Deep south: Living the slow life in Okinawa
When we first spot Gentetsu Maeshiro, he's way down Sunset Beach, a stick figure bent over by the shore.
It's mid-afternoon and my wife and I are among a handful of people enjoying this long stretch of sand on the east side of Ishigaki, one of the southernmost islands in the southernmost part of Japan, Okinawa.
We pass a couple from Saitama, north of Tokyo, who just rented an inflatable ring to go floating in the East China Sea.
"What do you think of this place?" I ask them.
"It's so pretty," the young woman replies, looking at the turquoise water.
The stick figure that is Gentetsu Maeshiro is still down the beach, still bent over and still working intently on something.
We’re intrigued, so we head his way, the coarse sand and bits of broken coral scratching at our feet.
We get closer and see Maeshiro’s stringing freshly cleaned fish to a line. He'd been gutting them in the water and is now ready to bring the catch home to his wife and three-year-old daughter.
"How did you get them?" I ask, after we introduce ourselves.
"Spear fishing," he says with a warm grin, holding the line a little higher so can get a better look at the colorful creatures, almost all them bearing names we couldn't even guess at, especially the Japanese ones.
Maeshiro, 31, was born and raised on Ishigaki, the main island of a chain known collectively as the Yaeyamas, just a stone’s throw from Taiwan.
Fishing is his hobby. Farming is his livelihood. He runs a beef farm with about 90 head of cattle, a short drive from Sunset Beach. Talking to him with the sun warming our backs and the waves cooling our feet, our concrete box apartment in bustling Tokyo feels a country away.
Distinct and independent
In many ways, mainland Japan might as well be a neighboring nation.
The Japanese government annexed these islands, known as the Ryukyus, and renamed them in the late 1870s.
But even today, the people who live in Okinawa are considered fiercely independent and culturally distinct. This plays out in their mindset, their music and their food, among other things.
Their low fat, low salt diet -- filled with fish, pork, tofu, seaweed and veggies -- is one reason people here have the longest life expectancy in the world. About 400 centenarians call these islands home. Small wonder Gentetsu Maeshiro hasn’t considered living anywhere else.
"Weather good, food good, air good, everything good," he says in staccato English.
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Small wonder Okinawa is a big draw for Japanese and a growing number of foreign travelers. Just a short hop from Tokyo or Osaka, people jet down for a week or even a weekend to sunbathe, scuba dive and snorkel, despite the cost of getting there.
A return flight from Tokyo International Airport to Naha Airport on the main island typically runs anywhere from ¥60,000 (US$661) to ¥80,000 with major airlines All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL).
But it was well worth it for Ryu, a music teacher from Yokohama, who came here to celebrate his honeymoon with his wife, Mai.
“It’s really a different place,” he says. “The people, the food, the sea.”
The newlyweds are down to the last few hours of their four-day trip, the minutes melting away almost as fast as the cool treat they just bought from the roadside ice cream truck near Ishigaki’s northern tip. They’re wishing they could do it all over again.
Fortunately, they’ll find an anniversary trip will be a lot easier, and a lot cheaper. Workers are busy putting the finishing touches on the New Ishigaki Airport, which is scheduled to open in March.
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Pass the vinegar
Saving on airfare will likely encourage visitors to venture away from the main island, Okinawa Honto, and explore smaller locales, such as the Yaeyamas. There’s plenty to see -- just watch out for the Habu jellyfish, a type of box jellyfish that is a concern from June to October.
The main beaches have netted-off areas to protect swimmers, and some have bottles of vinegar on standby in case people get stung (along with some rudimentary first aid instructions).
We go looking for the spineless suckers, and other undersea creatures, at the beautiful Kabira Bay on Ishigaki, where glass-bottomed boats ply the clear blue-green waters, floating over delicate coral that is shaped like bramble bushes in some spots and giant brains in others. The protected area is also known to be a source of black pearls.
"You can't say you've been to Ishigaki if you haven't been to Kabira Bay," says Jean Barcelo, who manages one of the island’s hotels.
Biking on a postage stamp
A few days later, my wife and I are on a ferry heading to Taketomi Island, a tiny outcropping of coral just south of Ishigaki, sitting behind Takayuki Shimada.
“I’ve been here 16 times,” he tells me.
The self-professed salaryman from Chiba, near Tokyo, is an avid bird photographer.
“I’ll see you walking around,” he says as we get off the boat.
You’d think we’d run into him, given this island is about the size of a postage stamp. But we don’t.
You’d also think we wouldn’t get lost, given how tiny Taketomi is. But we do.
We’ve dropped our bags at our rustic hotel and exchanged them for rusty bicycles, and now we’re pedaling the few roads that crisscross the island, all 5.4 square kilometers of it.
“I’m pretty sure the beach is this way,” I say to my wife, who’s trailing behind, likely plotting her escape.
The midday sun is unrelenting, and soon we’ve developed an uncanny resemblance to the sweaty and snotty water buffalo we passed in the center of town.
The big beasts pull carts of tourists down dusty streets, past the stone walls that surround traditional, one-story buildings. While they labor, their drivers pluck away at sanshin, a three-stringed Okinawan instrument.
We do eventually make it to the sea, thanks to the directions from a kind couple sensible enough to stay in the shade.
We watch people scour Kaiji Beach in search of star-shaped sand (really the remains of minute crustaceans) and later we head over to Kondoi Beach as locals gather to barbeque and play music for Taketomi Night, a festival celebrating the beauty and simplicity of this island.
Soon night falls like a curtain and we're back on our bikes, a warm, velvety wind blowing in our faces as we head to our hotel.
The crickets and other night creatures serenade us. The stars and fireflies light our way.
We come across a group of people sitting on the side of the road, chatting softly and staring at the moon.
Another wild Saturday night on Taketomi Island.
We join them, and soon find ourselves lost in this uncomplicated activity. We almost stay until sunrise.
Arriving: Low-cost carriers flying to Okinawa’s main island are: ANA’s Peach Aviation, JAL’s Jetstar Japan, AirAsia Japan and Skymark Airlines. Major airlines All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines offer daily flights from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Naha and connecting flights to other islands in the archipelago.
The short ferry ride from Ishigaki to Taketomi takes 10 minutes and costs ¥580.
Sleeping: The Busena Terrace Beach Resort is a secluded oasis in Nago that’s about a 70-minute drive from Naha Airport. It’s the perfect place to unplug, laze around poolside, relax on the beach, or snorkel and scuba dive in the East China Sea.
The ANA Intercontinental Ishigaki Resort has one of the best beaches on the island. The cozy cottages of Fusaki Resort Village, a great spot to watch the sunset, are also worth checking out. Villa Taketomi has eight private villas (five Japanese, three Western) and offers excellent Okinawa-style meals.
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