ON A NATURE TRAIL

Finding the real Okinawa in Yanbaru

by Chris Cook

The three baby goats frolicking in their enclosure, hewn out of northern Okinawa’s itajii (evergreen oak) forest, were having a great time.

Their open grassy area, set among low hills dotted here and there with tankan (orange) plantations and an abundance of hibiscus bushes, was catching the onshore breeze just above the small west-coast settlement of Yona.

Chasing each other and bouncing around like playful lambs, the cute kids had no inkling of what might be in store for them a few months down the line.

Neither had I, until Ikeshiro-san, our driver from distant Naha, the prefectural capital down south, suddenly blurted out, “Yagi oishii desu.”

Here was an Okinawa native telling me about eating goat (yagi), and that it was tasty, too, despite the strong smell. Not cooked, but raw!

I’d heard of roasted goat, I’ve drunk goat’s milk and have eaten goat’s cheese — but goat sashimi? That was a new one for me.

And, after hearing Ikeshiro-san’s explanation of what part of the little beastie is eaten, as much as I like sashimi, I think I’ll pass on this dish, thank you very much!

As he turned his head toward me to explain in more detail, the smell of stale cigarette smoke and gum on his breath hit me broadside. “The male goat is killed, and we eat the kintama (testicles). Fresh, thinly sliced. Tasty, too,” he said with a wry smile.

Poor little goats, I thought, as they hurtled like out-of-control miniature cars around an imaginary race track overlooking the East China Sea.

We ascended the hill and were enveloped by the calming greenness, and I just hoped the kids were enjoying playtime that sunny day. I didn’t even want to ask if their little parts were served with soy sauce and wasabi, or marinated in some local concoction.

Chasing each other and bouncing around like playful lambs, the cute kids had no inkling of what might be in store for them a few months down the line.

To most, Okinawa is a resort destination, a sun-blessed island that is, with some stretch of the imagination, Japan’s equivalent of Hawaii. It’s a place where — outside the approaching rainy season and gray February days — sun, sea, sand and greenery make up the big picture instead of densely packed office buildings and apartment complexes.

True, Naha or Nago, with ugly skylines of buildings in all shapes, sizes and colors, won’t pick up any prizes for best-designed city, but skip these places and head north and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

One place definitely worth visiting is Churaumi Aquarium, located on the Motobu Peninsula, northwest of Nago.

The aquarium’s star attractions are the huge whale sharks and graceful manta rays that interact effortlessly with shoals of colorful tropical fish in the gigantic Kuroshio Sea pool, where the viewing window is huge — something like 8 meters high and over 20 meters long. It’s impressive and well worth seeing, even on a sunny day — and definitely a place to head for on a rainy one.

As might be expected in a country where animals are often seen as little more than items of entertainment, dolphins are put through their paces during the several shows that are staged each day, much to the apparent delight of the audience. Still, better to see them “enjoying” life in the confines of a pool than to end up as mercury-laced steaks on someone’s dinner plate.

The northern portion of the island, known as Yanbaru, is rich in rare wildlife, and two species of bird (the Okinawa rail and Pryer’s woodpecker), a reptile, an amphibian and a large beetle, as well as several plants, are endemic to this area.

A visit to the Yanbaru Wildlife Center in Kunigami is a good introduction to the area’s diversity, and the staff there are helpful in suggesting where to go if you are interested in seeing the natural side of Okinawa.

Nearby is the well-maintained Hiji Falls trail, a pleasant 45-minute walk along the river to Hiji waterfall. Along the way look out for a variety of birds and butterflies and, if you are lucky, you might even get to see the small yamagame (black-breasted leaf tortoise) bulldozing its way through the leaf litter on the forest floor.

On a hot day, the cool air directly below the falls is as good a place as any for a picnic, but beware of slippery rocks; and by the way, swimming is not allowed, even if the temperature is 50 C!

The scenic falls, which cascade for about 15 meters over the rocks, can be reached via a walkway and forest paths. Although accessible for most people, there are a few places with steps and a suspension bridge between the entrance (¥200 admission) and the falls.

The northernmost point of Okinawa is Cape Hedo, about a 3-hour drive up from Naha along Route 58. Immediately to the east of the car park you can view an area of spectacular coastline, still for the most part in its natural state.

Driving along the east coast, the Philippine Sea comes into view in several places, and next to it, in the small village of Oku, is one of my Okinawa secrets: Minshuku Miyagi, nestled among shade trees close to the bridge at the east end of the village.

At ¥5,000 per night with dinner and breakfast, a stay is certainly good value. Run by Masashi and Naomi Miyagi, a very friendly young couple, the atmosphere is strictly casual: dine with the gecko- and moth-hunting cats (unfortunately Shita, the friendly dog, recently departed this life, but his spirit remains), sit out under the stars at dinner and down a beer with the talkative master (who really can get going after a few beers!) and be lulled to sleep by the sound of waves lapping the nearby sandy shore.

Dinner is Japanese-style, with lots of fresh, locally grown vegetables and fish caught in the nearby ocean, often served as a buffet by the open hearth in the dining room and eaten under the whispering casuarina trees.

While dining, you can often hear the squeaking and hissing of the large Ryukyu flying foxes as they feed on fruiting trees in the nearby forest.

Other sounds of the night include the quiet, two-note call of the small Ryukyu scops owl and the excited “ki-ki-ki-ki” sound of the yanbaru kuina (Okinawa rail).

Further down the east coast is the Yanbaru Hotel. This place, which once touted itself as a “Vietnamese-style hotel in Okinawa,” is a convenient place to stop for lunch or coffee. Located at the turnoff to Ada, it offers a variety of pastas and is a good place to stop for lunch or coffee if you are having a quick one-day visit up north.

Then, past secluded bays and deserted beaches, and through small villages where many of the single-story houses have guardian shiisa (mythical leonine beast) perched on their roofs, the winding road eventually takes you to Higashi and then on to Nago — and a return to civilization.

For further details, check the following: Churaumi aquarium: www.kaiyouhaku.com. Okinawa tourist information: www.ocvb.or.jp. Japan National Tourist Organization: www.jnto.go.jp. Yanbaru Wildlife Center: (0980) 50-1025. Minshuku Miyagi: (0980) 41-8383. Yanbaru Hotel: www.towerside.com/yanbaru