In his 1926 story, “The Man Who Loved Islands,” D.H. Lawrence wrote, “Isolate yourself on a little island in the sea of space, and the moment begins to heave and expand in great circles, the solid earth is gone, and your slippery, naked dark soul finds itself out in the timeless world.”
Ishigaki Island is not such a little island, nor anymore quite so remote, though it lays a full 2,000 km southwest of Tokyo. Its distances are of a different kind. Location allowed it to assimilate Chinese and Japanese influences simultaneously, and for a degree of exotic influences to creep in. Malay style turbans, for example, were sported in Ishigaki after they became popular toward the latter part of the 19th century.
Even during the American occupation of Okinawa, the islanders experienced very little contact with military personnel, though a solitary army officer, representing the interests of the United States Civil Administration, is said to have been stationed for several years on Ishigaki, like a figure from a Joseph Conrad novel, left to fend for himself in a half-forgotten outpost of the Empire.
Despite a smart new airport and the inevitable increase in visitors, local culture and the natural configuration of the island — surely one of the most beautiful in Japan — remain largely intact. Tourists stay for two or three nights, following prescribed routes: they do not appear in large numbers at the Sunday Market in Shiraho, where food is displayed on banana leaves; their attendance at performances of shima uta (island music) at Bashofu, a club run by seasoned musicians Takashi Hatoma and his wife, Chiyoko, is moderate; and neither do they pay much attention to the Miyara Dunchi, a 200-year-old stone garden, whose rocks resemble the contorted, fabulist outlines that might have been dreamed up by a Chinese landscaper. Nor are the gloriously deserted coral beaches south of the Uganzaki Lighthouse on their itineraries.
It is in these places between that the visitor comes closest to the natural world portrayed in Shohei Imamura’s 1968 “The Profound Desire of the Gods,” a film shot exclusively on the island. Imamura chose Ishigaki because of its unsullied natural setting. The survival of a more wholesome, primitive way of life in accord with the natural topographic features of the island, its flora and fauna, is represented in the character of a shaman, a young woman possessed of enough primal energy to repel the more abject aspects of modern civilization. The film ends on a dour note, however, with the chanting of ancient, animist incantations drowned out by the cry of a Coca-Cola vendor — the island is discovered by the tourist industry.
The grandson of Captain Basil Hall, an English sailor who dropped anchor in Okinawa, characterized the main attributes of the Okinawans when he wrote of their “gentleness of spirit and manner, their yielding and submissive disposition, their hospitality and kindness, their aversion to violence and crime.” Surely no people are so innocent or guiltless?
After a U.S. fighter plane was shot down above the island in April, 1945, its three American pilots were captured; two were tortured, then stabbed to death by members of the Naval Defense forces. The third was paraded through Ishigaki City, then used for bayonet practice until he too, died. After Japan surrendered, Imperial troops, fearing retribution, had the bodies cremated, the ashes sealed in a gasoline tank, and then sunk in the waters off nearby Iriomote Island. An anonymous letter sent to the supreme commander for the Allied powers revealed the incident, resulting in a lengthy trial of the people involved. Nobody wanted to talk about the so-called Ishigaki Incident, but the ghosts of the past were irrepressible, pointing bony fingers in the hard sunlight. History, experienced only by the very elderly in lurid flashbacks and spasms, was wearing off like a spell that was losing its potency. The past was being sealed and interned in its own tomb.
A different past was evident in the older back streets of the port town, which were like dusty medinas — crooked lanes of salt-eroded cement homes covered in leprous paint — or older residences, whose timber had dried into a rigor mortis of stiffened and cracked clapboard. Emerging from one lane along a corridor from the market, an elderly women passed me, with a plastic basin of tanmu, a purple-colored Okinawan taro, balancing on her head — a reflexive memory, perhaps, dating from the time not so long ago when baskets were carried in this manner throughout the southern islands.
The Japanese tourists wandering the streets of the port town looked poleaxed by the heat, which, in the summer months, follows you into the shade. Tony’s Cafe was not air-conditioned, but the door was left permanently ajar and an ancient electric fan stirred up a little freshness. Tony, who insists on using the name he employed in ports around the world when he worked as a fisherman, had painted his cafe a light blue, the color of the nearby sea.
The cafe’s specialty was goat stew and pepper tea, the former, floating in an oily soup, was notoriously tough to chew, the latter hot enough to scour the throat. A few years ago, a writer for the Lonely Planet guidebook had praised Tony’s place and its hospitality. He pointed out the write up, then replaced the book between two dishes of purifying salt on the kami-dana, a raised Shinto altar on the wall of the cafe. Clasping his hands together, he then bowed toward the honorable tome that had brought several foreign customers in.
Beside the inglorious goat stew, food items to look out for in Ishigaki are vegetable terrine, turmeric-marinated tofu with chard, shima-dofu (island tofu), handama (Okinawan spinach), succulent pork belly, chimu shinji (pork-liver soup), masu-ni (coral trout brought to the boil in a salty broth) and water sweets made from citrus, known as kippan.
The quintessential drink of these islands is unquestionably awamori. A strong spirit made from long grained Thai rice and black koji spores, there are six distilleries on Ishigaki, the Yaesen and Sefuku brands being the best known. Any awamori over three years old is kusu, or aged liquor. All the distilleries on Ishigaki produce excellent, highly quaffable varieties.
If you arrive during the summer Obon holiday, the period when the ancestors return, you may sense the souls of the dead pulsating around you. Ren and Miyako, the owners of the Rakutenya guesthouse, who knew my interests well enough from previous visits, pointed out a notice in the local paper announcing door-to-door calls by demon-like figures performing ritual dances. It was suggested I present myself at the address given, and ask if I could attend the event, known as the Angama Festival.
Arriving at the house, I was ushered into the kitchen, plopped down in front of the television and given a glass of cold sanpincha, an Okinawan tea. In the timeless manner of Okinawans — surely the most hospitable people you could ever hope to meet — I had, without ceremony or fuss, been absorbed on the spot into a large family that went about their business as if I had always been there.
With the arrival of the troupe, which included a number of musicians, everyone gathered along the margins of a large tatami mat living room. After paying their respects to the ancestors, the evening continued with a mix of music, narrative and dialogue. There was nothing solemn about this, with plenty of banter between the demon figures and family members. Without the humor, the Angama masks, made in the likeness of wizened, toothless men with facial lines more like incisions, would terrify any infant. Angama means “elder sister” or “woman,” but the facial form appears to be more masculine. Authentic Angama masks are made from the soft, porous wood of the daigo tree. The surface is painted with lightly colored clay similar to the human complexion on a bad day.
The guests, more concerned with the actuality of the ritual than cosmological musings, were eager to be getting on with other things. In this case, it turned out to be drinking. Where alcohol in many countries makes people talkative, introspective, sullen or violent, it inflames Okinawans in a different way, making them want to dance. And the dance is always the traditional kachāshī. Dancing is considered good social manners in Okinawa.
With the alcohol kicking in, the doors and windows of the house flung open, the music and perspiration flowing, there seemed little to differentiate our flushed faces and flailing arms from the masked emissaries from the netherworld, who had withdrawn into the shadows of the garden. In a social-ritual mingling that could only happen in Okinawa, we were all demons.
Getting there: Late June and July are the peak seasons to visit. Several airline companies, including JAL and ANA, offer daily flights. Low-cost carriers such as Jet Star operate out of Tokyo’s Narita Airport. The island has a good, if infrequent, bus service. It’s more convenient to rent a car or scooter.
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