I thought I recognized the owner of the Iheya Kanko Hotel, her face fleetingly recalled as it passed over the screen at a Shinjuku showing of the 2012 film “Karakara.”
Written and directed by Canadian, Claude Gagnon, and starring the seasoned actor Gabriel Arcand, it also features Yuki Kudoh, known for her leading roles in productions that include “Mystery Train” (1989) and “Snow Falling on Cedars” (1999). It seems that key members of the crew stayed at Iheya Kanko Hotel, a minshuku (guesthouse) on Okinawa’s Iheya Island. It was difficult to picture such internationally established actors putting up with the sparsely furnished rooms, with threadbare futons and mat floors that had clearly seen better days — but the warmth and hospitality of Okinawans, and the fresh local food served at these modest accommodations has a wonderfully leveling effect, reputation and social standing tending to melt after a couple of glasses of liberally provided awamori, the local liquor.
A long, narrow, nondescript building, rather like a barracks, the minshuku had been hard to find, though it was located opposite a gasoline stand only a few steps from the main port and village of Maedomari. On arrival, Tsukasa Maeda, the real owner of the inn, showed me to my four-mat room, looking out onto a shambolic flower garden and a mash of small port facilities. Maeda, I now recalled, had served coffee in one of the scenes in the film, while her son played the sanshin, a three-stringed Okinawan instrument.
As I found on my first day on the island, there were no major sights on Iheya. Nature itself is the dominant theme. The reverence expressed toward the natural environment stems, at least in part, from the indigenous animism still practiced in Okinawa. Connected with the notion of arrival and shelter, of foundation myths and the nurturing of people who sailed across the sea to reach these shores, Iheya has long been the object of religious ritual.
Buddhism and ancestor worship were imported to Okinawa from China, but were largely practiced by the upper classes centered on the Ryukyu court at Shuri in Naha. In rural areas, and in the remoter outer islands, an ancient pantheism overseen by noro priestesses prevailed. These women congregated annually on a hilltop at Nakajin on the mainland, performing choreographed prayers and pantomimic rowing motions in the direction of Iheya. Worship also took place at Nakajin Castle. Prolonging a custom that persisted until the 19th century, Iheya was governed by female shamans.
One place that evokes the ancient realities of remoteness and the idea of shelter is the Kumaya (Hiding Place) Cave, close to the Cape of Kubayama. Visitors are required to climb up a cliff before making a descent into the cavern. Claustrophobes will shudder at the prospect of squeezing through a narrow entrance in a rock to gain entrance. Crossing the sandy floor of the cave, you come to a small shrine, dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami. During typhoons and tempests, people would take shelter here, sustained by nearby springs and a plentiful supply of fish and seaweed, heaved up onto the rocks and mudflats outside the grotto.
When the gods decide to descend to the island, it is to Dana Cape, and a small but notable mountain called Dana-no-Kubayama, where masses of Chinese fan areca palms, known locally as kuba, grow. Nature asserts itself in surprisingly high altitudes for such a small island, and in wonderfully neglected coral beaches such as Sugahama, creating a feeling of exclusiveness in the few visitors who see them. In the central portion of the island, within the Koshidake Forest Reserve, are hillsides that in spring are covered with the scent of gardenia. Unlike mainland Japan, Okinawa does not, strictly speaking, have four seasons — each tree, plant and flower in the tropics deciding independently which season it is. And some, like the hibiscus, insist on blooming all year round.
One of the pleasures of exploring the island is to stroll around its seemingly timeless hamlets, noting how resourceful locals can be with a small plot of land and minimum assets. Many of the houses in the main village of Iheya would, by European standards, be as regarded as residencies of the poor.
Suffering from dilapidation and under-maintainance, some of the diminutive older homes, consisting essentially of one all-purpose room, are dominated by a grand family altar. In these traditional residencies the ancestors coexist with the living. There was something homely and unfussy about homes that were impecunious but snug, worn with time and usage. Private gardens, planted with vegetables, mango, lime and papaya trees, added grace notes, even lushness, to the simplicity of life here. One home, a tiny, salt-eroded structure, its main walls and beams leprous with age, stood beside a surprisingly well-proportioned stone garden. Its owner, when I expressed admiration for the design, appeared to be unaware of its rarity.
The island’s main roads are well surfaced, the cross-island ones less so, with cracks and sinkholes. Bicycles are hard going on these rising and sloping lanes, though the coastal road is flat. Scooters are often the answer in Okinawa, at least for the individual traveler, and the one I took to the island allowed me to explore its detail and topography, but also to get a sense of just how fertile these islands are, with sugarcane, rice fields and orchards of tropical fruit.
Purportedly popular, but deserted on my trips there, Yonezaki Beach is located on two sides of the southernmost tip of the island. The improbably blue water and white sand on each side of the isthmus are fringed by a dense tangle of screwpines, nipa palms, wild plumeria and all manner of sub-tropical creepers. An old bridge once connected the tip to an islet called Nohojima, but this was replaced a few years ago by a more impressive span, apparently built to withstand heavier trucks, though I saw no such vehicles in the area during my days here.
If Iheya is a journey into the distant but still remembered past, Izena Island is a passage back to a time beyond recall. Most of the island, functioning perfectly well in its present form, has been left unchanged. There was a hush over its main village, a complete absence of mechanized or electronic sound, though you could hear drones of insects with thunderous clarity. Many of the lanes were planted with fukugi, a tree of close-matted leaves and branches traditionally used as typhoon barriers, but with the secondary effect of creating pools of dappled shade during scorching midday hours.
The gardens and houses on this island were larger than elsewhere, village residencies conforming to traditional design lines, with wooden paneled walls, beams and exposed posts; roofs of ceramic tile sealed with mortar; airy decks; and rooftops graced by protective shīsa, the Okinawan lion dog. The dry stonewalls lining lanes and acting as property borders, were typically made of coral, but darkened by age.
Anyone interested in traditional Okinawan residential architecture will find fine examples on these islands. A complex once owned by King Sho En stands in the island’s main village, a spacious but modest structure. A royal treasurer before overpowering King Sho Toku, he was a native of Izena. The site where he was born, known as Mihosojo, can be seen in the hamlet of Shomi. The well-preserved tomb of his parents and sister, the Izena Tama-udon, stands on a hillside in the grounds of the ruined Izena Castle.
At the time of my visit to Iheya, there were no interconnecting ferries between the island and Izena, though both are clearly visible from each shore, a strong swimmer’s distance away. Instead, I was obliged to charter a boat too small for my scooter for the 15-minute crossing. The pilot, leery perhaps about the legality of this casual arrangement, moored our boat in a small cove, where a pre-arranged scooter, with my name taped to it and the keys in place, awaited me. No one asked to see my driving license, and I never saw the owner, paying the small fee instead to the pilot.
In the same spirit of informality and trust that pervaded these outer islands, I was never provided with a key to my room at the inn.
Getting there: There are two ferry boats a day to both Iheya and Izena islands from the mainland Okinawan port of Unten. The journeys take one hour and 20 minutes. The Iheya Kanko Hotel 090-8064-2123 charges about ¥5,000 for rooms and two meals. The Takara-no-Shima minshuku is located on Izena Beach.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.