There had been a delay in our departure for Aguni Island as we waited for a typhoon to spend itself. Two hours later, we finally boarded the ferry at Naha’s Tomari Port. As the wind picked up again, and more people retreated into the comfort of the passenger lounge, it was clear that maritime and land conditions in Okinawa were quite different.
The main drawbacks to sitting in the open air were the roar of the ferry’s rear engines, the sound producing a muscular vibration along the deck, and the swell and heave of the ocean, breathtaking to some, nauseous to others. Halfway into the crossing, and the sea was still broiling, white spume hitting the deck like the hiss of an acid bath.
With an average of 60 ferry cancellations a year on this route, a fair-weather eye is kept on conditions along this capricious passage of water. The rolling motion, though, didn’t stop locals from tucking into cans of Orion beer or keeping up a spirited banter among themselves. A group of elderly women in smocks and gumboots seemed oblivious to the last storm spasms, their feet, like the benches, riveted to the deck. On this two-hour trip, everyone seemed to know each other, sitting in generational clusters. There was an easy conviviality among people who had probably grown up together on an island whose current population stands at around 700 residents.
There is nothing quite like riding a motorbike out of the vehicle container of a ferry, across the ramp and then straight out onto terra firma, in this case little Aguni Port. My minshuku (guesthouse) was a stone’s throw away, next to the island’s single set of traffic lights, which always remained on green throughout my visit. This encouragement to the free flow of vehicles was mystifying as there was virtually no traffic on the island. The signals, it turned out, were instructional devices for school children, who may otherwise go to the mainland without a clue what they were.
The goat droppings on the roads outside the village were a reminder that this was rural Okinawa, an island far removed from the express energy of the mainland. Aguni’s rugged, little-visited north coast, centered on Cape Fuden, with its striated cliffs and eroded circular pools, is both otherworldly and firmly terrestrial. A little south of the cape, I came across masses of wild cycads growing across a large shelf of spiny coral. The plants looked wondrously healthy, their ferns gleaming. They were a fine example of how untrammeled some of these outer islands remain.
Aguni is made for the pleasures of solitary exploration, and mine continued along the practically uninhabited western side of the island, where the main sight of note is a limestone cave known as Hora Tera Shounyudo. The entrance to the cavern had a haunted look, darkened by a canopy of ficus trees. Natural light filtered down in shafts from the mouth of the cave, illuminating a descending staircase to rock shelves and stalactites.
One of the main reasons for my visit to the island was to drop into the Aguni Salt Factory on its northernmost tip. Standing on a rocky bluff above the East China Sea, the perforated cinder blocks of its two processing towers are visible from some distance. Exploring the complex, I was approached by the plant’s food safety team leader, Kiyoshi Okuhara, who has worked here for more than 20 years. He offered to show me around.
Pipes conduct salt water to the top of the towers, where it is fed down onto the branches of bamboo trees that have been inverted, then suspended from the roof. The process continues for a full week. As air passes through the walls of the towers, the seawater crystalizes and becomes dense and moisture-free. The concentrate is then removed and placed in large pans, where it is boiled for two days or sun dried in greenhouses.
Rich in minerals, such as selenium, chromium and magnesium, the health benefits of the salt are well-documented. But, though it may be good for the body and palette, it can be death for cameras. With mine now dripping with salt condensation, I made a quick exit from inside the towers and bade farewell to Kiyoshi, but not before he pressed several samples into my hands.
Seasoning was on my mind as I turned up at the minshuku for dinner. Aguni is one of the few places where, after toxins are removed, cycads and pandanus are eaten for pleasure. Instead of these rarities, though, my first dinner at the inn included ashitibichi, an almost iridescent, blue ember parrotfish, served with turmeric sauce; pig-knuckle soup, the gristle tenderized by long simmering, strips of pork belly with soybean paste and kelp; a dish of goya namashi, or bittermelon salad, and fuchiba nantu, a rice cake made with mugwort.
Walking along the village lanes the next day, I kept coming across inscribed roadside stones, invariably sited on corners or at the last house in a dead end. The purpose of the stones, with the character for “ishiganto” (talisman monument) chiseled into them, is to ward off evil, which is said to travel in a direct line. When people build homes on street corners, or when they sense that a rectilinear line passes across their property, ishiganto are erected in the belief that malign spirits cannot turn corners.
The spirit world resurfaced along the island’s southern coastal road, where I glimpsed several grand, sea-facing family tombs. Introduced from Fujian province in China roughly 700 years ago, the design of these sarcophagi, known as kameko-baka (turtleback) tombs, are said to replicate the shape of a womb or the position of a woman while giving birth. The design implies that death, in the tradition of endless cycles of reincarnation, is also a return to birth. At an even earlier period in Okinawan history, the custom was to build tombs into hillside caves. I stopped to inspect a set of these ancient burial sites, their entrances sealed with stone blocks.
These older tombs reminded me of a scene from the 1999 film “Nabbie no Koi,” (“Nabbie’s Love”) by Okinawan director Yuji Nakae, which was shot on the island. Although we see occasional clumps of bougainvillea, their pendants and bracts languishing picturesquely from coral walls, there is little conventional travelogue beauty in the film, the director, very much to his credit, prioritizing character over eye-candy. Nakae portrays an island characterized by lowering gray skies, inky waters and fallow fields choked with weeds. There are no tropical beaches or birds of paradise in his work. It is not a spot we would rush to book a ticket for. If the scenes suggest an island suitable for banishment or exile, however, they are alleviated by warm portrayals of family, friends and community.
Culture surfaces in the form of music, a constant presence in the film that included roles for two of Okinawa’s foremost musicians: the late Rinsho Kadekaru and Seijin Noborikawa. In his book “The Power of Okinawa: Roots Music From the Ryukyus,’ music journalist John Potter described Kadekaru as a “master interpreter of Okinawan song,” a musician of such popularity that by the “late ’50s it was not uncommon to put your money into the juke box and play Elvis Presley followed by RinshoKadekaru.” There is also a cameo scene in the film where the great Okinawan singer, Misato Oshiro, appears.
Music, the great wellspring of life for Okinawans, bubbled up from time to time at my minshuku, where some of the owner’s relatives were also staying. Lubricated with glasses of awamori liquor, suffused with the contentment that good food induces, it was only a matter of time before someone would reach for the sanshin, a three-stringed Okinawan instrument, and strike a note that would alter the air currents and mood in the room.
As the music grew, tables were cleared away to make a space for the kachāshī, a quintessentially Okinawan dance that is performed at weddings, festivals and countless other ceremonies or social gatherings. It is even performed at the funerals of those who have reached or exceeded the age of 95. The minshuku owner’s aunt initiated the dance, her fluid movements and graceful hand gyrations turning her body into a floating filament of seaweed.
It’s difficult to remain an observer among such companionable people. Driven by the seductive power of the music, all resistance melts as I, the outsider, am coaxed into the single, liberating body of dancers, into a circle of life.
Getting there: There is only one ferry a day from Tomari Port in Naha to Aguni Island, for the 64-kilometer journey of roughly two hours. Departures are at 9.55 a.m. There are also daily, 20-minute flights to the island’s tiny airport. There are a small number of minshuku in the villages of Hama and Higashi.