Taketomi Island, Okinawa 竹富島
The ferry from Ishigaki city over to Taketomi (population 350) takes only 10 minutes and yet, taking it means entering a different world.
Ishigaki city is the main commercial center for the whole of the Yaeyama Island group, the southern-most islands of Japan.
Ishigaki city is a busy town with large shopping malls, modern buildings and an airport nearby, connecting Ishigaki via Naha to the rest of Japan as well as providing flights onwards to the smaller islands dotting this stretch of the deep blue Okinawan sea.
Taketomi does not have an airport and neither has it any modern buildings. In fact, almost nothing looks contemporary here. On this tiny island, the streets are made of shiny, fine, white coral dust against which the wildly colored flowers in the gardens surrounding every house stand out all the more brightly.
The houses themselves are enclosed by old, gray walls of natural stone, with flowers flowing over their upper edges. Enter the gate of your minshoku (guest house) and you will stand in the middle of an almost painfully beautiful garden in front of a structure built either of rock or of vintage wood.
Fiery, stone figures of delirious fantasy furies on the roof tops called shisa will do their best to threaten you off, the intruder, silently baring the teeth in their angry, open mouths. Shisa are the guardians of the houses here.
In fact, they are friendly creatures and you will be heartily welcomed by the lady of the house at the front door.
Unload your luggage and arrange your dinner. You will be eating at the minshoku you stay at. No restaurants are open in the evening on this island. A few restaurants are open for lunch, though, aimed at daytime visitors coming over from Ishigaki for a quick visit.
A good first place to visit is the oddly shaped Nagaminoto Tower in the center of the village. It's not very high but from up there, you can overlook the whole of the small island. It is absolutely flat and oval in shape. Taketomi village is in the center of the island while the areas towards the coast are partly covered by dense subtropical forests.
The ferry port is the only building constructed in a modern style, everything else is vintage Okinawan. New houses have to be erected in the traditional style as well.
Taketomi is a special culture preservation zone, in order to to protect the old Okinawan way of life. Yet the only way to do this is via tourist yen.
Thus, tourists are certainly welcome guests here but the islanders will not bend over backwards to accommodate their demands.
There are no convenience stores on the island and hardly any soft drink vending machines. All shopping is restricted to one tiny grocery store run by an old lady which is open only for a few hours a day.
Shrines and other religious places, usually tourist magnets in mainland Japan, are absolutely off-limits to outsiders. The islanders like to practice their religion in private. And they are serious about it. If they catch you entering any of the areas marked as on, meaning a sacred place, you will be immediately expelled from the island.
People here are serious about traditional Okinawan life; and that certainly means living according to a lot of rules.
For the short-term visitor, though, it all looks very easy going. Just walk over to the main village square. There, a bunch of water buffalos are resting in the sun, bound loose from the carts they are supposed to draw. The coachmen rest in the shadows too, and one of them plays vintage Okinawan melodies on a local string instrument. Once a tour group arrives from the ferry by van, one or more of the water buffalo coaches (suigyusha) will be readied and the visitors will get a slow tour on the coral sand roads.
Everything on the island is in walking distance. Still, a bicycle is the best mode of transportation here. You can easily rent one. The fee is low, no deposit is required and at the end of your stay, just leave it at your guest house.
The obvious places to ride to are the various beaches on the island. As they are not interconnected, you always have to return to the circular road surrounding the village before you can enter the unpaved path to the next beach. This gives you the chance to ride through various beautiful pastures with water buffalo feeding on the green in front of the dense jungle.
The beaches the paths lead to tend to be spots of white sand flanked by thick jungle. If you like walking along the sea, you will soon find that parts of the shore are also quite rocky. In fact, the further away you get from the official beaches, the wilder the shore gets. In those far-off stretches, you will be absolutely alone on the beach.
Kaiji Beach in the west of the island is certainly the most famous. It is one of the extremely rare places where you can find "star sand" (hoshizuna). There are only two of them in Japan. (The other one is located on Iriomote Island, also part of the Yaeyama Island group.) Star sand looks like sand grains but is star-shaped.
Actually, it is not real sand, although it is exactly the same color. Those little stars are the skeletons of a tiny, tiny shell fish. Many tourists sift through the sand there, trying to find one of those hard-to-spot stars said to bring good luck.
Vendors on the beach offer various souvenirs sporting plenty of that star sand encased in transparent acrylic resin. Some designs are pretty cool actually. It is certainly worth perusing the stands of the vendors.
The best ride is the one to Aiyaruhama Beach in the southeast of the island. All year long, the flowering bushes along the path are a major gathering point for migrating butterflies. The species of butterfly fluttering about will change with the season but on that unpaved path, also known as Butterfly Road, you will always encounter plenty of them.
Wherever you look, butterflies are fluttering all around you. They rest on branches and they sit right on the path, flying away only at the last second before your front wheel hits the spot. As so often on this island, it feels like being in some kind of fairy tale land.
In the early evening, all the daytime tourists disappear. The last ferry back to Ishigaki is at 6pm. Soon, the only noise you will hear on the otherwise perfectly silent island is coming from the guest houses. Dinner time.
The meals served are generally in a fixed multi-course Okinawan-style involving lots of raw and cooked fish. The strong Awamori shochu and Orion beer (both true Okinawan tipples) tend to loosen tongues. You might quickly fall into conversation with other visitors.
Guest houses are not bars though. Buy a bottle and quietly settle down outside. The little square where the water buffalo carts wait for daytime customers is perfect. It is well lit and there are benches to sit on.
The village is absolutely silent by now and looks all the more romantic for it. But to see the best of the Taketomi night, step out from under the light bulbs and enjoy the southern night sky. The stars over Taketomi are incredible. Lots and lots of shiny golden sparkles on black velvet. Absolutely astonishing.
Text + images Johannes Schonherr
Related Taketomijima Resources
Access - Getting to Taketomi
There are frequent ferries from Ishigaki for the 10-minute crossing. Ishigaki has a few direct flights to Tokyo (3 hours and 30 minutes) but now most flights are via Naha. Ferry services between Miyakojima and Ishigaki have ceased as has the Okinawa-Taiwan ferry service.
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