If you want to stock up on cans of corned beef hash, I recommend a jaunt to Ishigaki-jima — one of the Yaeyama islands at the bottom of the Ryukyuan chain. Vegetarians may enjoy a brown sugar/brown rice drink called Miki, which is a meal in itself. For those with less discriminating and ethical tastes, a large mug of root beer and a bacon cheeseburger are always available at A&W’s fast food chain. (A&W has a fast-food chain?)
For years I have heard Japanese people obsess over the beauty and splendour [sic] of the “Southern Countries” (南国), but hailing from Florida, I had never been especially motivated to dedicate my few spare yen on a “semi-tropical” version of the country I already live in. 30,000 frequent flier miles later, however, costs for such an operation dropped to near zero, and I found myself on a Friday afternoon 747 (!) headed towards Naha.
As suggested above, the most obvious cultural delineations between Japan and its semi-colony are culinary. Even while waiting for our connecting flight at Naha airport, we quickly ran to the gift shops to indulge in Blue Seal ice cream bars and Shikuwasa juices. Although tempting at the time, we would not eat “authentic” “taco rice” until days later. The frequent use of goya bitter melon in dishes may be a natural choice from local agricultural conditions, but Okinawan cooking seems to have reached its defining moment the day American canned meats fell out of the sky in food drops. Like Hawaiians, the Okinawans love Spam. And oddly, even without U.S. military bases, Ishigaki still treats all these clearly-ration-derived cuisines as part of its local color.
On the way up to Kabira Bay at the north side of the island, where pelican-sized bats fly overhead at night in B-52 pattern formations, the taxi driver mumbled to us that he had once lived in Tokyo but found it “too cold.” Those are not usually the first adverb and adjective I use when describing my megalopolitan home, but temperature tolerance is relative. Mid-October in Ishigaki is perfect beach weather, so summer must be intolerable for us igloo dwellers of Edo.
Ishigaki’s beaches are nice and all, but the island’s buildings appear to have been built in a single coordinated effort, sometime deep in the 70s, by Mies van der Rohe’s third-worst student. Lots of geometric, semi-Modernist concrete structures that do not even begin to integrate into the otherwise “beachy” scenery. None of these houses and buildings have been touched since their initial construction, so the entire island feels a bit like the rotting remnants of the Dharma Initiative — without all the Casimir Effect mysteries.
A ten-minute boat ride, however, takes you to idyllic Taketomi-jima. This island is only 9 km in circumference and home to around 350 people. Although the beaches are relatively pleasant, the real draw is the preserved Okinawan village at the center. All of the houses have red roofs protected by Shiisaa lion/dogs. Coral walls mark off properties, and scores of stray kittens play in trees. Water buffalo — not native to Okinawa nor Japan — pull carts of tourists and guides who sing local songs on the Sanshin and explain the village history.
Although there are many day-trippers, the village becomes an almost perfect resort spot at night: a remote location, splendid architectural coordination, nearby beaches accessible by bike, few cars, healthy local foods, and a night canopy of stars . Apparently, Taketomi-jima is moments away from being accepted as a World Heritage Site. (UNESCO said, “Lose the visible power lines and we’ll talk.”) The island is living history without being as Playmobil as Colonial Williamsburg.
The real lesson, however, is that Taketomi’s success-through-tradition did not happen by accident. The island has strict rules about property ownership, thus stopping any outside parties from coming in and taking advantage of the location for more obvious commercial aims. Also, the government (unclear if prefectural or national) gives financial assistance to homebuilders who use the classic red roofs, standard styles, and Shiisaa. These legal directives make the conservation a much easier choice. Obviously, the more the island resembles a cleaner version of historical Okinawa, the more tourism increases. Everyone may understand this macro goal, but without micro-economic incentives, I doubt that individuals would take on the financial burden of working within the strict architectural rules — especially when every developer in Japan would love to sell you the ugliest, cheapest windowless concrete box that’s all the rage among Tokyo’s New Rich.
Ultimately, Ishigaki and Taketomi lay out alternate scenarios for Japan’s future. Ever since World War II, there has been a “Japan = tiny Pacific island” self-marketing message: “War? Empire? We are just a small island nation of poor, peaceful farmers.” Now that the economy has long passed the recovery point, Japan can either let global capitalism further take over the empty shell where national directive once ruled, or the “small island country” can forget the economic rat-race and reinvent itself as self-sustaining, eco-friendly, and culture-rich — like a larger version of Taketomi. Doing absolutely nothing will lead to Japan being a larger version of Ishigaki-jima — once-impressive, concrete modernist development slipping into oblivion (as already seen in such locales as Chiba and Gunma). Thanks to the self-hating tastes of the first-world traveling class, the tourist industry demands a “pure” third-world — one without the abandoned, rusting accouterments from the first-world that are a big part of the third-world’s real landscape. Unfortunately, however, getting the third-world back to its more pleasant pre-modern state will takes modernist government initiatives and technocratic economic incentives. It takes modern science to heal the bullet wound.