Consulting a map of Okinawa, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Yaeyama Islands group comprises fragments of Japan and China that have become loosened and detached. It’s an impression confirmed at every turn once you set foot on these remote littorals.
Ferries from the larger island of Ishigaki — whose airport is the the Yaeyamas’ most popular gateway — take little more than 10 minutes to reach the small terminus on Taketomi, an island that was an undersea coral reef before seismic forces thrust it to the surface as a flat landmass just 3.5 km from north to south and 2.5 km east to west.
Bicycle-rental people and minshuku (guesthouse) owners were happy to take visitors from the small port into the village but, choosing to walk, I noticed there wasn’t a single tree to be seen. As the gravel road passed by a graveyard, though, I was reminded that death is as much a part of these tiny idyllic islands as the daily lives of this small community of around 300 people who make Taketomi their home.
Ideally, Okinawan tombs face directly out to sea, the source of life. Gray and sepulchral, these kameko-baka (turtle-back tombs) are often sited close to a road, a practice that can startle newcomers to the islands.
In the manner of small Okinawan communities, the village of Taketomi is located smack bang in the center of the island, affording a modicum of protection from the typhoons that stalk the Yaeyamas. An even greater threat to the future of the island may be rising sea levels, since the island sits noticeably and precariously low in the surrounding East China Sea.
Arguably, Taketomi is Okinawa’s finest intact traditional village. There is a civic pride here that is not always evident in other parts of Okinawa. This is visible in the carefully maintained walls and homes and in the small, beautifully tended gardens.
Constructed from a mixture of coral, wood and orange terracotta roof tiles, these airy homes typically have at their entrance a Chinese stone screen called a hinpun. Usually made of coral, these short, freestanding sections of wall are meant to deflect troublesome spirits, to prevent them from entering the home. Many owners have requisitioned hinpun as flower trellises.
Most gardens contain wells, many of them now sealed. Fan palms can still be seen beside some of the wells, following an ancient belief that their roots could purify water as it passed through the earth. The hardy sea hibiscus makes a regular appearance throughout the islands, and few gardens here are without a cluster or two of the flower.
In the past, hibiscus would, on occasion, have been planted beside a household’s outside toilet, not for its fragrance but because its large leaves, soft and round, could be crumpled in the hand and used as a very decent substitute for toilet paper.
Deep in the lanes of the village you can find more flora in the form of fukugi trees, a species whose tight, basket-like branches and thick dark leaves are planted against the walls of homes as wind barriers. Visitors will also encounter splendid examples of Indian almond, pandanus, ficus and banyan.
To admirers of tropical trees, the boughs and branches of the banyan present fabulist forms. To others, the configurations are fearful, suggesting a gnarled ghoul, a monster with one testicle, or diseased muscles and tentacles. Certainly the ghostly tendrils of the banyan create a dark inner world that provides shade — but it is also where spirits are believed to congregate.
Walking along sandy lanes between walls pendulous with bougainvillea, the island feels like a brilliant coral garden, one that can get extremely hot and whose salt-colored beaches radiate sunbeams that feel like the touch of a branding iron to exposed skin.
The traveler through outer islands like this will be struck by the absence of Buddhist temples. Shrines, closer to the traditional animistic beliefs of the islanders, are more commonplace. On Taketomi, sacred groves entered through salt-crusted torii gates lead to dense tropical flora and a main place of worship, a small hall or just a patch of tampered earth.
Female shamans referred to as yuta, and priestesses known as noro or kaminchu, continue to be vital to the spiritual life of these small islands. The women, Druidic in appearance in their white robes and with headdresses of leaves, perform some of these rituals in public; others take place in private communion with the spirits.
There is more of the island’s micro-culture in the Kihoin Shushukan, an easily missed wood-built museum that is often left unstaffed, with a sign at the entrance asking visitors to drop the entrance fee in a box as they enter. Dating from 1920, this place exhibits dusty festival masks, rusty swords, cracked pottery, farming implements and other humble items evocative of the modest history of the island.
Ultimately, Taketomi’s main asset is nature. It is no exaggeration to say that the island has some of the finest beaches in the Pacific region. Tiny sea fossils known as star sand, can be found on Kondoi and Hoshizuna, superbly bleached beaches on the west side of the island, while at low tide would-be swimmers have to walk out beyond the sand bars to find water deep enough to swim in. Snorkelers swear by Misashi, a spot on the northern coast where reefs surrounding three islets are home to white-spotted parrotfish, refin fusiliers, butterfly and spadefish — and where those who’ve sampled those waters say the plenitude of creatures and coral create the impression of swimming in an aquatic forest.
Buffalo carts, known as suigyusha, add to the languid atmosphere of the islet. I counted as many as 16 people sitting in one wagon pulled by a single water buffalo — reminding me of the human jam on trains in rural India, or ferries in the Philippines, though with none of those frenzies whatsoever.
The overburdened but obliging beasts move at a slow pace, their minders compensating for their sudden, resigned halts by playing snatches of Okinawan shima-uta (lit. “island songs”) on a three-stringed san-shin. To a very real extent, this instrument can be regarded as the leitmotif of the islands — its notes alternatively festive and melancholy. Accompanying the voices of island women, whose pitch can be as high as singers in a Chinese opera, the music hints at a provenance far removed from mainland Japan.
The music of the Yaeyama Islands appears to have developed along its own trajectory. According to Okinawan music specialist John Potter, who hails from England but now calls Itoman on the main island of Okinawa his home, the relative poverty of the Yaeyamas precluded all but the wealthy from owning musical instruments. This led to a culture of unaccompanied vocalizing, typically while working in the fields. The flutes and drums used in the sacred festivals of the Yaeyamas — islands whose links to Taiwan and trading nations like Vietnam and Malaysia were as strong through history as those to mainland Japan — are apparently the same as those used in Southeast Asia.
The popular Okinawan music trio, Begin, helped to make Taketomi known among younger travelers with their recording of an upbeat song titled “Taketomi-jima de Aimasho” (“Let’s Meet in Taketomi”). As well, American blues guitarist Bob Brozman and san-shin player Takashi Hirayasu got together in an old house on Taketomi and converted it into a studio to rehearse and record a collection of children’s songs that became the best-selling Okinawan album “Warabe Uta” (“Children’s Songs”). The album’s closing song, a hauntingly beautiful instrumental composed by the pair, is called “Taketomi Sunset.”
After the last ferry has departed, the island reverts to its natural state before tourism gained a purchase on its sights and culture. Overnight visitors staying at one of the village minshuku can amble through gloriously empty, dimly lit lanes, san-shin music sinking into every crevice of the dark, sultry night.
Although I have been to the island on several occasions, it never fails to draw me back, revealing with each visit fresh prospects and detail. According to historians, the 16th-century tomb of Nishito Utaki, a magistrate for the Yaeyama Islands who also worked as an engineer and mason in the service of one of the Ryukyu kings, still remains within the village. If the burial chamber does indeed exist, I’ve never been able to discover it.
Getting there: Ferries leave the terminal on Ishigaki Island every 30 minutes from 7:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. The crossing takes 12 minutes. There are several minshuku on the island that offer breakfast and dinner. John Potter’s book, “The Power of Okinawa: Roots Music from the Ryukyus,” is the definitive work on the subject.