Flat as a pancake. That’s probably the best description of Taketomi Island 竹富島. Only about one kilometer (0.6 miles) wide, and just 15 minutes by a fast, frequent ferry from Ishigaki Port 石垣港, this was my destination on my first full day in the Yaeyama Islands 八重山諸島.
The ferry getting ready to leave
The thing to do on Taketomi is to rent a bicycle, and ride around the village and the island. Upon arrival, you are greeted by a row of vans, all belonging to bicycle rental shops. Just choose anyone (the “touts” are anything but aggressive), and they will take you on the short drive into the village (I opted for a shop called Maruhachi 丸八). In just a matter of moments, I was on a bike and on my way to exploring the island.
Instead of swimming, Kaiji is noted for its star-shaped sand, the dried exoskeletons of tiny sea creatures. I couldn’t find any in the sand itself, but a small souvenir table had some on display under a magnifying glass:
Time for a self-portrait, then it was back on the bike. I didn’t shave the entire time I was in Okinawa 沖縄, and regretted it towards the end – all those gray flecks made me look like an aging beach bum.
Next up was Kondoi Beach コンドイビーチ, Taketomi’s best spot for a swim. The tide was out when I got there, making it the island’s best spot for a wade. There were some places, however, where I could submerge myself, and fish could be seen swimming about. The sea bottom was covered with sea cucumbers ナマコ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_cucumber), disgusting-looking but harmless creatures that are enjoyed at the lunch or dinner table in Japan.
While enjoying myself at Kondoi, three small buses arrived and disgorged a large group of Taiwanese tourists. I knew they were Taiwanese, because a.) they were speaking Mandarin with the Taiwanese accent; b.) they were the loudest people on the beach; and c.) the women were the only ones there using umbrellas (the sky was cloudy, and threatened to rain, most of the day on Taketomi). One young woman referred to me as the “wàikuójén” 外國人a couple of times, meaning you know who, until I pointed out to her (in my bad, but still understandable, Chinese), that seeing as how we were all in Japan, and that none of us were Japanese, therefore she and her companions were also “wàikuójén” in this situation. This quieted her up immediately, and that was the last I heard of the word.
Cost of the bike rental: Y300 ($3.75 /NT110) per hour.
Cost of shutting up (if only temporarily) an ignoramus: Priceless.
From Kondoi Beach, I continued riding up the west side of Taketomi, and came to a short pier that is supposedly the best spot for viewing the sunset. It was too early in the day, and too cloudy, for that, of course, but the views looking out toward Iriomote Island 西表島 (center) and Ishigaki 石垣島 (right) weren’t bad.
From here, I turned inland and rode into the village, home to all of about 300 people. What draws the visitors to the island are the traditional houses, decked out with red-tiled roofs, coral walls and shīsā シーサー statues. In the center of the village, I first paid a visit to Nishitō Utaki 西塔御嶽, a shrine dedicated to a 16-century ruler of the Yaeyama Islands who hailed from Taketomi. Despite the presence of the torii gate 鳥居, Shintō shrines 神社 throughout Okinawa look somewhat different from those in mainland Japan, both in construction materials (primarily stone and concrete in Okinawa) and in the representations of the gods. Most likely, as the Ryūkyū Islands 琉球諸島 gradually became absorbed by Japan, their local deities were given a Shintō 神道 twist.
Close to the shrine is the Nagomi-no-tō なごみの塔, a not-very-high lookout tower, but one which gives a pretty good overview of the village on this flat isle.
Lunchtime was at a place called Shidamē しだめー館, and consisted of the very tasty taco rice タコライス. An example of the American influence on Okinawa, taco rice is basically rice topped with taco fillings (shredded lettuce and salsa sauce), and is very tasty. It goes very well with Orion Beer オリオンビール, naturally.
Fueled up, it was time to park the bike and walk through the village. One popular option for visitors is to take a ride on a water buffalo-driven cart (though I skipped this one).
After wandering about for a bit, I got back on the bike and rode out to the northern end of the island, to a spot called Misashi ミサシ. Here, the water was deep enough for skin diving, and the reefs were teeming with small fish. And here, at last, I was able to give the prescription diving mask I had bought in Washington back in February its first proper workout. Ishigaki Island can be seen in the background.
Feeling suitably refreshed after a long swim with the fish, I rode back into the village, parked the bike again, and walked over to the Kihōin Shushukan 喜宝院蒐集館, a small museum displaying various items like samurai swords 日本刀, festival masks and old cigarette packages and stamps.
Shīsā are small lion statues placed on rooftops and stone walls, and serving as guardian spirits (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shisa). They can be seen throughout the islands of Okinawa.
Strawberry shaved ice カキ氷 makes for a perfect break on a humid afternoon. The weather wasn’t always sunny during the time I was in Okinawa, but it was always humid!
One more picture of a traditional house, and then it was time to return the bike, and be driven in the van to the port, where I took the ferry back to Ishigaki.
Back in the “big city”, relatively speaking (the population of the whole of Ishigaki Island is only 50,000), I had dinner at an izakaya 居酒屋 close to my guesthouse. The owner of Mori-no-Kokage 森のこかげ was very friendly. I wanted to try the Ishigaki beef salad 石垣牛サラダ, but due to a recent case on the Japanese mainland where several people died from eating raw meat, he had been unable to secure supplies. So instead, he whipped up a plate of papaya champurū パパイアチャンプルー, another local specialty. Along with a couple more bottles of Ishigaki Beer 石垣島地ビール, it was a most satisfying end to another great day.
Shima Uta 島唄 - The Boom 「ＴＨＥ ＢＯＯＭ」(en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shima_Uta)