Archive for the ‘Temples and shrines’ Category

For the final week of my crazy jaunt around Japan this past summer, I enjoyed the privilege of taking part in a “graduate summer school” run by Kyoto University. It was a great program, introducing us to the university’s great collections, and presenting just a tiny glimpse into how archaeological research is done, how medieval documents are read, and so forth. I was certainly blown away by the items in the collection, the opportunity to see such things up close is always such a pleasure.

Still, I feel bad to say so, but while I think it would have been a fantastic program for students earlier in their programs, I’m at a stage right now where anything not directly related to helping me improve and finish the dissertation just doesn’t grab me right now. I must admit, I spent much of the week thinking about how “I could/should be working on my dissertation right now.” Especially after two weeks of just travel, even though that travel included archives and libraries, I was feeling guilty for not just buckling down and getting back to work. But, still, I’m very glad for this program as it (1) gave me an opportunity and excuse to spend a whole week in Kyoto, easily one of my most favorite cities in the world, and (2) allowed me to meet a whole lot of new people, make new friends/acquaintances/colleagues.

Yasaka no tô (Yasaka Pagoda), as seen from a small street near Ninenzaka.

At the end of it, I am sad to leave Kyoto. I had a really fantastic time. Even after all the rest of the traveling, I can tell that Kyoto, more so than Fukuoka or Kagoshima or Tokyo, is a place I could really enjoy being for a real length of time. I wish I had another week, or a year, to sit in cafes and just write, interspersed with going out to dinner with friends, going to theatre, visiting historical sites… I suppose that having friends around makes a whole lot of the difference, that that’s a part of what made this week in Kyoto so great. Without friends it wouldn’t be the same. But even so, it would still be such a wonderful city. I love exploring Kyoto, the shrines and temples and historical sites and cafes and restaurants and everything. I love the particular aesthetic and charm of so many Kyoto cafes. And I love how just historical and cultural everything is.. You can feel it, it’s in the air.

On my first trip to Kyoto, I remember writing in my LiveJournal (haha) that it was a small city with just enough of the modern city amenities. I remember that I was thinking in particular of Harajuku, and how you can in fact get cool fashion and other “modern” city experiences in Kyoto, but that it’s much smaller. That if you want the ultra-modern X, Y, and Z of Tokyo, you have to be in Tokyo. (Or Osaka, I suppose, but I still have never spent any time in Osaka). But, I’m not sure I feel the same way about Kyoto anymore. I know it’s because my interests have changed – I don’t need the anime stores of Ikebukuro anymore. And because Harajuku itself has changed, too. What once was, is no longer, even in Tokyo. Now, I’m more interested in history and culture and theatre and cute cafes and so on than I ever was before.

A view along the Kamo River.

I think I would really love to live in Kyoto for a year or so. Or even just for a few months. It’s not a city with too much direct relation to my research, unfortunately. So much talk all week about the Heian court and such… very far from my studies. But who cares, right? … And there are plenty of universities in Kyoto, hopefully one of them might be looking for a postdoc or something.

After this trip, I really do feel I could stay in Japan long-term. Maybe not indefinitely, make my whole life and career here. But certainly for a few years. It’s just such a good place to be, and with so much great stuff to see and do. Life is clean and good. It’s not dirty and falling apart like NY. It’s not a society pulling itself apart at the seams over politics like our own. Japan has its problems, to be sure, and in certain respects all the moreso as a foreigner. But sometimes I just really want, need, an escape from the insular, local, problems and politics of home. I feel like Kyoto is such a city of possibility. Not that one can’t say the same thing of any other big city, but there’s somehow something that just grabs me about Kyoto, that makes me feel like there is such a wealth of experiences to be had. That if you met the right people, made the right contacts, heard about the right opportunities, you could get into just so many incredible spaces and experiences. From Noh to Butoh, from tea to Zen, from shamisen to Nihon buyô. From dozens of cool or cute cafes to amazing temples, archives, seminars. I would love to live such a life.

Apologies for the disjointedness; for the rest of this post, I’m just going to share my thoughts-at-the-time on a couple of sites I visited in Kyoto.

The Ninomaru Palace at Nijô castle.


Nijô castle was built in 1603 to serve as the base of Tokugawa presence in the imperial city. Though as it turned out no shogun visited Kyoto for over 200 years from 1634 to 1863, representatives and officials continuously occupied the castle, overseeing goings-on in the city, handling various administrative matters, and so forth. Today, Nijô is of particular interest (at least to people like myself) because it’s the chief surviving site that might offer some sense of what the shogun’s main castle in Edo was once like. (The main residence and administrative buildings of Edo castle having never been rebuilt after an 1863 fire) Here are some thoughts I had at the time while visiting there for the first time in 15 years:

When you really think about it, it’s so weird, to walk around these rooms, these very rooms where these events really took place, and not be able to enter them to experience the space more directly. On one level, sure, it makes perfect sense, and I don’t need to enter the rooms at Independence Hall, for example, and to sit at those desks, to get a sense of what happened there and its gravity. But, somehow here it’s different. Walking through the honjin at Futagawa, and actually sitting in the room, you really get a sense of the space that you don’t by walking around only in the corridors. There’s just this incredible disconnect I feel here. The whole building becomes such a completely different space when the chief areas become unused, and the corridors become the main areas in which any human activity takes place.

The Ôhiroma, or Grand Audience Hall, of Nijô castle, arranged with mannequins to show how lords would have sat or bowed before the shogun. Sadly, obnoxiously, no photos allowed inside the building. This photo from Hananomichi blog.

I don’t know why, but somehow it just feels weird to me that a building of such great importance should become so empty, so dead, just put on display like this. I know that’s the very essence of the historical house as museum and I’m glad it’s preserved and open to visitors – neither destroyed nor kept limited to official business. I’m glad I get to see it. But somehow, more so than all the other castles and historic homes I’ve seen, this one struck me somehow. I somehow really wish we could engage with it more directly, or more extensively somehow.

Of course, there are simple practical reasons why you can’t let people walk on the tatami – it would get ruined so quickly. But, I wonder if some replica experience could be produced somehow. So people could experience these rooms not only from the outside, but from within the space, surrounded and immersed in the effect intended by the designers, and experienced by the people of the time.


Somehow, in my previous visits to Kyoto, I had never actually been to Tô-ji, one of the oldest temples in the city, and home to the tallest pagoda in Japan. I guess part of the reason I’d never gone was because Buddhist sculpture has never really done much for me. But somehow this time was different. To see them all arranged together, in 3D space, in context, and especially the grand size of these works, I think one really can sense the impact, the feeling of peace and spirituality that’s being evinced.

You can really feel / sense the deities looking down upon you. You can really imagine them being not sculptures buy actual deities manifesting before you. And the smell of the statues, of the wood, and of the incense also makes a big difference.

I think, at least in my own personal experience, that for a lot of Japanese arts, one just needs to be in the right mood, or catch it from the right frame of mind. I’ve been so moved by Buddhist sculpture two or three times, even when dozens and dozens of other times it didn’t really do much for me, and there have been a handful of times that I became truly taken in, entranced, moved, by Noh, though so many previous viewings I never managed to cross that mental or emotional divide. And the same for paintings – seeing paintings in person, with no glass or anything, is almost always a breathtaking experience, but seeing them on display, it’s really not so often that a piece takes me in. So, maybe it is just the timing, or just catching me in the right frame of mind.

Photo of the interior of Sanjûsangendô from the Nikkei newspaper, because god forbid they should allow regular people to take photos of some of the most famous examples of beautiful, masterful, Kamakura period artworks in all of Japan.

We also visited Sanjûsangendô, a very long hall containing 1001 medieval (c. 12th c.) sculptures of the bodhisattva Kannon. I had been there before, but this time we happened to arrive on a (slightly) historic day. These sculptures were long designated “Important Cultural Properties,” but were very recently upgraded to “National Treasures.” In connection with this (I think?), they moved many of the sculptures back to an earlier Edo period configuration just today (August 1), rearranging the exact arrangement of the auxiliary figures surrounding the central larger Kannon, as well as switching the Raijin and Fûjin (Gods of Thunder and Wind) sculptures at the very ends of the arrangement.

Today’s Keihan [train line], feels good.

Finally, I guess I’ll end this post with just a few thoughts on Kyoto as a tourist city.

Are some parts of Kyoto getting Disneyfied? Absolutely. And it’s a shame to see. But I would be curious to know the numbers, the statistics, regarding tourism – is this gentrification, this “touristification,” this Disneyfication, primarily in connection with appealing to great numbers of domestic (Japanese) tourists, or foreign tourists? But, then again, does it matter? Does it make a difference in how we think about it, does it make a difference in whether we are critical of it or not?

I’m frankly not sure how I feel. On the one hand, I can absolutely sense, feel, that Disneyfication, and it’s worrying. It’s problematic. No one should have to feel like their own home is no longer their own – that their own neighborhood is designed around tourists and not around residents. It’s something I’ve seen in Hawaii and Okinawa as well, and it’s no good. But, if there’s a silver lining at all it’s that a great deal of the city doesn’t look/feel like Ninenzaka or Hanamikoji, and it’s still vibrantly authentic, for lack of a better word. I know some people who say Kyoto’s too far gone already – they won’t come here, they won’t bother anymore, because it’s already gone to the dogs, so to speak. Maybe it’s just because it’s been so long for me since my time in Kyoto, and since my time this time around was so constrained; maybe it’s just because I still entertain fantasies of what it’s like rather than knowing how it truly is, but for me, it’s still very much worth visiting. I had a marvelous time this time, and an all the more astounding time the previous time around, and I think I would again, if I ever got the chance to live in Kyoto for an extended period again. I don’t think it’s time yet to write the city off.

Kyoto is still full of wonderful cafes, temples, universities, museums, theatre, and all sorts of other arts and cultural goings-on. And all of these, I am sure, sway with the winds that are blowing, feeling the impacts of increasing tourism and increasing touristification. But for now at least I think we can still honestly say that a great deal does continue to go on in this city in a relatively authentic fashion, disconnected from catering to what the tourists want.

I wonder if there is anything meaningful or worthwhile to say about the touristification of Kyoto regarding that it may date all the way back to the Edo or Meiji periods. That this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. After all, tourism in Japan really boomed towards the middle and late Edo period (18th-19th centuries), and during our workshop we saw some tourist maps of the city, pointing out Buddhist temples and other sites of interest. In the Meiji period, after some considerable debate and waffling and so forth, the government decided to keep Kyoto as a traditional, historical, imperial city, in contrast to the very modern city they were going to turn Tokyo into. Not that any of this is necessarily perfectly pertinent to the current phenomenon of what’s happening to Kyoto, but even so, context.

I wish I had anything more to say, more insightfully, regarding this interesting and important issue. But I guess I have to just leave that to those who are actually in tourism studies, unlike myself. I’ll just end this already very lengthy blog post by saying that “Let’s Make a Bus Route” (バスルートをつくろう) is a wonderful little board game in which you compete with other players to build the best bus route around Kyoto. No Japanese language ability required. (h/t to my friend Evan for introducing me to the game!)

All photos my own, except where indicated otherwise.

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The main tower keep of Himeji Castle.

In between my visits to Okinawa, Kyushu, and Tokyo this past summer, before landing in Kyoto for the final week, I took the opportunity to make use of my JR Pass to visit a few other places, including Himeji Castle, Ise, a Tokaido post-station known as Futagawa-juku, and … So, before I get to finally talking about Kyoto (and then finally moving on from my summer 2018 Japan trip), this blog post is going to be a little scattered.


Himeji is of course one of the largest, most famous, castles in Japan, and one of only a few to actually date from the Edo period and not be largely/entirely 20th century reconstructions. But, as it’s a short ways west of Kobe, and not located within a major city, I had never gotten around to visiting it before.

It’s certainly a cool thing to get to see, and with great history. The Sakai family lords of Himeji were interesting folks, including some very prominent and influential figures within the Tokugawa shogunate government, as well as figures like Sakai Hôitsu, son of one of the lords of Himeji, who never gained any political prominence or power but is surely among the greatest painters of the Edo period. I also very recently learned that several of the Sakai lords were real pioneers in patronizing Ming (Chinese) music in Japan. And, as I learned upon visiting the castle, Princess Sen (or Senhime), a daughter of Tokugawa Hidetada and wife of Toyotomi Hideyori, once lived there. Stories about her thus dominated much of the labels and descriptions within the castle.

Inside the main keep at Himeji castle.

I only wrote a very few thoughts/reactions about the castle at the time. But, one thing that struck me was the way they did it up as a history of the castle vs. as a history of the domain more broadly. It’s funny… When visiting for example Fukuyama Castle (near Hiroshima), as well as Hiroshima castle, both of those pretty much just use the castle as a space to tell a much broader history of the domain, and of the successive lords of that domain. In both Fukuyama and Hiroshima castles, which were just chock full of artifacts, paintings, documents, displayed as museum exhibits, I felt it was a shame that we couldn’t really get a sense of it as a castle. I wished they’d done it up more like a historical house recreation.

And yet, at Himeji, the first half of what I visited, the tenshu (main keep) has no objects on display at all, and is almost exclusively about appreciating and experiencing the space itself, the architecture, and the way the space was used at the time (primarily for storing weapons, and as a guard tower, from which warriors could defend the castle, or something like that). It’s only in the second half of the site (a different, nearby building) that you learn about Senhime, and her life there. But even then, I was wishing there were more teaching us about the Sakai family, from Sakai Tadahiro to Tadazumi to… whomever. But I guess you can’t have it both ways.

Of course, this castle also is mostly just empty rooms, and not anything approaching a recreation of what it would have actually looked like in use. So, there’s room for going in that direction as well. I would still love to see any of these historic castles done up a little bit more to really show not just the rooms, but the furniture, etc.

The Great Audience Hall (Ôhiroma) at Nijô castle in Kyoto.

Nijô castle in Kyoto does that to a certain extent. The Ôhiroma, or Great Audience Hall, at Nijô has mannequins arranged to show you how lords would have gathered before the shogun, and that I really appreciate. Really does just so much to show you how these rooms were used, rather than giving you an empty room and asking you to imagine. But even at Nijô, most of the other rooms are still left empty.

7/22 ISE


The small temple of Dairin-ji, in the Furuichi neighborhood of Ise. And, just to one side of the main temple building, the graves of Magofuku Itsuki and his lover Okon, the inspiration for the Kabuki characters Fukuoka Mitsugi and Okon.

On my way from Himeji to Nagoya, I stopped in Ise. As you do. Actually, for anyone reading this and planning your own trips, note that actually Ise is rather out of the way. You can take the Shinkansen (bullet train) straight from Himeji to Nagoya; Ise is not strictly-speaking along the way. Only local trains and not bullet trains go there.

As I wrote in a series of blog posts quite a few years ago, Ise was historically not only the site of one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan, but as a pilgrimage destination it also developed in the Edo period a very notable neighborhood of inns, theaters, brothels, etc. There is very little left to see today of the Ise Furuichi (“old market”) neighborhood, but even so I was very much curious to see it, as Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba, the kabuki play I took part in during my time in Hawaii, was set there. So, I visited the Buddhist temple Dairin-ji, mentioned very briefly but never seen in the play, where Manjirô escapes to briefly, so as to not be seen by… I forget, who, actually. And, perhaps more importantly, the real individuals who served as the basis / inspiration for the main characters of the play are buried there. It was kind of funny trying to find the temple. I’m not sure exactly what I expected. Well, I expected that the temple grounds might be even just a little bit larger than they turned out to be, and in particular, I expected that there would be some kind of traditional wooden gate. I don’t know why, but somehow I had in my mind an image of the big wooden gate to Dairin-ji, and that that would be where I might take a photo. As it turns out, there is no gate. Not even a modern one. Just a single main temple building (and a few smaller more modern ones attached to it), immediately facing (or, depending on how you look at it, situated within) a small parking lot, and then to the side of that, an extremely small graveyard, no more than 10 or 15 gravestones. And, a stone marker indicating the name of the temple. That was it. I’m glad I went, glad I saw it, but there was really nothing at all to see other than to take a couple of photos and move on.

Sadly, I arrived too late in the day to see the Ise Furuichi local history museum. So, I do wonder what that might be like. For all I know, it might surprise me. Might be quite nice and newly-maintained, like the ones at Futagawa and Tomonoura. Maybe all that I expected to find at the temple might be satisfied at the museum. But, yeah, sadly, I didn’t get to see that. Fortunately, however, just as I was despairing at having come all that way just to see so little, I came upon a small stone marker (right) indicating the former site of the Abura-ya, the brothel where nearly the entire play takes place. Actually, it’s funny – I opened up Google Maps to search for it, to search for where it might be, and then noticed it was actually right there right in front of me. Haha. Wow. Not that this was much either – it truly is simply nothing but a stone marker. But, even so, as something I’d hoped to see for years, I was glad to not leave without spotting it.

Of course, I didn’t leave Ise without visiting the shrine. But, to be honest, and I’m sorry if any of my Religious Studies friends take offense or something, but after having visited Meiji Shrine, Atsuta Shrine, and some other such places that also involve very long walks through wooded paths before you finally actually get to the sacred center, I kind of felt like I’d seen and done that before. And since, of course, at Ise you’re forced to remain at a certain distance from that sacred center, and can’t go in further past a certain point, well, that was about it. Even the closest point you can go, the one place where there really is something (anything) worth taking a photo of, is the one place where you’re not allowed to do so, and they have a pretty serious-looking security guy from the Imperial Household Agency (or something? I forget) watching to make sure you don’t take photos. So, *shrug* that was that. If I’d had more time, I might have enjoyed the touristy shopping street just outside the shrine, get a little more of a feeling of having actually experienced something by coming all the way out there, but, oh well. I’m sure I’ll be back, eventually. Maybe in 2033 when they rebuild the shrine over again, haha.


From Ise, I then made my way to Nagoya. I’d been to Nagoya before, and had seen all the really major sites – Nagoya castle, Atsuta Jingûso this time, while I had just a day or so, I made sure to poke out to some more minor, but interesting, sites related to the Ryukyuan embassies to Edo.

Since Atsuta Shrine was a major destination, it was also a stop on the Tôkaidô. Just a few blocks away from the shrine, though there’s nearly nothing to see of it today, is a small parking lot and a stone marker marking where the Red Honjin, the main elite lodgings at this Miya-juku (lit. “shrine post-station”) once stood. The honjin can be seen in an 1832 illustrated book known as Meiyô kenbun zue, which I’ve quite enjoyed using for my research.

Above right: A gravestone at Zuisen-ji in Nagoya, for Tomiyama peechin Ryô Bunhitsu, musician who died on the 1832 embassy. The inscription reads 「中山富山親雲上梁文弼久米村儒家以楽師于後江戸来至没於尾張国鳴海駅回葬馬時午三十八」(roughly, “Tomiyama peechin Ryô Bunhitsu of Chûzan [i.e. Ryûkyû], master musician and Confucian scholar of Kumemura, later traveled to Edo and died at Narumi station in Owari province [i.e. Nagoya] … [and then a part I don’t quite understand; he died at age] 38.).

Also quite nearby is Shichiri-no-watashi, the former site of a boat dock where people used to arrive and depart for the crossing across Ise Bay to Kuwana. A Ryukyuan mission was nearly lost in a storm on this crossing in 1671, and so from then on (with one exception), they took an overland route.

Finally, I also visited the really small and slightly out-of-the-way temples of Kaikoku-ji and Zuisen-ji, where Tokashiki peechin Shinfu Ma Gen’ei (a member of the 1748 mission) and Tomiyama peechin Ryô Bunhitsu (a master musician on the 1832 Ryukyuan mission to Edo), respectively, are buried after dying of illness on the journey. Sadly, this was not entirely uncommon; the almost complete separation of Japanese and Ryukyuan populations, combined with the Ryukyuan lack of experience with cold weather, were likely key contributing factors, and a number of members of embassies to Edo caught Ryûkyû no kaze (the Ryukyuan cold, or Ryukyuan flu) and died. Many Japanese fell ill, however, too, whenever Ryukyuan embassies passed through their towns, so Ryûkyû no kaze went the other way as well.

A guardtower at Shichiri-no-watashi, at what is today known as Miya-no-watashi Park 宮の渡し公園. I wish I might have visited the corresponding site at Kuwana on the other side of Ise Bay, but there was no time.


The entrance of the main honjin at Futagawa-juku, as seen from inside the building, looking out towards the street.

I then sped to Tokyo to meet up with some professors, and a day or so later took the Shinkansen out to Toyohashi City, Aichi prefecture (which was a fair bit farther from Tokyo than I’d thought), to visit the honjin museum at Futagawa-juku. Futagawa was one of 53 official “stations” along the Tôkaidô, the chief highway connecting Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. When daimyô (samurai lords), Ryukyuan or Korean embassies, imperial envoys, or certain others passed through such post-stations, they were often provided lodgings at a honjin – a special inn set aside for such elites, that was usually larger, nicer, better than the other inns, and that often included certain special amenities for precisely that purpose, such as a small area with a raised floor, so that the lord could literally sit above his retainers when he met with them. These honjin often served as lodgings for only a portion of the time, and often doubled as the home and/or main “office” so to speak of the town headman. Getting to the point, the honjin at Futagawa is one of only a very few that are still intact, and that are maintained as a museum.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from such a small local history museum, but I was certainly not disappointed. Quite to the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed. All along the main stretch in Futagawa, along the old Tōkaidō, nearly every house and shop has the same blue Futagawa-juku noren (curtain) hanging outside. Makes me curious, if people really feel a strong connection and pride in the history or whether it has more to do with community, or how exactly they (and we) might characterize it.

The honjin itself is huge. I guess I’m not surprised, it totally makes sense that for an inn worthy of a daimyo, and one that can house 30-40 of his followers, it would be such a size. And of course not all honjin were this big; they varied, and we can look that up. But to see it first-hand, experience the number of rooms, is something. A much different experience from simply reading about their size or capacity, or looking at illustrations or diagrams. And the Museum itself, housed in a neighboring building, was surprisingly large, too, with two floors of exhibits. Awesome of them to allow photos too.

The beginning of the second floor exhibits at the Futagawa-juku Museum, showing travelers on the Tôkaidô.

Plus, the curator, Wada Minoru, was so kind. He not only came out and helped show me exactly which publications listed the relevant documents, but he even was willing to go and get them and let me see them immediately. If he had said you have to make an appointment, I would have totally understood. But he was willing to take the time to let me look at them immediately. Amazing. Of course, who knows how useful they’ll be especially since I really don’t have the time to actually read them. But… Maybe just by having them in my HD, I’ll gain something by osmosis or something, haha.

I know I’ll never work for such a small local history museum; unless I end up doing some kind of research on the museum itself, I don’t see how (why) I would ever find myself actually spending more than a couple of days there. Which is sort of a shame, really – considering that they actually seem to have a pretty great operation at the Futagawa-juku Honjin Museum. The exhibits are very nice, they publish a lot of good catalogs … The local museum at Tomonoura is perhaps similar, but even so their exhibits were still not as extensive as those at Futagawa.

I feel like it would be really great to get to know some of these museums, and their surrounding communities, a bit better. Someday. Somehow. At the very least, I do want to go back to Futagawa someday, if only to visit the small local history museum at the Arai sekisho (checkpoint) a couple train stops away, and Hamamatsu (Okitsu) and Sunpu (Shizuoka), where there are a few more Ryukyu-related sites to be seen.

For now, though, this past summer, I simply went back to Tokyo, finished up my business there, and then headed to Kyoto for the remainder of my summer sojourn.

All photos my own.

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In my last post, I talked about visiting the Yonashiro History Museum, where they had on display some Roman coins uncovered in archaeological excavations at Katsuren castle.

After leaving the museum, I made my way to the castle itself, but first had to go find some lunch. This was my first time up to that part of the island, and walking around that section of Uruma City, I don’t know if I just was in the wrong part of town, or if I should have turned left when I instead turned right, but the stretch of road I ended up walking on was just amazingly devoid of any kind of café or restaurant that looked inviting at all. The local Uruma City tourist guide pamphlet I picked up at the castle listed all kinds of wonderful-looking vegetarian cafés and ice cream shops… looked very appealing. But these guides expected you to have a car. And while I certainly could have just taken another bus (still for free), I thought I’d just grab something quick, nearby. I found lots of “snack” bars – which might be just a sleazy townie dive bar, or might be a front for more illicit activities – and a few super-run-down-looking cafés or diners (shokudô), but nothing that looked at all welcoming or appealing. Finally, finally, after walking many blocks, I settled on eating at a Hotto Motto, a chain store selling premade bento boxes. *smh* One of the few days I’m off-campus, and out in a different town, really having the potential to be on vacation (kind of) for a day, to experience a nice local restaurant and maybe try some different foods, and instead I end up at a Hotto Motto.

Anyway, it was an interesting and valuable experience to see this one more corner, one more bit, of the kaleidoscope that is the “real” Okinawa. Really makes me wonder what the experience of everyday life is like there, and what it’s like to grow up there. And just how much of Okinawa prefecture (or even just of Uruma City) looks like this. Certainly, riding on the bus, looking out the window, things didn’t look so different from one city to the next. As we drove up into Okinawa City (formerly Koza), and then Uruma, I definitely had a feeling of excitement at visiting a different part of the island that I hadn’t been to before, and genuinely retained that excitement even despite the fact that everything looked pretty much the same…

The castle site itself was quite interesting, when considered in comparison to Nakagusuku, another major World-Heritage-Site-designated gusuku ruin from the same period, which I had just visited a couple weeks earlier. I was surprised at how small Katsuren was. I don’t know how big it is in terms of square hectares or whatever, or how tall; I have no doubt that it was a sizable and imposing compound in its time. But, while it may have simply been a result of entering via a side gate instead of a main gate, or something like that, Nakagusuku felt as though one had to double-back numerous times in order to make sure one had explored the entire compound. There were a lot of different areas, to put it quite simply. At Katsuren, by contrast, one simply entered at the fourth enclosure (or kuruwa), and walked up some stairs to a small area that constituted the third enclosure, then up a few more steps to the second enclosure, then up a few more steps to the first enclosure, and that was it. Done. You’ve seen the whole castle. And, each of the individual enclosures was also much larger at Nakagusuku.

That said, Katsuren provides I think a more direct, clearer understanding of the structure of a “standard” or “classic” gusuku, both in terms of the experience of the actual site, and because of the very nice model on display in the rest station across the street (right). I’m quite curious to visit Nakijin castle, as that’s the one that seems to get most often cited as emblematic of the standard form. But, this is seen at Katsuren as well.

A small first enclosure was the innermost part of the castle, the most well-protected by virtue of its location atop the hill, surrounded on all sides by either the second enclosure, or steep drop-offs. This would have contained the castle’s treasure houses, and at least one major sacred site. The second enclosure, a bit lower down the hill but still very well protected, was larger, and contained the main administrative buildings and lord’s residence. A narrow set of stairs connected the first and second enclosures, hindering invaders. The third enclosure, by contrast, is separated from the second by a series of very accessible, wide, steps, connecting the palace buildings in the second enclosure to plaza areas in the third, which would have been used for ceremonies and perhaps for other more “public” court events.

Stone foundations suggest the shape and scale of the structures that once stood in the second enclosure.

The third enclosure also included a number of water cisterns, and sacred sites. Following the fall of the castle in 1458, the third enclosure came to be frequented by noro and other local priestesses, who transformed the space into their own – a space for offerings, prayers, and rituals. The third enclosure is the last (or, I suppose the first, depending on how we’re counting) to be well above ground level and to have access protected by twisting and narrow stairways. The fourth is the “ground floor,” so to speak, of the castle compound, a wide extensive area, albeit still surrounded with stone walls, and guarded by heavy wooden gates which are no longer extant today. It was in this area, somewhere, that the Roman and Ottoman coins were found. Sections just outside the fourth enclosure would have included rice paddies and other farmland and swampland; as signs on-site explain, this not only helped supply the castle with food, but also served as a further defense against invaders, who would have had to plod through deep, wet, muddy ground.

Interestingly, unlike many Japanese castles we might visit, most of which took their well-known “Japanese castle” forms towards the very end, or even after, the period of warfare (Sengoku period, 1467-1600), and thus never actually saw serious siege or attack, Katsuren absolutely did. With all of these structural, geographical defenses, one can only imagine how the battle actually went, as the forces of the Ryukyu Kingdom took the castle in 1458.

The main gate of Jingû-ji, as it appears from within the temple grounds, looking out.

After taking a second look around to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I called my visit to Katsuren done and successful. I then took the bus down to Futenma, so I could quickly pay a visit to Jingû-ji, the temple immediately next door to Futenma Shrine, which I missed when I went to visit the shrine. Not too much to say about the temple, I suppose. But, I do love and am still not tired of seeing the distinctive Okinawan architectural style – lighter wood than in mainland Japan, and the distinctive red roof tiles. When we remind ourselves that Ryukyu was once an independent kingdom, and we start to think not simply about regional variation within Japan, but about the ways in which different schools of Buddhism took on different forms in different places all across Asia – when we start to think of Okinawan architecture not as a variation within Japanese styles but as something to be compared against Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese styles, there’s something very interesting and powerful there, I think.

Anyway, with that checked off my list, I then started to make my way home, and ended up walking quite some ways, maybe about half the length of the main center of Ginowan Town, along the outsides of the fences of the Futenma Air Base. An interesting contrast with that one neighborhood near Katsuren – for all its problems, and I’m not saying Ginowan is the most happening and exciting city either, Ginowan felt more lively, more welcoming/appealing, and more upscale (though it would hard to not be more upscale than what I saw in Katsuren). Despite the length of the walk, it was surprisingly enjoyable, easy, and refreshing. I passed by lots of shops that looked kind of appealing… many of them quite clearly aimed at military folks as their market. Second-hand shops for clothes and for furniture (specifically American-style furniture), some nice-looking bars, some nice restaurants… closer to campus, further from the base, I found a cute little bakery with scones in all sorts of flavors (banana, green tea, earl grey). I’m really tempted, though it’s maybe a little embarrassing to admit, to try out the California-style Diner. Though maybe try to figure out some time to go when there’s no military around? Actually, that particular moment as I passed by that night, the place was empty…

And once I got my bike back – oh yeah, I locked my bike to a barrier on the side of the sidewalk in Ginowan all day while I rode the bus up to Katsuren. Thankfully, the police or someone didn’t confiscate it, and it was still right where I’d left it :) – I got my bike back, and was thinking of going to BookOff, but was already most of the way back to campus and didn’t feel like backtracking… but I found a great little soba shop on the side of the road! Sometimes you really can’t tell from the outside how nice a place might be on the inside. And by nice, to be clear, I don’t mean fancy – I just mean, it had a pleasant atmosphere. Brightly lit, colorfully decorated, with very friendly staff…

So, yeah, all in all, a rather successful day, I would say.

All photos my own.

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Life on campus hasn’t been entirely uneventful – to the contrary, there was the Ryudai-gakusai (University Festival). Tons of booths with student groups selling food, or running other sorts of activities, to raise money for their clubs. Plus, eisa!


Today was another busy day of adventures down in Naha/Shuri. After staying on campus and just doing readings and otherwise “working” for most of the week, I felt it was about time for some new adventures. Plus, I just moved dorms yesterday, and while the previous place was a little more like a hotel, with most basic amenities provided, the new place is rather lacking in just a few certain basic things, a few of which I could not seem to find for sale anywhere in the immediate vicinity immediately around campus. Now that I’ve explored a little further, I’ve found a supermarket, more convenience stores, a few large drug stores, a kaiten-zushi place, a “family restaurant” with a nice (if basic) variety of both Western/Italian and Japanese dishes, and quite a few ramen places. Even found a store that sells almost nothing but Magic: the Gathering cards. But trying to buy a basic cooking pot (saucepan) – let alone a frying pan, rice cooker, electric tea kettle, or used bicycle (in decent condition, for a reasonable price) – was proving rather unsuccessful.

I considered that I could go almost anywhere today, and so long as I made sure to hit a home goods store (to pick up a cooking pot at the very least), I’d be good. There’s a typhoon on the way – they say it has the potential to be really quite bad; I really hope it isn’t… – but if I do have to hunker down and just survive through a storm, I need a cooking pot. So long as I have water and gas, even if I don’t have power, I can have ramen, spaghetti, etc. So, I was thinking of maybe going to Futenma (to hit the temple I missed that’s right next door to the Futenma Shrine), and then making my way the relatively short distance from there to Nakagusuku, to see Nakagusuku castle, and the Nakamura House (one of a handful of serious historical house-type establishments on the island). A second possibility was to take a bus way up to Katsuren, check out Katsuren Castle, and also the small Yonagusuku local history museum where they’re currently displaying the Roman & Ottoman coins that have so made the news this past week. And just make sure that before I catch a bus back down towards campus that I hit up a home goods store. The third possibility was to go out to Urasoe, a city just a little ways west of here, and just north of Naha, where I could visit Urasoe Yodore – the graves of several of the kings not buried in the royal mausolea in Shuri – and whatever else might happen to be in the area. In the end, I decided to put all of these off to instead just go into Naha.

The torii for Sueyoshi Shrine, leading the way into Sueyoshi Public Park.

The regular public bus (#97) from campus happens to let off at Gibo, so that was plenty convenient, to just get off there and hike up towards Sueyoshi Park. First, I thought I’d go looking for the grave of Haneji Choshu, aka Sho Shoken, an 18th century Confucian reformer who is easily one of the most prominent figures in the kingdom’s history. The grave is supposedly right outside the park somewhere… I didn’t manage to find it on my last visit, and spoiler alert, I didn’t actually find it today either, though I was certainly a lot closer. Following Google Maps, walking up the small residential side street that runs roughly along the northeast side of the park, you’ll see a small path to the right, hemmed in by a fence, leading upwards away from the homes. There’s a sign about it being a wildlife area. This is the path to follow – if you stay on the streets, you’ll just hit a cul-de-sac / dead end. Follow this path up a little ways, until you find a whole group of stone tombs. Haneji Choshu’s tomb is supposed to be somewhere in here. At least according to Google Maps, if you keep going deeper into the unpaved, woodsy path, you’ve gone too far. Though maybe you do need to go that way; maybe it doubles back eventually or something. Or maybe the pin-drop from the one website I got it from was mistaken. I dunno. But I explored that one group of tombs – carefully and respectfully – and according to the pin-drop was in precisely the right place, but still didn’t find it. I dunno.

(Now that I’m on the computer writing this up, I’ve zoomed into the map further, and realized it looks like its a bit deeper in the woods – maybe one needs to enter through the gate I found closed along the path. But I’m certainly not going to open a closed gate – not going to risk entering private property; in any case, it does look like it’s a bit of a ways into the woods, not immediately among that group of tombs, so no wonder I didn’t find it. And I’m certainly not climbing through the underbrush – which may be full of deadly venomous snakes – just to find some historical site.)

I’m a little annoyed and disappointed, especially after walking all that way, but at the same time, if I had found it, then what? Just to have a picture of it, just to be able to include on this here blog post, and on the Samurai-Wiki, and so forth? I mean, I still really like the idea of having been to a place myself, to have my own photos, to not just be using whatever I find on the internet. But, at the end of the day, what difference does it really make? And most especially, if by chance I had encountered a habu (pit viper) in there, or gotten in some other kind of trouble, then even if I had found the tomb, would it have been worth it? I dunno, maybe I’m just getting over-cautious, over-worried, un-adventurous in my old age. In any case, I found a way out of the cemetery area out a different side, right into a residential neighborhood. For anyone looking to find Haneji Choshu’s tomb yourself, I would suggest you might have an easier time of it this way, rather than going up that slightly (just slightly) worrying side-path up and up and up alongside that fence… but, then again, I never did find the exact right tomb, so who am I to say which path is the best one?

The main hall of Sueyoshi Shrine.

Giving up on that matter, I moved on to the next task. Fortunately, this one turned out to be quite easy. The last time I came to Sueyoshi Park, I had a hell of a time finding Sueyoshi Shrine. The park overall is far more densely forested than most parks I’m used to, and involves lots of narrow winding paths that are, well, they’re certainly maintained to some extent – they’re not wild and overgrown – but they’re not nicely, cleanly, manicured or whatever either. And signs pointing around the park are fairly minimal; or at least, that was my experience, entering the park from the south and not realizing the shrine is all the way at the northern end. I just wandered and wandered, sometimes not even knowing what was and wasn’t an official path… and never did find the shrine. This time, though, today, after leaving the cemetery via that small residential neighborhood on the north side of the park, I simply walked along that quiet suburban street, until only a block or so later I found a gateway indicating the way towards Sueyoshi Shrine!!

Well, that was easy. Follow the path in away from the street, and up a few steps, and there’s a beautiful plain wooden torii (above), followed by a rather steep stairway (with a nice red metal handrail) leading down into the park, as if descending into a cave or something. But, at the bottom of the stairs, bam, more or less right there, suddenly, is the stonework of the bottom of the Shadan (“shrine platform”). Steps lead up from there to the main shrine buildings, and there you have it, Sueyoshi Shrine. I’m not sure how much of this is original, and how much is postwar reconstruction – I’ll have to read into it; I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the stonework is original, or repaired, and if the slightly run-down looking shrine office building were a prewar survival, I would be surprised, but I could certainly believe it. The main shrine building, though, looks far too nice to be pre-war. Then again, it could be, just repaired and restored and repainted. In any case, it’s a gorgeous building. Really impressive. I’m so glad to have finally found it. I’ve now been to seven of the “Eight Shrines of Ryukyu.” The only ones outside of Naha/Shuri are Futenma Shrine, which I visited in the last blog post, and Kin Shrine, way up in Kin Town, which will have to be a day trip of its own one of these days. I don’t know the full story behind who chose those eight or when or why, but it’s certainly interesting to me that Kin Shrine, of all the provincial (so to speak) villages and towns on the island, got chosen. Returning to Sueyoshi, I’m also a little unclear as to whether it’s considered an active shrine today – the shrine office was labeled as such, and seemed to have protective charms (omamori) and other things stocked… but, then, why were they not open? And the shrine building itself, looks quite nice, restored & repainted and whatever, and there’s also a donation box out in front – and a sign explaining procedures for worshippers. So it would seem active enough – but, then, why do the signs leading into the park from the street say 「跡」, meaning “ruins of” or “former site of” the shrine, rather than just saying “this way to Sueyoshi Shrine” (without the “ato”)? Maybe it’s that even with the building restored, the spirit is not considered to reside there anymore? Maybe there are actual physical objects of worship that were lost, destroyed, or relocated? Or maybe even without physical objects of worship, there had been some ceremony of relocating or disbanding the shrine? Whatever the case may be, it’s a truly beautiful sight. I definitely recommend you to go check it out if you’re visiting Naha.

I then left the shrine to make my way to Shuri Tônokura-chô, for an exhibit of artworks by professors at the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts. The exhibit closes next week already, so I’m glad I decided to go into Naha today, and caught it. Of course, they didn’t allow me to take any photos (*fist shake!*) but on the plus side, they did give out a nicely produced catalog of the exhibit for free, so that’s something? I still really would have preferred to take my own photos – I don’t know the precise ins and outs of copyright law, especially across Japan + US copyright law both, regarding posting my own photos online of someone else’s copyrighted work, but that’s still gotta be better, at least to some extent, than just scanning photos out of a catalog… Anyway, I wrote a comment card about it. (Also, see this great Tweet / post about photo policies at libraries/archives.)

I think I’ll write a whole separate post about this exhibit, but for now let me just say that I’m really looking forward to more engagement in future with local art events like this, by local artists, getting a sense of what’s really going on, right now. And maybe, just maybe, by the end of these six months, getting to be just regular enough an attendee at such things that some people might start to recognize me, to know me..

Leaving the University of the Arts, I decided to walk over to Omoromachi, seeking to stop at a home goods store which Google Maps said was along the way. Somehow it ended up being a much longer walk than it should have been – or at least it felt like it. Then again, a 30+ min walk maybe just feels that long…

The main hall of the Shuri Kannon-dô, aka Jigen-in.

But, along the way, I stumbled upon the Shuri Kannon-dô, a Buddhist temple I had seen on my first trip to Okinawa, some eight years ago, but which I decided to check out again. I don’t really remember that first time too well, but I feel like maybe I didn’t explore the grounds much at all (perhaps because it was raining) – as familiar as the gate looked, once inside nothing rang a bell. It’s a gorgeous little temple, clearly very well-maintained and/or recently restored. And while I don’t normally venture all the way inside, the doors were wide open and welcoming, so I went inside and actually saw the object of worship – the 1000-armed Kannon – and also bought a little protective charm (o-mamori) for safe travels.

This blog is named for the classical Ryukyuan song “Nubui kuduchi,” a song which tells of the journey from Ryukyu “up” (nobori, or nubui) to Kagoshima. The very first line of the song references exactly this temple, which is why it was particularly cool to visit. As the song says, 「旅の出立ちに、観音堂、千手観音。伏せ拝で、黄金尺取て、立ち別る」 (tabi nu njitachi ni, kwannun dou, shinti kwannun. Fushi wugadi, kugani shaku tuti, tachi wakaru). When departing on a journey, [first we visit] the Kannon Hall, the 1000-armed Kannon. And, while I have no doubt that the temple, and quite possibly the Kannon statue itself, were lost in the war, and that all of this is quite likely quite new, nevertheless, in name and in spirit it carries on as a rebuilding of that very same temple – the same one Ryukyuan scholar-aristocrats prayed at before leaving on their journeys to Kagoshima. I put my hands together, bowed my head, closed my eyes, and said a quick prayer to Kannon, for safety in my journeys here in Okinawa, and beyond, over the rest of the year.

I then finished walking to Omoromachi. I had been thinking of going to the Prefectural Museum to check out an exhibit on Okinawan “folk arts” (mingei), but I just wasn’t in the mood for more intense reading Japanese at this point.

The rest of the day was rather uneventful, so far as history & culture are concerned. I found my way to the home goods store, and bought a pot (saucepan), frying pan, and a couple of other things. My kitchen is now much more well-equipped. Although I did realize later that night I still have no napkins, paper towels, dish towels / hand towels, or a sponge. No sponge to wash dishes with. Idiot.

There’s a bit more to say – not much – but as this post is getting quite long already, I’ll post a continuation another day.

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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The 14th century graves of Shimazu Ujihisa (center), his daughter (left), and wife (right), at the Shimazu clan cemetery at Fukushô-ji, in Kagoshima.

Almost done with exams. So close I can smell it.

If you’ve been to Japan (or even if you haven’t), you’ve probably seen stone grave markers like this one. If you’re a nerd like me, you might have wondered something about them. What does the shape symbolize? How long ago did the Japanese start using them? How has the shape, or other aspects of their use, change over time? Despite the ubiquity of these grave markers – you can find them in just about every cemetery in Japan – and their distinctive aesthetic / sculptural form, in my experience, textbooks and classes on Japanese art and architecture typically skip over grave practices entirely. I have never yet been to China or Korea, but I am told that Japanese grave markers and burial practices otherwise are rather distinct from those on the continent… so you would think it would be something worth talking about.

One of the few things I did hear about these five-stage gorintô structures previously was that they are meant to represent the five elements. But, I’d always been confused as to which set of elements these were supposed to represent; if the five Chinese elements are wood, metal, fire, earth, and water, then how/why would this Japanese form feature such associations with earth, water, fire, wind, and void? Turns out the latter are the Indian five elements, adopted more directly into Japan from Sanskritic/Buddhist origins than the natively Chinese (Confucian? Taoist?) wǔ xíng. The form is also used as a tool for meditation, the five stages representing five portions of the human body, or of Dainichi (the Universal Buddha), associated with the elements. The folded legs are earth; the hara (abdomen/stomach) is water; the chest fire; the head air; and above that, void.

Fortunately, Prof. Hank Glassman of Haverford College gave a fascinating talk on the subject recently. As he explained, as recently as the Heian period, visiting graves was not a widespread custom, and graves generally were not even marked. Eiga monogatari, from the early 12th century, is among the earliest literary works describing a visit to a grave, yet here it is still limited to the top echelons of the elites, and the grave remains unmarked. A member of the Fujiwara clan seeks to visit his father’s grave, to tell of his promotions in title/post to his father, but worries he won’t be able to find the unmarked grave, which is also overgrown with weeds, since the custom of maintaining or cleaning graves was also not widespread yet; Glassman suggests the practice of maintaining, marking, and visiting graves may have become more standard in Japan along with the introduction of the Neo-Confucian teachings of Zhu Xi, which would have emphasized filial piety – obligations to one’s parents, and ancestors.

Sotoba at Negishi Cemetery in Yokohama.

The first stone gorintô grave markers are believed to have been based on wooden ones, a few of which survive, albeit only from later centuries. Even before that, however, the first gorintô were far smaller. They were reliquaries, as is the original essential idea of the stupa form. Some of the earliest such gorintô reliquaries date to the 1190s, and have been found in rock crystal or bronze, placed inside Buddhist statuary, as receptacles for holding relics of the Buddha, arhats, or other significant Buddhist figures. This form was then adopted onto carved flat wooden planks, carved only into the topmost sections of the plank; this evolved by the 12th century into the fully three-dimensional wooden form, and then the stone one, but still survives too in the wooden planks (sotoba) seen all the time at Japanese cemeteries today. These, we learned, are typically replaced at a given grave every day for the first week after burial, and then annually after that; Glassman spoke of the beauty and impressiveness of the monks’ skills at inscribing calligraphy, in both Chinese and Siddham, on these planks by brush.

A small gorintô atop the grave of Murasaki Shikibu in Kyoto (presumably a later addition, though I don’t know how much later).

It was only in the late 12th century that the custom of stone grave markers is thought to have been first imported from the continent, though adapted to a distinctly Japanese form (shape) of marker, already in use in wood. Even then, the practice was initially rather limited to the aristocracy, and to the most prominent of religious figures. The first gorintô grave markers are believed to have been carved and erected in Japan by a group of Chinese stonemasons invited from the continent to aid in the rebuilding of Tôdai-ji, which was destroyed in the Genpei War of the 1180s. Once the Tôdai-ji project was completed, for some reason these stonemasons remained in Japan rather than return home to China; this may have been because the journey was too difficult in some way, or too dangerous, though probably not because of expense, given that the Tôdai-ji project itself was extraordinarily expensive, including the shipping of many tons of stone from Suzhou to Nara, so surely the shogunate (or whomever) could afford to fund the return trip.

Let’s step back a moment. The Great Buddha Hall at Tôdai-ji, then and now the largest wooden building in the world1, and housing the largest bronze Buddha in the world at that time, if not today, was destroyed by warriors of the Taira clan in the 1181 Siege of Nara. Even before the end of the war in 1185, efforts to rebuild the great temple were begun. Hônen (1133-1212), founder of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, was asked to head up the project and apparently turned it down. One of Hônen’s direct disciples, Shunjôbô Chôgen (1121-1206), then took up the project, coordinating both the fundraising and the construction. It was Chôgen, who had previously spent time in China, who organized to have a group of stonemasons come from Ningbo, then known as Mingzhou, to help with the project. Glassman says we do not know just how Chôgen knew, or found, these stonemasons, but he conjectures that they may have been associated with temples Chôgen stayed/studied at in China.

Based on inscriptions on some of these stone markers, and other objects, we know that one of these Chinese stonemasons was named Yī Xíngmò (伊行末, I Gyômatsu or I Yukisue in Japanese), and that his son Yī Xíngjí (伊行吉, J: I Gyôkichi, or I Yukiyoshi) was active in Japan in the late 12th or early 13th century as well. Yī Xíngmò would have been fairly young at that time, and is believed to have been only a junior member of the team, perhaps even an apprentice, when he accompanied some number of master stonemasons to Japan in the 1180s; however, it is his name which comes down to us today, by virtue of inscriptions such as those on certain stone carvings at Hannya-ji in Nara, by his son Yī Xíngjí.

After arriving in Japan, the stonemasons determined that Japanese stone was too soft, and despite the incredible expense, Chôgen apparently managed to afford to have tons of stone imported from China. This comes as a particular surprise given the stories surrounding the fundraising efforts for the rebuilding of the temple. Monks traveled the provinces collecting donations, and in fact, a very famous and popular kabuki play, based on an earlier Noh play, features Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his companion Benkei pretending to be just such donations-collecting monks, traveling the provinces, as part of Yoshitsune’s efforts to escape from his brother’s men. Still, in any case, the stone was boated in, and two stone lions believed to have been made at that time by those Chinese stonemasons still survive today at Tôdai-ji. A group of four stone statues of the Deva Kings they are said to have produced at the same time do not survive, however. The stone lions are quite ornately decorated, with carved-on wreaths and sashes; in China, ornamentation on stone lions was restricted to Imperial tombs, but in Japan, such attitudes and policies were not in place, and further this was one of the greatest – and originally strongly Imperial-associated – Buddhist temples in the realm.

The graves of Katsu Kaishû and his wife, at Senzoku-ike Park in Tokyo.

Once the Tôdai-ji project was complete, it is believed that some of these stonemasons may have found work at Mt. Kôya, where some of the first gorintô stone grave markers would have been produced. Glassman says Mt. Kôya might represent the largest graveyard in the world; I have never been, but would love to visit. The earliest gorintô marked the graves of eminent monks, and of members of co-fraternities, not only in the Kyoto/Nara region and at Mt. Kôya, but rather broadly across the archipelago; the oldest extant stone gorintô inscribed with dates are located in such disparate regions as Hiraizumi, in the far north, and in Ôita prefecture, in Kyushu; both of these date to 1269.

Yi’s descendants went on to become well-established, with at least two major branches of gravestone-carving styles developing. The main branch of descendants and disciples, still called the “Yi school,” or I-ha (伊派) in Japanese, was based largely in Nara and Kyushu in the early medieval period, while another branch, the Ôkura-ha (大蔵派), became prominent in the Kantô (around Kamakura, and what would later become Edo, and then Tokyo).

All photos my own.
1. Or, at least, the largest wooden building constructed prior to the 1990s or so. According to Wikipedia, a baseball stadium in Akita, built in 1998, is larger. Boo.

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I still have a few posts to post about our “field trip” day, but for now, I think it about time that I skip ahead and post the following, which I wrote on my last evening in Okinawa this summer.

The main worship hall of Azato Hachimangû.

Monday, Sept 20. Okinawa.

Boy, today was incredible. After doing some laundry, packing my bags, and otherwise just coordinating things to get ready to fly out tomorrow, I poked over to Azato Hachimangû, one of the Eight Shrines of Ryukyu, which turns out to be quite close to my hotel. Had things gone a little differently, I might have actually seen three of the Eight Shrines today – and having already seen four on my previous trip to Okinawa, that would leave only the one, Kin Shrine way up in Kunigami. But, even having not seen those other two today, it’s okay.

Azato Hachiman Shrine was quite small, and just sort of tucked away in a residential neighborhood. So, my trip there was quite brief, just a sort of check it off the list sort of thing. By then it was already 10am or so, maybe later, I don’t remember, and I was trying to catch a bus at 12:23, so I knew I didn’t have too much time to do too much else. I had been thinking of going to the Okinawa Prefectural Library, to try to see if I could take a look at some original (primary source) documents, or to at least see what was on the shelves and get a sense of some books I didn’t previously know about, maybe make some photocopies. But even just walking there and back might have taken up the great majority of the time I had, and looking at books or documents could very easily take far more time than I had.

So, I decided instead to head over to Sueyoshi Park, to try to see Sueyoshi Shrine, another of the Eight Shrines. The park is fairly large, and situated right between Gibo and Shiritsubyôinmae stations on the monorail; what I didn’t know is that the park is actually quite mountainous, that there are very few signs or maps once you get into the park, and that the shrine is way over on the far side. Of course, if I had bothered looking closer at my map, or at Google Maps, rather than just heading out, I might have realized this. But, that’s the way it goes sometimes. I got into the park, and just sort of took a path, up, knowing that shrines tend to be located at the top of hills more typically than lower down, and basically just taking my chances. The staircase ended at a dirt path roughly cut through the greenery… I decided to check it out, and soon found a small stone sign, indicating the site of a princely tomb called Ginowan-udun – just a sign, along a forested path, with nothing else of any ruins or structures immediately visible. Cool, I thought. Nothing much to see here; clearly nothing much remaining of the site, but cool to know it was here. But I kept walking, and a stony path emerged, along with an old-looking stone wall. So we’re no longer walking on just pure dirt any more. And then, then, I see a much more serious-looking stone wall, and a set of stone steps leading up through the wall. Oh ho. What is this now? I turn the corner and get a better look, and – whoa. A very large traditional-style Ryukyuan “turtle back” tomb. Wow. I’m not sure the picture does it justice. To stand there, before this immense thing, so relatively intact and so hidden amongst the forest of this public park, just sitting there, hidden… well, it was quite a feeling. And I certainly would never have found this site except just by luck, as I did.

I then poked around a bit longer, in the hopes of finding Sueyoshi Shrine, but eventually had to just give up, as I found myself all the way over at another end of the park, and yet still completely the wrong side, having never come across so much as a sign or pointer towards the shrine.

I made it back to my hotel just in time, pretty much, to catch the bus. I had left a fair bit of time, but after walking the extra three or so blocks to the post office, waiting in line for the ATM, walking back to the general area of the bus stop, asking at a major hotel right in front of the bus stop about just where exactly the bus stop was, how to pay for or get on the bus, and whether or not I need a reservation, and finding them utterly uninformed, I ended up finding the bus stop on my own with literally something like 1 to 3 minutes to spare. Fortunately, the bus came ten minutes late. So, yes, by the way, if you’re ever in Okinawa, and looking to get to certain parts further north, the Yambaru Express Bus is actually a really easy and relatively inexpensive way to get to Kakazu (Ginowan), Nakagusuku (that is, the Nakagusuku bus stop on the side of the highway; I’m not sure about how convenient this is for getting to the castle), Nago, Motobu, Nakijin, and Unten Port (and to the aquarium, I’d imagine). It doesn’t run too often – today, if I had missed my 12:23 bus, the next would have been at 3:something PM; and on the way back, there were buses at 4:20ish, and 6:05, which was the last one for the day. Glad I got a ride back instead of having to deal with that. But, you don’t need any reservation, you just get on, take a ticket that shows where you got on, and then a display screen on the bus shows how much you need to pay for each exit. So, for example, when I got on, the ticket showed a number 4. Then, when I got off at Nakagusuku, the screen said “1: 500 yen, 2: 450 yen, 3: 430 yen, 4: 430 yen” or something like that, and so I paid my 430 yen, or however much it was. So you just drop the right number of coins, along with your ticket, in the collection box on your way off the bus. It’s a nice cushy tour bus style bus, and takes the highway, so it actually goes quite quick – got me to Nakagusuku in 20 minutes. Going all the way to Unten will take the better part of three hours, and as much as 2000 yen (approx. US$20), but, still, it’s good to know that it’s so relatively easily doable – renting a car to get around Okinawa is not as 100% required as I had been led to believe. Now, sure, 3 hours each way doesn’t make for a good day trip, so I don’t know about taking this bus just to go to the aquarium, all the way from Naha, but if you need to get to Unten to take a ferry to Izena or Iheya Island, where you’re going to stay overnight (I’m told you kind of have to, the ferries run that infrequently), it could be worth it. Or, just to get up there to then mosey around that part of the island for some time…

Anyway, returning to my story of today, I had met Garrett Kam, a fellow UH & EWC alumnus, the previous week, and Garrett, a dancer of traditional Javanese and Okinawan forms, had let me know about a kumi udui performance going on in Ginowan, at 2pm on Monday (“today,” the day I’m talking about).

Right: a poster for an April performance of Yukiharai at the National Theatre Okinawa. This was the same performance, by the same troupe/school, which I saw that day in September.

Kumi udui, to put it quite simply, is the chief traditional theatrical form of Ryukyu. It draws influences from Noh and Kabuki, and to someone more familiar with those forms, like myself, it definitely bears resemblances to both, and fits somewhere between the two, featuring bold colored costumes like kabuki, but also very slow, drawn-out chanted speech, and subtle movements, like Noh. It also has some connections with Chinese and Southeast Asian forms. I had seen kumi udui before on YouTube, but never in person, so this was very exciting.

Ginowan City Hall, right next door to the shimin kaikan (Community Center) where the performance was held.

I got to Ginowan about an hour early; less, really, once one takes into account the time it took to hike up into town from the Nakagusuku bus stop, which is right on the side of the highway, near a highway rest stop. Still, I had some time to spare, so I stopped into a local bookstore called Miyawaki Shoten (now that I look up the website, I realize it’s a national chain, not even based in Okinawa), thinking, oh I’ll just see what they might have. Turns out Miyawaki’s “local books” (read: Okinawan history, culture, etc.) section is quite good, including full runs of several series I’ve only seen bits and pieces of before (e.g. a series of short, popular history 1000 yen books on each of the kings of Ryukyu), as well as other books I’d never come across before at all. Resisting the urge to buy more than I could fit in my luggage, I ended up with just one thing, a thin volume of the magazine Momoto, focusing on sites in mainland Japan related to the Ryukyuan missions to Edo (how perfect, given my research topic!). Momoto seems a really excellent magazine – each issue is quite short, so without actually reading them I couldn’t actually say just how thorough or actually informative they might be, but on the surface, they do seem to cover a good range of topics, with issues on Shuri, on Naha, and on Reversion (in 1972), though some of the earlier issues focus more on Okinawan lifestyle and the kinds of things that don’t really pertain so much to my interests. But it’s a relatively new magazine, just a few years old, and on the surface (yes, I am judging books by their covers. What of it?), they at the very least have very nice design aesthetic to them, plus I’m just taken, so to speak, with the idea of such an Okinawa-specific magazine.

I had thought about exploring the town a bit more, maybe trying to see something of the outsides of the highly controversial Futenma Air Base, which is right there, occupying the center of the town, and thus was never more than a few blocks away from the places I was today; I was also thinking of trying to make my way to Futenma-gû, or Futenma Shrine, another of the Ryukyu Eight Shrines. But, time was pressing, so I skipped all of that and just made my way to the Ginowan Shimin Kaikan (which they translate as Civic Hall, though it really means something more like “citizens’ meeting hall). Turns out it was not a public or publicly accessible performance, but rather a performance in conjunction with the annual meeting of the pension “friends” group of the Ginowan branch of a Japanese Agricultural Coops organization (JAおきなわ・宜野湾支店 年金友の会), or something like that.

Not really understanding what was going on, I went in and explained I didn’t have a ticket, and asked if I could buy one, and to my surprise, the fellow asked me immediately, “Garrett-san?” “Ah, no. Garrett-san’s friend,” I answered, and before I knew it I had been taken to the actors’ dressing room (!!). I spoke with them very briefly, and got to take some pictures and watch them put on hair and makeup, as they very kindly and generously allowed me to just sit there and watch as I waited for Garrett. I suppose I should have taken greater advantage of this, to stay longer and see more of the process (and get more pictures) – as it is, I only have pictures of some earlier / middle stage of the process, which is still super cool; I can’t imagine I’ll ever see such a thing backstage at Kabuki-za, for example. But I don’t have pictures of any later stages, or indeed of the costumes at all, since I presumed there were no photos allowed during the performance. Sadly, since it was this weird special private event, there are also no posters, flyers, or websites about the performance to keep to help remember it, nor to share with you.

So, I went outside to wait for Garrett, and he eventually came, and he was then invited backstage again, to say hello to the Sensei, who he had met some years before. I managed to tag along.

The show itself was interesting, and quite enjoyable, though considerably lower energy than Kabuki can be – in this respect, it’s not so much “entertaining” in a direct way, but rather something you appreciate, or try to appreciate, as a cultural expression, as a practice/performance of a traditional form. The story, a new interpretation of a relatively traditional story, was at its core about a young woman whose mother has passed away and whose father has gone off on official business. Her evil stepmother, very much in Cinderella-like fashion, forces the girl to do difficult household chores, in the snow, without an outer kimono (i.e. it’s quite cold). Why there’s cold and snow in a Ryukyuan play, beats me. But, she eventually collapses due to cold and exhaustion, sees the ghost of her mother, and is then found, collapsed, by her brother, and then by her father. I may be missing a few bits, but basically, in the end, the father gets upset with the stepmother, and makes to kill her, but is stopped by the children, and they all make up (somehow) and become a happier family, the end. The chanting and movements were quite slow, highly stylized, and minimalist, like in Noh, but of course quite different in style, coming out of distinctly Okinawan traditions, and being chanted in Okinawan language (Uchinaaguchi). The costumes, though, unlike in Noh, were brightly colored, and quite beautiful. The young woman wore a white bingata robe, covered in multi-colored patterns, and under it, a red underrobe, while other characters wore similarly bold costumes. The musical ensemble – sanshin, kutu, drum, and I think maybe a few other instruments, played classical (koten) Okinawan music as I am familiar with, though no specific pieces with which I am familiar. … I’m not sure what else to say about the piece exactly. I am quite glad to have gotten to see it, and certainly look forward to seeing more kumi udui in the future. At first go, it’s certainly not as captivating as Kabuki can be, but then, it was only on my Xth time seeing Noh that I first had a real sort of “experience” with it, having/gaining a certain insight, a certain appreciation, that I hadn’t appreciated before. So, maybe after seeing kumi udui a few more times…

A video of Garrett’s “Okijawa Hi Sigh” dance piece, combining Javanese and Okinawan elements. Thanks for filming & sharing this video to YouTube user angeline158.

Garrett’s friends Chiyo and Yuko-san then gave me a ride, driving us all to Okinawa University of the Arts (Okinawa Geidai), where Garrett shared one of his fusion Javanese-Okinawan (“Okijawa”) dances with the gamelan circle. I was quite thrilled to get to come along, having passed by but never actually been inside Okinawa Geidai campus, and more to the point, having heard – years ago – of the Okinawa Geidai gamelan group, which takes advantage of the musical similarities between Javanese and Okinawan musical forms, scales, and such, to play Okinawan music on the Javanese instruments. I don’t really know why, or how to express it, but ever since hearing about this, I just wanted to visit and meet this group, and perhaps even play with them, so badly. And today I got my chance. And not only that, but somehow I’d had an impression that this was a very serious group – this is Japan after all, and an arts university – and that any interactions with them I might ever have might be highly formal, and sort of exclusive – like trying to talk to them after a performance and them being, understandably really, too important and too busy to care what some random white guy grad student wants to say. Maybe I’m dragging this out too long, making too much of it. But, in any case, in the end, today at least, with the gamelan circle (a student club, not a formal class), it was just about as laid-back, friendly, and welcoming as could be. After Garrett shared his dance, we practiced trying to play that song a few times, and I actually got into it, despite having not played gamelan for several years; I’m no good at it, of course, but so long as you’re just repeating over and over, it’s not so hard to get into the pattern, and that’s where it becomes wonderfully meditative and kind of relaxing, as you just play 3, 2, 3, rest, 7, 5, 7, rest, 7, 3, 2, 3, …. going through X sets of four notes each, at a regular pace, and then repeating the whole X sets, around and around, as it gets a bit faster, and a bit slower, again and again, until finally coming to an end.

The Okinawa University of the Arts gamelan group performing a Tanabata concert, July 2014. The piece I’ve cued up here is a version of the classic Okinawan folk song Asadoya Yunta, performed as you can see on a combination of Okinawan sanshin and Javanese gamelan.

These are the kinds of adventures/experiences I dream(ed) of when I think about continuing my involvement in academia. To get to meet and speak with someone like Garrett Kam, who’s doing such exciting fusion work, and who is so knowledgeable and thoughtful about multiple cultures and about their co-mingling; to get to go backstage at a kumi udui performance at the Ginowan Shimin Kaikan of all places; to get to hang out and even practice with the Okinawa Geidai gamelan group… as I’m not as directly, explicitly, involved in the arts as some people are, who knows if these kinds of experiences or opportunities will come as frequently or as easily as they might otherwise, but here’s hoping that they do continue to come. In particular, if the Okigeidai gamelan group is indeed as laidback and welcoming as they were today, here’s hoping that if/when I find myself in Okinawa for a more serious length of time sometime, that I might be able to join them more regularly, practicing together, and just building networks and friendships, and some sense of actual belonging & involvement at such a place as Okinawa Geidai… what a thing that would be.

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It’s been more than six months since I meant to write this post… where last I left off, I’d just visited the three old samurai houses along Kaburaki-kôji, and it was still early in the day. Of course, since it’s been six months, sadly, I can no longer remember exactly what route I took, or how I was feeling, over the course of the day.

To summarize, then, I wandered around the town, which is wonderfully walkable, and checked out a whole bunch of Buddhist temples. I’d picked up a few tourist guide pamphlets and maps at the museum, which list 27 sites across town. Looking at the pamphlets again right now, I realize I missed the Sakura Old Samurai Town Museum of History and Folklore altogether. Drat. But, I did manage to make it to quite a few of the temples. It’s hard to tell from the tourist pamphlets which temples are going to be particularly beautiful, or which might be hiding some great historical significance. So, why not check them all out?

The main hall at Daishô-in.

The first stop was Daishô-in, which is located along the same street as the samurai houses. The home to two of Sakura’s “Seven Lucky Gods” – Daikokuten and Hotei – Daishô-in is also the site of the grave of Hosokawa Tadayoshi, a famous Sakura swordsmith.

Above: The Sakura Shinmachi O-hayashikan. Below: Hiyodori-zaka.

After making my way down Hiyodori-zaka, a small bamboo-lined walking path said to be (more or less) still in the same form it was in the Edo period, I made my way to the center of town, passing by quite a number of old homes dating to the Edo or Meiji periods, and the Tsukamoto Sword Museum, which is closed on weekends, and which I was thus never able to visit. I found my way to the Sakura Shinmachi Ohayashikan, where locals practice folk dances and the like for annual festivals, thinking that I might rent a bicycle, to get around town faster. There are several places in town that one can rent a bike, and it’s a wonderfully convenient thing that they offer it. However, I was advised by the kind woman manning the desk there that it wouldn’t really be worth it, logistically, for me, since bikes had to be returned by 4pm, and returned to one of several places nowhere near the guest house I was staying at (in other words, I’d have to return the bike and then walk halfway across town to get home). Besides, she assured me, the town is really quite walkable – and, dear readers, having now done it, exploring more or less everything there is to see in Sakura, on foot, I’d have to say I agree.

Noticing that quite a few of the temples on the map were quite close together, all along one small side street, I headed off in that direction. And, incidentally, I should mention, Sakura does an excellent job of having signs pointing towards the major historical sites in town. As you walk around the town, you’re constantly coming upon signs with arrows, “Jindaiji 300 m [this way]”, “Juntendo Memorial Hall, 1km [that way],” “Makata Shrine, right here” [point point]. It’s really quite nice, especially as many of the temples are hidden down back streets.

The main hall at Jindai-ji, originally built in 1726, but at a different temple, being moved here only in 1961.

Sôen-ji, home to the grave of Juntendô founder & Rangaku scholar Satô Taizen, was my next stop. It is also the Jurôjin shrine on the circuit of the Sakura Seven Lucky Gods. Sadly, I did not get to see the grave, but Jindai-ji, right across the street, would more than make up for that. Jindai-ji is the patron family temple, or ”bodaiji”, of the Hotta clan, who ruled Sakura from 1746 until the abolition of the domains in 1871. The temple itself is quite nice, with a main hall (hondô) with striking vermillion accents. But, the real key attraction, and I’d say for any fan of samurai history, perhaps the top historical attraction in the city outside of the National History Museum, is the Hotta clan graveyard, which contains the graves of all the Hotta clan daimyô of Sakura, including Hotta Masatoshi (1634-1684, rôjû under Ietsuna and Tairô under Tsunayoshi), Hotta Masayoshi (1810-1864, the chief shogunate official involved in negotiating and signing the Harris Treaty), and Hotta Masatomo (1851-1911, the last daimyô of Sakura, who built the Hotta clan mansion maintained on the outskirts of town). I’ve seen a couple of other clan graveyards – the chief one that comes to mind is that of the Hosokawa at Kôtô-in in Kyoto – but this is the first one I’ve seen where you can really sort of walk around in it.

Not that it’s all that huge – took me no more than five or ten minutes to see the whole thing, including taking pictures and such. It’s also an interesting space in that the temple itself isn’t that large, and is kind of next door, so to speak, so the clan graveyard really doesn’t feel contained within a temple grounds, so much as just sort of, there, along a small suburban street. I suppose, now that I look at my photos again, there is a wall around the cemetery, and gates that can be closed. But, even so, the approach from the street isn’t particularly marked at all – it feels more like entering an empty lot than it does a temple or historical site. Not that I’m complaining – this kind of variety only makes it more interesting. Imagine if all temples & historical sites looked the same.. it’d drain all the enjoyment out of it.

Above: The squat, plain main hall at Shôrin-ji. Right: The “Sakura daibutsu,” at Kyôan-ji.

Shôrin-ji, constructed under the patronage of prominent early Edo period figure Doi Toshikatsu, contains small memorial towers (kuyôtô) dedicated to Toshikatsu, his parents, and his wife, as well as the oldest wooden building in the city. Kairin-ji, meanwhile, is the patron temple of the Chiba clan, though I’m not sure there are actually any proper graves of famous Chiba lords to be found there. Another small temple in town, Kyôan-ji, is known for its large bronze Jizô, also known as the Sakura Daibutsu, despite not being nearly the size of the more famous Daibutsu in Kamakura, or that in Nara.

In wrapping up this post, I suppose I ought to say something about travel tips or the like, rather than just listing off places I saw. Generally, I’m a fan of just wandering around, taking in the atmosphere of the city, and seeing what you run into. I guess that’s the New Yorker in me. But, while that works well in Manhattan, and in a city like Kyoto which is about as dense as they get in historical sites on nearly every corner, in a place like Sakura, or for that matter, Naha, or almost anywhere else you might go, I do think that having a map is a huge help. Especially if, like myself, you do not have a full smartphone data plan in Japan, and thus cannot call upon the internet and Google Maps to help you find your way around.

Even when I was in Kyoto, though, and was in full-on roaming mode, I still usually had a specific destination in mind; and then, on the way to that destination, whether you get lost or find it quickly, you’ll find other things along the way. In Sakura, there were not necessarily all that many historical sites or the like of true interest along the way, but, in the process of traipsing around looking for temples, I did get to see quite a few back streets, residential neighborhoods, and to really get a nice feeling for the town, a bit more than if I’d stuck to the main streets and more exclusively to the bigger-name sites. And there really is something interesting and enjoyable about simply seeing the range of style of houses, the range of layouts of streets (gee, I wonder what it would be like to live on this tiny street, or on this major street, or up on that hill, or next door to this temple). Sakura also has an interesting variety of styles of temple gates – it might just be that I visited so many in one day, but it truly did strike me, how some temples had simply two stone pillars framing the entrance to the space, some had more elaborate roofed wooden gates, and some no gates at all; Myôryû-ji even has a pair of ornately carved white pillars topped with lion-dogs, one of which has sadly, however, toppled over. The temple buildings themselves are also quite varied, in a calm, simple sort of way.

Since I did visit so many in one day, and since each was so small, with very little to take notice of, or to set them apart, beyond simply the style of the buildings, I guess it helped focus me in on noticing the variety. I can’t quite figure out how to put it into words… of course temples have great variety – if you go around Kyoto, you’ll see some incredibly, wildly different buildings. But, in Sakura, none of the buildings are, to be honest, all that especially striking, and in a way, this makes the variety more… what am I trying to say? I guess, the great famous monuments of Kyoto will certainly give you a crash course in many of the most iconic buildings in Japanese history, but, Sakura gives me a sense of seeing a more standard, typical, variety of architecture such as would have (and, obviously, still does) exist in any average typical Japanese city. Kyoto, Nara, certain other cities, you know are going to have a rather special feel, because of their very special histories. But, in Sakura, the temples – their main halls, their gates – alongside old homes and shops from the Edo & Meiji periods, and more modern structures, come together to provide a real atmosphere of a “typical” (though I don’t know how typical it truly is) small Japanese city.

In my next Sakura post, I’ll talk about the Juntendô, and the Hotta clan mansion.

All photos my own.

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