A little north of the massive Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, a slew of scattered residential settlements and visitor sites are pincered between the Torii Station Army Base and an ammunition storage facility situated in Yomitan, a region of the southern mainland, where a massive U.S. amphibious landing took place in the closing months of World War II. The area has had to work hard to reclaim its cultural and historical identity, but also to honor those who perished in the war.
Chibichiri Gama cave is a poignant reminder of the staggering number of civilian lives lost in the conflict. During the Battle of Okinawa, places like this offered a measure of refuge from the slaughter, but it was common practice for Japanese soldiers seeking shelter to forcefully remove women, children and the elderly huddling in these grottoes. Those who remained in this particular cave were ordered by Japanese soldiers to commit suicide rather than surrender to U.S. forces.
After the war, with the return of land requisitioned for military use, a number of residents returned, building houses and reoccupying former ones, but the revival of the fishing, agrarian and religious and community practices that formed the basis of village life were more difficult to resuscitate.
The transformation of the landscape as a result of public works projects and the enacting in 1987 of the Resort Act in Japan, which encouraged the development of tourist complexes in returned land, caused a further warping of the indigenous, rural nature of the area. With residents barred from access to parts of the coast, tourism has not liberalized Yomitan’s shoreline but enclosed parts of it. One prominent hotel, built on a former U.S. firing range, dominates a large stretch of local beach. The forced relocation of graves to accommodate the new hotel sites was particularly distressing for locals, as these sea-facing tombs were understood to occupy the zone between the worlds of the living and dead.
Once encircled by two U.S. bases, Zakimi Castle is a bright spot in a formerly blighted landscape. The warlord Gosamaru laid the foundations for the castle in the 15th century after assisting King Sho Hashi in uniting three previously existing regions into the Ryukyu Kingdom. Although the inner structures no longer exist, extensive walls speak eloquently of Okinawa’s mastery of masonry, evident in many other historical sites throughout the islands, such as communal springs, garden wells, and the foundations of old Confucian temples.
It is only a short distance from the castle to the ancient prayer site of Takayama Gusuku. Rituals and offerings were once conducted here by noro, Okinawan priestesses. A different kind of tribute is made at Akanuku, another prayer site along nearby Route 6. Named after the putative father of the three-stringed sanshin, an Okinawan instrument of Chinese provenance, the site is regularly visited by musicians, who come here to pay homage to the spot where Akanuku’s spirit is said to have departed to the heavens.
There are other features to occupy visitors with an interest in Okinawan culture. There are almost 50 craftsmen, for example, working in Yachimun no Sato, a pottery village. Three Korean craftsmen were coaxed into settling in Okinawa in the 16th century to teach their ancient skills. Apprentice potters chose to build their workshops in the Tsuboya district of Naha, a then semi-rural area. By the 1970s, it had become densely populated, causing neighbors to complain about the acrid smoke emitted by old-style clay kilns. Practitioners of the rough, unglazed items known as Tsuboya pottery moved to the open fields of Yomitan.
If you are lucky you might be in the village when its giant climbing kiln gets fired up. Built on a slope and made from a rustic mix of clay, brick, stone and wood, this is a communal kiln shared by several potters. There is said to be another one, equally impressive, in a densely forested area in the far north of the island. I once tried to locate this well-hidden monster, but I never did find it.
A strong local food culture and proximate sea may explain the large number of fish motifs on Yomitan ceramic ware. The best pieces, made from local soil, use natural pigments. A quick initiation into Tsuboya pottery, and its designs that depart from traditional methods, can be had simply by wandering around Yomitan’s pottery collectives, ateliers, workshops, galleries and craft shops. A spacious wood-and-stone building known as the Yuntanzayaki cooperative store is a fine place to start.
At the Yomitan Traditional Craft Weaving Center, visitors can observe craftspeople working on fabrics, specifically Yuntanzan Hanaui, a technique that involves embroidering colored threads into fabrics that have been woven horizontally and vertically, creating pleasing raised patterns. Originating in Southeast Asia, samples of such textiles arrived by trade ships in the 15th century. During the Ryukyu Kingdom era (15th to 19th century), villagers living in Yomitan were the only people permitted to wear the design.
Those exploring this part of mainland Okinawa can hardly fail to see the fields of beni-imo, a purple sweet potato. This may be an unremarkable fact, given that the staple is found almost everywhere in Okinawa, but such are the quantities cultivated in Yomitan that it hosts an annual event: the Beni Imo Hometown Festival, involving the consumption of baked potatoes, purple-potato chips, and a purple-potato ice cream. If you can stomach the parading of beauty queens for public consumption, Yomitan also has its very own Miss Beni Imo Contest.
In Okinawa, one always returns to the sea. Despite its ever-changing liquid state, Okinawans regard the ocean as ancient in character, the abode of mythical ancestors. One of the oldest shell mounds in the islands, a 7,000-year-old site, stands along this embattled coast.
With the construction of military facilities after the war, sand from Yomitan beaches was dug up and removed, leaving shelves of exposed rock and further degradation. According to some estimates, well over half of Okinawa’s coral reefs have already perished. If the current rate of devastation continues, these extraordinary subterranean rainforests will be gone within two decades, leaving behind ghost reefs.
Global warming is often cited as the culprit for the bleaching of coral, but there are other guilty parties besides thermal pressure, including the collusion of the Okinawan authorities in greenlighting large-scale public works projects, Tokyo-driven maldevelopment, the unrestrained construction of coastal resorts, and the extraction of coral rock for building, landscaping and residential ornamentation.
The persistent vandalizing of the environment by the U.S. military is evident in the construction of a runway into Oura Bay at Henoko; done explicitly against the overwhelming opposition of Okinawans. The process, involving the crushing of priceless coral fields under 10- to 45-ton concrete blocks, is a heartbreaking loss to the marine life they support. But an experiment is taking place at a coral farm along the Yomitan coast at Gala that may offer hope, not only for Okinawa, but other parts of the world facing coral extinction.
A sprinkler was watering a lawn near the entrance to the farm when I arrived at noon. There was no one around, so I took a fully clothed shower under it — the day was that hot. Known in Japanese as Sango Batake, this coral farm was the brainchild of Koji Kinjo, a shop owner with no qualifications in marine biology. Putting his entire savings into the project, Kinjo ran into frequent debt before he was able to succeed in cultivating coral under controlled, ocean-simulating conditions.
Coral seedlings are raised in tanks and pools, root division performed, then the coral is transplanted into reefs, where they are monitored and maintained. Over 50,000 corals have been spawned in the facility, their subsequent transplantation contributing to ocean fertilization, and supporting an ecosystem of living organisms, such as plankton-eating fish, algae and crustaceans, all of which benefit from the existence of virile coral reef ecosystems.
The coral farm has a faintly Gaudiesque appearance, with banisters unfurling along the rim of its seed pools, and calcified-white decks supporting rock walls out of which the molded forms of marine griffins take shape.
It is a fitting flight of fantasy for such an astonishing experiment in aquaculture.
Yomitan be reached by bus from Naha, but renting a car or scooter provides easier access. Naha offers plentiful accommodation in hotels and a small number of guesthouses. The Coral Farm is ¥900 to enter and open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more details, visit www.sangobatake.jp.