The fierce red lion looks down from the tiled roof of a traditional house on Taketomi Island. Those guardian lions are called shîsâ in Okinawa and are said to have come to Okinawa via the Silk Road; perhaps they are related to the Egyptian Sphinx. When a tiled roof, and thus the house, was finished, the roofer traditionally used to fashion a small shîsâ from leftover tiles so that he could protect the house. Today ready-made shisas of all varieties and sizes are sold in shops.
At a circumference of just over 9 km, Taketomi is so small that you can walk around the whole island in a few hours. There is only one village with a school, a post office, a couple of restaurants and pensions – and a considerable number of bicycle rental shops. The passenger ferry from the main island of Ishigaki takes about ten minutes, and day-trippers flock to Taketomi because of its rich history, nature, beaches and butterflies.
A road sign points out the former site of the residence of Governor Nishitô, a 16th century politician from mainland Okinawa (then the Ryûkyû Kingdom) who ruled over the Yaeyama islands. Back then under his rule, the tiny island of Taketomi housed the administration of the whole archipelago for a few decades. Even now the official address for most of the Yaeyama islands except for Ishigaki and Yonaguni is still „Taketomi Town“, although the actual administration offices are housed on Ishigaki Island.
A group of younger Japanese on bicycles follows the sign to the historic residence but then leave the cycles at a designated bicycle parking area nearby (no locks are needed, the guy in the rental shop had explained: just remember which one is yours!) and walk down to the Hoshizuna beach, the “Star-sand Beach”. Hoshizuna Beachis famous for the tiny stars you can find among the sand grains if you look hard enough – these are the star-shaped parts of the skeletons of very small animals in the water. A stall at the beach sells the star sand in small bottles – leaving you free to just enjoy this beautiful stretch of beach and the turquoise water, before boarding your bicycle again.
The tour groups, who also visit Taketomi Island, do not move about on bicycles, but are generally driven around the village in an ox cart. The mighty water buffaloes were only introduced around 1900 from nearby Taiwan, which at that time also belonged to Japan. In fact Okinawa itself, the former Kingdom of Ryûkyû, had only been added to the Japanese Empire in 1879.
Taketomi was still a major settlement until WWII, not least because it was free of Malaria and thus a safe place to live, contrary to the larger islands. Ironically it was the Japanese army who forced islanders to live on the large, malaria-infested islands such as Iriomote and Ishigaki during the war, while the Americans, who occupied Okinawa from the end of the war until 1971, managed to extinguish the disease.
While the tourist groups in the ox-carts don’t get much further than the viewing platform and perhaps the small history museum, individual tourists on their bikes have plenty of time to amble through the village roads and down some rural paths leading through mangrove forests to some old shrines.
In the archaic religion of Ryûkyû, which still flourishes in Okinawa, ancestor shrines were built for the founding fathers who originally settled on Taketomi and built the village. The shrines (on Taketomi they are calles “on”) originally consisted only of groves of wood – but later a concrete worship building and a Japanese-style gate were usually added. And still these old shrines are power-spots on their own which even we could feel. As most tourists go back to Ishigaki in the evening the village gets quiet after 5 pm – just right if you want to get away from everything for a while.
Taketomi is only 10 minutes by boat from Ishigaki (1150 Yen return). Usually several minibuses belonging to the bicycle rental companies wait at the pier to shuttle customers the 1 km into the village to their shop (all of them have identical prices, 300 Yen for the first hour, then 150 Yen per hour up to a maximum of 1500 Yen per day). Cycling or walking are the best ways to get around on Taketomi Island.
The cheapest accommodation is the Je t’aime Guesthouse with dorm beds for 2800 Yen. Other accommodation, usually Japanese-style pensions with shared bathroom and two meals, start at around 5800 Yen per person. Hirata Kanko at the port in Ishigaki might help with reservations.
*** Our ferry tickets to Taketomi were sponsored by Hirata Kankô this time.