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Thursday, April 3, 2014

"The Purple Iris Fields of Kijoka"

Standing Watch! A purple iris stands tall

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The Purple Iris Fields of Kijoka

     N 26 42.402E 128 08.944

The Purple Iris Fields of Kijoka

Aside from the Kijoka Falls, the town of Kijoka also hosts a very beautiful green field full of purple irises. The general blooming time for these flowers here in Okinawa is between the late month of March through early to mid-April. Just like the Cherry Blossoms, timing is critical if you want to see these flowers in their best performance. The roughly 1 square km field of lush green iris stems and leaves highlight these purple wonders under the morning sun.

The exact scientific classification of these simple flowers, however, has proven to be somewhat more complex. Conflicting scientific terms have surfaced. They are part of the Iridaceae Family, but the exact specie type is left to question. Research sources, such as The Society for Japanese Irises, The Iris Encyclopedia, and The American Iris Society were reviewed, but an exact classification could not yet be determined with 100% accuracy (This post will be updated upon new findings).

One thing is for certain however, is that the Okinawans refer to this particular iris as 'Okurareruka' (written in Katakana as オクラレルカ). There is a species called 'Iris ochroleuca' with the second half of the name mimicking the pronunciation 'Okurareruka' in Japanese. However, conflicting images have surfaced depicting the flower as all white instead of purple. It is quite possible that these purple irises of Kijoka were initially given the classification of 'Iris ochroleuca' and later found to be of a different kind, while the name, 'Okurareruka', had taken root among the Okinawans.

Kijoka is found in Ogimi Village and they have provided a website link displaying the blooming phases of the Kijoka Iris Fields. Please visit link (Japanese).

Blooming Season. Late March to early to mid-April. Best time to view is 7-10 days after first bloom. 

Related Articles. For other related images of the Kijoka Purple Iris Field, see Mike's Ryukyu Gallery at:

Directions. The directions is the same as if you were going to the Kijoka Falls. If you are going north on Highway 58, look for the 'Bashofu Weaving Workshop' sign to know where to turn off (start of the blue route in the map above). After the turn make the first right. Follow this road and continue straight. Instead of turning right at the LandMark Building that takes you to the Kijoka Falls, continue straight. Once you pass this LandMark, you will want to look to your left and look for the lush green fields. It's not difficult to find. Navigate your way through and park in some of the open areas provided. Avoid parking in areas that might disrupt traffic.

Other places of interest nearby. The Kijoka Falls.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Hajiusui Monument

The Hajiusui Monument

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The Hajiusui Monument

     N 26 37.213E 128 05.088

The Hajiusui Monument (恥うすい碑), Nago City

Along a stretch of road that crosses from Nago City to Higashi Village is a monument dedicated to an old legend. It is a story about two lovers; about a man and a woman in a romantic entanglement, whose lives would be short lived as their fate would parallel that of another familiar tale, Romeo and Juliet.
Long ago, there was a man from Genka and a woman from Arume that had fallen in love. Though they both lived far away, the great distance was not enough to keep the two lovers from seeing each other. In secret, the two would always meet at a certain time along a trail that connected the two villages.
But one day the man did not show. Puzzled and worried, the woman decided to look for him in his village. She eventually found him (at a place called yagamayaa). But what she saw left her heartbroken. She had found him with another woman. The man had been carousing all day, and in his drunken state, his wits had left him. Whether he had realized it or not, he was at the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing. The shattered woman had seen it all.

She scurried back along the trail to the very place they would meet...and in a broken state of mind, she took her life.

It was much, much later that the man had finally come to his senses. Realizing he had forgotten about his lover, he too hurried back in a desperate rush. But what he saw next left him in utter disbelief. There, a motionless body, his lover... forever gone. Grief-stricken with guilt, the man could do only one thing.

He would follow her in death.
Epilogue. The story is believed to have taken place some time during the Meiji Period.(2) Since then, nearby villagers would lay leaves and branches along the trail near the location their bodies were found – an act of symbolism to cover their bodies. The expression Hajiusui (恥うすい) contains both Japanese and Okinawan words. In Japanese, Haji (恥) means shame and usui (うすい) is Okinawan meaning to cover.(2)(i) Hajiusui could then be interpreted as “the covering of one's shame”. It was said that when a traveler found the dead lovers, they were lying side by side naked. Metaphorically speaking, covering the naked bodies was to cover their shame.

The Trail. Behind the stone monument are cement steps that leads to a trail going east and west. However, going in either direction quickly becomes a dead end of overgrown vegetation. It is not certain by the author if this was part of the actual trail in the story or was created as an act of symbolism. The trail that once connected Arume and Genka is long gone replaced now by the current highway (Highway 14).

The Writing on the Stone. The writing on the stone monument is a poem. It gives a message to travelers about taking courage and having patience as you make the long journey up through the mountains.

A Forbidden Romance? There was no exact explanation given on why the two lover's had to meet in secrecy, or perhaps why their relationship was frowned upon. The Northern National Highway Department of Okinawa does give some background to the Hajiusui Monument on their website. They had mentioned that long ago in Okinawa, marriages between a man and woman from different villages was often met with disapproval. But it does not specify the reasons why. This opens up another interesting puzzle about old Okinawa and how societal views and family politics had a lot more to say about marriages than one's personal feelings.

i. Usui in the Japanese language means thin. The official highway sign uses Kanji and Hiragana to spell out Hajiusui (恥うすい). Typically, foreign words (to include the Okinawan language) are written in Katakana. However, for certain specialty signs (such as for advertising) it is not uncommon to see foreign words written in Hiragana. For example the word tobacco is sometimes written in Hiragana as とばこ versus its Katakana counterpart トバコ.
ii. There may be different versions of the Hajiusui Monument. This particular version was derived from the Nago City Memorial Information Handbook. See reference.

1. Nago City Memorial Information Handbook, Nago City Board of Education, March 31, 2001, Pg 136 (Japanese)
2. Website, Cabinet Office, Okinawa General Bureau, Northern National Highway Department

Directions/Parking. The Hajiusui Monument is in the northern part of Nago City and is right next to Highway 14. Take Highway 58 north into Nago City then head east on Highway 14 for about 3.5 km. You will see a highway sign with the words "Hajiusui" on it. The Monument will be on the right hand side. A small parking lot is available, however, the entrance way is slightly damaged. Please use caution when turning into the lot.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Yamagawa Kakiuchi Gongen Cave

The Yamagawa Kakiuchi Gongen Cave

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Yamagawa Kakiuchi Gongen

     N 26 40.749E 127 53.076

Yamagawa Kakiuchi Gongen Cave

Near a small inlet in the town of Yamagawa off the Motobu Peninsula lies a small cave called the Yamagawa Kakiuchi-Gongen Cave. Local villagers here refer to her as Hachinuchigunjin (meaning uncertain).(1) The kanji for the formal name, Kakiuchi (垣内), does give reference to a 'fence within' but its metaphoric interpretation is unclear. What is known, however, is that the cave is considered to be on holy ground. Excavations also have unearthed pottery and relics believed to date back between the 10th and 12th Century.(1,2,3) 

The term Gongen. The suffix term, gongen can trace its roots to both Buddhism and Shintoism. The term essentially describes an avatar-like being.(4) More thoroughly put, gongen is simply the manifestation of Buddha in human form. This term, however, was used under the auspices of Shintoism under the concept of honji suijaku, a belief that Buddha deities can appear as kami's (Shinto deities).(5,6) Though not all Shintoist shared this belief, the concept evolved perhaps at a time when Buddhism was becoming more and more popular in Old Japan, where Shintoism, the indigenous and more dominant religion at the time, was losing favor to Buddhism. In essence, the concept was a way to harmoniously combine the two religions without Shintoism losing its legitimacy (author's speculation). This harmonization became known as shinbutsu shûgô.(7) This assimilation movement was later abolished by the Japanese government on March 28, 1868 during the Meiji Restoration in what became known as shinbutsu bunri, the separation of Buddhism and Shintoism.(8) As for the Yamagawa cave in Motobu, it is not clear what connection exist (if there is one to begin with) between either religions or why it received the title of Gongen. This is pending further investigation.

Recommendations. Though the cave is extremely small it is still considered sacred and continues to house burial urns. Entrance is highly ill-advised. Additionally, the entrance is extremely narrow and any attempt to enter my cause damage to the cave. Any geocaching activity (physical emplacement of an object) should be avoided in the immediate area.

1. Motobu Town Website Site ( Yamagawa Kakiuchi-Gongen).
2. Cultural Assets of Okinawa, Education Commission of Okinawa Prefecture, March 31 1975, Pg 125
3. Gusuku Period, Okinawa Prefectural Education website.
4. Gongen; definition, Encyclopedia of Shinto, website link.
5. Honji suijaku;  definition, website link.
6. Maitreya, the Future Buddha: Edited by Alan Sponberg and Helen Hardacre,CUP Archive, 1988, pgs          251-252, Google Book Link.
7. Shinbutsu shûgô; definition, Encyclopedia of Shinto, website link.
8. Shinbutsu bunri; definition, Encyclopedia of Shinto, website link.

Directions. Take Highway 58 into Nago City. Then take Highway 449 going towards the Motobu Peninsula. Then take Highway 114 as if you are heading towards the Churaumi Aquarium. About 400 meter after making this turn you will turn left at this LandMark (Group of Signs). Follow the blue designated route to till you reach this dead end. The cave will be next to this LandMark.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Tsutsuji Matsuri - The Azalea Festival"

Admiring the Azaleas 

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Tsutsuji Matsuri (The Azalea Festival)

     N 26 38.235E 128 09.413

Tsutsuji Matsuri (Azalea Festival), Higashi Village

Every March, Higashi Village hosts the Azalea Festival, or better known to the Okinawans as 'Tsutsuji Matsuri'. The Azaleas are part of the genus Rhododendron, with these particular flowers being part of the subgenus 'Tsutsuji' (or 'Tsutsusi'), which are evergreen Azaleas versus their North American counterparts that are deciduous in nature (leaves fall off in the fall). The festival occurs at the Azalea park about 500 meters away from Highway 70. The festival itself last about 3 weeks long with various events and entertainment spread out during this period. However, you can still view the Azaleas for the entire month of March. Please visit the Higashi Village website for more information (Japanese only). They will have a schedule of major events and entertainment during the festival period.

The park itself is a nice walk on both high and low ground. Down below are small nature walk areas where you can see the Higashi greenery and some of the streams that flow between the hills. High up on the hills are several areas where you can view down and out toward the Higashi landscape. If you love nature and especially flowers, then this is great place to bring the family.

Time Frame: Entire Month of March (2014 Festival Period March 1-23, Flowering Viewing March 1-31)
Time: 9am-6pm
Entrance Fee. 300 Yen for High School Students and above, free for Middle School and below, and free admission for people with a disability
(For update and current information please visit website below)
Phone number for festival information.  098 043 2265
Food stands. Hot foods starnds are available during the festival period
Stroller Friendly. For the most part, the park is baby stroller friendly

For related articles on the Tsutsuji Matsuri see, 
2012 Azalea Festival Photo Essay by Michael Lynch (Mike's Ryukyu Gallery)

For information about Azaleas, please visit,

Directions. Take Highway 329 into Nago City. Then take Highway 331 going north on the eastern side of Okinawa. From Highway 331 take Highway 70. Look for the road signs off of Highway 70 that point to the Azalea Park. During the festival period you may see numerous banner flags along the road side that lead you to the Park. See map for other landmarks of the area.

Other places of interest nearby: The Sakishima Sappanwood Tree (Higashi), The Higashi Museum, Meoto Waterfall.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Arakaki Gusuku

Uchibara no Tun, one of two major sacred places on Arakaki Gusuku 

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Arakaki Gusuku

     N 26 16.375E 127 47.187

Arakaki Gusuku, Nakagusuku Village

The Arakaki Gusuku is one of many least known gusuku's on Okinawa. The term gusuku is often loosely translated to mean a castle, but it could also mean a domain. In Okinawa such domains are often on high ground. In the case of Arakaki Gusuku, it sits on a ridge line in the middle of the island, and at one time had a commanding view of both the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea. Though mostly covered now with dense vegetation, researchers (2004-2005) have uncovered ruins dating back as far as the 14th Century to as early as the 15th and 16th Century.(1) The 2004-2005 excavation also uncovered man-made objects such as celadon and white porcelain(i) as well as “gusuku earthernware and metal”.(1) Researchers also found evidence of a masonry technique called “nozura-zumi” that was used to build the surrounding infrastructure.(1) The exact boundaries of the gusuku are not very clear, though it is believed to cover much of the high ground.

Other ruins just south of the gusuku (dubbed the Arakaki Settlement Ruins) were also unearthed and believed to date back as early as 1945. These settlement ruins were at one time separate residential areas called Niidukuru, Tuni, Miiyashichi, and Nakanmi.(2). There is now a monument represented by an uganjyu (a place of worship)ii in the Niidukuru area. It is dedicated to the early settlements of Arakaki Village.(3)

Though much of its origins are still mired in mystery, official references of the gusuku have been made in old writings, such as the Omorososhi, sacred poems or songs from the Old Ryukyu Kingdom. The Nakagusuku Village Office writes in their explanation that “one song praises the gusuku and its lord and the other song is an oracle given by a female priestess celebrating a wedding of the lord's family”.(1) The lord's name was not mentioned in the source.

Arakaki no Taki and Uchibara no Tun. In addition to the Omorososhi reference, there are two sacred areas at Arakaki Gusuku that were officially documented in the Ryukyukoku Yuraiki which was published in 1713. They are the Arakaki no Taki and the Uchibara no Tun.(1)  The Uchibara no Tun is also represented by an uganjyu. Inside there are two hinukan's. The hinukan, often symbolized by three stones, represents the 'god of fire' (Why there are two is unclear).(iv) On the western and eastern flanks of the Uchibara no Tun you will find empty pits said to be old water springs. They were given the names, iri-ka and agari-ka, meaning west and east water spring in the Okinawan language, respectively. 

Arakaki no Taki(v) is not as identifiable as the Uchibara no Tun. (The exact location is not very clear. Based on a historical map, it is believed to be near the highest point of Arakaki Gusuku). The explanation provided by the Nakagusuku Village Office is somewhat vague on this point. It does write in one of their explanations that “there is a Ryukyuan limestone hill in which the settlement's guardian is known to reside and where Arakaki Gusuku is located”.(2) This summit is believed to be the location of Arakaki no Taki (author's speculation).

Other places of interest. On the network of trails in and around the gusuku compound, you will find places of historical interest. They are outlined below.

Tigunii. Amulet. Near the Uchibara no Tun sacred site is an old stone called the Tigunii which might be best described as a “protector against evil spirits”. In Japanese this would be called a “ma-yoke” (魔除け). Ma (魔) meaning a demon and yoke (除け) giving reference to something that is removed. The Tigunii would serve as a protector much like a shisa would for a household.(3)
Mijyagaa. Water spring. Long ago villagers used this water to make tofu. There is a myth that if you wash (not drink) yourself with this water, it will keep you young. This is located on the western end of the gusuku near a trail.(3)
Ushi no hana. Protruding limestone. Near the Mijaagaa spring is a large limestone rock protruding from the rock side. The local residences have given it the nickname ushi no hanna, meaning the “bull's nose” in Japanese.(3)
Kaabuyaa gama. Cave (no longer in existence). Near the “bull's nose” was a cave called Kaabuyaa-gama.(3) According to a local guide it was destroyed and replaced with concrete walls to reinforce the hillside. He said it was near this ohaka (grave) about 5 meters away from the “bull's nose”.
Tunmaasu. Old road juncture. This was an old road juncture at one time near the old Hanta Michi road. It was recognized for its large pine tree that once stood there middle. It was said to survive the battle of Okinawa but was later destroyed by a typhoon.(4) A new pine tree now sits in its place.

Sacred Days of Observation.
Arakaki no Taki - 15th day of the 5th and 6th month. 24th Day of the 12th Month. Lunar Calendar.(3)
Uchibara no Tun - 15th day of the 5th and 6th month. Lunar Calendar.(3)
Tigunii - 7th Day of the 12th Month. Lunar Calendar.(3)

i. The celadon and white porcelain were believed to be foreign made.
ii. Uganjyu – an Okinawan term; a miniature house-like structure used as a place of worship and meditation; Often found inside are incense holders and a monument of some kind dedicated to a kamisama or spirit/god; a hinukan, three stones representing the 'fire god', are also common objects found inside an uganjyu.
iii. Some families also have a hinukan for the kitchen but the representation is different. Though they both represent the 'god of fire', the hinukans represented by stones is derived from the old days. These stones are not ordinary stones, but are believed to come from somewhere special. Where they originated from depends on local legends. Some believe they may come from the ocean and are often called bijyuru stones in the Okinawan language.
iv. It has been observed here on Okinawa that most uganjyu's with a hinukan are often represented by one set of three stones, not two or more. It wasn't clear from our local guide why there were two sets in one place. Speculation: in some places like Kin Town (Igei District), utaki's (or uganjyu's) have been consolidated into one, because land where one utaki stood was needed for community use and so it was decided to consolidated them in one place. The Nakagusuku Village Office does mention on their historical sign that different “clans” do come and worship at these locations.(1) This is conjecture, but it is possible that both hinukans belong to different clans and were consolidated in one area.
v. Utaki's are sacred areas. Sometimes an uganjyu is also called an utaki. The term taki and utaki are sometimes interchangeable but they can share the same kanji. Taki can also mean waterfall, but the kanji is different.
vi. The Ryukyukoku Yuraiki is one of few surviving records detailing the origins of the Old Ryukyu Kingdom. In it contained records of many important landmarks on Okinawa, such as the Hamasaki Utaki of Onna Village.

1. Historical Sign (English), Arakaki Gusuku, Nakagusku Village Office, on location
2. Historical Sign (English), Arakaki Settlement Ruins, Nakagusku Village Office, on location
3. Historical Map (Japanese), Arakaki Green Map 2013, University of the Ryukyus, print only
4. Historical Sign (English), Tunmaasu, Nakagusuku Village Office, on location
5. Arakaki Gusuku (YouTube Video, English), Nakagusuku Village Cultural Assets Video
6. Uchibara no Tun (YouTube Video, English), Nakagusuku Village Cultural Assets Video
7. Tunmaasu (YouTube Video, English), Nakagusku Village Cultural Assets Video
8. Mijyagaa (YouTube Video, English), Nakagusku Village Cultural Assets Video

Directions/Parking. The most direct route is to take Highway 329 to Nakagusuku Village to Highway 35. You will then be going up a hillside. Your first LandMark will be the “Okinawa Pref. Fire Academy” sign. Continue pass this and make the 1st right (see picture). Continue straight. You will a sign marker on your right. The Arakaki Gusuku ruins will be on your left.

Other places of interest nearby. Taachii Ishi, Perry's Banner Rock.