Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Castle Ruins at Chinen

If you’re going to come to Okinawa for a visit, you have to make it a point to get around and see the major castle sites. Tiny Okinawa boasts five castles that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and not one of them looks remotely like the one seen in the “Karate Kid.” The main castle site at Shuri resembles a miniature of the Forbidden City in Peking China and is where the Ryukyu kingdom was unified from three separate kingdoms into one. Also on the list are the ruins of Nakagusku, Nakijin, Katsuren, and Zakimi castles.


Four of the five were part of the central kingdom of Chuzan. Only the ruin of Nakijin, which was the seat of the northern kingdom of Hokuzan made the “A” list. Even less is known about the network of castles that once made up the southern kingdom of Nanzan. Perhaps this is in part because of the devastation wreaked on these sites as a result of the battle of Okinawa. This is where the most desperate fighting took place.


What few people realize is that there are more than 200 castle ruins scattered across the prefecture. Most are little more than the rough stone foundations where they once stood. Time has slowly absorbed many back into the forests from whence they came. These castle sites were built in high places and served as either military outposts or the palatial homes of the rich and powerful chieftains who ruled the district in which they stood.

Of the sites that belonged to the southern kingdom of Nanzan, perhaps the site at Chinen is the best preserved. What little we know about it could hardly fill a single paragraph in a tourist brochure. It was the palatial home of Lord Chinen and most importantly, this is where wet rice cultivation was first introduced to Okinawa. The rest is pretty much inconsequential and remains a mystery lost to the ages.


The castle is presently undergoing a long and arduous restoration. The archways over the main entrances are being reinforced to make the castle’s courtyard safe as well as accessible to visitors and portions of the walls are being rebuilt. Whether they collapsed as a result of their age, the fall of the kingdom of Nanzan or as a result of the battle of Okinawa is not presently known?

The ruins of Chinen castle sit high on the bluff and offer visitors a fantastic panoramic view of the villages below and the coral reefs and beaches along the islands southeast pacific coastline. For visitors it’s a chance to take a step back into time for a glimpse of what life was like on Okinawa during the age of kings, princes and warlords.


The best way to get to Chinen castle is to approach it from the south along highway 331 which follows the islands southeast coast. That’s because if you approach from the north, the sign directing you there is posted after the intersection where you need to turn off the main highway. From there, you’ll have to make your way up a steep and narrow winding road through a housing area to the castle grounds.



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Friday, October 16, 2009

Simply Luv-a-Bull


Higashi Onna is a largely quiet residential area of Ishikawa, situated high on a hilltop in Uruma City. Long ago the place was known for its “Artist’s Colony.” Today it’s dotted with small businesses that line the main roads with quiet residential houses along the back streets and small postage stamp sized farming plots scattered throughout. It’s also the home of the “Taka Hana” group, an Okinawan Moai group that has a passion for Okinawa style bull fighting.

Mr. Moriyaka Iha greets us on our arrival. He’s a proud looking barrel chested fellow with sinewy arms, a testament to all his years working in construction. His hair is raven black and combed straight back and his eyes are like steel. Though not tall in stature, he stands with his chest puffed out as though he’s ten feet tall. He looks to be not the kind of fellow you’d want to meet in a dark alley. Our camera man greets him with the traditional Okinawan Hogen “Hai-Sai” and immediately a Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde transformation takes place. His eyes light up as he chuckles to himself, his expression softens and a broad smile is painted across his face.

He proudly leads us around their facility. The whole site is about two to three hundred tsubo in my estimation. The property is rented and has a large building for housing the animals, a store room, an office, a covered patio where everyone relaxes at the end of a hard day and a training yard for the bulls. Toward the back we can see two bulls are already in the yard. One has a rope through his nose and tethered to a line stretched in between two poles. It allows him to move back and forth somewhat freely. Another bull is being lead by hand up and over a huge earthen mound in the back corner of the property. They seem rather passive. Not at all like the fearsome beast that, one would expect to see when encountering a fighting bull.

In an opposite corner nearer to the office and patio area is another large wooden pole with four large tires looped over it. These are not just your run of the mill car or truck tires. Instead these tires come from heavy equipment like a farm tractor or perhaps even a construction earth mover. The bull walking the mounds is taken to his stall before the other is loosed from his tether and then he’s led to the pole with the tires on it, Instinctively he begins to assault them voraciously. He rams them head on and the whole pole vibrates. With a flick of a horn three tires are lifted clean off the ground.


After a few minutes of play time, the behemoth bull is lead from the truck tires to the mounds. Here he’s led up one side and down the other several times. Iha explains that the idea behind this part of the training regimen is to ready the bull for any type of fighting surface. Although a fight ring is relatively flat, the surface can get torn up quite a bit by the bulls that may fight before yours enters the ring. Also the bull may end up near the edge of the ring where the surface is built up in an earthen berm.


Once the training is complete, the grooming begins. The bull is led back toward the stalls but first they stop at a large steel cage like contraption. The bull is led in and his head is guided through an opening. The width of the device limits the animal’s movements. One man steady’s the bull by pulling on the rope as a few of the others brush it to keep it calm. Iha grabs a large rasp file like a carpenter would use. He begins to work at the bulls horns.


This bull’s horns are short and pointed forward. They’ve been shaped over the years to match his fighting style. Like a boxer, each bull has its own personality and fighting style. This bull happens to be a pusher meaning he’s a straight on fighter. Some are twisters and others like to push their opponent down. Trainers typically will watch a bull as they grow and shape the horns accordingly. To shape the horns they will use a heavy gauge steel pipe to shape the horn till it takes the desired contour. After the horns have been filed, they are rubbed with salt and sake. It’s a tradition and likened to the purification ritual that a Sumo wrestler does when he throws salt into the Dohyo before a match.

After the training and the grooming comes the feeding. Everything as it pertains to bull fighting and training is strictly regimented. Through this the bulls instinctively know when a fight is forthcoming and ready themselves accordingly. Similarly, training comes first before eating. The bulls learn that food is a reward for desired behavior. If they train hard, they will eat well. Similarly, train not so hard, eat not so well.


Iha and his group owns three bulls, one of which they are preparing for an upcoming fight. This bull eats 30 to 50 kg a day. Much of the bulk comes from fresh green bundles of satokibi or sugar cane. He’ll consume 15 bundles of this daily along with a variety of fresh cut grasses and a special mixture that he and his partners concoct. It’s a mixture of miso paste “like one would use to make soup,” rice, herbs, grasses and special nutrients. As the fight day approaches, they’ll feed them grasses that are less humid. This is designed to get the bull’s intestines right and ready for the fight.

Iha likens Okinawa style bull fighting to boxing, noting that each bull has his own style and personality and each trainer has their own preferred methods. Experience plays a big part in the training regimen too. Typically a bull starts to fight at four years of age and will hopefully have a career of four to five years. Older bulls need less training than young ones. Tradition can play a large part in the training as well. Some trainers run their training regimen according to the phases of the moon. Others will begin a week or two prior to a match and others still begin only a day or two prior.

For Iha and the men in the Taka-Hana Moai group, bull fighting is more than just an expensive hobby. To be truthful, it’s more like a passion. They live for this. Though he wouldn’t give us any figures to speak of, he did say that for anyone considering getting into the sport, if you have to think about how much it costs before you start, don’t even waste another thought on it. You really have to love it to do it. It’s obvious that they do!

Click (HERE) for some more photos (not taken by me) as well as scroll down for some videos of the training of the bulls

FYI if you follow the links and scroll down the extra pictures and look at the videos, the guy with the white beard who looks like either a civil war general or an anemic Santa is Mike from Mike's Ryukyu Gallery, I'm the good looking guy in the dark blue jacket and khaki colored ball cap.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Great Tsunahiki

Weave forty plus tons of rice straw into a rope and make it a little over two city blocks long. Because of its size and to keep it from blocking traffic, you’ll have to divide it into halves. Once everything is in place, go ahead and invite 250,000 or so of your closest friends and neighbors over for a party.


When everyone arrives, have them help pull the two halves together and join the two ends, then invite two famous kings from Okinawa’s past to come back from the dead and issue challenges to each other. Have a lot of other folks dressed in period costumes dance around and shout then throw in a few karate demonstrations just for show. When all that is finished, give a signal and have everyone pull with all their might.


What you have is a “Tsunahiki,” or great tug-o-war. This little celebration has been an indispensable facet of the autumnal season here in Okinawa for centuries. Many of the surrounding cities and towns hold their own Tsunahiki but no one can even come close to the grandeur of the Naha tug-o-war celebration which is the biggest in the whole world


Each year the great Tsunahiki in Naha has Guinness Record Book implications. It seems that somehow, each year they find a way to add a little more to length and weight to the rope and each year it seems they’re able to cram a few thousand more people into a few city blocks.

The giant rope has a whole crew of workers dedicated to its manufacture and it takes them more than a month to assemble it. The night before the appointed day, the rope is trucked to the Kumoji intersection of highway 58, nearest to Kokusai Street and the Prefectural Office Building. Here the highway has a Northeast to Southwest orientation.

The ropes are looped at the ends nearest the center with the East end representing male and the West representing female. The participants (everyone) pull the ends of the rope toward the center where the female end is looped over the male end and they are locked together by a ten foot long wooden peg.


Once this is accomplished the signal is given, a large golden ball elevated above the intersection is opened showering everyone below in confetti and the struggle begins. The rules are simple, which ever side pulls the rope a distance of three meters (roughly ten feet) within the allotted time wins. If neither side is able to accomplish the goal within thirty minutes, the contest is declared a draw.


Once it’s finished everyone regardless of which side they were on celebrates and people cut off sections of rope to take home with them. This is believed to bring them good luck for the rest of the year. Here on Okinawa, regardless the outcome, the Tsunahiki is just a great excuse to bring everyone together and have a great time!


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Sunday, October 4, 2009

By the Light of the Otsukimi Moon

I always used to get this mixed up when I was a kid. I always thought that the Harvest moon was the big full moon that’s always seen in the month of October. What I later found out is that tradition dictates that the harvest moon is actually the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox. This year it happened to fall on October 3rd.


The great thing about this is that even after the sun is down and it’s starting to get dark, as long as it’s not too cloudy, there is still enough light reflected off the moon to allow folks to see things a little more clearly. This is especially important in the land of the Habu. In the old days before electric lighting, it gave farmers the extra light they needed to work later into the evening and bring in the harvest without getting snake bit.



Okinawa has a tradition associated with the harvest moon called Otsukimi. According to the lunar or Chinese calendar it is always falls on August 15th which places it in September or early October according to the Gregorian calendar. For many people, myself included, the words Okinawa, August and moon always conjures up images of Marlon Brando building a tea house and pretending to be Japanese but, that’s another story.


The August moon on Okinawa also marks the end of the summer’s sweltering heat. From this point on, the weather starts to cool off and the fall season tends to be drier and much more comfortable. If you ask me, that alone is reason enough to celebrate. Most people will plan an outdoor get together of some sort and have a party with family, friends and even co-workers. They’ll gather at a favorite place, bring traditional foods and celebrate under the illumination of the moonlight.

Popular places on Okinawa to have an Otsukimi or moon viewing party include beaches, parks, hill tops, and roof tops or anywhere that offers a clear view of the moon. If you really want to party, There’s always a big shindig at Shuri Castle in Naha and Manzamo in Onna village is also a popular site to watch the moon, drink mass quantities of adult beverages and recite poetry.


What that really means is sometimes even viewing the moon is optional. Just the excuse and opportunity to gather and have fun is all that’s needed. For the people of Okinawa, as if they needed one, the August moon is a reason to celebrate. One thing I learned about living in Okinawa is the folks here really love a good party.

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