Back from Iriomote Island, "the Galapagos of Japan." Yes, that's Taiwan in the satellite photo. Iriomote is the second to southernmost island of Japan and a good four hours by plane and boat from Tokyo's Haneda Airport. Wet cough from the sudden return to cold, smoggy skies. Tokyo is a city that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming through the seasons, and it's taking my lungs with it. Unlike the perpetually warm islands of Okinawa, one day it's seventy degrees and blue skies, the next it's forty and rain.
Mysterious skin infection creeping up my arms. Space herpes? I think it's from the fire coral I accidentally brushed against while chasing a needlefish through the reef. Or maybe it's from that strange fruit we ate. "Peach-Pine." Looks like a baseball-sized pineapple. Tastes like a peach. The twentysomething driver of the ox cart we hired to take us through the shallows to a neighboring island recommended it to us. The best part? It turned out he got his job by answering a want ad in "From A," the nationwide job-searching website and magazine. You, too, can be an ox-cart driver.
Exotic skin conditions aside, I should count myself lucky. Iriomote-Jima was uninhabitable for centuries until the US bombed it with DDT right after the war, killing the millions of malarial mosquitoes that had been breeding there. When the first settlers arrived they found a verdant jungle paradise, man-sized ferns straight out of Jurassic Park, soaring mountains, and strange fruits nestled in the branches of ancient-looking palm trees. They also met the locals: giant moths, mountain leeches, scorpions, centipedes, enormous mutant crayfish and crabs, and the habu, three-foot long pit vipers that hide in the underbrush and send unwary hikers to the hospital if they're lucky and the grave if they aren't.
The only way to get to Iriomote is by taking a puddle-jumper from Okinawa's capital of Naha to Ishigaki-Jima, the nearest island with anything resembling a major airport, and then hopping a forty minute jet-ferry ride to Iriomote's Ohara Port. Huge air-conditioned buses shuttle sightseers, the vast majority day-trippers, around the tiny sliver of Iriomote's coastline that's developed for tourism. Never one for the group thing, Hiroko and I opted to rent a tiny car instead. We took it all over the east and north coasts of the island, looking for likely spots to jump into the mangroves and reefs in search of animal adventure. Hence the fire-coral incident.
The bulletin board of the local restaurant had a poster of Aum Supreme Cult fugitives, the same one you see posted at police boxes all over Tokyo. Hey, you never know who's hiding in those jungles. Or maybe you do: right next to it, a wanted poster featuring a South American iguana's face gets equal space and time. Another foreigner on the lam from immigration. Down South, an iguana's as big a deal as a Triad member with a fake passport is in Kabukicho. This is why I love Okinawa.
Flashback to day three. We're on Hatoma Island, a ten-minute jetski ride from Iriomote. The Okinawan sun is punishing, dishing out eight times the UV in comparison to Tokyo's latitude. Current population: forty-five full time residents and ten tourists. Nothing like a visit to an island where Hiroko's and my presence accounts for a statistically significant portion of the population to remind us we aren't in Tokyo anymore. Our bronzed, bearded guide is Toshiro Mifune in a wetsuit, the epitome of Japanese machismo. "This is main street," he says, gesturing towards a dirt strip curving along the beach. On the left stand a ragtag series of cozy homes surrounded by hand-made walls made of local stones and shells. Their red roof tiles are faded from the powerful sun, and a pair of traditional Okinawan "Shiisa" gargoyles perch on every rooftop. Bonus points on the otaku quiz: Godzilla's pal King Ceasar ("Shiisa" -- get it?) takes his style from gargoyles just like these. On the right stretch the crystal-blue waters of the bay we'll soon be snorkeling.
"And there's the middle school," continues the guide as we reach the end of main street. The wooden schoolhouse looks like something out of a Showa-nostalgia drama. It and the playground are perched atop a bluff overlooking the ocean. The scene's so idyllic, it almost seems like a set. And then reality hits: "They had to shut it down for a while due to a lack of kids on the island, but they just reopened it as a rehabilitation center for hikikomori shut-ins and victims of bullying." Wow. So now they're shipping them off to distant tropical islands. Nice therapy. I could use some myself.
I could also use some lunch. But first, we've got to make it through the tour. "There's a relay race held here every fall," continues Wetsuit Mifune. "People come in from all the neighboring islands. We had two hundred people competing last year. First prize is a goat." Shinjuku this ain't. "Goat's a delicacy in Okinawa. It's really gamy and tough as hell. A lot of people don't like it. But you can't eat goat meat, you aren't a real man here. Anyway, the real delicacy are the balls. They save 'em for special occasions and serve 'em up raw." It's the other, OTHER white meat.
Visions of goat-testicle sashimi dancing in our heads, Hiroko and I nervously head for the island's lone restaurant. "By the way," shouts the guide over our shoulders, "feel free to walk around, but if you see stairs leading to a shrine, don't take them. The islanders don't like tourists in there. Got it?" I think back to our ox-cart driver, who had told us much the same thing. "There's shrines up in the hills," he'd said between flyswatter smacks on our beast's fragrant rump. "You don't want to be poking around in there. They find you during a ceremony, they get mad. I mean they'll try to kill you."
In spite of the dire warnings, every single islander we met treated us with friendliness and hospitality. And fire coral attacks aside, the rest of our days were spent peacefully floating in the perfectly transparent waters, watching the tropical fish and dodging the occasional sea-snake. We never did figure out what was going on in the shrines. Perhaps that's where all the fugitive cult members and iguanas are hiding.