Okinawan Turtleback Tombs

Imagine my surprise at meandering down a side street during my first week on the island and finding myself in a small neighborhood of concrete structures vaguely resembling graves or mausoleums! Most of them looked to be from within the last 50-70 years, if I had to make a snap judgment on how old the concrete looked. I snapped a few shots there on the cloudy day, feeling confused by the zombie wasteland-like deserted streets and faded buildings and intrigued by the discovery of a real-life mystery. Why were these sizable cemetery structures hiding in clusters amid neighborhoods of the living?

I had never seen pictures of turtleback tombs (kamekoubaka in Japanese) or heard about them until I saw them in person, since Okinawa was a surprise last-minute destination that I did not research. (And that’s a whole story for another time.) In fact, I only learned what they were called this week, when doing some research before writing this post.

I remember seeing graves almost exactly like the ones below after climbing the highway guardrail to take some overgrown stairs down to a hidden row of tombs lower down the hill. An asphalt-paved road with cars periodically passing to and fro was just above the ledge/clearing.

None of these were turtleback tombs, though. Not yet. I don’t have an answer for their presence, actually.

Now. Cut (several weeks into the future) to me walking down an asphalt highway on a steep hill down to the beach. Thick, lush tropical forest rises up and stretches out on either side of the road, occasionally dipping down to reveal houses, buildings, or lower vegetation. I’ve got no cellular data but am constantly checking to make sure the blue arrow of Google Maps and I are still going in the same direction. A four way intersection interrupts the rapid descent to where the water must eventually be, and right there by the corner, backed up to the forest, is a gigantic stone/concrete looking rounded structure. It’s…well, you hardly know what to call it. Monument? Tomb? How old is it? It’s so huge. No plaque or inscription of any kind.

It’s solid and feels unnecessarily, impressively vast in some vaguely important way. This is it, below, I think. By far the best picture I have out of all these tombs, and the most striking.

I would see plenty more during my time there, including a good handful of the smaller, not very turtle-looking ones set back into the woods but visible from the walking path in the big Okinawa Comprehensive Park.

Apparently turtle motifs are common in old Chinese graves in the coastal Fujian region, from whence the custom made its way to the Ryukus. (Think legends of the turtle with the world on its back.) This was hardly the only custom to make its way from coastal China to the islands; Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu chain are equidistant from mainland China and mainland Japan, and historically traded with and paid tribute to both.

But here’s the kicker – on Okinawa, it ain’t about turtles. It’s about a mother’s womb. The soul is believed to return to a mother’s womb of some kind after death; whether literal or metaphorical, I do not know. Take a look at that big tomb a few pics up and tell me that’s not a VERY anatomically accurate concrete wall about to give birth. Can’t unsee it now, can you?

Way to bury the lead, I know.

Since they’re meant to represent a mother’s womb, I’d sure like to call them “womb tombs”, since it rhymes and sounds funny. Yep. I think I will. That’s their name now.

In the bloody, hellish battle for Okinawa between Japanese and U.S. forces during WWII, there are records on both sides of locals and soldiers taking refuge in the turtleback tombs and the resulting fighting to gain control of them.

Sights like the tomb above, surrounded by the lush green encroaching forest, always made me feel like Mowgli in the Jungle Book. I wonder what he felt in his first moment seeing the ruined temple inhabited by King Louis and his monkey subjects. (There was more than one day where I strode along the side of the road on the way to a new destination singing “The Bare Necessities.”) The element of mystery that so romantically shrouds old architecture never shows up better than when unintended plant life crowds its way back onto the scene.

I can’t tell you exactly which spots on the island to find these collections of tombs, because I don’t remember. I found all of them by accident. Most were not alone but in clusters. If you go, enjoy the adventure of exploring the island yourself and the joy of stumbling upon them as you go!

Published by gracexaris

Explorer, thinker, writer, teacher, woman.

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