Grottos of Ishigaki

     Our room at the Patina Hotel on the island of Ishigaki faces a karaoke parlor.
     Just inside the door was a vestibule at floor level where you leave your shoes to step up to a raised, dark-wood floor. The beds are small, very firm and surprisingly comfortable. At night, the voices singing karaoke were like a lullaby, in the warm night.
     In the morning, the hotel lobby is unlit, with dark wood tables and chairs, leafy green plants and bossa nova music, perfect for a cup of coffee, or a beer, and catching up on the news through an ipad.
     The small island of Ishigaki, at the southern end of Japan’s southern prefecture of Okinawa, has seen a tourist boom, as much from mainland Japan as from other parts of Asia. Its harbor is like a bus station with cargo ships and ferries leaving from here to a string of small islands nearby.
     The ships, including competing ferry lines, beat-up, rusty cargo boats, and big coast guard ships based here for patrols to the contested islands of Senkaku.
     Ishigaki is also the jumping off point for scuba diving boats, and rows of lead-colored compression tanks and wet suits are stacked along the wharf.
     On one day, we head out on a tour of the island in one of the small, boxy, fuel-efficient cars that are all over Japan.
     The volcanic island is the site for a number of magnificent grottos, some of them loaded with spiritual significance, with shrines to a whole pantheon of gods.
     On the small connecting island called Ibaruma, just off the main 206 highway, is a privately-owned grotto in sorry shape, lit by bare neon light bulbs. It had been used for religious ceremonies long, long ago.
     An attendant hands out flip flops for the muddy descent and sells tickets for 1,000 yen a piece,or $10.
     On the path through the grotto, one place in particular seems to be the spiritual headquarters of the gods. It is up on a high shelf in the cave and hosts a whole village of earthen, box-like structures, which are the symbolic houses of the gods.
     I start to walk onto a smooth patch of dirt that is just in front of the collection, but my girlfriend warns me against it, saying it is a sacred place.
     She claps twice sharply to wake up the gods, says a short prayer and claps twice to say goodbye.
     At a different spot, next to a pool of water, is the shrine to the god of writers and intellectuals. I stop there and bow my head for a moment. Behind the pool of water and in a higher and more prominent position is the earthen box that houses the god of the generals.
     At the bottom end of the grotto is an opening out onto the green-blue East China Sea. The black volcanic sides of the island, with cascading, deep-green tropical plants, drop onto small golden beaches.
     Back out, we roll on up the 206 highway.
     At the northern end of the island is a lighthouse and a rocky promontory from which visitors look back to the south and see all of Ishigaki, a mix of deep green fields and forested heights.
     Within the fields are the black outlines of the famous Ishigaki cattle, renowned for their fatty savory flavor.
     What stands out from that height is that, unlike the coastline of the U.S., waves do not hit the island directly. A ring of coral reefs about 200 yards from the land act as a barrier and an outline of the island.
     Although the beaches are made of white coral sand next to a clear, green-blue ocean, there are few resorts and the beaches are abandoned. Locals have no use for laying on a hot beach.
     The shallows are considered working areas, like fields in the water, were they fish, gather seaweed and dig for clams.
     Not far from the port of Ishigaki at the southern end of the island, we stop at another grotto, the Shizen-Mura. It is also privately owned by Isei Hokama, a small spritely man who sells us tickets.
     But the grotto, replete with stalagmites and stalagtites, is beautifully lit. It is apparently frequented by shamans, and it too has its gods.
     The most important here is the god of fertility, said to reside in a small alcove within the cave, where it is bathed in green light.
     From there, it is a short drive to the port of Ishigaki with its commercial hustle and bustle, bars and restaurants.     

%d bloggers like this: