In the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom, from the 14th to 19th centuries, Chinese envoys would come to Shuri Castle on the island of Okinawa to officiate at the coronation of the Ryukyu kings. When their ships were spotted from the 227-meter peak of Mount Akama on the northeast coast of outlying Tokashiki Island, smoke signals announcing their imminent arrival would convey the news back to the main island.
But in 1879, the Ryukyu Kingdom was annexed by Japan — then recently free of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s feudal yoke, and with the Emperor Meiji installed as its symbolic head — and such visits from China came to an abrupt end.
For several decades afterward, Okinawan life continued largely unchanged in its peaceful, bucolic way. But all that came to an end when the enemy in World War II began to get ever closer following the Imperial Navy’s catastrophic losses in the Battle of Midway in 1942.
Then, in September 1944, Imperial forces began setting up suicide-boat bases along the coast of Tokashiki Island.
By the time the U.S. Army’s 309th Regiment stormed the island on March 27, 1945 — marking the second U.S. troop landing in Okinawa before the amphibious assault on the main island began — there were 300 suicide boats of the Okinawa Defense Force’s Sea-Raiding Squadrons based on Tokashiki and neighboring Aka and Zamami islands.
However, based on faulty intelligence the Japanese had expected the enemy to invade the main island, Okinawa, before Tokashiki — so the suicide boats were not ready to go to sea. Overwhelmed by superior numbers and firepower, the islands’ defenders decided to destroy the boats rather than have them fall into U.S. hands.
But the worst was yet to come. Over the next two days, 700 people on those three islands — including women and school children — committed suicide, often by blowing themselves up with hand grenades. Yet more tragically, this so-called Tokashiki Suicide Incident was to trigger similar mass suicides during the awful 4½-month Battle of Okinawa itself. In his 1970 book “Okinawa Notes,” Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 Nobel laureate in literature, wrote essays on these events.
Today, peace has returned to Okinawa, and Tokashiki Island life proceeds at a much slower, more relaxed pace than is the mainland Japanese norm despite it being served by ferries from Naha on Okinawa Island a mere 20 miles east across the East China Sea.
Just 9.6 km long and 1.6 km across, Tokashiki Island is in the Kerama Islands group, which is one of several island clusters spread over 650 km of ocean between Okinawa Island and Taiwan. Located in the midst of rich fishing grounds, and with myriad coral reefs surrounding it, the island’s culture has long been based on fishing.
For many years, Tokashiki was an exporter, notably of dried fillets of skipjack tuna (katsuo in Japanese), which when flaked into katsuobushi and boiled in water make dashi — the basic stock from which the daily Japanese staple of miso soup is made.
Huge schools of katsuo used to pass by Tokashiki and the island became the chief provider of this basic seafood product to the larger communities of Okinawa Island. There, chefs and housewives would buy the dried blocks and shave them into flakes using special graters similar to a carpenter’s plane.
In more recent times, however, with stocks of skipjack in decline in the area and modern transportation, technology and economies of scale making katsuobushi an inexpensive, readily available packaged product, the industry on Tokashiki closed and the island eventually saw the rise of a new niche economy — diving tours.
The island is now famous for its diving services that encompass boats specially equipped to take divers to the reefs and cater to their needs, centers that offer scuba-diving lessons and sell or rent equipment, and more than two dozen hotels, pensions and hostels clustered around Aharen Beach on the island’s west coast that primarily accommodate dive-visitors.
Tokashiku Beach, a few kilometers north of Aharen, is a sea turtle egg-laying ground, and another hotel there caters to the increasingly popular eco-tourism market. In a move to nurture more eco-awareness, the National Okinawa Youth Friendship Center maintains a facility on the north end of the island and operates a Marine Resources Training Center at Tokashiku Beach, where large groups of students go on field trips of several days.
As a further marine bonus for the island’s economy, in the months of January, February and March, humpback whales that pass by the island provide a seasonal attraction for the ever-increasing number of whale-watching tourists.
Aharen Beach is a beautiful white-sand strand with excellent swimming and snorkeling close to shore. The beach is accessed from the ferry landing over a steep hill, challenging for hikers or cyclists, so most of the hotels provide a free shuttle service there from the ferry. There is also a bus service of which visitors who choose to wander around Tokashiki Port before heading to the beach can avail themselves after the shuttle buses have departed.
For those staying around Tokashiki Port, though, the Kariyushi Inn offers a service taking divers out to the reefs, as do several dive shops at Aharen Beach. They also rent out scooters that visitors can use to take the strain out of crossing the mountain to Aharen Beach.
Since divers are encouraged to look at the many colorful tropical reef fish and perhaps photograph — but certainly not spear — them, providing fish for the tourism industry has become the mainstay of the Tokashiki Fishing Cooperative, whose small wharf, landing dock and fish store are sited inside a naturally protected harbor, reinforced with a concrete tetrapod breakwater. Perhaps not coincidentally, Tokashiki harbor’s other industry is a small cement plant.
Nowhere more than at the fishing port, however, is Tokashiki Island’s relaxed pace of life more evident. The wharf itself has room for no more than four of the typical 9-meter tuna boats that weigh in at under five tons. Visitors may care to note the two distinct hull types of these boats — the sampan hull, found throughout Japan, and the sabani hull, particular to Okinawa.
Tokashiki Fishing Cooperative also maintains a small launching and parking area for boats, as most of the fleet consists of trailer-able craft, mostly motorized sabani, with some small sampans or Western-style skiffs included in the mix.
The fleet mostly fishes the reefs with set nets, jigs, baited hooks on lines or with divers, although a few of the larger sabani also go offshore beyond the reefs in search of tuna.
During a recent stay on Tokashiki Island, I spent fascinated hours hanging around the fishing port and watching as small boats brought in catches of irabucha (parrot fish) and aka iyu (crimson soldierfish), and as chefs and buyers from several restaurants and 25 hotels arrived at the cooperative’s store, usually between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., to buy fresh fish for the evening dinners.
The fish store is open from 10 a.m. till 5 p.m. and sells both fresh and frozen fare to members of the public — as well as their value-added product, packages of maguro (tuna) jerky, typically to souvenir-seeking tourists arriving at or departing from the nearby ferry terminal.
Among those buyers of fish fresh off the incoming boats was my host at the Kariyushi Inn. Indeed, it was exciting to see him haggle for a crimson soldierfish and then have it served up to me at dinner less than three hours later. Other seafood from the port that turned up on the menu during my stay included parrotfish, stewed moray eel and a sashimi combo of giant clam and squid one night, and more sashimi and grilled whole aka iyu the next.
So, whether you go to Tokashiki to feast or dive or simply to kick off the blues lying on pristine beaches under a cobalt sky, there’s more than enough reasons to leave the (relative) hurly-burly of Okinawa Island in your wake for a while.
Kariyushi Inn rents rooms for ¥4,725 per night, including breakfast and dinner, while more upscale hotels, as well as a campsite and ¥20,000-a-night bungalows, are to be found at Aharen Beach. The Kerama ferry leaves Tomari Port in Naha at 10 a.m. for the 70-min. crossing to Tokashiki Port. From March 1-Sept. 30, it departs Tokashiki at 4 p.m., but from Oct. 1 till the end of February it leaves at 3:30 p.m. Fares are ¥3,080 return for adults and half price for children under 12. The Marine Liner Tokashiki Express makes the trip in 35 minutes. It leaves Tomari Port daily at 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., and Tokashiki Port at 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Fares are ¥4,620 return for adults and half price for children. Sailings are 30 min. earlier from October-February++ During Golden Week in late April-early May, from July 1-Aug. 31, and on weekends and holidays in September, there is an extra departure from Tomari Port at 1 p.m., returning from Tokashiki Port at 2 p.m.