Like tree rings, the islands of Okinawa contain cultures within cultures; ever more singular layers of age and time.
According to some sources, the early culture of Miyakojima, an island 330 km south of Okinawa Island, had affinities with the aboriginal cultures of Taiwan. Physiological differences set apart the Okinawans of these parts from mainland Japanese — as is evident in their generally rounder features, bigger eyes and darker complexions. All this, to a large extent, is a legacy of the many traders and ships’ crews from Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere who once docked here.
However, those physical distinctions have been a mixed blessing. It was not so long ago that residents in these remoter islands suffered the stigma of racial and social ranking. In a system of graduated discrimination, the Japanese looked down upon the Okinawans as a primitive people, while mainland Okinawans expressed a similar contempt for the people of Sakishima Shoto (the Outer Islands).
U.S. diplomat and scholar George H. Kerr, in his 1958 book “Okinawa, the History of an Island People,” wrote: “A melancholy sense of isolation and a longing for recognition at the capital (Naha) permeates the songs, dances and folk tales of Sakishima.”
Parallel to themes of alienation, loss and the conflict between identity and submission in the music of Miyakojima are accounts of villains drawn from a long list of Japanese pirates, intruders from other islands and philandering merchant-mariners who left broken hearts and single mothers in their wake.
In contrast, many of the most revered historical figures in Miyakojima are those who helped to yank the islands out of their profound backwardness and penury. Among these were an innovative farmer who went by the name of Pigitari Yunun-usu — a name even nonlinguists will recognize as being quite unlike any in mainland Japan. In fact, the vernacular of the Miyako island group is Miyakufutsu, one of six designated languages in Okinawa. Visitors to Hirara, the island’s main town, will likely hear snatches of the native tongue, but are unlikely to make head nor tail of it.
Hirara can be a hot place at noon, its reflective white surfaces as intense as the heat from a solar lamp. Its modest offerings, though, are easily covered in a leisurely half a day.
One of the most interesting sights is the mausoleum of Nakasone Toimiya, a late-15th-century chieftain credited with defending Miyako from a northern invasion. The rather neglected site combines Chinese-influenced mortuary design with a more local style of grave-building.
The perfection of Miyako-jofu, a highly refined textile fabric, was recognized when a sample was sent to the court of the Ryukyu kings at Shuri (present-day Naha) in 1584. Examples of this fine ramie textile with its intricate woven patterns are on display at the Miyako Traditional Arts and Crafts Center. To this day, exquisite textiles have remained one of the island’s most highly prized products — rivaled only by sugar.
Introduced to Miyako from China in the 1590s, sugar is king. There are plantations at every turn, their borders in some instances planted with stubby papaya trees. The dry rattle of cane in a sea breeze is, arguably, the leitmotif of the island.
A little outside of Hirara, I stopped to watch a man sitting on a bed of dry sugarcane leaves, as he severed long stands into bundles with the use of an ancient, rust-stained cutting tool similar to a paper guillotine. His mother, a sprightly gnome of a woman, brought more loads of cane strapped to her back, in what seemed an uneven distribution of labor. I asked how old she was: “She’s 91, and she won’t do the work any other way,” he said.
Sugarcane workers are fortunate not to have to deal with poisonous snakes. Vipers were flushed off the island in the prehistoric period, when giant waves rolled over Miyako. This makes a deeper exploration of the island’s flora a more viable pleasure.
Hirara’s little-patronized Tropical Botanical Garden is entered along a promenade of banyans, those most typical of trees from the tropics. Bottle palms, cycads, flame trees, bougainvillea and the prefectural flower — red deigo — are among the specimens on display.
There were no blacktop roads on Miyako until the 1960s, as the main form of transport was the horse — of which the island has its own sturdy variant, bred there since the 13th century. However, I rented a scooter running on biofuel made from sugarcane, which is the ideal means of transport.
If Miyako’s flat, inland landscapes are a tad bland, its fissured coastline provides a backdrop to what many consider some of Okinawa’s most beautiful beaches. Although the Miyakojima Tokyu Resort has bought up a sizeable portion of the strands, Maehama, 10 km south of Hirara, is often singled out as Japan’s most outstanding stretch of beach. A luminescence, like the glow from pulverized seashells, emanates from the white sand.
Meanwhile, Sunayama, only 4 km north of the island capital, is approached by first scaling a steep, pure-white sand dune, then descending to a small, beach-fringed cove. Matchless sunsets can be seen through a naturally eroded cavity in a cave.
Then there’s Higashi-Hennazaki, a tapering, 2-km peninsula with a white lighthouse perched atop the rugged, volcanic cliffs at its tip. Easter lilies and wild flowers bloom there in the spring, while the waters below are aquamarine. Please note, though, that extreme care should be taken along the unfenced, serrated edges of the cliff, as the drops are sudden and precipitous.
Miyako is the perfect departure point for side trips to other islands in the group.
In Irabujima, a short ferry ride from Hirara, limestone karst cliffs erupt beside the coastal road south of the port that takes you further afield to Tori-ike, where raised walkways pass above coral fields and inland salt pools.
An even smaller island, Ikemajima, is linked to northern Miyako by a long bridge over translucent waters and patches of coral. Sand paths wind from the circular road to tiny, deserted coves and beaches.
The waters around these islands are said to be some of the cleanest in Okinawa. This is partly because they are flat, so there is little rainwater runoff from farms using pesticides or herbicides.
The common perception of the Okinawan climate is one that ranges from sultry to torpid, with lots of typhoons. Of course, islanders batten down in practised fashion when the winds strike, though the storms are unlikely to last for more than a few days each year.
The great saving grace of islands such as Miyako is the almost constant presence of sea breezes. And with winter temperatures averaging 22 degrees, the air is warm, the prevailing mood agreeably laconic.
Certainly, Okinawa does not have four seasons in the temperate sense of the term. As one local, loading bales of sugarcane onto an old truck, put it: “What we have down here is warm and very warm, followed by hot and very hot!”
Getting there: JAL and ANA have direct daily flights to Miyako Airport from Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka. The airport information desk has maps in English.