The Yaeyama Islands that include Ishigaki, Taketomi, Kohama, Kuroshima, Hatoma, Aragusuku (Panari), Iriomote, Yubu, and Yonaguni islands lie at the very southern end of the Japanese archipelago, about 400 kilometers from Okinawa Main Island. Widely known for their natural beauty, gorgeous beaches, superb diving, and lush vegetation, the entire area is a jewel of nature valuable enough to be designated as the Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park to preserve it for future generations.
The culture of the Yaeyama islands is also a standout feature of this part of Okinawa and should not be overlooked. The region is famous for its rich musical heritage of song and dance, as well as for period piece village settings, such as Taketomi Island, where the time has seemingly stopped. It is well worth digging a little deeper into the traditional life of the Yaeyama Islands because there is a rich heritage, and it epitomizes a kind primitive cultural beauty that harks back to a distant time. Luckily parts of this can still be seen to this day.
DAY 1 An insight into the traditional culture with folk handicrafts and awamori
For those with interest in traditional folk handicrafts in the Yaeyama Islands, there is no better place to go than the Yachimun-kan Koubou (Yachimun Hall and Factory). Only a short drive from the airport, it is ideally located to spend a couple of hours either side of your plane trip to learn the finer points of straw weaving. Under the expert guidance of veteran weavers, it only takes a couple of hours to make a small placemat, and if you have more time to spare, you can even make baskets, woven sandals, and more.
The experience of just sitting down with some grandmothers, chatting away, and gently being shown the skill of weaving is a rare window into a much more relaxed pace of life. It is a way of life that would have changed little in the hundreds and even thousands of years since these islands were inhabited.
Often referred to as “island sake,” awamori is made and consumed throughout Okinawa and is a quintessential part of island life. For over 70 years, Takamine Distillery has been brewing some of the best awamori anywhere. A visit to the distillery is an excellent opportunity to learn about this iconic spirit. The distillery area is entirely open behind a long glass corridor, and you can see the workers going through their daily routine of fermenting and distilling, giving you a sense of how much care and craftsmanship goes into each bottle. Time your visit for just after lunch, and you are likely to see the most interesting parts of the awamori-making process. After that, be sure to also look around their shopfront to get exclusive access to their fine bottles, many only available on Ishigaki Island. Just one tasting was enough for me to become an ardent fan of their 3-year aged (Kusu) Omoto, and I can highly recommend it as a worthy souvenir of a visit to this quaint distillery.
After Takamine Distillery, make a quick detour to see the nearby magnificent view overlooking Kabira Bay, the vista of white sand, turquoise water, and lush green hills that will have you instantly reaching for your camera. Beneath the water lies a tropical treasure land, and a glass-bottom boat ride to see the vibrant coral and sea life is highly recommended.
DAY 2 Water buffalo and panari earthenware are a window into ancient Iriomote Island
To fully appreciate the depth of primitive culture, there is no better place than Iriomote Island. The island is famed for its lush subtropical forest and pristine nature, and home to such endangered species as the rare Iriomote Mountain Cat. It’s also a great place to experience outdoor activities. The island is home to some deep culture, and it’s well worth the effort to balance your outdoor activities with looking into the culture that harks back to a time long gone.
A highlight of any trip to Iriomote Island is a visit to Yubu Island, a tiny island only 1.5 meters above sea level, and the easiest way to cross the shallows separating the islands is by taking a carriage ride pulled by water buffalo. The driver’s rendition of local songs while playing the shamisen alone makes a visit to this subtropical plant paradise worthwhile. The island has not always been in pristine condition, though. A typhoon devastated it in 1969, and most residents abandoned it. A labor of love from two remaining residents has seen the island meticulously restored to its former glory, and the stark contrast between the sandy pathways and the lush surrounding vegetation seemingly transports you a million miles from busy city life. While thoroughly enjoying the spectacle of the magnificent flower gardens, a butterfly enclosure impressed me particularly, as their lightness and brightness of the butterflies seemed to encapsulate the beauty of my surroundings so elegantly.
If you travel to the northern tip of the island, you will find the Panariyaki Tenjikan (Panari Wares Exhibition Facility), which houses one of the most intriguing examples of primitive culture anywhere on the Yaeyama Islands. Panari ware, although less well known than Okinawa’s iconic yachimun pottery, is closer to “earthenware” than “porcelain.” Although archeologists are still working on the origins of panari, it seems to have been made by mixing clay soil with ground shellfish shells, hand-shaping an artifact, which is then fired over an open fire.
A visit to this rustic exhibition space gives an overview of the type of bowls and wares traditionally made using the panari method. To get a deeper understanding of the art, a visit to Beam Paris Kiln, the studio of local panari exponent Ms. Kayo, is also highly recommendable. There you can see her panari creation in action and even purchase some of her wares.
DAY 3 Shichi, a festival unchanged for centuries
Like all inhabited islands in Okinawa, a ritual celebration of the cycle of life plays an essential role on Iriomote Island, and the island has numerous festivals, both old and new in origin. However, the Shichi Festival is a bit special. Every fall (the date determined by the lunar calendar), two small villages, Hoshitate and Sonai, on the west coast of the island hold a festival that has continued for more than 500 years. The Shichi Festival is a harvest celebration giving thanks and wishes for a safe year and bountiful crop. It is a community event that brings people together for preparation and attracts former residents for a hometown pilgrimage. I have joined a growing number of tourists that are looking forward to seeing the colorful and ancient rites, and the ensuing spectacle proved to be well worth making the journey.
The central actor of this festival is the Miruku, a god of happiness and good fortune, the role of which is played by a village man. The villagers believe that happiness and good fortune come from across the ocean, and in the early morning, the Miruku leads a parade toward the shore. Costumed village men paddle their decorated boats out to sea to greet the approaching good fortune and are accompanied by song and dance on the shore to send them on their way. Later at the nearby “utaki” sacred site, there are reenactments of mythological tales filled with displays of martial prowess, singing, and boisterous activity as the children chase down Ohoho, a jovial character spreading cheer and giving gifts. After that, the Miruku parades again around the village, the whole community uniting in expectation of a good year ahead. As is appropriate, everyone has plenty of chances to feast and celebrate the community. The warmth and openness of this festival spread quickly amongst the outside observers, too.
Only an hour’s flight from Naha Airport, and with direct flights to major destinations on the Japanese mainland and within East Asia, it is easier than ever to make your way to the enchanting Yaeyama Islands. While the pull of the fantastic natural environment of these islands is clear, it’s essential to understand that the surrounding nature gave birth to a slower pace of life that visitors can still, in part, experience. Time spent digging into the primitive side of these islands can shine a light on a way of life that can stay with you long after you leave these shores.
Posted on February 21st, 2020
Text by Steve Jarvis
Steve Jarvis is a long-term resident of Japan who has recently relocated to the Okinawa Prefecture.