Wednesday, July 9, 2008

2,000 km under the sea

For me, a long swim is about five successive strokes. I cannot imagine swimming 1 kilometer, let alone two thousand kilometers. Fortunately, I will never have to. If I want to travel from Guam to Okinawa, I can take a plane.A sea turtle, however, has no choice but to swim the distance.

Recently, a female green sea turtle was tracked by satellite. A transmitter was attached to one of her feet after she laid eggs on a beach in Guam. For five months, nothing was heard from the turtle. When the signal was picked up again, the turtle was grazing on seaweed near the Okinawan island of Kume. (You can see Kume Island from the airport at Naha.)

Five months is a long time between e-mails. It seems that the satellite can only pick up the signal when the turtle surfaces. Five months is also a long time to hold one's breath. It's amazing that there exists a creature who can live underwater and also on land without struggling for air.

In Okinawan mythology, the turtle is the link between worlds--the world of humans and the world of the gods. Among the relics discovered at the underwater pyramid of Yonaguni is a statue of a turtle. That stone turtle is itself a link between two worlds--our world, and the lost world of whoever carved the statue.

Who were they? Why did they carve the statue there? Where did they go when their homeland submerged? These are some of the questions to which the NPO Marine Cultural Heritage Research Association is seeking answers.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Speaking of Stone ...

Here is an arch from the gusuku at Zakimi.
This is a UN-recognized world heritage site. The original was built during the 15th century and, after its destruction by our 20th century's warfare, the walls were reconstructed.
Zakimi was built by the stonework genius, Gosamaru. Its signature feature is the keystone in the middle of the arch.
The views from the site are spectacular. It is open to the public and is located mid-island in the village of Yomitan.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Stone Troughs

One of the on-land mysteries of Yonaguni is the hollowed-out stone troughs. They are knee deep, usually rectangular, about two to three feet in length. You see them everywhere, but what are they for?

I grew up watching TV cowboy shows in which Gabby Hayes always ended up dunked in the horses' watering trough, and to me, those stone containers look like tiny watering troughs for Yonaguni's tiny horses. Other guesses are: containers for a day's supply of water for household needs, vats in which to mash up grain or fruit to make wine, foot baths, and funerary urns.

With the passing of time, objects that once were in common use--things whose uses went without saying--end up as mysteries. For instance, if someone showed you one of Henry Ford's engine cranks, would you know what it was? Would you recognize a shoe button hook? How about George Washington's hair powder box?

The stone troughs scattered around Yonaguni are like that. A thousand or more years ago, no one had to ask what they were for. Is that what the future holds for I-pods?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

World of Stones

The underwater ruins at Yonaguni's Iseki Point meet the powerful Black Current head on. If they have been there for any length of time, anything light or portable will have washed away. It goes without saying that anything that could be dissolved in water or eaten away by marine life would also be gone. Only stone remains.

A typical feature of the ancient castle/fort/shrine structures known as gusuku in Okinawa is a surrounding wall made of piled up rocks and a stone-paved road. (see the photo from Shuri Castle in Naha) Underwater surveys of Iseki Point show a loop road with a retaining wall made of boulders held in place with smaller rocks.

The loop road and wall are good reasons to believe that Iseki Point was once part of a gusuku complex.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Yonaguni NPO Annual General Meeting

June 7 was the big day. Membership is up. Sponsorship is up. What's more, media interest in Yonaguni is still strong. One of the attractions at the meeting was a screening of Discovery Channel's program on unsolved mysteries which featured Yonaguni's Iseki Point along with a site off Great Britain's Isle of Wight and another submerged site along the Indian coast.

Dr. Masaaki Kimura, chairman of the NPO Marine Cultural Heritage Research Association, is fond of quoting his favorite professor's advice to look for traces of the world's most ancient civilizations under water. The world's coastlines have changed drastically over the eons, and what used to be prime real estate is now submerged. He heard that advice some 40 years ago, and chose to act on it. It was interesting that the Discovery Channel program ended with the comment that future discoveries concerning mankind's past will not be made on land; they will be made at the bottom of the sea.

That means the relics at Yonaguni are part of the world's cultural heritage. If they are as old as many experts suspect--dating from 10,000 years ago--Iseki Point may be where the world's oldest building stands.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Homemade Submarine

The submerged ruins at Yonaguni cover so much area that a diver cannot take in the entire panorama in a single view. A scuba diver has a little more than half an hour to see what he can, but a snorkeler or skin diver has only a minute or so.

One skin diver who made many dives at Yonaguni's Iseki Point was the man with the world's breath holding record, Jacques Mayol. He came up with a unique way to get a feel for the immense scope of the ruins in a single dive.

Jacques didn't like to be encumbered with scuba gear. On the other hand, he also acknowledged that even he--the dolphin man of the diving world--had limits to how long he could stay underwater without breathing. So what he did was design a board that he could hang on to and also steer up and down as he sped past the ruins at the end of a rope towed by a motorboat. He called the board his "bargain submarine". No windows, no seats, no periscope. Just a high-performance fin.

Because Yonaguni, as the first island to stand in its way, takes the brunt of the ferocious Black Current, even scuba divers have a hard time getting where they want to go at Iseki Point. So Jacques' feat was awesome in the extreme.

Between the violent current, the huge scale of the ruins, and the hammerhead sharks, I think I will wait until someone institutes tours by glass bottom boat.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Yonaguni--Just the Facts

Japan's southwest is Okinawa, and Okinawa's southwest is Yonaguni. The island is about 10 kilometers wide from East to West and only about 4 kilometers long from North to South. It is home to some 1,800 fishermen, farmers, and their families. Yonaguni is also a popular destination for serious divers. Some come to swim among the hammerhead sharks that frequent the west coast of Yonaguni. Others come to take a closer look at the mysterious rock formation that a local diver named Iseki Point.

"Iseki" means "architectural relic". The star attraction at Iseki Point is a massive stone formation that pokes its head above the water 100 meters off the coast. It rises 25 meters from the sea floor, a rectangular shape that measures 250 by 150 meters.

Some say it looks like a flattened pyramid, the kind that rises in steps like the ones that are found in South or Central America. With its five rocky layers, I think it looks like Fred Flintstone's version of a ship--a stoneage ocean liner that ran aground within swimming distance of the coast.

In any case, it is so big that a diver cannot take it in all at once. Profiling the structure's dimensions was the first job undertaken by the survey team from The University of the Ryukyus. For those who have the opportunity to travel to Okinawa, a scale model of the ruins--based on the university's survey team's data--is on display in the Loisir Hotel (Naha) lobby.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Welcome to Yonaguni

Yonaguni floats in the East China Sea at 23.5 degrees North latitude, like a buoy marking the Tropic of Cancer. It is the westernmost point in Japan, and also the point farthest South. On a clear day, you can see Taiwan from Yonaguni, but you cannot see the other islands in the Okinawa chain.

The tiny and remote island Yonaguni is becoming a household word in English because of the mysterious construction submerged off its shore. Perhaps it was a pyramid, because it is composed of several layers that get progressively smaller towards the top. Perhaps it was a gusuku, the Okinawan word for a castle/fort/shrine. It may have been nothing more than an ancient quarry, or it may have been nothing at all--simply a freak of nature.

In this weblog, I will write about various aspects of the riddle of Yonaguni's submerged objet with the help of Dr. Masaaki Kimura, professor emeritus of The University of the Ryukyus and the man in charge of exploring Yonaguni's underwater mystery.