Sweet times on sugar-isle Kohama

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

In our minds, islands should be counter worlds, autarchies unsullied by continental concerns. We should arrive spellbound, leave anointed by their beauty.

Wherever in the world you might be, it is virtually impossible to set foot on an island without experiencing the sensation that you have been there before. This recognition comes, perhaps, from their link to the idea of Creation. Indeed, without wishing to sound philosophically pagan, the outer isles of Okinawa’s Yaeyama chain are the closest most travelers in Japan are likely to get to an experience of return and renewal.

The residential structure of one such island, Kohama, has its main settlement right at the center — a sensible precaution in a region vulnerable to tsunami. A more predictable threat is that from the many typhoons that tear through every year. But Kohama’s residents know just what to expect, and in recent years the more affluent among them have invested in generators to cope with the occasional power outage.

“Last year,” one local told me, “we had the house completely closed up for two days over the summer before the storm blew over. We burned candles at night. You can’t imagine the heat inside!”

Though you have to keep a vigilant eye out for termite invasion, traditional one-story Okinawan homes are surprisingly well constructed, with solid pillars, foundation stones, sturdy verandas and heavy-set roof tiles sealed with mortar to prevent them dislodging and departing in the high winds. A dry wall made from coral rock provides another typhoon break. A freestanding wall, called a hinpun, may be located just inside the entrance to the garden. These Chinese screen walls are erected to deter evil spirits from making a direct line for the house — but also create a barrier against people like myself, who are apt to peer inquisitively into others’ gardens.

Well-worn garden furniture suggests that, unlike mainland Japanese, the Okinawans actually use their backyards. This was confirmed one languorous late afternoon, when I spotted several people planted at tables sharing a bottle of awamori, a woman tinkering with the strings of her sanshin, the signature Okinawan instrument.

Played by the Ryukyu nobility before the islands were unilaterally seized by the Japanese government in 1879, mastery of the instrument was valued above that of the martial arts that typified mainland Japan. According to John Potter, author of 2001′s “The Power of Okinawa” and a tireless researcher into Okinawan music, “the sanshin occupied the same status afforded the sword in Japan.”

What was once a modest fishing village is now an equally modest port, with ferries and small commercial skips docking at intervals. Families from Itoman on mainland Okinawa settled here, drawn by surrounding waters abundant with catches. Tumaru Beach is within striking distance of the quay, but press on a little further and the white sand beach of Kubazaki is surprisingly free of visitors. Most people come here for a day trip and simply can’t be bothered to make the extra effort of finding this solitary spot.

Single-gear rented bicycles are an option if you confine yourself to exploring the village and its environs, but the outlying coastal features are best accessed by scooter. The ancient machines here need to be kickstarted, powered up with hope and prayer — but they do reward with the liberating sense that only open-air motorized transport confers. Make sure there is enough gas in the tank, though, as their fuel gauges rarely work.

I locked my vehicle — old urban habits die hard — and approached a turban-shaped stone structure near the beach. A stone path wound up to a flat roof, affording a fine prospect of sea and horizon. I had seen something similar on the Yaeyamas’ southernmost Hateruma Island some years earlier, so it was no longer a mystery. The structures, I knew, were ancient lookout platforms for islanders checking on invaders, storms brewing or the passing of a trading ship from China or Malaysia.

Lying just 2 km off Iriomote Island, Kohama is close to the Yonara Waterway, a passage of clear blue sea that is home to giant manta rays. All of this and more is visible from the summit of Ufudaki, a 99-meter hill south of the village. The modest height belies the steepness of the climb, which constitutes a strenuous walk in summer temperatures and may explain why a young couple were gasping on the ascent like a pair of asthmatics.

The islands of Aragusku, Kuro and Hateruma come into focus from the peak, as well as Kayama-jima, which is inhabited by thousands of white rabbits. Off “Rabbit Island,” as it’s known, a lovely sandbar, called “Phantom Island,” appears at low tide.

For lunch I sampled yagi-jiru (goat stew), whose meat component lives up to its reputation for being on the tough side, but not grisly.

Mainlanders are apt to turn their noses up at a dish that carries a powerful smell said to take several days to properly dissipate from the body. Among Okinawans, however, particularly those from the mainland area around Nago, demand remains high — so much so that extra supplies of goat meat have to be imported from nearby Taiwan.

There was a similar dish I came across occasionally while traveling through the islands, which goes by the name of hija-jiru and is said to be a nutritious, stamina-providing food. As well, goat sashimi is an Okinawan delicacy — though it is one I have yet to sample.

Goats apart, sunset is a bewitching time to sit and contemplate the mangroves of Kohama’s eastern shore. It is also a time that draws out mosquitoes and nocturnal vipers — the worst of which is the notorious habu, a snake whose venom can be lethal if not swiftly attended to. There was much talk of snakes in the mangroves, but there didn’t seem much choice other than to walk between the tufts of weed that had taken root along the path from the road.

If Kohama is known at all to mainstream Japanese, it is for the NHK TV series “Churasan,” first aired in 2001. Much of the drama was set in Kohaguraso, a traditional but otherwise unremarkable Okinawan house that’s now open to the public.

Though the boom in Kohaguraso tourism has now abated, as these things tend to, I was told that tourism still plays a vital part in the island’s economy. Nonetheless, the absence of visitors struck me as odd until I caught occasional glimpses of a sleek-looking tourist bus negotiating the narrow lanes around the village. That was, I learned, whisking well-heeled visitors off to the swanky Haimurubushi Resort Hotel, the island’s top-end accommodation, where they remained holed up for most of their stay. You couldn’t entirely blame them: The amenities include a private beach, a golf course and spa and grounds extensive enough to see rare wild flowers, tropical foliage and bathing water buffalo.

A mere eight passengers had alighted at the port when we docked, half of them locals. With a population of just over 600, the island is a microcosm of Japan itself: a rapidly aging number of residents forming an inverted pyramid, with a shrinking base of youngsters. Not that the elderly are looking for welfare handouts. Even those of advanced age appear to be healthy, fit and leading useful lives.

One time, as I stopped to photograph a man operating an ancient sugarcane guillotine, a woman with a large basket strapped to her back appeared from the fields. The man, seated, and with by far the easier job, told me that she was his mother — adding, “She’s 91!” Such scenes are far from rare in these islands that lay claim to the world’s greatest longevity.

Relatively resistant to the salt winds, sugarcane has been cultivated here for as long as anyone can remember, and the crop accounts for a major part of the island’s economy. Cut by hand and harvested in December when it towers above the heads of most of the workers, at this time volunteer programs offering full board and meals — but no payment — are organized to attract extra help. Be warned, however, that the cane fields, like the mangroves, are infested with snakes — which explains the high boots worn by workers even in the heat of summer. Called the Sugar Road, a sobriquet for the island’s main route, the name reflects the primacy of the crop.

Taking the ferryboats between these islands, which can appear like outcrops of coral and greenery set on dishes of crystalline-blue water, you begin to experience a pleasant sense of disengagement and good health. The feeling reminded me of a comment made by the American correspondent Martha Gellhorn while island-hopping in the Caribbean. She wrote about being in a “state of grace which can rightly be called happiness, when body and mind rejoice totally together. This occurs, as a divine surprise, in travel.”

Sailing between these little island ports, it is possible to experience a similar feeling of being adrift in time and space, held most delightfully in a trancelike state.

There are regular ferries taking around 25 minutes to Kohama from Ishigaki port. At Kohama port, the tourist office rents out bicycles, and there are two scooter-rental shops opposite the quay. The village has a small Okinawa-style soba restaurant.