SYNOPSIS:   About two castles and one historic farm house.   About the challenges that are caused by urban sprawl.  And about meeting the one in ten thousand…

In my naiveté I had first envisioned a tourist industry built around visiting the nine spread-out castles, shrines and tombs that make up the UNESCO monuments dedicated to preserving Ryukyo Culture that were listed as world heritage in 2000.   No such thing.

In my never lacking optimism I had at least envisioned an overland bus system that in no time would zip me up and down the island.  After all, it was no more than 65 miles long and the most northern monument a mere 50 miles up.  No more than the distance from Ann Arbor to Detroit.  A piece of cake.  But no such thing either.

The reality could be compared a lot more to getting on a Chicago city bus which stops every few blocks.  Even though my bus (#52) only stopped about every 5 minutes, and I had carefully opted not for the Northern most, but for two of the more centrally located monuments no more than 25/30 miles away – it took a full two hours from the bus terminal in Naha to arrive there.  And that after waiting for the bus for 40 minutes.  It was almost noon when I arrived.  The urban sprawl in the south of this island is continuous.  I had crossed at least 5 city lines without notice.   And up in smoke went my dream of visiting nine sites in three days…  But I could not dwell on that.  I had a mountain to climb.

Katsuren Castle, my first site, has a rich history which is at this point way beyond my scope of knowledge.  But it is clear that castles in this culture differ greatly from those of the crusaders, for example.  They seem to be a combination of palace, defence, and very importantly, worship.  The living quarters were all gone.  And the worship areas were only recognizable in their most rudimentary forms:  A big tree, a trickle of water, a large stone, or a hole in the ground.  A lot of imagination is needed to envision the rituals that once were performed here.

But what remains are the ramparts, the massive undulating walls of defence created in three distinct and impressive types of stone masonry:  there is the rough wall put together with large stones and gravel, called Nozura-Zumi.  Then there is the cut stone constructed of regularly shaped squares known as Nuno-Zumi.  And finally, there is Aikata-Zumi, the tight fitting wall put together with multiple-sided stones at a level of precision which matches the famous Inca walls in Cusco .  No mortar was used.  And yet, despite multiple earthquakes and the wear and tear of time, much of this construction has lasted.

There is a serenity to a place like this that is hard to capture in pictures or to put into words.  Not too many visitors were there.  Gorgeous ocean views open up once you are on top of the mountain.  Areas that used to be filled with homes and storage facilities are now wide open and covered with carefully manicured grass.  It is like walking on a carpet.  And a few trees, shrubs, and rocks puncture the various enclosures just enough to prevent the site from looking plain.

If the sun had not been beating down on my uncovered head, I would have spent a lot longer there.  But I could feel that I was paying a price.  I think I need one of those cloth umbrellas after all.  The locals always know what they are doing and an ignorant visitor like me is well advised to follow suit.  Too late for today…

After a 20 minute wait at the sun-flooded bus stop, #52 took me to the next site.  However, I had been forewarned – I would have to walk for 45 minutes to reach the next castle.  There was no direct bus…  No bus!  And we are talking a UNESCO world heritage site.  I have to say, that I felt quite let down.  So I braced myself for walking.  What’s three km and a bit?  But as a prelude to a second castle visit and a coda to the first one of the morning, coupled with sun and heat, and no food or water since the early morning, I could tell that I was overdoing it.  I needed a taxi.  But there was none…  And there was nobody to talk to either.  Until I spotted two women chatting.  Taxi?  No, they shook their heads and then started to point me back towards town to where I might find one; then to a restaurant somewhere out of site, where somebody might be able to call me one, and then one of them asked where I needed to go:  The Castle.   They seemed confused.  The Old House.  That was a historic site not too far from the castle, and they lit up.  We will take you to the old house they assured me and offered me a seat in their little car.  Thanks Ganesh!

The Old House of Nakagusuku, also known as Nakamura House, a registered national treasure threw me into exstacy.  There was a link which I remembered Professor Kane talking about:  How the shogunates of Japan, the military Samurai rulers had borrowed from Japanese farm architecture and rejected the heavily Chinese influenced Buddhist and Court culture for a more indigenous taste.  I don’t recall seeing examples of this farm architecture in class, only the synthesis that came of it.  But here it was in its purest form which is now quite rare.

Don’t mistake “farm” for poor.  We are talking more like feudal lords here; rich people, land owners.  This family went back to the 15th Century; the house was built after the 1720s in a style however, that can be traced all the way back to the 12th Century Kamakura period.  I was the only visitor and I am glad that I did not embarrass myself in front of others in my excitement over every pot, fork, kitchen pit, or pig sty.  It was just too cool.  As you enter through the gate you bump into a wall, the Hinpun, which is supposed to keep bad spirits out.  That felt rather Chinese to me. But the beast that was snarling down from the rooftop seems to be a local variety and is called the Shi-sa. The small garden around the cluster of houses was exquisite and what impressed me most was a natural wind-breaker of Fukugi trees that were over 250 years old.

Less than a kilometre from here to the castle.  It seemed a lot bigger than the one I had seen in the morning.  The parking lot was full of cars and a few taxis were waiting for their customers.  I would definitely have to hitch a ride with somebody back.  Not another 45 minute hike after this.  I was optimistic.

Layout and character of the Nakagusuku Castle resembled the castle in the morning, but everything was bigger and more spread out sporting a total of six enclosures used for everything from training horses, to exercise, to fabrication of cannons and living quarters.  The overall effect was even more powerful and serene.

As I toured the site I was considering my choices of whom to approach for a lift.  I decided to focus on the foreign visitors since there was a better chance of speaking English.  The two young men?  No, they were obviously in a hurry and probably had come with one of the taxis.  The two Japanese girls who had a young American visitor in tow?  No.  They were having too much fun with each other.  The young couple?  No. I would feel too much like an intruder.   The two women with children?  No, their car was likely filled up.  But there he was:  reading a book at one of the ramparts.  He was obviously in no hurry, therefore here with his own car.  And he seemed to be with nobody, so I would not intrude.

I asked if he would take my picture – always a good pretext.  😉  And we started to chat.  He had been to Okinawa 15 times with the military since the 1990’s, and to the castle multiple times before.  He was reading a book on the battles and the history of these castles taking it all in on site.  Now that was my type of a guy!  After a bit more of chit-chat, I asked him if he would be willing to give me a lift back to the intersection to catch my bus.  No problem!  I assured him that I had as much time as he needed.  I was on no schedule.  And so I continued to tour the castle and he continued to read.  On my way back I caught up with him in one of the courts.  It was near closing time.  On the way to the intersection he offered to take me all the way back to Naha.  It was only 20 minutes of his time versus over an hour on the bus.  How could I say no?  And by the time we reached Naha and he heard what I was here for, he offered to drive with me tomorrow to see the northern sites, even the one way up, two of which he had never seen himself!

His name is Mike and he is a Lieutnant-Colonel pilot with the airforce.  Now, there are tens of thousands of American military personnel at this island.  But I bet you that there are less than one in 1000 who has even ventured to any of these castles and definitely not more than once.  And there are less than one in 10,000 who is excited about archaeology and history the way this guy was.  And I ran into him!  And he had the next day off!  Now how on earth did this happen??!!

On this simply amazing example of manifesting, I will say good night.

I just can’t get over this!