Ishigaki

Yaeyama Islands, Japan, of which Ishigaki is the second largest. (Bill Girdner / CNS)

A verdant isle within a small island chain in the Pacific Ocean, Ishigaki covers 85 square miles of land carpeted in sugarcane fields and lush jungle, surrounded by brilliant blue water.

The island has a large rounded base where the port and principal town are located and the rest extends out like a long middle finger in a northeast direction. Our favorite potter has a shack near the edge of the main highway at the very end of the finger.

He looks a bit like a freaked out artist at the wayward tip of a wayward island, surrounded by green mountains and the sea. But his stuff is creative, beautiful and cheap. His wife and daughter work in the shop and they pack up the haul of cups and bowls we have bought. The daughter speaks a bit of English and has the sweet ideals of a good high school student.

The potter with his Sisi dogs. (Bill Girdner / CNS)

She wants to leave this heavenly place to work on health care in Africa.

One of the big pottery pieces, that I will buy next time, is a quart-sized flagon with holes on the two ends and one long side curved inward, in order to fit on the hip while suspended from a rope strap. It is meant to hold awamori, a drink unique to this region that is distilled from long grain rice.

Just like the drink it holds, the flagon is emblematic of Ishigaki, as the islanders are considered by the Ishigakians themselves to be too laid back to get much accomplished.  They drink and talk and play music, especially the samisen, a three-stringed instrument derived from a 13th century Chinese instrument.

So if you want something done efficiently and correctly, it is best to hire a “mainlander” from central Japan. On the other hand, for drinking, smoking and making music, the Ishigakians are in their element.

Like all cultural generalizations, it only goes so far. I have met any number of hard-working Ishigaki people. But the island does have a special vibe.

When I emailed back to people in the U.S., I wrote that I was in a place “where the pace is slow and the cars are small.” The cars are almost all small mini-wagons and the top speed is around 35 miles per hour, a little more on the highway. The folks that live here are almost universally friendly and lacking in guile.

We met an artist who works in recycled wood, often making large pieces for office lobbies, but also smaller items like frames and clocks. He tells us that it used to be hard to make a living as a craftsman on Ishigaki because nobody had any money.

But now it’s different, and his business has grown to employ 25 people working on various wood projects big and small. He said the foreigners could afford to pay for art and they had in turn enriched the locals who could now afford it too.

A good chunk of the population consists of former residents of the mainland who gave up on the frenzied life of Tokyo and other big cities to live a simple life on the island, taking any job they can find. Young backpackers visit for the snorkeling and jungle hiking, older and wealthier tourists come primarily for diving.

Most of the tourists are Asian, from other provinces of Japan mostly, but also from Korea, Taiwan and China. Europeans have also found the island. A French couple operates a bakery that looks onto the harbor, and the wood worker said he knows a German pilot and his wife who rent a small apartment year-round in the small, traditional village of Miara.

“They come back for a long stay every four months,” he said. They come back for the diving.

Sea turtle seen while scuba diving. (Bill Girdner / CNS)

The waters around the island are indeed magical. The variety and richness of the sea life, the brilliant colors of the coral, the clean and clear water, make for an otherworldly experience once below the surface.

But it is a tropical ocean and some if its denizens are extremely unhealthy for humans. Anyone who goes diving must wear either a wetsuit or a skin guard to ward off poisonous jellyfish. As signs on beaches warn, some of the creatures floating in the sea carry a high-power jolt of electricity, enough to stop a heart.

Going on a dive while I was there, my instructor Hiromi told me that 120 diving and snorkeling boats operate out of Ishigaki. They charge around $200 per person per day. She said, the boats are packed from June through August with visitors from hither and yon.

It is enough to power the local economy and bring those who are able back every four months, in order to feed the need to return to that special place above and beneath the sea.

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