Yoronto: A small island with unique culture where time and space expand


Special To The Japan Times

The sea is only as blue as the sky permits. Even in the deep southern islands of the Nansei-Shoto, an overcast day can turn the sub-tropics into a mirror image of some of the more relentlessly dreary resort towns of my own country, England. One thinks of the ingloriously named Minehead, the estuary wilderness of Canvey Island, the pebble shore at Chesil Beach.

I was fortunate, however, to share the same sensations of light and color as the photographer Shomei Tomatsu, who, sailing past these islands en route to the nearby headland of northern Okinawa in the 1960s, was inspired to write of “a sea so blue that it looks as if it would turn your own skin blue if you put your hand in it.”

Peering from the handrail of the Marix Line ferry as it docked beside the concrete pier on Yoron Island, I scoured the scene for any sign of transportation. After discovering that local buses omit the dock from their routes, I decided to call the Marina del Rei, where I was booked for the next three nights of my stay. At the first ring, someone tapped me on the shoulder. This turned out to be the owner herself, whose grandson, having better eyesight, had picked me out of the crowd. On request, I was dropped off at a scooter rental outlet in Chabana, the island’s main town.

On an island smothered in flowers like hibiscus, plumeria, the vibrant yellow of the allamanda, purple bougainvillea, the red-tipped pendants of heliconia and the blossoms of the flame tree, species associated with the tropics, it comes as no surprise to discover that Chabana means “flower town.” The presence of banana trees and the spooky, aerial roots of the banyan augment the tropical feel.

The Minzoku Mura, a museum of folk artifacts, craft items and examples of indigenous architecture, was a short walk from my accommodation. Run by the Kiku family, it’s a good introduction to a way of life that is within living memory of the island’s elder residents. Among cluttered rooms full of oil and spirit jars, conical peasant hats, flour sieves and wooden kitchen utensils were a number of still-functional looms. In the hands of 91-year-old Chio Kiku and her daughter-in-law, thin strands of banana fiber are turned into exquisite textiles known as bashofu.

Great patience and skill is required in cultivating the ito-basho, the stalks of the tree. Separating fiber, spinning yarn, preparing warp and weft, resist tying, spooling, beaming, dying and weaving the material — each step is an entirely manual process. One error, and the entire weave will be out of kilter, which might explain why the almost weightless, tissue-thin textile, which can be turned into anything from wall hangings to summer kimonos, commands such a hefty price.

Sitting at the conjunction of inter-island sea lanes, Yoron’s beliefs, rituals and folklore practices have formed a rich sedimentary pile, a compost heap of fermenting culture. Supplementing the displays at the Minzoku Mura, Chabana’s Southern Cross Center is a small museum tracing the history and culture of Yoron and the Amami Islands.

Judging from the exhibits of masks, shaman costumes and images of pantheistic festivals, here was a place where Buddhism, and even Shinto, held less sway over the islanders than occult rituals, myths of the sea and spirit-haunted accounts of supernatural matters. Photos taken in the 1950s and ’60s, at a time when there was still no electricity on the island, show barefoot women in threadbare kimonos carrying baskets on their heads, a common practice at the time in these remote, impecunious settlements.

The darker traces of Yoron’s past are largely obscured by the relative prosperity of the present. World War II, which inflicted misery on all who experienced it, left the island unscathed, though Yoron’s proximity to Okinawa, where invading U.S. forces fought with their Japanese counterparts, must have made the guns of war terrifyingly audible. There are tales of desperate Okinawans trying to swim the 12 nautical miles to the island, clinging to debris and other buoyant objects. Their own boats had been seized by the Japanese Army.

Near the offshore island of Minatabanare-jima, I came across a more harmonious scene, a family engaged in preparing freshly caught fish. The grandfather had brought his catch to the quay, where his wife and two grandchildren deftly gutted, cleaned and scaled the hogen and baba, two local fish. The obvious pleasure they were experiencing from mucking together in this cooperative activity was an example of how well-grounded family life on the island remains.

From force of habit, I double-checked to see that my scooter was securely locked, before leaving it in the parking lot next to O-Ganeku-kaigan, a blinding-white, 2-kilometer beach. I needn’t have bothered. On an island of some 5,400 inhabitants, trust is a given. Drivers leave their cars parked with the windows open, and on the day I left the island, returning my scooter involved leaving it at the airport terminal with the keys in the ignition.

Traveling along a series of linked beaches, I had come to “Big Ganeku Beach” to catch the glass-bottomed boat out to Yuri-ga-hama, a perfectly white sandbar that appears twice a day at high tide. The captain of the small wooden schooner may have one of the island’s best jobs: charging passengers ¥1,000 to ferry them the few hundred meters out to the sandbar, then putting his feet up for an hour before returning to land.

Catering to visitors with a whole hour to kill, an enterprising couple had set up a bar on the tiny spit of sand, serving draught Orion Beer, mango juice and sanpincha, an Okinawan beverage similar to oolong tea. Others basked in the shallows, slipping into a sublime solar revelry, or sifted through the seabed for the star-shaped particles of sand for which the spot is renowned.

Who could have expected newlyweds to turn up, in all their nuptial finery, on this sandbar in the Pacific Ocean that spends most of its time submerged? But that is exactly what happened: The couple slipped in up to their knees in the warm water after disembarking from a small boat with a photographer and assistant.

On my last afternoon I did a final circuit of the island. I had driven several times past a sign announcing the Yoron Seaside Garden, but never stopped. The cafe and garden are set on a well-appointed bluff overlooking the sea. On a lovingly tended lawn, complete with mini-croquet and putting green, someone had planted a flag, an upright Union Jack. “British territory!” a voice called out behind me. Erina, the owner of the voice and a small dog, explained that her husband was English. If I wanted, I could meet him before she brought me my iced coffee.

A picture of good health, Ivan Brackin came to Japan in 1964, running an advertising agency before moving to Yoron some 15 years ago. A quick internet search revealed that he had also found time to author several books, one on the British pastime of darts. It never ceases to amaze me the obscure corners of the world my fellow countrymen, castaways all of us, end up.

Sitting beneath a parasol in the garden’s alcove above the ocean nearby a stone and canvass pergola, the only sounds came from waves and gulls. Here was peace of mind, the chance to commune with the natural elements, which is only possible in mountain redoubts, forests, or on detached littorals like this.

The writer and lecturer Tim Mackintosh-Smith wrote, “Nothing subverts one’s perception of time and distance so much as travel.” Although he was speaking about the sensory effects of a two-day sojourn on the tiny island of Kilwa Kisiwani off Tanzania had made on his consciousness, he might just as easily have been commenting on Yoron. I had only been there three days, but it felt like weeks.

The elasticity in the feel of time and space on the island owes a great deal to the twin infinities of sky and sea, each effecting subtle visual alterations in landscape and light. Yoron’s diminutive size promotes an attentiveness to detail that is in inverse proportion to its scale.

Gazing from the window of my small, departing plane, the island, seemingly dissolving in the surrounding water, gradually receded from view, but its presence in the mind is destined to expand beyond the days of this short trip.

There are daily JAC and RAC flights from Naha and Kagoshima. Yoron is also served by the “A” and Marix Lines ferries between the islands of Kagoshima and Okinawa. Car, scooter and bicycle rentals can be found at Nankoku motors: 0997-97-2141. Yoron has a bus service that does a circuit of the island. For reservations at the Marina del Rey, call 0997-97-3736 or visit primenet2010.biz/marina_del_rei