Ryutan-ko Thoughts on Ryutan Pond
As I walked along Ryutan-dori Avenue, I felt thirsty and happened to step into a small cafe. When I took a seat at the back of the cafe, the proprietress recommended that I move to a seat by the window. She said she had opened the cafe in March this year because she had been walking around this area and loved the view from here, with Shuri Castle visible on the far side of Ryutan. It would be a waste not to sit by the window where I could see Shuri Castle, she said. As I was listening to her romantic story of how she started the cafe, a car drew up in front of the cafe and a woman got out. She seemed to be traveling on her own, and I was somewhat surprised to see her run across the road and start taking tourist snaps. Was this place famous, or had she just been looking around as she drove along? The cafe was in just such a location.
As I continued to talk to the young proprietress, I felt as if I had met a candidate for Shuri’s own “Mariko Higiri”. The ceramic works displayed in the cafe were made by her father; she said she was running the business half as a gallery and half as a cafe.
She went on to explain kindly that people from the neighborhood would gather at Ryutan to relax on their days off. She told me that she also liked the atmosphere of Ryutan, that people who lived in Shuri didn’t like the term “Ryutan Pond” because it meant saying the same thing twice, and that there was a recreational pathway around the pond.
I hadn’t originally planned to go there, but since she had so kindly told me all about it, I decided to follow her advice and go for a walk along the lakeside path. As I was on my way around, a pair of young tourists from somewhere in Asia came strolling along the path in front of me. We were the only three people walking around the lake. They were taking turns to photograph each other, and I offered to photograph the pair of them together. They thanked me politely in Japanese before we went our separate ways. Looking across at Enkan Pond next to Ryutan, I found that, of the two, it was the landscaped beauty of Enkan that moved me more than Ryutan. But there was not a single person there, even though it was next to the World Heritage site of Shuri Castle, an attraction that bustled with tourists.
Then, to my astonishment, I suddenly realized why the young pair had been walking around Ryutan without even a guidebook in their hands. They had an understanding of Chinese characters, as well as an intellectual accomplishment and cultural education that I lacked. When they saw the name “Ryutan” on the map of the park, they knew that it meant “dragon’s pond”. They understood the aesthetic sense that must have been possessed by the garden landscapers and pond namers of the Ryukyuan kingdom of old - namely that “ponds should never be made inferior to their names”, and, conversely, “ponds should never be given names that sound more important than they really are”. They understood this instantly and instinctively, and that is why they came to see the lake.
I was dismayed at the difference between these two and myself - a person who barely understands the meaning of Chinese characters, the significance of names, or the aesthetic awareness of the pond namers; a person who thinks that there is no meaning to names of this sort, but that they just have to sound good, that they can be made up to suit our personal preferences, or that they are little more than symbols of quick-thinking when registering trademarks.
After watching a mother and her child catching Japanese crayfish in Ryutan, I turned onto Ryutan-dori Avenue and caught up with the young pair in front of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum (temporarily closed, as it is due to be moved to a new art museum in Omoromachi this September). I asked them where they were from, to which they replied “South Korea”.
That evening, I took an elevator in my hotel in Shuri. The elevator was already occupied by another guest, a westerner who pressed the button to keep the doors open as I entered. I instinctively stopped the door with my hand to keep it open while another guest came in after me. It was only after that guest had left the elevator, leaving me alone with the westerner, that I realized why I had done that. I had held the door open with my hand because I automatically assumed that he, as a westerner, would not be able to read the Chinese character for “Open” on the button. I struck up a conversation with him, commenting on how impressed I was that he could read Chinese characters. I assumed that he had lived in Japan for a long time and would of course be able to answer in impeccable Japanese, but was astonished to realize that he could speak not a word of Japanese. “How did you understand the meaning of the character on the button?” I asked, to which he replied curtly, with a smile, “Because I know that this symbol (for him it must indeed have been a symbol, not a letter) means Open.” The elevator immediately arrived at my floor. I found myself lost for words, but simply took my leave by returning the smiling man’s wave.
What have I learnt about Chinese characters in my life so far? What a terrible misunderstanding the thousands or tens of thousands of people who had ridden in this hotel’s elevators - including me - had been making. Though I had conceived the outline of the introductory line - “An international-standard hotel used by airline crews” - what had I actually seen during my stay?
Out of gratitude to those two young people with such bright futures, who used their high intelligence to understand the essence of the Ryukyuan kingdom, and the gentleman whom I met in the elevator of the Shuri, an expert in deciphering codes, I dedicate this essay to them.
And I cannot deny a feeling of utmost respect to all of you, who have come all the way from France to Japan, to be involved in editing the Michelin Guide as it attempts the difficult task of ranking tourist destinations in Japan.
Welcome to Japan!