Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017

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Water buffalos on Taketomi Island cart tourists through the village daily without leaving a drop of dung on the sandy streets.

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Okinawan oddity

A tour of the Japanese islands that are not really like Japan

Taketomi Island is not where I expected to meet anyone under the age of 35. It’s a small, flat Okinawan island at the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago with a population of 323 and no more than a handful of cars. The main mode of transport is walking, cycling, tourist shuttle and water buffalo. I noted no nightlife whatsoever, outside of contemplating the sunset. Two things the island does offer are decent snorkeling and beaches, one with star-shaped sand made from the shells of minuscule crustaceans. Judging from their beach attire — leggings, long sleeves, hats and, just to be sure, sun umbrellas — I concluded that young Japanese don’t come here to suntan.

Yet like all the 160 islands that make up the Okinawa Prefecture, Taketomi attracts Tokyo’s future up-and-comers on daytrips as they look for Japan’s answer to a Caribbean getaway. They get the tropical or, depending where you are, subtropical highs, but also a look at a life that’s foreign to even most Japanese.

That’s largely because until 1879, Okinawa wasn’t Japan; it was the independent Ryukyu Kingdom. It had strong trade ties with China, but made little contact with Japan. The effects are still apparent. Traditional architecture displays Chinese influences. Many Okinawans prefer jasmine to green tea. To keep their roots alive, Okinawans speak their own dialect alongside Japanese. There’s even a popular kid’s superhero, Ryujin Mabuyer, who wins over his enemies entirely in Okinawan. The Okinawan difference was visible the minute I arrived: people are darker-skinned and have features all over the Asian map. I was in Japan, but not how I knew it.

Take me to Taketomi

To get a feel for Taketomi, I did what many visitors do: I took a water-buffalo tour of the village. This was a slow-moving, early-morning affair delivered in Japanese and Okinawan by an elderly man who guided the cart through a few sandy streets. Occasionally, he’d stop in front of a house to explain some of its traditional features. The tour’s highlight was a song he plucked on the sanshin, a three-string bango, still played today.

The Tokyoite sitting next to me couldn’t have been more than 20. At the end of the tour, he turned and asked what on earth I — the only one of two Westerners on the island — was doing this far from mainland Japan. And I thought he stuck out.

Japanese, Korean and Chinese travellers may know Okinawa, I explained, but Canadians still think of it as the setting of a certain grim battle. He laughed: “You know, this place is very different for us too.”

Different, but now easier to reach. When I went in January, I flew from Tokyo to Okinawa’s capital Naha on the main island, then took a smaller plane to the island of Ishigaki, and finally a 10-minute ferry to Taketomi. This all changed in March when the New Ishigaki Airport opened with a runway able to accommodate larger jets from the mainland.

And now the rare overnighter has a place to sleep too. Opened in 2012, the Hoshinoya Okinawa is run by a company respected in Japan for its regard for local customs and the environment: its resorts and inns serve local organic produce, are powered by self-sufficient energy sources, and focus on the traditional Japanese hospitality and customs of that area — with a good dose of luxury and mod cons thrown in.

The 48 low villas on the resort were built to look like the village: coral-rock walls surround each and conceal a private flower garden. Paths are maintained with white beach sand. Inside my villa, sliding doors opened to the bedroom. The bathroom was the size of my living room at home and the walk-in closet was complete with day pajamas and a yukata robe to wear at dinner. That evening, a large three-generational family showed up wearing their yukatas — a tradition that’s nearly unheard of these days. My favourite moments were lounging in the tatami-floored living room and contemplating what to do next on Taketomi.

Which wasn’t a lot. There are weaving workshops, which I passed on. I did borrow one of the resort’s bikes, however, to take to town. I had hoped to snorkel, but the weather permitted no more than a swim in the heated outdoor pool. I ran out of time for the calming morning boat ride, but attended a sanshin recital one evening — more plucking, a sound I would hear endlessly over the next week. There were a few activities revolving around the sunset and late-night sky viewing. I suspected this had something to do with the fact that Taketomi is only 24 degrees north of the equator so of the 88 constellations visible from earth, 84 can be seen from the island.

From seaweed to spam

I found my ultimate calming experience in the restaurant, which offered enough of an introduction to Okinawan food for me to develop a mild addiction. Here and elsewhere over the next week, I’d eat a lot of meals that included the firmer island tofu, slow-cooked pork, a whole lot of fish and miso soup. Woven throughout these meals were multiple uses of local vegetables, roots, flowers, herbs and seeds: goya (bitter melon), sea grapes found only in Okinawa and other local seaweeds, the kale-like handama and, of course, sweet potato (no Okinawa meal is complete without the purple potato).

I happily would have remained on Taketomi another day just to eat and finally snorkel. And I certainly wouldn’t have minded viewing some of the other small islands from an underwater perspective. Yonaguni has lots of hammerhead sharks. Miyako boasts the largest coral reef in Japan and the Kerama Islands are known among divers the world over. Iriomote is supposedly an over-water wonder called the Galapagos of the East because 90 percent of it is subtropical jungle that you can explore.

But the resort’s calming activities had done their trick — I was ready to see Naha, the capital, and the main island. There were obvious reasons to visit. Karate was invented there, and judging from people’s reactions whenever I’d mention it, it’s as huge as hockey is in Canada, albeit a lot less aggressive.

Okinawa also produces a steady stream of J-pop stars — more than any other area — thanks in part to that plucking sanshin sound. Today’s J-pop combines traditional rhythms with American rock and jazz to produce a distinct cowboy music.

Why are so many hits from here? After a couple of days touring the main island, I began to view Okinawans as the laidback relatives in an otherwise reserved family. But, given its 20th-century history, it wasn’t what I had expected. After 82 days, the so-called Typhoon of Steel, aka the Battle of Okinawa, left more than 240,000 dead and 90 percent of the buildings destroyed. If you wonder, like I did, why Spam is sold in souvenir shops and something called taco rice is on market menus, that’s because the islands were occupied by the US until 1972. Today, 18 percent of the main island is still controlled by the American military. Obviously many locals want the soldiers to go home, most recently because of Tokyo’s decision to relocate the marines to waters presently inhabited by a relative of the manatee, the critically endangered dugong.

The main attractions

The first place I visited in Naha was coincidentally the first to be rebuilt after the war. Kokusai Street, also called Miracle Mile, is downtown Naha, albeit not as dense with human traffic as most Japanese cities. I was with a Canadian friend who stopped to study the menu outside an Ishigaki steak house. He had vivid memories of the steak he ate there years ago.

Ishigaki beef, he explained, isn’t a taste one easily forgets. It’s so good, it reduces Kobe to the level of a McDonald’s burger. But it comes with a per-kilo price tag that only a privileged few can afford, so we set our sights on lighter fare at the nearby Makishi Public Market.

Here, one can sample all the local specialties: tumeric-infused salt, bitter honey, sea grapes, sweet-potato donuts and mineral-rich black sugar. The market has a large seafood area where you can point out a fish or sashimi, then have it cooked or sliced and brought to you in the restaurant.

But Naha is a city and I soon wanted out. My goal was to travel to a less populated, more forested area on the main island’s north. I wanted to see the ocean from the cliffs of Cape Manza and also to visit Gesashi Bay, a 10-hectare mangrove on the eastern coast. I also wanted to visit another Okinawan claim to fame: Ogimi Village, home to the world’s super-elderly and the focus of the 36-year Okinawa Centenarian Study (for more on Okinawa’s super-elderly: doctorsreview.com/features/okinawa-elderly.

Before heading north, I had to make a pit stop: Cape Maeda to snorkel. Here I met Noboru Furugen, an Okinawan who runs a dive-and-surf shop. His English was only slightly better than my non-existent Japanese. Interpreter-friends translated our conversations outside of the water. Once in the water though, I had no problem following his lead to Maeda’s underwater blue cave.

The best time to view a variety of fish is in August, but it’s also when the beach is teaming with people wanting to get in the water. The winter morning I went, the beach was deserted. The temperatures were ideal, the water was clear and I certainly got my visual fill of fish. I finally got to see Okinawa from the under the water.

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