With bare white beaches, transparent waters, unkempt jungles and colorful ethnic villages, the Yaeyama Islands are the best-kept secrets in the East.
Stargazing is a personal passion of mine. I blame theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. His A Brief History of Time was etched on my consciousness at an early age, and since then, gazing at the night sky has never been a brief endeavor. The rush of time seems to ease off in those moments where the depth of space becomes illuminated by infinite sparkling gems. Here in Southern Okinawa, Japan, where water buffalo-powered wooden carts meander through historic hamlets, it’s no wonder time is but a breeze to cool the soul of any daydreamer, because at Hoshizuna Beach, the stars are scattered not merely across the sky at night but underfoot as well — in actuality as tiny, five-pointed exoskeletons of marine protozoa scattered in the sands.
I arrived at this beach by bicycle. I really could have walked. Taketomi Island, one of the smallest among the Yaeyama archipelago, has an area of only 2.4 square miles and claims just a few hundred inhabitants. The island is just 3.5 hours by plane (or 1,200 miles) southwest of Tokyo, and I arrived wearing beige corduroy pants, a white open-collared shirt, a black velvet jacket and brown-tanned loafers. But in this subtropical climate, a more practical mode of dress is rather pertinent — namely, sports sandals, swim shorts and a tank top with latherings of sunscreen. The Yaeyama Islands are to Japan what Hawaii is to the United States: a far-flung part of the country with a distinct history and culture. The salient difference is that the islands of Yaeyama — Japan’s most remote — have thus far remained something of a secret, a cherished realm for divers, trekkers and silence-seekers shielded by the location’s seclusion.
Artifacts suggest inhabitants set foot here some 4,500 years ago, but the islands weren’t documented until 797 A.D., when they were written about in Japan’s Imperial court texts. Part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom from the 15th century, with indigenous languages throughout the isles, much of the Ryukyu chain officially became retitled in 1879 as Japan’s own Okinawa, which is geographically split into four distinct island groups: Amami-Oshima (closest to the mainland), Okinawa (the largest central group), Miyako (in the south) and finally, Yaeyama (the southernmost group). Fortunately, local culture, including cuisine, has endured steadfastly on most, because with island-hopping and adventure on my agenda, I prefer to stoke my engine with the flavors of this “another Japan.”