Island hop to friendly Okinoerabu

by Hillel Wright

Special To The Japan Times

At the end of March, having reached the age of 70 three months ago, I’ll retire from my post as a lecturer at Okinawa Christian University — mandatory retirement.

Knowing this has given me a real sense of liberation in the past year or so, and since I plan to leave Okinawa and return to my home — Denman Island, British Columbia, Canada — I became determined to see as much of the Ryukyu group of islands as possible.

So in August last year — after I finished teaching a summer intensive English class at Daito Bunka University, in Tokyo — I boarded the Nozomi shinkansen bullet train at Shinagawa Station, changed to the Sakura shinkansen at Shin-Osaka, and arrived at Kagoshima Chuo Station in time to catch the Marix Line ferry Queen Coral 8 bound for Naha, Okinawa.

Although the ferry’s destination was Naha, my current home town, I was headed for Okinoerabu, a small island in the Amami group, lying between Tokunoshima and Yoron Islands — pretty much in the middle of the Amami chain.

This was the third straight year that I’d returned to Okinawa via ferry and I decided that this time I would take advantage of the “island hopping” option offered by the Marix and A-Line shipping companies and spend a couple of days in the Amami islands.

Both the Marix and A-Line ferries follow the same route and the same schedule (weather permitting). Ships depart Kagoshima at 6 p.m. daily and arrive at Naha at 7 p.m. the following day. En route they stop at Amami Oshima, Tokunoshima, Okinoerabu, Yoron and Motobu, before concluding the voyage at Naha. The reverse routes depart Naha at 7 a.m. and arrive at Kagoshima at 8:30 the next morning.

This “island hopping” service allows you to get off the ship at any island and reboard another ship within a one-week period. Only Tourist Class (2nd Class) passengers are eligible and passengers travelling by car, motorcycle or bicycle, or with a pet or a surfboard, cannot use the service. After you board the vessel you must get a transfer certificate at the ship’s information desk. The best part is that you don’t pay extra for the service — your ticket from Kagoshima to Naha, for example, is your full fare for one week, no matter how many times you get off at a different island.

The summer of 2013 was virtually rainless in the Nansei (Southwest) Islands of Japan. So when I got off my old friend the Queen Coral 8 at Wadomari Port on Okinoerabu Island at noon on Sept. 12, I was greeted by a blast of sweltering hot air and blinding sunshine.

One of my private English language students in Naha is a travel agent at JTB (Japan Travel Bureau) and she had booked me a room at the Floral Hotel in China (pronounced “Chee-na”), a town at the southwestern end of Okinoerabu. This proved to be a seaside hotel, but was more of an upscale business hotel than a resort — most of the other guests were wearing short-sleeve white shirts or utility company uniforms, with a few young couples in the mix. My room, like the typical business hotel, was compact but comfortable and the price of ¥11,760 for two nights, including breakfast buffets, was more than agreeable. The hotel also provides guests with free pick-up/drop-off at the airport and ferry landing.

Even though check-in is officially 3 p.m., the staff had no problem showing me to my room during the noon hour. After unpacking, showering and arranging things to my satisfaction, I set out to explore the town, with an eye to finding a place for lunch. The hotel’s restaurant is only open for breakfast and dinner.

China is pretty much a one-street town — Route 84, which is the main road to Wadomari, the island’s other town. The “downtown” section can be traversed in about 15 minutes. There’s one grocery store, a bakery, a deli, a barber shop, several “snack bars” (Japanese hostess bars) and two cafes, one of which was closed.

The one that was open, Tefutefu, contained two rooms, one with two tables with chairs and another with tatami mats and three low Japanese-style tables. The lunch set featuring a large miso saba (mackeral in miso sauce), rice, miso soup and three side dishes of steamed local vegetables was delicious, and the price, ¥750, more than reasonable, as was the coffee. Hunger appeased and caffeine addiction satisfied, I headed back to the hotel to rest in my air-conditioned room, the brutal heat of the day being too much for any outdoor activity.

Around 5 p.m., the sun still strong and the heat only slightly less intense, I nevertheless decided to look for Floral Park, which was marked on the town map as being nearby. Along the way I made several detours down side roads, which led me to the nearly empty China Fishing Port and to several patches of farmland with the fields ploughed to reveal the distinctive akatsuchi (red earth) of the island, bordered by fields of rather weak-looking sugar cane. Although the fields were meant to grow jaga-imo (Irish potatoes), a local farmer told me that the lack of rain for the entire summer had weakened the sugar cane crop and caused the potato crop to fail completely. The fields were ploughed in anticipation of autumn rainfall.

Upon reaching Floral Park, I was disappointed in my expectation of finding fields of flowers. Instead there were squash and tennis courts and athletic fields, all empty but for a group of senior citizens playing gateball, the Japanese oldtimers’ favorite pastime. There was, however, a narrow trail through a maze of limestone formations down to a small white sand beach. The beach was notable for its large amount of blue beach glass mixed amidst the sand and shells and I collected a few pieces as souvenirs. Finally, as the sun dropped below the horizon into the sea, I headed back to the hotel for dinner.

Since I’d had a rather substantial lunch, I ordered what I thought would be a modest meal of seafood salad and Okinawa soba. The seafood salad, with a large bowl of garden vegetables, lots of shibi (young yellowfin tuna), salmon and squid sashimi, topped with flying fish roe, was a meal in itself and, not wanting to offend the chef, I managed to finish the soba, which featured extra thick pieces of surimi and pork, about twice as big as normally seen on Okinawa. Again, the meal, especially the seafood salad, was scrumptious.

Since I planned to catch an early morning bus to Wadomari to visit the larger fishing port and Kasaishi Beach Park, I retired rather early and got up in time for the early breakfast buffet. This was a Japanese-style asa gohan with salmon, rice, miso soup, several kinds of salad, eggs, a wonderfully seasoned dish of chicken livers and excellent coffee. Properly fortified, I caught the bus, actually a van, which runs once an hour between the island’s two towns from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. with an hour off at noon. I was a little late to catch the action at the wholesale fish market, so I continued on to Kasaishi Beach. The beach is a 5 minute walk from the bus stop along a narrow road between cane fields. Despite it being a brilliant sunny day, not one other person was to be seen on the beach, a beautiful run of white sand protected by an offshore coral reef. The water inside the reef was deep, even close to shore and nearly as warm as a bath. Still, it was very refreshing and I stayed in the water all morning.

The park had a very unique cafe, made entirely of local limestone — walls, ceiling, floor, tables — even some of the chairs. It also had a Japanese-style dining room housed in an abandoned Marix Line container. On my way back to China I missed the bus, leaving me an hour to wait under the relentless afternoon sun. So for the first time in my 16-plus years in Japan, I put out my thumb to hitchhike. Soon a Toyota pick-up truck stopped and a local farmer drove me right to my hotel.

I found Okinoerabu Island marked by beautiful beaches, excellent food and friendly, outgoing people, surely a winning combination for this tiny, remote island in the East China Sea.