Sunday, January 13, 2008

Beautiful islands in the south of Japan

The Yaeyama archipelago (八重山) lies at the south-western end of the Japan archipelago, 200 kilometers off the shore of Taiwan. The travel hub is the airport of Ishigaki (石垣). The nearby 40000 inhabitants town is a miniature of present Japanese civilization. You can find a new and questionable airport in construction, an rusting shopping street, an "eikaiwa" (英会話English Conversation school), drink vending machines at every street corner and snacks (スナックhostess bar). If you wander in the streets, you may even find a typical Okinawan house, or a few Goya plants scattered amonst the usual Japanese concrete buildings. We are indeed in Okinawa (沖縄), but it is not enough to justify the 3 hours flight from Tokyo.
You will have to leave the city to really discover this superb archipelago. The most pleasant is probably to board a boat and sail to nearby islands. Taketomi-jima (竹富島) is a small sandy flat island inhabited since the 11th century. 300 inhabitants live on 6th (a little bit more that 2 times the size of London City). A population of around 1000 were living on the island in the 18th century. To fight overpopulation, the authorities forced some villagers on several occasions to emigrate to the Island of Ishigaki close towards the villages to Yara (1734, 1738) and Tomizaki (1771). The island was spared by the giant tsunami which devastated the archipelago in 1771, undoubtedly the major historical event of this isolated place. Until 1976, and the installation of an underwater drain, drinking water was limited to some sacred wells. That only made it possible to grow some vegetables, and the inhabitants used to sail to nearby islands to work in rice paddies there. Today, the main crops are sweet potato and cane sugar.
The village and its traditional houses are remarkably weel-preserved. This is thanks to the energetic action of the inhabitants. They voted in 1986 a charter preserving the island at the top of the Japanese real-estate bubble. Only houses respecting the traditional style can be built, windows and other modern objects should be hidden. It is also compulsory to clean the premises of properties every morning, and it is forbidden to walk in swimming suit in the village. The houses are all in the typical Okinawan style of the early 20th century. Their roofs are covered with red tiles and clay pointing. Properties are surrounded by coral stone walls. The entry is barred by a wall at the back of the entrance, the "hinpun" (ヒンプン). It protects the house against bad spirits and especially from the wind. The typhoons can indeed be very violent in the area. The houses are made up of a main building, the fuhya(フーヤ), and an annex being used as kitchen, the "Tohra" (トウラ).
The streets of the city are covered with sand to make it possible to see better dangerous snakes at night. You can get along in the island by cow carts or by bike. The cow cart business is probably a major contributor to the island economy. The island is surrounded by superb beaches. You can swim in limpid water, surrounded by namakos (sea slug), and tropical fish. The beaches are lined by trees which protect the shallow layer of arable land of the island.
A little further from Ishigaki, the wild island of Iriomote (西表島) is the only Japanese territory covered by jungle. Endemic malaria until the 1950s slowed down its development. During the battles at Okinawa at the end of second world war, inhabitants of the archipelago took shelters in the forests. The small harbor has a remote atmosphere, and the road does not go round the whole island. The village of Funauki (舟浮き) is only accessible by boat. Iriomote is a small continent of 289, with two navigable rivers, hills, paddy fields in lowlands, valleys and 2000 inhabitants. River estuaries shelter mangrove forests. These trees live with the feet in the shallow water of the tropical shores and estuaries. It is an outstanding ecosystem, the most productive of planet. The plants can filter sea water, retain pollution, and prevent the erosion of the shore.
A boat trip on the Urauchi river (浦内川), a miniature Amazon, will bring you close to the mangrove, and at the heart of the rainforest. After 8 kilometers on the river, you can walk half an hour to reach the "Mariyudu" falls (マリユード滝). It is unlikely you will see the famous « Iriomote cat » (西表山猫), a specy unique to the island. However, you will certainly cross the path of giant Ishigaki lizards (イシガキトカゲ) and typical jungle trees covered with lianas. The bravest hikers may cross the islands through a 20 kilometers path in the jungle. Registration with the local police is mandatory.
You may also go for a pleasant walk around Shirahama (白浜), a deserted port in a superb bay, and the end of the road. Rumor has it that an hermit homeless is living in the island which faces the pier.The onsen (hot-spring) of the island, the only one of Okinawa will offer some well-being. The establishment proposes the usual hot baths for men and women where people are naked, and also a common swimming pool where a bathing suit is required. Rides in cow carts to the small islet of yubu (由布島) are famous. The vehicle is able to cross the very shallow water between the "continent" and this small island where a dozen people are living. After a hurricane in 1969, almost all the inhabitants left to resettle on Iriomote, and only a couple of old people remained. To encourage inhabitants to return, they worked hard to plant flowers and make the life on the island more pleasant. Those stories usually stuck a cord in Japanese heart, and this anecdote became famous.
All the islands of the archipelago have superb diving sites, where you can often explore the superb coral and colored fish who live there with only adiving mask and a tuba. The main island of Ishigaki also has great beaches, especially the famous Kabira bay (川平湾). It is a protected site, so swimming is forbidden, but it is a great place for a walk. After a hard day of sightseeing and sea sports, traditional Okinawan food will bring you back to life. Goya chample (ごやチャンプル), stir-fried goya, chicken, and tofu, is recommended for the tired gourmet traveller, who does not mind bitterness. You can try the very tasty local beef (ishigakigyu石垣牛) in barbecue restaurants (yakiniku 焼肉 5000 Yens per person).
Access to Ishigaki
  • direct flights from Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, Frequent flights from Naha with connecting flights from most Japanese cities (ANA and JAL).
Access to Taketomi
  • fast boats from the seaport of Ishigaki: A boat departs every 30 Minutes from 7.30 to 17.00. The trip is 10 minutes long, and two companies provide the service: Anei Kanko and Yaeyama Kanko Ferry. Around 500 Yens for a one-way ticket
Access to Iriomote
  • fast boats from the seaport of Ishigaki to Uehara (the most practical port to go to Urauchi river). There are 9 boats per day and the first one leaves Ishigaki at 7.00. The last boat leaves Iriomote at 17.30 (Anei Kankou and Yaeyama Kanko Ferry). If the wind is too strong, the boat will go to the port of Ohara, and a shuttle bus will bring you back to Uehara.
  • With five buses per day and two taxis for the whole island, travel should be planned carefully, but most pensions offer a shuttle service.
Anaei Kanko (安栄観光)
Yaeyama Kanko Ferry (八重山観光フェリー)

1 comment:

Cool Things said...

Beautiful Islands *-*
Someday I will travel there