Okinawa is dotted with the ruins of past eras, the most recent and visible being that of the gusuku period. Gusukus are castles, and the ones you’ll find today are in various states of disrepair unless they have been restored. The only restored castle I have been to is also the most famous, this being the seat of the King of the Ryukus at Shuri. The castle is fine and interesting, but I have always found the stone walls surrounding the castle to be infinitely more beautiful. The fine work in rough limestone with smooth curves not usually found in stone has a timeless beauty all its own. A continuous and long wall can seem boring, but here you see the little nooks and crannies of the limestone, portions worn away with the assault of age but the whole aging gracefully and in tune with time. At night, a stroll around the walls is a most intimate affair as the daytime crowds have disappeared and one is left to ponder all that the walls have witnessed.
But Shuri Castle is not the castle I want to discuss here- today I visited a different castle, this one being located about 10 minutes by foot from where I work. After lunch at Mos Burger, a Japanese fastfood gourmet hamburger chain (yes, I know that’s a contradiction), I remembered that there is a castle nearby and that I had intended to visit it one day. Today was the day as I steered the bicycle off the busy main street. From the proliferation of concrete, I was plunged into the cool air and shade of forest. This was a day of magical sunshine and a supremely comfortable air temperature and I said a thank you in my heart on the dirt path leading to the castle.
Chibana gusuku is built on a hill 80 meters (about 250 ft) above sea level. It is, indeed, a hill as the land immediately beside this one small site is flat or gently graded for miles around. It’s very unsettling to find these hills, as I don’t understand how they got there. Why would there be an abrupt change in elevation on otherwise rather featureless land?
The hill rose quickly- too steep for me to ride. The huge turret of a power line dominated the lower slope, making a very audible buzz as its cables stretched off in opposite directions carrying their loads of electricity.
The road gave way to a single lane dirt path as we (my bicycle and me) entered the canopy of something I miss dreadfully- forest. It’s rare to find forests from the central part of Okinawa on down to the Southern tip- they were most likely destroyed in the war for the most part and recovery is made difficult by the relatively unsheltered topography and geographical location of the island. Or so I imagine.
There are a few cars parked below the trees, one with the engine running and people inside. In spite of this, I would not encounter any humans again until reentering the normal world. Here, time is not an issue even though I know I have to be back at work.
A sign at the bottom of the steps introduces the castle. Many relics have been found here, including Chinese pottery from the days when wooden ships carried goods to and from distant nations. The famous martial artist Uni-Unifugusuku (sp?) lived here in the 15th century. Interestingly to someone who has commited to creating and understanding soil, the site is notable for being an edge where the southern type of soil on the island transitions to the distinct northern type. What types are these? I suspect that the soil in the South, where I live, is more clayey and has its origins in coral. The north? I don’t really know. But I do believe that the Okinawa pine grows well in the North. There’s no information on who built the castle or why it was eventually abandoned.
I park the bike near the sign and walk ahead to where the path forks. One branch goes up and to the left while the other goes down and to the right. I choose to go up. The path seems to have been created by foot traffic only. There are no steps, only areas mostly clear of trees and other vegetation. Palm fronds punctuate the forest here and there and present more of an obstacle to navigation as the path works upward. About halfway up the slope, I encounter a wall of solid limestone. It rises up higher and I must go around to mount it. Here and there are small patches of what looks like finely shredded white paper. The little strips are much narrower than the end product of our office shredder. It looks like someone has taking little pinches of the stuff from a pouch and dropped them as they followed the path, perhaps to mark the trail. But for whom? And why- it’s not really a tricky path to follow and the whole castle site is so small it would be nearly impossible to get lost. The though occurs to me that these little deposits have a spiritual purpose. It’s a mystery, and I see these little white patches all the way to the top.
There is a round cement structure up there. It’s quite large, and there are steps leading up to the lookout. Inside, the structure is divided into separate empty compartments, each with a different view over central Okinawa. Visibility is excellent- there to the west are the hangars of Kadena airforce base. In another side is the expressway, leading down to the south in one direction and further north in the other. The hotel with a big King Kong statue on its sign is there on the other side of the expressway. In the direction where my office should be, trees block the view.
In one of the rooms, someone has left a palm leaf. Probably an offering of some kind. Perhaps a prayer for peace that is just as likely to be on the behalf of the site as it is to be a personal one. I have never had as much of the impression that people pray for universal peace as I have on Okinawa, where a third of the population perished in the war.
The physical, panoramic perspective of the island gives rise to a moment of inner perspective. I can take a breath, temporarily escaping from the prison of daily life that is in part the creation of my self, and perhaps in part the creation of fate. The island is beautiful, there is beauty and mystery in the midst of the mundane, concrete world. Realities coexist, and a few minutes away from the cage of my office is this place, a place that lifts and dissipates the deadening layers of responsibility, frustration, and hopelessness that can settle on one’s being.
Only after I left the castle did I realize that I had seen nothing that resembled a castle at the site. All traces of what had been had vanished with time. However, even though I did not encounter another person while I was there, there was a palpable feeling of the people and events that have passed through the space over the centuries. Far from being a dead place, Chibana castle is imbued with a spirit that is hard to define, yet nevertheless real.
I casually asked one of my coworkers if they had ever visited the site. Despite living in the area, he never had. I recommended that he do so.
He told me that the place is haunted, by the ghosts of dead Japanese military. A nighttime visit is to be avoided, he warned, but perhaps during the day…
I saw one last little pile of the shredded white paper back on the road when I was leaving the castle. Something for the ghosts? Or perhaps something left by the ghosts…