Wednesday, May 1, 2013

My Okinawan Vacation Part 1 - Ishigaki

After my wife’s successful sanshin test our next Okinawan adventure was an excursion to the southern islands of Ishigaki and Taketomi.  It was an overnighter trip. We left Naha airport early in the morning, and arrived in Ishigaki an hour later. Once there, we were met by our tour guide and our bus, where we proceeded to drive around the entire island, capturing the sights and sounds of the place.

My first impression of Ishigaki was that it was a very rural place.  As our bus wound its way along a two-lane road, we saw landscape sparsely populated with simple shacks and houses along the very green countryside.  Several times we spotted a goat perched on a rock or in a field, standing like a statue as we went by. 

Our first stop was a lookout point at the southern part of the island, from where you can simultaneously look to your right and see the East China Sea, then look to your left and see the Pacific Ocean.
View of Pacific Ocean (left) and East China Sea (right) from Ishigaki Lookout
We then stopped to see a grove of palm trees that are unique to Ishigaki, the Yaeyama-yashi palm.  These trees are only found in Ishigaki/Iriomote and can grow to heights over 60 feet.  The ones we were shown were located inside a jungle area that had mosquitoes and leeches.  The walkway to the site was over loose rocks and up a significant incline. 

Black pearls are grown in Ishigaki, and so of course we found ourselves at a black pearl shop – where prices were not cheap.  One large black pearl, cultured right offshore in shallow water, was around $1,000 (yes, dollars, not yen).  A string of them was, well, you can do the math.  None of our group decided to buy any that day.

Across the street was an awamori shop and this drew a lot of interest.  There was free sampling of the various specials of the day and we ended up buying two bottles of a plum flavored liquor.

A View from Ishigaki
The weather in early April was cool by Hawaii standards.  Highs were in the upper 60’s to mid 70’s.  Most of the time the skies were overcast, with occasional drizzle.  When the sun did come out, the humidity made it quite hot.  The Deigo tree flowers were just starting to blossom while we were there.  These red flowers are famous in Okinawa, and are mentioned in many Okinawan songs.

Deigo Tree Flower Starting to Bloom

One of the most fascinating stops for me was the Minsa clothing store, where we got the explanation of the minsa design.  It is a patch of 4 squares and 5 squares, and they overlay to make a solid piece.  It is something that women give to their husbands as a symbol of undying love and faithfulness.  Colors of the fabric are many, and we saw weavers actually making the cloth by hand in the shop.  Several of us bought handbags, shirts, and coin purses here. 
Minsa Pattern of 5 and 4 Squares. They Overlap to Make a Perfect Fit.
Here we encountered a custom that was quite surprising (to me anyway).  After we bought our items at the minsa shop, the owner gave us an O-miyage (gift)!   It was a bag of Ishigaki sugar, which comes in brown lumps and can be eaten as candy.  I never before heard of a shop keeper giving the customer a gift for buying something, but it happened to us again in Naha (more on this later).

After a stop for an Okinawan set lunch, we then drove on to the big city of Ishigaki, which is a little over 40,000 people.  On our way to our hotel we drove past the houses of the Okinawan singers Begin, and Rimi Natsukawa.  Both of these entertainers are from Ishigaki and still live there.

At night at the hotel, following dinner, there was a free minyo show featuring a local entertainer. She was terrific.   Afterwords, we topped off our day with a cocktail at the hotel’s top floor bar, which gave a nice view of the city lights of Ishigaki at night.
Our Evening Entertainment and a Mesmerized Fan!
The next morning, we hopped on a bus and headed for the ferry port to visit the small island of Taketomi.  (Next Post – Taketomi).

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