Me and my college buddies are in school in Beppu, Oita and we all desperately needed a break from our busy student lives. Luckily, our college APU (Asia Pacific University) was about to have quarter break. I did some basic research and found out Mount Aso is the biggest volcano in Kyushu and second largest after Mount Fuji in all of Japan. What better way to release some college stress than go on a road trip to look at a smoldering mountain? I had gotten my international license so went and rented a car in Beppu. Me and my buddies hopped in and we began the two hour journey to Kumamoto Prefecture.
Typical of Japan we passed by serene rice paddies and curved up several narrow mountain roads. We eventually landed at some random monument that none of us could read because it was written in ancient kanji. We were sitting on the edge of a mountain so we figured it was a good place to snap some photos.
We took this gem of a photo at that location unfortunately it was a little rainy. Notice the clouds in the background (because we are so high up)
Arriving in Aso Town 阿蘇町
Aso is a tourist town, that gets it’s income off the travelers who come to visit and hike the beautiful volcano. There are many eco-lodges and spa resorts, I was surprised how thriving the town seemed to be. You also can’t help but notice all the Horse meat signs. Aso is renowned for it’s Horse sashimi, thats right raw horse sushi! Personally I’m from Texas and I’m more accustomed to riding horses than eating them. But the locals assure me it’s very tasty…
There are several different craters around Aso san and 7 main peaks. The Volcano is still active and if you know anything about Japan you know Japan is one of the most active earthquake and volcanic zones on earth. All this seismic activity makes for some pretty dramatic landscapes (some of the most beautiful I’ve seen). Aso also has an azalea bloom every may which leads to the volcano being covered with lush purple flowers every Spring.
The center of the crater offers tourist activities like horse back riding (an activity I found odd since Aso town is famous for Horse meat) and a museum that explains the natural phenomena in the local area. I also learned that there are several connected volcanos including the volcano in my city, Tsurumidake and also Mount Yufu in Yufuin. My buddies were in a rush because they had to get to their part time jobs by 5 so we decided to rush up to see the main crater. You can take a shuttle bus and go close to the crater but all you can see is smoke. (no lava viewing unfortunately)
Yummy Horsey… oh this one is for riding 🙂
The way home
On the way back we stopped and got juicy burgers from an American themed biker bar in Aso. The owner was an old Japanese biker guy with a thick ZZ top beard. We looked on the walls and he had pictures with various famous musicians including Micheal Jackson and the Carpenters. The bar had really cool wooden architecture (log cabin みたいな). Me and my American buddy, Micah were pretty happy to get our hands on some proper ground beef burgers and Hero enjoyed it too!
Micah enjoying the tasty burger at Strong Boss Burger in Aso City
We then had to go down some pretty gnarly one lane two way roads. Japanese roads are extremely curvy and narrow. Also I’m not used to driving on the left side of the road so it was a bit tricky. We all got home in one piece and had a wonderful day trip in Aso! I strongly recommend Mount Aso for anyone who appreciates stunning mountain views, hiking and/or Horse meat!
Japanese people call mountains “san” just like people… For example to say Mr. Sato in Japanese you would say Sato san to denote respect. It is a sign of familiarity between well know acquaintances or friends to stop saying “san” after several meetings. But Mountains are pretty important spiritually in Japan so denote respect they sometimes add “san”. So mount Fuji can be called Fuji san（富士山）and Aso can be called Aso san（阿蘇山)
Mountains also tend to be the location of holy sites such as shinto shrines see my earlier post about Mount Tsurumi Dake to learn more!
I had contacted one of my best friends since childhood and asked if I could crash at his place. My friend Jake and I were opposites in a lot of ways his father was a truck driver and he had lived in the same comfortable house in Jersey Village a suburb of Houston his whole life. We had grown up together and we had been to pretty much every one of each other’s birthday parties up until I moved away. I remember playing with squirt guns in his backyard and bouncing on his trampoline. I’m one year older than Jake and we sort of have a brotherly relationship. I would often amuse him with my stories about the world and try to teach him about foreign cultures. He is always particularly interested in Dubai and the Arabian culture. My ability to travel and fly around the world seemed unimaginable to Jake as he had never even been on a plane before. I respect him a lot and I know he will do great things if he sets his mind to it. I often wonder what my life would have been like If I never got the chance to travel to Dubai and leave Houston. I often put myself in Jakes shoes and become immensely grateful for the opportunities my circumstances have afforded me. Much like Jake I had grown up in an upper middle class neighborhood and had a pool in my backyard. Most of the people my family associated with had pretty much the same social standing and culture as WASPS (white Anglo Saxon protestants). Luckily for me my mother had gained a job in at an expat boarding school made up of mostly Asian and Sub-Continental kids along with a few folks from just about everywhere, called the Village school and enrolled me in it. I gained a much more diverse friend group and was able to see and understand divergent perspectives that were far different than mine. The long and the short of it is that I’m glad things worked out the way that they did and after living in Dubai in a culture alien to mine I gained a bravery and lust for adventure that I cannot emphasize enough.
Second Stop Mississippi
After waking up on jakes couch with his cat Maggie sitting on my face I was ready to begin the long drive to my next stop. My plan was to drive East to Mississippi then North up to Indianapolis. My good Friend Ruairi O’Connor whom I had spent freshmen year with in Dubai and then visited him in Singapore, was living with his grandmother in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Ruairi and I had a lot in common we were both gingers and both from the Southern part of the States. We both behaved like cowboys and both had struggled to fit in our new environments. Ruairi is extremely active and never really did well academically in high school. We both lived on the Palm Jumeriah in Dubai and would kayak to each other’s houses after school. I lived in an apartment on the trunk of the Palm and Ruairi lived on Frond C it was about a thirty-minute row. I also accredit Ruairi with getting me into running. He would show up unannounced at my apartment every night with his dog, an adopted desert saluki named Bronte and we would all go for 30 minute runs. I also consider Ruairi a brother except in this case he is the older one.
I figured I would use the mandatory road trip to my advantage and see as many as my friends as possible. It was also a perfect way to see the beauty of America and bid the states goodbye for a while. Another plus was that I could avoid paying for hotels. Ruairi had flunked out of college and was working for a lumber company and waiting on his acceptance to the U.S. Coast Guard. I always pictured Ruairi in the military because of his patriotism and love of all things mechanical. I was happy that he had a plan for his future and wanted to see him before he left for boot camp. I drove through the wet swamps and marshes on the border of Texas and Louisiana. I flicked through the radio stations until I found a good ole’ Cajun station blasting some zydeco. I thought about how random it was to have French speaking cowboys in the middle of a swampy marsh. I also wondered if I was in KKK territory and pondered on what they would think of me and Yuki’s relationship. After driving all day, I had finally gotten to Ocean Springs and parked my grey Mazda in Ruairi’s Grandmother’s driveway. I wasn’t expecting Ocean Springs to be as pretty it was, the old oak trees hung on every street with their mossy leaves. I also dug the Cajun feel and the French look of the architecture. Ruairi showed me his sail boat that he had purchased and we both joked and chatted about the progress of our lives. We then hopped in Ruairi’s pick-up truck and headed to a sketchy Mexican restaurant. I used Ruairi’s I.D. because we look so similar and joined him in having a couple margaritas. We then went back to his grandma’s trailer and played some Call of Duty. Ruairi’s family are staunch Catholics and his uncle is a priest at a beautiful church in Biloxi. The next morning happened to be Sunday so we drove through Ocean Springs over the causeway that had been devastated several years ago by hurricane Katrina. We ended up listening to a nice sermon about Mother’s Day. I savored the sermon and church experience knowing that I probably wouldn’t go to Church again for a while in Dubai or Japan. Later that afternoon Ruairi and I went to the Biloxi beach and soaked up some rays.
Alabama, Tennessee and Pennsyltucky
I rolled of the couch at six o’clock bid Ruairi farewell and wished him the best of luck in the Coast Guard. I drove hard that day and listened to some Paul Simon and Johnny Cash. I also learned that Hank Williams was from Alabama. During the summer there was a viral video of a boy yodeling a Hank Williams song in a Walmart, so I thought that was a funny coincidence. As I drove North through Birmingham, I thought of Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. I recalled how Dr. King had eloquently dismantled the Vatican’s stance on Civil Rights in the U.S. He outlined how it was ironic that the Christianity had started as the religion of the oppressed and how it had become a tool of oppression (in the case of civil rights). He compared the plight of African Americans to the plight of early Christians in Rome. I also turned on my radio and heard a Black reverend talking about an incident that had happened at a church he was familiar with in Birmingham. Apparently, a predominantly African American church had put up a sign saying that white people were not welcome in the congregation. I believe that the church had decided to do this after a series of instances of police brutality. The reverend was talking about how Dr. King would have been ashamed at the sign and that the community in Birmingham was taking steps backward, according to the Reverend “we are all God’s children” and that segregation is a worldly concept. I agreed with the Reverend and thought about how in Heaven there would be no divisions. It’s truly amazing how much you can learn about a city or state by listening to the local radio. That night after nine hours of driving I had finally hit Tennessee and crashed at some random Holiday Inn.
Once I had finally arrived with my uncle Phil in Indiana I was happy to stay in his comfortable apartment for a bit. My uncle having a master’s in History from St. Andrews in Scotland he also happens to have a near photographic memory, so he loves teaching me about things and I love listening. He told me about how the Air Force headquarters in Dayton, Ohio only a two-hour drive from Indianapolis. We hopped in his car and headed over the state border. I also learned that the Wright Brothers were born in Indiana so there are many aviation themed restaurants and shops around the border with Ohio. Luckily for use it also happened to be Veteran’s Day so the National Air Force Museum was having a special event. People were dressed up as soldiers and were recreating a WWII military camp. People were displaying military jeeps, rifles, uniforms, and radio equipment. My uncle and I are military nerds so we were both thoroughly impressed by all this. The museum itself is split into several sections between massive aircraft hangers including WWI, WWII, Cold War, and the Space Age. One particularly interesting exhibit is the Boxcar which is the plane that dropped the “Fat Man” nuke on Nagasaki. I remarked to my uncle that it would be interesting seeing the plane and then visiting the peace memorial in Nagasaki itself. My uncle and me then split up because he moves very, very slowly through museums. It was a very interesting and American experience that I am very fond of considering that I am strongly considering joining a branch of the military as my post graduate possibility’s.
My uncle and I The Boxcar Rest Stop in Kentucky
Indianapolis The Wright Brothers Birthplace
Wilkes Barre Penn
After we returned to Indianapolis my father contacted me telling me about how my grandmother had become gravely ill and that he was returning to Pennsylvania from Dubai to visit her. He asked me to come along as well and visit her. My grandmother on my father’s side had had a history of mental illness and I had heard stories about her from my father’s siblings. At young age my parents made the executive decision to keep me away from her. My father describes her as a manic depressive with bipolar tendencies. She had indeed been hospitalized against her will at a psychological institution. I was somewhat frightened to see her and of what she might say to me. I felt a little guilty about never seeing her as much as my grandparents on my mom’s side. My dad told me it meant a lot to him that I come so I bought a plane ticket and flew to meet him from Indianapolis to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
After I got off the plane my father and I headed over to Wilkes Barre General Hospital to visit my grandma Gretchen. When we walked into the room she lit up in excitement and seemed overjoyed to see us. I smiled and hugged her she couldn’t really speak properly because she was on a lot of pain medication. She asked me “Why I had shave my beautiful red hair?” I replied by explaining to her I was going bald. Me and my father grabbed her hand and sat with her a bit. I told her that my dad turned out to be a great man and a fun father and that she should be proud of him. She seemed really happy and I was glad that I was able to see her. My uncle Bill had also drove up from Ohio to see my grandmother and visit with me. She didn’t seem so sick to us and my dad had faith that she would recover. My dad said that his mother had been healthy her whole life and didn’t think that this was her time to go. After the visit my father took the opportunity to show me where he went to elementary school and his childhood school.
My uncle Bill is also an avid hiker and naturalist and he wanted to take us out to one of his favorite hiking spots. Wilkes Barre has an abundance of natural beauty me and my father even saw a black bear while driving on the highway. The next day my uncle Bill took us to a beautiful hiking spot called Ricketts Glen. My grandfather Joe who passed five years prior used to take them there as kids. I could tell that being back in Pennsylvania and being with his brother Bill stirred many memories within my father. As we hiked up several waterfalls Bill educated me about the various flora and fauna in the region. The whole trip seemed surreal to me and the fact that I had ended up in Pennsylvania visiting my estranged grandmother was crazy to me. It was a mere fifteen days earlier that I was telling Yuki goodbye at the Austin Airport. I certainly hadn’t expected for my dad to come all the way back from Dubai and give me a tour of his childhood home.
The next day my dad visited my grandmother again for several hours. We said goodbye and he told me he would see me again soon in Dubai. The very next week my grandmother passed from her illness, so it turns out that the trip was worthwhile, and I am thankful to have the memory and to have said goodbye.
Finally, after two jam packed months in America I made it to my parents’ house in Dubai. But as soon as I arrived my parents decided they needed to get out Dubai which can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius in the summer. In my opinion Dubai is literally synonymous with hot as hell in the summer. The air is thick with moisture, sand and who knows what else which makes me feel like I can’t breathe in the sweltering heat. So, I was pretty much on board for going anywhere else to kill some time before my internship started at Emirates Airlines. My mom has family in England who needed us to house sit so we took over their house for a bit. We saw my British family whom I hadn’t seen in ages. A Lot of my family members are veterans of the British military and have very interesting antiques in there house. My uncle Roger is a very posh and lovely old man. His wife is named Ingrid and they met while he was stationed in Dusseldorf Germany. Ingrid is famous for making us tea and cakes everytime we visit, her motto is “you vill eat it and you vill like it!”. She consistently reminded us that life is too short not to eat cake. My family from Luton also came up to visit us. My cousin Steven happens to be a champion clay shooter so he took me and my dad out to shoot some clays. We had a fantastic time and also toured around much of Thetford and Norwich. I was surprised by how quickly people rush past us on tiny narrow roads. I’ll go into specifics on the sights that we visited in future posts.
Dubai & Emirates Airlines
I can’t really go into too much detail about this, as I had to sign non disclosure agreement but I will say what I can! I was working at the Dubai international airport at the Emirates security offices there. I had managed to score this internship thanks to some lucky nepotism and my interest in international security/relations. As I went in I was assigned to Maya a Lebanese woman who would oversee my tasks at the internship. I was given a lovely seat with a window view of the Dubai international airport runway. I also got to see several of the security systems that are in place to ensure the safe transport of valuables and prevent any dangerous goods from entering the country. My task included finding suitable speakers, venues and topics for an aviation security symposium called AVSEC. I had to compile a list of speakers who had undergone security situations. One of my most interesting finds was an Ethiopian Pilot who had been hijacked 3 times and hit in the head with an axe but survived the crash landing. I also contacted several cyber security experts. The internship was good fun and lasted about a month. I was the only American there so people were quite interested in me. I had several lovely conversations and interactions with people I can’t say the names of due to security. I was also given food vouchers for the Indian curry restaurant downstairs. I had butter chicken curry and mutton roganjosh almost everyday and boy was it good. My days would consist of waking up at 5 a.m. driving to the airport then going home and working out with my friend Trishul. Trushil was the only other person I had met close to my age and was the Nepalese gym attendant at my parents apartment. Most people get out of Dubai in the summer if they can and all of my friends I went to High School with are at universities in the U.S. We ended up having long conversations everyday after the internship and he taught me new workouts. The internship was good because it gave me some work experience and helped me pass the time in extreme dusty heat of the Dubai summer.
lunch break at Emirates airlines
my lunch break and Emirates and me hanging out in the Dubai desert with Trishul Oman
We went to Oman for a week after I finished the internship I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves…
Hiking in Wadi Shab
4 Countries and 10 states later…
Please feel free to follow me on instagram @ redheadkid for more cool pictures of travels around the world. As always thanks for reading my story!
Okinawa is littered with vast cave systems that were created underneath the island. During the Battle of Okinawa Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians caught in the crossfire took refuge from the constant artillery bombardment in these caves. Okinawans call these caves “gama” and they have become infamous as the places where many people committed suicide during the war. In the heart of Naha there is one such cave system situated directly under a large hill. When the Japanese military learned of the imminent American invasion of Okinawa they attempted to convert this cave system into a bunker that would act as the Imperial Navy Headquarters. They quickly amassed a troop of Okinawan laborers to excavate this cave and reinforce the roof with steel and concrete. As the situation became increasingly desperate more civilians and soldiers became clumped together in this cramped and soggy cave. The Imperial Navy Headquarters museum in Naha attempts to tell the tragic stories of those in the cave as the inevitable Japanese defeat loomed and the battle waged on.
This Museum as with all museums in Japan that focus on the topic of WWII, emphasize the importance of peace and how war is catastrophic to all those involved. I have noticed that war is always handled very delicately in all Japanese museums and they are careful in their wording never to demonize either side. This is directly opposite of my experiences in Vietnam where museums are very biased and occasionally reflect hatred that is still perceived at the “enemy”. Museums in Japan are not meant to display any sort of propaganda but instead memorialize the victims and factually display the atrocities of war committed by all sides. Every time I visit a “peace museum” I am increasingly impressed with the care and attention that goes into the wording and overall feeling of the exhibits. I always leave a peace museum with the solemn reminder that “war is hell”.
*The following information contains historical details of war that may not be suitable for all readers (Contains gruesome details collected within the museum)
Yuki, her brother Shintaro and myself climbed the seemingly beautiful mountain on a bright summers day to the entrance of the museum. As we entered we were shown a small exhibit that explained the chronology of the Battle of Okinawa and some personal stories of the navy officers in the cave. We saw several artifacts such as rifles and canteens that had been recovered from the cave. There is also information regarding how the caves were built and how soldiers and civilians survived on rats while hiding in the cave. Once we finished reading the brief information we entered the dark stuffy tunnel with stairs that led us deeper into the cave. Once you’re in there you can easily imagine the horror of those trapped in this cave while bombs were dropping off directly above. They must have been terrified that the cave would collapse upon them and kill them instantly, but perhaps that would have been a more humane end than their actual deaths.
As you proceed the cave becomes a maze of corridors and antechambers. At various locations, there are markers that explain what the room was such as “medical chamber” or “officers quarter”. In some particularly important rooms markers show illustrations of how life was during the war. One room that particularly left an impression on me is one in which faded stains and chipped concrete from shrapnel covers the walls. On a nearby plaque Yuki read to me that several officers had used grenades to blow themselves up to avoid surrendering. The Commander of the base Minoru Ōta had commanded all 175 soldiers to commit suicide rather than surrender he himself died via seppuku. We also learned that civilians were also sometimes “forced to commit suicide” and in turn murdered by the soldiers that were meant to be protecting them. All of these facts lead me to the conclusion that the Japanese soldiers often had sentiments of extremist nationalism and would rather have died than surrender. It also displays how the propaganda of the time had so successfully brainwashed the soldiers. Above all it is a testament to how horrific and brutal this war had become in it’s final stages.
Towards the end of the battle American troops stormed the caves and killed or imprisoned the remaining soldiers. I’m sure they were astonished by the gruesome scenes that awaited them deeper within. This site is an important testament to the human costs of any conflict and remains one of the most visceral experiences I have ever had in a museum. As I have said before it is an absolute miracle that me and my Okinawan girlfriend can visit these memorials together a mere seventy years after these horrible events. It was at this sight that I also realized that almost every part of Okinawa had at one point been a battle ground where people brutally died. While a vacation to Okinawa is certainly fun and enjoyable I think it also important to recognize the tragic history of the island. It is truly amazing that the Okinawans were able to rebuild after such devastation and is a testament to the resilience of the Okinawan people.
Other information contained at the museum:
We learned how U.S. troops would often lob grenades into caves with the intention of clearing out soldiers but civilians were often killed because they were too afraid to come out.
This is the location where General Ushijima died and has biographical information about him.
image from Wikipedia
Minoru Ōta was the last commander of Imperial navy who committed seppuku alongside Ushijima. He wrote a telegram to the emperor asking that special considerations be given in the future to the prefecture of Okinawa because of the Okinawans staunch defense and loyalty the “the Motherland”.
“Born as a man, nothing fulfills my life more than to die in the name of the Emperor.” Ōta’s death poem
If you’re interested in learning more about Okinawa please see my other posts about Okinawa
In order to understand Okinawa you must first understand this islands fascinating and sometimes tragic history. I’ll start from when Okinawa was called the Kingdom of Ryukyu and functioned as a powerful trading kingdom that traded with both Japan, China, and later the West. On the other islands in the Okinawan archipelago such as the Miyako islands and Yaeyama island chain one can find varied dialects and alternate cultures. One very interesting cultural practice occurs during rice harvest festivals Miruku the god of bountiful harvest is venerated and given rice wine in hopes of a bountiful harvest. Many of the islands have separate and unique gods. My personal favorite is Oh Ho Ho a god with “European features” that is depicted as a dancing man with a long beard and pointy nose. During one ritual Oh Ho Ho proceeds steal the local native women away from their husbands. The locals must throw money at Oh Ho Ho to appease this greedy god. I personally think this practice may have been developed based on past experiences with European traders in the medieval period but there is no conclusive evidence to back up my claim.
Okinawa used to be called the Kingdom of Ryukyu and due to it’s convenient geography of being nestled directly between Taiwan and Japan it became a wealthy trade hub. During the medieval period the Satsuma clan of Southern Kyushu occupied and conquered the islands of Ryukyu and united them in the name of the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Thus the Kingdom of Ryukyu become the Japanese province of Okinawa. Okinawa literally means “off coast rope” in Japanese and is still sometimes seen as the “Japanese Hawaii”. Indeed Okinawans may speak Japanese but they have their own unique culture, customs and heritage. In fact, the reason why the Okinawan dialects have become nearly extinct is because during the Meji period (Pre war 1900’s) Japan had enforced hardline assimilation policies on the Okinawans and punished students for not speaking Japanese in schools. During WorldWarII these practices became even more harsh and Okinawans caught speaking their native dialects were often accused of being spies and executed.
World War II
After years of increasingly aggressive nationalist policies Japan had succeeded in colonizing Okinawa’s neighbor Taiwan and many other Southeast Asian countries. Any non Japanese sentiments were brutally crushed and Okinawans began to forget they had not always been Japanese. After the brutal fighting on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima and raising of the flag over mount suribachi the U.S. fleet set it’s sights on Okinawa. Japan knew that it had to prevent the forces from landing on Honshu and prolong the battle of Okinawa as long as possible. Japan also knew that it was fighting a loosing war but hoped to create as much battle fatigue in the U.S. soldiers and public as possible. They hoped to hold off a full scale invasion of the homeland and have more favorable peace talks. The sheer brutality of the Battle in Okinawa is often considered as the catalyst for the Truman’s decision to drop the Atomic bombs. Japan had throughly spread propaganda warning and scarring Okinawans out of surrendering to American troops. Propaganda stated that the American troops would kill civilians immediately and even eat the bodies. The Imperial Japanese army also armed civilians with bamboo spears and sent out a national wide order to “fight to the death!”. Before the Americans landed they spent two weeks bombarding Okinawa with naval artillery fire to weaken Japanese defenses. This bombardment became know as the “typhoon of steel” and turned the battlefield into a muddy and bloody mess. Of course this bombardment also indiscriminately killed countless civilians. During the invasion itself American troops landed in the middle of the island and pushed southward towards the main city of Naha. The north of the island was relatively peaceful compared to the hell that the South had become. There are countless stories of horrible tragedies that took place during this desperate battle. Many Okinawans and Japanese chose to commit suicide rather than surrender. Japanese soldiers even distributed hand grenades to children and told them they were “gifts from the Emperor”. The soldiers told civilians it was better to die than give themselves up to the Americans. Many people who didn’t have hand grenades threw themselves of the “suicide cliffs”. The tragic battle ended up being the last battle of the pacific before the surrender of Japan. The United states ended up occupying Okinawa until returning the island to the Japanese in the 70’s after mounting unrest broke out across the island. I have heard stories about the celebrations that occurred when suddenly the currency was changed to yen from dollars and cars drove on the Japanese sides of the road. U.S. bases on the island were used heavily as staging grounds during the Vietnam and Korean conflicts and continues to be a controversial issue.
“Green grass dies in the islands without waiting for fall,
But it will be reborn verdant in the springtime of the homeland.
Weapons exhausted, our blood will bathe the earth, but the spirit will survive;
Our spirits will return to protect the motherland.”- General Mitsu Ushijima suicide letter before committing seppuku
I suggest watching “Hacksaw Ridge” and the Okinawa episode of the HBO series “The Pacific”
I hope this post helped you gain a brief understanding of the History of Okinawa I will go into specifics of historical locations and my travel experiences in future posts. It is ironic how a place that is so unimaginably beautiful was also home to such a degree of pain and suffering. When I am in Okinawa enjoying the beach or strolling through a luxurious mall I often find my mind drifting to the stories of those who died so savagely here in the 1940’s. I don’t usually believe in ghosts but when your out in the darkness of night at Okinawa you can defiantly feel the spirits. Americans and Okinawans have become connected through history and as an american I feel a connection to this place. Perhaps I feel it even more because my girlfriend is Okinawan and I find it abhorrent to imagine her going through the brutality of that time. I also find it miraculous that a mere 70 years later I am able to walk freely down the streets of Okinawa with her as a couple, where our ancestors had once tried to desperately kill each other. This very fact gives me hope that deep seated hatreds can be left behind and nations that once so brutally clashed can achieve peace and amity between one another.
こんにちはみなさん！Hello everyone, let me tell you about a wonderful experience I had while studying in Japan so far. Me and my girlfriend Yuki heard about this light festival that happens every October to celebrate a bountiful harvest. During this festival people in the small village of Usuki light up thousands of carved bamboo shoots. There is a old story about the return a ghostly princess who returns every year at this festival and the local people reenact this event. The bamboo shoots are meant to ensure the ghost princess can find her way home. People on the main street also set up market stalls that sell local handicrafts and foods like fugu sake. For those of you who don’t know, fugu is the deadly pufferfish which the Japanese had found a way to clean in a particular way as to make it safe to eat. On the train to Usuki from Oita we fortunately ran into two of Yuki’s friends Hiroki and Take. Take is actually a local of Usuki and has worked as a tour guide there. Luckily for us she offered to show us her village and was eager to explain to us the local traditions.
First we went to the most prominent temple where legend holds that a dragon is imprisioned within the main pagoda. Take explained to us that several of the demon statues called Oni guard the dragon and keep it from escaping. We also visited her family’s baking stall and bought some delicious english tea cake. After following the trail of lit bamboo shoots we scaled Usuki Castle to get a great view of the whole town. I learned that the famous Sengoku period daimyo, Otomo had constructed this castle which was formerly situated on an island. My inner nerd came out and I couldn’t help but imagining this town with samurais and women in their traditional kimono’s strolling around. Luckily for me my fantasy was about to come true as the locals were going to reenact the “return of the ghost princess”. We witnessed the a procession of flute players dressed as ancient court attendants and the princess dressed in a pale white kimono being carried on top of an ornate litter. We could all feel the peaceful serenity of the moment and I’m pretty sure everyone had goose bumps from hearing the soothing flute music. We also were able to see traditional harp playing and wadaiko (drum dancing).
Throughout my travels I have realized that certain culture festivals seem more like shows put on more for the tourists than the locals. In the Takeyoi festival I was one of the very few foreigners and got the sense that the night was sacred to the people of Usuki and not a show for tourists. It is incredible to me how Japan has so many contrasts between old and new customs. Many people think of samurai and the medieval period when they picture Japan, others picture robots and anime. It is interesting and admirable to me how Japanese society is constantly evolving but also successfully maintains it’s rich cultural heritage and identity.
One of the more shocking moments I experienced was that in my class titled “Culture and Society of the Asia Pacific”, we were having a debate over female circumcision. Which many in Western societies including myself find abhorrent and cruel. I was shocked to discover that many Indonesian students had actually undergone female circumcision and advocate for the practice. This was one of the first moments I felt that I had a vastly different world view than some of my fellow classmates. After living in Dubai during my High school years and in japan during college I have come to realize that cultural relativism and ethnocentrism is a huge aspect of how people behave. Once an individual can break away from these constraints sociological behaviors and differences in cultures can become more easy to understand. One of the personal things that has happened to me is becoming more and more secular throughout my travels. Personally I have realized that the reason I am a white christian from Texas is no more than mere happenstance. I could have just as easily been born into a Tibetan Buddhist family. I choose to maintain my cultural affinity for the Baptist sect of Christianity but view it more of a philosophy and cultural habit than a religion.
I believe that ethnocentrism and religious zealotry are some of the biggest problems facing societies today. If any individual form the Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist groups is willing to commit violence in the name of their religion then certainly they have a very ignorant and selfish world view. Respect for differences and tolerance towards all peoples regardless of race or creed is essential for a harmonious world.
Particularly in Japan I have found that I enjoy the study of Buddhist philosophy. I enjoy pondering the parables and thinking how each anecdote or lesson can apply to my experience. The Buddhist ideas about reincarnation also reinforce my assertion that concepts like racism, ethnocentrism and religious zealotry are tribalistic and ignorant ideals. Unfortunately, I have found that humans as a species are tribalistic but through deep contemplation, education and travel these unfavorable traits can be broken. Going back to my previous point about female circumcision, I would hope that after education about the importance of the clitoris to female sexual pleasure and contemplation about how this ritual developed based on sexist preconceptions I believe that rational individuals could be swayed. However it is also important to remember my place and remember my own cultural relativism.
Occasionally, unfortunate sociological rituals and behaviors must take time to be rooted out of a society. Also in relation to the host culture, Japan has undergone a period of intense fascism and militarization during WWII. I am currently reading a very interesting book written by a member of the British occupying force who collected various war propaganda and advertisements to highlight life during Showa Japan. I find it incredible fascinating how the experience of extreme misery after the WWII has transformed Japan into a country that advocates for pacifism. The experience of the War has also led Japan to embrace one of the most mature outlooks on violence and warfare I have ever seen. Japan does not glorify modern violence at all (excluding pop culture and samurai history) and museums about WWII do not focus on who was right or wrong but mostly on the horrors of warfare in general. I am impressed by the Japanese outlook on the importance of peace and the suffering that war can cause.
It is very special indeed to be at a place like APU where all cultures can easily intermingle and exchange ideas. I told Yuki that APU reminds me of Singapore because there are people gathered here from all over the world. Sadly I have discovered that these groups also tend to stick together for example Indians hang out in the Indian group and Chinese stick to other Chinese. Being at such an interesting a diverse university I would hope that individuals can branch out and define themselves. With people and cultures whom they are unfamiliar with.
One of the many cultural differences between the United States and Japan is that Japan has very homogenous society and most people who identify as Japanese have the same ethnicity. Many Japanese also seem to be more financially similar than in the United States. The U.S. is very heterogeneous and there are many races religions and ethnicities who identify as Americans. Also foreigners or “gaijin” in Japanese are fairly rare outside of urban centers in Japan. I am a large redheaded man so many people stare at me while I’m on public transportation or walking down the road. I’ve had many people ask me if I dye my hair. I try my best to understand their curiosity and try to greet them with a smile and phrase from my rudimentary Japanese.
One of my expectations of being a Texan is that people enjoy friendly chit chat while waiting in line or for transportation. Many people in Japan are quite shy and reserved. I have said good evening “konbonwa” to many strangers and occasionally received confused stares. I have also learned that a common stereotype many Japanese have about American people is that “we are always happy”. I suppose this stereotype must have to do with our friendliness or loudness. I was also quite startled with how many media sources and businesses objectify women. Of course, the U.S. has the same problem but not on the scale or openness that it is used here. I was surprised to see signs featuring completely nude women. This is quite different for me especially after spending my high school years in Dubai where women are supposed to dress modestly under Islamic custom. Speaking of nudity one of my most interesting cultural experiences was visiting an onsen (hot spring) where people are expected to get completely nude and bathe together. Being American I was quite unnerved by this at first but relaxed once I realized nobody seemed to care. I then enjoyed my warm soak in the sulfur rich water.
I have a keen interest in Japanese History especially concerning WWII and I have met an older Japanese gentleman who was able to tell me about the bombing of a rail train he witnessed when he was a child here in Japan. I am also very interested in the Battle of Okinawa and the last stand of the imperial army on that little island. I find it inspiring and intriguing how japan was able to thoroughly reinvent itself after its defeat in WWII and become a cultural and economic powerhouse.
Before coming here, I took Japanese lessons for two years at St. Edwards. My mother and grandfather also lived in Japan during their twenties so I was able to hear many stories about Japan. My grandfather was stationed at an air force base in Morioka and my mother was a model in Iwate. I am currently taking Japanese lessons and a Japanese history course. I also intend to travel extensively while I’m in Japan. I am very excited to get a firm grip on the language because I believe that will provide a steady platform to continue my study of the culture, society, and region. Like other East Asian cultures such as Korea and China Japanese society is based on buddhist and Confucian structures. I am studying these belief systems more closely and currently reading several books on the matter.