Up Highway 58 to Koza

The rain couldn’t have been more unwelcome. Okinawa’s five-day Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival was in day three. The skies hadn’t much cooperated for days one and two either, but now on day three the rain was relentless. It was a good day to go to Koza. Koza is the traditional name for the area known today as Okinawa City. Although the street signs all say Okinawa City most of the natives of Okinawa still call the town in the center of Okinawa island Koza. The bus I took was marked Koza. It’s a long ride up the traffic choked southern half of the island from Naha to Koza. Mileage wise it’s no more than eighteen miles, but the bus took more than an hour to cover the distance. Along the way I was treated to some famous and, for some, notorious sights of Okinawa. Still close to Naha I passed the Kariyushi resort, one of the venerable resorts of the island, now a little long in the tooth, or so it appeared from the street. As we crawled up Route 58 in the rain slowed traffic, we passed Camp Kinser, a relatively small U.S. marine base. I was struck by the contrasts on the two sides of Route 58. On the west side the base sprawled out like an American suburb, with buildings separated by wide lawns and fields of grass, big parking lots and the occasional sports field. On the East side, the town of Urasoe encroached, so tightly packed that it looked to soon spill out onto the road like the reservoir of a dammed river. No lawns on the Japanese side, no fields of grass or large parking lots. Just narrow buildings packed tightly together–seemingly on top of each other–only separated by the occasional narrow street that juts off route 58 like a directionless capillary. As I watched the camp go by on my left, and the glut of business geared to the stray American serviceman that hugged the rim of the human reservoir to my right, I was struck with a single uncomfortable thought: all that open space on the left side of the road once belonged to those people on the right. I don’t mean to present a case for or against the proliferation of American military bases in Okinawa. I only mean to express my disillusion at how seemingly casually we approach the use of their valuable land. If the United States is to have bases abroad then so be it. That is a decision I leave to the respective governments. But, in Okinawa land is a precious resource that need be conserved. When the people of Okinawa look through the links of fence that have divided them from their native lands, they must feel a sense of frustration and regret that the land is so ill-used by their standards. Those wide lawns and empty parking lots and fields must feel to some as sharp as a slap in the face as they stand in front of businesses with no parking lots and houses without a single plant separating them from the street. It’s not the American way. In America we don’t have to build on every inch of land available to us. We have an abundance of space in our relatively unpopulated nation. We’re not used to squeezing anything together, least of not our lawns and gardens. But the land our military has selected and divided off is not our land. It is not the land of Japan. It belongs to no government, only to the people who live there. Americans are living there, to be sure. And according to international agreement they have a right to. But they are temporary, passive residents who offer nothing to the land they borrow. On the other side of the fence people have lived here for generation upon generation and now many await the return of the land that has played a giant role throughout those generations. In America we have the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” We say it so much it’s been shortened to simply “When in Rome” We have the saying but sometime we show little aptitude for understanding its meaning. Perhaps the saying is better suited to us expressed “When in Rome, pretend it is America.”

Nipponia’s Grand Revue

The hall at the Okinawa convention center in Naha was disappointingly under attended for Friday’s Nipponia concert, a part of the Okinawa Worldwide Festival (Seikai no Uchinanchu Taikai). The fact is it was undersold to the group of 5000 foreign Uchinanchu (people of Okinawan heritage) who descended upon Okinawan shores for the 5 day festival. The event is the brainchild of Miyazawa Kazufumi, leader of J-pop veterans, The Boom, and composer of the giant Okinawa influenced hit “Shima Uta” His intent is not only to give back to the island from which he derived so much musical inspiration, but also to feature the talents and perseverance of artists of Japanese and Okinawan descent the world over. This year’s concert featured talents from Brazil, Peru, Argentina, and the United States. Miyazawa was the only performer to have been born in Japan and despite the high level of skill in Okinawan Minyou (folk music) demonstrated onstage, no performer hailed originally from the island prefecture. None of this was evident by the performances of Peru’s newcomer Eric Fukuyama, and minyou performer Lucy Nagamine, nor by the powerful tango and enka interpretations of Argentina’s Claudia Oshiro, the three up and coming performancers on the bill. Despite his heritage, America’s contribution, veteran ukelele virtuoso, Jake Shimabukuro performed nothing from Okinawa, per se, although his famous rendition of the Japanese folk song Sakura, along with his signature Beatles cover “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” brought down the house. Besides Miyazawa, the evening’s headliners were Peruvian Okinawan Alberto Shiroma, along with his band Diamantes, and the Brazilian J-pop veteran Marcia. As always Shiroma’s half Spanish, half Japanese show brimmed with energy and Marcia traded in her traditional J-pop role for that of the sexy Brazilian cantora. The show featured performances by each artist sprinkled between a segmented video presentation highlighting both the performers history and heritage and the histories of Japanese immigrants throughout the world. The presentation, while fascinating was regrettably only presented in Japanese–disappointing primarily because many in the audience didn’t speak Japanese as their native language. Still even with my limited Japanese skill I could understand much of the presentation, and I would suspect that most of the audience could catch at least the broad strokes. While certainly interesting, the real show was when the performers took the stage. Each performed solo for a song or two, but after each had taken a turn, the real fun began. Like a big Jam session, performers would appear with each other onstage, presenting duets and group performances throughout the rest of the evening. The show climaxed with everyone onstage singing songs by Miyazawa and Shiroma, and after all that the crowd yelled for more. The encore featured the long awaited Shima Uta performed by all the assembled performers and finally an energetic rendition of “Okinawa Latina,” as small hit by Diamantes and a fitting end to the event. Nipponia. What a great concept and what fun it was to be a part of the one time performance that brought so many people and languages together. If you love music and you have a chance to see the next one don’t miss it!

a rainy day in Okinawa

Our task wasn’t easy. We’d set out to find a decent playable sanshin for around 30,000 yen, that is about $350 USD, give or take. But it wasn’t as easy as just that. Naturally we needed two–one for each of us and they had to “call us.” Hitomi and I left our sanshin in Los Angeles and we both needed something we could enjoy playing. But, we had no money. We had tried every store we knew of in Naha and nothing for $350, $500 or even $650 hundred dollars met with our approval. I was surprised by what was available within that price range. So we started to troll the used shops to the East of Kokusai Dori, north of the pottery district of Tsuboya and south of the Makishi monorail station. Trolling used shops is dismal work. The first place I stopped at looked to be from an old Ozu movie, a tiny shop overfilled with a variety of valuable junk–old clocks, knick-knacks, old cameras and a variety of other things all sitting in the dank room under a huge layer of dust. “Do you have any sanshin?” I asked. It was just me and him. Hitomi wouldn’t go in with me. “Only antiques.” he said without lifting his head, as if to dismiss me as a philistine tourist who would never appreciate or be able to afford a venerable sanshin, the like of which he had stowed somewhere in a back room. I nodded and left. We trudged by a few more places like that until we finally found a shop with maybe 20 or more sanshin displayed in the back room–that is if by “display” I mean strewn about haphazardly. All were in pretty terrible condition. Most were beat up and falling apart, and none would be playable without the help of a sanshin repairmen. Nonetheless, Hitomi and I found two that we’d consider paying max $250 each for–that is, if he really wanted as much as that for them. We asked. He wanted $450 and $600 respectively. His reason? The Sao or neck was constructed of good wood. Maybe so. The best wood for Sanshin necks is a heavy tight block of Okinawan ebony, “Kokutan,” as it is called in Japanese. The trees grow natively in the Yaeyama region of Okinawa, and they must be left to dry for 20 years before they are ready to be carved into sanshin. That wood is so rare now, that a well crafted Sanshin neck made of Kokutan will fetch three to even six thousand dollars. There weren’t any of those in that store. After Okinawan Ebony trees started to disappear, sanshin makers considered other wood available on the islands, or looked to the more expensive practice of importing Kokutan from the Philippines or Vietnam. Now Yushigi–Isonuki in Japanese or Isu Tree–is the most common native tree from which to carve sanshin saos. Still the saos of the imported Kokutan have more value than the native Yushigi. Shima Kokutan has become a common wood from which to carve saos. If you are a fan of Okinawa you might assume shima means “island,” but, in this case, shima means “striped.” Shima Kokutan is often slightly redder than the original Yaeyama ebony and features stripes and variations in color that can be accentuated by the lacquer or “nori” used to coat the Sao. Well, the fact is, that the two Sanshin we chose looked to be made of the lighter Yushigi wood, or some variation therein. We’re no wood experts, and the shop owner could easily have known more than us, but it looked to me like purchasing those sad sanshin would be money poorly spent. The real tests of a sanshin are: how it plays, how it sounds, and how you feel about it. Those sanshin passed none of those three tests. We left the shop as quickly as possible, assuming that the owner had pegged us for schmucks. Ah well, the search continues…
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