One evening around 10:30 p.m., we heard a knock on the door of our base housing in Okinawa. Puzzled at the unusually late visitor, we opened the door to a worried looking fellow with an urgent question: "Do you know that you have a Habu under your car?" We rushed out, flashlights in hand to reveal the threat. Yes. There it was, lurking under the engine area, probably in search of rats, but possibly planning a night's stay and a morning surprise for the driver—me.
We called the MPs. They confidently strutted over and fished the nocturnal snake out from under the car. After they thoroughly beat it with their batons, they picked the limp body up and threw the long, slender blotched snake into the bed of their pickup truck. They leaned over the sidewalls, joking and poking at the snake, examining their trophy. Suddenly the Habu moved, and I've never seen such burly Marines jump back and beat a retreat so fast. That was our unforgettable introduction to Okinawa's venomous Habu pit viper that brochures had warned us about. From then on, we gave the Habu wide berth.
One species of Habu, the Hime Habu, is native to Okinawa. At the turn of the last century, mongooses were introduced on Okinawa in an effort to control the Habu population. Now, however, mongooses are also considered nuisances. Neither animal is sympathetic, so the staged fights to the death between caged Habus and mongooses are in Okinawa don't generate local protests.
The Habu Museum Park in the southeastern part of the island has five shows a day, but in those the Habu and mongoose are pitted against each other in a swimming race. The museum is devoted to everything that you'd want to know about Habu and maybe more. Displays include live, stuffed and pickled Habu and even a full-length skeleton. For the less squeamish, there are even opportunities to pose with a Burmese Python.
The Habu is a common sight on Okinawa, so it understandable that the Okinawans thought that the USAF Blackbird aircraft resembled a Habu in flight, which got the plane its nickname: Habu.
Another Okinawan animal isn't dangerous—unless you're an evil spirit. What do you get when you cross a lion and a dog? In Okinawa, the answer is: Shisa guardian dogs, gargoyle beasts that stand guard nearly everywhere. Pairs of these mythological dogs stand guard on roofs of houses and gates to parks and they even guard some Torii gates. They're even on the tops of vending machines. Also known as ShiShi, the one on the left has an open mouth, scaring off any threatening evil spirits. The right one's mouth is clamped closed, locking in the good spirits.
Legend has it that Shisa warded off attacks on Naha Port from a sea dragon. Another legend claims that the Shisa local villagers built protected the Tommori Village from fires that had plagued them. Probably Okinawa's Shisa roots can be found in the Chinese mythical guardian lions that have been around since B.C. Mainland Japan has lion figures based on a similar Korean figure. Intricately carved stone shisha figures used to be limited to the homes of the wealthy, but now they're likely mass produced and affordable. I consider ShiShi an art form. Art and music are closely allied, and Okinawa has a rich history in both.
Shanshin means three strings, and that's what the instrument has: three strings, a body and neck. The body traditionally is covered with snakeskin. You might think that Habu snakeskin would be used, but it's too narrow to cover the body. Now shanshin often are covered with synthetic materials that make exporting easier. The instrument probably traces its origin to China, a frequent trade partner during the Ryukyu Kingdom. Shanshin has given rise to the Japanese shamisen. Interestingly, after WWII, empty cans were used to make a version of the instrument called Kankara.
Shanshin music played by Okinawan couple while little girl dances:
During WWII, the arts and music took a back seat to fierce fighting that engulfed the island. Essentially, the entire island of Okinawa was a battle site in the Battle of Okinawa, known in English as the "Typhoon of Steel." The operation, code named Operation Iceberg, was the largest amphibious assault during WWII and the last one in the war. Okinawa memorializes that battle at several historic sites, including The Peace Prayer Park, the Urosoe Castle ruins, and the Japanese Underground Naval Headquarters.
The Peace Prayer Park is on the southern tip of the Okinawa. It's also called Suicide Cliff, because this is where the Japanese made their last stand, and where many jumped to their death rather than face American forces.
There's a modest entrance fee to this memorial park, which commemorates the more than 200,000 people, mostly civilians, who died during the Battle of Okinawa. The park has1,200 black granite slabs inscribed with the names of those who died, regardless of their nationality. So the names of Japanese, Okinawans, Americans, Koreans, North Koreans and Taiwanese and Britons are forever together, forged in granite on the Everlasting Waves of Peace memorial.
Uphill paths lead to memorials contributed by the other prefectures of Japan in a quieter, less visited area of the park.
The Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum is in Peace Prayer Park also. It highlights personal accounts of the Battle of Okinawa and displays how textbooks from around the world present the facts about the battle.
Urosoe Castle, or gusuku, was constructed during the late 13th and early 14th centuries. It was expanded using elite, expensive materials such as roof tiles procured in trade with Korea.
The castle endured many events over the decades. It was burned by invaders, pilfered for materials for other castles and inhabited by the son of a king, who eventually restored it. The ridge that the castle is on was involved in the Battle of Okinawa when the Japanese used it as a defensive position that the GIs dubbed Hacksaw Ridge.
Excavations of the site have turned up tens of thousands of artifacts and revealed extensive areas that the castle encompassed at various times. Today, only ruins remain that are accessible via steep stairs and paths with swarming mosquitos. Despite that, the panoramic views at the top make the effort worthwhile. You can also walk down to the tomb entrance, but aren't permitted to enter.
Perhaps the most compelling memorial on Okinawa is the site of the underground headquarters of the WWII Japanese navy. A small entrance fee allows entry into the tunnels, which were restored and opened to the public in 1970. It's haunting to go through the narrow, winding tunnels knowing that General Ota and 175 of his staff committed suicide within those walls rather than surrender. Pock marks line the tunnel walls, clearly identifying shrapnel damage from the grenades that claimed lives. The small museum inside the headquarters has a full translation of General Ota's suicide note pleading for leniency for the Okinawans, drawing a curtain on his final act. Within two months, WWII was over.