Sunday, June 25, 2006

Walls of Stone, Roof-Top Fish, & Plenty of Stairs

My cousin Emiri and her husband are stationed in Okinawa. Emiri's husband was away in Florida doing Secret Squirrel stuff for the Army, so Emiri came to visit me for a few days. For those of you who don't know, I'm the oldest grandchild, and Emiri is one of the youngest. Age-wise, she could be my daughter if I'd started early! But despite the age difference (or maybe because of it!) I really enjoy her company.

Emiri has been in Okinawa for about a year and a half, and she loves it! She started learning Japanese in January, and she puts me to absolute shame. She's not only able to speak a LOT of Japanese, she can read and write in hiragana and katakana, and is learning kanji! She even e-mails her Japanese friends in Japanese on her little Japanese cell phone. She's just amazing!

I went to pick her up in Fukuoka on May 22. I was nervous about driving directions and dealing with parking (I have a parking phobia, dunno why!), so I took the bus. Emiri met me at the International terminal, complete with gifts from Okinawa. It's the Japanese custom to always bring gifts when visiting, and to take gifts home to your friends when you return. Usually, the gifts are something to eat (yeah, just what I need!) and preferably something specific to the area. Em brought me wonderful pineapple pastries and purple sweet potato pastries (both pineapple and purple sweet potatoes are specific to Oki). She even had a gift for my friend Miyuki, as she knew we'd be seeing Miyuki at least once during Em's visit. We took the bus back to Sasebo in the rain, talking nonstop and catching up on life. That evening we spent at home, looking at photos Emiri brought of her birthday with her Japanese friends (amazing..check out her blog at for more!), having a glass of wine, and generally getting to know one another again!

The next day, we headed to Kumamoto by train. We got sort of a late start, but that's par for the course when you get women in our family together, I guess. We might have gotten to Kumamoto earlier, but we both panicked and got off the train one stop too early--I think the station before ours was called Kama-Kumamoto, and we should have waited for just plain Kumamoto. So we waited for the next train, and eventually got to the right place. Once in Kumamoto, we got on the streetcar and headed for Kumamoto Castle. We bought "day passes" on the street car, but it turned out we would've been better off to just get regular tickets, as we ended up not using the streetcar again until the end of the day to get back to the train station. Oh well...hindsight's 20/20!

We walked for a while, and I was beginning to regret the adventure, as it was very humid and sticky. But then the castle grounds and the statue of Kato Kiyomasa appeared ahead, and a cool breeze seemed to hurry us along. From a distance the statue made me smile. The tall commander's hat and bowed legs made the figure look a little like a garden gnome. When we got closer though, we read the plaque, and discovered the figure was the feudal lord who built Kumamoto Castle between 1600 and 1607 A.D. He is sculpted wearing snake-eye patterned armor, a battle surcoat, bellflower patterned footwear, and holding a fan. Nope, the fan isn't just a pretty accessory--it signifies battle command. Kiyomasa was equally famous for his prowess in war, castle construction and civil engineering (as we were about to witness!)

The castle and the castle walls were simply amazing. Kumamoto Castle is one of the "three great castles of Japan." The castle itself perched high on the hill (anything worthwhile in Japan is worth climbing to achieve...). It wasn't the fantasy Bavarian/Disney tower I always envision when I hear the word "castle", nor the heavy medieval fortress. Instead, it was a layer-cake of wood and plaster, with the ubiquitous upturned roof corners of Japan. On either end of the roof rested huge, curled fish decorations called shachihoko, which are legendary dolphin-like roof decorations throughout Japan. They ward off bad luck, especially fire (a big fear in a country of wooden structures!) But there was nothing flimsy or precious about the castle--the whole structure was definitely masculine, and though it was created with an eye for beauty, it was definitely a case of "form follows function." This was a FORTRESS. The stone walls are absolutely huge, and sharply sloped to repell invaders--and there is no mortar! The construction was fascinating, and beautiful.

The plaques on the grounds were fascinating as well, explaining about the "Six Flowers of Kumamoto", the 600-year-old cinnamon camphora trees, and the samurai ideals that encouraged warriors to be as well versed in things such things as botany, poetry and the tea ceremony as they were in the art of warfare. The "Six Flowers" were developed in the 18th century, when the feudal lord Hosokawa Shigekata encouraged his retainers to take up gardening for their "spiritual education." A pursuit of the samurai, care and propagation methods for these flowers were handed down for generations, and several of the species in the garden have never been cross-bred, and remain genetically pure. (Sounds a little like Japanese isolationist politics to me!)

After exploring the grounds, we decided to go inside the castle itself. The courtyard was awash with school groups, each group in a different uniform. I've never seen so many variations on a navy blue school uniform! There was almost no male-female interaction though. The girls hung all over other girls, and the boys hung all over other boys, wrestling, hugging, standing with arms around each other--not at all in a sexual fashion, more uninhibited and innocent. It was the sort of behavior I expect to see in American kindergarteners, not in junior high school students. Some groups were waiting to go into the castle, others were waiting as small groups visited the souvenir shop, still others were making pyramids or careful sitting/kneeling/standing rows for class photographs, with the castle as the backdrop. They were boisterous and happy, giggling and hanging on one another, but exceedingly well-behaved. I flashed back to our flight into Japan, back in January. I can't imagine seeing that many American students in one place behave so well, with so few adults to hold order!

When M and I went into the castle to brave the steps, one skinny little girl elbowed her way through her classmates and spoke directly to M in Japanese. At first, M thought the child was asking for M to take a photograph of the child...then she realized the student wanted a photo taken of herself WITH the American tourist! We're in a relatively rural area of Japan, and M supposed the students don't see many Americans. How cool that M could communicate with the child--in Japanese! I think that student was the star of her class for the rest of the day! The stairs up to each level were divided into an "up" lane and a "down" lane, and for the rest of the afternoon, every time we passed this particular group of schoolgirls, they all shouted "Hello! Hello!" and waved at M and me.

I didn't think the inside would be very interesting at first, as there are few windows, but the inside was made into a museum. We weren't sure how high we would climb, but we didn't have much choice..once one starts up, there is no way to get into the "down lane" of the stairs without going up at least four floors. Well, we could've crawled under the chains, but it would've been awkward, and who wants to disobey the rules in front of all those students? So up we went. There was a huge, scale model of the whole castle on display, and another larger model consisting of several rooms. A mirror was positioned so the viewer could see the hand-painted ceiling squares, each a different flower and beautifully executed. Unfortunately, my photo turned out badly.

Another level housed displays of samurai armor, and the insanely small, ornate gilded boxes that were the litters for the high-born ladies. They were about as big as my cat carrier, but much more beautiful. We peeked out an open window (more of a levered-out shutter) and the view was spectacular. When one spends so much time driving through the crowded, narrow streets, sometimes one forgets about the amazing vistas and views, with the lumpy volcanic mountains that are so very "Japanese".

We finally climbed down from the tower and made our way back out to the street. It was pretty late, so we hurried to try to get to the Folk Art Museum and Natsume Soseki's house, which M really wanted to see, as she'd studied his writings in college. Unfortunately, both were already closed! I snapped a couple of shots of M looking despondent beside the house's sign, and we went in search of food, weary and footsore.

A bowl of meat and rice helped immensely, and we wandered briefly through the big shopping arcade on our way back to the streetcar line. M decided she wanted something sweet, so she went off to hunt down a banana popsicle-type thing. I waited on a bench, and was approached by two Japanese women. I wasn't sure what they wanted, but one spoke English. She wanted to know if I had any pains or problems. How weird, I thought! My hesitation and apprehension must have shown in my face, so she tried to explain that she and her friend were providing a free service for anyone and everyone, where they would pray and send "positive energy and healing". They would not touch me. It was good for the person they were "healing" and I think it also was of some spiritual benefit for the two women--karma or merit or something. I wasn't sure what to say, so I cautiously admitted that yes, I had some issues with my shoulder.

The first woman explained (I guess) to the second woman in Japanese. Then they both squatted down on either side of where I sat on the bench, bowed their heads, closed their eyes, spread their arms to encircle me without touching me, and began to chant very softly in Japanese. They did this for about two minutes, then got up, smiled sweetly, bowed in unison, and walked away before I could say a word. M arrived just as they left. What a strange and wonderful experience! I have no idea why these women were doing what they were doing, nor exactly what it was they were doing, but it made me think of Reiki. I don't know if they were Buddhist or Christian or what.

M and I made our way back to the train station in the twilight on a street car packed with schoolgirls, salarimen, shopping matrons and one adorable elderly couple, and from there back home to Sasebo. It was a long day, but certainly an interesting one! More soon, about the rest of our jam-packed mini-tour--two days for Arita, Kashimae Pier, an amazing dinner out with Miyuki, and Fukuoka City! (The cat photo is just a picture of three little cats happily snoozing on a plank across one of the city's canals...I couldn't help myself!)


エミリ said...

Wow! We sure did a lot in one day! You have quite a fantastic memory. I can't wait to read your next blog.
Love ya,

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Very nice description of a wonderful day! I love your pictures, especially the cats on the bridge. Lovely.

E Soutter said...

Carolie --

I love your blog. The sad faced picture is especially amusing to me. I have one like it of me grieving graveside at Graceland. :)

You left me a comment on my blog and I am very intersted in connecting with you.

Suburban Turmoil said...

That is awesome. What an adventure!

Miz BoheMia said...

Hi! Thank you so much for stopping by at my place! Loved having you there and I definitely love your place here! what an amazing and full day! The relationship you have with your cousin sounds fab and I for one cannot wait to hear more about your life in Japan!


Miz B...

Anonymous said...

hello....I stumbled across your page in search for pictures of the samurai armor in the Kumamoto Castle. I am hoping you can help me. I just recently learned my family's history orginates there in Kumamoto and there is some significants to my family's history as Samurai's. I was wondering if you got any pictures of the swords and armor during your visit to the Kumamoto Castle. If so, would you be willing to share them with me? My email address is

thanks in advance,