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Paradise Found at Taketomi Island

By: Joel Feinman

Date Posted: 2001-02-09

This past December I was lucky enough to have five or six days of vacation in a row, which I chose to spend wandering around the Yaeyama Islands. About as far from mainland Japan as one get without ending up in Taiwan, the Yaeyamas consist of two main islands, Ishigaki-jima and Iriomote-jima, and numerous smaller islands and islets between and beyond the two big ones. For those of you looking for that elusive little piece of paradise still left on earth, I am happy to report that you needn’t look any further.

Taketomi-jima, a tiny island in between Ishigaki and Iriomote, is every utopian’s dream come true (assuming you aren’t some crazy who thinks that snow, ice, and a –10 degree wind chill factor are matches made in heaven). Taketomi is the kind of place you read about in exotic travelogues and spend the next week salivating over, the kind of place that Hollywood seeks out and destroys with a DeCaprian vengeance. But before I continue with my tantalizing tale, as the man says we should probably begin at the beginning.

"How do I get there?" Well, I’m glad you asked me that! You could fly to Ishigaki from Naha: takes about and hour, costs $200-300 round trip…but don’t if you can help it. I advise acclimating yourself to the relaxed and carefree attitude that Taketomi requires by taking a ferry from Naha to Ishigaki. Not only is this the cheaper way to go ($100 round trip ticket), but it is actually a fun and enjoyable boat ride. Leave Naha New Port at 8 p.m., enjoy the ferry’s more-than-adequate accommodations with dinner and a drink, retire to a cozy bunk-bed, and wake up at ten the next morning to an ocean so blue and an island so green it could hurt your eyes just to look at them. Sure the trip takes fourteen hours, but you’re unconscious for most of it. Besides, if you’re in a rush to find high adventure and excitement, than this trip is not for you anyway.

After you arrive in Ishigaki, get on another (much smaller) ferry to the jewel of Taketomi itself-only ten minutes away (the two islands are a stone throw apart). And finally, when you pull into the paradise that is Taketomi-jima, jump right in and do…nothing. On Taketomi there is so much of nothing to do that it took me a whole day to realize what a treasure I’d found. No movie theatres, no clubs, no theme parks or fast-food restaurants. Just the earth and the sea as God had intended them to be. You can walk the whole island in half a day, chased by swarms of luminous butterflies and cheered by acres of psychedelic flowers. You can go to the beach, which is essentially the entirety of the island’s 10 km coastline, and snorkel over the most beautiful coral reefs this writer has ever seen.

Comb the surf for hoshisuna, tiny star shaped grains of sand that are actually the dried skeletons of miniscule marine creatures. Heading past acres of farmland and fields full of cattle, trek into the island’s single village of Akayama. For ¥1000 you can take an ox-cart ride around town, and view homes built in traditional Okinawan fashion, with red-tiled roofs and walls of coral topped with shiisa. As a bonus, at the end of the tour you receive the unrivaled pleasure of watching an ox defecate into a steel bucket; but don’t worry, the driver apologizes for the sight and smell by serenading you with a song on your way back into town. If you are tired, and don’t want to head back to Naha smelling like a beast of burden, why not spend the night? Taketomi has numerous pensions and minshuku to choose from. The tatami mats are clean, the futons are warm, and at ¥5000 for one night with breakfast and dinner included, it’s the best deal around. If you are lucky enough to visit Taketomi on New Years Eve like I was, after dinner you can sit around with the other guests and swill the island’s own brand of Awamori until the stroke of twelve, when the whole town (appx. 200 people) gathers at the main shrine to ring in the New Year with a toast and a smile. And in the morning, awaken to the first sunrise of the new millennium and…relax. Have some tea in the non-polluted air. Read a book amongst the gardens, or have a turtle-spotting contest with your friends on the beach. Whatever you do, by no means should you worry. Yet this should go without saying, for on Taketomi there seems to be very little to worry about indeed. For me, the most shattering experience of my vacation was when it started to rain, and I was forced inside off of the beach.

Once I retreated to the warmth and comfort of my tatami room, I did for a moment yearn to turn on a television…then I thought how nice it would be to be able to order a pepperoni pizza…then I remembered where I was, and reminded my self that paradise is fleeting enough as it is.

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