Posts Tagged ‘sanshin’

Futenma Shrine 普天満宮, standing at the main hall, looking back towards the torii and temizuya at the entrance.


Today was fantastic. Cooler, less oppressively hot & humid, than the last few days – or maybe it just felt more comfortable because I finally had the intelligence to go out in shorts, and my brand-new athletic-style sweat-wicking-away Ryûdai t-shirt.

At some point, I really should just hunker down and spend more of my days indoors, on campus, making actual progress on reading and research. But, for today, just one more day of exploring couldn’t hurt, right?

I walked into Ginowan, just across the freeway from here, and then caught a bus way up to the other end of the Futenma Marines base, going all the way up there solely to check out the Futenma Shrine, one of the Eight Shrines of Ryukyu, of which I have now visited six. Of course, I forgot to check out the associated temple, Jingû-ji, which is right next door. So I’ll have to go back.

The shrine itself is pretty nice – I’m assuming it’s been rebuilt or renovated quite recently, as everything looked quite clean and bright. There’s something just really striking and beautiful about such fresh wood, and those orange terracotta roof tiles. Just being amidst that space – sharing so many of the features of a mainland Japanese Shinto shrine, but blatantly distinctively Okinawan in style and aesthetic – is just a wonderful feeling. And it’s just a very photogenic space, I think, overall. I took photos from quite a number of viewpoints, each looking just excellent (we’ll see how they actually came out – my digital photos often tend to be lighter or darker or grainier or flatter or.. something.. than how I thought they looked at the time).

The cave at Futenma Shrine. Photo courtesy of Chinese Wikipedia. We were instructed not to take photos inside the sacred space, and so I respectfully refrained.

But Futenma Shrine is also special in another way – the sacred space it’s associated with is a cave. I wasn’t sure if they only offer tours at certain times, or if maybe it’s only open to those who are serious worshippers – if the latter were the case, I would certainly understand. I found a sign that seemed to indicate there was some kind of application process. But, I figured, no harm in asking – so I asked at the window where one buys protective charms (o-mamori) and the like, and the shrine priestess stationed there quickly and kindly gave me a very brief form to fill out (name, address, number of people in your group) and then escorted me and one other woman into the cave. I felt a little awkward, to be sure, as this other woman was clearly there as a true devotee, and I hope she didn’t feel I was invading her people’s sacred space, or being disrespectful simply by being myself – a tourist, an outsider. I was sure to bow down and close my eyes and take a moment to meditate, to give my respects to the deity.

I’m sorry that we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the cave, though I totally understand why that should be restricted in such a sacred space. The cave was quite small – or at least the part easily publicly accessible – and the ceiling only extended so far, opening up to the sky beyond a certain point. But it was really something. I don’t even know how to describe it. Just stalactites and stalagmites, a naturally mysterious, intriguing, serene, spiritual space, with a small shrine building nestled into the center of it, marking and enhancing the spiritual feeling of the space. I love seeking out these sites just for the architecture, for the history, for the aesthetic & cultural experience of being there, but every now and then it really does genuinely feel spiritually moving or powerful as well. I’m very glad I bothered to ask about visiting the cave, and I would encourage you to take a look as well should you ever be in the area.

Wooden bodies for building sanshin. More than any sanshin shop I’ve seen before, this guy really sells all the parts you need to make your own – something that I should think takes an incredible amount of skill and experience.

As it happened, just across the street from the shrine stands the Sanshin no Matsuda store, a fairly large and pretty cool shop where they carry everything from complete instruments and books of music to basically everything you could possibly need to repair an instrument – not just bridges and picks and tuning pegs and strings, but even down to the wooden bodies and frightening lengths of real python skin (imported from Thailand). I went in to check it out, knowing I likely wouldn’t buy anything – thankfully my instrument is in good working order, so I just don’t really have a need for strings or picks or anything right now, and I already have plenty of books of music. But the guy was nice enough to show me the shop a little – showing me how he uses serious machines to cut the rough shape of the sanshin out of a block of wood, but then carves the finer details, the subtle curves, by hand. Beautiful. Amazing. Someday, when I do need such things, maybe I’ll head back up to Futenma, and buy from him. (If you’re interested in seeing more photos of the process of making or repairing sanshin, check out Joseph Kamiya’s Tumblr. He’s in the process of studying that craft.)

The view from Futenma Shrine, back across the street. Sanshin no Matsuda on the left, and King Tacos on the right. This is pretty much what most of Ginowan looks like, in my experience thus far.

As per the plan, having taken the bus way up to Futenma, I was now going to take a leisurely walk back down – in comfortable weather, and with plenty of daylight left, it should take only an hour or so to get back to campus, which all things considered really isn’t that bad. Of course, in the end, it took far longer than that, but it was relaxed, and easy. I found a nice teishoku place for lunch – offering set meals (teishoku) of noodles and soup, or stir-fry (chanpuru) and rice and soup, and so forth. I went with the fu chanpuru, fu being basically a form of seitan (wheat gluten), baked to have a consistency sort of like chicken, sort of like bread… anyway, it’s good.

I also found a cool zakka shop, selling all kinds of random stuff from panda coffee mugs to wacky cookbooks, to wallets, keychains, bumper stickers, manga… I didn’t end up buying anything, but I loved seeing a fun, kooky store like that amongst the countless motorbike & car repair shops. I get it, that we’re not in the big city and everyone relies on bikes & cars, but, seriously, how can the economy support this many such shops? How many vehicles does each person own!?

Anyway, after much walking, I found myself back in the area of Ginowan I knew and remembered from my adventures two years ago – my first time in Ginowan, one of my first times outside of Naha, when I took the highway bus and the whole thing just felt like such an ordeal, traipsing out to this outer city… Now that I’m living just across the freeway from Ginowan, the whole thing feels quite different.

So friendly and welcoming…

Walking further and further down, passing by the fences of Futenma Air Base, I found it surprisingly quiet. No protest signs of any kind hanging on the fence, no protesters staked out outside the base. Maybe they’re all up in Henoko or Takae? I probably follow this stuff more closely than most, but even so, not closely enough to really know the precise ins and outs of why there would or wouldn’t be protests on a given day… Also saw (and heard! omg, so loud!) some military helicopters flying overhead, but that was about it. So quiet I neglected to even get any photos of the base, at all.

Eventually, I found my way to the Ginowan BookOff, and then to Books Jinon, what to the best of my knowledge is surely one of the best Okinawa specialty bookstores there is. I cannot count the times that I have searched for a book on kosho.or.jp (an excellent site for searching used bookstores across Japan, and ordering books from them online) and it came up that Books Jinon was the place that had a copy. On my previous trips to Okinawa, I was always based in Naha, and Ginowan just seemed so far away, so inconvenient. But, I now know that at least some parts of Ginowan are in extremely reasonable walking distance from Ryûdai campus, and also that there are regular public buses (e.g. the 98, between Ryûdai and Naha) which stop only a block or so away from the bookstore. Plus, they take orders online, so as long as you have a Japanese address to ship to, there’s little need to traipse out there.

I came in with a particular list of books I was looking for, and am quite happy with my haul for the day. Had to resist buying up so much more stuff – I’ve gotten to the point that I think I have a much more realistic gut feeling about knowing, understanding, how little I’ll ever get around to actually reading, and so that makes it a ton easier to resist buying all the things. But, there is still certainly a part of me that is tempted to buy and read just about anything about Okinawa, and Books Jinon has such a selection, oh my god. Conference proceedings volumes I’ve only ever seen after ordering them from multiple different institutions from Inter-Library Loan (ILL). Boxes and boxes of magazines and other sorts of obscure serials. Shelves upon shelves of thick volumes of local village, town, and city histories (for example, Nishihara Town History 西原町史, or Naha City History 那覇市史), of Complete Works of such-and-such prominent scholar (e.g. Ifa Fuyu zenshû or Nakahara Zenchû zenshû), and of published transcriptions of premodern documents, such as the Ryûkyû-koku shi-ryaku 琉球国志略 or Chûzan seikan 中山世鑑. Not to mention great numbers of museum exhibit catalogs, many of them rather slim volumes from rather small provincial museums. And what makes the whole thing all the more exciting and impressive is that, at least in my very limited experience (combined with what my far more experienced advisor has said), real brick-and-mortar specialty bookstores like these are growing scarce in Japan, as many shift to online-only, or disappear entirely. I was only in Kagoshima for a few days (two years ago), so I may be totally mistaken, but from what I found on Google, and what I found in person, there is maybe one local history / local culture specialty bookstore in Kagoshima City, and it’s really not all that great. Books Jinon stands out all the more so as a result.

The haul for the day.

Finally, I left the bookstore with my small but happy haul, and poked my head into a nearby florist to ask where I might find the nearest bus stop. Pardon me if I’m spoiled or whatever, too much of a city boy, but compared to trains, I really find buses to be a pain in the ass. A train station is easy to find, for the most part. And once you’re inside, it’s usually pretty easy to figure out which side you need to be on; or, if it isn’t, at least there are generally only two options. Red Line this way, or Red Line that way. Or, if you know you need to be on the Blue Line, then it’s the Blue Line. But buses – the bus stop could be anywhere in the general vicinity of the specified intersection or landmark, and for Okinawa at least, the bus stops and bus routes don’t come up on Google Maps. So you stand at the intersection, and look around, and wonder, does the bus stop on this side of the street, or around the corner? Does it stop right here by the intersection, or halfway down the block in that direction? Or the other direction? And then when you finally find the bus stop, you have to be sure that it’s not only going in the right direction, but that it’s also the right bus line. A train station might have only one or two or three lines (or, admittedly, quite a lot more if you’re in Shinjuku or something, but that’s a different story), but even a relatively quiet, isolated, place like Maehara Crossing in Ginowan, Okinawa, has one stop for the 25 and 56 to Toyosaki, a different stop for the 24, 27, 52, 61, or 110 going north or southwest, another stop somewhere else slightly down the road in some other direction to find the 97 and 98 back to the University of the Ryukyus (where I was trying to go)… and then when you finally find the right bus stop for the bus line you want, you inevitably realize you’re on the wrong side of the street. Hopefully you realize this before you see your bus, on the opposite side of the street, go past.

Anyway, I still kind of can’t believe it, but I asked inside this random little florist shop, and the customer buying flowers at the time said, “oh, how about I just give you a ride? It’s not that far.” Oh my god. So kind!! Of course, I hesitated at first – oh, no, no, that’s quite alright. Thanks so much, but I don’t want you to go out of your way… But, in the end, she was so kind, and drove me the short distance back to campus – we had a very nice conversation, and then she just dropped me off right at the entrance to campus. A fantastic way to end the day.

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos my own.

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To the extent that I know my way around New York City, it’s mainly that I know my way around Japan-related places, from the Buddhist temple up near Columbia, to the many Japanese restaurants on & around St. Mark’s, to Japan Society, Japanese groceries, Kinokuniya, and Book-Off.

I journeyed into the city yesterday to check out the Japan Block Fair for the first time, and after that, took some time to check in on a few of these Japan-related places, both old and new.

I’d been to Japan Day at Central Park once, but never to Japan Block Fair. The latter feels like a much smaller event, but only because it’s packed into a much smaller space. Yesterday’s block fair squeezed twenty or so booths into the space of one city block – between 39th and 40th streets, on just one side of Park Avenue. A couple hundred people were in attendance, recreating the feel of the crush of maneuvering your way through Shibuya, or along Takeshita-dôri in Harajuku. Booths included a few selling tenugui, second-hand kimono, and the like, as well as a travel agency handing out flyers, one booth selling delicious iced green tea, a rummage sale booth, and numerous stands selling takoyaki, yakisoba and the like. I had hoped to find new zori (sandals), but no such luck. Many of the booths were collecting donations for tsunami relief. A few booths represented specific regions – the Aomori kenjinkai had a booth, and were selling food, though to my disappointment weren’t really advertising Aomori with pictures or books, videos of tsugaru shamisen performances, or any kind of flyers (but that’s okay); Shikoku was well-represented, with a Sanuki Udon booth selling freshly handmade noodles, and a “Home Island Project” booth from Tokushima.

The Home Island Project describes itself as “aim[ing] at raising awareness about our “Home Island” SHIKOKU and turning the island into [a] magnet for people around the world.” Their banners and outfits were impressively designed and cohesive, with a clean, sleek design in a beautiful shade of blue; members associated with the project performed Awa Odori, a festival dance for which Tokushima prefecture is particularly famous. I’ve never yet myself been to Shikoku, but I really would love to go. Lots to see and do, from the many still-intact original Edo-period castles, to Dôgo Onsen (inspiration for the bathhouse in Spirited Away), to seeing kabuki at the Kanamaru-za, the oldest still-operating kabuki theater in the country, to the contemporary art goings-on on Inland Sea islands Shôdoshima and Naoshima.

The Fair also included the NY Street Ramen Contest, in which eight or so restaurants and other organizations prepared different types of ramen dishes, and guests taste-tested and judged their favorites. For most of the day the line was way too long for me to even think about getting involved, but just at the very end, suddenly there was no line at all, so I squeezed in and tried a few of the ramen dishes. The cold (hiyashi ramen) dish with shaved ice and sesame dressing from Hôryû Ramen was quite good, as was the tonkotsu shio ramen from Nobu Chan, but of the three I tried, my favorite was Ramen Misoya’s Hokkaido-style miso ramen with corn and a french fry.

The main attraction for me – the main reason I made sure not to miss the Fair – was that a group called Ryû-kaji was performing. My father always says you can find anything in New York if you look hard enough (or wait and happen to come across it), and once again, I guess he was proven right, because while I was beginning to get kind of skeptical that I’d ever find an Okinawan sanshin group, or teacher, here in NY, yesterday I came across Ryûkaji, and their sensei Taguchi Saki. The group played a bunch of Okinawan songs, some more traditional, some folk songs (e.g. Asadoya Yunta), and some more modern pop songs (e.g. Ojii jiman no Orion Beer). They looked great in black (for the girls) and purple kasuri kimono (for the guys), with sensei in full-on yellow and red bingata, her hair up in a bun Okinawan style. Afterwards, I spoke to a few of the students, and to sensei, about the possibility of taking lessons, and I am looking forward to doing so. One-on-one lessons will hopefully get me seeing some improvement, even though it’s only for a few months, before I leave New York for new adventures.

All in all, the Block Fair was great. I thought it a little funny that I didn’t see any people, or organizations or groups that I was familiar with, and it remains a mystery to me as to who exactly is behind this, since it’s not Japan Society or Asia Society or any organization with a recognizable name. But, then, I guess that’s a function of it being New York. The vastness of the city and its communities, the incredible number of Japanese restaurants and organizations, bringing a degree of impersonality. I think that, with time, I could get to know some of the movers and shakers, get to know the people behind some of the restaurants, but I think it would take a lot longer than it did in Hawaii, where the community is much smaller, and many of the same people are involved (or at least attending) in the many different events.

I left the Block Fair eventually, and made my way to Kinokuniya, just because it was nearby. Nothing’s changed over there – still an amazing selection, still all of it quite overpriced. It’s a shame we can’t magically meld Kinokuniya’s (brand-new, imported) selection with BookOff’s far more reasonable (second-hand) prices. Seventy bucks for a kabuki DVD!? You’ve got to be kidding me. I’d be better off if you didn’t carry it at all – as is, you’re just taunting me.

The final stop for the day was to check out the new Uniqlo flagship store, on Fifth Ave at 53rd St. The largest retail store on Fifth Ave at 89,000 square feet, the store is really something. And, despite my best intentions not to buy anything, I couldn’t resist the half-off T-shirt sale, and ended up with a few from their large selection of One Piece designs. The t-shirts on offer also included a bunch of Japanese corporate logo designs, from Marukame udon to Vermont Curry to Kewpie mayonnaise, as well as Gundam, Evangelion, Mickey Mouse, and Coca-Cola designs. A recent blog post or article I saw talked about how Uniqlo has become sort of anti-fashionable in Japan lately, stigmatized I guess chiefly because it’s so cheap, and because no matter how good you may look, what’s really important (apparently) is that you spent a lot of money on it. Conspicuous consumption. I guess. But, whether New York is just behind the curve (which I’m sure it is, along with myself), or whether the Japanese are just being over-commercialist and crazy, Uniqlo’s offerings are actually pretty nice. A lot of the stuff is just super basic, and I’ve complained before (although perhaps not on this blog; I don’t remember) that I go to a Japanese store for Japanese fashion, not for plain ordinary shirts and jeans like I can get at any American store (e.g. Gap, Old Navy).

But Uniqlo keeps up with fashion, and while they may not have anything too radical, they do have slim fit shirts and slacks, three-quarter length pants (read: capris) for guys, and the like, as well as their own branded and supposedly revolutionary AIRism and Heattech materials, meant to be super thin and light, while keeping you plenty cool or warm (respectively). Now if they took that one further step, and started carrying (a) the same things that they offer in their Japan stores, and (b) a few more things with slightly Asian-fashion touches, like the high collars we see on hoodies and jackets on Asian fashion sites like YesStyle.com, and presumably (I haven’t been there in a while) on the streets of Shibuya and Shimokitazawa. Also – neckties, bowties, suspenders, and cooler belts. The mannequins looked very cool in slim neckties and bowties, or in neon-colored suspenders, but there were absolutely zero of these goods for sale; the belts were all brown leather, pretty standard and boring. Uniqlo has definitely kicked it up a notch, making things we want – like cardigans, slim pants, and t-shirts with Japanese designs – affordable and available all in one place. They just need to tweak that dial a tiny bit further, and then it could become my absolute #1 go-to store…

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