Good Medicine Islands: sleeping wild on Okinawa and Iriomote

a.k.a. down and out in the Yaeyama Islands

Iriomote jima, one of the Yaeyama Islands
“The Year of the Tiger… is definitely an explosive year. It usually begins with a bang and ends with a whimper. A year earmarked for war, disagreement and disasters of all kinds. But it will also be a big, bold year. Nothing will be done on a small, timid scale. Everything, good and bad, can and will be carried to extremes. Fortunes can be made and lost. If you take a chance, gamble for high stakes, but understand that the odds are stacked against you.” — Theodora Lau, Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes (Harper & Row Publishers, 1988).

The year 1998 certainly did roar in like a tiger. In January, my fiancée — let’s call her Alice, like the character from Peter Pan — and I returned to Montreal just in time for what would later be called The Great Ice Storm. While we were away, a couple of inches of freezing rain dropped millions of trees, 1000 electrical pylons, 35,000 utility poles, and several thousand kilometres of power lines from southeastern Ontario to New Brunswick which, at its peak, left 4 million people without electricity and 100,000 forced to seek shelter. In Montreal, the verglas caked cars, roads, and sidewalks transmogrified the city into a frozen winter wonderland. During the day, stores, offices, schools — including my university — stayed closed as volunteer hydro crews and soldiers worked to restore power. At night, blackouts meant candles flickered in windows along main-street Boulevard St.-Laurent. Alice and I hunkered under a blanket in our apartment — an island of heat and light in a sea of darkness — and planned our future together: teaching English in Prague, in Japan, in Micronesia, in…

Flash forward eleven months, and once again Alice and I stayed under blankets while the world outside slipped into a deep freeze — though now half a world away from blighted Montreal. We exchanged our sublet three storey walkup in the hip, French Plateau neighbourhood of Montreal for an uninsulated cabin with an oil stove and an outhouse on the outskirts of a small city in rural, remote frontier Hokkaido: Japan’s northernmost and least populated main island, closer to Russia than Tokyo, a place of active volcanoes and brown bears, and champagne powder snow — metres and metres of the stuff.

The interceding months between the Ice Storm and our first winter in Japan had certainly been the stuff of a “big, bold year.” I finished my MA, and Alice accepted a post as an ALT, an Assistant Language Teacher, with the Japanese government’s JET Programme to, in their words, “help internationalize the countryside.” We married in Toronto and Calgary, and, after orientation training in Toronto flew to Japan. Alice traveled business class courtesy of the Japanese government while I sat back in economy which, in retrospect, kind of sums up how things would be: Alice would “bring home the tofu,” so to speak, until I found a teaching post of my own, hopefully at a university. Meantime, I would revise my Master’s thesis, “a post-punk, post-apocalyptic love story” sequence, into a publishable manuscript, pay off my considerable student loans, and together raise a grubstake for our next adventure…

What we didn’t figure on was Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost frontier island. Sapporo, the regional capital, is a city of almost two million people — not so different from my hometown, Toronto — and even had a decent university and a number of smaller colleges. But Nayoro, Alice’s JET-sponsored host town, was knee-deep in the countryside: a three-hour train trip to Sapporo. The closest university to our new home was a couple of hours away — and anyways not hiring. We settled into a routine: Alice off to school, I wrote in the spare room. Weekends, we tended a small garden of lupins and cedar trees, visited other ALTs scattered about the countryside, and hiked in the mountains.

Hokkaido’s hot summer and early autumn was familiar enough. Turns out, however, that northern Japan is one wintery place, and rural Hokkaido one of the coldest regions in Japan. In fact, Hokkaido is one of the snowiest areas in the world: Our host city, Nayoro, averaged 890 centimeters (350.5 inches) of snow each year — more than the regional capital of Sapporo which, at 597 cm (235 in.) is ranked the second snowiest city in the world. We braced old wooden pallets against the walls of the house to keep the drifts from bursting through the windows. Later in the season, I would watch the neighbours shovel snow from the slick metal roofs. It was a treacherous business, apparently: every spring, a few missing locals were discovered in the snowbanks around their houses.

Despite such promising titbits, such local colour, my writing stalled. The stories I’d written back in Toronto and Montreal, the characters I’d developed, didn’t make the trip across the Pacific. Turns out, they needed their part-time jobs and basement bachelor apartments to survive. Urban angst just didn’t cut it among Japan’s mountains and rice paddies, in Hokkaido’s strong island light.

But this… homesteading was not an adventure worthy of the year of the tiger. Four months in-country, we were ready for a change of scene. Most of the other ALTs had already lit out for the holidays, to Thailand or Laos or Vietnam: exotic locales we’d all discussed excitedly back in Canada.

Now we were half-way around the world from home, however, Alice and I decided we wanted something different, something even more off the beaten path for our belated honeymoon. We splashed out on plane and ferry tickets and travelled all the way south, south, south, almost to Taiwan, to Okinawa and Iriomote, two islands in Japan’s distant tropics, thousands of kilometres from snowbound Hokkaido. Once there, we’d sleep wild on the beach or in the rainforest, wherever we happened to be when night-time caught us up…

We left Naha, a half-dissolved city of steakhouses and army surplus stores on Okinawa`s southwest coast, on a ferry loaded with tour groups and honeymooners, and out-islanders packing new TVs and rice cookers. At Ishigaki Island, Alice and I loaded our backpacks, full of lentils and brown rice, onto a smaller ferry, not much bigger than a school bus, and made the short hop to Iriomote. And promptly fell off Japan’s well-marked tourist circuit.

Out on the sand flat, an inky Pacific retreated around my feet. All the way back to Okinawa, as far as I could tell, or maybe even to main-island Japan. Perhaps the wavelets that lapped my ankles would wash up on the piney west coast of Canada, the home I’d left four long months before. In the other direction, back on the beach, our tent glowed pumpkin orange against the dusky, dark green backdrop of the jungle, and a low, purpling volcano. There Alice waited. A pair of storks etched their way across the darkling canopy. A good sign, I thought: they mate for life.

At the opposite end of the sand a beachcombers’ fire flickered holiday red and green where a small gang of beachcombers had pushed dome tents and driftwood huts into the jungle. Some of the beachcombers spent their days working the nearby sugar cane plantations; others gathered firewood along the high-water mark, or shellfish on the gently sloping beach. Life on this strip of sand between jungle and sea was as temporary and provisional as the hermit crabs that tumbled and fell among the rocks all day and dug themselves a new burrow each night.

Alice and I spelunked antediluvian coves and climbed dinosaur ferns. On warmer days, we skinny-dipped in green-tea water, unaware that deadly habu box jellyfish are found in the area. Startled cranes made exclamation points against the green-glowing forest canopy and mossy cliffs. The night tide lapped our sandcastles, and the trees exuded a warm breath that infected our imaginations.

Surrounded by this Jurassic Park of sea and sand and jungle, I could hardly believe I was still in the same country as the frozen pipe of a cabin, buried now under a couple of metres of finest champagne powder snow, Alice and I now called home.

Life on a beach, even a semi-tropical one, under an unchanging blue sky, is measured by the ebb and flow of the tides. After a week of this steady saltwater rhythm, we grew anxious to explore the rest of the island. The wading birds on the sand flats at dawn, and the green and gold finches that darted through our campsite, were the wildest animals we had yet seen. Even the horned cows in the open pastures we passed on the way into town seemed thoroughly domesticated. This was still not adventuring worthy of the Year of the Tiger.

Iriomote’s north shore is exposed to the winds that blow in off the Pacific and the East China Sea. Here, the jungle gives over to grazing land and pineapple plantations. On a grassy rock bluff overlooking a lagoon and the pounding sea, a motley group of travellers had made camp. We pitched tent in a windbreak of palms, close to the other tents, and in the evening gathered around the communal fire at the high-tide mark. That evening, we passed a bottle of Japanese whisky and exchanged ghost and travel tales.

Iriomote’s remoteness, its Lost World status, attracts a curious group of travellers Japanese and foreign. Around the fire, stories were told, of backpacking the Karakorum Highway, and kayaking the atolls and uninhabited islands that brooded dark and mysterious off Iriomote’s coast. A snowboard instructor who hitched his way south all the way from Hokkaido, told us the story of Iriomote’s ghosts, of men from Honshu, desperate for work, lured into mining with promises of jobs and wives. Some of the men escaped from the prison-like work camps into the jungle, where they died of malaria or starvation. According to the story, their spirits still haunt the island’s gloomy interior.

Dusty roads skirted pineapple plantations and more cow paddocks. At night tidal pools in the lagoon swarmed with translucent crabs and starfish. Always, Iriomote’s jungle-clad mountains loomed in the background. Safe in our tent, wildcats prowled through the undergrowth. Ghosts floated through the shrouded mangrove swamps. Or so we imagined.

It was at the lagoon one night, among the water bottles, nets and floats washed up from Okinawa and Taiwan, from Thailand and Indonesia and Australia, where a pair of diamonds shot back at us in the beam of our flashlight. The blue-green eyes froze a moment on the far side of a tidal pool, then streaked into the underbrush, leaving a phosphorescent trail that lingered several moments in the damp night air.

We followed the trail into the brush on the steep side of the lagoon, until the knotted vegetation pushed us back onto the rocky beach.

Around the campfire, the others were unimpressed by our news.

“Wildcats are very rare,” a university lecturer in modern languages replied.

“Did you actually see the animal?”

“Not clearly,” I exaggerated, “but it moved like a cat, the way it bounded across the beach.”

“There are many cats here,” answered the snowboard instructor. “Maybe a few hundred. They are over there,” he waved past the shadowy line of palms, in the direction our quarry had disappeared. “Where we put the garbage.”

“Have you seen a wild cat?” I asked.

“No. But I have seen many garbage cats.”

Gomi cats,” I suggested, using the Japanese word for garbage, and the name stuck. The rest of the evening, as the whisky bottle made its rounds, we joked about gomi cats,gomi birds, even gomi people who caused too much trouble in the world. Who wouldn’t sit down at a fire and share a bottle of whiskey.

As I made my way across the dark campground, a second pair of eyes flashed around an outbuilding. A stub-tailed cat with tortoiseshell fur disappeared into the treeline as I approached. from the rear. This cat had the same skinny body as the wild cats I had seen on postcards.

“Maybe gomi cats breed with wild cats,” I suggested, back at the fire.

Several more times that night eyes sparked at the edge of the firelight. Later, safe in our tents, the cats passed through camp, fighting over scraps in the dark.

The next morning we set off for the cross-island hike.

“Maybe you will see a ghost,” the snowboard instructor teased as we left camp.

The problem with hiking among trees, I discovered back on the forest trails of my home in southern Ontario, is that the view never changes. An endless corridor of trunks and branches and trees. There is little to break the monotony of carrying a pack over footsore ground. On Hokkaido’s bonsai-sized mountains, on the other hand, we discovered a new world of hiking above the treeline. So far north, the treeless alpine zone starts around 1,000 meters, an easy day hike to vistas of mountains rolling in one direction to the Sea of Japan, in the other to the far blue line of the Pacific.

Now I was back in an endless green tunnel. The trail cut through Iriomote’s primeval interior, from the waterfall and tour boat drop-off in the north to the forestry road at the other end of the island, across the island’s broken spine. . No birds called from the canopy. No animals appeared on the trail, or by the algae-covered pools and overgrown riverbank. The empty jungle smelled of rot and decay, of life returning to the rich soil from which it had sprung. It was easy to imagine the miners’ horror as they fled deeper into what turned out to be one great, green composter.

The day had dawned clear and blue as it had every day this trip. Now, though, clouds blew through the terrarium-like jungle on a regular basis, and sudden, violent downpours flooded the trail. Within an hour we were drenched from the slippery trail, and the dense tangle of leaves and vines. The constant drenching and gusting wind chilled us in our lightweight beach wear, and umbrella-sized palm fronds proved useless in the gusting rain.

In the end, the jungle spat us onto an unlit rural road surrounded by sugar cane plantations, miles from town. Our camp, our dry clothes and food, was a full day’s hike back through a jungle that exhaled a constant, bitter chill now as night descended quickly. The nearest town was several miles from the trailhead, down the unlit forest road. Once again, the jungle was becoming a place for living fossils and lost souls.

So the cane farmer’s ghostly white pickup emerged from the jungle like a hypothermia-induced hallucination and rattled to a stop, glass One Cup sake jars rattling on the dash. Half an hour later, we stood in the warmth and light of a village store — oh, civilization! — on a rain-scudded new year’s eve.

“Don’t you know someone who will cut my cane? I want to hire a foreigner, so I can practice my English.”

We were cold, tired, and hungry. The farmer’s jars of hot sake were the first thing besides rainwater to hit our stomachs in hours. Warmth and light from the store, an oasis in the chill, rain-soaked night, and the farmer’s hot brew, worked their way through our systems. Cutting cane. Why not?

We owed the farmer for daring to pick up two apparitions by the side of a creepy road at dusk on New Year’s Eve. The proposal offered us a way to repay that debt and, not incidentally, an antidote to the cabin fever that awaited our return to snowbound Hokkaido. For the duration of the season, at least — however long that might be — we could experience island life first hand. The book was already starting to write itself…

Orwell. Faulkner. Steinbeck. The great Japanese novel of the working poor. Down and Out on Iriomote, I would call it. The Cane of Wrath.

Problem was, this farmer wanted more than a wannabe novelist. He wanted workers out in the fields all day — and conversational English partners at the dinner table each night…

There was, however, still the problem of getting back to our campsite. The last bus had made its run up-island hours ago. The only other people out and about at this time, it seemed, were locals who popped in and out of our warm, dry oasis for fresh bottles of sake.

The intrepid farmer made a few phone calls, however, and half an hour later a ride up-island materialized in the form of a four-door luxury sedan with tortoiseshell upholstery.

Our companions had deserted the windswept campground during the day, and we arrived to a forlorn lagoon. Even the gomi cats were hiding from the miserable wind that blew in off the ocean. We fell asleep before the Year of the Tiger slipped quietly and inconspicuously into the night.

The Year of the Rabbit

“A placid year, very much welcomed and needed after the ferocious year of the Tiger. We should go off to some quiet spot to lick our wounds and get some rest after all the battles of the previous year.” — Theodora Lau, Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes.

The next day, the first of the new year, we retreated further up-island, beyond the end of the coastal highway, beyond the commuter ferry’s last stop; down a track lined with ancient, turtle-backed shrines. Here, in a solitary cove, we pulled thorns, dressed fly bites, and healed infected scrapes in warm salt water.

On our second-last day, as we built yet another magnificent castle in the sand, a Frenchman in beach shorts and sneakers , and his suitcase-toting girlfriend, stumbled into our camp desperate for food and hashish, three days after walking into the unmarked jungle on the other side of the island.

Time came for us to return to Okinawa, and the next leg of our adventure. Iriomote kept its living fossils, its wonders natural and supernatural, to itself. The island did, however, show us yet another side of Japan, different from the frantic urban hothouses of Osaka and Tokyo, and rustic, four-season Hokkaido. Here life flourishes on the margins of sea and jungle, and a community of eccentrics has found a place in the sand and red soil of this volcanic speck at Japan’s southern frontier.

But strategic Okinawa is no good medicine island. No beach hermits share their homes with strangers; no whisky flows around the campfire at night. The place bristles with planes and ships and guns, and the sailors, soldiers, and Marines to arm them. Sleek fork-tailed jets and dinosaur helicopters patrol the coasts. Searchlights sweep empty coves. Fences guard secret installations half-buried in the jungle. In the cities, mothers warn children away from strangers, and teenagers finger bayonets and spent machine gun rounds in surplus shops.

Okinawa may not have wildcats, but it does have ghosts. On the rugged south shore, where the sea pounds onto narrow beaches that run up hard against volcanic cliffs hundreds of meters high, epitaphs to the dead roll out in waves where bombs fell and Japanese and Okinawans committed suicide — or had suicide committed for them — at the close of World War II.

Relics lie half-buried in green decay on jungle-dark paths and wrecked beaches. It was easy, in that sea-pounded gloom, that haunted place, to imagine lone soldiers hiding in caves of solitude, carrying on a war that had ended years before.

They watched us leave that sad, troubled place of war memorials and jungle riot, where even the souvenir shopkeepers’ eyes followed us with mistrust.

With our last yen we escaped the melted city and cliff spirits in a yellow-plate mini-car and followed the coastal highway north, hunting deserted coves. More white sand. More tea-green water. Poisonous snakes and giant spiders. At night we squeezed our tent between the sea and pineapple plantations. Once again we dreamed of fossil cats stalking through the shrubbery.

But the chill rain that caught us off-guard in Iriomote’s forest that day marked a change in the islands. Tea-green seas turned slate. Beach-fronted groves of palm and bamboo trapped the night`s cold air, and released it slowly through the day. At a picture-perfect cove close by the north shore, a drunken fisherman threatened us obscurely from his shack-front stoop.

The sand turned clammy between our toes.

Our last day in the islands, we skirted Naha’s mottled concrete in search of a campsite, bouncing from pay beach to tourist resort, until a steep gravel track dropped off the surface world, past a tattered cane field, deep into a sunless grotto sunk in mossy rock overgrown with twisted roots and strangling vines.

In one rough-hewn corner water dribbled down rock, across the magnificent belly of a cherubic Buddha. In another, a crack hinted at sunlight, a rabbit hole that breathed tangy salt air.

Down the rabbit hole, a long, slippery set of steps led to a wide, shallow bay book-ended by sandstone bluffs as smooth and massive as beached whales. Guesthouses, shut for the season, sloped behind a screen of palms. Even the derelict bus being reclaimed by jungle squatted vacant and without mystery at the edge of the beach.

Maybe nearness to the city made us self-conscious again. Or maybe something sinister did lurk in the empty facades of the guesthouses and bus. Or maybe it was simply that the beach was so long and wide and empty, that we were happy to find a hollow large enough for a pair of sleeping bags at the base of the bluff near the steps and rabbit hole.

A bonfire stood sentinel at the water’s edge, and a freshening breeze sent sparks flying down-beach. The jungle and bluffs fell to shadow as moon and sea turned luminescent, and fishing boats threaded back to port. An ebb tide rasped across the sand.

South of our bucolic camp the sea still pounded onto those narrow beaches, and jungle-green faces stalked the undergrowth and deserted souvenir shops at the Peace Memorial. But no ghosts could reach us here, even stretched out on this naked beach, as long as that helicopter, so big and loud and so much a part of the waking world, patrolled the next cove over.

Which is why the two figures that danced by the light of the bonfire were real, though they made more sense with eyes half closed, and their ragged search of the beach, within a few yards of our sleeping bags, ended in a dream-logic of stranded soldiers and forgotten atolls.

“What was that?” Alice mumbled, when the beach was once again ours alone.

Surf rolled and palms tossed. Clouds scudded across the moon. The helicopter swept the next cove over.

I did what any herd animal with an over-active imagination would do, exposed and vulnerable on a naked beach, a tremor of threat in the air: donned earplugs and a surplus Air France blindfold, and went back to sleep.

So it must have been some instinct, some primal fear, which pulled the blind from my eyes as a four-legged monster pranced on moonlit rock, ragged ears in a half-cocked position that could mean curiosity or aggression. The dog pranced and lunged, then stopped to consider again, while a second dog, all jangled nerves and bright teeth, nipped at its heels.

Slowly, slowly, Alice and I slipped on boots and, not sure what else to do, crouched in the sand, half naked and asleep, trapped between bluff and sea. And then, caught up in some newer, more promising scent, or maybe just giving in to a short attention span, the two dogs bolted down-beach, leaving us to gather tarp and sleeping bags and layers of fleece in our arms.

“What do we do now?”

“I couldn`t sleep, anyway.”

Our rental made a cramped refuge as we jammed loose gear, sleeping bags, and two beach-damp, sand-caked bodies into the bucket seats and hatchback. But we were warm, and safe from the vines and shadows that uncurled down the grotto walls in the dank night air. Buddha leered mischievously as we made ready, once again, to sleep.

Some time later barks and yelps echoed into our grotto as Kujo returned, with friends, to our abandoned campsite. To sleep, perchance to dream: of dog packs nipping at our tires, tearing through the sides of our cheap rental car….

“Wake up! Someone`s out there!”

Alice`s hiss sent a speedball of fear and adrenaline straight to my distraught brain.

“There were lights. Someone came to the window. I hid, so they wouldn`t see my hair.”

I clutched the cheap plastic door lock, as though someone or something were trying to force its way in.

“Where are they? What are they doing?”

“They`re gone. Who knows when they`ll be back.”

Dawn broke like a blue egg over the sea as we hunkered above a fishing village where, the day before, we surprised a beachside funeral party. Now, headlights from departing mourners and early risers crisscrossed between village and sea as we kept a weary vigil for ghosts and dog packs and fossil cats and forest spirits, two deer stunned in the headlights of the Year of the Rabbit.

In the end, we left Iriomote and Okinawa to the hermits, beachcombers, sugarcane farmers, itinerant snowboard instructors, gypsy truck drivers, and the ghosts of coal miners, and returned to our little iced up cabin in northern Hokkaido to see what the year of the rabbit would make of us — and we of it.

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