Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Sayonara Kumejima

Sayonara Kumejima

We wake slightly stiff from a night spent sleeping upon futons in a tatami room. There is no buffet breakfast this morning and John asks for change to buy a drink from the ever present vending machines virtually everywhere. He returns with an ice tea for himself and hands me a hot canned coffee. Okinawan drink machines offer both hot and cold selections. I have become accustom to drinking my morning coffee from a heated can when necessary. We sit on the cement stairs of our minchiku with Tadaou and Yuko and together we plan our day. There is a light drizzle of rain as Art and Yuko walk to rent a car in her name. Our ferry leaves at 2:00 P.M., we will share the cost of the car, and they can use the car to sightsee in the afternoon.

G.P.S. system operational, our first stop is the Uezu historical house, a beautifully restored traditional Okinawan home, built in the 1700’s. On our many trips to Okinawa, we have visited other historical houses, owned by wealthy farmers and all are picturesque with beautiful surrounding gardens. The rain ceases and sun bathes the red tile roofs, stone walls and the grounds in a clear morning light. As with most of these historical houses, a hinpun, (spirit wall) sits just inside the stone gate to keep the evil spirits from entering the home. I am becoming enamored with the “hinpun” and wonder how a spirit wall will look in front of our Santa Cruz Victorian?

Next, Yuko drives us to a “Mystery Spot” and when we arrive we find several cars parked and families placing empty drink cans on the pavement. Everyone is exclaiming that the cans are rolling uphill. Art mentions that he is getting a headache and in sympathy I think I might feel a slight ache in my temples. Yuko puts our rental car in neutral and it rolls uphill. We spend 15 minutes on this back stretch of road and I really can’t discern the subtle differences between uphill and downhill, but we all have a good time.

We have a little over 2 hours before we must be at the ferry dock. Art directs Yuko to turn off onto a rural road to visit a cave; a sight is not listed on our tourist map. Traditional houses are scattered along this road, their red tile roofs draped with flowering spring vines. Several immense turtle backed tombs are embedded into a distant hillside. The surrounding farm and jungle is breathtaking. The signage to the cave is not clear and Yuko asks directions from a man in a beat up pick up truck. We follow him, bumping along a rutted, muddy dirt road to a small dirt parking area. As the daughter of a geologist, I have been to many caves in my lifetime. I am not particularly enthused about visiting this one and my expectations are low, but since we are here, we might as well take a look. A shabby cracked cement kiosk sits across from a rusty steel stairway leading down to the caves entrance. Two plump island women attend the kiosk. Entrance to the cave is 800 yen apiece ($7.00) and Art looks at me quizzically? We have become used to Okinawan prices and the $21.00 it will cost our family seems a bit steep, but I nod and we are soon descending the uneven cement stairs to the mouth of the cave. The ground is slick and muddy from the rain, there is no engineered walkway, and the lighting consists of infrequent bare light bulbs. I wonder if we might be electrocuted from the cords stretched across the wet floor of the cave but coveys of sleeping bats are startled by our approach and I forget about any electrical hazards in my enjoyment of the moment. The stalactites and stalagmites are beautiful, surprisingly pristine and mostly undamaged. The cave is 800 meters long, (about half a mile) and each chamber is more wonderful than the last. John is leading the way with Art at his heels, but I am taking my time, taking photographs, and Yuko, who has never been inside a cave, is further behind me with Tadaou. I see daylight ahead and believe that I have come to the end of a lovely cave adventure but when I exit I gasp in amazement as I step into a jungle grotto. Sunlight streams in from above turning the elephant ears and ferns a backlit 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 world above us. 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, the earliest human remains here date back to the 7th and 8th century. Much later, during the 1700’s there were many epidemics and famines and the villagers, unable to deal with the sick and dying took the gravely ill to these caves to recover or die. Traditionally, a year after a death, the bones of a family member are washed by the women and placed in a clay vessel. It is my understanding that many of the vessels here are filled with the bones of these ancient villagers who were taken to this cave grotto for entombment. Over the centuries, earthquakes have broken the vessels, exposing the bones. I am being intentionally vague about the location of this cave and grotto 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.

*The last two paragraphs are repeated from my opening paragraphs of “The Bones of Kumejima.”

I don’t want to leave the grotto, but we are being escorted back by one of the two women from the kiosk. Minutes earlier, enthralled by the magic of the place I whispered to Art that perhaps we should stay on Kumejima another day so that we could spend more time here. John and Tadaou have discovered another cave entrance at the far side of the grotto. They entered it with the light of Tadaou’s cell phone. They crouched and crawled along until they came to a rope ladder and climbed 6 feet up to an unlit chamber. At that moment the battery on Tadaou’s cell phone died and they had to descend, crawl and feel their way back in utter darkness.

The adventures of the day, have made us forget about breakfast or lunch and our ferry leaves shortly. Yuko drives us hurriedly towards port, stopping at a market so we can pick up “bentos” to eat on our ferry ride home. It’s Sunday afternoon, and on the best of days these small market “bentos” would have been questionable, but even as hungry as we are, they look inedible. Art drops John and me at the dock and with 15 minutes to spare, takes off with Yuko and returns with a few snacks for our ferry trip home. Yuko and Tadaou wave up to us from the dock until our ferry is out of the port. I don’t think that our Kumejima Island adventure would have been the same had we not met and shared the experience with our new friends.

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