Wish You Were Here: The Southwest Islands of Japan. Where Ancient Reefs and Peaceful Shades of Blue are Set Against a Violent Past.

by Carolyn Sotka

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The wanderlust gene is marked by a desire to be in an almost constant state of travel or at least, planning for travel. Another symptom is venturing to the ends of the earth, and then a little further. I recently found myself in a remote corner of the world – hopping between the Yaeyamas; the last cluster of the more than seventy Ryukyu Islands in the Okinawa Prefecture. These islands are located southwest of the mainland and mark Japan’s final frontier, a mere 80 km east of Taiwan.

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Map of the Ryukyu Islands and the Yaeyamas by The New York Times

When it comes to actually making it out to the Ryukyu Islands, my husband and I learned that the islands are strangely, prohibitively expensive for most Japanese citizens to visit, but foreign tourism is strongly encouraged with highly discounted flights. We took advantage of these promotions and booked three days in the Yaeyamas. We were officially in southern Japan to collect a native seaweed, as part of a large global science study to understand how Japanese seaweeds have become invasive throughout many parts of the U.S. and Europe.

While on mainland Japan, we may have felt like outsiders looking in on a culture wildly different from our own, once we landed on Ishigaki Island in the Yaeyamas, we felt right at home. This sub-tropical archipelago has an entirely different vibe from mainland Japan. Absent is the bustle of modern life – from bullet trains to flashing billboards.

Most people have heard of Okinawa Island – the site of a horrific World War II battle where scars and a U.S. military base still remain. But beauty and peace have ruled the islands for generations before and after the war. Here, the sky blurs into sea and magic can be found throughout – even the grains of sand are otherworldly and star-shaped skeletons of diminutive sea creatures called Foraminifera.

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The star-shaped sands of Taketomi Island. Photo by Carolyn Sotka.

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Views of Ishigaki Island from Taketomi Island in the Yaeyamas. Photo by Carolyn Sotka. 

For thousands of years, the southwest islands were self-governed and peaceful; culturally, politically and geographically isolated from Japan. Early Western travelers noted a society with no weapons and no violence. The islands grew into a prosperous trading nation thanks to their proximity to many countries throughout Asia and as a jumping off point for ocean voyages. The islanders had the strongest ties with China and were united as the Ryukyu Kingdom, a Chinese tributary state, in the mid 15th century. But as is the case of anywhere strategic to war and commerce – the islands would become the center of a generations-long tug-of-war.

Eventually, the islands were annexed into Japan in 1879, but at the time, the Ryukyu culture was erased by the Japanese government from history books and children were indoctrinated into Japanese nationalism and the state-sponsored Shinto religion.

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Even though defeat of Japan was thought to be inevitable at the time, the Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest and last ground warfare during WWII. Image from WWII and Wiki.

Fast forward to WWII and the bloody Battle of Okinawa, where the Ryukyuan people were used as human shields by Japanese soldiers against U.S. invasion, the largest amphibious attack ever launched in the Pacific. Lasting three months in mid 1945, the “Typhoon of Steel” killed over 100,000 islanders and left 90 percent of the population homeless. Sadly, the worst had yet to come, with the devastation wrought by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – that ended WWII 2 months later.

After the defeat of Japan, Okinawa and her neighboring islands remained under American ‘trusteeship’ until 1972, with dollars and English used in many places. Today, tensions continue between the southern islands, mainland Japan and the larger world. The U.S. still maintains a huge military base on Okinawa with 30,000 troops – their presence is an ongoing sore subject for some residents.  Also, many Ryukyuan people see themselves as ethnically distinct from the Japanese, with a unique cultural heritage. Descendants strive to preserve the Ryukyu culture; a salty way of life evident in artisanal pottery, textiles, music, fishing and folklore.

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Taketomi potter and the beautiful, little bowls I bought from the artist. Photos by Carolyn Sotka.

Most recently the center of controversy has been related to construction of a new U.S. Marine Corps base on Okinawa, which requires dredging up and paving over critical habitat for the last Okinawa dugongs. Dugongs play an important role in Ryukyu folklore and are said to have been ridden by the gods to the islands and a sign of abundant food and life. Where once there were herds of the Okinawa dugong, a species unique to the mid-islands, today only three remain, rendering that population functionally extinct, with the next closest population in the Philippines.

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Most studies indicate that there are only 3 of the Okinawa Dugongs left in Japan. Photo from Japan Update

Other environmental concerns for the Ryukyu Islands are related to an overall increase in development, loss of habitat and vulnerability to climate change and sea level rise. Some of the islands are just a few feet above sea level and certain areas are built higher with crushed shells to provide slight protection from the frequent pounding of typhoons. The Yaeyamas are relatively undeveloped compared to the rest of the islands; most of the islands are inhabited – although by very few people and large portions remain protected and wild.


Traveling in the Yaeyama Islands

After we landed in Ishigaki – the main aiport in the Yaeyamas, we immediately went to see the largest colony of endangered blue coral (Heliopora coerulea) in the world. Once globally distributed during the Cretaceous period; very few colonies are left and this coral is considered a living fossil. Named for a distinctive and permanently blue skeleton that is generally hidden by its polyps, blue coral are the only order amongst the soft corals that have a calcium carbonate skeleton and forms reefs.

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The Ishigaki blue coral colony (seen above as the darker shades of blue) is complex and snakes like a maze across 3 kilometers. Even though relatively small – it is believed that the reef holds 2/3rd as much diversity as the Great Barrier Reef. Photos by Carolyn Sotka.

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Doin’ it badass 4wd mini-van style. Photo by Carolyn Sotka. 

The Ryukyuans strongly support marine conservation and limit the number of tours out to the blue coral reefs. In July 2015, a new species closely related to the blue coral was found in the shallow reefs off Okinawa. This was surprising given that the blue coral was thought to be the last of its kind.

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Yasshi, our captain and local guide with the Shiraho Tourist Company. Photo by Carolyn Sotka. 

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Snorkel or dive through the blue coral mazes off Ishigaki. Photo by Carolyn Sotka. 

From Ishigaki Island (as is the case amongst other clusters of islands) you can island hop with an extensive ferry service that is old but dependable. Next stop was Taketomi, an island considered a living museum. It’s lined with single story cottages and red tile roofs protected by shisa statues, a traditional decoration that resembles a cross between a lion and a dog. Shisa are placed individually or in pairs, the left shisa has an open mouth to ward off evil spirits and the right one has a closed mouth to keep good spirits in.

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A shisa statue. Photo by Erik Sotka.

The entire island of Taketomi was designated as a national park in 1972 and is easy to explore by bicycle. Most paths are made from crushed coral and bordered by trails of bright pink bougainvillea. All other trails lead to the beach through lush fields of flowers. These off-road rides proved to us that sometimes the journey is more satisfying than the destination.

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Beautiful bougainvillea grows all over Taketomi. Photo by Carolyn Sotka

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The proprietor of the bike rental company on Taketomi. Very few people spoke English in the islands but through their welcoming smiles and gestures we had no problem communicating. Photo by Carolyn Sotka. 

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Hummingbirds and butterflies lead you down the paths to the beaches. Photos by Carolyn Sotka. 

The residents of Taketomi embody an authentic and traditional way of life, with a focus on continuing art, cuisine, pottery, music and dance. I was particularly drawn to the tiny co-op of weavers who create exquisite textiles from banana fiber, hemp, raime, and other materials. These textiles have been used for centuries to make kimonos or cloth as tax payments and gifts for high-level officials. Today, high-end shops and galleries in Tokyo and around the world showcase these cloths.

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This kimono is made from Basho-fu, banana fibers that are dyed, woven and washed in the sea to temper the bold colors to a subtler hue from the salt and sun. The Basho-fu textiles are the most expensive due to the intensive labor put into each work. Photo from the Nara Blog.

Each island has their own characteristic weaving materials, color, techniques and patterns to symbolize nature, death, life, love and good luck. All natural dyes are used including kudzu, indigo, wisteria, safflower, lavender and mulberry. It can take up to six months to weave the hand-knotted fibers into a finished product. Taketomi’s weavers, typically women, thread the essence of the island and their soul into every piece.

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The weavers of Taketomi. Photo by Carolyn Sotka.

 

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I bought these two textiles from the islands and both are dyed with indigo. The first is a simple tie-dyed cloth and the second is a woven cotton minsa, which is an alternating pattern of small rectangles that symbolize ‘love forever’ and protection of the recipient. 

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Check out this series to learn more about the textiles of Ryukyu Islands. 

Of course you can’t forget the seafood. Sashimi so fresh it is practically moving. Every night was an foray into culinary exploration.

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From left to right, top to bottom – surf clam/kombu seaweed, sea grape seaweed, *1st column – maguro tuna, grouper, *2nd column – cattlefish, octopus, *3rd column – bonito, parrotfish, yellowfin tuna and an abductor muscle of some invertebrate which I can’t remember! Photo by Carolyn Sotka. 

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Our merry band of seaweed biologists from the Sotka and Nakaoka labs, eat what we study at the Gen Fishermen’s Restaurant in Ishigaki.

Three days in the Yaeyama Islands barely scratched the surface. Every island offers something different; swimming with manta rays, spying on hammerhead sharks, searching for black pearls, hiking in jungles, kayaking amongst mangroves, diving on underwater ruins or sampling the best sashimi you’ve ever had or the strongest sake you’ve ever imbibed. With this quality of life, it is no wonder that the Ryukyuan people are amongst the longest-living in the world.


How to Get There

Ask about the ‘Experience Japan’ airfares through ANA (All Nippon Airways) for a set price per leg for foreign travelers, often sixty percent less than the listed fare. Ishigaki Island is your main hub in the Yaeyamas – check out the ANA Intercontinental Ishigaki Resort which offers many services for English speakers including the knowledge of the fantastic ‘Guest Experience Manager’ Jean Barcelo – who can cater to your any desire. On other islands, you can find guest cottages or locally-owned accommodations.

Definitely bring your mask and snorkel because most reefs are accessible from shore. Renting a car is great way to get around some of the larger islands in the Ryukyus, but make sure you have an international drivers license or you won’t be able to rent even a scooter. Other than that, all you need is a love of nature and the sea, an adventurous spirit and a smile and you are on your way. -CS 

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