Tuesday, January 12, boarding around 10am for Okinawa. The flight of one hour and thirty minutes is spent quietly above a sea of clouds particularly compact and impressive. The time must be gray below. In the vicinity of Naha Airport, the main city of Okinawa Island, as we descend under the clouds, I see a sea of turquoise blue and small coral reefs. As I predicted, the weather is all gray.
Semi-tropical island, the Ryukyu Islands are more like Hawaii, Brazil or Southeast Asian than the rest of Japan. The Ryukyu archipelago of which Okinawa is a part, was for centuries independent of Japan. For a very long time, the islands were ruled by local chiefs called Aji, until 1429, when Sho Hashi united the islands and founded the Ryukyu dynasty. He developed exchanges with China, leading to the development of arts, literature and ceramics in the archipelago. Invaded in 1609 by the Shimazu clan of Satsuma (Kagoshima), the Ryukyu kingdom became for Japan a base of trade with the outside world. In 1879, the kingdom became part of Japan and became Okinawa Prefecture. Ryukyu culture and language were almost eradicated by the Meiji government. At the end of the Second World War, the Japanese army decided to use the Okinawa Islands as a shield against the Allies. Thousands of civilians perished in battle and the landscape was forever altered. Following the war, Okinawa remained under American control until 1972. Today, many active US military bases are still located on the archipelago.
After settling in my rustic rustic country inn (my room is a bed and that’s it), I go looking for food and a ballad in Naha. Capital of the island and Okinawa Prefecture, Naha has a tropical and different atmosphere of Japan that is immediately felt: a kind of quiet atmosphere, relaxed, houses reminiscent of more fishermen’s barracks or divers as real dwellings, new beliefs and people more tanned and more massive than on the Japanese mainland. On the other hand, Naha, like a majority of Japanese towns and villages having suffered a lot from the war, is not very pretty on architecture. The only building that stands out is the magnificent Shuri Castle (Shurijo Castle). Built in the 14th century when Naha was called Shuri, the medieval castle was the administrative center and residence of kings of the Ryukyu dynasty until the 19th century. The building was destroyed four times by fire! The last time having occurred during the Second World War. The castle has been completely rebuilt. It is therefore rather strange to walk in a building almost new when it is supposed to date from the 14th century.
Absolutely beautiful, the set consists of a multitude of structures including many doors (to access the castle courtyard), the Seiden (the imperial palace), the Nanden – Bandokoro complex (reception areas), the Hokuden (administrative structure of the government), the Ouchibara (private apartments) … I feel the Chinese influence in its architecture. All the buildings are visitable and shelter temporary exhibitions. It is with undisguised happiness but still a little spoiled by the flood of tourists more concerned about finding all the stamps distributed in the castle than by appreciating the paintings, that I walk in the different structures. Objects, paintings, dishes and ceramics all more beautiful than each other having decorated the apartments of the kings, portraits of different rulers, a set of traditional musical instruments (Shamisen, Biha, Gong …), kimonos, apartments of the king and the queen, the grandiose throne room … all dominated by the red color. I spend a long time trying to imagine life at the time.
On leaving, I walk a little in the park at the foot of the castle, filled with geese (I’m not sure it’s geese) and in the streets of Naha. I come across Shîsâ almost everywhere where my eyes are! Traditional carvings of Okinawa, half-lion and half-dog, the Shîsâ derive from guardian lions imported from China in the 14th century and are considered as protective guardians capable of repelling the evil forces.
They are often asked in pairs. In some pairs, the one on the left has the mouth closed and the one on the right has the mouth open. Always on the right, the male keeps his mouth open to ward off evil spirits. The female, meanwhile, keeps her mouth shut so that happiness does not run away.
The next day is cloudy and rainy. All that bad weather is starting to get on my nerves. Since mid-December, I had maybe 3-4 days of beautiful sun. Especially since it makes Naha sad and even less beautiful. I came to Okinawa to have good weather, beautiful white sand beaches and turquoise water. Nothing like that at the moment. A little depressed, I take a walk in the city center, covered walkways and the area dedicated to ceramics typical of Okinawa. Not many people and sculptures of shîsâ everywhere. The air monorail quadrilles the city, almost too futuristic structure for the environment. In order to escape the bad weather, I go to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. It also houses the Okinawa Art Museum dedicated to contemporary art. The outside of the museum looks like a kind of bunker all gray and very ugly. I visit the part “Museum” devoted to the history, the second world war, the archeology, the fauna, the arts and the culture of Okinawa. The permanent exhibition is gigantic and extremely interesting. All information is available in English, it is with great pleasure that I take 4 hours to look and walk among the costumes, objects, pottery, full size reconstructions of the environment and of life at the time, the traditional songs where the pictures of life during the war.
The next day, Thursday, January 14, the weather is even worse than the day before. Depressed and angry, I go back to sleep. When I wake up it is around 11am but the weather is still the same. I admit that I’m getting a little tired of it. A strong desire to return to France grabs me. I decided to visit the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum and Park located in the south of the island in the small town of Itoman. I think that outside the city, the environment should be more fun with tropical nature and pretty beaches. But the bus ride of an hour to join the museum is mainly done along small towns with concrete buildings, really not beautiful. The park is also a disappointment since there is no palm trees or white sand beaches nearby either. A cemetery with monuments by prefectures dedicated to the number of deaths during the Second World War stretches along a small cliff. It is very sad. Like my morale. The rain starts to fall again and I take refuge in the museum. Dedicated to the Second World War, the role of Okinawa and its consequences on the population, the museum is fortunately very interesting and particularly moving. All legends are also available in English. I stay in the afternoon and then return to Naha at dusk.
My few days at Naha were not exactly what I imagined. Apart from the castle and museums, not much of a good thing. Bad weather tarnishes the picture. Tomorrow I go to the island of Aka-jima, part of the Kerama archipelago, 1h30 by ferry from Naha. According to my guide, it is a perfect paradise for diving and quiet walks along the beaches. I hope that will be the case!