Festival in the Ryukyu Islands of Japan (2005)

When the world was still young and floating like oil, the gods Izanagi and Izanami thrust a spear into the sea. The brine that dripped from the spear became an island upon which the two performed a marriage rite around a pillar and built their home. 

Izanami, the female god, then gave birth to the other islands of Japan and their deities called kami. The little-known Ryukyu Islands spread from the four main islands in a perfect half-moon-shaped archipelago south for 1050 kilometers all the way down to Taiwan, with Okinawa the central pendant of this delicate chain of lost gemstones, set into the turquoise East China Sea.

I had spent six months studying Japanese at a sleepy Kyushu university, the most southern of the four main islands of Japan, set amid bamboo-forested mountains, a far cry from the neon jungle of Tokyo. I eagerly awaited the two months of Spring Holiday to interrupt the malaise of settlement, and the wished to put some of my hard-earned vocabulary to the test.

Packing a tent and battered gas cooker into my rucksack, I shouldered my surfboard case and caught a train down to the southernmost port of Kagoshima. Smoke exuded lazily from the strata volcano on Sakurajima (cherry blossom island) as the ship’s funnel threw sparks out into the pale blue sky. I sat on the portside eating Ritz Biscuits. 

The Ryukyu Islands are the tips of volcanic, submarine mountains, abounding in coral reefs and subtropical vegetation. Once their own proud kingdom, they traded from Java to Japan, China and Korea, exporting sugar cane, sweet potatoes, guava, papaya and tobacco, flourishing in tradition and wealth. 

The region was formally annexed to Japan by the Meiji government in 1879, the monarchy abolished, and the Japanese language introduced as standard. After years of vassalage whereby sword ownership was prohibited, this is where the martial art of karate originates from. 

Tanegashima - 456 km sq – pop; approx. 36000.

In 1543 Mendez Pinto, a Portuguese merchant travelling from China, introduced muskets into the island, the first time they had ever entered Japan. The name of the island has come to mean ‘firearm’ in Japanese and not ironically, it is now home to Japan’s largest space centre, established in 1969.

I camped on the east coast for a few days as set after set of neat and glossy waves rolled into shore. Grey boulders had tumbled out into the sea protecting the great roots of a gnarled tree that rose up into the sea mist. I took a bus to the south of the island and being the only passenger, sat up front talking to the driver in broken sentences. 

His skin was brown and creased like greaseproof paper. He wore a small pilot’s cap at a jaunty angle. We passed a razor wire fence and a large sign; the white paint of a space shuttle flaking off in the sun. Strange aluminum shapes and tall red-painted masts bobbed and winked over grassy ridges. 

Hugging the west coast, the road meandered down and the tall mountains and ancient forested mountains of Yakushima rose out from the sea in the near distance in a grey haze. The driver was born on Tanegashima and had been driving buses there since he was eighteen. Now approaching sixty, I asked him what it was like on Yakushima. Slipping me an enigmatic wink, he boastfully replied that he had never been there.

Yakushima - 505 km sq – pop; approx.14000.

Yakushima is home to some 1,900 species and subspecies of rich flora, many being unique in the region. A rude pentagon from the sky, the mountains form a crown of stone protecting the basin of ancient forest within from the outside world. Natural hot springs or onsen pepper the coast where it is customary to bathe naked. 

I passed over a metal drawbridge that spanned a gushing river and the mountain trail plunged into a murky boscage of pre-historic jungle. A fine carpet of olive moss covered the immoveable rocks and decaying logs. Sinewy vines and branches crisscrossed the glowing jade light from the canopy in leafy capillaries. I experienced a feeling of infinite antiquity and calm. 

Great trunks of umber wood rose up towards the sky, the thick bark pitted like termite hills, dusted in a fine malachite green fungus that lightly brushed off onto your hand. Wild deer acknowledged me without interest. An ancient stump approximately fifteen feet in diameter was completely hollow, inside incense burned at a small wooden shrine to the gods of the forest. 

Higher up, vistas of peaks spread out in all directions, one was grassy with pale grey boulders interspaced like pebbles in a rippling stream. The rain came down in great globules completely soaking me and my pack. I stayed in mountain huts for two nights, miraculously finding a small box of candles with which to dry out a few clothes. 

I met a couple on their honeymoon and after some shared food and lengthy enquiries from me concerning their map for conversation’s sake (I had one in my rucksack), we parted and they seemed thrilled to have met a foreigner. Most of the Japanese had matching florescent waterproof jackets and trousers. 

At one particularly beautiful part of the forest where the sugi (cedar) had a deep amber bark, I became stuck behind a tour group while red, purple, pink and blue spacemen navigated the foliage in small steps for mankind. The jomon sugi, dated at approximately 7000 years old, is the most ancient cedar tree in the world. 

Miyakojima - 158.70 km sq – pop; approx. 56.200.

On the overnight boat everyone slept on the floor in rows with small mats and tough pillows. In the morning uninhabited islands crawled by like slugs in the drizzle outside. Children leaped and scuffled over their reclining grandmother like young cubs. The boat stopped for about four hours to transfer mail and supplies. 

Okinawa Island - 1201.03 km sq – pop; approx 1.2 million.

From late March through to June 1945, the Battle of Okinawa or Tetsu no Ame – ‘The Rain of Steel’ raged unceasingly with the most appalling loss of life. As the US troops gained occupation, Japanese soldiers and civilians alike leapt from the southern cliffs onto the reef in their thousands through fear of the invaders and to preserve their honor rather than surrender. 

Now approximately 25,000 American military personnel with an equal number of American civilian employees are stationed in Okinawa. The local people continue to resent this overwhelming presence. I camped near a memorial park at the ‘Suicide Cliffs’ where the jagged reef, abandoning the subtropical vegetation, marches out into the ocean and plunges down into the crystal waters.

The Ryukyu family graves dotted the countryside; enormous rounded concrete roofs that splayed out at the sides like the shells of giant dead turtles. I met a local Japanese surfer called Hibiki in an internet café and ended up staying at his flat for a week, just two minutes from Sunabe’s graffiti clad concrete harbor and reef break, where we surfed most days as US Army jets screamed overhead. 

Hibiki almost broke his leg after losing the key to his flat and trying to climb in through the third storey window. The following morning we were cornered by his elderly landlady and ushered into her ground floor apartment for a cup of green tea. Her husband ambled into the room, one side of his body completely paralyzed. 

He looked at me with bleary, yellowing eyes and told me very slowly that when he was young he had served in the Japanese navy and seen the bomb detonate whilst on a ship off the coast of Nagasaki. 

Ishigakijima - 228.91 km sq – pop; approx. 43,770.

Plantations of pineapples, sugar cane and papayas broke up the landscape in uneven shapes and shades of green. I weighed down the corner of the tent with rocks on the utterly deserted beach and it rained for four days. 

On the fifth day I woke up and it wasn’t raining. I washed in the stream and cursed myself for over-sleeping and missing the early morning waves. I was so tired the night before I had forgotten to set my alarm. The beach I was camping on was wild and scattered with coral. Further inland the trees had wavy trunks that resembled plumes of smoke from a fire. 

The sky was a bright blue I hadn’t seen for days. After cleaning my teeth, I stood naked in the stream and let the sun rest on my body. Out at sea, freighters drifted along. I had felt lonely camping on this beach. I walked gingerly to my tent (I had cleared the rocks, coral and creepers to pitch it) and slipped on some shorts.

I took my knife and a coconut I had found washed up the day before. I had sharpened the blade recently and it cut into the husk smoothly as I ripped it off. My wrist was still hurting like hell from a surfing injury, so I tightened the bind with my teeth. I pierced one of the three weak spots on the top of the nut and tipped it up to drink the milk. 

Rancid fluid filled my mouth, bitter with the taste of decay and faintly blue in colour. I spat it out, cursed, and hurled the nut down the beach. Shell crabs scuttled around pieces of onion, discarded from one of my previous meals. Wearing their shells like lob-sided berets, they really did look like drunks, I thought to myself. 

I went through the routine of packing up camp, and in about twenty minutes, I’d slid my board into its case, shouldered my bag and set off up the beach. It felt good to have trainers on, and I took pleasure in crushing the coral mercilessly beneath me. I scrambled up a thin, slippery path through the steep jungle; pack digging into my shoulders, board clumsy and awkward. 

Huge great leaves, sometimes three-foot-long, were still dripping with moisture. The light came down in shafts, with occasional glimpses of the blue ocean. I finally reached the road and headed for a bridge crossing a large ravine.

I followed the road for about an hour. Now and then cars passed but I didn’t want a lift. I was happy walking. I set my pack down and stared blankly at a road sign map, but I didn’t understand the kanji. A small white van approached, and I stuck my arm out. He stopped beside me, and the farmer offered me a lift.

I went through the usual routine of explaining where I was from, what I was doing in Japan, and I asked him about his farm. He had very brown tough-looking hands and big widely spaced teeth. I gave him a wave after he dropped me off. 

I headed to the surf shop in town where I knew the pretty shop assistant wouldn't mind if I left my board there for a day or two. I chatted to her for a bit, but ever since I told her I was 21, she had treated me differently. She was 26. I thanked her, went to the dock and bought a ticket for Kuroshima. 

The dock was bustling with people: farmers and old women, small families – all wearing simple and often dirty clothes. One man wore a suit, but you could see his body move underneath and the symbol was lost. Just a poor man. 

The boats were small with powerful engines and could hold about 40 people. They looked a bit like spaceships but ‘star cruisers’ sounded better. I walked through to the back of my boat where there were four shabby benches and I chose the one furthest. The engines roared and whined below me. A few men came out to smoke cigarettes and I was glad for the noise as I didn’t feel like talking. 

Kuroshima – 10.2 km sq - pop; approx. 230, over 3000 cows.

I found rough constructions for the festival the following day and looked for a good place to camp. I pitched camp next to a wide tree with large crevices at the base where I could put things. I boiled some water over my tiny gas cooker in one of the hollows of the tree and cooked up some soba. 

When it was done, I took it off and placed my pan over the heat and threw in the last of my meat, onions, large Japanese cabbage and ‘enoki’ - a delicious small mushroom. On second thoughts, I put in a lot more spice as I knew the meat wouldn’t last another day. When it was cooked up, I took it down to the beach and ate in the dark and washed up in the sea.

I dried my feet as best as I could, lay on my sleeping bag and zipped up the mosquito net. For one reason or another I slept very badly that night. My mind went back to lots of places I had been and people I had met, and I thought about my friends back home.

This was now the longest time I had spent in a foreign country, trying to integrate myself into a new culture and language. There are extremes to this – both in terms of the excitement and loneliness it involves.

I awoke to the sound of rain on the tent. I checked the time. It was 9.20am, and the festival didn’t start until 10. "I’ll be damned if I’m going out in this," I thought, stubbornly picking up my book. Soon the rain eased off, and I went down to the sea to wash. The wind was biting, so I was surprised at how warm the water was, but I couldn’t fully wash as there was a man in a raincoat with a fishing rod and I didn’t want to offend him. 

I was aware that everything I had (including myself) was rather dirty and needed a good clean. It was about a week since I had last been to a hostel in Okinawa. I went back to my tent in the drizzle and dressed in muddy jeans, trainers, T-shirt and jumper. At that moment I was rather bored with camping.

I could hear noises from the festival, so I headed that way feeling vaguely embarrassed about my appearance. I entered a large muddy area. All around the edges, stalls had been set up and there was a big stage hosting the world’s worst production of 'Power Rangers' with the superhero fighting a dragon. His comrades consisted of a pig and two cows with oversized heads. 

The action music and explosion sounds beat into my head. It was too loud to ignore. At least I didn’t have to worry about my clothes - everyone was muddy and wearing rain macs. Oh dear, I thought to myself, this might turn out to be rather dull.

I took a walk around the stalls, all selling roasted cow and alcohol. I ordered rare beef, garlic bread and a glass of red wine for breakfast. The sky was grey and completely overcast. After a seemingly endless losing battle, the power ranger was victorious due to some amazing secret advice from the pig; and after much arm swinging, explosions and fighting his foe was vanquished. 

I gulped down some more cow, feeling somewhat demoralized. A healthy-looking chap in a red jacket caught my eye and raised his glass. "Kampai!" We touched glasses and drank. The group immediately turned to me for the usual round of questions. I explained I was a student, and they congratulated me on my basic Japanese. 

There was a woman not yet 40 in a black jacket with rather grey gums, a nice face and a red stud in each ear. The man standing next to me had a coat done up all the way to his chin and a round hat pulled down low, the brim floppy in the wet. It reminded me of something an SAS frogman might wear. I was taller than everyone of course. 

I found out that they were from different parts of the country, but now lived on the neighboring island of Iliomotejima. They were all drinking shouchu, a clear, strong alcohol in plastic cups.

The lady in the black jacket asked me if I liked shouchu, and I replied that I liked it immensely and preferred it hot. She promptly returned with a cup for me and some more for others. I thought this was surprisingly generous. "Oh don’t worry; its free," she replied. 

Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. I drained my glass and was offered another. The hot alcohol in my belly felt good and I felt my spirits lighten. A man with large limbs and long, loping movements came towards me. He had a pronounced jaw and a scraggily mop of black hair. He put down the young boy he was carrying on his shoulders. 

I shook his hand, and he asked my name. Everyone then told me their names which I immediately forgot. In Japan, when someone tells me their name, the chances are slim that I’d heard it before, so it becomes a new word to be learned. Instead of awkwardly making everyone repeat them several times I just give up. I picked up the kid and gave him a shake and he giggled. Then I lifted him up and put him on my shoulders. 

Two more men joined the small group. They were young and looked fit. I found out they both worked as rice farmers. The first had a wide, easy smile with strong teeth and longish hair down over his forehead. His name was Yuki. I remembered it because it was the name of an American friend's girlfriend back in Kyushu.

The other man had long curly dark black hair and was wearing a white T-shirt and striped jacket. In my mind I called him Joseph, but never asked again to learn his real name. Oddly, he had bare feet, although everyone else was wearing wellies. 

They were drinking fast and encouraged me to join them. I forgot about the grey, drizzly weather. My Japanese became more animated. They were all very interested to hear about England. When you call Kent the 'Garden of England' it sounds rather grand. 

A recent word I had learnt was 'mokuzai', which means 'to be made from wood'. I went into a rather long narration about how castles in England were always made from stone but that in Japan they are always made from wood and so tend to burn down; that’s why castles in England are always older. I was rambling but they were listening, and I was just pleased to deftly slip in my new word; it’s a battle of inches. 

I put the boy down (whose name, Teru, I had now committed to memory) and slipped away to watch the show properly. Some boys dancing hip-hop style with white flannels tied round their heads. They weren’t just good; they were brilliant. After them, some girls came on and did a sexy dance to more good music. 

I looked over at Yuki, he saw me and gave me a wide grin. I grinned back. A rock and roll band came on. Yuki, Joseph the boy and his father came with me to the front after picking up some more booze on the way. It turned out Yuki and Joseph were more drunk than I had thought, hurling each other about and rolling in the mud. Teru was back on my shoulders and I was dancing. 

Joseph kept stealing his wellies and throwing them away and I would chase after them and bend down so Teru could pick them up. It was a good game and soon he was whacking Joseph with his boots. Yuki did a great Klinsman slide in the mud and almost knocked over a television camera. I was glad I had met these guys.

When the band had finished, we went back to our table to restock drinks and have a rest. When a more traditional band came on dressed in kimonos with drums and three-stringed shamisen everyone was back dancing again and we were soon also in the fray. Old women were waving their arms like a Hawain Hula, while lots of steaming cow soup was being passed around. 

The people in front formed a line and all danced waving flags, flannels and anything they could get hold of. Lots of children were running about and they and some of the people were wearing cow hats with little horns and a smiling cow face. I decided I wanted to buy one for Teru, and we went running around to find the stall. 

Lots of people were sitting on the wet ground in circles, always bottles of the local strong drinks shouchu and Okinawan awamori, fermented from rice, in the middle with bright, flashing blue and yellow labels. We found the stall and bought a hat and cheap plastic watch. We went back and carried on dancing.

The next two hours were a blur of constant refills and back-slapping. Joseph gave me one of his cigarettes and it was so strong my head went spinning. The man in the SAS frogman hat told me he worked on a ship that netted black pearls. Some of them are worth £250, he said, but he was still poor. 

Yuki taught me how to say, "Eat shit and go to bed", and asked me if I knew how to swear in Japanese. I confidentially rolled off a string of obscenities dutifully memorized in Miyazaki and watched his eyes brighten with understanding and mirth. 

The audience was then pushed back with a rope to create a wide space for a giant cow with small horns draped with red cloth lined with gold. I thought they were going to kill it, but they had a tug of war instead, with six or seven Japanese always hopelessly dragged across the ground by the cow. 

I wanted to try but people had reserved their spaces in advance. Joseph and Yuki failed to do any better than the rest and Joseph cut his arm on the ground and had to go to the doctor and get a dressing. More shouchu, meat, mud and singing.

At last the inevitable happened: the stall stopped serving alcohol. This was a good time to leave and I said my goodbyes. The woman with the red earrings was Teru’s mother. She wrote down her address and asked me to come and visit them on the neighboring Iliomotejima, and I did indeed later visit and spend time with the family. 

I shook many hands and weaved my way back to my tent. I packed up my wet things and headed for the dock. Suddenly I was exhausted. I bought a ticket and slept all the way back on the boat. I found a hostel, dumped my stuff in the dorm and collapsed into the shower. The hot water beat down on my head and I had a good wash. 

I took off the binding, my wrist was still slightly swollen but it was getting better. I lay on my bed but couldn’t go back to sleep, so I read for a few hours. I could hear some people in the hostel commune having a party, but I couldn’t face new introductions.

My body felt limp and I had reached an increasingly depressing point in my Somerset Maugham novel, Of Human Bondage, so I decided to go out. Slipping into my dirty clothes, I figured I would go to a ramen yasan (noodle bar).

I turned the corner and my fatigue left me instantly; it was as if a silk shroud had been pulled over me and had taken all my tiredness with it. 

"If that’s not fate, I don’t know what is!" I exclaimed. Yuki, Joseph, the big guy and some girls were stumbling towards me. We greeted each other enthusiastically and they told me they had just been saying it would have been good if I was with them. I figured they were too drunk to lie so quickly, but you never know. 

They had missed the last boat to Iliomotejima and were staying in town for the night and getting the first boat in the morning. I checked that Teru and his mum had also got a place to stay and they said they had and were asleep. 

The girls left and I realised they were with a guy I had seen dancing earlier. He wore too-tight jeans that exposed womanly hips above a big marijuana buckle, a great big bone necklace around his neck and a sleazy moustache. I thought he was a complete dickhead. He was exceptionally drunk. 

We all piled into an izakaya and sat on tatami mats at big, long, low tables of dark wood. The sleazy guy was loud and annoying and started to harass some girls sitting at the next table. I told him to shut up and sit down. Fortunately, within 20 minutes he was so drunk he fell asleep in the corner and we didn’t bother to wake him. 

"Eat shit and go to bed," I told him as he slept, and everyone laughed. 

We had all sobered up a bit and felt relaxed and comfy. Outside it had started to rain again. I got out my notebook and various people taught me many new words; in exchange I taught them some English. I told them how me and my friends would toast each other with three clinks: the top of the glass, the bottom and then the whole lot. "Never above, never below, always the same". 

We talked until the place closed, finishing with a steaming hot bowl of soba each. After eating the noodles, we lay down our chopsticks and drunk the hot oily soup from the bowl with our hands. Time to leave, quick goodbyes, Yuki gave me his address. We only woke up the sleeping guy so he would pay his share. 

I had paid for two nights. I woke up with a terrible headache and lay in bed dozing for a few hours. It felt good to be in a bed. I went out and bought bacon and eggs and cooked them with bean sprouts and drank coffee. I went to the surf shop to get my board and talked to the girl for a bit. She was really was pretty, blessed with the effortless delicacy and grace of Japan. 

I asked her if she would come out with me on Thursday night and she said yes, but later cancelled. I sat around reading some surf magazines for a bit but left soon. When I’m tired language comes slow. Another night of luxury then back to the lonely beach with the good reef break, silence. Rain.

Erabu Lily, Japan
Lush green forests of Yakushima, Lost Islands of Japan
Azure seas and pale sands, Ryukyu Islands, Japan