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Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012

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The sun sets at a beach on the Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture. AMY CHAVEZ

JAPAN LITE

Yaeyama stray cats steal the show on the beaches of Taketomi


After eight days on Miyakojima in which again our departure was delayed by bad weather, we finally set sail for Ishigaki Island, part of the Yaeyama Island chain and the end of our sailing trip through Japan.

Our nascent sailor and crew member — a young Japanese guy riding his bicycle around Japan who hopped a ride with us from Miyakojima to Ishigaki — spent the entire 20 hours below deck seasick. His first experience on a yacht took him through rain, squalls and 30 knot wind gusts — not exactly ideal conditions. Yet extreme conditions had been the norm for most of our sail through Japan's southern islands: typhoons, near gale-force winds and rough seas. Ocean sailing is not for the faint-hearted.

In addition, out of all the islands we had stopped at (Yakushima, Amami Oshima, Okinawa, Miyakojima, and Ishigaki), only Okinawa's Ginowan Marina offered facilities for visiting yachts such as a restaurant, showers, toilets, garbage disposal, and fresh water to fill the boat's water tanks. Shore power to keep our refrigerator running and electricity usage going for our computers and cellphones, was never an option. All the other ports and "marinas" we stopped at were just moorings on concrete walls with the closest facility being a local park with public restrooms. With six crew members living onboard and no renewable water supply, it meant going three to four days at a time without bathing. Travel doesn't get any more off the beaten track in Japan than this. Only with an adventurous spirit should one attempt to tackle this country by sea.

At Ishigaki port, I went into the first restaurant I saw, which catered to fishermen. While waiting for my food, the restaurant owner offered me a small plate of meat. "Uma," she said. I have to admit that this was one of the few times I have been bold enough to refuse something offered me in Japan. "I'm sorry, I don't eat meat," I told her. Especially horse!

We found that Ishigaki suffered much of the same bad weather patterns as Miyakojima, except that on Ishigaki, they weren't shy about admitting it. Numerous advertisements beckoned tourists to come make local crafts that "can even be made on rainy days!" One shop sold a T-shirt with a cartoon picture of a typhoon on it, the storm saying, "I'm back!"

With all the restaurants, nighttime entertainment and reasonably priced hotels, there were always places to go and things to do under any weather conditions. Checking in for a couple of nights at the Nikko Hotel, for example, live entertainment was offered in the lobby every night — Okinawan sanshin (local stringed instrument) and sanbatake (accompanying instrument) the first night, Hawaiian music and, um, hula dancers the second night. This Hawaiian theme followed us throughout our island hopping in Japan. Did they really think we wouldn't notice which country we were in?

Ishigaki city was vibrant and the businesses were full of young people who had come from all over Japan to work there. In restaurants, Osaka dialect was more prevalent than Okinawan. Like Miyakojima, Ishigaki had its own popular brand of beef. Ishigaki Beef was advertised on plaques outside restaurants throughout the city.

Meanwhile I had a hankering to do some bovine tourism, so I hopped a ferry for a short 10-minute ride to Taketomi, a small island famous for its preserved Ryukyu village, its natural beauty and its water buffalo.

Taketomi has two beautiful beaches: Kaiji Beach, where I enjoyed snorkeling, and Kondoi Beach, which features a large white sand bar. But just as striking as the beaches were the stray cats who lived on them. Clean and friendly, you could easily mistake them for house cats. But their tendency to stay together, stroll down the beach and to sit on any tourist's lap was a clue that these were beach cats.

I watched as one cat approached the water's edge and drank the salt water straight from the sea. And they were deft at exchanging photo shoots with tourists for food. Of course, the cats are well-fed and their coats shiny and healthy. While Taketomi has worked hard to build up their water buffalo to be the darlings of the island, it's the cats who really steal the show.

Stores sold postcard collections of the popular Yaeyama stray cats. Even back on Ishigaki cats in the city could be seen lounging on tops of cars, sitting on welcome mats at the entrances to shops and catching a cat nap on the sidewalk, occasionally lifting up their heads to accept a scratch behind the ears from passers-by. So when I saw the beach cats on Taketomi, I could only presume that Taketomi and Ishigaki were feline sister cities.

Having booked a ride on one of the water buffalo carts, our native Taketomi guide told us that at one time there were 1,500 people living on this island, but that now the population was just 345. At one point, it had dipped to 220, the lowest ever. Some people have come back to the island to pursue jobs in tourism since the island has become popular as a sightseeing destination. The water buffalo sauntered down the sandy road, taking us past traditional Ryukyu houses with shisa (lion-like statue) on the roof to ward off evil spirits.

Our guide would stop the water buffalo for long periods of time as he explained the features of the island, which stands just a few meters above sea level. The roads on the interior of the island are lined with rock walls to help stop the sweeping winds that plague the island. The walls are not built with cement to hold them together, but are made with small holes to allow the wind escape. As a result, the walls are not knocked down by even the strongest typhoon winds.

The buffalo cart creaked on while tour guide brought out a sanshin and played it to amuse his guests. He sang an island song that we could sing along with by reading the words posted on the roof of the cart.

When the guide started talking about the traditional island life there and the 36 children in the entire school system from elementary through junior high, I couldn't help get a bit nostalgic for my own home on a small island of just 600 people in the middle of the Seto Inland Sea, with a cat looking out the window for my return. The pangs of homesickness.

Back on Ishigaki, crew members started making travel plans to fly back home to Okayama, Australia and the U.S. Soon they'd be with their families and the comforts of home. They'd be able to sleep in beds that didn't rock all night long in 4-meter seas, and where they wouldn't hear the sounds of creaking masts and howling winds. There would be no more tempests, sea monsters or things that go bump in the night. They'd eat three meals a day, take hot baths every night, and have an Internet connection 24/7.

We were lucky to have had such a good crew to spend the last several weeks at sea with. After one last night out on the town in Ishigaki and a sayonara party complete with live Okinawan music, awamori liquor and dancing, we bid farewell to the first two of our crew members the next day.

In the meantime, my husband and I walked back to the boat, took out our sea charts and mapped out our next route.



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