Motobu: History and nature do the talking

Northern Okinawa peninsula is a treasure trove of Ryukyu culture

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

As Okinawa’s Route 58 snakes northwards, leaving behind the lines of silver razor wire that surround the perimeters of U.S. military bases, the shabby ribbon of towns that form a kind of urban bricolage is replaced with farmland and salty breezes from the East China Sea.

Nago is the first settlement of consequence in this region of northern Okinawa. An appealingly laconic town, with stained concrete buildings, sun-blistered wooden homes and little comestible stores, it reminds me of the dusty towns along the Mekong River in northern Thailand. The improbable decision to choose Nago to host the Group of Eight summit in 2000 briefly put the area on the map. It has since dropped off.

My purpose for being here is to visit its city hall, designed by a daring group of young architects who were also the founders in 1971 of a collective known as Team Zoo. The group was commissioned to create a building that departed from tradition in a town where, in ancient times, building styles were based on Chinese models.

Completed in 1981, the town hall reflects the region’s languid, semitropical environs with airy, open corridors and staircases, wide patios and shaded breezeways, bedizened with pots of pink and magenta bougainvillea. The exterior columns, a latticework of concrete pillars and supports, are covered in bands of pink and gray like a barber’s pole. The open design has shaped a building that does not, despite its function, seem in the least bit institutional.

Critic Patrice Goulet once commented that Team Zoo’s projects, though patently unconventional in drawing their ideas from the vernacular culture, could appear “so normal to some, so traditional even, … so vulgar to others.” Affectionately eccentric, one might add, like the 56 talismanic Okinawa shisa statues (lion-esque guardians of Okinawa homes), that are tacked to the outside of the building, perched on concrete plinths like gargoyles.

At the rear of Unten Port, to the northeast of the peninsula, Mumujana-baka rarely appears on maps. Over half a millennium old — but unlisted as a heritage site — its tombs, carved into the rock face and containing the remains of regents who once served the Ryukyu Kingdom, have remained outside the mainstream of time. Neither Buddhist nor Shinto, with ties closer to ancient forms of animism, Okinawans have long practiced a polytheistic form of religion — largely presided over by female priestesses and shamans — that concerns itself more with ritual than complex cosmological musings.

Somebody had left a clutch of cane walking sticks at the entrance to the tombs, placed there not to support the weary, but to thwack the tropical growth on either side of the earthen path, to send snakes slithering away. My experience of habu, Okinawa’s most venomous pit viper, creatures that infest limestone cliffs like this, is that they are not so easily intimidated.

Utopia found: Airy outdoor seating at dye workshop and cafe Ai Kaze.
Utopia found: Airy outdoor seating at dye workshop and cafe Ai Kaze. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Traditionally, the floors of homes in this and other rural areas were cleansed with salt water, a measure aimed at preventing snakes and cockroaches from entering. Luckily, the only reptile I come across is the harmless Ryukyu kinobori-tokage, an alert, green-skinned Okinawa tree lizard. The region’s ibo-imori newt, mountain turtles and the flightless rail keep themselves out of sight, concealed in jungle camouflage, though almost supernaturally large, black-and-white ōgomadara (tree nymph) butterflies flutter above the path.

Roads deeper into the peninsula rise into more forest, one unsurfaced lane ending at the grassy forecourt of Ai Kaze, an aizome (indigo dye) workshop, whose name translates to “Indigo Wind.” I had visited before, and had been surprised to see textile maker Masanao Shiroma, pour a bottle of awamori, Okinawa’s signature liquor, into the dyeing vat, a means, it was explained, to fasten the blue into the material before it is wind-dried on a line outside. This repeat visit is spurred by the memory of its cafe, where a strong local brew is served at handmade wooden tables and chairs on a deck that is cantilevered over the garden and surrounding forest.

Stones sans mortar: The dry walls of Nakijin Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Stones sans mortar: The dry walls of Nakijin Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Nearby Nakijin is an attractive village, its midday torpor inductive to either eating or, for those so inclined, sleeping. Erected on an isolated eminence, its northern parts facing the ocean and with a precipitous drop along its eastern edge into a gorge, the site for Nakijin Castle was surely chosen not merely for its defensive features, but also for drama.

The masonry here is cruder than the limestone work seen in castles in southern Okinawa, but the site lines that now constitute its main walls, and the remains of an ancient keep, hint at well-developed engineering skills. The foundations of residences used by retainers, a garden area and fresh spring, form a well-managed enclosure. There are also visible traces of prayer sites once used by priestesses to conduct prayers and rituals.

Following Route 115 in a southerly direction, connecting with Route 84, the main coastal road leads to what is without question the peninsula’s main draw: the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. Tanks and outdoor pools form a veritable marine kingdom of reef manta rays; flame snappers; graceful bull, tiger and whale sharks; manatee; luminescent shrimp; and some of the most bizarre-looking fish you will ever set eyes on. The whale sharks, magnificent in their command of the water, float in territorial splendor through the depths of the aquarium’s humongous main tank, whose acrylic front panel was once the largest in the world.

It’s just a few minutes north from the aquarium to Bise, a coastal village known for its sandy lanes, lined with dense fukugi (evergreen) trees. Even on sunny days, only filtered light makes it through the canopy of closely matted leaves; the trees are used throughout Okinawa as typhoon barriers. Snugly inside their arboreal quadrangles are traditional Okinawa houses, crafted from stone, tile and wood. Some 230 homes sit within an aural oasis, where the buzz of cicadas, rustle of leaves and the lap of the ocean are the sole sounds.

Few people visit the nearby village of Shinzato with its attractive but modest residencies and kitchen gardens. The evident lack of a center to the settlement made finding the new home of the highly regarded potter Paul Lorimer a trying business. When Lorimer, who has lived in Okinawa for over 40 years, went to view the property, there was little to see, the long-abandoned structure covered in jungle vines.

Then, his first task was to dig out a termite nest from one of the rooms. It’s a very different residence today, with polished floors, antique cabinets, a gallery where he exhibits his earthy stoneware jars, vases, plates, incense burners and flagons, and a long, garden-facing deck, hand-built, like the brick kiln at the rear of the property, by Lorimer himself.

Dappled light: The charming stone and sand lanes of Bise are shaded by fukugi (evergreen) trees.
Dappled light: The charming stone and sand lanes of Bise are shaded by fukugi (evergreen) trees. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Much of his work involves producing unglazed storage jars for awamori, an Okinawa liquor made from indica rice imported from Thailand. A good deal of floor space in Lorimer’s main room is taken up with rows of liquor casks and the native New Zealander turns out to be quite a specialist on the subject.

Intrigued by the reaction that takes place between aging awamori and the chemical elements of clay jars — such as manganese, calcium and magnesium — and their effect on taste, depth and aroma, Lorimer has placed the liquor into containers of differing mineral characters, in what is an ongoing experiment. Lorimer steers me through a range of older liquors to demonstrate the difference: Clay-matured awamori, in contrast to younger, bottled varieties, has the effect of mollifying and teasing the palate, rather than biting into it.

Lorimer’s lifestyle and work, and the material environs he has created to compliment them, suggest, at least to the casual guest, an earthly Utopia. How many of us, spellbound by the transcendent naturalism that is a feature of Henry David Thoreau’s book, “Walden,” or poet Janet Frame’s account of her stay in the once Elysium-like Balearic Islands, have dreamed of withdrawing to a rural idyll like this? Such are the thoughts occupying me as I drive back to my minshuku (guest house), reaching the west coast of the peninsula as twilight fades.

Darkness swallows up the sun, but not the heat, or the unholy downpour that soaks me to the skin. The clouds above are pierced by bolts of lightning and the ocean is lit up to phantasmagoric effect. As the thunder recedes, the lashing rain turns to sputtering squalls. The storm is spent.

There are regular buses from Okinawa’s Naha Bus Terminal to the city of Nago. The bus service around the Motobu Peninsula is patchy and buses infrequent. To fully experience the area, it is better to rent a car or scooter.