Spirits linger on storied Kudaka Isle

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

The 25-minute hop from Azama Port to Kudaka Island provides just enough time to glimpse back at Okinawa’s receding coast before turning to gaze at the shoreline looming — not that I expected a great deal from an island so easily and frequently linked by ferries to the much-developed mainland.

Happily, Kudaka — Kudaka-jima in Japanese — proves that proximity does not always impair authenticity.

About 7 km in circumference, and with a population of barely 200, Kudaka displays the usual features of all the small islands in the Ryukyus group that arcs palisade-like between southern Kyushu and Taiwan, with the East China Sea to the West and the Pacific to the East. So it is that banana groves and plantains, ficus trees and banyans are all to be found there — along with dashes of color provided by hibiscus and bougainvillea.

However, unlike many flat islets, with their villages located dead center, Kudaka has its main settlement contingent with the port, thanks to a steep rise in the land shelf behind the quay. Garcinia (fukugi) trees line sections of the village, their matted leaves and branches acting as typhoon barriers.

The village was surprisingly intact, with largely traditional-style homes. Coral walls 1½ meters high, or more, create the impression of a medina, a fixed, protective grid — in this case yet another measure against the typhoons that plague the region.

Most of the residences are cozy one-story, low-lying affairs. In the spaces between them where tropical fruits and vegetables were not growing, castoff objects — old water tanks, fishing and farming utensils, cracked awamori liquor jars — were sinking into terminal ruination.

Meanwhile, a single postman served the village. Driving a three-wheeled moped designed to negotiate lanes that are practically alleys, he wore the bleached overalls and conical sedge hat of a typical Okinawan farmer.

Whether from him or other islanders polite to a fault, the visitor is treated to friendly greetings from old and young — a gentle bowing of the head that is almost courtly, a degree of courtesy that appears to stem less from conditioning than ingrained good manners.

Many of the islanders were deeply burnt, their skin stretched as dark as ebony. More beards seem to be sported in Okinawa than mainland Japan, and if there is a dress code, it is casual.

As for the temporal, the ferryboats may run on schedule, but otherwise time sloshes around in liquid rhythms like the indigo-colored seas from which the island rises.

Yagura Ga, a viewing point 15 minutes by bicycle from the port, offers a perspective on the coast as good as anything you might find in the deep southwestern islands of Okinawa where the Ryukyu chain nominally gives way to the Yaeyama Islands group.

From the viewing point, the lower section of the steps that descend the cliff face are smothered in a tangled archway of branches. Pandanus trees are so thick in this area as to make the beach well-nigh inaccessible. The screwpine, as it is also known, is common throughout these islands, doing well in salty air. Resembling pineapples, its fruits can be eaten if boiled to remove toxins, but I have yet to see pandanus fruit on any menu.

But back to my quest for the beach: Just at my moment-minus-one of plunging into the undergrowth to get down there, a local halted me with a warning about snakes.

The Ryukyu Islands are home to habu, vipers whose venom can kill cattle with a single bite. It is said that during the Battle of Okinawa through the spring of 1945, U.S. troops paid more attention to the habu than to their Japanese foes. Land snakes number some 22 species on the islands, five of them deadly. Local wisdom gives a bite victim about two hours maximum to have the right anti-venom serum administered.

The main concern on Kudaka is the omi-hebi, a thick-bodied poisonous snake that, like the habu, typically inhabits the dank roots of trees. The island is said to have the highest concentration of this species in Okinawa, due to it being only partially cultivated and mostly the domain of low-lying jungle that absolutely no one penetrates unless they have to.

The owner of one of the cafes near the port warned me against the island’s serpentine population — but said that if I remained into the evening he would be making a snake stew for some visitors and I was perfectly welcome to join them.

In 1986, Okinawa musician and activist Shokichi Kina chose Kudaka to stage an event he dubbed Niraikanai Matsuri. That festival (matsuri) — whose name pays homage to the Other Realm (Nirai Kanai), the mythical place across or under the sea where, in the Ryukyuan religion, the deities are said to dwell — featured both song and dance, but also provided a stage to debate serious island matters such as ethnicity and identity in the broader context of Japan.

As a site for discussing such issues, the island, with an indigenous culture of its own, would seem particularly appropriate.

But back to Nirai Kanai, which — as English-born John Potter, an Okinawan-music specialist, put it in his 2001 book, “The Power of Okinawa” — simply derives from island mythology describing a place across the oceans where heaven and earth converge.

Certainly on Kudaka, you sense something of this conflation of the celestial and earthly in the island’s spiritual practices. Indeed, such was the island’s potency at one time that the empowerment it offered was accessed by Okinawan priestesses ministering to Ryukyuan kings.

As living evidence of such matters, a woman cleaning up an offertory space in her backyard pointed me in the direction of a larger, more impressive so-called Okama-den, a sacred room whose contents of incense-burners, flowers, salt bowls and images of heavenly maidens were strikingly different from the interiors of shrines or temples.

A stone utaki basin stood by a venerated ficus tree in front of the site, which appeared to be being looked after by an elderly couple who I heard speaking together in Uchinaguchi, the Okinawan language, as I approached.

Later, at the Okinawa Prefectural Art Museum in Naha, I would see more of these stone cassoletes used at sacred sites; while during my stay on Kudaka I was to see at least 10 more Okama-den. I was told that noro (high priestesses) no longer practiced on the island, but the fact there were so many well-maintained chambers like these, as well as sacred groves and rocks, suggested a strong spiritual engagement, and a continuation of the role of women as the island’s guardian deities.

Nowadays, as many as 30 rituals are conducted every year on the island — an extraordinary rich cultural calendar considering barely 200 men, women and children live there. Many of these events, such as the Izaiho, a ritual in which women between the ages of 30 and 41 make the symbolic transition from young females into celestial beings, are in danger of extinction due to the lack of eligible participants — and this despite Izaiho only being conducted every 12 years.

In his 1966 work, “Okinawan Religion: Belief, Ritual, and Social Structure,” U.S.-born William P. Lebra tells us that older Okinawans believed Kudaka to be the site where their first ancestors settled. Hence a belief in the island’s spiritual pre-eminence made it a focal point of Okinawan worship.

Although the island appears at some point in prehistory to have been the recipient of visitors who, in the local telling of the tale, brought “five fruits and grains” to the island and advanced agricultural techniques, Lebra described Kudaka as a “rather barren, wind-swept island whose people eke out a meager existence by fishing and planting millet and wheat in the sandy soils.”

This view is corroborated in a late-1960s documentary by Moriguchi Katsu, in which we see downtrodden fishermen and farmers struggling to make ends meet. Although I saw plenty of vegetable allotments and thriving kitchen gardens, the current absence of any intensive agriculture suggests an economy more dependent on fishing, mainland remittances and a steady trickle of visitors.

Kudaka is also unusual in that all the non-government land on the island is collectively owned. This is quite an achievement given the presence in Okinawa of highly aggressive developers, many of them from mainland Japan.

Scholar Asato Eiko has written that, when an attempt to privatize land ownership was being promoted in 1903, it was Kudaka’s women who opposed it, on the grounds that it was contrary to island tradition. And, despite pressures on the islanders over the years to renounce the system, they continue to reaffirm their commitment to sharing ownership.

It is inspiring to find at least one place in Okinawa where the people’s destiny has been decided less by market forces than the will of a community. The miracle of Kudaka is that you can be so close to mainland Okinawa, with its highways, supermarkets, clubs and military bases, and yet have little sense of the modern world.

There are regular ferries to Kudaka from Azama Port. The crossing takes 25 minutes and the last sailing from Kudaka is at 4.30 p.m. There are a few minshuku (B&Bs) on the island and bicycles can be rented in the village, though walking is no problem.