Sun-dazed on a distant archipelago

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

It didn’t take long for a seasoned group of truck drivers to stake their claim to the best seats in the house or, in this case, ferry. They positioned themselves on tiny plastic seats at the rear of the open deck as the ferry left Tomari Port in Naha City, Okinawa, bound for the island of Kumejima. More like saucers than chairs these outdoor seats are worth bearing for the fresh sea breezes, though you will also have to endure the roar of the ship’s rear engines.

An hour or two into the journey, the sunlight and lilting motion of the ship had turned half its passengers into somnambulists, the remainder divided into camera buffs, fresh-air fiends or pallid ghosts ready to reach for their sick bags.

Eruptions of green, tropical scree regularly appeared on the port side of the ship, the smothered rocks and cliffs supporting no inhabitants, strips of virgin coral sand remaining untrodden. In trendy parlance Okinawa is often talked about as a place of healing, but if you have visited the main island — with its military bases, fast food joints, servicemen bars, launderettes, cement levees and grinding traffic — you will know better. What nourishes the soul in these outer marine regions of Okinawa is silence and emptiness; the primacy of nature in this fertile void is genuinely revitalizing.

After arriving at Kumejima’s Kanegusuku Port, it’s just a 15-minute bus ride to Eef Beach, where there is a narrow strip of hotels and restaurants. The bus ride is a visual digest of the island’s features: The bus passes well-preserved traditional homes and fukugi trees, their closed matted leaves and flat tracery of branches grown to create typhoon barriers. Several sea-facing tombs known as kameko-baka stood beside the road, or were set into nearby hillsides. Unless you have visited Fukien province in China— from where they were introduced to Okinawa some 700 years ago — chances are you will never have seen family tombs such as this. The sarcophagi form is supposedly modeled after the position taken by pregnant women when giving birth, the design of the inner crypt replicating that of a womb.

One man I met later on the journey said, “The repairs to the family crypt were so expensive we had to give up on plans to reconstruct our house.” This was said without any resentment. The imperative to rebuild tombs seems to be connected to the idea of inscribing historical memory on the landscape, of creating a physical genealogy. On other islands some of the tombs were requisitioned as armories during World War II or as bomb shelters, on the assumption that it was better to die with your ancestors in a tomb than in an exposed field.

Kumejima fared better than many islands in this group during the conflict, but was not left unscathed. American forces landed on the Kerama Islands on March 26, 1945, and three months later the so-called Kume Island Incident took place on June 26, 1945. Twenty residents, detained for speaking Uchinaguchi, an Okinawan language incomprehensible to the Japanese, were summarily executed by members of the Imperial Japanese Army on suspicion of being spies. Japanese soldiers applied the same mentality to Okinawans as they did to mainland Chinese, requisitioning civilian property and possessions, appropriating the meager food supplies of families and raping local women.

Mercifully, peace has come to these shores and what were once beachheads now serve more recreational purposes.

On first acquaintance, the blinding white sands at Eef Beach suggest a salt bar, the kind of edge-of-the-Earth place where you might perish from heatstroke or dehydration. The few bathers here were being careful, lounging under large pink and blue beach umbrellas. I was pleasantly surprised to not find any cigarette butts, tissue papers, discarded Band-Aids or plastic bottles, which mar many of Japan’s beaches.

Kumejima Eef Beach Hotel, with its landscaped garden and pool, was clearly the most popular choice for vacationers, but with little need for creature comforts, the comely Resort House Minami suited me fine. Located on a side street, less than one minute’s walk from the beach, the pension is run by a convivial middle-aged couple: He a student of the three-stringed sanshin, the signature instrument of Okinawa, she something of an agronomist, with a field large enough to supply many of the fruits that ended up on my breakfast table. The slices of mango and dragon fruit jam were supplemented by mozoku soup, made from local seaweed, sanpin green tea, and a fish whose brilliant blue and yellow coloring could only have come from Okinawan waters. When I remarked on the freshness of the fish, the owner pointed out a figure sitting at a corner table as the fisherman who had caught it that very morning.

Despite a decent bus service, its circular route taking in several coastal sights, it is better to have your own form of transportation for a thorough exploration of the island. After renting a scooter from a dealership near the ferry terminal, I headed to the local tourist office to secure a map. The staff were friendly and amenable, but I learned a good deal more about the island from reading “Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands,” by Robert Walker. It’s the definitive study of the archipelago, the fruit of some 20 years of travel here. Searching for a description of Kumejima’s irregular configuration, Walker’s entry captured it perfectly: “A large lopsided mushroom or a giant tooth, specifically a molar with a single root.”

Another natural feature of the island, a geological eccentricity worth seeking out, is the curious Tatami Ishi rock formation — flat, pentagonal-shaped stones forming a platform at low tide. These are located on Ojima Island, easily accessed from Kumejima by driving or walking across a graceful bridge. As I walked up the grass rise above the beach, six black American women materialized, wearing Sunday church dresses. Perhaps it was the astonished look on my face, but when I gave them a warm smile, they returned stony stares. One woman managed to force a smile, though she looked sheepish about it, as if she were breaking ranks.

Reaching the bluff above the beach, I looked down to see a message in the sand left by the ladies: PRAISE THE LORD FOR GUIDING US HERE.

Missionaries have long visited these parts, but they’ve never had a great deal of success. Okinawans have always felt more at ease coexisting with a native form of animism and a later overlay of Shinto practices. Its spirit groves, pulsing with ancient pantheistic charges, preclude any place for the West’s fierce monotheism.

Formed out of volcanic basalt, the cellular-shaped stones resemble a landing strip for an alien space ship, but consulting Walker’s guide again, I read that such phenomena are not unique. Similar rock groupings existing at Devil’s Postpile National Monument in California, on island’s in the Penghu Archipelago and at Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway.

A sight that should be high on anyone’s itinerary is the Kumesen distillery, where quality awamori (distilled rice liquor) is made. As synonymous with Okinawa as its textiles, island music and cuisine, awamori is made from Thai rice. Unlike sake, it ages well and older bottles of the stuff, known as kusu in Okinawan, fetch a high price. Even if you turn up without notice, you will likely be given a short private tour of the distillery. The middle-aged woman who took me on the rounds of the building led me at the end down a flight of steps to a large cellar, full of jars of aging awamori whose open tops were covered with muslin cloth. Back at the distillery shop, I was offered a sampling of their products but declined as I was driving. I settled for a glass of vinegar instead, made from the lees of the maturing liquor.

Arguably, far more dangerous to drivers than awamori is the noon heat of these semi-tropical islands. Small, semi-mountainous roads, gloriously devoid of traffic, cross the island, but the heat may cause mild delirium — the sense that you are duplicating routes, driving in circles, a pleasant enough exercise in serendipity, though, one that can lead you to some unexpected spots. One such sight was the 270-year-old Une-no-dai-sotetsu, a massive cycad, or sago palm, located in the garden of a traditional private house in Nakazato village. Outgrowths of the original plant have proliferated throughout the garden, which has a set of trellis tables displaying bonsai.

A garden of more formal dimensions can be experienced at the Uezu Residence, the home of a family descended from the rulers of Gushikawa Castle. The solid perimeter of limestone walls and fukugi trees protect the fine timber home, courtyard, and gardens replete with hedgerows, cactus, healthy looking cycads, heliconia and bird nest ferns.

There were no other visitors to the grounds, so I sat down on the salt-encrusted verandah of the house and listened quietly to the opening track of Akane Murayoshi’s debut album, “Miyarabi nu Hana.” Murayoshi is a young sanshin payer and singer hailing from Kumejima. The surprising maturity of her work had drawn me to the island.

The music induced a pleasant lassitude perfectly in keeping with the mood of these outlying littorals.

Getting there: There are daily ferries from Tomari Port in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture to Kanegusuku Port. The Resort House Minami (098-85-8021) is one minute on foot from Eef Beach.