Sometime in April, 2020, island of Okinawa, Japan
I routed to a small park near the Nakagusuku Castle, hoping to get closer to it and to find some scenic places to explore, as there was a lot of green in that section of the map. After a night of no sleep and a reduced appetite (my body schedule had briefly switched to nocturnal and I was trying to reset it by pulling an all-nighter), I felt ever so slightly faint/dizzy. The park turned out to be just several nice new collections of playground equipment in a field in a valley – not really designed for my age group. I went in a small eatery up the road to see if they had bottled water, but they didn’t and they didn’t take a card. I went down into the park to find a water fountain and was successful. I sat down under a gazebo above the park to give my head and my feet a chance to catch their breath, and saw an overgrown vehicle trail that went further up the hill to the left.
Ahead of me across the valley was Nakagusuku Castle up on the hill, looking as movie-picturesque as ever with its even walls of rounded stones. All business and yet so naturally ornamental above the solid green of the forest. Old castles, especially of uncut stone, have an serious but easy unadorned beauty that effortlessly welcomes the imagination with homey, inviting arms. “We are the real castles” they whisper. They do not shout with perfectly trimmed edges or obstreperous towers. They exist to keep watch, to send a message that says “We’re here, and we can always see you as surely as you can see us.”
Those walls are meant to awe from the outside and to shy up to for safety and lean on from the inside. Solid, strong arms around you to keep out the bad people, the others. The dividing line between us and them. If you gaze intently for long enough, something must happen. It has to, it should. It always worked that way as a child. If you stared long enough a whole splendid story will start to flash before your eyes, and you have to reach up into the golden light and grab it before it washes away like a dream. Now, when I look, I see only a green light to come closer to something big and strong and beautiful.
So I got up and took the path, guessing it to be a back way up the mountain. It started out smooth but became rapidly overgrown. I had seen that from the pavilion before starting out, and I held onto my determination to make it work or at least see how far it was possible to go.
Plants reached up, taller than me, but the outline of a path was still visible. Until suddenly it ran up against a straight wall of stalks, higher than my head, perfectly blocking all sight of anything that came after. I looked around, unable to see over or past. The sun was hot and the air was still. The black pants I was wearing were so all-purpose I used to wear them at the office.
An office. Back when I had a desk job with a cubicle and a professional wardrobe, of sorts. Now those pants were matched with a quick-dry, outdoorsy-brand button down shirt and sneakers. And I was about to take them up the side of a mountain in summer. I felt happy, carefree, and a little excited. Why not? I had nothing better to do and the whole rest of the day ahead. I loved the whole idea of plunging into the wall of grass, of not turning back for once in my life. I savored the moment, delighted at what I was about to do.
The stalks did not part effortlessly like soft grass in a field, but it was possible to walk through if you reached out your arm and held everything back out of your face. Climbing over fallen branches and moving around shrubs or thicker sections of plants was more tricky, but manageable one step at a time. Empty clear space was out of the question, so it was a matter of finding a direction that instead looked like it just might be possible to force one’s way through. I do remember that there weren’t thorns, unlike back home in the Appalachian woods of the Southeast, but said pants did get covered in burrs. Only occasionally did I ask myself if I had lost the path entirely; the general direction always seemed to still be “forward” no matter how much of a thicket was there, so I didn’t worry much. Obviously getting back would be no problem because I could just turn around.
Finally there was a patch of clear space, with gravel underfoot – Eureka! This really did used to be a full vehicle path in the past. Why did it stop being used? Did someone decide there shouldn’t be a path up this mountain? Were people no longer meant to go this way? How long had it been abandoned in order for nature to grow up so thoroughly? Plants certainly grew profusely on this island, and judging from how thickly flowers and shrubs grew over garden walls, and how many plants grew up around and even through sidewalks, I suspected the local flora sprung up very quickly indeed.
On I went and up, through various states of overgrown-ness and even paved-ness until I reached the top of the hill. To my disappointment, I was not at the castle walls or anywhere close. Instead, I was at the parking lot by the main road at the edge of the property. Even zooming in on my phone camera yielded no close-up pictures of the castle walls. I had routed there the previous week and walked up on the sidewalks beside the regular roads, only to find a sign on the gate saying it was closed due to coronavirus. It was still closed that day.
So I sighed and ducked away from the disappointment, not wanting to think about it or feel it too much. Instead I focused on the fact that I had successfully navigated the entirety of the overgrown trail, walked straight up the side of a hill with no trouble, and had a passably good adventure that day. There was no need to turn back, as I could walk down the other side of the hill on the paved roads and go back that way to the place I was staying.
So that’s what I did. I never did get to go inside the grounds of Nakagusuku Castle.
The grounds and walls probably resembled those of Katsuren Castle, which set of partially re-constructed ruins I did get to both visit and explore. That one had an incredible panoramic ocean view! (Note: the word gusuku refers to this type of castle on the Ryukyu Islands, a Japanese word derived from the original Okinawa word.) Nakagusuku will forever remain enshrined in the tantalizing distance of memory, which is the best possible place for it. But man, those stone walls sure looked incredible on top of all that green below.
Here’s to you, Nakagusuku, the one that got away.