Traveling Okinawa with a broken heart

This week on Deep Dive we get contributing writer and photographer Lance Henderstein to read us his article on traveling Okinawa during the rainy season.

Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Shaun McKenna 0:09

Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I’m Shaun McKenna. We’re doing something a little different this week. Earlier this summer, one of our contributing writers and photographers, Lance Henderstein, went down to Okinawa on assignment. He wanted to travel the prefecture’s southernmost islands by ferry, but it was at a time when the region was being hit with tons of rain. One of the effects of climate change one that has hit Japan really hard has been heavier downpours caused by rising temperatures. We were kind of thinking, what if we do travel stories that just take for granted that there’s going to be a lot of rain at your destination. However, Lance has his own unique history with Okinawa and the story ended up taking a more introspective turn as he dealt with his recent visits there. The prefecture itself has its own unique history, with the Ryukyuan culture thriving independently from the Japanese mainland. It’s a different vibe down there, so we took the peace in another direction. Let’s describe some of the outer islands as being “a sanctuary for castaways and eccentrics inhabiting the middling in between of self imposed exile, where anyone who visits more than once is considered to be auditioning.” There’s a lot of poetic flourishes like that and the way he describes the islands and life there. And for this week’s episode, we decided to let Lance tell his own story. So without further ado, here’s Lance’s piece as told by him, “My annual pilgrimage to Okinawa.”

Lance Henderstein 01:45

My legs were burning. The ferry was clipping at high speed toward the island of Iriomote and the heat of the engine was turning the metal bench I was sitting on into a grill. Fumes were being whisked out of the open windows by sheer velocity, but lingered long enough to make my throat itch and eyes water. A young couple sitting a row over watched their screens unbothered, oblivious as we skimmed along the ocean surface.

Boarding the ferry at Ishigaki terminal that morning, I had a choice: sit above deck on benches near the luggage, or head down into the plush, air-conditioned hull. Most passengers chose the latter and were now comfortably sealed below — their heads two rows of silhouettes — I was seated above in a tin shack strapped to the top of a diesel engine.

Comfort wasn’t a priority. I’d come to Okinawa to travel by ferry during the height of rainy season. We’re taught to despise the rain when we travel. To see it as a negative. Rain, it’s said, ruins a day, a trip, a wedding, a season. But if we travel to make memories — indelible memories in whatever form they come — rain can enhance a journey with mood and character.

The smaller, faster ferries that run between the Yaeyama islands aren’t pleasure boats. More than anything, they provide the residents of Okinawa Prefecture’s outlying islands, and travelers like myself, with a quick and reliable transportation to-and-from the main hub of Ishigaki and places beyond.

There are larger, more impressive ships that carry cars and cargo along with their passengers. On my last visit, I took one of those grand vessels from Tomari Port in Naha to Kume Island. It was a spit-shined behemoth with private tatami rooms where families splay out and sleep on the floor to prevent seasickness.

I come back to Okinawa each year, traveling by ferry between the islands. Not for the reasons most come — the emerald seas and subtropical beaches. For me, it’s a pilgrimage.

In 2019, I was in Naha to celebrate my birthday with friends. At dinner, I collapsed from an aortic dissection. Thanks to my friends’ quick thinking and a skilled team of surgeons, I survived my first brush with death.

The recovery at Nanbu Tokushukai Hospital was a long one. Convalesced, I returned the next year. And the next. Partly to honor the people and place that saved my life, and partly just because I can. It’s a blessing to be able to return to Okinawa, whatever the weather or mode of transport.

About halfway to Iriomote the heat and fumes of the ferry engine became too much. I stood and teetered to the rear of the vessel. In the open air the sea mist swirled, coating everything with brine. I took unusable photos of the passing scenery: blurred gray horizons broken by black, unnamed islands. Then, some passing ships, stacks of cement tetrapods, and the ferry arrived.

I’d been here once before. My friend, Aoi Suzuki, and her family run Takemori Inn, one of the few hotels here. This time I was staying in a newer annex, Shinminka Villa, which Aoi and her husband, Ikkei, manage. It’s won a few architecture awards for its modern take on traditional Okinawan design. The size and amenities are meant for couples or small families, but options are limited on Iriomote and I was keen to give Aoi’s family some low-season business.

The ferry arrived at Taketomi port well before the 3 p.m. self check-in. I decided to walk from the terminal to a nearby cafe called Kocha no Mise Hanazumi. The skies were darkening and drizzling rain, but I figured I could get there before it really came down.

Like a lot of rural businesses, the cafe is run out of the owners’ home. She appeared to be in her late 50s or early 60s, but in Okinawa it’s hard to gauge. The long lifespans here in general warp the meaning of youth. When a century of life isn’t out of the question, your 20s seem such a small fraction it’s hard to say who counts as “young.”

After a quick lunch, I checked myself in and rested a bit before heading to the Suzukis. When I arrived, the smell of barbecued meat and smoke were already in the air. I saw a half dozen people there to greet me.

We ate together, grabbing pieces of grilled meat with chopsticks as they cooked. The neighbors told me about making their lives in such a remote place. Most of the men had come to join the families of their Iriomote-born wives. Nearly everyone had side-hustles to supplement their incomes. The daughter of one couple was in her last year of junior high and felt anxious to leave the small island for high school in the coming year.

As we talked, the sunset intensified, blanketing everything in an orange and violet glow. Aoi suggested we go up to the roof of the building next door to get a better view. Her two sons, 8 and 4 years old, led the way, bounding up the staircase.

From the rooftop the sea was visible to the northeast. The party carried on below us like a diorama, backlit by the ember glow of the setting sun. The boys played with a small replica of a basketball, like a miniature sun in their hands, and the youngest tried to pull himself up to get a view over the weathered walls.

Sunsets are forgettable. Sunsets with people who welcome you in as one of their own, in a place far from everything, illuminate the valleys of your mind.

The next morning, the rain returned. A typhonic rain that fell like heavy blows upon tiny Iriomote. The heavens would pause to catch their breath only to spill over once again — each round heavier than the last. I stood looking out through slatted blinds at the battered palm trees. A box turtle trundled across the green expanse of the lawn.

Held captive by the elements, I was reminded of a Ray Bradbury story in which humanity has colonized a rainy, fictional Venus. Once every few years the continuous rain on Venus stops and the sun briefly emerges like a celestial oasis. On that precious day, a young girl’s classmates decide to lock her in a closet as a prank and she misses her chance to see the sun.

I imagine we’ll all feel a similar sense of loss someday. Already we’ve begun to speak of “normal” seasons of the past as if they are myths. “The summers used to start in June,” we say. “I don’t remember a May this hot, ever,” we muse to one another over coffees flown in from Ethiopia.

Aoi texted to offer me a ride to the bus stop. When she arrived, we sat for a bit and compared midlife notes. She wanted to travel, but was now a mother of two with familial responsibilities. It’s a common lament. Those who are settled long to escape. Those who are rootless imagine the counterlife we might have had, moored to hometowns, to lifelong friends, to families and children we don’t have. In reality, most of us would never trade our current lives for our fantasies if given the chance — counterfactuals are the fodder of discontent.

I boarded the bus and headed north to Uehara to stay at Guesthouse nesou, which opened last year. It was newer and more stylish than I expected. The couple running it, Raita and Aya Tsuchihashi, are transplants to Iriomote and self-proclaimed “Japanese hippies.”

I dropped my bags and Raita led me down a forest trail that opened up to the secluded Nakano Beach. From the shore he pointed out Hatoma Island across the sea, visible through the afternoon haze that had followed the morning storm.

His face was beaming, still enamored with the location of their new home and business. In that moment, seeing how proud and hopeful he was, I deeply wanted him to succeed. For the couple’s guesthouse dreams to continue long into the future.

Tourism is a difficult industry. As so many found out during the pandemic, success isn’t always determined by a great location or business acumen. The Tsuchihashis have a great location going for them.

In the late afternoon there was a break in the rain. I decided to walk toward Unarizaki Park and Hoshizuna Beach and take photos along the way. I passed undulating pineapple fields, the black mesh nets made them look like lava flows heading out toward the sea in the distance.

After a long walk in the heat I needed to find dinner. There isn’t much in the way of fine dining in Uehara and any listed operating times are not to be trusted, especially in low season.

I found a small izakaya called Hoshizunatei near a campground above Hoshizuna Beach. It was dark inside and I wasn’t even sure it was open until I saw the elderly couple who ran it sitting together. The old man hopped to his feet when I entered, turning on the TV and the fluorescent lights. He took my order and then headed back to the kitchen to cook with his wife.

The small restaurant had an elevated tatami dining room lined with large windows facing the sea, but the jungle had taken over completely, blocking the view of Hoshizuna Beach below.

The old man brought me my appetizer and we made conversation about the restaurant.

“Customers used to love watching the sunset near the windows as they ate,” he said. “But I just got too old to keep trimming those trees back. Finally just said ‘enough!’ and let it all grow in.”

While he was speaking I noticed a deep red light shining through the thicket behind him.

“Is that the sun?!” I asked. I hadn’t expected any visibility with all the haze.

“Yep! And today should be a beautiful one after the storm.” He looked outside. “If you run you can catch it! Leave your things! You better hurry! Run!”

I grabbed my camera and bolted from the restaurant, running toward the beach down the overgrown pathway. Near the bottom an amber-red light filled the sky, followed by a quick dimming and I knew before I had arrived that I had missed it.

On the beach I caught my breath and imagined the crimson sun, now completely submerged behind the horizon. I took a moment to look at the rock formations jutting from the sea before heading back to the restaurant.

Walking back to the guest house it was dark. An inky, rural darkness you forget about living in urban areas. I used my phone to light the way and felt citified, jumpy about the teeming wildlife flying and scurrying through the beam of light. Salamanders were scaffolding the illuminated face of a flickering vending machine as I walked by.

A good rule of thumb at night on Iriomote is: If you think you see something, it’s probably something, and if you feel something, it’s definitely something.

The island is about 90% mangrove forest with just over 2,000 residents living along the coast. It’s not hard to imagine the place reverting completely to nature without them. As it stands, it’s a stalemate. And the residents of Iriomote seem content with their brokered peace, living along the margins of the wilder inner sanctum.

When I returned to the guest house, Raita and Aya had been joined by some guests, a young Japanese couple staying at the guesthouse, and an older local couple with a baby. All were, for lack of a better word, hippies. I joined them sitting around the half-eaten pizza on the floor of the common area.

Before long Aya had brought out her collection of crystal prayer bowls, running a mallet around the edges to create tones in varied keys. Not to be outdone, Raita went to get a didgeridoo.

Iriomote is a sanctuary for castaways and eccentrics. Other than the toddling baby, no one in the room was born on the island. Anyone who comes more than once is considered auditioning. Even the outsiders who move here are thought of as temporary until proven otherwise — emigres inhabiting the middling in-between of self-imposed exile.

Raita finished playing. After the vibration faded out, one of two women from Nagano broke the silence by asking me why I had come to Iriomote again.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” I answered, not wanting to spoil the mood with my story of a broken heart.

The father of the child spoke without looking up, as if sharing some irrefutable fact: “You were fated to come here, can’t fight it.”

That night I was awoken at around 3 a.m. by a symphony of frogs. I went to the window and opened it to get a better listen and decided to record it. A chorus of thousands of frogs oscillated in my ears, mirroring the drone of the instruments earlier. I imagined Raita as an amphibious didgeridoo conductor in the middle of a frog orchestra in the jungle — it was late.

The next morning I missed the bus. I was meant to travel to Taketomi Island to interview photographer Akiko Mizuno, who has been living on the island for 20 years. I had already rescheduled once due to a private ceremony there. Every inn on Taketomi Island had said the same thing when I called: “We’re closed for the matsuri.” Even Akiko wasn’t aware there was a private festival only for those born on the island.

I would have to go back to Ishigaki for the night and visit Taketomi Island the next day. Aya gave me a ride to the port in Uehara.

That evening in Ishigaki, without a plan and dodging intermittent sunshowers, I decided to have dinner at a traditional izakaya called Paikaji. I took a seat at the counter and ordered an assortment of Okinawan standards: deep-fried gurukun (banana fish), shima-dōfu (Okinawan-style tofu), umibudō (sea grapes) and an Orion beer. An older man sitting two seats down got my attention and complimented my camera. Older guys tend to be into the gear, but he just wanted an in to talk.

Realizing I could speak Japanese, he moved a chair closer and began showing me pictures of his sojourns around the world. Deep sea fishing in Ishigaki. Hunting deer and bear in Hokkaido. Visiting a gun range with an American friend in New York — be it cameras or guns, the guy sure liked to shoot things.

His face wore the palsied signs of a stroke, accentuated by the fact that he was now very drunk. Mid-conversation he abruptly stopped and proclaimed that he would “soon go to heaven.”

I said, “Me too.”

Maybe he thought I was joking or just clumsily dodging an uncomfortable topic. I think he expected me to ask him why. I refrained from showing him the scars on my chest to explain. A lull fell over our conversation. Our wry smiles seemed to confirm we shared something unspoken — a liminal proximity to death and to home.

We shared another bottle of beer. After some back-and-forth he excused himself, paid his bill and left. Almost immediately the staff began to apologize for him. He’s a regular customer, they explained. He eats here every time he comes back to Ishigaki, which is often. The head waiter smiled and asked if the man had told me his name.

I realized we hadn’t properly introduced each other.

“His name is Terafuku. Rare name. Know what it means?”

I did. “Temple blessing.”

I smiled at the poetry of it.

On the ferry to Taketomi Island the next morning, I chose to sit in the plush, air-conditioned room with the other passengers. The captain announced the travel time and destination and I felt lucky to be headed to a new location to meet new people.

I’m probably happiest when setting off on a journey. Never too eager to arrive. I have, without really planning to, arranged my life around such moments. Whatever comes after the departure is incidental to the journey itself.

We say travelers choose experiences over possessions, but for the truly nomadic — those who’ve abandoned the very concept of home — experiences are possessions, tangible things as real as any item packed into a bag.

For the committed traveler, life choices are an act of curation, a collection of scenes to relive someday as it all winds down. The details blur and fade, but inevitably, the stories we remember will emerge as the only true belongings we ever really had.

Shaun McKenna 19:19

Thanks, Lance Henderstein for sharing his story with us on Deep Dive. If you want to check out the pictures he took for the piece, then please head to japantimes.co.jp. I’ll leave a link to the story in the show notes. Also let us know what you thought of this format, or any of our episodes for that matter. We got a lot of feedback from last week’s episode about cannabis in Japan. A lot of people made pretty passionate arguments in favor of legalization. You can get in touch with us at [email protected] or message us on X, formerly Twitter, at @Japan Deep Dive. And if you like what you’re hearing, then we’d love it if you could take the time to give us a rating on the podcasting platform of your choice. Anyway as we wrap up summer and head into autumn, Deep Dive is going to take a break next week but we will be back mid-October with new episodes. The show is produced by Dave Cortez. Our outgoing track is by Oscar Boyd and our theme music is by Japanese musician LLLL. I’m Shaun McKenna, podtsukaresama.


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