Dead wood mars warm winter retreat


Once a year I try to spend time in Okinawa, if possible a month, during which I usually get a block of writing done. Okinawa is one of my favorite places in Japan, and nowadays I would say that it is where I most like to be in winter.

This year, when I left Kurohime at the end of January, we already had two meters of snow on the ground outside my house. Winter sports and all that are fine, but I do think that snow shoveling should become a major Winter Olympic event, in which case there are lost of places like mine in northern Nagano Prefecture, and in neighboring Niigata, where competitors could get the best training conditions possible.

For the last six or so years when I have come for a long stay in Okinawa, I have installed myself in a suite on the top floor of the Rizzan Sea Park Hotel on Tancha Bay in Onna village. They set me up with a big table to spread out my notes, books, dictionaries, papers and writing equipment.

As I write this now, if I avert my eyes from the computer screen, I can glance up to the varied blues and greens of the waters within the reef, and to the reef itself, about 400 meters out, then to the deeper, darker sea beyond. If I open the balcony doors I get the sound of surf and waves.

When in Okinawa, I struggle not only with words, but also with a burgeoning tummy bulge, so I go every other day to a dojo in Nago to practice martial arts. On non-dojo days I swim in the big pool here at the hotel, and enjoy the marvelous spa, or I take to the sea for diving and kayaking.

My room has an ocean vista, but the rooms on the other side look out onto a golf course and what used to be green, wooded slopes. In the past couple of years however, the slopes have become daubed with a reddish brown, the color of dying pine trees.

As I am doing my best to write a novel just now, I haven’t the time to research why those Okinawan pines are dying. From what I see and from what I am told, though, it is probably caused by a beetle that burrows into the tree, carrying a fungus. The fungus spreads inside and kills the tree.

As in most of Japan, Okinawa’s woods are badly neglected. The ones in best shape are perhaps those in the northern part of the main island, in areas protected for years by the U.S. military for training purposes. However, this dying off of pines could present a serious future problem if ever a forest fire started. Dead, standing pines make a terrific fuel.

When I remark on this, hardly anybody around responds. Their eyes may have seen it, but their brains don’t register the image. People go off blithely to play golf, but just don’t notice all the dead trees around them. When I gripe about it there is usually an embarrassed silence for a while — then a quick change of topic. The only people who have the least inclination to discuss it are a few ecotourism guides.

Anyway, though I come here to write and to work out, both writing and exercise revive a prodigious thirst and hunger.

I love draft Orion beer and awamori with ice. I also think that I like Okinawan food the best. I find it interesting that in all of Japan, the Okinawans use the most shiitake mushrooms and kombu (kelp) in their cooking, even though neither is grown here. In this climate, vegetables and fruits are harvested year-round, including bitter, knobbly green, cucumber-like vegetables called goya that are supposed to be very high in vitamins and good for the liver. Pork is served in all forms, though in general the cookery is closer to China than Japan. And all that’s without mentioning the Okinawan goat dishes that I love — as well as the wonderful seafood from within and beyond the reef.

I have a special favorite, though, which I usually have with that first mug of beer. It goes by the name budo, which means “sea grapes,” and its Latin name is Caulepa rentillifera. This is a delicate, branching seaweed that has tiny little bubbles, like miniature grapes. It grows naturally in shallow, sandy-bottomed coral seas, but the only places where it is produced commercially are Miyako Island off the southern Okinawan island of Ishigakijima — and Onna village.

In Onna, the fishermen and their families started a co-operative 11 years ago, growing sea grapes in tanks ashore. As this plant is sensitive to changes in temperature and light intensity, the tanks are kept in huge glass greenhouses. Light that is too strong is filtered by black meshes overhead, and the water is pumped in through a pipe that goes 500 meters out to sea before it is oxygenated in the tanks. Finally, the sea grapes are selected and picked by hand. It is good to know that this project not only seems to be commercially successful, but that demand is growing.

It is said that human blood is close to natural sea water in salinity and in minerals essential to life, and sea grapes not only have a lot of these essential minerals, but also properties which can inhibit the growth of cancer and boost immunity. Me, though, I just like the slight saltiness, the pleasant green sea taste and the way the little buds pop in my mouth as I chew and sip at my beer.

Perhaps sea grapes are not the only things that should be raised in tanks. One time when I was in Canada researching and filming wild salmon, a commercial fisherman told me that he thought that cultured salmon should all be raised that way or in ponds on land. Then, he said, there would be no pollution into the sea from the salmon feed rotting on the bottom, no spread of disease or of antibiotics used to combat sickness in cultured salmon, and no escaping cultured salmon which can genetically “pollute” wild stocks.

When I went along today to see this onshore cultivation of sea grapes, the sea was very rough, with huge white waves crashing on the reef, and very few fishing boats out. I know that if I wander down to Tsubaki — my favorite watering hole close by the harbor — there won’t be much freshly caught fish to eat tonight . . . but there will be freshly picked sea grapes.

My prodigious thirst and appetite apart, I do so wish that people would notice the pines, and start thinking of ways to handle this forest degradation which is bound to alter the whole island ecosystem.

In the meantime, however, I’m busy. I’ve got another chapter to write, a few sit-ups to do, an hour of sweating and lolling in the sauna, and then a brisk walk before supper. Thank goodness I don’t have to shovel any snow.