Travel

Northern exposure: Discovering silence in Okinawa

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

Route 58 begins its life in Naha as a three-lane highway, mainland Okinawa’s bulging digestive track bumper to bumper with private vehicles, tour buses, motor bikes and lumbering military convoys.

Once beyond the outskirts of Nago, a shabby but endearingly laconic town at the midriff of the island, the enjambment of supermarkets, convenience stores, car dealerships, U.S. Army surplus stores, tattoo studios and bars serving Kentucky bourbon that characterize Route 58 begin to recede in the rearview mirror of my scooter, replaced by field, forest and small settlements.

Here, the very air itself changes, a mix of cooler drafts and forest mulch, the living breath of Yanbaru Forest. More jungle than woodland, with great clumps of banyan and ficus trees, sago palms, bird’s nest ferns growing in the cleavages of branches, stream embankments dense with mangrove and pandanus, the denser parts of the forest are alive with wild hibiscus, yellow allamanda, heliconia and canopies of the luminous, scarlet blossoms of flame trees.

Requisitioned for military exercises, parts of the forest serve as a training site for U.S. Marines, required to test their mettle against infestations of mosquitos, bugs, leeches and poisonous snakes. They must also endure the unnerving darkness that smothers a forest that was used decades ago as a rehearsal ground for the Vietnam War.

A combination of commercial venality and military ambition have destroyed much of the environment of mainland Okinawa, leaving only its northern extremity relatively unscathed. A dreadful sense of premonition hangs over this remaining slice of Arcadia. On a sudden impulse, I decide to make a detour, taking a diagonal route across the island to Oura Bay, one of the most stunning waterfronts left in Okinawa. There is almost no traffic on the winding, deeply rural lanes to the bay, now firmly on the political map as the battleground for a standoff between environmentalists, anti-base factions, and the Japanese and U.S. governments, the latter determined to complete a military installation that will not only be an eyesore, but a major transgression of nature.

The planned runway, endorsed by the government against the displeasure of the vast majority of Okinawans, involves, among other violations, the positioning of 10- to 15-ton concrete blocks on top of coral beds. Ancillary damage will in all probability be the strip mining of the seabed and its marine life, including the endangered dugong. Sadly, a daily vigil by protesters is unlikely to sway the determination of outside authorities driven by an unshakeable sense of entitlement.

Back on Route 58, the straggling village of Ogimi-son, known for rates of longevity that are high even by Okinawan standards, offers up a scene of bucolic fields, kitchen gardens, herb patches and orchards of shikuwasa, a type of Okinawan lime with high levels of carotene, citric acid and Vitamin C. A well-signposted turnoff leads to Kiyoka Bashofu, a textile workshop. The head of the center, Mieko Taira, is kind enough to show me around, introducing me to weavers hard at work threading fine strands of banana fiber into items ranging from translucent wall hangings to light summer kimonos. She then led me into their plantation of bashofu trees, the largest in Okinawa. Walking through long grass and weeds under a canopy of fronds, she doesn’t seem to be troubled by the presence of habu, a particularly venomous serpent indigenous to Okinawa. “We are always afraid,” she corrected, “but we have no choice. We have to maintain the trees.” The center and it’s all women staff make a fleeting appearance in the award-winning 2013 road movie, “Karakara,” directed by Claude Gagnon, and starring the French-Canadian actor Gabriel Arcand, paired with Japanese film star Yuki Kudoh.

Returning to Route 58, there are few cars or trucks in the most northern district of Kunigami, an area more remote in many respects than many of the outer islands of Okinawa. Following a signpost to Hiji waterfall, I park the scooter and begin the stiff 1.4-kilometer walk. One sign warns that the hike is not for the “physically weak.” Here, the riverside paths, stone steps, elevated tracks and suspension bridges take you into the fleshy green interior of Yanbaru Forest, disgorging you at the foot of the waterfall among a haphazard arrangement of rocks resembling a disused quarry.

Home to the female deity Amamikyu, Asumui, at the northern tip of the island, has long been a place of worship, a sacred spot for prayer and divination rites conducted by yutta (female shamans). Recalling the fabulist limestone landscapes of Chinese gardens, 200,000 years of rain, wind and rock thrusts have created a landform that could well be home to a coven of sorcerers or an Okinawan Merlin. Narrow, winding paths ascend through rock clusters, blowholes and cavities to the summit, with its sweeping views of forest and ocean.

Bearing east from the massif of rocks, it is only by dint of the smallest of signs that I find a set of time-worn steps leading up to the Mausoleum of Gihon-Ou, a king of the ancient northern region of Hokuzan, who is believed to have ascended the throne in 1249. Few visitors enter such areas of deep immersion in Okinawa. Standing before the mausoleum, with its sepulcher containing a cracked earthenware coffin, one can sense the unhurried passage of time down the centuries. By this stage in the journey, Route 58 has shrunk to the proportions of a narrow country lane, hedged in on either side by dense forest and a long line of green net barriers, placed along the roadside to protect the flightless, very rare, seldom glimpsed yanbaru kuina (Okinawan rail).

There is little sign of life when I arrive at Miyagi-so, so I plop myself down at an outside table until, an hour later, the owner, Masashi Miyagi, eventually emerges, bare-chested, with shoulder length hair and a gray beard, from his afternoon siesta. During the three days I spend at the minshuku (guesthouse), I never catch him wearing any kind of top or anything approaching a normal pair of shoes.

Miyagi makes it clear from the outset that his ancestry is Okinawan, not Japanese, that he is a Ryukyu-jin through and through, whose stock was that of an island people with close genetic ties to southern China and Southeast Asia. The wispy, Confucian-style beard, recalling a Chinese sage, and the Ryukyu-style hair are intended to endorse the claim. He likes to refer to himself as the “wild man of Yanbaru Forest,” but turns out to be a very urbane, much traveled fellow. The guesthouse is a return to nature, to roots, one of Miyagi’s favorite words.

I sit down for dinner that first evening with a dentist and his wife from Naha, who tells me this is their fifth visit, escaping to the hermitage-like setting of Miyagi-so for the healing immersion of nature and the first-rate dishes, all prepared and served by the owner, who enjoys a local reputation as a respected chef. A skinned viper hangs from a nearby wooden beam, its flesh stored in the refrigerator in readiness, perhaps, for a future side dish.

Astonishingly, there is all-day free beer and awamori, as much as you can consume, the liquor mixed with chomeiso, an Okinawan longevity herb. All you have to do is open the refrigerator and help yourself. There is also some of the freshest mineral water I have tasted on tap, drawn from a well on the grounds and redirected to a cooler. When I press Miyagi on this unusual largesse, he shrugs it off, saying he wasn’t in the guesthouse business to make money. “Just enough to live on and enjoy all this unspoiled nature,” he says, casting his hand in the direction of the encroaching jungle.

Nature isn’t far away, the inn’s walls, open doors and verandas lending a porous quality to the building. As I prepare to turn in, the night comes alive with a determined rustling of reptiles, the friction of ferns rubbing together in the sea breeze, the occasional cry from a bird that could only be an Okinawan rail and a persistent scratching from the inside of a wooden beam in my room, the work perhaps of an amplified termite. When I emerge from the shower, a sharp tapping sound can be traced to a land crab, casually passing across the wooden floor boards of the recreation room.

This was what it feels like, then, to experience a timeless, deeply rural Okinawan nocturne. It would take another night or two, though, before I adjusted to the unaccustomed surroundings of inhabited silence. That first night, prey to the anxieties of an uprooted urban dweller, or the visions of an Amazonian traveler sampling psychotropic drugs, I dream of salamanders invading the room, the eerie tendrils of ficus trees pressing against the windows and forests populous with gargoyles.

Scooter or car rentals are the best option for exploring this region, but buses starting in Naha cover most of these routes. The Miyagi-so guesthouse charges ¥6,000 for room, breakfast and dinner (Tel: 0980-418383).