Shikinaen Royal Garden & Spirit Graveyard

Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Shikinaen Royal Garden & Spirit Graveyard

We wake to another clear and sunny day. In an effort to chase the Monday Blues away, Art suggests a bicycle ride to the Shuri Castle district. I love that area but suggest we ride to Shikinaen Royal Gardens instead.


It’s within Naha, one of the 9 World Heritage Sites on Okinawa, and John and I have never been there. After surveying the map, Art leads the way. Our map doesn’t show elevation and I can tell that Art is concerned that the gardens might be at a high elevation. The three of us set out and it’s a lovely “ride” even the last part where I push my bicycle up a seemingly endless roadway. At the start of the steepest incline, John peddles fast and calls back to me “challenging” me get my ”f** a**” back on the bike and ride. Within 50 feet he too is pushing his bike up the hill. I have been the tortoise in this bicycle “race” of ours. Mostly it’s easy and fun, but when the going gets steep, I put my feet firmly on the ground and walk.

Entrance into this World Heritage Site is 300 yen each and we step into a lush and historic botanical garden. We have the gardens mostly to ourselves. We wander the manicured paths under overhanging gajumaru trees. Vines and tendrils drip down from the trees reaching the root structure and it is difficult to determine roots from vines. Ancient Ryukyu lime stone walls define the pathways and dappled sunlight shimmers on the stone path under the shaded canopy of trees. Central to the garden is a large pond with two stone bridges built out to a small island in the center of the pond. A rokkaku-do, a hexagonal gazebo is the focal point of the island. Unfortunately the wisteria is not in bloom but the garden is beautiful, serene and genuine. Koi fish, carp and turtles glide inches below the water’s surface. We stroll away from the pond, back into the lush growth within the garden when John loudly exclaims and points to a spot low on a tree trunk. A split second later I spot the 8” long emerald green lizard. John has my camera and leaps over the railing to take numerous shots of this jeweled lizard but the lizard is camera shy and scurries off into the foliage. Minutes later John spots one of his relatives camouflaged in the grass on a steep embankment. John does chase and catches it. He has the lizard in a firm grip and the lizard does his best to bite John, but John quietly assures his reptilian friend that he will not be eaten and the lizard settles down for a photo shoot. To John’s dismay, and the lizards relief we will not allow John to take him home to join his menagerie.

We visit the Udun Palace within the gardens, a recreation of the formal wooden house that was originally constructed at the end of the 18th century. This house was a second residence for the Ryukyu Royal family members and foreign guests. We remove our shoes and walk soundlessly along polished wooden floors and are able to experience the tatami rooms with their shoji screen walls, the rustic kitchen and even the bathrooms emptying over the pig sty’s.

Once again it is a breeze, literally, to bicycle home and we stop for lunch along our route. Lunch is not particularly good, but the matronly owner takes a liking to John and after he orders his second “American Hot Dog” she brings him an unexpected complimentary plate of cold spaghetti with a cold salsa sauce. John is already full, but realizes he must eat this gracious offering and does so smiling.

I take leave of the boys at the Heiwadori Market Place. There are a couple of special birthday’s in March and I want to shop for gifts. I know this covered market labyrinth well but have seldom been here on my own. I am looking especially disheveled today, sweaty, with helmet hair and my green folding Newton Bicycle in tow. It’s only when I catch a glimpse of myself in a shop window or mirror that I feel my age, but alone here in the narrow side alleys of the market I realize that I am an oddity. I retrace my path to my favorite tiny shops and then stumble upon an alleyway between two alleys. I carefully walk my bicycle along this narrow space crowded close and between the back sides of two market streets. I pop out into an open area with a half dozen small tables; all occupied by what I surmise are the owners, friends and employees of the shops bordering this space. I feel as if I have stepped into a party uninvited as heads turn in my direction. I smile and nod and wish to be invisible.

I don’t find what I am looking for on my shopping trip so I bicycle back tired and deflated. My web site is still down. I am emotionally down.

Just above our apartment on the hillside dropping down to the fish market is a cemetery. John and I began to explore it last night, but we were spooked away when we turned a narrow and overgrown path and saw a homeless encampment amidst one of the large tombs. John and I backtracked through the labyrinth of tombs and we found a spot where we could watch the sunset. We could see the Zumami Islands silhouetted grey, as the sun dipped vermillion red below the horizon.

Tonight I ask Art if he will walk with me up to this cemetery to watch the sunset? The pathway begins just steps away from our apartment. Art leads the way and we wind a narrow and overgrown path through the tombs and startle the homeless man who sits reading in the late afternoon sunlight. Art greets him with an assured “konichiwa.” and we walk past. The city disappears and we are suddenly in a wild and spirit filled place. Nature has taken over and vines and lush foliage encroach upon the tombs and two small limestone caves are gaping open. Art asks me if I want to climb up and look inside? We scramble a short 10 feet up and look into the opening of two graves? There are 5 or 6 large, broken and cracked. earthenware jars. Art surmises that these might have once contained bones. I am amazed that these artifacts are still present and as intact as they are.
I take several photographs. We retrace our steps back past our “friends” encampment. Art clears his throat and the man looks up from his reading and asks Art if he speaks Japanese? When Art responds in the affirmative, a lengthy discussion enthuses about following a spiritual path. When Art is finally able to tear us away from the conversation, Art observes that he might be more inclined to believe this man’s path if his housekeeping were better. The clutter of bottles and debris in this man’s house was quite offensive.

Art and I walk a pathway out to the edge of the cliff. We step up onto the wall of a tomb. The sun is close to setting and the smooth curve of the highway overpass glistens above the industrial harbor. In the midst of this tightly urban place, there are sweet spots; one just needs to notice them. The sun sets in a pale glow, the Zamami Islands backlit grey against the horizon.

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