Getting away from it all on Aguni

by Hillel Wright

Special To The Japan Times

Robert Burns, the hard-living 18th-century Scottish poet, lyricist and culture hero who died aged 37 in 1796, is one of the most oft-quoted writers with roots in the British Isles.

However, as he often wrote in the Scots language, many of his most famous sayings have become more familiar in their standard English translations. One such is: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley” — which is usually rendered as, “The best laid plans of mice and men / Often go astray. “

And that’s juat how events unfolded on my one-night getaway to remote Aguni Island, 60 km west-northwest of Naha on Okinawa Island in the East China Sea.

Since June 2011, three months after my wife Shiori Tsuchiya and I relocated to Okinawa from Kanagawa Prefecture, I have been visiting the outer islands of the Ryukyu Group using ferry connections to and from Tomari Port in Naha, an easy 20-minute bicycle ride from our home in the old Shuri section of modern Naha.

Starting with a delightful three-day visit in June to Tokashiki Island in the Kerama group, a 32-km, 70-minute ferry trip west-southwest of Naha, in October I had a wonderful two-day stay on remote Kumejima Island, 90 km and four hours by ferry west of Okinawa’s main city. Then to complete my island-hopping hat trick in 2011 I began to carefully plan a trip to Aguni Island.

During the last two weeks of November, I religiously followed the weather reports on NHK-TV news. Since my normal day off is Thursday, I decided to make my return day a Thursday so I’d be back in good time for my teaching job at Okinawa Christian University on Friday. And as the Aguni Island ferry returns to Naha daily at 4:10 p.m., two hours after departing Aguni Port, I basked naively in the sure and certain knowledge that I’d face no time pressures to mar my return and shatter my holiday calm.

On Wednesday, Nov, 30, I had only one class, from 7 to 8 a.m., teaching medical English to interns at the Naha City Hospital, a five-minute bike ride from home. Since the Aguni ferry departs Tomari Port at 9:55 a.m., I not unreasonably reasoned this would leave me plenty of time, weather permitting, to ride to the port, buy tickets for my bike and myself, cop a bentō (box lunch) at the ferry landing — the island ferries have no food services — and be aboard around 9 a.m. in good time to get a good seat and explore the ship.

Day after day, the weather reports were encouraging: Cloud and rain were predicted for Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 28 and 29, but cloud and sun for Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. So after rainy days began the week of Nov. 27, Wednesday the 30th dawned dry and with promising hints of blue in the sky and sunshine cheering up a silver-gray, partly cloudy sky. Indeed, the latest weather report called for cloudy skies on Wednesday and sunny breaks on Thursday.

So, with my camera equipment and a light rucksack packed the night before, and having successfully done what my alarm clock demanded at 5 a.m., I set out for the hospital lecture hall in high spirits, looking forward to a relaxing, refreshing stay on this tiny and seemingly uncrowded island.

After the class (on obstetrics and gynecology) ended, I immediately headed for Tomari Port. The weather was pleasant, the sky partly cloudy, the wind moderate, and I was able to follow my plan to the letter with little fear the atmospheric waters were about to break.

For the first hour after we cast off I stayed on the spacious upper deck taking photos, mainly of the weather. The sky at sea offered a variety of cloud formations and weather patterns, with blue sky and sunshine sometimes breaking through, only to be eclipsed by gray sheets of cloud moments later. But worryingly, after a while I could quite clearly see rain off in the distance to the northwest.

At around 11 a.m., I went down to the passenger lounge, found an empty table and had my bentō lunch. The sea, which for the first hour had been calm, was now starting to build, and the smooth motion of the vessel turned to a gentle rolling. Through the window, meanwhile, I saw heavy rain beating down on white-capped waves. My heart began to sink.

But then, as we neared the island at around 11:45, the rain let up and the sun fleetingly peeked through the clouds. My hopes for a pleasant time ashore duly revived. And indeed, when the ship docked 10 minutes later the rain had eased to a light Scotch mist in which Burns himself would have felt quite subtropically at home. Once ashore, I was greeted by Mrs. Isa, my host at the Pucci Hotel Isa near the harbor, who gave me directions to the hotel only a three-minute bike ride away.

My room was spacious and Western-style, complete with twin beds and a balcony looking over a small beach, with the harbor and the sheer cliffs of the west coast of the island off to the right. After I checked in and arranged for dinner and breakfast — all in at ¥6,500 for the night’s accommodation — Mr. Kunihiro Shimizu of the hotel staff offered to drive me around the island.

Aguni is very small — just 7.6 sq. km in area, in fact. It has one bar, one cop, no restaurants, no convenience stores and no taxis or buses. Besides the hotel, there are about 10 minshuku (guest houses) catering to the scuba divers who comprise the majority of visitors.

Although I wanted to take advantage of the improving weather to cycle around, Mr. Shimizu, who lived part of the year in Malaysia and spoke perfect English, was so sincerely friendly that I found it impossible to reject his hospitality.

It turned out that having him as my guide made my day far more enjoyable, productive and informative than it would otherwise have been. One of the goals of my visit was to investigate the island’s commercial fishery so that I could write a report for the London-based but globally distributed newspaper, Fishing News International. Mr. Shimizu introduced me to Capt. Masahiko Shinjo, a former head of the Aguni Fishermen’s Cooperative and skipper of a 12-meter, 4.9-ton fishing boat.

Aguni Island fishermen are also farmers. From April to mid September they fish for tuna, marlin, reef fish and snappers; from September through March they tend their sugar-cane fields. The islanders are also very friendly and have a wonderful sense of humor. In fact, Capt. Shinjo, who spoke no English, and I, with rudimentary Japanese, were able to share many jokes, tall tales and fish stories (I have been a commercial fisherman in Hawaii and Canada) — with Mr. Shimizu only occasionally having to translate.

Capt. Shinjo also insisted on taking us aboard his boat, named Seari Sansei, which was berthed near the ferry landing, before we all drove off together with Mr. Shimizu at the wheel to visit the island’s other fishing harbor, near the airport. After that, we drove the few island roads, stopping here and there, and spent a truly memorable day taking pictures, drinking coffee and making friends — topped off with a stop at the captain’s home to meet his family.

Then, after a fine dinner and a sound sleep, Thursday morning dawned with a partly cloudy sky through which the sun was trying to break. Perfect, I thought, as I looked forward to breakfast and then riding my bike to the beaches. Off on the horizon, though, I could see rain on the ocean and out on the balcony I could feel the wind beginning to rise. Just before I headed down to breakfast at 7:30, I heard a PA from the nearby village office issuing a storm warning. Then, right after breakfast, at around 8 a.m., the ever-friendly Mr. Shimizu came up to my room to tell me that the ferry sailing was canceled — but that he’d booked me the last seat on the nine-passenger, twin-engine, propellor-driven plane’s morning flight, the afternoon flight being already full.

I had all of 20 minutes to pack. Mr. Shimizu drove me to the airport — a five-minute ride — and arranged to put my bike on the ferry the next time it sailed. He even agreed to put my Swiss Army Knife, which I couldn’t take on the plane, in a sealed envelope in my bike basket.

The last seat turned out to be in the cockpit, next to the pilot. Once airborne, I was invited to take pictures and I was able to get many unexpected shots, including of the tiny airstrip, the weather and Nagannu Island, a small uninhabited sand beach islet 15 km west of Tomari Port.

The next day, Mr. Shimizu phoned to advise me that the ferry had sailed from Aguni with my bike and Swiss Army Knife safely aboard, and after university classes ended, I had just enough time to meet the ship as it docked in Naha at 4:30 p.m.

Getting there: the Aguni Island ferry departs Tomari Port, Naha, daily (weather permitting) at 9:55 a.m., arriving at Aguni Port two hours later. Fares are ¥3,320 (one-way); ¥6,310 (round trip); with a ¥740 bicycle supplement either way. The Ryukyu Air Commuter airline usually has two morning round-trip flights from Naha Airport leaving around 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., and one afternoon flight departing around 3 p.m. The flight takes about 25 minutes and there is a quick turnaround at Aguni Airstrip. The fare is ¥7,700 each way.