In the chain of islands between the bulk of Japan and Okinawa, the ferry passes twice a day: once on its way north, and once on its way south. Affordably priced and unrestricted by baggage allowances, ferries offer a convenient means of travel – if you’re headed in the right direction. I had hoped to make myself at home with our nearest neighbor to the north, Amami, but the red-eye arrival and departure times have dampened my enthusiasm.
As for Okinoerebu in the south, I had only heard of it in passing — literally — over the loudspeakers en route to teaching on Yoron. It was high time to visit.
My holiday began the night before, when a friendly teacher arranged a dinner at the local izakaya (traditional-style restaurant). We mixed our smatterings of Japanese and English, with judicous use of translators apps to bridge the gaps. Conversation ranged from their high school English lessons (‘He usually goes to school by bus‘) to the origins of ballet (Oda-sensei, the world history teacher, educated us on the connections between France and Italy during the Renaissance). We laughed our way through multiple courses of small dishes, shared family-style.
Even though I had boarded this same ferry nearly every month for a year, nerves assailed me the next morning. Mounted on my bicycle, I loaded alongside the cars and motorbikes. We trundled up a yawning ramp, scored with treads for heavy equipment, and into the underbelly of the ferry. I gladly abandoned my wheels in an unobtrusive corner and escaped to the passenger decks.
In an effort to expand my horizons beyond the comfortable routines established over my first year here, I invested in an ice cream from the vending machine onboard. The quality surprised me — along with the novelty of an ice cream sandwich remodeled as a segmented wafer.
I arrived on Okinoerebu much too early for check-in at the hostel, so I spent the day gallivanting around on bicycle, exulting in the broad, smooth sidewalks. You can’t find anything so bike-friendly on my island; it rejuvinated me to surge forward uninterrupted with the sea as my companion. The tourist information center furnished me with a map in English, which decided my destinations for the next two days.
Occupied with thoughts of dinner as I pedaled home, I spotted a seafront sashimi stall. A similar set-up in Yoron featured fish fresh from the ocean; I veered off to sample its wares. Where better to sup than overlooking the waves?
Still not satiated with sashimi by the ocean, I queried the hostel owner for a recommendation and dined on a sashimi set meal for dinner – the typical spread of main dish, white rice, and miso soup, plus an unusual collection of potato sides and a savory stewed fish. Though I had initially doubted whether visiting this island would offer me anything different from its neighbors to either side, I was already tempted to make a habit of it.
The hostel enjoys a high ranking on the booking site where I make all my reservations here, and I understand why – it combines pleasant sleeping spaces with a cafe (across the street) and restaurant (next door). I admired the entpreneurial ingenuity of it.
My first morning there dawned with an early breakfast: 7:30 a.m. The kind chef, an island local, not only acquired the bus schedule for me but personally escorted me to the station. The driver then advised me to save a few hundred yen on an all day pass. Then I was cruising through the sugar fields, smiling as the driver greeted each of his elderly passengers by name.
One of the largest stretches of limestone caves available to the public in all of Japan, this attraction offered all the magnificence of without the fuss. After buying my ticket, I had the caves all to myself – a self-guided tour with not a single other visitor in sight. I followed a well-lit but adventurous path: crossing bridges, crouching under overhangs, peer into pools, ducking waterfalls. The mineral deposits glittered like the frosted fairyland better suited to Narnian winter than a semi-tropical island.
Sunday morning, I rolled out for a worship service, at the nearest church marked on Google maps. There my plans abruptly evolved when the church leader volunteered herself as my tour guide! She crisscrossed the island with me, checking off every scenic outlook listed on the map.
I requested a special visit to “Japan’s largest banyan tree,” a massive specimen nurtured by the children of Kunigami Elementary School. It lived up to the billing.
To top it all off, my hostess invited me to dinner at hotel overlooking the island’s western shore. I dined on (you guessed it) sashimi.
Monday morning, I caught the ferry to Yoron, with another variation on my old routine: short on space, Yoronto Village booked me into one of the luxury rooms mounted on the ridge. I quickly grasped the advantage: faultless views of the ocean from the comfort of my bedside. Equipped with my bicycle, I dared some new restaurants in town.
As a parting gift, the teachers at Yoron shared a student’s masterwork with me: souvenir desserts hand-crafted for the island! I marveled at her artistry in reproducing the glass-like stones scattered on the beaches, to say nothing of the Yoron-shaped cookie with its sugary sea. My first year on the islands is drawing to a close, but I’ve only begun to taste everything they have to offer!