Travel, Teach, Live in Japan
If pachinko parlours, traffic, construction and urban sprawl is not your idea of paradise then Oritabori to Taketomi. This island set amidst the coral Yaeyamas is the opposite those things. This is a place where the only ubiquitous piece of Japanorama is the vending machine. Even then, they are only to be found around the town centre.
A Separate History
The Yaeyamas form a small archipelago in the far south of Japan, so remote Taipei is the closer than Tokyo. In fact, Taiwan is a mere 78 miles from Yonaguni Island. The chain’s history has been fairly remote. Only absorbed into Okinawa at the end of the Ryukuan Kingdom and spared the vicious fighting of World War 2, the islands have become a peaceful paradise. Each island has its own character from the cows of Kuroshima to the unexplored jungles of Iriomote. When the weather is cold in most of Japan it is already late spring in Yaeyama.
One of the joys of travelling is the journey itself. Flying out of the clouds to see the brilliant green mountains, blue waters and corral rimmed shores of Ishigaki Island is one of the best in Japan. With the exception of the Shisa lions, you may be forgiven for confusing Ishigaki city with any other Japanese city. All changes once the boat skims past the government’s beloved concrete tetrapods. On the way, the ferry passes fume belching factories as if to remind what we leave behind. Being part of Iriomote National Park Taketomi is protected from industrial monstrosities.
Arrival on Taketomi
Various minibuses and coaches crowd the port waiting for travel groups. Skip round them and pick up a map at the white visitor centre’s little shop. Across the road and behind a bamboo fence is the island’s museum (yugafukan). The almost traditional wooden building comes only in Japanese. Still, it is free and there is an excellent 15-minute video introducing stories and music from the region. There is only one road leading from the port to the town proper past fields of Ox and abundant green foliage.
A single road runs around the village like a modern day moat protecting the locals from the hordes of tourist buses. Inside, most buildings sport red tiled roofs conjuring a sense of the Mediterranean. Maybe Plato’s Atlantis sank and resurfaced in the Ryukyus. If more evidence is needed go to the mysterious ruins off Yonaguni. The town is a patchwork of compounds surrounded by dark-grey drystone walls (ishigaki). Most tourists opt for an ox drawn cart tour of the village (NittaKanko 1,200yen). These carts bump along the sandy streets as the guides play their sanshin(Okinawan samisen). They sing the local song AsadoyanuKuyama. This is about a beautiful lady who refused to marry a government man.
Around the Island
Taketomi is sparsely populated and has a few sights. At the centre sits Nagomi-no-to, a stone tower providing panoramic views of the whole village and seemingly most of the island. The island is the home of craft centres weaving Yaeyama Minsa. For most of the region’s history ladies wore minsa sashes representing their deepest feelings. These days the garments turn up in celebrations such as the Tanadhui festival. This is a competitive dance between Hazama and Nahji villages, which developed from agricultural rituals to ones, which pray to the Gods for the well-being of the island.