Japan's Remote Southwest Islands

Werner Zehnder, July 2003

Map of Okinawa, Japan

In April 2004 our Japan by Sea expedition departs aboard the Clipper Odyssey. In addition to exploring the Inland Sea and Kyushu and Honshu Islands, we travel for the first time to Okinawa and other islands of the Nansei-shoto, or Southwest, group. In the following article, Zegrahm cofounder Werner Zehnder recounts his recent experiences there.

I have always enjoyed traveling in Japan. The serene countryside and gardens; castles and temples with rich, deep histories; and most importantly, the attention to detail and order translated into the architecture reflecting the forces of nature and spirit, the precise, eloquent poetry, the flowing and graceful movements of their artisans, and the delicate sumptuousness of Japanese cuisine, have always held great appeal for me. Yet, until this past April, I had never ventured south of the country's major islands, a journey my wife, Susan, and I undertook to scout locations for next year's voyage.

Lying just above the tropic of Cancer, a few degrees north of Hawaii, Okinawa is quite distant from Japan proper. This isolation means that it and its near neighbors are largely unknown to foreign travelers. We went days without seeing another Western face. What we did see, and will share with you next April, were emerald seas bordering subtropical islands that hold an array of flora, topography, and climate, with a history and culture far removed from mainstream Japan.

Once independent of Japan, the archipelago was known as the Kingdom of Ryuku. Trade with China and Southeast Asia influenced its architecture and dress, and Okinawa developed a unique dialect and distinctive forms of pottery, textiles, and lacquer ware. In addition to viewing everyday life, we will visit the reconstructed Shuri Castle, tour a pottery museum, and enjoy excellent views of marine life at the Churaumi Aquarium. No mere collection of fish tanks, the aquarium has a tank holding 7,500 tons of water and is the first facility to successfully raise whale sharks. These, as well as manta rays and a myriad of other fish, swim above us as we observe them from behind an enormous transparent wall. The experience is akin to walking on the sea floor itself.

It's impossible to discuss Okinawa without mentioning World War II. The island was the site of the only land battles on Japan soil. These were savage affairs, even when judged against the other battles in the Pacific. Over three months, roughly a third of the island's inhabitants, over 100,000 people, were killed, and nearly every structure razed (hence the reconstructed castle). The peace memorial and museum present exhibits detailing the destruction, as well as the hope for a peaceful world. Rows of marble walls are arranged in concentric circles on the museum's grounds. Inscribed on these are the names of the dead, Japanese, Okinawan, American, who perished during the "typhoon of steel." Similar to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D. C., these walls serve as compelling reminders of the human cost of war.

Departing Okinawa we headed north to Amami and Yaku Islands. Our landings here during next spring's expedition will add a natural-history element to our travels, complementing our more-cultural pursuits farther north. On Amami, a mountainous island draped in vegetation and fringed by reefs, we may either explore Japan's northernmost mangrove forest via kayak or, from the vantage of a glass-bottom boat, view a multitude of fish threading among the more than 300 types of coral.

Amami is also the source of Oshima Tsumugi, a form of textiles, its patterns drawn from the shapes of the indigenous sago palm and habu snake. Craftspeople, using a dye that combines tannic acid extracted from yeddo hawthorn trees and iron-rich mud, create kimonos hailed as among the finest in Japan.

Yaku is the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan, and the reason is readily apparent. More than 40 mountains rise from this tiny island. The vast difference in altitude between the shoreline and the heights causes a varying climate, including a rain forest, home to giant cedars and more than 1,000 plant species. Our excursion in this botanist's dream will reveal a lush topography cut by ravines and adorned with waterfalls. Animals here include macaques, monkeys noted for their almost human faces.

Those wishing to further explore this little-known corner of the world should join Mason Florence on our Yaeyama Island pre-extension. Mason has years of experience in the region and accompanied Susan and me on our scouting trip. He will reveal the ways of life and exotic flora and fauna of islands even more remote than Okinawa. If Okinawa sees few Western travelers, the Yaeyamas are almost completely unexplored.

Traveling to Okinawa, Amami, and Yaku was a revelation for me. I thought myself well acquainted with Japan's attractions, yet my time in the southwest archipelago greatly enlarged my knowledge and appreciation of the Land of the Rising Sun. Please join us next April and experience these islands, and their northern neighbors, for yourself.

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