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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Nago City's Cherry Blossom Festival

Lanterns at the Cherry Blossom Festival

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Nago Cherry Blossom Festival

     N 26 35.245E 127 58.925

Nago City's Cherry Blossom Festival (Sakura Matsuri, 名護市 桜祭り)

Late January to early February, Nago City hosts the Cherry Blossom Festival at the Nangusuku Castle Site Park across from the Orion Brewery. Thousands of visitors come and take delight in the cherry blossoms as they ascend up the hillside park; and up above you can gaze upon the vast surrounding landscape of Nago City with the East China Sea and the Motobu Peninsula in the backdrop. The festival is a two-day weekend event. See festival information below.

Festival Information.
When: Two-day weekend event, typically end of January/early February. (2015 January 31 to February 1)
Time: 11am - 9pm, Saturday & Sunday
Night Viewing: Typically, the week before the festival starts the stairway lanterns will be turned on in the evening till the last day of the festival (6pm - 10pm)
Admission Fee: Free
Amenities: Food Stands (Yen only)/Restrooms Available (various locations)
Baby Strollers/Wheelchairs: The park has a network of paved roads to help you navigate through the park. However, there will be areas with steps and makeshift stairs. Plan accordingly.
Parking: The main parking area will be at the Nago Fishing Port (near Highway 58). It is about a 10 minute walk to the main festival area. Scroll map to the west to see fishing port.
Website: (Japanese only). Translation may be required.

Note: If you have never been to the Nangusuku Castle Site Park, prepare for a lot of walking up the the hillside. Road networks (closed to vehicle traffic during the festival period) traverse up the mountain aiding you to view the entire park on foot; The long stairway to the hillside shrine is little over a 450 steps. The stairway is optional; a road can also take you near the small shrine as well.

Directions. (Recommendations) Because this event falls on the weekend, heavy traffic is expected at the merger of Exit 10 (Expressway) and Highway 58. Additionally, it will not be uncommon to see traffic backed up on the Expressway from Exit 10. Option 1. (If using the Expressway), Recommend departing off Exit 9 (Ginoza Village) and then take Highway 329 north into Nago City. Then proceed north on Highway 58. The Nago Fishing Port (event parking area) will be on your left side (west of Highway 58). Option 2. Take Highway 329 north into Nago City. Then proceed north on Highway 58. The Nago Fishing Port (event parking area) will be on your left side (west of Highway 58).

Other Cherry Blossom Festivals on Okinawa. Mt. Yaedake Cherry Blossom Festival, Nakijin Castle Night Illumination (Cherry Blossoms).

Related Links. The Nangusuku Castle Site Park

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Nakijin Castle Night Illumination (Cherry Blossom Festival)

Nakijin Castle Night Display (Picture taken in 2012)

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Nakijin Castle Night Display (Cherry Blossom Season)

    N 26 41.552E 127 55.677

Nakijin Castle Night Illumination, Cherry Blossom Festival 

Nakijin Castle has one unique feature that separates itself from other UNESCO Castles here on Okinawa. For about two weeks during the cherry blossom season, the evening hours are extended to the public and Nakijin Castle 'lights' up in an array of evening glory,...and if the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, you will see these pretty flowers like never before. During this special nighttime occasion, Nakijin Castle becomes one of the most romantic places here on Okinawa.

Basic Information.
When: Normally the last two weeks of January and early February. (2015 January 17 to February 1)
Time: Special hours during cherry blossom season 8am to 9pm (last admission is 830pm)
Admission Fee (to enter the castle): As of 2013, 300 yen for children, and 400 yen for adults. (Check website for current information.
Website: or (Japanese only). Translator may be required.

Special Events. Normally there is an opening ceremony to kick off the night display with special events spread out during the next two weeks (normally happening on weekends). You can navigate through the Nakijin Village website (above) if you wish to see current schedule of events.

What to bring. During this season, it can become very cold and windy. Please dress appropriately. Definitely bring a camera.

Camera Recommendations. The night display offers great opportunities for photography, but you do have to have a basic understanding of your camera to take full advantage of your 'Kodak' moment. If you are new to photography, it is highly encouraged that you study the shutter speed and ISO settings on your camera first. Understanding these fundamentals will make a world of difference on your nighttime photography. Bringing a tripod is also highly recommended for this type of night time occasion. 

Amenities/Facilities/Parking. Food stands, toilets, indoor shelter facilities, and parking spaces are available on site. Wheel chairs; Unfortunately because of its historical nature, the castle compound is not wheel chair accessible. Baby Strollers; There are many uneven surfaces and stairs inside the castle compound. Bring baby strollers at your own discretion. 

Directions. The most simple route is to take Highway 58 north and turn on Highway 449 going into Motobu. Then take Highway 505 to Highway 115.  You will be approaching Nakijin Castle from the north.You will also see plenty of signs directing you to the castle location. An alternate route and more direct is to take Highway 58 north and then Highway 449. From there take Highway 84 east. Shortly after take Highway 115 going north. You will be arriving to Nakijin Castle from the south. 

Cherry Blossoms on Yaedake (Mt. Yae)

Cherry Blossoms during peek season on Mt. Yae

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Cherry Blossoms on Yaedake

     N 26 39.414E 127 54.696

        *GPS to Mt. Yae Entrance

Cherry Blossoms on Yaedake (Sakura Matsuri, 桜祭り)

Cherry Trees in Okinawa Prefecture are said to bloom before anywhere else in Japan. Mid-January marks Cherry Blossom season and every year, thousands of visitors travel to Yaedake and Nakijin Castle, to see the first blooms. It is claimed that over 7000 Cherry Trees occupy the hillside of Mt. Yae.(1) The Cherry Trees found here (Prunus campanulata maxim)(1)  are different than those found in Mainland Japan. They are said to come from Taiwan and southern regions of China.(1) Every year, the Motobu Town Office sets up a Cherry Blossom Festival or Sakura Matsuri (桜祭り) towards the latter part of January for about two weeks. Below is basic information for the Yaedake Cherry Blossom Festival.

Festival Information.
When: Normally the last two weeks of January and early February. (2015 January 17 to February 1)
Time: There are no opening or closing hours to enter. However, the best time to view the flowers is during the day.
Peak Viewing Time. Typically, last week of January.
Admission Fee: Free
Amenities: Food Stands/Restrooms Available (various locations)
Parking: Available (various locations). Parking attendants should be available to direct traffic.
Website: Motobu Town Website (Japanese only). Translator may be required.

Recommendation (Please Read). Expect heavy traffic up the hill on Mt. Yae during the festival period. If you wish to see Cherry Blossoms without the traffic, it is recommended that you see them the week prior (though they may not be in full bloom). There are different access routes to Mt. Yae as you can see on the map above. However, the blue route has Cherry Trees along both sides till you get close to the top (Note. You cannot reach all the way up Yaedake. There is a communications tower that is off limits to non-official personnel). Because the Yaedake and Nakijin Castle Cherry Blossom Festival coincide, you may want to see both in one trip. The Nakijin Castle Night Illumination during the festival period has the edge over any Cherry Blossom Festival after hours. Please see article, Nakijin Castle Night Illumination (Cherry Blossom Festival).

1. Okinawa Story (Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau (OCVB))
2. Motobu Town Office.

What to Bring. Camera, warm clothing, Cash (Yen)

Related Articles. Nakijin Castle Night Illumination (Cherry Blossom Festival)

Directions. Take Highway 58 into Nago City, then Highway 449 to Motobu Town. You will then want to take Highway 84 heading east. You will see a sign marking the Mt. Yae Entrance (Pink Thumbtack in the map above).

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Yabu Temple, Ryounin

The Yabu Temple, Nago City

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The Yabu Temple

     N 26 36.342E 127 57.127

The Yabu Temple, Ryounin - Nago City

The Yabu Temple (屋部寺) is a small Buddhist temple believed to originated some time in the 17th century. The temple resides in the town of Yabu of Nago City bordering the coastline along Highway 449 on the Motubu Peninsula. Formally, the temple is named Ryōun'in (凌雲院). The original temple was destroyed during the Okinawan War.(1)(2)(i) It was later rebuilt in 1956.(1)(2)(ii)

Though the temple is quite small, it was officially recognized by the Old Ryukyu government along with three of its local legends.(2)(3) The temple, and its legends, were recorded in an official document known as the Kyuu-you (or Kyuyo).(3)(iii) It is an historical account of the Ryukyu islands that was completed in 1745. James Robinson author of the book, Okinawa: A People and their Gods, published in 1969, also writes of one legend that have similarities to those in the official record. It's not certain if his account was derived from local villagers or from official documents belonging to the Ryukyu government. The following is a breakdown of those legends.

Legends derived from the Kyuyo
Legend One.(3) In the year 1692, drought had plagued the village of Yabu. Around the same time, sporadic fires too had wreaked havoc on the village. In an act of desperation, a Buddhist monk by the name of Ryun Washo was asked to bring prosperity to Yabu. The monk granted their request and prayed for seven days on a large stone at the base of the hill. On the seventh day rain had finally come saving the village from despair. The once problematic fires too ceased their torment on the townspeople. In his honor and to show their gratitude the villagers erected the small temple. The rock that Ryun Washo had meditated on still sits behind the temple untouched and unmarked. It sits inconspicuously in its natural environment. A documented photograph can be found on page 51 of the Yabu Historical Chronicles.(2) An photograph taken in December 2014 is shown here.

Legend Two.(3) Behind temple lived a very large snake up in the hills. It was said that this snake could blow fire from its mouth. The people frantically requested help from a Chuzan kingdom lord. The lord agreed and dispatched a man by the name of Kinjo-san from the Tenkai Temple [Note. It wasn't clear by the translation if Kinjo-san was a monk and it is not certain by the author where the Tenkai Temple is located]. Kinjo-san prayed fervently and the snake was defeated. Later, Kinjo-san had placed a large statue of Buddha inside the temple to mark the occasion. [Note. The statue is believed by the author to be the one in the middle seen in this picture].

Legend Three.(3) One day a Buddhist monk from Shuri had visited the temple. He had said that the large hill behind the temple showed great promise [perhaps indicating its spiritual value, author assertion]. However, he said that there was a split within the hills that resembled a snake's mouth. He declared that this was a bad omen under the concept of Feng Shui (Fu Sui in Japanese).(iv)(v) However, to offset this premonition the monk then placed seven statues of Buddha inside the temple to thwart off any misfortune.[Note: those statues can be seen here inside the temple].

After his work was completed, the monk decided to return to Shuri. A man from Yabu was sent with him to assist with his belongings. When they arrived back to Shuri, the monk had made a prophetic comment to the Yabu villager. He said, “tomorrow will be my death, so today please eat from the ufurunme [a type of hospitality dish?] on my behalf before you return to Yabu".(vi) As foretold, the monk passed away the very next day.

Legend from James Robinson's Research.(1) James Robinson, in his 1969 book, writes “there was a spirit named 'Akamata' which had the power to transform himself into a handsome young man”. However, Robinson does not add much in his book about the spirit's sinister deeds other than trying to lure a farmer's daughter. Interesting however, he does explain that an Enkakuji Temple monk by the name of Ryun Washo (same person from Legend One above) came from Shuri and defeated the spirit 'Akamata' by use of incantations. The Yabu Temple was then built in honor of Buddha. [Note. It is important to note that the word 'akamata' is a type of snake found in the Okinawan islands. A picture can be seen here, photographed by Shawn Miller. It's not uncommon to find snakes in Okinawan legends. See Related Links below for other snake legends of Okinawa.]

Local Ceremonies. On October 15th of the old calendar (kyureki/lunar calendar) some of Yabu's elderly and prominent townspeople preside over prayer ceremonies within the district. Ceremonies are held at 10 different places in sequential order. It is to give thanks and to pray for the the town's prosperity. The Yabu Temple is third in the order of ceremonies.(2) The ceremonies are typically lead by a kaminchu, a term meaning spiritual leader in the Okinawa language.

The Yabu Temple during New Years (Jan 1 - 3)
Local Villagers, as well as some from the nearby area, come to the Yabu Temple to celebrate New Years Day. A small ceremony starts around 2345 (1145pm) on December 31st. For those who wish to attend the Yabu Temple during New Years, below is the general sequence of events to help you through the process.

General Sequence of Events. Please note, the Yabu Temple is not a Shinto Shrine. However, there are similarities to attending both temples and shrines during New Years. The Yabu Temple is small so the process is typically is more simplified. 
1. Entering the Premise. There is a small gate entrance. This is not a torii gate. However, the gate does alert visitors they are entering a sacred area.
2. Purification Fountain. There are no purification fountains at the Yabu Temple. Typically, these kinds of fountains are found at major Shinto Shrines.
3. Omikuji (optional). People who attend the temple have the option of receiving their fortune for the New Year. This fortune is called an omikuji and can be purchased for about 100 Yen. [Note. Because of the low expected volume of foreign visitors to the temple, the omikuji here at the Yabu Temple is typically written in Japanese]. You can either take the fortune with you or tie it to a tree branch or place provided. Depending on whether your fortune is great or not, it is believed that by leaving it at the shrine or temple grounds, your fortune will either multiply in prosperity or bad luck will be diverted.(5)
4. Approaching the Temple. Typically there will be a line to approach the temple. As you approach the temple you will notice a saisen, a box where you deposit monetary offerings, anywhere from 5¥ to 100¥.
5. Prayer. Normally, you pray after you make your monetary offering. Most people bow and clap twice and say a small prayer in silence. Some may just fold there hands.
6. Ringing of the Temple Bell (optional). After you have said your prayers, individuals, couples, or family members are welcome to ring the temple bell. For proper etiquette, this is just done once as an entity.

1. Book, Okinawa: A People and their Gods, 1969, James Robinson, Tuttle Publishing Company, pg 59, Link
2. Book, Yabu Historical Chronicles, 2002 October 27 (Japanese), published by the Town of Yabu, pg 52
3. Information Handout, Ryounin - The Yabu Temple, Published by the Town of Yabu, Image Link
4. Website, Compilation of Official Histories and Establishment of the Legal System, Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education, Link
5. Website, Shinto Shrines, Japan Guide, Link

Author's Notes.
i. The references stated that the original temple was destroyed during the Okinawan War but it did not specify details as to who or what caused its destruction.
ii. In James Robison's research he states that the temple was rebuilt in 1957. However, the Yabu Historical Chronicles, a more recent publication, states it was rebuilt in 1956.
iii. The Kyuyo is a compilation of historical events that took place in the Old Kingdom. It was completed in 1745. It also contains legends found throughout the Old Kingdom.(4)
iv. In essence, Feng Shui deals with the balance of nature. More can be read about it here at
v. It's not certain where this split or "snakes mouth" is in relation to the temple. There is a split (now a road) that goes between two hills next to the Yabu Temple. See picture here
vi. The term ufurunme could not be found in any official resource. But interviews with Okinawan people have lead us to believe it is an Okinawan word meaning some kind of hospitality food. The latter suffix -me can mean food in the Okinawan language. Additionally, during some Okinawa funerals, family members of the deceased eat from a specially prepared meal called usande (ウサンデー) . It is not certain if the two terms have identical meaning in this context. It was theorized during this research that ufurunme could possibly be dialect from an aristocratic society, such as that found at Shuri during the Old Kingdom. As stated, there are no official references as of yet to support any of this.

Parking/Amenities. Parking. You will have to park somewhere off to the side of the road near the temple grounds. There is a parking field across the from the temple but it is own by the nursery school and gated. It may be open for the New Years. Amenities. There is a walk ramp leading up to the temple for baby strollers and those using a wheel chair.

Directions. Take Highway 58 into Nago City. Then take Highway 449 (coastline) going towards Motubu. Please study the map carefully. You will pass the Yabu Post Office (on the right) before you reach the turn-off (on the right), about 400 meters later. The turn-off is not easily recognizable. Warning. You are more likely to pass the turn-off the first time around. Be careful of making sudden stops as you see the turn-off. It will sneak up on you. See picture of turn-off here. In the interest of safety, if you pass it just turn around later. Avoid making sudden stops. There typically is a high volume of traffic on the main route. From the turn-off, follow the Blue Vehicle route designated in the map above. LandMarks (yellow diamond icons) have been placed to help you reach the temple.

Related Articles (Snake Legends of Okinawa). The Matsuda Cave & Mega Gama Ruins, Legend of Yara Muruchi.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Hatsumode, New Years at the Naminoue Shrine

Hatsumode, New Years at Naminoue Shrine

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Hatsumode, Naminoue Shrine

     N 26 13.142E 127 40.134
        *GPS to Pink Thumbtack Icon

Hatsumode, Naminoue Shrine

It is a Japanese tradition to start off the New Year with a visit to a Shinto Shrine. In Japanese this is called hatsumode (hatsumōde, はつもうで, 初詣) which literally means “first visit to a shrine”. Typically, families try to go on the very first day of the New Year. Others, because of their work schedule for example, may attend on the second or third day. Usually, people visit Shinto Shrines for hatsumode, but they can also visit Buddhist temples with the same aspirations. Some Japanese or Okinawan people choose to go to a certain shrine (or shrines) based on personal or local beliefs. This could depend on the person's zodiac sign and/or the upcoming zodiac year.

The Naminoue Shrine is without question the most popular Shinto Shrine in the Ryukyu Islands. Many people visit here on New Year's Day. Below is the general sequence of events on visiting the shrine on this occasion. With a few minor exceptions, it is no different than visiting any other Shinto Shrine on any given day. If you feel uncomfortable going alone, ask a Japanese friend to accompany you. Staff members at Naminoue are accustom to foreigners attending this shrine. You need not fear, just go with a little humility and patience.

Date: January 1st starting at midnight usually to January 3rd or longer.

General Sequence of Events.
1. Entering the Premises. Enter the Naminoue Shrine through the torii gate. The torii gate lets travelers know they are about to enter a sacred area. It is considered proper etiquette to stop and bow just before you enter.
 2. The Purification Fountain/Cleansing of the Body. The following is based on questions and interviews with various Japanese and Okinawan people. No official guide can be referenced on this process and not everyone may follow these steps exactly. Some may even skip it all together. But the below guidelines are the most complete. It is recommended that you observe others during this process first. The fountain at Naminoue will be on your left if you are facing the Main Prayer Hall (haiden, 拝殿).
Step 1. Approach the trough and with your right hand, pick up the ladle and scoop the "pure water" from the basin or fountain.
Step 2. Pour the water to clean your left hand. NOTE: When you are washing your hand do not let the water fall back into the pure water basin after cleansing. Let the water rinse off on the outside of the basin onto the ground. This prevents the now "soiled water" from falling back into the pure water basin
Step 3. Next, take the ladle with the left hand and pour the water over your right hand using guidelines in Step 2.
Step 4. (Optional) Next, you are to clean the body by taking the ladle with the right hand and making a cup with your left hand. Pour water into your left hand and then pour it into your mouth. DO NOT SWALLOW IT or GARGLE LOUD. Just rinse it quietly in your mouth for a few seconds and quietly spit it out onto the ground. Try to do this in a very respectful manner. 
Step 5. Finally, you will take the ladle with your right hand again, pour some water into it and tip the ladle up so that the water pours down the ladle. You are now cleansing the ladle.
3. Standing in Line/Approaching the Main Prayer Hall (haiden, 拝殿). On New Years there will be a long line in front of the Main Prayer Hall (haiden), but it moves rather quickly. As you approach the haiden, normally you would find a saisen box where you would deposit your monetary offering (saisen). In the case of Naminoue during New Years this box may not be present. Because of the expected large crowds, coins are thrown in an open lot instead. Most people deposit somewhere between 5¥ to 100¥.
4. Prayer. After you make your monetary offering, bow and clap twice and say a small prayer in silence. You will either exit to the left or right as people behind you step forward.

Omikuji/Omamori. After you have made your offerings and prayers, a common custom is to then obtain your fortune for that year. This is called an Omikuji. It will be a little folded-up paper with your fortune on it. Typically you pay a small sum, such as 100¥ and then you randomly pick it from a box. At Naminoue, you can ask for an English version. It is traditional to then tie your fortune on a place provided. You can also purchase an Omamori, which is essentially a good luck charm. There are varieties to choose from and some serve specific purposes. For example, you can purchase an omamori for exam testing or driver safety. Most people tend to get one for general health and prosperity.

Parking. On New Years Day parking will be problematic. Fortunately, most people do not stay very long and thus there will be a continuous flow of people leaving. Additionally, near the shrine you will find parking attendants moving the traffic along. People also park at a distance and then walk to the shrine. The Green Thumbtack icon in the map above is the parking lot closest to the shrine and closest to the main road. Other parking attendants may direct you to other parking locations. You will most likely see a steady flow of cars lined up. Expect to wait anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. This could vary based on the time of day. You will have to pay to park, typically around 500¥. Other parking locations may vary.

Directions. Because of the lack of Highway signs, written instructions will be more complicated. Please study the map carefully. The Blue Route is the easiest to follow from Highway 58. The Green Route however may be easier to access the parking area but little harder to navigate to.

What to Bring. Plan for cold weather and rain no matter what the forecast. Bring an umbrella, warm coat, Yen/change, and a camera.

1. Japan Guide, Visiting Temples and Shrines
2. Japan National Tourism Organization, New Year in Japan