Below the Surface: Thoughts from Okinawa

We woke up to our third morning in Okinawa and drove out to Okinawa World, a theme park structured around traditional Okinawan culture and crafts. We tasted pineapple so good it made me wonder if the pineapple in Oregon are knockoffs, Mom and Dad were stuffed into traditional dress for staged photos, we saw shiisa in a broad range of styles and prices, and we watched an eisa dance that’s performed four times daily in this park that’s open every day of the year.

One of the attractions is Gyokusendo Cave, the second-largest network of caves in Japan. We followed a steel pathway wet with condensation, lit by garish spotlights that turned the ancient stalagmites and stalactites pink and green and blue. Several had a tinkling of coins jumbled at their base and placards with the formations’ names in kanji I could only half-decipher: Great Buddha Something, Silver Something, Something Dragon’s Something.

Although English signage was sparse and the Japanese brimming with unintelligible geological terms, I began to piece together the cave’s history: formed 300,000 years ago, it had been discovered in the Neolithic age, back when Okinawans first placed human feet on the island. Although we were far from the entrance, deep into the earth’s labyrinth of stone, there were notes on archaeological finds: coins, pottery, misplaced fishing implements. For thousands of years Okinawans had come to this cave and others like to make offerings to their gods, brew sake, and to protect themselves from danger.

There are some things that are impossible to miss in Okinawa: the jungle’s assertive greenery, flowers blooming regardless of season, shiisa, and an ocean so blue and clear it seems artificial. But there are many more things so old and immovable your eyes glide over them: ruined limestone walls that once protected kings, sugar cane fields bending in the wind, and tombs on tombs on tombs: some new and cared for, some old but well-loved, and some moldering, their sake cups broken and flower jars blown over. Tombs are as plentiful on the island as apartment buildings; the dead take up as much space as the living.

All history is layers: just like people, just like culture. And just like history, to know a person or a culture you must dive into the deep heart of them, beyond the face they show the world. Okinawa has found it advantageous to create a shiny carapace of bright beautiful things that arches over and protects what’s truly precious below the surface.

Thirty-thousand years ago people came to live here, sheltering in the caves. Over time they grew sugar cane, the king crop not to be deposed even by rice.  Eight hundred years ago they built high, fine castle walls, and five hundred years ago they began to bury their loved ones in domed tombs that held generation upon generation of their families. Four hundred years ago they were conquered by Japan, their wealth looted, the carapace cracked. Seventy years ago they hid in the caves and and tombs of their ancestors to save themselves from a terrible war they had neither started nor had the power to end. Today, they dance on schedule and take photos of tourists, packaging the culture and history that are palatable to outsiders, using the money they make from it to rebuild what they’ve lost and hold the deeply precious parts of their culture close.


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