Way down south in Hateruma

by Stephen Mansfield

In 1965, a Dutch anthropologist named Cornelius Ouwehand sailed with his Japanese wife, Shizuko, to the remote island of Hateruma to undertake research. The series of monochrome images they took of daily life, work and ritual there were eventually published under the simple title “Hateruma.”

Back then, it would have taken the couple several hours in their small craft to reach Hateruma from Ishigaki port on Ishigaki Island, the second-largest (after Iriomote) but most populous (45,000) of the Yaeyama Islands group in Okinawa Prefecture.

Today’s crossing, in a battered-looking but decidedly faster ferry, takes slightly under an hour, though it can still be a rough crossing. Indeed, when this intrepid writer made the trip, the sea was initially as calm as a millpond, but it grew choppy beyond the harbor, and waves were soon slamming the small boat with sickening thuds as spray obscured any view of the presumably blue seas.

If he were alive today, Ouwehand might be surprised by the handful of small minshuku (guest houses), the island’s two or three drink vending machines, its bicycle rentals — and its single wind turbine. Little else appears to have changed, though you would have to spend a long time here to know how many of its older customs are still observed.

In Ouwehand’s book, female priestesses conduct rituals before prayer rocks, inside caves and at the center of sacred groves. Here we see prayers for clement weather, for wells to stay filled and for the sea. One image of a large prayer stone bears scorch marks where fires were burned on top of the rock, a custom marking the birth of a baby.

Are such rituals still conducted? It seems likely that some are, and that others have survived in modified form. It’s unlikely that a goat’s head and its four feet, tied with ropes and weighed down with stones, are any longer sent out to sea on rafts as offerings to the gods. In a newer preface to Ouwehand’s book, however, a journalist visiting the island as late as the 1990s tells of receiving a sharp reprimand from a local when he tried to approach the entrance to a pitenua, an Okinawan word denoting three sacred spots located at the heart of vegetable fields. Seeds and animal offerings were made there by priestesses, the only islanders allowed to enter the center of the site.

In these distant Yaeyama Islands there are few Buddhist temples; on Hateruma there are none. Shinto shrines, with their closer ties to the animist world, are more common in these parts, where — despite obvious parallels in social organization and linguistic ties with mainland Japan — a combination of geography and robust traditions have helped to keep the worst of the modern world at bay.

The island sits on a bedrock of coral, and this is how it got its name, since uruma in Okinawan means coral, and hata no uruma literally means “last reef.” Situated 63 km southwest of Ishigaki Island, Hateruma is little more than 6 km in length and only 3km at its widest. “Beyond here,” local guidebooks invariably point out, “it’s the Philippines.” Indeed, Nihon Sainantan, a concrete memorial named the Southernmost Point Monument stands atop a rocky cliff to mark the most southerly outpost of Japan. Located only a fraction north of the Tropic of Cancer, the lights of the Southern Cross can be seen from Hateruma from February to June, hinting at the absence of industry. In fact, many of the 600 islanders who live there still work in the sugarcane fields.

Although there is not a great deal to do on the island in conventional tourism terms, you don’t have to be an ethnologist to enjoy Hateruma. For visitors who appreciate nature and the pleasantly slow pace of life in distant parts, there is much to recommend a place such as this — with no hotels, tour groups or swanky restaurants.

The village is situated at the dead center of the island, a normal precaution in small islands like this in the path of typhoons and forever at risk from tsunamis. Many of the weathered, single-story houses with narrow posts under their eaves are clearly prewar. Flower- and plant-filled yards, some with Chinese-style screen walls made from coral limestone, mark them in the southern Okinawan style. Roofs are of the traditional variety of orange tile sealed with white mortar. Like the islanders themselves, who seem crustier, their skin dark and leathery, the walls of the old wooden houses are wind-battered and salt-eaten, their roof tiles eroded by rain and humidity.

The slightly dreamlike quality of the island is strongest at noon, when an unofficial siesta descends on Hateruma. Slumbering bodies can be glimpsed stretched out over worn tatami mats inside dimmed rooms, heads molded firmly into beanbags visible above the door stoops where the breeze made it cooler.

The best way to see the island is to provision yourself with a good sun hat and plenty of water — and then rent a bicycle. Although it can be a hot ride, the island is largely flat, its well-made main roads and sandy lanes easily negotiated. Cycling allows you to take in the minutiae, including the island’s lush flora.

Ghostly banyan trees are confined mostly to the village, where their stiltlike branches support a cool overhead canopy from which filaments of hemp-like tendrils hang, knotted into ghoul heads. Elsewhere, fukugi and Indian almond trees are abundant. Among the island’s wealth of flowers are bamboo orchids, hibiscus and plumeria, while rooted in the sand of Hateruma’s superb Nishi-no-Hama beach are pineapple-like pandanus trees. There are no concrete seawalls or tetrapods here, just the ocean interacting naturally with the shore.

Divers discover an even more colorful undersea world of honeycombed coral, caves, hollows and fish such as rainbow runners, red-fin fusiliers and the strangely named Moorish idols. Some of this marine life finds its way onto the dinner tables of the island’s guest houses, where the food served up is generally simple, healthy — and copious. So too is the local firewater, called awanami, which is said to be the best accompaniment for the locals’ favorite dish of garlic-laced goat stew. At the minshuku that hosted this writer, bottles were placed on a side table alongside buckets of ice for guests to help themselves. The tipple, a version of Okinawan awamori, is made from Thai rice, hinting at old trade routes and cultural links between the islands and Southeast Asia. I was lucky to taste it at all. Locals have a nose for the stuff. When a fresh batch is ready, they rush to the island’s single tiny distillery outside the village and buy up all the stock.

With few tourist sights on the island, there are no taxis, hotels or tour groups with flag-wielding conductors here; nor are there any of the trappings of the prosperous tourism associated with other landfalls in the Yaeyama group. If other islands in the chain are more vigorous in promoting themselves, Hateruma’s preferred approach seems to be to do as little as possible to attract visitors — a strategy that makes it unintentionally more appealing.

It may take a little more effort getting there, but it’s well worth it to see this rustic southern island, a place where empty roads lead not to hotels and shops but to an infinity of sea and sky.

There are four ferries a day between Ishigaki port and Hateruma. Tamashiro (09808-5-8523) is a minshuku with huge dinner servings. Pananufa is a charming restaurant-cafe with a library and musical instruments to play. There are three or four bicycle rental shops on the island, each charging around ¥1,500 a day.