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Q: All over Okinawa, I see large, rounded tombs built into the hillsides. What’s up with those?

A: You’re probably talking about kameko-baka, or turtle-back tombs. They’re one of those things that make Okinawa … Okinawa.

The tombs, which get their name from the domed shape of their roofs, are straight-up Ryukyuan — which means influenced by the island’s past links with China. That’s why you won’t see this sort of tomb anywhere else in Japan.

And you’ll see it less and less even on Okinawa. The tombs take up a lot of space, something becoming ever more scarce on the island, so more recently constructed tombs usually are built in a more compact style. But in the island’s less developed areas, such as the Nagahama district of Yomitan, kameko-baka are still king.

Under the sloping roof of a turtle-back tomb you’ll notice a small, rectangular door. Inside the door are carefully arranged urns containing the remains of family members.

The distinctive shape of the tomb is designed to resemble a woman’s womb. Why? The idea is you came from the womb, so when you die, you’re symbolically going right back to birth. Remember: In Buddhism, it’s all about returning from whence you came.

Got a question about goings-on in the Pacific? E-mail Stacy Chandler at: chandlers@pstripes.osd.mil

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