Japanese island life

Beyond the Japanese mainland lies the Okinawa prefecture where you can view clear, starry nights, pony rides through the sea, and naked bathing.

By Jo Gardner
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:15 BST, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 17:13 BST

Not once during my daydreaming episodes about the forthcoming Japan trip had weaving entered my thoughts. I'd pictured pretty beaches and tropical hikes. Yet here I am on day one of a week's trip, sat at a workstation in a tiny workshop in Mineya, and attempting to excel at the region's tradition of weaving textiles. As a rule, the island's women would create wide bands of textile for their fiancés as a proof of marriage, with the weave's design expressing the bride's sentiment that she'll stay with her husband forever. Yes, it's slightly twee but surprisingly, even my male companions are taking this bizarre activity seriously.

I'm on Ishigaki island in the Okinawa prefecture, a cluster of islands located between Japan and Taiwan just over two hours from Tokyo. With 1.3 million inhabitants scattered among those sufficiently developed for tourism, the 876sq mile area has a certain Robinson Crusoesque charm. Millions of Japanese visit every year for the Bounty bar beaches, the weather and the somewhat 'odd' people. Yes, while Okinawans are regarded as warm and fun-loving, they are considered somewhat eccentric by other Japanese. As I continue to work on line four of my 16-line piece of tapestry, staring longingly at the sunshine outside, I wonder if they have a point.

Okinawa triumphs when it comes to coastlines, ticking every box with creamy, sandy beaches; warm, translucent seas; and a good, old-fashioned dose of peace and quiet. It's October and the daffodil yellow sun is eye-wateringly bright, turning the deep blue ocean a glistening shade of aquamarine and adding a dollop of bleach to an empty, soft arc of sand. A few brightly painted boats loll about idly at the water's edge waiting for passengers to take them further into the blue.

We wade through the warm water until it dances with our knees and board a charming wooden vessel, gliding through the shallows at a respectful speed so as not to disturb the stillness. The water displays a kaleidoscope of greens and blues as we increase speed to head deeper into the ocean for a snorkel, the promise of manta ray spurring us on despite the choppy waters.

Three hours later, we're sitting in an open-top vehicle navigating green, sub-tropical broad-leaf trees that flourish all year round, as our lovely driver apologises for the failed sighting of ray. Despite her unnecessary gesture, I'm secretly disappointed.

The area is blessed in other ways too. Stable air conditions and 40% clearer skies make it the perfect spot for observing constellations invisible from mainland Japan.

The short stroll to Ishigaki's observatory that evening is totally enchanting: fireflies sporadically light the trees like blinking fairy lights; the summer sound of crickets fills the warm, night air; and the inky sky displays a different type of tapestry — stars woven together into the night.

Inside, bright red slippers are mandatory as a large telescope is positioned for us to view the sky one by one. When the jolly bearded man in a white coat tells us excitedly we'll see Jupiter, I imagine having to feign excitement while actually staring at a speck of dust — the planet is surely too far away for us to make out. One squint proves me wrong: Jupiter is dazzling, pulsating into a clear image as my eye adjusts, its ring sitting like a comforting arm around a pregnant stomach. At that very moment I feel totally and utterly insignificant. A shooting star flies across the ashen sky crowning the moment and I involuntarily well up.

At the homestay

It's not the first time a woman has shed a tear in Okinawa; its bloody past is recorded in history. Japan's resistance to the American's invasion of the islands during WWII culminated in a battle of epic proportions. Codenamed Operation Iceberg, the 82-day ferocious fight took place from April to mid-June 1945. It resulted in the highest number of casualties in the Pacific theatre and an unprecedented number of ships and armoured vehicles were deployed. Japan lost over 100,000 troops, while tens of thousands of locals were killed, wounded or committed suicide — the defeat too much to bear. A sobering and thought-provoking memorial for the dead now sits atop a cliff at Quasi-National Park in Okinawa's capital, Naha.

But Okinawans are some of the most magnanimous people I've encountered, letting strangers stay in their homes on a spontaneous whim — their welcome as warm as a hot water bottle on a cold winter's night.

As the car pulls up to the family home we're privileged to be allowed into for the night, I'm enchanted by the dark wooden porch with a pretty bicycle leaning against it — an ideal photo stop. Two thick columns decorated with red Japanese writing mark the entrance. I've no idea what they say; neither do I want to, reluctant to dispel the mystery. Inside the decor is simple yet seductive with paper partitions, matted flooring and clunky old black telephones. The walls are adorned with old 45s of American blues singers, while outside on the porch, candlelight flickers in the moonlight.

The owner, a small, dark haired lady, called Miyako, with embarrassingly polished English, shows me to my quaint room. She explains how the tired looking air conditioning system works — pump the same six coins back through the box as soon as the contraption rattles to a halt ("every hour or so," she shrugs); I'm overcome with dizziness and stare longingly at the hard mattress on the floor. It's been 32 hours since sleep and I crawl under the thin sheet feeling as heavy as a stone. I don't even have the energy to remove my clothes.

The next morning sunlight streams through the delicate wooden blinds and I feel refreshed for the first time in days, buoyed by the sound of chirping birds and children playing on the street.

With no breakfast facilities in the house, Miyako guides us through Ishigaki's network of cobbled streets
— the sun already high in the sky despite the early hour — and selects a modern-looking cafe for some much needed coffee. Favouring Western comfort food, I devour a cheese and ham toastie like I've never eaten before, and watch as the owners go about their daily routine: the wife cooking at the hot stove, seven-month-old baby strapped to her back; her husband ferrying plates from the serving hatch to the tables.

Appetite sated, I bid farewell to Miyako and hop into a taxi — I'm off to discover another island today: Iromote.

Westward bound

The largest in the Okinawa's Yaeyama group of islands with a population of just 2,200, and the southernmost in Japan, Iromote welcomes nearly three times as many visitors a year making it surprisingly well catered for tourism. People come to see the national treasure of Japan, the wild cat, a curious blend of cute and ferocious with piercing eyes and a bushy coat. With only 100 of these beautiful endangered creatures in existence, visitors have about as much chance as stumbling across Johnny Depp — such infrequent sightings forcing hoteliers to think up alternative ways to keep guests entertained.

Thankfully over three quarters of Iromote is covered in dense jungle making it one of the few remaining great wildernesses of Japan. Humidity creeps up to 90% as we glide through swampy mangroves to reach the starting point of our afternoon trek; the boat journey reminds me of one I took 10 years ago down the Amazon, gliding through treacle-coloured water, flanked with drooping trees and orchestrated by the lively, welcoming sounds of the jungle.

The three-hour hike that follows is gentle enough but gnarls of trees and puddles of mud from regular tropical showers mean looking down is a must. Our guide stops now and again to point out butterflies, indigenous foliage and cicada, loud insects that remain underground for two years before coming out for one day and dying at sunset. All part of the beauty and pain of the cycle of life.

Traditional time

Onsens (hot springs) have been a part of Japanese culture for thousands of years. Previously only found in the countryside, where volcanic mountains rise gracefully from the sea, increased interest from visitors has encouraged developers to build hotels near natural hot springs, the bubbling water forming a silky smooth coat on the skin of bathers.

While the Japanese embrace this form of communion, seeing it as a way to break down social barriers, sitting naked on a bucket in front of a full-length mirror is a little too much 'me' before dinner.

I share this ritual with three Japanese ladies, each taking immense pride in running shampoo and conditioner through their long, thick hair before filling a plastic bowl with water and pouring it all over them. I'm half tempted to show them how the showerhead works but think better of it and follow suit. As hot water slides all over my naked, seated frame I thank the Iromotejima Onsen Resort Hotel for creating a separate male facility.

The notion of the Japanese not doing anything by halves is again prevalent as we land at Yonaguni Island, our third island in under a week. Ferries make it easy to hop from one to another, with prices around ¥1,240 (£10) for a 20-minute ride.

Half the locals have come to welcome us, banging drums, singing and dancing with an enthusiasm surely reserved for royalty. I'm embarrassed for the second time in two days but at least now I have my clothes on.

The change in the weather is indicative of how much further west we are to the rest of the Yaemea islands. "On a clear day you can see Taiwan," announces our guide Takami pointing his finger straight ahead of him. I look at him quizzically. It's raining.

The topography is noticeably different, too: wild and rugged with moist, caramel sand and tufts of grass billowing in the wind as it whistles through without obstruction, nothing to stop it in its tracks but the horizon. "The sea here is reminiscent of a premenstrual woman," continues Tamaki mischievously. "Moody and unpredictable." I shoot him a glare, but I can't help but laugh at his sense of humour.

The grasp of English among the locals is something to admire in Okinawa, particularly considering the infrequency of practice. Those that speak it manage to perfect a tricky balance of utter politeness and impish humour that some of my UK counterparts would struggle to achieve. Everyone we meet is utterly and genuinely likable.

The most likeable of all is Isobel — a beautifully warm lady who takes me pony riding that afternoon through the deserted streets of Yonaguni. I've never really been up close to a pony before and hadn't realised quite how small they are. "This should be easy," I think to myself as I mount Abbey effortlessly, my feet no further from the ground than if I was riding a bicycle with the seat at full stretch. A little encouragement from Isobel and we're off down the gentle hill, the wind whipping my hair into a Kate Bush style do that makes it hard to see. But seeing isn't my only problem: balancing on these tiny, tame animals is near-on impossible, the centre of gravity so misplaced I feel like I'm sitting on giant marshmallow. I'm just thankful there aren't any people around — not one, in fact in a good 20-minute bounce. If only Nula would put her camera away and refrain from taking numerous unflattering photos of my uneasy position atop of Abbey.

We turn into the beach area and, to my horror, we're led down an extremely steep path where I'm practically thrown off Abbey as she struggles to find her feet. Walking on the soft sand is so much easier, sinking hooves creating much-needed stablility as we speed up in preparation for a canter. The gentle nature of these animals is demonstrated as we're encouraged to ride them straight into the ocean, holding on tight as the water engulfs us.

At the precise moment I'm wondering if I should have stripped down to my underwear, Abbey shrugs me off playfully as if reading my mind. "Charming," I think this time cursing myself for being fully clothed. "Hold onto her tail," shouts Isobel over the sound of the waves, her smile wider than a letterbox, eyes dancing with glee. "She'll take you with her." Worried about hurting my new friend, I gingerly take hold of the bushy tail and allow Abbey to pull me along the water while lying on my back, the speed far more exhilarating than I'd imagined, all my energy concentrated on keeping my head above water. It's an experience I'll never forget.

That night, doused in a layer of pungent mosquito spray and wielding a flashlight, we go searching for atlas moths. As big as dinner plates, these tropical insects are prettier than their name suggests, with spectacularly colourful wings in patterns resembling intricate maps. Elegantly draped around a tree branch, they remain perfectly still — wings at full stretch — as if trained to pose for photographers, folding up and flying off only at the point when the assembled group starts to put their cameras away.

Despite the sub-tropical conditions, the night air is chillier than it's been all week and small goose bumps defiantly start to appear on my bare arms. For the first time in a week I reach for a duvet in the middle of the night.

Relishing the return of the sun as the wheels land on the runway at Ishigaki airport the next afternoon, I'm struck by a sudden twinge of sadness as I realise this will be my last night in Okinawa, and probably the last time I'll find the archipelago so secluded. Only time will tell how quickly tourists will discover these beautiful islands, each subtly different: some tropical paradises; others wild wildernesses, but all sewn together to form part of Okinawa's rich tapestry.


Getting there

There are no direct flights from the UK. Popular routes include flying via Tokyo from London or into Taiwan — the islands positioned between the two — and then on to Naha, the gateway to Okinawa. Carriers direct to Tokyo include Air France, Air China, Lufthansa, All Nippon, Japan Airlines and Virgin Atlantic, while those direct to Taiwan include Air China, Cathay Pacific, EVA Air, Malaysian Airlines, Japan Airlines and All Nippon.
Average flight time: 12h.

Getting around

Hopping between the islands is relatively easy with frequent ferries between them or domestic 40-minute flights from Ishigaki airport with All Nippon or Japan Airlines. Roads are smooth, meaning driving is easy, and taxis are cheap and safe. The locals rely heavily on scooters and push bikes.

When to go

With a sub tropical climate the Okinawan islands are pleasantly warm all year round, though the monsoon seasonal months between December and February can be very wet and humid.

Need to know

Visas: British passport holders do not require a visa to enter Japan. Passports must be valid for at least six months after the date of arrival.
Currency: Japanese Yen (¥).
£1 = ¥132.
Health: No special immunisations or medications are necessary. Check with your GP prior to departure.
International dial code: 00 81 98.
Time difference: GMT+9.

More info

Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau. www.ocvb.org.jp
The FCO's advice has largely returned to normal with most areas being trouble free following March's earthquake and tsunami. The exception remains in areas in north-east Japan, advising against all but essential travel. www.fco.gov.uk

How to do it

Luxury operator Inside Japan Tours offers a 16-day tailor-made itinerary from £5,463 per person including flights, 15 nights' five-star accommodation and private transfers, taking in Tokyo, Ishigaki and Iromote.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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