,A trip to Taketomi, at the margins of the Ishigaki archipelago, in Okinawa. An excerpt from my book, on a completely different Japan
The boat is propelled at a crazy speed among the waves. We left Ishigaki port as a torpedo bound to sink the minuscule Taketomi Island, which lays peacefully unaware of its fate just in front of us. Actually, there is no wish for destruction in this trip, but I don’t get all this hurry. Maybe the sailors just want to imitate the Shinkansen, the bullet train, to give the idea that these faraway islands are not inferior to Tokyo. Or maybe speed is necessary to open a wormhole as if it were a Star Trek episode, because this coral rock only three kilometres wide in front of Taiwan is like a little planet, distinct from everything near to it. It’s just lacking the pointy-eared people that Captain Kirk used to meet in distant galaxies, but I don’t recognize anything: it’s an alien world.
Here there is only one asphalt road circling the island, crowned by beaches on its margins. Inside, there are only unpaved roads, running through fields, grazing lands, allotments and small traditional-style houses, the boundaries of each marked by low dry-stone walls. Palms, banana leaves, flowers and other tropical plants spill into the streets from the gardens. Big sleepy water buffaloes lay dozing in the shade of a courtyard. The colours fill my eyes: the fuchsia and yellow of the petals, the blinding white of the sandy streets, the orange-reddish roofs, lightened by the exposure to sun and rain that at these latitudes are lavishly dispensed to the point of turning into a calamity. And then there are the thousand nuances of the lush tropical green, a monochrome rainbow, brightened by the glaring sun. Everything shines. And I feel watched. In the midst of the vegetation, on the low walls, on the roofs, the haunted eyes and the frenzied look of the shiisa pop up. They are the clay guardians of the Okinawa houses; they seem to stare at us and silently bark, mocking the pale, sweating, disoriented foreigners. The shiisa statues are a cross between a lion and a dog and they are usually seen in pairs.
There are many explanations, but the one I prefer is that the one with its mouth open is scaring the bad spirits, while the one with its mouth shut keeps the good ones inside (this one is the female, according to most). Besides this, there isn’t much else: the only sound is that of the water-buffalo carts taking small groups of tourists around the town.
Here, three hundred persons live. There is a school and a medical centre. Maybe I could even live here, I think, while I try to imagine my life in this faraway place. The architecture has little to do with the Japan I know; it’s a frontier culture. In our minshuku, a family-run inn, we hear our host being asked the most predictable question, the one you might hear in Scotland or the one the Italians keep asking in the German-speaking regions of their country. Hearing that question makes me cringe, but I feel grateful somehow as it lets me hear the answer without having to ask it myself.
“How do you feel here, more Japanese or Chinese?”
The host squints at the tourist, but remains impassive.
“We are first of all Ryukyu, then Japanese and then Chinese,” the host politely replies.
At the centre of the village there is a small concrete tower. Climbing the steep, narrow steps one can see the island from a vantage point: it looks like a green carpet, dotted by red roofs. But it’s a small one.
Everything ends at a short distance, where a blue hemline is visible, popping up between the trees and the sky: it’s the sea. Taketomi is all here; I can completely embrace it with my eyes. I don’t really care that this panorama is not really old after all — most of the houses here are less than a century old. Here, to me, time is not important anymore.
In the evening most of the tourists leave with the last ferry and the island is left completely silent, sleepy. There aren’t even the carts anymore, only a few bicycles darting through the narrow streets in the fading light. It gets darker and the stars light up.
(excerpt from my book Horizon Japan)
How to get to Taketomi Island
Taketomi-jima (竹富島) is part of the Yaeyama islands, Okinawa. It is well served by fast ferries (very) between 7.30 and 17.30 that connect every half hour with Ishigaki in about ten minutes. Tickets cost 580 yen (1,100 round trip).
Then, once arrived at the port, you can begin with a tour on water buffalo drawn cart. There will usually be a minivan with a sign – in Japanese only – 水牛 車 (sugyuusha, water buffalo cart in English) waiting in the parking. It will take you directly and free of charge from the pier to Taketomi town to do the tour.
The cart is a good starting point to get and idea of the island. Even if the guide, who tells legends and anecdotes, sometimes singing traditional songs, speaks only Japanese. It costs 1,200 yen for 30 minutes. From the point of departure of the carts you can also rent a bicycle. The price is about 1,500 yen per day (24 hours). But if you are staying overnight check with your guesthouse first, as it might be cheaper. There are many options for accommodation on the island. The average price is about 5,500-6,000 yen per night, breakfast and dinner. Kohamasou, where we stayed, was beautiful.
On the island there are several souvenir shops, bars and restaurants, most of which are open during the day. Your guesthouse will likely provide a map.
The island is actually a coral atoll. It should then be great for snorkeling, but there aren’t, as far as I know, any diving centers. Therefore if you want to dive or snorkel it would be better to do it in nearby Ishigaki.
Said all this, I really recommend a trip to Taketomi island!
More info on the Yaeyama islands
- Japan’s Tropics: the Yaeyama islands (The Guardian)
- Yaeyama islands on Japan guide
- Taketomi-jima by Martin Irwin
This is an excerpt from my book Horizon Japan.