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.
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.
The star-shaped sands of Taketomi Island. Photo by Carolyn Sotka.
Views of Ishigaki Island from Taketomi Island in the Yaeyamas. Photo by Carolyn Sotka.