Tree-dwelling spirits keep Okinawa's islands free of evil

Graeme Green

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 12:46am

Bizarre, colourful creatures stand by the side of the road. One looks like a two-metre tall, bright blue dog with a toothy grin and wide eyes. A purple figure with a star-shaped head watches us with big black alien eyes. They're the work of Hisashi Katsuren, a popular artist on the subtropical Japanese island of Ishigaki. Some are Kijimuna, local spirits traditionally believed to live in the trees.

But the ones that look like lions or dogs are a modern, colourful take on the traditional shisas seen across the islands of the Okinawa region. "I love the traditional ones because they're strong and graceful," Hisashi tells me, as he leans on one of his creations. "But I'm a bad artist. I couldn't do the traditional ones well. So, one day I made them freely with my imagination and I liked it. This was my art."

I'm a bad artist. I couldn't do the traditional ones well. So, one day I made them freely
Hisashi Katsuren, artist

Shisa are positioned in pairs at doorways to homes, restaurants and other businesses. "Traditional shisa are there to protect the house and drive bad spirits away," Hisashi explains. "The open-mouthed one is male, closed is female. They bring good fortune or happiness from outside, and scare bad fortune away."

The Okinawa islands, including Okinawa itself and the Yaeyama island chain from 1429 to 1879 were part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, with strong trade links to China. Many Chinese came to Ryukyu for business or to work with the government. Just like the Chinese-style dragons that decorate Shuri Castle (the former Ryukyu government HQ on the island of Okinawa), the shisas show China's influence on the region.

Six million Japanese mainlanders now come to Okinawa each year, including the Yaeyama islands, for white sandy beaches and clear waters with diverse coral landscapes and marine life.

I drive from Hisashi's studio to Kabira Bay and motor out with a local dive team.

"It's very easy, very calm, relaxed diving here," says instructor Harvey Tiw. The clear blue waters feel magical, rays of sunlight bounce off coral and brightly coloured tropical fish. We see clownfish, moray eels and a large hermit crab peeking from its shell.

The big draw for divers in Ishigaki is Manta Point, a popular cleaning station for mantas. Harvey fills me in on the guidelines: "We can't chase mantas. We can't touch mantas."

It also turns out we can't see mantas. We spend 45 minutes circling the rocky outcrop at Manta Scrambles, but today they're not here. Yasu, another diver, gestures with open hands: nothing. "Sometimes, we don't see them," Harvey says with a shrug, as we climb back onto the boat.

After a relaxed evening on Ishigaki, I take a ferry next morning across to the island of Iriomote. An eagle flies overhead as we kayak up the mangrove-lined Hinai river.

"The water here is a little bit salty, so sometimes you see black sea bream, stingrays, maybe a sea snake," local guide Naoya Ojima tells me. We tie our kayaks to the bank and hike up the forest-covered hills. It's hot and humid, a steep climb over wet rocks and tangled tree roots. "We have to work up a sweat," says Naoya, laughing, "so we can go in the pool." Water cascades down from Pinaisara, the largest waterfall in Okinawa, into the rock pool below. A small crowd is already swimming there. The water's exactly what you need after a good hike: cold.

We hike up further to the top of the falls, using ropes to climb up steep rocky sections. "This is otani watari," says Naoya, pointing to a leafy green plant. "It's very good for tempura. Many of the leaves here in the forest are good to eat. We eat a lot of ferns too. There are wild boars on the island. We eat the meat raw, as sashimi."

We rest at the top of the falls with a view of Funara Bay and deep green rainforest. Naoya cooks Okinawa noodles with chilli, spring onions and ginger on a little stove, followed by fresh pineapple from the island. The Okinawa diet is famously healthy, with plenty of fish, tofu and local fruit and vegetables contributing to the locals' longevity. The ancient Chinese referred to this region as "The Land of the Immortals".

I ferry back to Ishigaki next morning and cross straight over to Taketomi Island, just four kilometres away. It's a peaceful little island, with only a nine-kilometre circumference and villages of traditional wooden houses with roads lined with craggy white rock and colourful flowers.

A recent census says there are exactly 348 people on the island. There are also 24 dogs, 79 cats, 27 chickens, 40 goats, 345 cows and 36 water buffaloes. There's just one petrol station, open for 30 minutes each afternoon.

Each morning, the villagers work together to clean, tidy and tend the village; there's not a single piece of litter. Around the island, archways mark sacred spots for the islanders; rather than the Shinto and Buddhism of mainland Japan, they worship different gods, and also their ancestors.

I borrow a bike from the hotel to ride around the island. Cycling the length of the island doesn't take long, so I stop to swim out from the white sand beaches, careful not to step on sea cucumbers in the shallow water. I join what feels like a good chunk of the people on the island, locals and tourists, to watch the sunset.

The next morning, Yuko, an ambling water buffalo, pulls me around the village on a tourist cart. Yuko knows his way around, so Shima Hidetada, the driver, lets go of the reins and takes up a sanshin, a banjo-like Okinawan instrument, providing a soundtrack to the bucolic ride. I notice more shisas, some cartoonish and modern, all of them drawing in good spirits and keeping bad spirits at bay. They seem to be doing a fine job in Okinawa.