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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Paradise Found

There's a grouping of Japanese islands called one of the best islands to visit that you have never heard of, and I thought you should hear of it.

Welcome to Yaeyama Islands 八重山諸島, Yaeyama-shotō), a group of islands (known as an archipelago) that is southwest of Okinawa… or to be more precise, southwest of the Miyako islands that are part of the Ryukyu Islands archipelago.

The Yaeyama Islands cover an area of 591.46 kilometers (228.36 square miles), and are the farthest islands away from mainland Japan.
While there are a total of 32 island that make up the Yaeyama Islands archipalego, there are 12 islands that are inhabited... though one of them is OFFICIALLY considered uninhabited, it may UNOFFICIALLY be inhabited.

The inhabited islands are:
  • Ishigaki Island (Ishigaki-jima);
  • Aragusuku Island (Aragusuku-jima);
  • Hateruma Island (Hateruma-jima);
  • Iriomote Island (Iriomote-jima);
  • Kayama Island (Kayama-jima);
  • Kohama Island (Kohama-jima);
  • Kuroshima Island (Kuroshima);
  • Sotobanari Island (Sotobanari-jima)  - though called officially uninhabited;
  • Taketomi Island (Taketomi-jima);
  • Yubu Island (Yubu-jima); 
  • Hatoma Island (Hatoma-jima);
  • Yonaguni Island (Yonaguni-jima),
There are, according to Wikipedia, 32 islands in the chain, but some are merely tufts of rock with some vegetation sticking out of the water.

Yonaguni-machi (Yonaguni Town) is on Yonaguni Island; Taketomi-machi (Taketomi Town) is on Taketomi Island; and Ishigaki-shi (Ishigaki City) is on Ishigaki Island, which serves as the political, cultural, and economic head of the Yaeyama Islands.

Population of the islands is, as of March 31, 2011, 53,627 people... which means that over one square mile, there are 236 people (or 91 people over a square kilometer)... which sounds busy, but it's really not.

While Japanese is the second language spoken throughout the islands, the Yonaguni language is the indigenous language of Yonaguni-jima, while the Yaeyama language is the indigenous language of the rest of the islands.

How cool is that? The folks out here, if you asked them, do not primarily consider themselves to be Japanese. Neither do the Okinawans. I heard residents of Okinawa state that on an episode of the CNN show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.   

Aside from fishing and farming, the island natives create traditional Okinawan textiles, and maybe after this, some tourism, but from what I can tell from the image at the top, vacation cruise ships might do a fly by the islands, with a stop to let them off and look around, but as of yet, there are no hotels there.

Edible vegetation on the island includes pineapples and sugarcane.

The islands also sport some nifty coral reefs, which is why there are plenty of dolphins, manta rays, whale sharks and sea turtles.

However, proving that man is man no matter where you place him/her, the Yaeyama islands was also once home to a sizable population of whales and dugongs before hunters exterminated them.

The dugong is one of four living species of the order Sirenia, which also includes three species of manatees (aka sea cow). Sirenia... as in the mermaid sirens who would call to sailors with their siren song, luring the boats onto the coral reefs to smash. 
These Yaeyama islands once possessed one of the largest populations of dugongs in the Ryukyu Islands. The dugongs were hunted for their meat and oil within their body. The entire dugong species, each critter having a life of 70 years or more, is considered to be a species vulnerable to extinction.

On Aragusuku Island, there is a shrine dedicated to the area's dugongs that were hunted to extinction in the area, complete with dugong skulls. Some of the locals pray to the spirit of these creatures—perhaps in atonement, and will chase off non-natives who try to enter the shrine.

The Yaeyama Islands follow the general Ryukyuan religion, a form of shinto known as: Ryukyu Shinto (琉球神道), Nirai Kanai Shinkou (ニライカナイ信仰), or Utaki Shinkou (御嶽信仰).

Like all shinto religions, it is a respect for all things living, dead, the gods and spirits of the natural world.... which may be why they are very touchy about their role in killing off the local dugong population and thus killing off the shinto dugong spirit.

For those with a yen for adventure (it ain't cheap), the Yaeyama Islands offer great places to dive in an area largely unspoiled by machination.

For those who simply want to lie on a beach, you might want to check out Kaiji Beach (Taketomi-jima), where the grains of sand are hoshi-suna, literally star-shaped.

Hoshi-suna sand. Image from
However, the beach itself is covered in jagged rocks, and though the travel agent promos rave about the star-shaped sand, but it's not like the place is full of it... it's there, but in limited quantities, and you may have to search a bit. The sand grains are supposed to be between one and two millimeters in size.

And yes, the star-shaped sand grains are actually teeny-tiny shells. 
Anyhow, if searching for and lying on a pointy shelled rocky beach isn't your cup of o-cha (green tea), I suppose there's the really fresh food, though I would imagine it's going to be a lot of sea food, pineapple and sugarcane-related tastes.

Oooh... you can rent a bike to ride around an island... obviously the big one, Ishigaki Island, and I suppose you can ride on a water buffalo drawn cart.

That's pretty much it... but dammit, you are heading to one of those islands few people on the planet have ever heard of.

Oh, and if you do happen to be in the area as of July 14 (check the date, before you make plans, though) on Hateruma Island, the Mushaama Matsuri (Festival) is held, which has the standard parade of people in festive costumes honoring Miruku, a local fertility god.

I'm unsure if that means there will be a lot of giant phallic symbols or not. Be prepared. Bring your own.

Andrew Joseph

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