Arrival in some places doesn’t always meet expectations. From stories I had read of Taketomi, I had built up a picture of a sleepy subtropical paradise. This island at the southwestern end of the Okinawan chain was, I learned, a place of coral-sand streets and quaint Okinawan life, an island where cars were banned and where life gently plodded along at the pace of a water buffalo — and a slow-moving one at that.
So after being jetted over to the island on the fastest boat I’ve ever traveled on in my life, walking over the car park, which looked as if it could handle serious numbers of tour buses, and continuing on the tarmac road past the huge visitor center and the helicopter landing pad, I thought it wise to adjust the image of Taketomi a tad.
Word has certainly got around about Taketomi. Locals relate how in the summer months the narrow streets of the very spread-out main village are thick with visitors. Since 90 percent of the island’s income comes from tourism, the locals would, of course, be the last ones to complain about that situation. To appreciate Taketomi at its charming best, then, it is necessary to arrive in the off-season. Not that the off-season means having to compromise with the weather: While Tokyo is shivering in late November, Taketomi basks in a balmy sandals-and-shorts heat.
Less than 6 sq. km in area, tiny Taketomi is part of the Yaeyama Islands, which from the perspective of Tokyo dwellers have an attractively remote air about them. Taiwan is nearer than the main island of Okinawa, and the Philippines are closer than Kyushu. Of all the places in this country, the Yaeyamas are the one where you feel least like you are in Japan. And this perception of otherness is certainly felt by the Taketomi islanders themselves: On the huge map in the visitor center “Japan” is written over distant Honshu in the same script and style as “China” is inscribed below Beijing, as though signifying some foreign land.
On Taketomi, there are no real sights to speak of. The attraction of the island is simply being in the place itself, among the traditional Okinawan houses and the streets of gleaming white coral sand flanked by hibiscus and bougainvillea-bedecked walls of coral. With some local modifications, the houses are the ones seen elsewhere in Okinawa, the square-plan, single-story, hipped-roof structures, upon whose orange roofing tiles invariably sits the grinning ceramic figure of a shiisa — a demonic-looking figure placed there to scare off other demons. Even the electricity substation has a traditional appearance, built as it is in the style of an old Okinawan house and with its own shiisa on the roof to ward off any devils with a thirst for power.
It is the streets of coral sand, though, that are the real delight and make Taketomi seem as if somebody decided to build the village on a huge stretch of beach. Along these streets, the water-buffalo carts slowly make their way bearing their gaggles of tourists. For the pedestrian, a more pleasant street surface would be hard to imagine. Islanders get up early and sweep the sand clean, so that the first person walking along leaves their footprints in it as if upon freshly fallen snow.
Though sand is seen everywhere in the village, beaches on the island are few in number, with the best known being Kondoi Beach on the east coast. Tropical fish darting through the sparkling water make this area a popular spot for snorkeling, but it’s the actual sand itself close by this beach that most visitors are keen to inspect. Coral seas are home to tiny creatures known as foramenifera, and the spines on their calcareous skeletons result in a star-like shape. When these skeletons accumulate on a beach in sufficient numbers, they produce the phenomenon of hoshizuna — star sand. And it is for these minuscule star shapes that the tourists assiduously sift through the sand, the better organized bringing along their own sieves for the purpose.
Other life on the island is appropriately exotic. Just about all the trees and plants on Taketomi are utterly unlike anything seen on the mainland. Large exquisite butterflies lazily flutter around the place. As the locals cheerily inform you, Taketomi is crawling with the highly venomous snakes known as habu, found throughout Okinawa. The island’s crows, though, are diminutive, pigeon-size creatures with a high, effeminate caw — agreeably different to the raven-size jungle crows that glare at you balefully on the Tokyo street.
A more melodious sound of Taketomi is that of the sanshin, the three-stringed instrument somewhat similar to the more familiar shamisen of the mainland. It is the sanshin that buffalo-cart drivers often play to serenade the rubberneckers as they haul them around the sandy lanes. The sanshin, though, is held in real affection and is not just something brought out for the diversion of tourists: on a quiet morning far from the tourist trail you can hear someone playing the instrument purely for their own amusement. Despite all this exotica, though, Taketomi is still Japan, and so it shares the odd Japanese predilection for celebrating the hour of 5 p.m. by playing a five-second musical trill from some speaker or other on the street.
If it is a little peace and serenity in a lovely island setting you seek outside the summer months, Taketomi is the place to find it. The air is clean, and in the warm nights the stars burn with a brilliance never seen in the big city. And it is at night that the tranquillity really descends on the place, when the only sounds are the low hum of insects, the lilting melody of a distant sanshin or the dry rustle as a fruit bat lands among the leaves of a palm tree.