Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Bones of Kumejima- Part One

The Bones of Kumejima- Part One

I am writing this on our return ferry trip after spending nearly three days on Kumejima.

Two hours ago, by sheer magic, we stumble into a jungle grotto. Sunlight streams in from above turning the elephant ears and ferns a backbit emerald green. Roots and vines entwine with the stalactite formations and large terracotta vessels lay cracked and broken, many filled with human bones. The grotto is large; perhaps 130 feet lengthwise and 50 feet below the ground. Stalactites form one entire sheer wall of the grotto and the other side, also rising steeply up, is rock and compacted red earth. The dense vegetation grows lush in the rich soil and hanging vines cascade down while other jungle plants struggle to root themselves into the steep wall, and grow upward towards the openings of sunlight from above. Midway up the walls of the grotto, on rock ledges and between cracked stalactites are other broken earthenware vessels containing still more bones. It occurs to me that perhaps I should feel frightened, but the grotto is extremely beautiful and I am awed by the magic of this spirit filled utaki.

As we understand it, this burial site was from the 7th and 8th century. Traditionally, a year after a death, the bones of a family member are washed by the women and placed in a clay vessel. Many of the vessels with the bones of these ancient villagers were taken to this cave grotto for entombment. Over the centuries, earthquakes have broken the vessels, exposing the bones. We are also told that during the epidemics, villagers who were very ill were taken here to to die. I am being intentionally vague about the location because it is a private island utaki, not meant for tourism. We misunderstand directions, a sign is missing and we come upon the grotto by mistake. We are politely asked to leave.

Our Kumejima adventure begins at 8:30 Friday morning when the three of us catch the 8:30 A.M. ferry to Kumejima. The ferry is surprisingly full, so we take seats in an open air section and stand topside for most of the trip. We watch the hazy silhouettes of the Zumami Islands growing closer and then watch them fade into the distance. The captain invites us to stand at the front of the ship and for an hour we keep a sharp look out for whales, spotting several. Halfway into the 4 hour ferry passage, a young Japanese couple strikes up a conversation with Art. At this point I am stretched out on a bench enjoying the light breeze and warm sunlight and I listen sleepily, but don’t participate. Both Yuko and Tadanori have just graduated from universities in Tokyo and have jobs that will start in April; Yuko as a computer programmer and Tadanori in sales for a construction company selling “manhole covers.” They are traveling to Kumejima for their last taste of freedom before they begin work. They are smart and charming and speak English and before the ferry docks we exchange business cards and mobile phone numbers.

I have a voucher for a“resort hotel” and have been told that it is a 5 minute walk from the ferry; but I have been told wrong so we hop into a taxi for a 15 minute drive to the other side of the island. The meter reads 1600 yen when we arrive and we regret that we didn’t just rent a car at the ferry terminal. The exterior of the hotel is lovely and John is looking forward to swimming in the hotel’s pool. He races out to the pool and rebounds within 30 seconds to angrily inform us that there is no water in it. He is very disappointed and our idyllic island get way is in serious jeopardy. Its 1:30 P.M. and we are all very hungry and getting crankier by the moment so lunch is our first quest. After a 15 minute stroll down the street to survey our restaurant options, we choose an Okinawan restaurant; the food is good, ample and inexpensive.

With full stomachs we are all more optimistic, and walk a block down to the beach. It’s extremely low tide when we step onto the sand and what remains of any coral lies exposed and slimy brown with velvety seaweed. Along the edge of the high tide mark lays a flotsam and jetsam of bottles, buoys, discarded shoes, broken sea shells and coral. John collects cuttlefish bones and plays catch with Art throwing the football shaped buoys. We walk to the end of the sandy strip, cutting back to the street through the lobby of a resort hotel on the beach. This hotel has two pools, one of which is drained, but the other is filled. The sight of a swimming pool with water sets John off again and I wonder how to save the day. We know there are many wonderful sites on the island and we consider renting scooters, but naturally, John wants to drive his own, but is not old enough, nor will they allow him to ride behind Art. The beach resort strip is about 8 blocks long and earlier we passed a tiny rental car lot. Our plan was to rent a car when we got off the ferry and with the afternoon advancing I pressure Art to rent one now.

$35.00 later Art sits behind the wheel of a miniature automobile while John navigates via the G.P.S. screen. Our first stop is the Tatami Ishi Stones, a hexagonally patterned rock formation along the shoreline. John immediately notes the similarity between this formations and the “Devils Post pile” in Mammoth, California. It takes me a minute to grasp that we might be walking on the top of a “post pile” the surface slanting gently down into the ocean beyond. (Are we correct in our assumptions Dad?)

Our next destination is the Gushikawa, Gusku and John navigates us inland and upward towards the castle remains on the hill. The site is breathtaking. Inland, we have a view of the fertile valley and jungle below; on the other side is the East China Sea. A cloud cover is blowing in and a dozen black crows circle in the gusty late afternoon catching updrafts of wind. We climb the steel grated stairway up to the castle, wish we had jackets and inhale the view. Most of these gusku’s were built in the 13th and 14th century and only portions of the castle wall and the well remain. We drive to a second castle site, the Ueshiro Gusku, on a cliff overlooking the East China Sea. Sago palms and lush jungle foliage are silhouetted by the sun dipping low on the horizon. We are the only visitors at either of these castle sites this afternoon and it is lovely to be stepping over crumbling castle walls in solitude.

Winding back down from the hilltop we navigate to the Mi-fu-ga; an ocean level lava rock arch formation. The lava below and around this archway has formed tidal pools, but they are strangely absent of life except for several recently deceased crabs, most likely caught in the pools as the tide reseeded and cooked in the afternoon sun. The lava is sharp and we tread gingerly across it to the arch way beyond but John is already far ahead of us climbing the inner curve of the monumental arch. We coax him down anxiously since the terrain below him is sharp with jagged lava.

We drive back to the hotel as the sun dips into the ocean, an orange ball of fire.

To be continued……


Susan H. said...

Wow, Marty, sounds like a super trip. Can't help but ask if you are all ok post-earthquake. Heard there was some shaking going on! Hopefully you are all safe and sound. xoxo Susan

Marty Magic said...

What Earthquake?