A colossal, dark-skinned man rides along the sidewalk on a motorbike: no helmet, two small children aboard — a vision of life in the laconic Tropics. There are times here too on Yonaguni, the westernmost land mass in Okinawa Prefecture, when you see a curvaceous island woman in a vivid, flower-patterned dress, and you think of Paul Gauguin and the Tahitian women he painted.
With good views on clear days of Taiwan 110 km away, most of the radio stations were in Chinese when I tried to tune in from my guesthouse in Sonai, the principal village on the tiny, 29-sq.-km island. Despite a smattering of older Okinawan houses, Sonai — with its unpainted houses and tumbledown walls — is not a place of immediate beauty. Most buildings are made of cement-faced cinder blocks which, after years of intense sunlight, heat and salt erosion, look baked and friable, like unglazed pottery.
Sonai’s air of dereliction is clear to see from the summit of a steep cliff named Tindahanata. Its dilapidation, leached colors and torpor, however, belie the natural beauty of the island and the good cheer of its 1,700-odd inhabitants. Indeed, this visitor’s impression was of the islanders making do, satisfied with their lot, and disinclined to advance.
And, since it seems locals lack the drive and ambition of mainland Japanese, on Yonaguni there’s great swaths of uncultivated land — and a marked absence of the fruits found on Japan’s other subtropical islands. So much so, funnily enough, that the biggest supermarket could only offer imported oranges. They were still waiting, they told me, for an overdue delivery of Del Monte bananas.
The minimal attention to development, and the fact that Yonaguni is all but forgotten, conspire to make this one of the most remote out-islands of Japan — and one that’s better off in many respects for it. As recently as 1990, the writers of the guide “Gateway to Japan” could state that the island was “completely off the tourist track,” that its “main villages were purely native style, with thatched roofs and lush hedgerows.” That is no longer quite the case, but the island continues to receive only a very modest trickle of visitors.
You know you are on a country road when the volume of cattle dung is only exceeded by the volume of its potholes. These are the inland roads and byways of Yonaguni. Here, the roads are not only pitted, but invaded on both sides by dense vegetation that has the effect of narrowing already narrow lanes. Not that it matters much, as there is hardly any traffic to speak of.
It is on these back roads that you see nature reclaiming the island. Along the rural lanes, a slight enlargement of the island’s natural species is also visible: an efflorescence of gigantic tropical plants; butterflies with huge wingspans; lizards the length of small iguanas. Elsewhere, at the other end of the scale, Yonaguni horses, the smallest in Japan, graze in clifftop meadows.
Visitors can get a good overview of the island’s fauna at the Nature Experience Center, where well-labeled displays and a short film focus on the Yonaguni moth, the largest of its kind in the world. When I was there, a glass case contained a live habu, a lethally venomous snake indigenous to the islands. The viper leapt in fright every time a visitor peered at it. A naturally combative, even vicious wild animal, this sorry specimen had been turned into a neurotic exhibit.
Close to the airport, it took me longer than I’d expected to find the Irinamihira Distillery. With two Yonaguni horses and a goat tethered outside its long shed of a building, and cats scuttling in and out, I had mistaken it for a farm. Inside, the plank-floored place turned out to be dark and cool, though with a sour, yeasty smell in the air. Most of the work, including the labeling of bottles, was apparently done by hand. And, as I discovered, Yonaguni is the only place where hanazake, a variety of awamori that’s 120 proof (60 percent alcohol), is produce.
To make the fearsome stuff, giant bales of Thai rice, the only type used in the making of awamori, are cleaned in a boiler and mixed with kōji, an organic catalyst. The rice is then transferred to large vats for the distillation process before the hooch is dispensed into big earthenware jars, some of which may already be part-filled with liquor that’s 10 or 20 years old. The distillery employs a small, friendly staff, one of whom will gladly give you a free tour.
A fine place to see local textiles, another distinctive feature of the island, is the Yonaguni Traditional Fabric Association in Sonai. Records show that the island was already paying taxes in cloth in the 1520s, and its various fabrics are known in the local dialect as Yonaguni Hana-ui, Dutati and Kaganubu. Black and white dyeing forms the basis of much of the island’s traditional patterning, with an overlay of red and yellow coloration that appears to have come from nearby Taiwan. Weaving has deep roots on the island, as is attested to by the custom of presenting a spinning reel to women on their 88th birthday. Another custom that persists is the tying of a textile called a shidati — a white cloth dyed with seven colors — around the head of the deceased.
Which brings us as if by chance to the dead, who have a prominent place on the island. The Urano Tombs, a surprisingly extensive graveyard facing the sea (as custom demands), may hold more of the deceased than the present island population. The whole cliff side has been landscaped for death, with some of the older tombs dug into the limestone. A place of weeds, wild plants and dried grasses, Yonaguni’s city of the dead, here at the extremity of the country, may be the loneliest resting place in Japan.
Again, as if by chance, a body was being fished out of the water when I arrived the next day at the harbor — a local man who’d fallen off the quay the night before after one too many shots of hanazake, or so the gossip went. And it was likely an accurate verdict, since everyone seemed to know who the man was, and his drinking habits.
I’d stumbled into that reality show after being told to turn up at the port in Sonai at 8.30 a.m. when I made inquiries the day before about joining a cruise on a glass-bottom boat to the kaitei iseki, Yonaguni’s much-hyped “undersea ruins.”
Though mightily impressive in their sunken monumentality, the submarine rock terraces, at least to my skeptical eyes, were clearly natural phenomena. Aratake Kihachiro, the islander who discovered them and runs the glass-bottom boat business, would disagree. A professor from the University of the Ryukyus had even been enticed to the island to add academic clout to the claim that this was more than mere geology. A scale model of the Kaitei Iseki no Nazo (Mystery of the Underwater Ruins), as they have been dubbed, had even been made. In an effort to add authenticity to the notion of these being man-made, some features had been given names — Upper Terrace Loop Road and Spirit Rock, for instance. Given the sheer size and mass of the supposedly hand-carved rocks, it is inconceivable that vessels could have carried them, or that divers in ancient times could have worked effectively on the submerged rock faces.
Interestingly, too, a close examination of the coastal cliffs around the island, with their flat, layer-cake protrusions and stepped forms, reveals a strong resemblance to those “undersea ruins.” But as easy as it is to debunk the claim that the formations beneath our glass-bottom boat are ruins providing evidence of the lost Kingdom of Mu, they are extraordinary enough in themselves to justify a look.
On my final evening, I made a point of ordering a flask of hanazake with my meal at Durai, a friendly restaurant in Sonai that serves a fine range of Okinawan dishes. During the meal, I chatted with the waitress, who had come to Yonaguni from Osaka for the diving 15 years before — and had never left.
The Okinawan islands — and ones like this, Iriomote and Ishigaki in the neighboring Yaeyama Islands group — are full of mainland Japanese who have made such unintended one-way journeys; city malcontents who have found something worth staying for.
Getting there: JAS and RCA have daily flights, and there are twice-weekly ferries between Yonaguni and Ishigaki islands. While you’re there: The comfortable and very reasonable Adan Guesthouse( 87-2947) has cheap scooter rentals. The Durai restaurant in Sonai opens at 5.30 p.m. Glass-bottom boat tours and diving can be arranged at the Hotel Irifune in Sonai.