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Tour of the Haunted Brothel April 23, 2010

Posted by Elisa Hough in History, Photos.
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So that you don’t have to risk being haunted by Okinawan ghosts, we at oki yo! have put our spiritual well-being at stake to give you a virtual tour of the infamous, possibly former mega-brothel, Kogen Hotel.

It starts at Nakagusuku Castle, the ruins left of a 600-year-old fortress in Okinawa City. It’s a peaceful spot with a panoramic view of the island.

But the real ruins are just across a field, over there. (This photo is a little sneak peak of the upcoming Please Quiet Ourselves music video.)



Praying for Rain & Equality April 20, 2010

Posted by Elisa Hough in History.
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This little shrine next to Shuri Castle was used to pray for rain way back in the day. The circular wall around it was built when Okinawa started developing to designate the sacred space (and now there’s an apartment complex and parking lot a mere 15 yards away).

No one knows why this particular location was chosen because, even though women held all religious responsibilities, they weren’t allowed to write. So much of Okinawan and Ryukyuan history is lost, left to speculation, because of that sexism. Joke’s on you, every male political leader and artist forever forgotten.

The Real Ruins at Nakagusuku Castle April 19, 2010

Posted by Jojo in History.
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A few months ago at the beginning of our trip, Elisa’s brother Allan and I stumbled upon a mysterious abandoned hotel behind Nakagusuku Castle. The sign in Japanese probably said something like: “あぶない!はいるない!” But of course neither of us are able to read Kanji, so naturally we started to explore the inside.

The whole place was gutted and filled with graffiti, but it felt a hell of a lot scarier than similar places I’ve been to back home. Mostly there were guest rooms with beds, but also gigantic deep-soak tubs and a few large reception halls. Curiously none of the rooms had sufficient natural lighting (or none at all), leading me to believe that it must have been a mega-brothel for Vietnam-era American soldiers.

After crossing a modest-sized bridge and passing a tradition Japanese style gate (now it might as well have been Spirited Away. I was spooked!), we entered the second section of the hotel. It towered high over Nakagusuku Castle, but didn’t appear to be more than a concrete shell. It was perhaps a parking lot, because there was a small car in the basement floor, which looked like it was doused in gasoline and scorched. The view from the top was as Allan’s dad best described, “commanding,” allowing one to look out in all directions over the entire island.

Yeah, it was amazing.


Ryukyu Reppin’ April 16, 2010

Posted by Elisa Hough in History, Other Arts.
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Now taking orders for T-shirts with this design, which I found on some city sign.

The circular design is a mitsudomoe, which is seen often in Japanese and Korean culture. It’s a Shinto symbol representing the relationship of man, earth and sky, and it was also adapted as the Ryukyu Kingdom‘s flag. Now you see it associated with Okinawan music, printed on taiko drums and costumes.

The bird? All I know is he kinda looks like Sam the Eagle from The Muppets.

No kidding, I really am taking orders. I’ll screenprint them by hand when I get home. I gotta start making some $$$!

The Origin of Island Music April 13, 2010

Posted by Elisa Hough in History, Music.
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I shared before the Japanese legend about the origin of music, but I just learned the legend about the origin of Okinawan shima uta — island music.

There was a guy named Akainko, a prayer singer who traveled from village to village as a kind of troubadour. One night, he awoke to the rhythmic echoes of rainwater dripping from the roof to the ground.

In the morning he was inspired to craft a crude instrument with a wooden body and horsetail strings, the very first sanshin. From then on, he accompanied his prayer chants with rhythm and melody from the simple instrument.

The legend is doubtful due to so much obvious early musical influence from China. But Akainko definitely existed, and shima uta and the sanshin remain distinctly Okinawan art forms. Here’s a quote from some guy:

When you enter a house on Okinawa and view the [household shrine], you’ll notice that they aren’t decorated with an expensive piece of art, or an instrument of destruction such as a katana… They’re decorated with something far more precious — a sanshin.

All this information comes from Okinawa Living magazine, a monthly English guide to Okinawan culture. The Marine Corps Community Services publishes it in an attempt to get stationed Americans to experience the Real Okinawa.

Jungle Shrine April 12, 2010

Posted by Elisa Hough in History, Music, Photos.
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Last week we went to Seifa-utaki, the holiest of holy sites for one of the oldest civilizations on Okinawa. Hidden away in Nanjo City, none of its buildings still stand, but the cathedralesque foliage and rock formations are beauty enough.

If I understand correctly, this sacred area was used as the religious counterpart to Shuri Castle, home of the Ryukyu Kingdom royalty. This area was the shrine’s entrance, which only royalty could pass through.

During the Battle of Okinawa, a bomb fell at this murky pond. We saw a lady singing a hippie American song as a prayer for peace.

In another area, two pots collect holy water drops from giant stalactites, which were used to foretell the fortunes of the highest priestess and the prince.

It was pretty baffling to walk as a tourist around this centuries-old religious hub in the jungle, to see what Okinawa was like before Chinese invasion, mainland invasion, U.S. invasion. And to think, what could it be like now?

On our way out, a man at the entrance was presenting an offering of tangerines and saying a prayer at lightning speed. Please excuse the twig-broom maintenance noises:

History Underground April 10, 2010

Posted by Elisa Hough in History, Photos.
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Today we went to the former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters in Tomishiro. In 1944, the navy dug this 450-meter network of tunnels, using only picks and hoes, in anticipation of near-future warfare.


Sanshin Lesson #1 March 26, 2010

Posted by Elisa Hough in History, Music.
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The most famous sanshin player here who’s not Okinawan is Byron Jones. He has established himself as an expert of Okinawan culture and language, even though born American, and now he teaches sanshin to native Okinawans.

Byron is a friend of Mike, our program director, and old friend of our moms, so he let me sit in on this week’s lesson at the Urasoe community center.

Most of the hour-and-a-half practice was spent eating a Hotto Motto platter and congratulating one of the students, who just completed a master’s degree in Ryukyuan studies at age 75.

But I did learn about this notation: Music is read from right to left in vertical columns. The right side of the column is for the voice, which also includes symbols denoting inflection and intonation, and the left side is for the sanshin notes, written in kanji characters.

Byron also explained the two main schools of classical sanshin music. The original is named for its creator, Afuso, the elder students. This method is said to be the “more pure.” One of Afuso’s students, Nomura, was chosen by the king to develop a new style of music, Amuro, which I think is more widely practiced today. (If I got any of this wrong, feel free to correct.)

He gave me some homework to memorize the note positions, since sanshin has no frets. Hopefully I will have more information as weekly lessons continue!

Music Is My Solace March 23, 2010

Posted by Elisa Hough in History, Music.
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Once the war ended and the U.S. made themselves at home on Okinawa, they set up refugee camps for the locals. Conditions on the island were still awful, and people continued to die from malnutrition and malaria. It was a bleak setting, but Okinawans powered through, with the help of a little music.

Recycling tin cans and parachute string, musicians created the kankara — or tin can sanshin. In such a dismal world, these brought a little relief to the suffering.

Knowing this, the U.S. military encouraged the performing and visual arts in the refugee camps. This also led to the painting groups that my aunt curated an exhibit of at UC Berkeley and the University of the Ryukyus last year.

This post-war hell introduced a new era of Okinawan folk music. So says world music buff Richard O. Nidel:

Okinawans feel their island was sacrificed for the rest of Japan during World War II and their music reflects this suffering. Not surprisingly Okinawa is home to Japan’s most prominent roots music, the only new music from Japan to make a true impact on the world music scene.

I wish I could say more about it, but without knowing the native language, most of the songs’ content is lost on me. But I can say it’s unlike any music I’ve heard from any other world region, and it continues to evolve with modern twists and influences, while still paying respects to traditional roots.

Even the rudimentary kankara has been re-appropriated as a classroom arts-and-crafts project or tourist souvenir. But as long as we remember the instrument’s origins, there’s nothing kitschy about it.

The Battle of Okinawa March 23, 2010

Posted by Elisa Hough in History, Photos.
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The Battle of Okinawa began on April 1, 1945, when 170,000 U.S. troops invaded the island. After thousands of deaths, casualties and imprisonments, June 22 marked the official fall of Okinawa.

The Japanese army’s ultimate goal on Okinawa was to protect Shuri Castle, the hub of the Ryukyuan Kingdom. But U.S. forces were too strong, and the castle was destroyed. In 1992, the structure was rebuilt as a museum. (Unfortunately we visited on a Japanese holiday, and there were so many tourists that I only managed to take one photo.)

As destruction ensued, Okinawan civilians found shelter in tombs and caves. Families were separated, leaving many children to fend for themselves. This preserved cave in Futenma (Ginowan) saved countless lives during the battle.

You can still see where civilians carved their names in kanji into the limestone.

Japanese troops withdrew further and further until reaching the southernmost tip of the island. Here at this cliff, where the Peace Memorial Museum and Park now stand in their honor, many made the final retreat.

Even though the U.S. prevailed in the invasions of Okinawa and Iwo Jima island, authorities realized that invading mainland Japan would be too costly. Thus, in early August 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bombs.