As the flimsy boat slams down hard on the choppy waves, rain gushes in from all sides and I see, in the distance, a man walking on water. Is this the end?
Well, of course not. The man is walking on an enormous coral reef called Yabiji, in Japan’s Okinawa prefecture. Also known as “Illusion” or “Phantasmal” island, the reef appears for only a few hours each spring, at the lowest tides of the year. It’s visible first as a brown shadow – when anyone standing on it looks as if they’re walking on water – and then seems to rear up from the sea to form an astonishingly large island, out of the blue, out of the wet. By coincidence I have arrived just in time to witness its annual appearance.
I feel sorry for the sea creatures living here on Yabiji, half an hour’s boat trip from Miyako-jima, part of an island group that lies further south than Taipei. For the rest of the year, they live safely among the crevices and overhangs of the coral, with only natural predators such as sharks and tuna to worry about.
Then, suddenly, they are exposed to the air and to rapacious human scavengers, who flood onto the reef to hunt as the tide recedes, exposing shellfish and sea slugs, and trapping fish and other creatures. For many it’s too late. Boats loaded with revellers have already anchored in what are now shallow bays, and the first visitors are rowed ashore, dressed to kill in wetsuits, hats and gloves and carrying big baskets. The stranded creatures are sitting ducks.
When my friend, Etsuko Kikuchi, invited me on a boat trip the morning after I arrived in the Miyako Islands, I envisaged a Hong Kong-style junk jaunt, lazing on the deck in the sun, sipping wine and nibbling dumplings provided by second-rate caterers while Bohemian Rhapsody blared from the speakers. She neglected to mention the purpose of the trip wasn’t enjoyment as much as gathering seafood, that the boat was tiny with little or no protection against the elements and that the weather in this neck of the watery woods changes about 16 times a day, mostly between heavy and extremely heavy rain.
By the time we get to the still semi-submerged reef we are soaked, but Etsuko’s friends have brought bento – Japanese lunch boxes – containing excellent food, which I scoff happily, turning down only a beige and slimy shellfish that looks as if it could take my arm off. I don’t have to try absolutely everything just because I’m a tourist. Isn’t sitting drenched to the bone on a naked reef that could disappear at any minute adventurous enough?
The entire Miyako archipelago is an ancient coral reef that rose out of the sea and, unlike Yabiji, stayed out. There are no rivers and the only fresh water comes from an intricate web of underground reservoirs filled with rain that has seeped through the porous coral.
The highest point on the 1,259-square-kilometre archipelago is 100 metres above sea level, making the place perfect for the triathlons, marathons and ironman competitions that regularly take place here. With no rivers dumping their sediment, the turquoise water around the islands is crystal clear and ideal for diving and swimming.
Being the opposite of sportif, I had never heard of this subtropical gem until Etsuko-san invited me over. Miyako is home to 55,000 laid-back people, but it’s too small to find on most maps, and while it has an airport, you have to fly a long way north, to Okinawa, and then turn around and fly back south almost to Taiwan to land at it.
As soon as I beheld the little island, with its fluttering butterflies and unpaved roads, I hatched a plan to lobby for 90-minute direct flights from Hong Kong. But by the next morning I had changed my mind, thinking, “No one must know about this.”
Miyako-jima (the name literally translates as “palace ancient island”) is so charming, so quaint and so intriguing, it shouldn’t be overrun by tourists. There are no high-rises, few traffic lights and cars that are so small they look like toys and putter along at 50km/h, which is just as well because local parking habits leave a lot to be desired. On our many drives around the islands we frequently come across cars abandoned in the middle of the road – usually just around a blind bend. Because the driver has found something interesting to look at, perhaps, such as the lilies that grow wild everywhere, or has nipped into a field to gather sugar cane (Miyako’s prime industry) or tobacco leaves. “Outsiders” who complain about local driving habits are soon put in their place, as are people (me) who point out that wearing seatbelts isn’t only about avoiding fines, but also safety.
“If you don’t like it, you can clear off!” should be the motto of Miyako-jima, except that Etsuko and everyone else I meet is far too nice to say such a thing. Besides, other than the eccentric parking, no one would dream of committing a traffic transgression under the watchful gaze of the fibreglass policemen posted at intersections across the island.
I met Etsuko in the early 1990s, when I taught English to Japanese housewives in Hong Kong, in the days before the Japanese economy turned to mulch. One of the Japanese words I remember is “omawari-san”, or “mister walking around” (policeman). Pale and with surprisingly red lips, Miyako’s model policemen (known properly as mamoru-kun) stare emptily over the fields, looking for trouble, but with only 9.2 traffic accidents a month, they are not especially busy.
Naturally I fall in love with these strangely wistful-looking lawmen, and my admiration rockets when I hear one saved a man’s life by (allegedly) throwing itself in front of a car so the driver crashed into it instead of an oncoming truck. That omawari-san was repaired and promoted to stand outside Miyako police station, and the incident led to an outbreak of flowers and fan letters from all over the country for the brave, self-sacrificing … doll.
Toy policemen suit the otherworldly ambience of Miyako, which is laid-back to the point of lying down – the preferred position of flesh-and-blood islanders, who spend a lot of time reclining on weather-beaten chairs and sofas set on wooden platforms, from which they wave cheerfully as I pass. Even those who have emigrated from mainland Japan seem so different from the granite-faced, buttoned-up salarymen of Tokyo.
Could it have something to do with awamori? This strong local drink that isn’t sake originated in Thailand and is distilled from rice during a long, labour-intensive process from which it derives its name (awamori means “bubbling container”). Etsuko takes me to visit a distillery, Taragawa (“many fine rivers”), where we can see the process unfold.
Like most Japanese workers, the distillery men look cool in their headbands, aprons and boots. They patrol elevated catwalks over enormous steel tanks filled with hot grey sludge, which they stir with what look like long, wooden spoons. I ask if any have ever fallen into the vats, which would be not only unpleasant but probably fatal. Of course not, says the woman showing us around. She quickly changes the subject from death by boiling sludge by pointing to a selection of bottles with colourful labels that indicate the alcohol content of the liquid inside, which varies from 30 to 60 per cent.
“We bottle 2,400 a day, selling them all over …”
“… the world!” I add, helpfully.
“… the island,” she corrects me. “And there are five other distilleries on Miyako alone.”
I try to work out how much awamori each person on Miyako must put away every day. Even if the other distilleries are less productive than Taragawa, it’s … a lot.
Which might explain the friendliness of the locals. In one restaurant I am even treated to some of the “aggressive hospitality” I usually associate with drinkers of Chinese rice wine, baijiu, when a purple-faced man will try to get me to join him and his friends by yanking my arm. The difference is that the Miyakan takes no for an answer. Also, awamori is delicious, like a refreshing but not sweet dessert wine, while baijiu – how can I put this diplomatically? – is vile. I’m told national awamori day is November 2, and start planning my second trip to Miyako.
Of course, not everybody sits around drinking on condemned sofas when they want a good time. Miyako is full of excellent little establishments that are quite affordable, given the yen’s current exchange rate. Etsuko takes me to what looks like a souvenir shop but turns out to be a restaurant called Ganmarya (“a cheeky person”), which typically opens only at lunchtime. We have tuna sashimi so tear-inducingly good it spoils me for all other Japanese food.
Etsuko’s neighbour, Tsuyoshi Ashikawa, joins us, but in an effort to be hospitable, I accidentally pour Kirin beer into his awamori. Oh no, social death! But not to worry, “accidentally pouring beer into awamori” is a thing and in true Japanese style it has a name: biru haiboru (“beer highball”), which Ashikawa drinks happily.
Like every other restaurant we visit, here there are people playing the traditional Okinawan instrument sanshin (three strings) as naturally as wielding chopsticks, and singing haunting folk songs. Tokyoite Etsuko doesn’t understand a word.
The Miyako Islands have their own language and culture, which Tokyo has pretty much given up trying to suppress. The central authorities have also stopped building Shinto shrines, leaving the Miyakans to their native gods and secret shrines, of which there are so many that even the locals lose count. Among Miyako’s many tourist attractions is a seemingly non-stop stream of festivals and ceremonies dedicated to various gods, to give thanks and to pray for a bountiful harvest.
With their own language and culture, skill with instruments, festivals … could it be the Miyakans are an ethnic minority, who – I’ve learned during my many travels in China – tend to do a lot of singing and dancing, as well as some weaving and embroidery?
Etsuko says they have much more in common with Taiwan’s indigenous people than with the people of Japan’s main islands. That makes sense; Taiwan is so close you can throw rocks at it, if you’re feeling naughty, and even Chek Lap Kok is nearer than Narita.
Miyako has Chinese-style graves that look like little houses, Chinese roofs and Chinese lions perched on gateposts – but no gates. Miyakans no longer live in traditional sticks-and-cardboard houses. That’s because of all those typhoons that seem to be heading for Hong Kong, then veer sharply right; Miyako gets them all. To deal with the impracticality of having to rebuild after every typhoon, they started constructing concrete houses in the 1960s. Many of these weather-beaten structures look strangely art deco. They seem to crouch out of the wind, safe in the knowledge no typhoon can knock them down. Tsunamis are a concern, though, and there are signs everywhere indicating how many metres away the shoreline lies.
I’m lodging on Ikema (“pool room”), a small island just north of Miyako-jima. I feel like I’ve been transported into a John Steinbeck novel – Cannery Row, perhaps, but without the squalor. Connected to Miyako proper by a long, sleekly elegant bridge that was completed last year, this beautiful and charming echo from the past was the last of three islands (Irabu and Kurima being the others) to be given a concrete tether. Unfortunately, instead of attracting tourists, the bridge enabled the young people of Ikema to just drive away.
Although it feels good to be the youngest person on the island – according to Etsuko, the average age here is 70 – it is also strange and a bit disconcerting to walk around a place completely devoid of children and young people. Schools are closing all across the Miyako Islands and society is greying here as everywhere else in Japan.
Thanks to the new bridge, instead of waiting for a ferry, we get into Etsuko’s toy car and putter into town for dinner, accompanied by lots of awamori and semi-aggressive but polite hospitality. But how do we get back? Ikema is 25 minutes away and drink-driving is out of the question. Not a problem. Miyako has a husband-and-wife taxi service. The husband drives your car and his wife follows in hers.
The driver tells us off for being 10 minutes late to our rendezvous in a parking lot, but softens when I compliment his hair, the thickest and most exuberant I’ve ever seen. Each strand seems to elbow the others out in a fight for supremacy. Placated, he becomes quite mellow and giggles uncontrollably as he drives expertly through subtropical darkness penetrated only by stars, fireflies and our headlights.
On my last day, I climb to the island’s highest point, the Ikema Lookout, and come across a plaque proclaiming it was designated a historical site by the national government in 2007. This man-made hill was built in 1644 so the islanders could look out for fires and keep an eye on ships coming and going. The granite plaque is written in good English and looks made to last, but the footpath to the lookout is overgrown with weeds.
After fighting my way to the top, I see … almost nothing. Trees and bushes have taken back the land and obscured the view of the other islands. I sit, thinking about how the gloria mundi sic transits, and how this place, celebrated as recently as 2007, has already become so neglected, visited by no one.
I still can’t decide whether an international airport would be a good idea or not.