I spoke in my last post about an Okinawa Board of Tourism promotional session I attended last week. Sure, it was cheesy and promotional, but I got free stuff out of the deal :) Okay, maybe just a cheapo bingata handkerchief. But the performances by Ukwanshin Kabudan were pretty awesome. I’m really going to miss the frequent and easily accessible Okinawan music & dance performances (and classes/practice in such) when I leave Hawaii…
Anyway, as I said in my last post, I made off with some nice pamphlets advertising not just the resort hotels, and not just sites on Okinawa Island, but providing some nice information about the Sakishima Islands – that is, the Miyakos and Yaeyamas, which I’ve long wanted to visit, but didn’t really know exactly what to go there to look to see.
So, for the benefit of readers who don’t know much about Okinawa Prefecture and what it has to offer, a quick rundown of some of the things I’d like to see if/when I get to visit the Ryukyus.
Okinawa is the largest of the northernmost grouping of islands in the prefecture, located roughly halfway between Kyushu and Taiwan; it is the political center of the prefecture, and the historical political center of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Traditional culture varies greatly from island to island. The dances, pottery, textiles, music, theatre etc. differ considerably, from Okinawa to the Miyakos to the Yaeyamas, and in fact the indigenous native languages differ so much that a native speaker of Okinawan and a native speaker of Miyako would not understand one another; but, if you’re reading this post as a potential tourist, have no fear – just about everyone speaks standard Japanese as well, and on Okinawa Island at least, you should be okay to get by in English. That said, the traditional culture (dances, music, crafts, etc.) are similar enough that they definitely constitute a single related family of culture, differing less, I’m sure, than, for example, the many cultures across China. Anyway, for me, it is this traditional culture – and the contemporary culture grounded in it & that still draws extensively upon it – which is the main appeal for me. Whether on Okinawa Island itself, or elsewhere in the archipelago, I eagerly look forward to the music, dances, pottery, textiles, and traditional architecture. Most, if not all, of the islands teem with traditional culture, so I won’t be reiterating that as I describe each island. It would be awfully repetitive and redundant & boring if I wrote for each and every island “oh, and the traditional crafts, music, etc.” So, take that as assumed.
In this post, I will focus on the lesser-known Sakishima Islands. In a later post, I’ll talk about the things to see and do on Okinawa Island proper.
*The Miyako Islands
… Okay. Now that I look into it, I’m not sure there’s anything in particular that stands out for me in the Miyakos. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s fantastic. If I ever find myself in the Miyakos for some reason, I’m sure I’ll enjoy immensely the beaches and natural beauty, the sugarcane fields, the goats, the astronomical observatory, the bonito for which some of the smaller outlying islands are apparently famous (mmm, bonito), and the traditional arts and crafts. The golf is not for me. But, in any case, let’s turn to the Yaeyamas.
*The Yaeyama Islands
The Yaeyamas consist of Iriomote, Ishigaki, Taketomi, Yonaguni, Hateruma, and a few other smaller outlying islands. These include three islands repeatedly declared the top designations in all of Japan for traditional culture (Taketomi), natural beauty (Iriomote), and resort experience (Ishigaki).
Taketomi is a small island about 9.2 km around, accessible via ferry from Ishigaki in only about 10 minutes (though it occurs to me just now that it may not be the easiest or quickest thing to get to the ferry departure point on Ishigaki… I dunno). Taketomi is known especially for its traditional culture. There may not be very many TV shows or movies filmed in Okinawa, but a great many of those are filmed in Taketomi, for its distinctive white sand roads, lined with limestone walls, and traditional-style homes with red clay tile roofs.
Staying on Taketomi means staying in one of these traditional Ryukyuan-style homes, minshuku/B&B-style, an option that has great appeal for me.
A year or so ago, there was a whole thing where resort developers were trying to build a resort on the island (what else is new?). Sadly, it looks like they’ve succeeded. I sincerely hope this doesn’t have too much of a negative impact on the island, though I fear that it will…
Some of the local Obaasan and Ojiisan (elderly men & women) lead walking tours of the island, and there are also cycling tours and the opportunity to ride in suigyûsha – carts pulled by water buffalo. Yes. Water buffalo. So cool.
Taketomi is also the site of the Tanadui Festival, a particularly famous example of Ryukyuan festivals featuring traditional music and dance. I’m sure that the other islands each have their own festivals as well, but, having learned about Tanadui Festival from visiting professor Chao Chi-feng, I’m pretty excited to see for myself the dances she spoke about.
Finally, while each island has its own textile traditions, Taketomi’s minsa sashes seem particularly iconic and recognizable. Made in white and indigo-dyed deep blue threads, the sashes feature a geometric pattern of squares that’s very simple, but somehow very appealing, perhaps primarily because of its recognizability as a Ryukyuan design. I imagine that these handwoven sashes could be pretty expensive, but surely they must be quite a bit cheaper than a whole garment – if/when I visit Taketomi, I would love to buy a minsa; though I might not ever end up being able to afford the nicest kimono, at least I can wear something very authentic and handmade – and with a Ryukyuan flair – in my sash.
Iriomote Island, as I said, is known especially for its natural beauty. All of the Ryukyu Islands (and, indeed, much of those parts of Japan that aren’t covered in concrete) are gorgeous, but Iriomote is apparently especially known for it. The activities that these pamphlets promote mainly center on hiking, kayaking, and the like. Iriomote is also known for its star sand beaches, where through some accident of nature, the sand is made up of tiny star shapes; it’s supposed to be beautiful.
Also, though it’s extremely rare to get to see one, I’d love it if I were lucky to get to see an Iriomote wildcat (aka Iriomote yamaneko, yamamayaa), an extremely rare and endangered type of wildcat that is among the closest, in evolutionary terms, to the evolutionary ancestor of all felines.
Kohama Island is one of the smaller islands, known particularly as the home of Kohagura Eri, fictional protagonist of the popular TV drama “Churasan.” The pamphlet highlights the island’s traditional textiles.
Yonaguni is the westernmost island in all of Japan, and it’s said that on a clear enough day, you can see Taiwan. Yonaguni is one of a few islands known for its horses. Yeah, you wouldn’t think that anywhere in the Ryukyus would be famous for its horses. After all, horses come originally from Central Asia, so what would the Ryukyuans be doing breeding horses and sending them as tribute gifts to China? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Well, I’ve never tried horseriding, though I’d love to try, and these Yonaguni horses look mighty cute. The pamphlet says they have a particularly friendly and quiet nature, making them easy for anyone to ride.
Finally, there’s Hateruma Island, the southernmost island in Japan. Maybe nothing too much to see here that you can’t get somewhere else, except for Awanami shaved ice, made from awamori (distilled rice wine, essentially Okinawa’s equivalent to vodka), which sounds pretty neat. But, I’m not exactly planning out a vacation here so much as imagining that one of these days I will hopefully find myself living in Okinawa a little more semi-permanently, and able to poke around the islands much more affordably and easily. If I decide to spend a spring break touring some of the Yaeyamas, and make a little day trip out of checking out Hateruma and getting my picture taken at the southernmost point, I think that seems not unreasonable, as compared to the idea of fitting Hateruma into some crazy whirlwind tour of all the islands as squeezed into a two-week vacation as planned from the US mainland, or something.
That’s it for now! Thanks for reading! In my next post, I’ll highlight sights on Okinawa Island and its more closely neighboring islands. Until then, あんしぇーや！