It is in its Yaeyama island group, Japan stalks the Tropic of Cancer. And on clear days, from Yonaguni, the Japanese island that ventures the most to the southwest, you can even see the Taiwan, Republic of China “rebel” crossed by him.
Moments after landing in Ishigaki, we confirmed that this was by far the most developed and inhabited territory in the archipelago.
In the Japanese ends of the North Pacific
Once handed over to their natives, these faraway places have recently suffered a tree of Japanese domestic tourism, fueled by curious vacationers who opt for domestic destinations over Japan's most adored foreign beaches: Boracay, El Nido and others in Philippines, waikiki, on Hawaii, among others.
The foreigners who come here can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. This explains why we feel more observed in three or four hours in Ishigaki than in several months spent in northern Japan.
Visitors to Yaeyama start, like us, by landing in Ishigaki. From there, it takes ultra-fast ferries or short flights to the satellite islands, almost all of them lavish in their bucolic, wild and peculiar maritime settings. Before that, it is customary to walk around and bathe your feet. We didn't have ours well settled on the island.
Even so, if it gave, we were willing to make a recreation worthy of the name. Kabira Bay deserved it and more. Strange as it seemed to us before, Japan did have the irresistible marine nooks like that.
Kabira Bay's Emerald Green Surprise
At Kabira Bay, we found waters protected from the great ocean by a front of forested sandbanks. Translucent waters, tinged with bright greens and blues by a bed of coral origin and by the plunging sun. Waters where graceful shoals of manta, dolphins, whale sharks and conventional sharks glide, some of the species most feared by divers.
Kaori Kinjo, the guide who accompanied us in Ishigaki and the rest of Yaeyama that we would visit, assures us that this was the best place to “perceive” the configuration and colors of the bay. It does so in English, quite clearly. Although, in a good Japanese way, I feel that you are not qualified and feel some shame.
So, for most of our stay, Seiko Kokuba, a full-time translator, is at your service.
Kaori Kinjo was originally from the Japanese Prefecture of Tochigi. A few days later, there we would be dazzled by the Nikko's secular temples and the Shunki Reitaisai Spring Festival.
At one point, he moved to the tropical south of Japan. There he found well-paying work at Okinawa's large Aquarium, until 2005, the largest in the world. Seiko Kokuba already lived in the Philippines where he worked at an NGO and learned to speak half English, half the Tagalog dialect, as the Filipinos do.
He had the ambition to go to study in the UK but the family could not sustain that dream. Instead, he moved to India and was there practicing his English. born and raised in Tokyo, married a man of Okinawa and settled in Ishigaki, where Japan is always in summer.
A Bay Little or Nothing to Bathe
We arrived mid-morning. It is damp, oppressive heat. Still, we don't see a soul in the water, just the occasional groups of friends or families strolling on the chalk sand, the occasional barefoot with their pants rolled up, with the warm China Sea reaching them at most. knees.
We asked the cicerones why nobody bathed in those dream waters. Only half of the answer surprises us. “Well, there are two reasons: one is that most Japanese people still haven't fully surrendered to Westerners' bathing leisure.
The other, the main one, is that, on the one hand, there are nurseries of hypervaluable black pearl oysters in the bay and the producers want them to be protected, even if those waters are part of the vast National Park Iriomote-Ishigaki.
Also, for safety's sake, the operators of these pleasure boats that you see lined up down there are also a little overturned so that people bathe along the routes that the boats use all the time.
Waikiki, Hawaii: the Bathing Destination of Choice
In good Japanese fashion, no visitor breaks the rules. To compensate, such a fleet of glass bottom boats is always ready to show visitors the coral bottom and fauna of the China Sea.
We listen carefully. We take into account the grounds and the vastness of the bay. As inveterate bathers that we are, we assume the ethno-egoism and that everything sounded above all like enormous waste.
As for the first explanation, that of contempt for going to the baths, it could even be like that in Japan. But the year before, we had passed through Waikiki, a bathing extension of the Hawaiian capital Honolulu.
There we saw the pine cone beaches of Japanese whiter than the sand of Kabira Bay, having fun clinging to buoys and lying on inflatable mattresses, in the middle of the North Pacific. There were so many Japanese bathers that from there we brought the impression that, almost 80 years after the boldness of Pearl Harbour, the Japanese had returned and had seized Hawaii.
The Possible Compensation of the Glass Bottom Boat
As frustrating as the prohibitive sign we bumped into at the entrance to the sea sounded, like the Japanese, we too were covered by the restriction. Kaori and Seiko feel some frustration in the air. As a reward, they inform us that they have arranged a tour on one of the glass-bottom boats that show the bay's bottom.
It wasn't quite the same thing, but as a gift horse you don't look at the teeth, considering that we would take it mainly as a cultural experience, we boarded there in the midst of a group of families and friends excited about evasion.
The boat starts by moving for about 15 minutes at a considerable speed. At a pace, even so, much faster than that of the childish Japanese narration that illustrated the nautical tour.
When we reach an area with shallow water, corals and ideal transparency, it goes into a kind of slow motion. All of a sudden, the bottom glass turns into mobile aquariums.
Passengers lean over parapets decorated with captioned images of the fauna and flora they are supposed to see there, installed above the glass bottom.
From time to time, one or several bright fish appear in the framing of the corals and fill the boat with life and suck- suck, the unavoidable term for whenever the Japanese are confronted with something cool or that amazes them.
Short Vacations to Japanese Fashion
Some of the passengers on board will be typical salarymen with ten or twelve days of vacation, possibly the first ones spent at the beach. They enjoy the deep sea, the trumpet fish, the clownfish and the like with an almost hypnotic awareness symptomatic of the liberation from the business, corporate and suit and tie worlds in which they have been spending too much time.
The boat takes another turn around the other side of the sandbars, still inside the great coral reef that surrounds much of Ishigaki. It returns to the bay through the central channel through which we had left and anchors with its sharp prow on the wet sand of the coast. Passengers disembark one by one, each surrendered to the sultry delight of the island.
Truth be told, even just recently discovered by the Japanese and visited by very few gaijin (foreigners) Ishigaki gives so much more. Both the diving sites and the beaches around the island are world class.
The rugged interior hides wild trails that wind and rise and fall from sea level to 526 meters of Mount Omoto-dake, the highest point on the island.
Kaori and Seiko collect them from the boat. They take us to an elevated viewpoint from which we can admire almost the entire island, in the good manner of those of French Polynesia, surrounded by a ring of emerald-green reef well demarcated from the deep ocean.
The settings, the warm and humid atmosphere have long attracted the island group of Yaeyama and Ishigaki in particular a minority of Japanese alternative lives, those who never fit into the quasi-slave labor system of the big Japanese cities or, at one point, against he rebelled.
Some, as Seiko did, descend mainly from the mother island Honshu – by far the most modernized in Japan – in search of a sentimental, existential caress, of a freedom that their compatriots do not even realize exists. In an exceptional case, one evasion turned out to be far more radical than the others.
Yasuao Hayashi's Ultimate Refuge from the deranged Sect Aum
In 1997, twenty one months later and more than 3000km from the scene of the crime, to the astonishment of the natives and residents, Yasuao Hayashi was captured in Ishigaki. He was the oldest member (37 years at the time of the attack) of the group from the Ministry of Science and Technology of Aum Shinrikyo, the malevolent sect that carried out the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway.
In the tropics, however summer it may be, it gets dark early. The day was drawing to a close. Eager to return to the familiar peace of their lives, Kaori and Seiko signaled to us that it was time to return to the city.
On the way, we stopped at an unobstructed agricultural property. The duo of guides informs us that they would like to show us the conglomerate's vegetable garden (also for tourism for which they worked).
We entered. We follow them. We are amazed by extensive plantations of very yellow pineapples. We move to a greenhouse zone.
From the Quinta do Grupo Hirata to the Sossego Nocturno at the Rakutenya Inn
In one of them, dressed in a green bean t-shirt, blue-green trousers tucked into white galoshes and still equipped with gloves, a man in his fifties works, eventually sixty but well preserved. “He is the owner of Hirata!, transmits Kaori to us, before introducing him. "There's a beautiful farm here!" we brag about it, in English, with Seiko's immediate translation. …..
The interlocutor smiles, bows gratefully and shows us the lush courgettes he was dealing with. We exchange a few more polite phrases until the owner of the place recommends the maids to show us the rest of the plantations.
Kaori rushes the task. Then, it takes us to the urban core of Ishigaki, arranged around the port. We return to the Rakutenya guest-house that had welcomed us on arrival in Naha, the capital of Okinawa.
The owners, a couple of Japanese hippies, one of those who fulfilled their Japanese dream in the south, welcome us to the inn, installed in a wooden and coral stone house built in 1930, partly in the characteristic architectural style of Okinawa and the Yaeyama Islands, one of hundreds that we would see in one of the following destinations: the delicious little island taketomi.
Before, we still explored Iriomote, the last Japanese frontier when it comes to tropical adventure. They were both other stories.