This Week on Yubu Island – 3 November 2020
Mac here. This week I had the honour of being a guest of the Japan Association of Travel Agents and Okinawa Prefectural Government on a tour of Ishigaki and Iriomote Islands, two of the southernmost and westernmost islands in the Japanese archipelago.
There are so many highlights that it would require several ‘This Week in’s to cover even a fraction of what we did. Let’s just say here that the remote islands of Okinawa are a treasure trove of stargazing, hiking, flora, fauna and much more, with a cornucopia of local food and drink giving you the energy to see and do it all.
Of all the experiences, one which really touched me was our journey to Yubu Island. I have chosen that as the focus for this edition. As you’ll see, it’s a world away from Tokyo.
Yubu Island is situated next to Mihara Village, on the eastern side of Iriomote Island. It has a circumference of 2.15 kilometres and is 1.5 metres above sea level. In 1969, Typhoon Elsie struck Yubu Island. Almost all the residents relocated to Mihara. However, one couple remained, determined to remake Yubu into a botanical paradise. Seiji Iriomote, his wife and their one water buffalo worked tirelessly to achieve this dream. They inspire the support of others, and thanks to them we are able to enjoy their realisation of the vision today.
The water that divides Yubu Island from the ‘mainland’ is so shallow it can be crossed on foot. However, the most popular mode of transport is to take the Water Buffalo taxi from ‘mainland’ Iriomote Island. Yes, you read that right. Having been to 108 countries I have experienced many modes to transport but this was a first.
There are just over 40 of these Asian water buffalo on the island. Taxi training (the buffalo equivalent of The Knowledge) starts when they are 2-3 years old, and the smartest tools in the box start work 6-12 months later. They live to about 30 years of age, and pull carts for 15-20 of those.
If for some reason this wasn’t enough for you, the drivers will entertain you with a couple of Okinawan classics on the sanshin. I snapped this shot while our driver was playing a slightly remixed version of Shima Uta, one of my favourite songs of all time. The lyrics were slightly altered to make a couple more reference to Andy-chan, our buffalo for the crossing, than the original tune does.
What to do when you get to the island? First stop, lunch! There is one restaurant on the island serving, amongst other fare, this incredible bento box of delights. Highlights included umi budou (sea grapes), vegetable tempura and brown sugar youkan and pineapple from the restaurant’s farm for dessert!
Having refuelled, I headed to the Butterly Garden. The island is full of these delightful creatures flying around, but it was in the greenhouse that I was able to snap this incredible shot of the Paper Kite, Japan’s largest butterfly.
The golden chrysalis of the Paper Kite bitterly is otherworldly. Thanks to our guide, I was able to spot one.
It had been a few minutes since we had last eaten (this became one of the themes of the trip), so this adverse situation had to remedied fast. Luckily, there is a cafe at the other end of the island to the buffalo parking. This beach tea house on Manta Ray Beach (see header image) serves some of the best ice cream I have ever had, handmade by the owner. I chose Okinawan Blue, a mix of Herbs and Salts, and Brown Sugar, which Okinawa (and the Amami Islands too) is famous for.
Time for some quick snaps on the way back to the Water Buffalo Taxi Station.
Despite only spending what amounted to just under 3 hours for the whole Yubu Island experience, it was a place that strongly affected me. The history of the island, how we got there, the delicious food and incredible nature we experienced, and the overlay of how lucky I was to be there in 2020 all combined to make me appreciate life, the universe and everything. Or maybe it was just that bloody amazing ice cream. Whatever it was, we continue…
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