Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

The Istanbul skyline, with the 15th c. Galata Tower in the center.

I decided to do just a little traveling before returning to the US from Japan. This was my first time in Turkey, and wrote a first draft of the following:

For these whole five or six days in Istanbul, I’ve been mulling over what my impressions of the city are. Is Istanbul a European city? Or an Asian/Middle Eastern city? A secular city, or a fairly orthodox/religious theocratic city where I need to be concerned about accidentally offending? A relatively free and safe city, or should I be worried about the recent coup, protests, and creeping authoritarianism? Further, thinking historically, should I be looking around and thinking about the medieval/early modern Ottoman city? the Byzantine Eastern Roman one? late 19th or early 20th century Ottoman modernity? There are certainly plenty of buildings and monuments from across history to remind us of each of these periods, each of these aesthetics.

Sadly, there was some sort of conservation work going on in the Hagia Sophia when we visited, and half of it was off-limits.

The Roman and Eastern Roman is seen everywhere, well, at least in the historical/tourist center of the city, the Sultanahmet area. The Hagia Sophia was of course originally built by the Romans, and is full of Eastern Roman mosaics and so forth. The area immediately outside the Hagia Sophia was, in fact, a Roman hippodrome, an area for racing horses, and it contains several Egyptian obelisks erected there by the Romans.

Then there is the Ottoman side of things, with tons of mosques, and all sorts of other elements and aspects. All over the city, we saw shops that date back to Ottoman times, and bits and pieces here and there of historical sites or markers or other things suggesting the history of the Ottomans as one of the world’s great empires, engaged in diplomatic interactions with the Great Powers of the rest of the world. A fountain associated with Kaiser Wilhelm, located in that former hippodrome, is just one of many such sites. I’m told there’s some Japanese building somewhere in the city as well, though I haven’t come across it.

The Kılıç Ali Pasha mosque, designed/built in the 1580s by Mimar Sinan, who also designed the Suleiman Mosque and hundreds of other famous structures across Turkey and beyond.

The Ottoman aspect of the city also connects in to the maritime, Mediterranean, aspect. A major mosque we keep passing (as it’s right by one of the main tram stations) is named after Kilic Ali Pasha, a 16th century admiral of the Ottoman navy who was originally from Italy and converted to Islam. The Galata Tower, one of the most iconic sights in the city, was built by the Genoese and while I’m not truly expert at architectural history, it did indeed strike me as Italian from the very beginning. I don’t know all that much, actually, about the history of the Ottoman navy, and its involvement in Renaissance/Early Modern history, but I do know that it’s a very defining feature of the Ottoman faction in the board game Here I Stand, which takes place in the Reformation era.

We see, too, numerous restaurants and other elements and aspects here and there throughout the city relating to the immediate post-revolution period, in the 1920s. Again, I’m no expert at Turkish history, and I wish I knew better, but just on the surface, this very “modern,” European (yet distinctly Turkish) aesthetic, with the fezes, mustaches, fancy formal dress, and salon-like decor, has a real appeal. One night, we went to a “tavern,” or meyhane, where live music was playing, and while this place wasn’t explicitly marked or marketed as being 1920s style, there were some old photographs on the walls, and there was a certain something to the decor. Other restaurants we went to, or simply passed by, were explicitly labeled as Istanbul 1923, or Istanbul 1924, and one restaurant in Istiklal Street (one of the main shopping/tourist areas of the city) is explicitly marketed as being designed to recreate that 1924 atmosphere.

Baylan, a nearly 100-year-old café/bakery on the Asian side (near Kadıköy), long owned by Greeks, and located in a neighborhood where there had once been a strong Armenian community.

Finally, there is the contemporary situation. We didn’t see or sense any major political problems or tensions while we were here, thankfully. No protests, no riots, no crackdowns. Despite what you might hear about Turkey in the news – and believe me, I am sorely sad and worried about that country, and Ergodan’s ever-increasingly dictatorial and theocratic regime – we did have a fantastic time, and I never felt especially unsafe, nor even all that worried about the authorities. That said, we stayed fairly close to Taksim Square – where major protests took place just a few years ago – and both there and elsewhere we saw some fairly intimidating police or military presences.

I also enjoyed learning a little about – and meeting some members of – the lively Jewish community there. Jews have lived happily and peacefully in Turkey (for the most part, or, to some extent) since the 1490s or so, when Ferdinand & Isabella expelled the Jews of Spain, and the Ottoman Sultan reportedly was happy to take them in. While many Turkish Jews have moved to Israel, the US, or elsewhere in recent years, those we spoke to say they are quite happy, and feel safe; they tried to disavow us of the notion that Turkey was a particularly dangerous or anti-Semitic place to be at all.

The Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul.

I was glad to hear this. Still, there were notable protests outside of one of the city’s main synagogues just a couple months ago, which included the throwing of rocks, and violent threats against Jews trying to get into the building. This synagogue, Neve Shalom (“Oasis of Peace”), was attacked in 1986 by the founder of Fatah, who murdered 22 people who had gone there to pray. The synagogue was attacked again in 1992, by Hezbollah, and again in 2003, when simultaneous car bombs went off outside Neve Shalom and another synagogue in the city, killing some 23 people. I’ve seen pretty serious security precautions taken at synagogues in London and Tokyo as well. But, still, there is enough of a Jewish community that there remain quite a few active synagogues in the city, which in photos online look gorgeous (we didn’t get a chance to visit any, since they require prior reservation, and some sort of screening process – I’ve been told that even Ashkenazi Jews like myself are not so trusted, not let in as easily as Sephardim). The city is also home to several Jewish music groups, two Jewish newspapers, and so on and so forth. And, they’re not entirely unknown – regular people here seem to have some sense about Turkish Jewry: one, in terms of people saying we look Jewish, and either based solely on our looks or on that we said we speak a little Spanish, they then assume we’re Jewish. One small music group at a small “live house” café even burst into a Turkish fasil-style rendition of Hava Nagila for us! Plus, when we went to the Grand Bazaar, we found lots of tchotchkes, necklaces, etc. being sold with Stars of David, Hebrew writing, or other Jewish elements.


One of the fasil live music bars we went to: Abbas, on Nevizade Sk.

The Armenian history is of course another thing, too. Everywhere around there are Armenian churches, or other churches formerly used by the Armenians – and some of these have some serious security precautions like the synagogues. There are of course no historical plaques or anything put up by the city or the state talking about the Armenian Genocide (though we did see a plaque talking about it at an Armenian church in Jaffa), but if you know even the tiniest bit about it, you can imagine, fill in the gaps. My girlfriend also told me about certain events, massacres, in certain neighborhoods in the 1890s, as we walked through those neighborhoods. I don’t know anything about the current contemporary situation in terms of attitudes towards Armenians, or how well they get by in society, but, it’s definitely a history that’s hidden, yet very much present, if you have it in mind.

Some lovely fresh produce for sale in Nevizade Sk.

For all it’s problems – and we all know the US and Japan have their problems too – Istanbul is a very modern, cosmopolitan, urban, in some ways very European city – really feels cosmopolitan, feels like a “world city” (like New York, London, or Tokyo) with just so much going on – but then of course it’s also non-Western in many ways, first and foremost I suppose because of its Muslim and not Catholic or Protestant religious character – to a certain extent, Istanbul was the very city (or, the Ottoman Empire the very country) against which “the West” or “Westernness” was constructed and defined, even going all the way back to the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, which were considered “byzantine” and “Oriental”, and were not considered part of the “true” or “main” or “catholic” Roman or Christian heritage.

The music was wonderful, and the food as well. I never understood my girlfriend’s obsession with borek until I came here. I could eat borek every day. And I so wish that we had this more regularly in the States.

In the food and music, as well as in the architecture and history, we see too the many cultural influences that come together in Istanbul. Turkish, Arab, Jewish, Balkan, Circassian (Black Sea/Russian) cultures… all these different cultures, different cultural influences, that for all our talk about “diversity,” we just don’t see/hear/learn that much about in the US.

Omg, borek. So yum. Above: Su böregi (water börek) with cheese and spinach. Below: Chopping up börek in a shop. (Photos from Instanbul Free Walking Tour.com and Panning the Globe blogs.)

All photos (except the börek) my own.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

The main tower keep of Fukuyama castle.

Finally, we decided to say goodbye to Tomo, and so long as we were in the area, maybe try to visit the Hiroshima Prefecture History Museum, in Fukuyama City. Sadly, we didn’t get there before they closed for the day; another thing to add to my list to see next time. But, we did get to see Fukuyama Castle, which was quite special. Admittedly, not really all that different from other castles I’ve visited – in fact, the exhibits inside the main tower keep (tenshu) reminded me very much of my visit to Hiroshima castle some 14 years ago. If we were allowed to take photos, or if I had the time and energy to take notes, one could perhaps learn a lot about the Abe clan lords of Fukuyama. But, for me, the key thing about visiting the castle was just simply that it’s another Japanese castle I might never have thought I’d ever visit. I still have never been to Kumamoto, Himeiji, Matsumoto, or some of the other really famous castles, but I have been to castles in a number of major cities that I’ve visited: Edo castle (Tokyo), Nijô and Fushimi castles (Kyoto), Hiroshima, Kanazawa, Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Odawara… To add Fukuyama is just really unexpected, and neat. Plus, they had a statue of Abe Masahiro, who I needed a picture of for the Samurai Archives Wiki.

Finally, on my final day in Hiroshima, we again remained in Kure City proper, and paid a visit to the City Central Library. I was surprised and disappointed to find there was no research section – no open stacks of books about Kure or the broader local region. Sure, they had books in the basement, which I could request, and actually the librarians were quite helpful, in bringing up large piles of books on closely related topics, that they hoped or supposed might be useful. But, still, it would have been nice to just have shelves I could browse. Granted, I suppose this is a city library and not a prefectural library, but, every prefectural library I’ve been to has had a more general public area, and then a researchers’ area, with browseable open stacks. In any case, I did manage to get scans of a few publications I might not have been able to find elsewhere – but nothing too special, actually. What would have been particularly nice would have been if I could have gotten access to modern-typeset transcriptions of the Mitarai monjo (“Documents of Mitarai [Port Town]”). But, since I didn’t have an appointment or anything, I guess I shouldn’t have expected too much. Well, maybe next time I head out to Hiroshima, I’ll make a better effort to contact people ahead of time, and make appointments to look at documents.

And… wow. Well, that’s about it. Thus, my Hiroshima adventures came to an end.

Mmm Okonomiyaki.

Read Full Post »

The famous iconic lighthouse of Tomo.

The next day, we made the two-hour or so drive to Tomonoura, another one of these Inland Sea port towns. Tomo is one of the more famous ones, around the country, whether simply as a tourist destination, or for its role as the inspiration for Ponyo Ponyo. Apparently, a number of live-action films have also been filmed there, including Logan and Gintama, using the town’s traditional architecture for backdrop.

Our first stop within Tomo was Komatsu-dera, a small Buddhist temple where a member of the 1790 Ryukyuan mission, Yoseyama peechin Shô Dôkyô, was buried.

Right: The stone marking the former gravesite of Yoseyama peechin Shô Dôkyô, at Komatsu-dera.

Traveling to Edo as a musician at the young age of 22, he fell ill aboard ship, and died on 1790/10/13. He was, sadly, one of a few tens of Ryukyuans to die over the course of the missions. Later missions made a point to visit the graves of such individuals, to pay their respects. The body has since been removed to Okinawa, but a stone marker still stands at the temple today marking the former site of his grave. Further, a wooden plaque still hangs inside the temple’s main hall, inscribed by Yoseyama’s grandfather. It was really something to see these things, these artifacts, which I had been reading about for so long.

Plaque (hengaku) inscribed by Yoseyama’s grandfather Fukuyama Chôki, reading 「容顔如見」 (roughly, “his face appears before me”), and still hanging inside the main hall at Komatsu-dera.

Sadly, the family who used to live on-site and manage the temple no longer do. Whether the temple has no caretakers at all, or what, I am not sure, but it seems a terrible shame. I imagine that a great many temples all across the country are sadly in similar circumstances. On the plus side, this meant we could let ourselves in, and take photos of the plaque, without anyone saying no (and without fear of anyone overhearing us being there, and watching, or coming out to tell us to leave or anything). But, I just fear for the continued wellbeing of places like these – the temple itself as a historical site, the wooden plaque as an artifact…

View out over the town and harbor, from the former site of Tomo castle. Now, the site of the Tomonoura History Museum.

Walking through the small streets of Tomo, many of them lined with traditional-style buildings, cute shops, and so forth, we trekked up a hill in the center of town to the former site of Tomo castle. Through the Edo period, this did not function as a true castle – there was no daimyo here – but it did house the residence and offices of the Tomo Magistrate (Tomo bugyô), an official appointed by the daimyo of Fukuyama to oversee the town, and especially matters of trade and travel, who was coming in and out of the port. Today, there is basically nothing at all left of the castle, but the local history museum stands on the site.

I was annoyed to once again find myself in a local museum that doesn’t allow you to take photos. And they don’t publish a catalog either of the permanent exhibits – so the only option is to painstakingly write down everything on the labels, and commit to memory the images of what the museum looks like, how it’s arranged, what the individual objects look like… I hate it. But, still, it was cool to get to visit, to learn something about the history of the town. My friend got into a really lengthy conversation with the curators, and was lucky to have them offer to give her a copy of one of their exhibit catalogs – an especially rare book that can’t be found in any used book stores, and which I’ve been sorely looking for myself. Oh well. Maybe next time, I’ll go by myself, and they’ll be impressed over again by how knowledgeable and interested this random foreigner is, and they’ll give me a copy of the book.

I feel like most of the documents they hold at the Tomo museum I have already seen in reproduction or transcription, so there’s not necessarily too much need to try to set up a real appointment to see the originals. But still it might have been nice. Maybe next time. I did get some good notes from the gallery labels – learned just a few more points to fill in a few more small holes in my work.

One of many beautiful traditional-style shopfronts in the streets of Tomo, with a sign reading “Homeishu.”

We then headed back down into town. Tomonoura, like Mitarai, has lots of quaint, small walkable streets of traditional machiya-style shopfronts, perhaps even moreso than Mitarai, and it’s just nice to walk around. We found one shop selling tai-miso – that is, miso paste made from sea bream (fish) instead of from soybeans or whatever. Weird. But a very traditional way of running the shop, with a sort of showroom in the main front space, and no shelves to just walk among. Customers walk in and sit on benches, while the staff person sits on a raised tatami-lined section of the floor. A very few samples are placed out on display, and in order to buy anything, you engage with the shopkeeper, who offers you tea and samples of the miso, and you really talk to her and try out the goods, before deciding what you want. Some of the equipment they were using – such as the rotary landline telephone – were also quite old, like stepping back into the Shôwa period, if not quite into the Edo. And, incredibly, she said she left her husband and children back in (I forget where, Tokyo? Osaka?) to come down here to Tomo to work. Presumably she visits every weekend, or something like that. What a job, what a career, to choose to focus on like that!

The interior of the above shop.

Tomo is also famous for its homeishu (lit. “protecting life wine”) – a liquor brewed with tons of spices, that’s supposedly supposed to be good for your health. Reminds me of how Coca-Cola and certain other soft drinks were marketed at first. Homeishu goes back hundreds of years, and the Dutch, Ryukyuans, Koreans, as well as various daimyo put in orders to be able to take bottles with them when they passed through Tomo. The Nakamura family, who used to be one of the most famous, most prominent purveyors of homeishu, are no longer in business. But I bought some homeishu from another shop – here’s hoping it’s “authentic”, whatever that means, with some real connection to historical recipes, and not just some tourist garbage.

Many of the key historical sites in Tomo are clustered around the harbor, where the land sort of comes to a point, or a spit, with an iconic, famous, large stone lantern at the end. It was really something to see this after reading about it, and seeing it in pictures, so many times. Mitarai and Kamagari have this too.

One of the main streets of Tomo, with the Ôta family house on the left, and Chôsôtei on the right.

My main number one destination in mind was the old Nakamura family house, now known as the Ôta family house. A nationally-designated Important Cultural Property, the house, along with the Chôsôtei building across the street, served as the honjin or chaya, one of the main elite lodgings for the port town, in the Edo period. I don’t know precisely what we would have seen had we gone inside, how revelatory it would have been – likely not all that much – but, this is where the Ryukyuans would have stayed when they stayed in Tomo. Depending on how it’s done up, how the displays are done, we might have gotten to see a real sense of what their accommodations looked like, and how they were arranged, which could be quite nice for my dissertation. Sadly, however, they’re closed on Tuesdays. (grrrr) We of course should have looked into that earlier, and prepared properly for it, but, still, I was *super* bummed. If not for the typhoon, our schedule might have played out differently, and we might have ended up in Tomo a different day. Of course, if it were a Monday, the Ôta house would have been open, and the history museum closed. And, apparently, for some reason, the Chôsôtei is never open to the public. So, whatever. I’ll just have to go back another time, and prepare more properly that time – scheduling out which days they’re open, and also emailing or calling ahead to see about the possibility of getting special access to the other building, or to documents, or something.

Incidentally, I’m not sure if it’s the exact same Ôta family house, but somewhere right in this area, is where seven Kyoto court nobles came and stayed for some time in Tomo, in 1863, after being expelled from Kyoto for plotting against the Shogunate (and the Court). Other buildings very nearby right around Tomo’s port area are associated with the ever-present Sakamoto Ryôma, who accidentally crashed his ship, the Iroha-maru, into a Kishû Tokugawa vessel, in the waters off Tomo in 1867, and who then stayed in Tomo for a time while negotiating for reparations. Or something. I have little patience for Ryôma – so over-lionized, so over-discussed, as if he’s some incredible legendary hero. He’s a historical figure like any other, who said and did and was involved in some really important or interesting things – but as an individual, as a figure, I just don’t subscribe to that form of history fandom.

The view out from the Taichôrô at Fukuzen-ji, a view that one Korean envoy called the most beautiful view in all of Japan.

Making our way around the harbor to another part of town, we visited the Buddhist temple Fukuzen-ji, famous for its Taichôrô (“Tower Facing the Tides”), a guestroom explicitly constructed as such, to welcome and host elite figures such as Korean envoys. Here, we saw a gorgeous view of the Inland Sea, which one Korean envoy back in 1711 described as the most beautiful scenery in all of Japan. And we also got to see some displays about the Korean missions – mostly news clippings, photocopies from textbooks, print-outs of copies from museum catalogs, that sort of thing, along with some genuine artifacts from the temple. I suppose the Korean envoys were housed right in that room – I could see that being the case. Large tatami room, just throw down some futon, bring in some small lacquer tables or whatever… not sure what I’d expect an elite guestroom to look like, to be honest. But that was about it – I might have liked to see a bit more about exactly how they were housed, but, no such luck.

Still, it was some comfort, after not being able to get into the Ôta family house, to at least be able to see this space, and all the displays there.

Tomo was the last of the port towns we visited. I had considered trying to visit others to the west (e.g. Tsuwaji and Kaminoseki), or to the east (Onomichi, Murotsu, Kobe, Osaka), but it just didn’t happen this time. Still, the adventure wasn’t over quite yet. In my next post, the last in this series, I’ll talk a little about Fukuyama castle, and my last day in Hiroshima.

All photos my own.

Read Full Post »

The port of Mitarai, as seen in a c. 1904 photograph, on display at the Wakaebisu-ya in Mitarai.

After a bit of a drive from Shimo-Kamagari, past sea shores and mountains of lemon & mikan, we arrived in the old port town of Mitarai. Even more so than Kamagari, Mitarai is fitted out as a tourist town – with a welcome center, tourist walking maps posted here and there, traditional-style inns, and so forth.

Walking through narrow streets of traditional homes, we made our way to the Buddhist temple Manshû-ji. Surrounded by high stone walls, it seems like a fairly major site, but once you get inside, there’s actually not much there. Looks abandoned, even. But, hanging over one small secondary worship hall we found what we were looking for – a wooden plaque, reading simply the name of the temple, Manshû-ji, but written in the handwriting of a Ryukyuan ambassador, Tôma peechin Ryô Kôchi, from 1806. The Japanese poet Kurita Chodô, who arranged for the plaque to be made, is buried at Manshûji, but we weren’t able to go looking for his grave – the graveyard areas of the temple were blocked off-limits, and very little was well-maintained at all (high grasses, no path).

A wooden plaque hanging at the Buddhist temple Manshû-ji, copying the calligraphy of Ryukyuan scholar-aristocrat Tôma peechin Ryô Kôchi.

The small hall at Manshû-ji over which the plaque hangs. I thought it kind of incredible that the plaque is still kept there, in this place of honor, rather than having made its way to some storehouse or museum. While I worry about the conservation issues, it’s also wonderful to see it in context, in its “correct” historical place.

We then took a set of steps down back into town, into what I suppose is the main touristy/historical stretch. A renovated 100-year-old building converted into a hip youth hostel, a former inn for Ryukyuans and others associated with the Shimazu now operating as an art gallery, and so forth. The Shiomachi (“Waiting for Tides”) Visitors’ Center doubles as a café, specializing in shave ice, and similarly has this sort of young, youth hip travelers’ sort of vibe.

One of the old buildings in the area, the Waka-ebisu-ya, was once an Edo period brothel. Many of these ports presumably had their share of “courtesans,” or “women of pleasure,” to cater to the various elites + merchants who came through, but we saw no mention or evidence of this in the other towns. By contrast, Mitarai is somewhat famous for having that history, and indeed Amy Stanley devotes a chapter to Mitarai in her excellent book on Edo period prostitution, Selling Women. I find it a little hard to believe, but according to some things I read, it seems like as much as 1/5 of the town’s population at times were courtesans. The building is maintained today seemingly as just an open space, presumably used by the community for various community events and activities – I noticed several mikoshi (portable shrines, for use in local festivals) and other such things stored atop a small stage, or in the backstage area. The space is otherwise just open and bare, albeit with a number of photographs and framed copies of documents or the like hung on the walls, explaining the history of the brothel and of the town.

I’m glad Prof. Stanley suggested taking only one day to visit Mitarai – there’s not that much to see. But it’s definitely a cute, fun town. A nice place for a day trip, just to walk along the streets sided with traditional architecture…

The Shiomachi-kan Visitors’ Center / Shave Ice Cafe.

That night, we went into Hiroshima City proper, for the Lantern Floating Ceremony, the last of the major memorial events of the day. I’m not even sure what to say about this. It was quite a change of mood, and mode, to go from thinking about early modern port towns, and inns and merchants and traditional architecture, to this site of modern, international, war remembrance. I don’t know how many thousands and thousands and thousands of people were gathered in the Hiroshima Peace Park that night. We waited on a line that snaked around and around and around, far longer than we’d imagined possible, to wait for our turn to lay our paper lanterns in the river, sending messages of peace and of memory, to speak to the spirits of the dead.

A small group of Okinawan high school students were there, interviewing people – Japanese and foreigners alike – as to their thoughts and feelings about “peace,” and teaching them about the Battle of Okinawa. This was my second time in Hiroshima – my second time being there on Aug 6 – and my first time experiencing or taking part in any of the memorial events. I am glad, as a Japan specialist, and as an American, and just as a human being, to take part, to witness it, and to be able to say that I’ve done so.

A 1/10th size scale model of the battleship Yamato, at the Yamato Museum in Kure.

The next day, a typhoon hit (though it was actually not nearly as bad as expected), and so we stayed close to “home,” and spent the day in Kure City proper. In the Edo period, Kure was just a grouping of small villages – obviously, every place has its history, I won’t say those villages have no history, but, insofar as looking around for any notable historical sites or anything, as far as that sort of thing goes, Kure’s history begins, basically, in the Meiji period, the late 19th century, when it became a major center for the Imperial Japanese Navy.

We visited the Yamato Museuma museum dedicated to the naval history of Kure, and especially to the story of the Battleship Yamato, one of the heaviest battleships ever built, which was built here, in Kure. The berths where it was built are visible just outside the museum.

I’ve never been that much of a military buff, and I don’t know quite that much about military history… the museum was an interesting combination of military buff sort of history, and a sad story about the lives lost when the Yamato was sunk – and the impacts upon families, and the city, back home. I didn’t read things closely enough to be able to really comment on precisely how the museum addresses the issues of militarism and imperialism; there’s certainly an interesting conversation to be had about how we memorialize those killed in battle – who did die, and who did have families, and who were the core of the community of this city – who deserve, arguably, to be remembered sympathetically, but then again, who died in service to imperialism and ultra-nationalism and so forth. I’m not expert at such things, but a friend who is, says this is one of the best museums in that respect – sometime I’ll have to maybe ask him for more detail on what he means there.

A sailor’s notes, recording his thoughts regarding the Yamato’s Okinawa mission.

What I thought most interesting in the museum was a section discussing the Yamato’s dispatch out to its final mission. As Allied troops began to shell the island of Okinawa, and to make landings, the Yamato was sent to contribute to fending the Allies off – and the plan was going to involve an extensive use of kamikaze tactics, both in planes and in “human torpedoes.” The Yamato, ultimately, was sunk on its way to Okinawa, never arriving and never taking part in that battle. But what would be really interesting would be to read through the letters and diaries of people aboard the Yamato, talking about their thoughts as they head to Okinawa. How do they talk about going there to “defend Okinawa” or “defend the Okinawan people”? It would certainly be interesting as texture for the broader narrative within Okinawan history that the Japanese government and Imperial Japanese military “sacrificed” Okinawa to protect the mainland, and didn’t actually care about protecting the Okinawan people – trying to convince them to sacrifice themselves nobly and gloriously in the name of the Emperor, rather than making proper efforts to save anyone’s lives…

The Naval Shipyards at Kure. I believe that much of what we’re seeing here is civilian/commercial use today, but the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces uses a considerable portion of land and harbor just to the right of that.

After the Yamato Museum, we went up to a hill overlooking the harbor, and could see all the naval construction & repair facilities, and a bit of the Maritime Self-Defense Forces base… A lot of the prewar brick architecture – warehouses, and the main command headquarters – still survive today. Definitely lends to the flavor of the city, given that in so many Japanese cities the prewar buildings generally don’t survive.

I’m definitely glad for the opportunity to visit Kure, a city I can’t imagine I would ever have visited otherwise, and to see this other corner of Japanese history. A city so centered around the navy, and with so many prewar red brick buildings surviving, reflecting the feel and atmosphere of that particular period…

Red brick warehouses in Kure.

All photos my own.

Read Full Post »

The view from the Kanchôrô (“Tide Viewing Tower”) in Kamagari.

After much delay, I finally in my second-to-last week in Japan took a bus down to Hiroshima and visited some of the small Inland Sea port towns that envoys from the Ryukyu Kingdom passed through on their way to and from Edo (the seat of the Tokugawa shogun).

This was my second time in Hiroshima, having visited very briefly once way back in 2003. At that time, I spent just one day seeing all the most major sights – the Peace Park, the Peace Memorial Museum, the castle – and another day on Miyajima. This time, I would skip Hiroshima City almost entirely, and spend several days in Kure City, and in some small island port towns today administered as part of Kure and Fukuyama cities.

It was really something to get out and visit these towns after reading about them, and thinking about visiting, for so long. It was really something just to get out of Tokyo – I hadn’t realized it, but actually the entire year, while I did get around Okinawa a fair bit, actually I hadn’t gone anywhere at all the entire year outside of Okinawa and Tokyo (and just a very little bit of Yokohama and Chiba, which don’t really count). This whole notion of having “a whole year” and that I might visit Kyoto and Osaka, and Kagoshima and Fukuoka, and Sendai, and Toyohashi, none of that came to pass. But I did at least make it out to Hiroshima.

When embassies from the Korean court arrived at Kamagari, they were received quite warmly, with red carpets laid down along the harbor’s main walking paths, allowing the Koreans to travel all the way to their lodgings without setting foot on the dirt roads. Model on display at the Gochisô Ichibankan museum.

In the Edo period (1600-1868), diplomatic missions from the Ryukyu Kingdom, passing through the Inland Sea on their way to Edo, stopped at Inland Sea port towns such as Tsuwaji, Kamagari, Mitarai, Tomonoura, and Onomochi, as did missions from Korea and the Dutch East India Company, and other traveling elites – such as Imperial envoys and provincial lords (daimyo). These towns are super small and provincial today, subsisting as far as I can imagine on just tourism, fishing, and I guess some very small-scale workshop/factory sort of operations. Back in the Edo period, too, these weren’t very large towns. But they were significant, notable, and in a number of these towns, historic buildings or entire historic sections, have been maintained or restored.

It’s always wonderful to get out and see another part of Japan. I really wish I had done more of this. See a different side of things. Driving around Hiroshima prefecture, we saw roadside highway rest stops – something you don’t see if you’re always just flying or taking the train – and what sort of local goods and products they have. Hiroshima Carp (baseball) merchandise. Setouchi lemon flavored everything. Andersen – a Danish-themed, Hiroshima-based, bakery chain. Not to mention the souvenirs (omiyage). Momiji manju (little red bean cakes in the shape of maple leaves) are a major Hiroshima thing, apparently.

The gangi stone steps at Kamagari.

But, returning to the port towns. I arrived on August 6, the second time I’ve gone to Hiroshima and it accidentally turned out to be the anniversary of the bombing. We had planned to spend the day in Hiroshima City, therefore, and see some of the memorial/anniversary events. But, as there was a typhoon expected the following day, we instead headed out straight-ahead, to Shimo-Kamagari.

Strangely, Kamagari didn’t come up as much in my reading as much as some of the other towns – in fact, it wasn’t on my radar at all. But I am so glad we went. At what I suppose we could call the center of town, a set of stone steps (gangi 雁木) extend up out of the water – this, in place of wooden docks. And immediately across the street, the former honjin (special inn for visiting elites), today operating as a small art museum. A man was standing in the parking lot, working on a brightly-colored traditional-looking wooden rowboat, and when we asked him about the boat, it turned out he’s a volunteer tour guide in the town, and he kindly took of his time to really show us around. As he explained, the town would prepare for welcoming Korean missions by erecting temporary wooden piers extending out over the water, and red carpets would be laid down all along the main walking paths, so that when the Koreans came, they could walk on these red carpets – never touching the dirt – all the way from the boats to the lodgings. The gentleman, whose name was Funada-san, then took us down a short walking path running past the honjin, and then a left and a right, and up a short set of stairs, to where the ue-no-chaya, or “upper teahouse,” used to stand. Along with the honjin and the “lower teahouse”, this was one of the chief lodgings for Korean, Ryukyuan, and other visiting elites. Today, a stone marker stands on the spot, saying simply “former site of the lodgings for the Korean missions,” as if Ryukyuans and others never stayed there? He then also showed us a nearby Buddhist temple, and Shinto shrine.

I could have read this in a book – that the Koreans were welcomed in such a fashion. And maybe the book might have even had maps or diagrams. But actually seeing it in person, and being shown around, was really another level. This was the only time during the week that we really got such a tour, but still it was really great to have my friend there to initiate conversation with people, ask things, and get such a response – I wonder whether I would have asked, or not, and what sort of response I might have gotten; whether he would have given me a tour had I been alone.

One of the main museum buildings at the Shôtôen, which used to serve as lodgings for foreign embassies.

The two of us then made our way to the Shôtôen and Gochisô Ichibankan (Shôtô Gardens and Reception Number One Hall), another set of reception halls, located just a short ways down the shore, which are today maintained as museums. Sadly, we ran out of time and didn’t get to see the whole thing, but we saw the most important part: the museum of the Korean embassies. The rest of the buildings were mostly pottery displays and so forth. One whole building of lanterns, supposedly, though I didn’t get to see that. But, on the second floor, which we did get to see, the Kanchôrô, or “Tide-Watching Tower,” a small space for just sitting and enjoying the view – a gorgeous view of the Inland Sea, as the tides flow in and out, and of one of the other islands just across the way.

The Korean embassies museum was small, but pretty good. They spend a disproportionate amount of space and attention on the food served to the embassies, and nearly no time on the aspects of “reception” I’d be more interested in: banners, curtains, processions, further details about these red carpets and so forth; not to mention the comparative information on how the Ryukyuan missions were received by contrast. But, so it goes. Sadly, they didn’t allow photos inside the museum, so I could only do what little I could do to read some of the labels and jot down some notes. But, it’s a nice museum. A few procession scrolls on display, including one really interesting one of Korean boats passing through the Inland Sea – an interesting slightly sketchy sort of painting style, perhaps a local or amateur painter, quite skilled but not professional, sketching rather than truly fully illustrating out the procession in a finished-looking way. And there was a model of the reception, with the honjin and the red carpets and little dolls of the Korean envoys marching into the town, as well as a larger model of their ship.

Opening section of a 1748 handscroll painting depicting the Korean missions as they sailed through the Inland Sea. Collection of the Gochisô Ichibankan, in Kamagari.

It was starting to rain, and it was already getting a little late in the day, so we hopped back in the car and headed to Mitarai, another notable port town two or three islands over. More on that in the next blog post.

All photos my own.

Read Full Post »

Eisa performance at Ryûdai Campus Festival (daigakusai).

I’ve been in Tokyo for just over two months now, and I’ve suddenly this week found myself thinking about my life in Okinawa. While I was there, it felt (of course) so totally immediate and real, but now that I’m gone, only two months later, and even after being there for nearly a full six months, the whole thing feels like a dream, or like another life. This happens every time I go from one place to another, so I should be used to it by now, but I’m still not. Who am I? Am I the person I was in Okinawa? Am I the person I am now, here in Tokyo? I *love* my life here in Tokyo, though I sort of dreaded it and knew that in a lot of ways I didn’t want to let go of my life in Okinawa. And I look forward eagerly to spending time in Okinawa again, sometime, but still it feels like a dream, like another life. Getting the Prefectural Museum newsletter in the mail made it feel more real, and also more distant, at the same time. Every new exhibit, every new event, in Okinawa, that I wish I were there on-island for…

Tôdai’s famous Yasuda Auditorium.

I dunno. It’s weird. As I’m writing this, more and more comes back to my memory, and in a certain way it feels real again, in a very normal sort of way – not necessarily like an adventure, an incredible experience of some other world, but like, yes, a place that I lived. The café, the university library, the dorm room. Real and yet unreal. I dunno.

At the Okinawa Prefectural Art Museum.

Part of me feels like I should be able to just hop on a bus and go there again, to the bookstore, to the museum, to Kokusai-dôri, just like I did for months. But then I have to remind myself that not only is that a whole plane flight away, but that I most likely will not be going back at all for at least a year, maybe two or three.

And now my life here in Tokyo feels so real. And I don’t want it to end. I’ve been so fortunate in my life to come here so many times, and also to stay here for so long this time. And I know I’ll be back, and it’ll be wonderful all over again. But it’ll never be the same as it was this time. And that’s an odd feeling, too, because what do I really have here in Tokyo, other than the general greatness of this city (which I’ll have the next time and the next time)? I have affiliation with the Shiryôhensanjo, which is fucking amazing – getting to take out books from about half the places on Tôdai campus, and getting to walk the stacks at the Hensanjo and take books out and bring them back to my office where I can scan them or whatever rather than having to pay for expensive copies. And I have this really nice apartment. I mean, it’s not the most lavish amazing wonderful place ever, and I feel weird actually to like any apartment so much (plus, I learned that it’s actually not all that inexpensive for the area) – but, really, it’s just such a nice place. Everything is basically brand new (or at least extremely well-maintained), from the hardwood floors to the totally not moldy or creepy at all shower/toilet room, to the desk and the A/C-slash-heater. It’s not a super big place, but it’s more than big enough for my needs, and close enough to campus, and all of those good things… and I’m going to be sad to have to say goodbye to it. And, since it’s a visiting researcher dorm, I don’t know whether to say that makes it easier, or harder, to think about getting to live here again, in the future… What do I really have that makes this time so special, so desirable to hold onto, to continue or to repeat? The Hensanjo, and the apartment, yes, but the city will be here next time, too, and whichever neighborhood I end up living in, will be a new and pleasant experience in its own way.

I wrote up all of the above in the spur of the moment, as I was thinking about it, and left it kind of incomplete. Coming back to it now to add links and pictures and just a little bit of editing, I find I’m really not sure what more to say, or how to conclude. But, I guess it’s just something that’s going to continue to be on my mind, in different variations, as I continue my time here in Tokyo, and after it comes to an end in August. It’s such a privilege and such a pleasure to get to spend so much time in these two cities. Like everywhere I’ve been, I know that each different stay has a very different feel, a different energy to it. It’ll never be the same again, and there’s something very sad about that. And, as I said at the beginning of this post, no matter how real, firm, and concrete, life in Okinawa (or Tokyo or Hawaiʻi or anywhere) might feel at the time, it always inevitably turns to a mirage, a dream, a vague memory. Photos are great, and I’ll keep taking far more of them than I know what to do with; but looking at photos will never be the same as actually being there. I look at photos, and often I remember what else I did that day, or what brought me there, or other associated/affiliated thoughts, but rarely do I remember how I felt that day, or what it really felt like to be there in that place. But, what are you going to do? Shôgannai, as they say in Japanese. We have to just enjoy ourselves while we can, and keep moving forward, and just make peace with the fact that life goes on. It’ll never be everything you might dream it will be, and it’ll never be the same as it was before, but it’ll be good, in whatever new and different ways it will be. Just have to take it as it comes.

Another beautiful, sunny day in Naha, looking out over the city from the monorail station.

All photos my own.

Read Full Post »

Six Months in Okinawa

Sunset over Senbaru Pond, on the Ryûdai campus.

I have been very fortunate to be a Japan Foundation Fellow this year, generously granted an 11-month fellowship to come to Japan to continue my dissertation research. While most people spend such fellowship years in a single place, I decided to split my time between Okinawa and Tokyo. The first half is now coming to an end.

I feel like I’m leaving Okinawa just as I’ve finally started to get to feel really situated and comfortable here. Which isn’t to say that I’ve only just first started to learn my way around the library, or that I’ve only just first found a good café to work at, or certain various other things. I have been using the library, and working in local cafés, and making use of the cafeteria and school convenience store, and I have been attending seminar. And I already knew my way around the monorail and the basic layout of Naha, and of various museums, shopping centers, and key districts, to a considerable extent from previous trips. But it’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve first started attending a kuzushiji (manuscript documents) reading group that I never knew about until just now, and it’s in these last few weeks that I’ve felt more comfortable than ever with many of the grad students and undergrads in the Ryukyu History circles here on campus. It’s in these last few weeks that (in part because of the impetus inspired by knowing I’m leaving soon) I’ve started making more serious and intensive use of several of the museums, libraries, and archives on the island that I previously had only sort of dabbled in and left for investigating more seriously later.

I’ve finally started to feel I’m recognized, or known, as a semi-regular, or at least a repeat customer, at a handful of local establishments in Naha. I’ve gotten to know my way around the maze-like corridors of the Heiwa-dôri covered market district – and become familiar with a great many of the individual shops – to a far greater extent than ever before, though I imagine I will never completely stop getting lost. I’ve been taken around to more parts of the island, and more specific individual historic sites than I might have ever imagined I’d get to see yet.

As I prepare to leave, I realize I’ve only studied at the Kokusai-dôri Starbucks twice, and never at the one at Naha Main Place, and while I don’t mean to be some cheerleader for multi-national mega-corporation Starbucks, in actual practical truth, I do find it a rather productive environment to work in – perhaps some of my most relaxed, enjoyable, and productive work times these last six months have taken place in a Starbuck’s. And I’ve only just first gotten introduced to this and that restaurant (I’m thinking in particular of a Nago soba diner I was just very recently introduced to), and to the realization that the highway express bus actually isn’t that much more expensive than taking the regular bus to the monorail, though I suppose that works chiefly only if one is going all the way to the airport, and not just into town.

There are, admittedly, a handful of restaurants I’ve now been to enough times – chiefly by way of going there with friends or family when they’ve been visiting from out of town – that I feel I’ve pretty much gotten my experience of them; that I’m satisfied with how often I’ve visited. But, even so, nevertheless, to have gotten to know them so well, and to now not be going back for years, most likely, perhaps ever, is a weird feeling. To have finally learned which places I really like, and would want to introduce others to, over and over again (it’s new to them), and to have finally gotten to be recognized and welcomed back by the owners, is a pretty great feeling – and to not be living here more permanently to take advantage of that new achievement, is a shame.

On Ryûdai campus.

Perhaps most significantly, most importantly, I feel I am leaving just as I’m being told more openly, more freely, about more seminars, classes, events, that I now won’t be able to attend because I’m leaving. And, as I prepare to leave, I realize I’m not sure I ever got nearly as much of a deep or strong sense of the Okinawan perspective – whether scholarly or more personal/general – as I had hoped. Further, I never did develop any sort of regular pattern of working closely with any of the professors at all. I’m quite grateful for all that Tomiyama-sensei, Asô-sensei, Higa Etsuko-sensei and others have done for me, but compared to students who have been here for years (even though, yes, I know it’s an unfair comparison), I really don’t think I could even say word one about Tomiyama-sensei’s perspective, his particular teachings, his particular attitude or guidance or views on any of this. Should not one come out of a research year having gained some stronger sense of the overall field, the various perspectives and disagreements within the field, from the perspective of the particular professor you worked under or the particular research group or department you worked in? … But, I suppose this last one is really primarily my own fault, for not reaching out more, for not more directly, more avidly, seeking such engagement. Besides, while I do regret this and feel bad for it and see it as a real loss, at least, on the positive side, I still have a whole next five months in Tokyo. So, if I never quite got the perspective of Tomiyama’s “Ryukyu shi” research group, at least I can hopefully absorb something of the perspectives of that of Watanabe Miki or other Tokyo-based sensei.

Research, academia, is about people. And there are some great people here. I really regret not getting to know some of them better.

Tomiyama-sensei, when it does come out, when it does come through, seems like a pretty wonderful guy. He says History is not just about sitting in a room looking at documents – it’s an outdoor activity, it’s about walking, seeing, looking, listening, as well as eating and drinking. Experiencing history. I love it. I really wish I had gotten over myself – gotten over being intimidated by the idea of trying to talk to an important and busy sensei; gotten over my worries about doing it the right way, politely, according to proper Japanese modes of etiquette and respect, and just gotten over it and talked to him more. Akamine-sensei, is basically the same situation. I came here explicitly to work with these giants of the field, and they are nice people, not inapproachable I don’t think to their own minds, though I do feel somewhat reassured that several US-based professors have now told me they had similar intimidation experiences, and difficulties, at my age – that it’s normal and not something to worry about, and that I’ll get more out of those relationships later, over the years.

One of his more senior grad students, Maeda-san, has been wonderful to me, inviting me along to lots of seminar-group dinners and parties, and just chatting and talking with me, making me feel included, making me feel like I’ve really made a friend.

Some of the other grads and undergrads, including Higa Yoshiyuki, Uchima Yasurô, I don’t feel I know as well, and Heshikiya, Sakiyama Takuma, and half a dozen others whose names I don’t even know, all seem like pretty cool people. Genuinely, truly, I regret not getting to know them better. And it felt so warm, so great, to have them say they remember me, at all, after meeting them only a handful of times over these six months, and that they’re eager to meet again sometime. I mean, maybe that’s just the polite thing to say, but I think maybe they really meant it. And I genuinely look forward to maybe seeing some of them again someday. I’ll be honest, even if we do run into one another, it may be difficult to realize it – to actually remember one another – especially since I’m not FB friends with any of them, or otherwise in some more ongoing contact; but, here’s hoping.

Watching these profs & grads at work, there’s a wonderful feeling of these people recovering the history of their people, and sharing it both with their own people, and with the world. Makes me feel like my work is noble, in a sense, as I contribute in my own tiny, humble, peripheral way to bringing this people, their history, and their culture, to the attention of the world. To make it known, to make it appreciated. (And just to be clear, I am very conscious of the pitfalls of white savior syndrome, and Orientalist tropes and so forth, and am constantly trying my best to be wary to avoid them. I don’t see myself as doing this for them, or even that I’m doing anything truly original in terms of my research, that would result in me making up my own version of what Okinawa is, or what Okinawa means – that would be the very essence of what Said calls “Orientalism” – rather, I genuinely do see myself as simply working out of what local native Okinawan scholars like Tomiyama and Akamine have said, and bringing their perspectives and understandings of their own history back to my English-language community.)

A plane passing overhead as we watch sabani (traditional sailing canoe) races at Itoman.

Anyway, I suppose this is inevitable. No matter when you leave, you’re going to think it too soon. I was in Hawaii for three years, and as I left I felt then too that I was only just then starting to really get into a new phase of being more settled, more situated, more comfortable there. A new phase of knowing the city and the campus and the people even better than ever before. And, looking back on these last six months in Okinawa, while I do have my regrets, I am kind of amazed too to realize just how much I’ve accomplished. I’ve scanned or photocopied an incredible amount of documents, and with luck (fingers crossed) by the time I actually leave for Tokyo I will have photographed pretty much all the museum objects (paintings, etc.) currently on my list. (Which isn’t to say of course that this is anywhere nearly all the documents I might ever ever want to look at, but only those I happen to know about as of right now, and happen to have in my sights at the moment. But, it’s more than enough at the moment.)

And, oh my god have I visited so many more historical sites than I ever thought I would – not that that’s essential to the research at all, but I count it as valuable towards experiencing Okinawa, and being able to tell others – friends, students, colleagues, professors – about places I’ve been, things I’ve seen, things I’ve learned, about Okinawa more broadly, beyond my specific research topic; this is essential to my more general growth as the resident Okinawa expert in almost any room I expect I’ll most of the time ever be in. Plus, not just historical sites and such, but streets, markets, shops, restaurants. In some respects, of course, I remain very much a newbie, but in other respects I am so much more knowledgeable about the city (Naha) than I have ever been before.

The Naha skyline as seen from one of the monorail stations.

But, you know, it’s funny. When I first started thinking about drafting this post, many weeks ago, before I ever actually set down a single word on the virtual page, I had all kinds of ideas for this post in terms of how to talk about Okinawa, how I’ve learned to see it differently. How I’m going to miss the particular energy, the particular pattern of life here, when I go to Tokyo. And I didn’t write any of it down because I felt it so strongly at that time and felt I’d surely still remember exactly what I wanted to say. But, of course, as always happens, I don’t remember. … At least not quite as clearly, quite as strongly. But, there are certainly elements.

One, I’m going to miss being in the place where Okinawa is the chief central thing, and not something marginal or just partial. Both in terms of the Okinawan life, culture, everything going on all around (by definition), by virtue of the fact that this is Okinawa, but also in terms of the people around me all being Okinawa specialists. In Tokyo, my Okinawan history may be appreciated and recognized as interesting and as a valid part of Japanese Studies (putting aside the political issue of the ways in which Okinawa is not just a part of Japan, but that’s really a matter for another time) – it won’t be as marginal as it is back home in the US – but even so, I’ll be in the minority again, surrounded by a whole different culture, a whole different energy, both within the research institute and out on the streets of Tokyo more generally. And that sort of connects into my next point, which is closely related to what I’ve been saying in many of the preceding paragraphs – as an Okinawa specialist, anything and everything I do in Okinawa is part of deepening my experience and specialist expertise in Okinawan knowledge/experience. Whereas in Tokyo, you’re deepening your familiarity with something entirely different.

Plus, there’s something to be said for just the feeling of being in that special place. I don’t know how to articulate it, really. It goes beyond the very practical matter of personal professional networking, in terms of getting to know the very people who will be useful to me in the future – it goes beyond that to something else, that I should be at *the* University of the Ryukyus, studying with *the* students of *the* University of the Ryukyus. I can study kuzushiji, for example, almost anywhere, but even truly putting aside completely the matter of what little I might learn of actual historical content by practicing on Ryukyuan records rather than Japanese records from some totally other topic, there’s something really special, something I can’t quite articulate, about doing it in this small, friendly, group of Okinawan students who are just sort of trying their best at it, best as they can (and doing an amazing job!), as compared to being yet another foreign researcher through the revolving door of what’s of course the most standard, central, mainstream, presumably high-quality, kuzushiji groups at the University of Tokyo. There’s something special about being able to walk around Tokyo, or Santa Barbara, or New York, with a “University of the Ryukyus” T-shirt, and to have that experience under my belt of knowing that research group, that class, that room, on that campus, so many hundreds or thousands of miles away from what most other researchers – even within the field of Early Modern Japanese Studies – have seen or known. And not just in a practical way, nor only in a superficial hipstery “I bet you haven’t even heard of Ryûdai” kind of way, but hopefully something deeper than that, even if I can’t quite articulate why or how…

Members of Ryûdai’s Traditional Ryukyuan Arts Club (琉球伝統芸能研究クラブ) rehearsing.

And there truly is something about the culture and the pace of life. I haven’t heard nearly as much Okinawan accents as I’d expected, let alone picked one up myself at all, nor have I learned very much Okinawan language at all, nor have I gotten any better at sanshin. Nor am I going to say anything about over-generalizing broad cultural attributes – which I honestly don’t believe in – about how Okinawans, like Hawaiians, are generally a more laid-back people, or anything like that. I really just don’t like such generalizations. Even when there is a seed of truth to it – of course every place, every people, every culture *is* more X than another, or less Y than another; that’s a key part of the very fact that difference and diversity do exist in our world. Even on a very practical level, taking “essential” “culture” out of it, Naha is a smaller, quieter, less dense city than New York or Tokyo; that’s just a fact. And Los Angeles or Santa Barbara are (for the most part – I suppose it depends on what part of town, and/or what business field you’re in) less formal, less buttoned-up-suit-and-tie than Tokyo or New York. But when I say I’m going to miss the feel of Okinawa, and that Tokyo is indeed going to come as a shock, I mean it mainly in terms of two things:

(1) practicalities, like the actual pace of life, the actual density of people on the street, etc., and

(2) concrete, specific, cultural elements, like having certain foods be the more standard dominant food available,

far more so than (3) any sort of hand-wavey over-generalizing, hard-to-articulate-without-being-essentializing-or-just-grossly-inaccurate notions about what Okinawa as a place or Okinawans as a people are like, overall.

Okinawa soba at Ishigufu in Shintoshin Park.

Kokusai-dôri – Naha’s Main Street, Naha’s Times Square – is, at its busiest, absolutely nowhere near even a normal average day in Shibuya; as someone who absolutely loves New York and Tokyo, I was surprised to feel myself having these thoughts, but it really is quite relaxing to have that kind of space on the sidewalk, and it really is going to be a shock to have to deal with real crowds again. Okinawa soba, and numerous other Okinawan foods that I’ve grown quite fond of, are not going to be nearly as accessible in Tokyo; yes, there are plenty of Okinawan restaurants in Tokyo, just as there are plenty of restaurants of just about every cuisine, but I’m not going to be going out of my way to eat there all the time unless I want to become some kind of weirdo. And, besides, they’re going to serve only some more touristy, standard, version of the menu. Yes, I’ll be able to go to an Okinawan-theme restaurant and get all the standard basics – peanut tofu, tofu champuru, sea grapes, hopefully if I’m lucky shima-rakkyô (shallots) – but no matter what they have, it will never compare to the fuller range available here. I’ve really kind of grown to love in the last few weeks the Okinawan “diner” (shokudô), which I’m going to have to hunt one down in Tokyo; not a fancy “try an exotic regional style of cuisine” sort of restaurant, but just a real basics, cooked by your grandma, sort of version of the food. I’ve grown to love the Taste of Okinawa craft beer hall, where they always have plenty of different Okinawan craft beers on tap or in bottles. I love the shima-yasai (island vegetables) tempura place in the yatai-mura (market of small food stalls), and the kushi-age (deep fried various things on sticks) place in Heiwa-dôri; whether this is Okinawan-style kushi-age I’m not sure, but it is amazingly delicious.

I love Tokyo, and there are a great many things about living there that I am extremely excited about. And I like who I am when I’m there (or, who I’ve been when I’ve been there in the past). But, like the version of me who wrote that post about Hawaii five years ago, I rather like who I was then (in Hawaii), and who I am now (in Okinawa), and who I might become were I to be staying in Okinawa longer, and part of me is just a bit sad, and concerned, about the “opportunity cost,” so to speak, of not remaining or becoming that version of me…

Minamoto Kichôan – a very mainstream, big-chain, wagashi (Japanese sweets) shop in San Francisco. Amazingly difficult to find a good picture of their Naha shop online; seems I forgot to take a photo when I was last there.

Another thought that struck me recently: Going to a department store like Palette Kumoji Ryûbo, and seeing alongside (presumably locally owned) Okinawan companies, also branches of places based in Kyoto or Nihonbashi, it’s not for me a feeling of the colonial presence per se, as something dark and violently imposed, but rather just a feeling of the juxtaposition of the metropolitan into the provincial. It’s weird, funny, to see something so utterly mainstream Japanese here in Okinawa. I can’t quite put words to it. If it were anywhere else, any other provincial part of mainland Japan, I don’t think it would feel this way. Having a piece of Tokyo or Kyoto in a city like Nagoya just means you’re urban, cosmopolitan. Connected into national culture. That your city is big enough to have access to the biggest and/or most elite companies or goods from the big cities. Like living anywhere in the US and still having … Oh, I don’t know, what’s a good example? Something you could normally only get in The Big City, otherwise.

But, here in Okinawa, there’s a sort of cultural juxtaposition, that makes it feel amusingly out of place. Like a piece of New York in California, or vice versa. Or anything that makes pretend Honolulu is just another part of mainstream America. … Hm. I dunno. I don’t mean to say it’s 100% definitively /not/ a colonial sort of situation, but rather simply to say that it’s not the point I’m trying to make – that the feel or flavor, the fun’iki 雰囲気 of the situation doesn’t strike me as dark or violent on the surface, in the experience in itself – only, perhaps, on the level of some kind of deep analysis. What I feel, rather, in the moment, as I experience it, is that Okinawa lies in an interesting dual position – being, yes, a region of Japan, and as such, why wouldn’t it have branches of these shops, and aspects all around of standard mainstream Japanese aesthetics and forms, but at the same time not just, not simply, another region of Japan – it is a special case, and should be seen as such. Actually, maybe it reminds me more like having these shops – Minamoto Kichoan, other Nihonbashi based stores – in Hong Kong or Singapore or something. Places where it’s definitely foreign, but still Asian – still close enough that it fits in to a certain extent, more than it would, for example, if we had a Minamoto Kichôan inside the 7th Avenue Macy’s. I think maybe that’s the more relevant comparison. Because in some ways, it really is just as foreign here in Okinawa, and yet not…

Sai On Square, at Makishi Station.

Walking around Kokusai-dori & Heiwa-dori the other day (Saturday, March 11) for what’s likely to be the last time for quite a while, it’s an interesting feeling. Somehow I hadn’t really thought about it. Hadn’t made any big deal of it to myself, that I should feel any need to visit anywhere (or everywhere) one more time. In actually doing so, there’s a quiet sort of happiness at having gotten to know all of these places so well, and of course a tinge of sadness, but actually I know I’m coming back again, sometime, and I know I’ve gotten to see and gotten to know these places so many times, I feel quite comfortable with it all. Yesterday was quite good in a way – even though I didn’t directly see the guest house one more time, or the Yatai-mura, or the calzone place (to name just a few random places that I had frequented on multiple occasions), I did walk almost right past them, at the other end of a street or alleyway that would have led there. And I passed by the one end of Yachimun-dôri. And walked up from Kokusai-dori to Miebashi, a walk I made numerous times on my 2013 visit to Okinawa, but only once I think ever since. So, a sense of nostalgia for that previous time, too, mixed in. I guess, at this point, it’s looking / feeling like I’m probably not going to make it to the Naha City Museum, or the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, or a half dozen other places again before I leave for Tokyo… and I’m alright with that. At least I am for now. We’ll see how I feel when I actually get to Tokyo, and my time in Okinawa is truly over and done with.

All photos my own.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »