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Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Largest Cherry Tree on Okinawa?

The Oarashi Cherry Tree (January  30, 2014)

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Largest Cherry Tree in Okinawa?

     N 26 39.904E 127 55.606

The Oarashi Cherry Tree

North of Mt. Yae, in a small town called Inoha, is a tiny village called Oarashi (大嵐). It is here you will find one of the largest cherry trees (if not the largest) on Okinawa. It is the pride and joy of this little village. Though the tree belongs on private property, it sits prominently high along the hillside near the main road. There is no official record stating its dimensions, but it estimated to stand at 27 feet high (8.2 meters) and 42 ft (12.8 meters) wide at its girth (see size comparison in this photo with photographer Michael Lynch taken in early 2013). To see the tree in full bloom please visit this blog article (Japanese) posted in 2013 (picture taken in 2006).

Tracing the tree's origins. The tree was first spotted during an exploration on the Motobu mountain ranges in 2012. The site was revisited in January 2013 only to find very few blossoms (2013 turned out to be a very bad year for cherry blossoms. We speculate that it had something to do with the severe 2012 typhoon season). The age of the tree is really not certain. Ms. Takara (property owner) in 2013 had speculated the age to be over a 100 years old. A few others in that area have also made that claim. Others have speculated it to be 300 years old. The aforementioned blog article claimed the age to be of 200 years. He (or she) even states that the tree suffered damages during the war. None of this has been independently verified. 

The age is somewhat of a mystery, and begs two other questions; 1) When did the cherry trees come to Okinawa? It is said they came from Taiwan(1), but when they came from Taiwan is not very clear by the author and 2) How long do these particular trees live? An article published by the Orlando Sentinel (April 2003) states that the average life span of the Prunus campanulata (the Taiwan variant) is between 30 to 40 years(2). On Mt. Yaedake alone, the trees were planted in 1963 when the United States returned Mt. Yae back to the Okinawans. That would make the trees on Mt. Yae over 50 years old counting from 2014.(3)

It is not uncommon to hear of various types of cherry trees living long past their expected time. The Yoshino Cherry Trees in Washington D.C., given to the United States by Japan in 1912, are said to be over a 150 years old.(4) The Miharu-Takizakura cherry tree in Japan is said to be 1,000 years old!(5)

Are there others in Okinawa? Is the Oarashi Cherry Tree the largest of its kind on Okinawa? Deep in the Nago Mountains you will also find some very, very large cherry trees. Another tree is said to rival the one in Oarashi; somewhere else on the Motobu Peninsula. Are there others? The hunt continues.

1. Okinawa Story, Sakura (Cherry Blossoms)
2. Orlando Sentinel, April 2003 (Online Edition), Tree
3. Ryukyu Shimpo, February 2013 (Online Edition), Fallen cherry trees reborn as new products 
4. San Francisco Chronicle, date unavailable (Online Edition), How Old Can a Cherry Tree's Life Span Be? 5. The Telegraph, April 2011 (Online Edition), 1,000-year-old cherry tree gives hope to Japan nuclear victims 
6. Rakuten Blog Post (Japanese), Feb 2013

Author's Notes. How well the cherry blossoms bloom can vary from year to year on Okinawa. The Oarashi Cherry Tree may have a great blooming season once in while and may not occur during subsequent seasons.

Recommendations (PLEASE READ!). The Oarashi Cherry Tree sits on private property but it is highly visible from the public road. The neighbors in that area are aware of the reputation the tree brings to the little village and accustom to visitors wanting to take pictures. However, please be respectful in mannerism and treat this as private property. It is highly recommended that you don't park in the immediate area as this may interfere with traffic and day-to-day operations. It is recommended that you park at the Green Thumbtack/LandMark marked on the map. Please take your pictures from the public road. Use your best judgement.

Parking. See Recommendations above.

Directions. Take Highway 58 north to Nago City and then take Highway 449 to the Motobu Peninsula. Take Highway 84 going east towards Mr. Yaedake. There will be a turn-off just before the main entrance to Mt. Yaedake. See Blue Route in the map above. The turn-off is about 20 meters west of the main entrance and goes in the opposite direction of Mt. Yae. Follow the blue route. Your first LandMark is a tall road sign. You will turn right on this corner. Continue another 2.5 km till you see the next LandMark. It will be a similar sign as the first landmark. It is highly recommended that you park here. It is about a one minute walk up the hill as you bend around the corner. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Tomb of King Gihon

The Tomb of King Gihon

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The Tomb of King Gihon

     N 26 51.507E 128 15.658

The Tomb of King Gihon

One of the mysteries surrounding the Old Ryukyu Kingdom is the disappearance of King Gihon, the third and last king of the Shunten Lineage.(1,4) The fallen leader relinquished his throne to King Eiso in the 13th Century due to a set of failures (famine, drought, etc.) that plagued his rule.(1,2,3) It is widely believed that after his abdication he fled north to a place that Okinawans call Asumui located near Cape Hedo of the present day Kunigami Village District. His tomb is believed to be in the town of Hedo(3), some 50 meters away from Highway 58. 

On February 20, 2013 the Kunigami Board of Education reopened the tomb to examine the contents inside. It was discovered that at least 5 to 6 sets of human remains were found in a very large burial urn (broken on one side). Because of the urn's size (1 meter in diameter) researchers believe it was placed inside the tomb before it was totally encased. The belief that King Gihon was buried in Hedo seems to date back past the latter part of the 19th Century. It was said that members from the Sho Family (some time during the Meiji Period, 1868-1912) traveled to Hedo to restore the burial site.(1,4) How the news of Gihon's death and whereabouts of his remains got back to Shuri is not clear.

Born in 1206, Gihon became king in 1249. Okinawans would endure widespread tragedy throughout his tenure.(1,2,3) As a result, he initially appointed Eiso as a regent (sessei) to manage his affairs and after 11 years, he finally relinquished all power to Eiso.(1,4) But even during his rule, it would appear that King Gihon desperately tried to improve the situation for his kingdom. It was once said that he offered himself as a human sacrifice in exchange for much needed rain. Legend has it that the gods where apparently pleased and Gihon's life was spared at the last moment as rain finally descended from the heavens dousing the pyre of where he was to be burned alive.(3) King Gihon also had a minor role in the Legend of Yara Muruchi which took place in what is now present day Kadena Town. See article, Legend of Yara Muruchi.

Epilogue. It is not conclusive if the remains in Hedo belong to the King Gihon, or who the other remains belong to. Further analysis is still required. Others claim his final resting place is in Kitanakagusuku Village.(1) The tomb in Hedo does seem fitting for a king however. Though you may not be able to see it when standing in front of the tomb (masked by trees that lay behind it), the mausoleum sits below Mt. Nishime, considered by some as one of the most sacred areas of Okinawa. 

Author's Note.
1. Asumui is an Okinawan name you will seldom see in English literature on Okinawa. Some Okinawans rank Asumui (to include Mt. Nishime) up there with Sefa Utaki in terms of its spiritual value . It is not certain what the first half of the word means, but the term mui is of the Okinawan language meaning forest often used as a suffix for the entire name.
2. The belief that King Gihon abdicated his own throne is one theory. Information provided by the Kunigami Village District (sign on site in English) also notes that he might have been forced out of power by an angry mob, and fled for his safety. They acknowledge it is not exactly certain how the change of power between King Gihon and Eiso occurred.
3. Though his abdication is considered a mainstream theory, it is not clear by the author where it was originally documented. Further investigation is pending.

1. Human Remains and Ornaments Found in a Burial Urn Possibly Confirm Tomb, Ryukyu Shimpo, February 21, 2013 (Online Edition).
2. Visions of Ryukyu, 1999 Gregory Smits, pg 61
3. Okinawa: People and Their Gods, 1969, James C. Robison, pgs 31, 62
4. Information sign on site (in English) provided by the Kunigami Village Office

Directions. King Gihon's tomb is in Hedo of Kunigami Village. Take Highway 58 north to Hedo. Once you pass the turn-off that takes you to Cape Hedo, look for a Kunigami Village historical marker on the left or right side of the road. The tomb is about 50 meters from the highway. Parking is available on the opposite side.