Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ryukyu Mura & the Yomitan

Ryukyu Mura & the Yomitan

Takaaki is driving us to the Yomitan district. It is easy to pry John out of bed with an excursion to anticipate. It’s a bright sunny day and our first stop is the Ryukyu Mura, an enclosed tourist park that is the recreation of a historical Ryukyu village. I have read, (or misread) that there is a Habu (Snake) and Mongoose fight and I know that John will enjoy this. When we arrive at the gate, we find out that the snake and mongoose fight is in the form of a 3D movie. Not reading Japanese, I assumed that this “fight” would be a humanely supervised encounter of mongoose and snake. John is obviously disappointed but we pay our entrance to the village and add on the few hundred yen necessary to see the Habu and Mongoose encounter in 3D. We are handed special glasses as we enter and the 4 of us sit in a small darkened tiered theatre. A mongoose and habu are on the stage in separated enclosures and a professorial looking man in a white smock talks excitedly about these two animals. Art translates as best he can, but most of the “hype” is lost to John and me. The habu, draped over a stick, is waved over the audience and children gasp and lean away from the dangling snake. The curtains part and a very low tech 3D movie unfold. The animated mongoose and snake encounter is so absurd that one must laugh and accept the performance for what it is. The film is over within 10 minutes and we file past information and photographs displayed along the wall. Happily, 6 years ago, habu and mongoose fights were outlawed but then we enter a small shop that is literally selling “snake oil.” We are graciously handed small folded papers containing a pinch of yellow habu powder. Initially I decline, but when Art and Takaaki take the powdered habu, I think of my good friend Stephanie with all her magic herbal remedies and accept the folded paper and chase down the “medicinal” habu with water. John is not allowed to have any. As we move further into the store, I see snake skin wallets and belts for sale. I regret having accepted powder and contributing to the demise of these graceful reptiles. No snake oil for me!

Bougainvilleas and morning glories vines bloom and the village glows in the afternoon sunlight. Many of these historical houses have been moved here from other parts of Okinawa so there is a sense of history here. A kneeling kimono clad musician plays the sanshin inside one of the rooms. A shansin is a traditional Okinawan three stringed instrument. Another house is devoted to weaving, the looms set and ready and for a small price you can weave a piece of fabric. A pottery studio is fully operational and Shisas are lined up waiting to be fired. We head in the direction of the Taiko drumming to watch a performance of Eisa; a drumming Troup accompanied by vocalists. Ryukyu Mura is a well orchestrated blend of reenactment and history.

It’s 1:30 P.M. when we leave and Takaaki suggests a fish restaurant for lunch and drives us up the coast just north of Yomitan. The tide is at its lowest and the white sand and water reflect vibrant shades of turquoise and emerald. A dozen distant figures are gathering seaweed offshore. We climb the stairs to an upscale restaurant with a view of the crescent bay and eat a delicious but rather expensive lunch. Throughout most of my “blog” I have noted that food and accommodations on Okinawa are considerably less expensive than in the bay area, but today’s restaurant is an exception. We order 4 teishokus, (a teishoku is a set plate that includes miso soup, rice and pickled vegetables in addition to the entrĂ©e.) Takaaki orders a whole fish that is presented head and all, white fogged eyes gazing up blindly. Knowing how a whole fish would be served, John and I have wimped out and ordered Ebi Fry and “select” pieces of fried fish. All is delicious and our bill is close 5,500 Yen; about $50.00 for the four of us. Both the view and the food are exceptional and it is still a bargain by California standards.

Art is carrying the “Okinawa Explorer” guidebook and with book in hand we set out on an adventure to find the “Takayamaa Gushuku.” This ancient prayer site is supposedly situated on the crest of a hill in the Zakami area. We turn off of Hwy 58 onto route 12 and after a few wrong turns, we follow a dirt road to a recycling plant. The road ends and we find ourselves in a rural farming area. Takaaki tells us that he thinks that this Utaki quest is a “bad idea” and waits in the car while Art, John and I set out to find this spiritual place. The path is tangled in vegetation, but the directions in the guidebook are clear. Art pauses at a fork and asks me if I think that the path to the right might be the one? I have a few misgivings as I lead the way and step knee deep into creeping vines and underbrush, but there is a shadow of a trail and only the spider webs catching onto my arms deter me. The jungle is beautiful and the foliage is back lit by the sunlight as I power up the almost invisible path. The climb is steep and short and we emerge upon a small utaki at the crest of the hill. Noro priestesses revered this magical spot where a single palm tree stands rooted onto a piece of limestone.

Our last side trip is to visit the tomb of Sho Hashi, the first king of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Getting there is another adventure and Takaaki drives us several kilometers’ along a dirt road to the spot where we think we should begin our hike. The jungle is deliciously backlit with golden rays of sunlight, the narrow path slick with mud and decomposed leaves. It is a short walk to the tomb and when we arrive I am awed by a monumental aka tree; vines and tendrils cascading down forming a natural cathedral above this ancient tomb. It is a beautiful and magical setting for a burial ground.

Traffic is extremely heavy on the way back and Takaaki may be late for a 5:00 P.M. meeting. We walk the final few blocks back to our apartment and hope that Takaaki makes his meeting on time.

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