destroyed in 1945 and rebuilt in the post-war. The famous Shureimon, one of the most famous symbols of Okinawa, is part of the palace complex. Perhaps not as extensive as some Japanese castles, Shuri castle is nevertheless a fairly large set of grounds, with many baileys or sections, as well as several halls you can enter and walk through, plus the Engakuji, Benten-dô, Ryûtan Pond, and a few other historical sites and the like in the immediate vicinity. Tamaudun, the royal mausoleum, is a short walk to the west.

The Kinjô-machi Stone “Tatami” Road is a cobblestone walking path with leads from the area around the castle, through a residential neighborhood with a somewhat more quaint, traditional sort of feeling, down to the Shikina-en Royal Gardens. The gardens were closed the day I went, so watch out for that, but the walk was still quite enjoyable.

In contrast to the historical adventures of Shuri, Kokusai-dôri, the main road running through the center of town, is the chief place for shopping and nightlife. Starting at Kenchômae Station, and walking east, this is where you’ll find aloha shirts and all sorts of other tourist goods (souvenirs), and shimauta (lit. “island songs”) live bars. Kokusai-dôri also connects into the Heiwa-dôri and Makishi Markets, a huge sprawl of alleys and lanes lined with street stalls selling fresh fruits & veges, fish, meat, noodles, etc., as well as saké & awamori, and other goods, along with some noodle shops & other small “luncheonette” style restaurants and the like.

Walk north from Kenchômae Station, and you’ll be moving towards Kume and Naha Port. As you get closer, it’ll start to seem even more and more like a beach town sort of neighborhood. Kume was, historically, the center of Classical Chinese learning in the Ryukyu Kingdom, and the home of the aristocrat-scholar-bureaucrat class from which most government officials came. Today, a beautiful Chinese garden called Fukushûen (built in the 1990s) reminds us of the neighborhood’s historical cultural identity. Keep moving towards the beach, and you’ll find Naminoue (lit. “Above-the-Waves”) Shrine, perched atop a cliff overlooking the only public beach in Naha City. (Maybe it was a bad day, but I was severely underwhelmed by Naminoue Beach.) A small handful of other temples and such can be found in the area here, along with, somewhere, a plaque that I never managed to find, commemorating Commodore Perry’s time in Ryukyu.

Finally, one more neighborhood of Naha worth mentioning is Omoromachi, also known as Shintoshin (lit. “new city center”), an area which has recently come to be developed, with high-class shopping malls, a very nice public park, and most importantly the new prefectural museum which opened in 2007.

I’m sure there is plenty more to see and do in Naha, but I think it’s about time we moved on to talking about the rest of the island, which I myself have yet to visit, but would very much like to.


The main sites in Southern Okinawa seem to be Sefa-Utaki, the most sacred place in the traditional indigenous Ryukyuan religion, and a variety of sites associated with the Battle of Okinawa. You can visit an underground Imperial Japanese Navy Headquarters, as well as several memorials, including the chief Battle of Okinawa Memorial & Peace Park & Memorial Hall. The Navy HQ is apparently only a five-minute taxi ride from the Onoyama-kôen monorail stop; the Peace Park / Memorial Hall, and the Himeyuri Monument & Museum, in Itoman City, are a bit more difficult to get to, but it seems the public buses will get you there. The public buses can also take you to Sefa-Utaki.

Good to know – when I went to Okinawa, I was given the impression (I don’t really remember where, or by whom) that the public buses didn’t really go to most of the sites I’d want to visit, and that really the only way to see Okinawa is by taxi or rental car. Since I don’t drive, it’s good news to read that the buses, in fact, can take you to many of the major sites. Though, considering my more obscure historical interests, I’m sure there’s still plenty I won’t be able to get to so easily.

The main attractions in Central Okinawa, judging from the Tourist Bureau pamphlets, seem to be the gusuku. Gusuku are Okinawa’s distinctive form of castle or fortress; the only one in any state close to being intact is the rebuilt Shuri Castle I mentioned above; all that remains of the rest, so far as I know, is the winding stone walls, although given that these castles would have been built in wood, with tile roofs, and given the extent of the shelling and battle on Okinawa in 1945, this comes as no surprise. Three of the more famous/major gusuku sites – Nakagusuku, Katsuren, and Zakimi – can be found in Central Okinawa. The latter two seem to be accessible by bus, but the pamphlet suggests taking a taxi to Nakagusuku from the bus stop. The Nakamura House, a traditional 18th century nobleman’s house (seemingly intact, having survived 1945?) is quite near to Nakagusuku castle.

The other Central Okinawan site highlighted in the pamphlet is Ryukyumura, a sort of theme park of traditional Ryukyu culture. Could be pretty cool, especially if you don’t have the time or money to visit the other islands, but I wonder if the experience at Ryukyumura isn’t something that can be had on some of the more remote Sakishima Islands. I’d be interested to check this out, for sure, if I happen to be in that part of the island; but I think I’d be more inclined to visit a historical theme park in mainland Japan, where I think it’s valid to make the blanket statement that there are likely extremely few neighborhoods or towns that are really as traditional as the experience of the theme park; by contrast, while I’m sure that even the most remote of the Ryukyuan Islands have modernized to an extent, I imagine that a relatively “authentic” “traditional” experience can still be had.

Northern Okinawa has the Churaumi Aquarium – one of the largest aquariums (aquaria?) in the world, and a definite must-see. The pamphlet doesn’t list it, but Nakijin gusuku is up here in the north, too. It was once the “capital”, so to speak, of the kingdom of Hokuzan, before the central Okinawan kingdom of Chûzan conquered it. Which reminds me, somewhere further south, maybe just north of Naha, in the city of Urasoe, is Urasoe yodore, a site where several Ryukyuan kings (prior to the construction of the mausoleum at Tamaudun) are buried. Northern Okinawa is also the home to America-mura, a USA-themed theme park, which I’d love to check out just for yuks.

I’d be remiss if I did like the pamphlets and just ignored the US military bases which occupy something like 20% of the land area of the island. Having only stayed in Naha during my one visit, I have no experience with how difficult it is to get around the bases in traveling to other parts of the island, or how much certain neighborhoods may be really dominated by the military (or anti-military) atmosphere… In my three days in Naha, I didn’t run into any of it. But, it’s something to be aware of when visiting. I really hate the idea of equating Okinawa with the military, as I am sure so many do, and I really want to push the idea that there is so much else to Okinawa other than the US military presence – namely, the local contemporary and traditional Okinawan culture – but, it does have to be acknowledged. Can’t just ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. I’m sure the Okinawans have tried that already, and it didn’t make the bases go away.

Tonaki Island

The Outer Islands immediately surrounding Okinawa Island have plenty to see as well. Izena and Iheya, in particular, two small islands off the northwest coast of Okinawa, are the birthplaces of the founders of Ryukyuan dynasties, and feature statues or steles, at the very least, which I’d love to see.

Iejima, or Ie Island, boasts the tallest mountain in the prefecture, though it’s not much taller, I’m sure, than most of the most humble mountains in mainland Japan. Because of its geological origins as coral (limestone) islands, the Ryukyus are, on average, far closer to sea level than Taiwan or Japan, which boast actual mountains born of tectonic activity. Iejima also features a memorial to Ernie Pyle, the famous American wartime journalist who died there.

Aguni Island, 2hrs by boat from Naha, and one of the more distant islands in the “Okinawa Islands” vicinity, was the filming location for “Nabbie no koi“, a very touching Okinawan film directed by Nakae Yuji.

Tonaki Island, a similar distance from Naha, is known for its traditional architecture, according to the pamphlet. Makes me wonder what kind of architecture we would find on Aguni or Iejima or any of these other remote islands, or the extent to which those islands are more “traditional” or not, if this one is selected out as being especially known for this.

And that is that for the pamphlets. As I come across references to other historical sites, or other places of interest, in the islands, if I remember, I may come back here and edit these entries to turn them into more complete compilations of what to see in each area / each island.

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I recently picked up the revised 2005 edition of Old Kyoto by Diane Durston (photography: Lucy Birmingham), upon the recommendation of my good friend Kathryn. I’d hesitated for a while, thinking it a guidebook, and something which could only be of use for someone actually physically in Kyoto. However, it proves itself to be a wonderfully enrapturing look at what remains today of old Kyoto, written in a way that makes you feel as though you are there, bringing alive the atmosphere of old Kyoto and not requiring you to be there.

The core of the book is a series of looks at individual shops, restaurants, and ryokan (traditional style Japanese inns), including hours, a rough price range, and other such guidebook information. But it goes on to describe each location for a full 2-3 pages, detailing the shop’s history, the master’s traditional craft skills, or the inn’s rooms, gardens, and atmosphere, each description evoking images of the romantic Japanese world of the past which you thought was gone, unattainable, forever.

Indeed, these traditions are fading, and while a great many shopowners and craftsmen are taking over the family business, and continuing the traditions, many are not. Land is in great demand in Kyoto, traditional buildings are expensive to build, repair, and maintain, and demand for traditional goods has (I’d imagine) never been lower. Attitudes about modernity have fueled the destruction of traditional Japanese culture in a major way since at least the 1850s, and that is not going to change any time soon. So, in a way, at the risk of being melodramatic, for lack of a better word, this book is a memorial to the Kyoto that has been lost, and continues to disappear more and more every day.

Old Kyoto is more than that, however. I was initially tempted to skip over the Introduction sections, as I would in any guidebook. I expected it to skim the surface of Japanese history, telling me things I already know, or things simplified to the point of being misleading or outright incorrect. I expected it to devote pages and pages to tourist information like how to hail a cab, how to understand Japanese addresses, all sorts of other things quite useful to the uninitiated traveler in Japan.

I discovered, however, that these introductory sections are in fact among the best descriptions I have ever read of many key elements of Japanese urban history. Durston ties together disparate subjects – from Noh theater to tea ceremony to shogunal banquets to kabuki and the “floating world” of the geisha, describing the effect of each on the development of the urban merchant class, its culture and its crafts – painting a clearer and more complete picture of pre-modern to early modern Japanese urban life than I have ever read before. I cannot count the number of times I had an “aah, I see” moment while reading these pages. In everything from the relationship between Shinto shrines and merchant guilds to the disasters of the 1450s, shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s retreat from politics & administration and the resulting “Higashiyama bunka”, to the organization of the city into neighborhoods and the way the city rebuilt itself after each disaster not in any centralized way but through the independent efforts of each neighborhood rebuilding itself, Durston provides facts and stories I never knew before, and ties them together, weaving a beautifully complete and clear picture of life in the city.

Though still something of a guidebook, I intend to read this cover to cover, exploring through its pages a Kyoto I hope to experience for real some day – hopefully before it disappears completely.

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The New York Times is a bit behind the times, as usual, when it comes to articles on Japanese culture. I was in Kyoto & Uji back in May, seven months ago, and celebrations relating to the supposed 1000th anniversary of the Tale of Genji had been in full swing for months… and only now does the Times put out an article on the subject.

Still, it’s a pretty nice introduction to the Genji, and a peek at a few of the things that were going on in the Kyoto area last year in celebration, along with some nice but not stunning photos. It is a shame they didn’t publish this earlier, it being a Travel section. It would have been good info for tourists to help them plan a trip to Kyoto during the festivities, though it is too late now.

Across Japan, the anniversary has been marked by music festivals, parades, a chrysanthemum-doll competition and a hairstyle show featuring looks popular in Lady Murasaki’s time. In Kyoto, the festivities have included “Genji”-themed poetry readings, moon-viewings and even performance art, which I have chosen.

A walk through central Kyoto in November underscored the novel’s lasting power. Posters of the ingénue Yuki Shibamoto, the face of the national celebration, gazed from windows in office buildings and bridal shops. At the Museum of Kyoto, visitors inspected illustrated scrolls and painted screens from across the centuries depicting Genji’s exploits, and they walked out with playing cards and refrigerator magnets bearing images of Japan’s own Casanova.

(Photo at the top of the page my own. Taken in Uji Station.)

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On being a tourist

A post inspired by last week’s episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations – Laos. This is a comment I left on Bourdain’s blog on the Travel Channel website; I am sure to get no response, but felt the need to write it anyway.

As a white American with a fascination for Japan, someone who has lived there for over a year, and who very much intends to go back to live there more permanently, I give a lot of thought to the notion of being the intruder, the stranger.
There is nothing we can do as white people to not stand out, nothing we can do to truly fit in. We visit places because we are fascinated by the culture, because we want to learn more, because we want to experience something exotic, traditional, and different. We often come not knowing the local language or customs, and wanting to take photos to remember our journey.

In one scene from this Laos episode, a local from Luang Prabang explains to Tony that this alms-giving ritual they just filmed, in which the local monks, every single morning, walk down a major thoroughfare, a sea of orange, and are given alms in the form of rice by the laypeople, alms-giving devotees, is a real traditional ritual, the real thing, not DisneyWorld, and one can sense in his face and in his tone of voice the anger against Western tourists, who come in ever increasing numbers and snap photos of this sacred ritual. I find it impossible to not, while watching No Reservations, or even when traveling myself, have some disdain for the tourists I see around me. I find it difficult to think that they are not simply the kind of tourists who are only there to get their pictures, to have a fun and interesting holiday, and who are not as deeply interested in the culture as they should be. That somehow I am different, because as a historian, and a student of Asian Studies, I somehow have more right to be there, that I am somehow less an invader. This is stupid, and hypocritical, I know. But I just cannot help but think this way.

How can we avoid treating real world places and traditional sights like DisneyWorld? How can we explore the world, and get photos to remember the journey, the experience by, without being seen as invaders, as obnoxious tourists, as representative of an inflow of outsiders who in turn represent a slow destruction of the traditional way of life?

When I am in Japan, I find myself almost always quite welcome; the further I go from the major tourist areas, the major cities, the more welcomed I feel. I speak the language, I am accustomed to much of the etiquette and customs, and I have a genuine interest in the culture, and I think the Japanese can sense this quite easily, that I am not just another tourist, or at least not a certain kind of tourist. Or maybe they’re just kind, welcoming, people, very good at being polite on the outside no matter how displeased they may be in truth.

I am hoping to spend a lot more time in Japan in the future, and to explore, to journey much of the continent. I dream of going to Viet Nam, to China, to Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Tibet, Bhutan and elsewhere. What can I do to not be the invader with a camera, the sore thumb, the symbol of Western cultural imperialism, or whatever else it may be that the locals may think of foreign tourists?

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