Dancin' the Night Away

Be careful of who asks you to dance!

Oh, sure!! I was planning to go to bed early that night....

We had been living in Aza-oki, Yomitan-son for only a few weeks and I was still enjoying the romance of being back on Okinawa.

Instead of our previous tour in the early 1970's when the best that I could do was to capture the sights with my trusty Vivitar Super-8 movie camera, I was now armed with a JVC S10U videocam!
It was the old kind.... had the VHS recorder strapped to my hip (well, actually it was slung over my shoulder most of the time) and the remote camera at the end of a sometimes too long cable. All in all, I'd estimate the weight of this high-tech appendage as somewhere around 170 pounds!! Well, some days - and nights - it felt that heavy!
I call it an appendage because I had it all the time! My wife often teasingly accused me of going nowhere without that damned camera!! I think she was just paranoid! *grin* Every night, she'd look through the darkness of the marital bedroom just to be sure that there was no little red light in a distant corner! *smirk*
Hey!! I wasn't into that!!

Where was I?
Oh, yeah.... on my way to bed early that night.
Or so I thought.
I stepped out onto the upstairs balcony before toddlin' off to bed when I heard some music in the not too distant vicinity. I was certain that it was coming from up in Higa Park - just up the hill behind the house. I went to the back end of the balcony and - sure 'nuf, there was a flickering of several lights in the park.
Taken with the mystery of my new surroundings and being an inately curious kinda guy, I went downstairs and stealthily ascended the hill until I got to a row of tombs across the high perimeter of the park.

It is a common religious practice among the Okinawans to secure the ashes of deceased family members in large limestone/concrete vaults. (I'll soon have a page up about Obon and the associated events)
There is a row of such vaults built partly into the hillside on the upper - north - border of the park and this gave me a good vantage point for observing what was going on in the park. As I peered down the concrete steps that lead from the tombs and into the flat lawns of Higa Park I could see four or five women in traditional Ryukyuan garb, sitting in a semi-circle and beating rhythmically on small hand-held drums. A single male, in similar attire was seated to the left of the women and was plink-plinking on a samisen - a 3-stringed instrument which could probably be likened to a cross between a banjo and a ukelele. Snake skin stretched across the body and gut strings give it a twangy sound.
(To listen to a samisen, go to my "Sounds" page - later, after you finish reading my story! - and select one of the "traditional Okinawan music" choices.)

Oh, man!! I just have to go get my camera!!!
Hoping that I wasn't catching the tail-end of the party I quietly went back to the house and got the camera and invited my son, Zachary, to come along. Zac had just recently turned eleven years old and wasn't yet sickened by the prospect of going somewhere, let alone being seen with a parent, so he eagerly accepted the invitation. I'm so very happy that he did - for more than a couple of reasons!

Zac and I quietly went back up the hill, following the path I'd just earlier traversed. I was excited with the prospect of surreptitiously capturing on videotape a native event thinking that if I could stay hidden, I'd be able to tape everything devoid of the participants' concern about being watched. It would be the real deal!!
As we climbed the hill, my thoughts went back to what I'd read about Yomitan and the Hagushi beaches where, decades earlier, my military forebearers had stormed the island - over the very ground where I was now standing, on a reconnaisance mission of my own. I wondered if those tombs had served as machine-gun batteries or if the surrounding caves housed those who would fight ferociously to defend their island fortress. (It was only later, after more reading and talking with the locals about the war that I learned that U.S. forces actually landed on those beaches with exquisitely little resistance!) In a flash, in response to a shout from the park, my mind ripped back to reality and I stopped cold in my tracks, grabbing Zac's arm and signaling him to be absolutely still. I'd been caught!! What were they going to do?

Here I was, the newest resident in the neighborhood and about to be exposed as a sneaking, prying America-no gun-gin !! I felt doomed!!

Well, as it turned out, my imagination had gotten the better of me and the shout was only from one of the participants as he stood to dance! Whew!

Zac and I then proceeded on our mission.... to snoop!
We got back up aside of the tombs and I was ready to do some serious video-taping!

As we were watching, I clicked on the JVC and raised the camera to my eye. Within moments I was thoroughly absorbed in the goings-on, not having a clue what it was all about. But, it was different and I had, after all, come back to Okinawa to experience the island and her people again. As I continued to tape the event, concentrating on adjusting for low light and striving for the best camera angle, I lost track of my position and wandered away from the cover of the tombs and adjacent shrubberies. Yes, indeed, I felt like an interloper and was just beginning to feel guilty about sneaking around some perhaps sacred activity.

Zac stayed at my side and was probably wondering why I was so damned enthralled with the strange-sounding music, yet he kept his eyes on the people in the park and I knew that he too was feeling at least some of the same excitement that I was - a papa just knows these things. *smile* As I continued to listen I kept an eye on the activities of the night through the viewfinder of my JVC.

As I kept taping, concentrating only on my subjects, I lost track of where I was relative to my cover. Zac must have figured I knew what I was doing as we inched closer and closer, stepping ever so carefully so as not to disturb this party of apparently elderly Okinawans.
When I look at the videotape now I can see him coming, but I didn't that night - it was dark out... there were a few flickering torches down in the park but otherwise it was dark out!! That happens a lot at night, ya know! *grin*
Zac nudged me and brought me back "to earth" and he grunted something about someone coming up the stairs. Before I could respond, a voice was directly in front of us and when I peeled my eye from the viewfinder I saw a local man who looked to be in the middle of his 4th decade of life.
I don't know if this happens to you but what happens to me when I pull away from an extended period of time peering through a viewfinder, my vision is a little screwey! I've been looking "up close" at the video monitor with my right eye and suppressing vision in my left. Well, when I go to using both eyes again, they're out of synch. I couldn't make out much in the dark and with my temporary visual impairment I could make out only that the man was holding something out to me. I must have looked like a fool as I just stood there a few moments staring at the guy - until he said something I didn't understand and once again offered something which he was holding. By now I could see that it was a plastic cup. He was offering me a drink!! Wow! That seemed mighty sociable of 'im!!

He was then gesturing with one hand toward the park lawn below and placed his other hand on my shoulder, giving me a bit of a tug.

"Zac!! He's inviting us to go down there!!" I'm certain my expression was nothing short of incredulous!
Here I'd been afraid that I'd offend them if caught as a peeping-Tom and here he was inviting us to go down. I started to follow him after graciously accepting the cup when I suddenly remembered why I had come in the first place. I was recording history! So, I stopped, almost literally threw the camera to Zac and told him to tape me going down the stairs with the man. As we approached the bottom of the stairs I came to another startling realization.... Zac was still at the top of the stairs, faithfully capturing the moment but not sure if he should come down or not.
"Zac!! C'mon down!!"

The man guided us to a small break in the circle of villagers who were clapping, laughing and drinking.... and drinking!
As we nestled our butts into the turf, I looked to my right with perhaps the stupidest-looking grin, nodded and said "Konnichi-wa!"
The man was gracious and polite, smiled back and clearly enunciated the phrase, "Kom-ban-wa!"
Oh yeah!! Konnichi-wa is only used from noon till dusk. It means, roughly translated, "Good day" or "Good afternoon." I felt like a twit!! Then I felt like I deserved to feel like a twit! I wondered how Zac was feeling.
Hell, he was 11 - how bored could he possibly be? Then I finally took a drink from the cup - Ahah!! I recognized the taste!! Shinjyo-san had shared some of his with me a couple of weeks earlier! Okinawa sake - only it's not really sake - it's Awomori. And it's potent stuff!

At this point, there were a number of people trying to communicate with me. I spoke next to no Japanese and they spoke almost no English. We sure did a lot of smiling, nodding and, when standing, bowing!
The man who came up the stairs to get us was seated to my left and Zac was sorta between and behind us - still taping, I thought. The man to my left had used to work for the U.S. Army and therefore knew a little English.

I was having a hell of a time trying to understand but studied hard.

By this time the camera had been handed back to me and I really didn't want to rudely shove the thing in his face as he was speaking, so I set it in the grass and aimed it upward, hoping that I had a good angle of his face... in the dark! As best I can determine, as I look at the tape now and listen to his voice I'm certain that I'm looking at either his or my knee!! *chortle*

The man... wish I could remember his name... got us to understand that the man who was presently stumbling, singing and dancing amidst the fires was Higa-san, the mayor of Aza-oki. He was going around and around and the courteous man to my left called him over. There was an exchange of conversation between them and I was then sure that the jig was up! I thought for sure that I was going to be up the creek! Thought I was toast!

To my surprise - and to Zac's embarrassment - Higa-san, the mayor of our little town was reaching his hand out... to Zac!!!

Again, I was dumbfounded!! Higa-san took Zac by the hand and pulled him up into the middle of the circle of our new friends and compelled him to dance!! Zac shot a look to me that was either saying, "Papa! I'm gonna wet my pants!" or perhaps, "Papa! I'm gonna kick your ass!!!" Actually, I think his pained expression was saying, "What the hell do I do?"
I looked at him firmly, thinking, "we can't insult our host," and blurted out the most compassionate and reassuring thing I could think of.... "Dance!!"

He did marvelously!! I mean it! I couldn't believe it and am still in awe of my son to this day.... he attended to the motions, arm and hand gestures and steps that Mr. Higa was demonstrating and he tried diligently to reproduce those motions! He was a flippin' hit!! The villagers loved it!! They were clapping louder and chanting and drinking.... and drinking! Hey!! It was a party, ok? *smirk*

Then the dance ceased - Higa-san stood there looking at Zac then bowed. Zac, looking at him, nervous as a cat and not knowing what was coming next, had presence of mind to smile and return the bow. Atta-boy, Zac!!! I was a relieved papa!!
Higa-san spoke English pretty well... I wish that I could speak his tongue as well as he speaks ours. He asked Zac his name, age, how he liked being on Okinawa.... the boy's responses were most appropriate and I doubt that the majority of the villagers understood. But I knew that within days everyone would have asked their neighbors, "What'd that little American boy say?" He did himself proud!!

After Zac, thankfully, was released from his civic duty (I was soooo proud of 'im!) he skittered back over to his spot of flattened grass, wide eyed and just plain giddy!! It was kool! *sigh*

Higa-san then approached me and held his hand out to me. I stood, nervously bowed and tried unobtrusively as possible to command Zac to get the tape rollin'!! I gave a little perfuctory speech, introducing myself and describing my family and made it a point to say that this was my second trip to Okinawa - that I had loved it so much that, even taking eleven years to accomplish it - I was back!! And damned happy to be!! Higa-san appeared pleased, initiated a tittering of applause, bowed then gestured my return to the circle and directing my duty for the evening: "Drink, drink!!"

The following day, there was a huge turn-out at the park. Very ceremonious with lots of pomp. Speeches and, oh, a whole lotta bowing going on. I went back, of course, to nose around and get it on tape. A very distinguished man was at the podium and every eye and every ear was studiously trained on him. It seemed like even the babies quieted down when he spoke.

I felt kinda honored to have been in the company of this distinguished gentleman the night before. At the conlusion of his speech I believe that I applauded as long and as loudly as his most ardent supporters. The only difference was - they understood what Higa-san, the high mayor of Aza-oki, Yomitan-son had said!

I met Higa-san again, 31 years later, in March 2017 at a community clean-up of the "Seven Sacred Sites" on Torii Station!

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