Friday, May 6, 2011


We're back from the Yaeyama islands in Okinawa, with sunburns, bottles of awamori and black sugar umeshū, pineapples and bananas, sand absolutely everywhere, and with piles of laundry and an even bigger piles of work awaiting us at home. It'll be a while before I do a picture post on the trip; I have four rolls of 120-format film and two underwater single-use cameras to develop and scan, and I have a backlog of work that really takes precedence.

The Yaeyama islands in Okinawa are the southernmost and westernmost part of Japan; closer to Taiwan than to Okinawa itself, to say nothing of Honshu. We visited Ishigaki island - population of almost 50000 people, and with a convenient direct flight from Osaka; Taketomi island just ten minutes by ferry from Ishigaki; and Iriomote, the largest island of Yaeyama and second in size only to Okinawa itself but with a population of only about 2000.


  • We're spoiled with reliable weather forecasts here in Osaka. In Yaeyama, the forecast matched reality only a few times and then only by random chance. Even the current weather was wildly off; the first two days the weather agency reported clear blue skies even as we faced heavy clouds with occasional rain showers. The latter part of the week was supposed to be mostly rain but we had mixed clouds and sunshine with hardly a drop from the sky.

    One reason is probably a lack of data. These are small islands in a large ocean, and you don't have many weather stations out on the open sea. But the main reason is that the weather just isn't very predictable. It can swing from sunshine to rain then back again within an hour, and the same small island can have very different weather, with clear skies on one end and a rain storm on the other.

    The lesson is, don't rely on a good weather forecast on one hand, and don't let a bad forecast deter you on the other.

  • Minshuku - guest houses - or small family-run hotels are great places to stay. Service and general standards isn't always a match for a regular hotel or resort of course, but it's more personal and approachable. The food too, if meals are included, is always more interesting and memorable than bland hotel fare. The service tends to be more personal too; the owner of Iriomote Island Hotel brought a group of us up a nearby mountain at dusk to see the fireflies one night for instance.

  • I have to revise my opinion of Okinawan soba noodles. I tried them twice on my single previous overnight trip to the islands and found them bland and fatty, even disagreeable. This time we had soba a number of times - at soba restaurants, as part of our set meals - and they were invariably delicious. Maybe I had bad luck with them on my previous trip, or perhaps I have broadened my culinary horizons since. Or, perhaps, Yaeyama-style soba and Okinawa-style soba are different. I'm going to Okinawa for work this summer so I guess I'll find out then.

  • Habu, the poisonous snake, is a real danger, but one I am less worried about now than before the trip. About a hundred people get bitten every year and people can die from a bite, though nobody has in the past few years. The snakes are mostly nocturnal so bring a good flashlight - the light will help you see them in time, and will scare them away before you ever get close. Other advice is along the lines of: don't stick your hands or feet into a dark hollow, especially if it hisses; stay away from the edge of the road at night; and don't try to pick up a snake while drunk.

    A hundred cases per year in all of Okinawa, an island chain with a population of over 1.3 million people, and maybe twice that when you add all the tourists. Very few people actually get bitten in other words, and they tend to not have followed the basic safety advice above. Keep the danger in mind, be a little careful and you'll be fine.

  • Many, perhaps most, tourists come for fishing, diving and snorkelling. If I fish at all, I prefer low-intensity angling - throw out the hook and float, wedge the pole in a tree, then go to sleep for a few hours - so Hemingwayish deep-water fishing is not really my thing. Diving is a serious equipment sport with bagfuls of expensive stuff to haul around, and you need a medical examination, a safety course and a license to even begin. Snorkelling, on the other hand, is light on both equipment and preparation, so Ritsuko suggested we get masks and snorkels and try some shallow water snorkelling.

    We did, and it is amazing - extraordinary - even without fins and just paddling around in chest-deep water at the inner edge of the coral reef right next to the beach. Snorkelling alone is reason enough to travel to Okinawa, and I can't wait to go again. I'm entertaining the idea of summers spent snorkelling on Iriomote and winters snowboarding in Hokkaido once I retire. Only 23 years to go...

  • A substantial proportion of Yaeyama islanders, younger ones especially, are from outside Okinawa province. Many people we talked with came from Kanto, Kansai or other areas on Honshu. Some people had a previous connection to the islands; they were born there but moved to the mainland as children, or they or their spouse had relatives in Okinawa. Other immigrants have no previous connection. The owner of Iriomotes only ramen place is an avid diver and moved from Tokyo with his wife and children to live close to the excellent diving areas. The sea, the relaxed lifestyle and the climate all bring people from other parts of Japan.

  • Awamori is the local drink, a distilled rice wine similar to shōchū, but made with long grain rice and a different yeast culture. It's quite pleasant when you cut it with water and ice, or with hot water for a toddy. Orion beer is everywhere of course, but Yaeyama also has a local microbrewery with a good weissbier.

The trip was a rousing success. Golden Week really isn't the best time of year; june or october-november supposedly has better weather and even warmer water. Taketomi is a bit, well, touristy. Ishigaki is a pleasant town and works great as a base for visiting the other islands. Next time I want to revisit Iriomote, and perhaps also go to Yonaguni, the westernmost island in the chain, and the westernmost point of Japan. Next time.


  1. I think what you call "black sugar" is more likely known as "brown sugar" in English. In any case, I'm jealous.

  2. Ah, thanks. I've heard "brown sugar", I think, but "black sugar" (the direct translation) doesn't sound odd to my ears so I didn't notice I was using the wrong term.

    I'll just let it stand for now. Always good to leave something for people to pounce on. ^_^

  3. Sounds great trip! 23 years to go hahaha I have 26 damn it! :D

    The great suggestion of "and don't try to pick up a snake while drunk." is great, we can even replace the sanek with various objects, animal and non animal like..poo, granade, death laser beam...and it will always sound like great advise :D

    Have you ever tried the Tokyo style ramen? It smells like wet dog but it tastes great :D

    Anywhoo...great trip and hope to see pictures...eventually :D

  4. I think the Habu scare is mainly a cultural thing - it seems to be part of Okinawan identity to warn visitors about the dangerous snakes. For comparison, about 200 people per year are treated in Sweden for bites by the common Adder, but that's such a non-issue here that nobody would consider warning a tourist about them. Again, most bites are due to stupid and/or drunk people trying to pick the snake up.

    But when it comes to the sea, Okinawa has some much more dangerous creatures, e.g. Stone fish, Lion fish, Cone snails, Blue-ringed octopuses, and Box jellyfish. Brrrr...

    Oh, and I remember the Okinawan soba. Not something I'm longing to try again - tasted like a boiled hog.

  5. "For comparison, about 200 people per year are treated in Sweden for bites by the common Adder,"

    Yep, no wonder CPU designers are so well paid; they need the risk premium. ^_^

    But while I sort of agree with your sentiment, the Swedish huggorm is rather more harmless than the habu; unless you're sensitive to the venom the greatest risk is from getting tetanus from the bite. A habu bite, on the other hand, can be fatal or give you permament damage, and will need several days of hospitalization even in the best of cases.

    As for the other dangerous species most of them do not go out of their way to hurt you. Lion Fish, Crown of Thorns, Cone snails and so on are harmless unless you're dumb or inattentive enough to actually touch, handle or step on one. If you don't touch anything you don't know what it is - especially if colorful, unafraid and bristling with spikes - you avoid most dangers. If you follow land rules in water and avoid poking into hollows or step in crevasses you avoid most remaining ones.

    The one thing I'm still really worried about is box jellyfish. Of course, they're spread throughout south Asia, and millions of people manage to hit the beaches and dive sites every year without getting stung. But they really are the one thing that seems hard to really do much about except hope you don't run into one.

    I had the same negative experience with Okinawan soba as you when I visited the main island. This time it was dramatically different. The Yaeyama islands are quite far from Okinawa, so I wonder if the food culture may be different? Where did you go - the main island or somewhere else? I'll find out when I go to Onna in June; while I'll mostly eat cafeteria food or possibly cook at work, there should be opportunity to sample the soba again and find out.

  6. Australia like South Africa has a long and interestingly varied list of venomous snakes. There as everywhere else, most bites are from drunk men playing with snakes.. the list of precautions against snakebite at AVRU
    - leave snakes alone
    - do not handle snakes while intoxicated
    Golly, who would have guessed ?

    Box jellyfish are alarming but mostly are not lethal. My brother swam into one in Aus, said it was a very unpleasant morning but that was all.

    He did warn me against the blue-ring octopus as I went out fishing. There again, "Bites generally only occur if the octopus is removed from the sea and put in contact with skin." That is, stupid human tricks..

  7. Douglas, thanks for the comment.

    As you say, as a group we humans seem to have a bottomless ability to put ourself into perfectly preventable danger. Makes you wonder how we ever managed to survive long enough to become the dominant species.

    I'm not too worried about blue-ringed octopuses. Unless you actually try to touch or handle them they're not going to bother with you, and according to Wikipedia there's only been three recorded deaths total from that species. I'll avoid them if I ever see one, but that's about it.


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