The tropical island of Okinoerabu is known for its pristine, wild nature. It is also known for its agricultural products, such as sugar cane and flowers, thanks to the abundant spring water that gushes up from underground. Many young people move here or come back from other areas, drawn by the island's simple charms and work opportunities. While most of Japan faces depopulation, Okinoerabu has a large population of children. The tradition of the elderly taking care of youngsters is still alive. Writer and photographer, Kit Pancoast Nagamura, travels to this gem of island.
It's fantastic to observe the dynamic breaking waves.
Okinoerabu Caving Guide Federation
Address: 520 China, Chinacho, Oshimagun, Kagoshima Prefecture
Address: 2270 Tamina, Chinacho, Oshimagun, Kagoshima Prefecture
Then it's another hour by air to the island.
Traveler: Kit Pancoast Nagamura > More Info
Occupation:Poet, photographer, editor, and long-term columnist for The Japan Times
Length of residence in Japan:Over 20 years
Reason: I'm the fifth generation of my family to adore Japan. When I won a year-long fellowship from Brown University to interview artists here, I fell in love with the food, the profound culture, and the people.
Who wouldn't be thrilled to escape the dregs of winter and
visit an island in the East China Sea famous for its blossoms
and dramatic coastline? I jumped at the opportunity to explore
Walking out of the island's spartan airport, salty, semi-tropical breezes reminded me a bit of my birthplace in Florida. However, the island's coastline of coral rock, with blowholes and crashing waves in shades of electric blue, was unlike any I've seen.
From the island's highest point, I scanned the landscape for rivers or lakes, because on a tiny sea-locked island, water is everything. The only fresh water I spied was in gathering rain clouds.
Luckily, the next event was a caving expedition, and the nice thing about caves is that rain becomes inconsequential. The bad thing about caves is that they're not ideal for claustrophobic sorts like me.
Expert guide Yuji Karai wisely kept me busy donning double layers of fleece clothing and a red caving jumpsuit, and then explained how to operate the little light on my safety helmet. There was really no time to panic. When I stared down into the cave entrance, though, where a rope disappeared into darkness, I balked. Yuji calmly coaxed me on, and helped me locate crucial footholds; I'd never have made it without him.
In the depths, my headlamp illuminated filigrees of my own breath mingling with the underground moisture. We traversed subterranean rivers, accumulations of the island's rainfall that percolates down through the porous mountain, and explored the age-old limestone formations in Japan's second largest cave system. As a finale, Yuji lit up a series of crystalline rimstone pools, the beauty of which I will never forget.
Okinoerbujima's secret water source supports a successful floriculture of indigenous trumpet lilies, sweet potatoes, chrysanthemums, and sugar cane. But another resource is equally important: the "borabaito" (a neologism combining Japanese words for volunteer and part-time worker). Young workers from cities, hoping for a break from urban stress and a chance to broaden their life experience, join their hosts and work here much as extended family might. They add much to the island's vitality.
At Shimayado, a spacious lodging of traditional island architecture lovingly renovated by island returnee Kenichiro Daito, I enjoyed his alcove of books nestled with jars of island shells, and his marvelous cuisine. Finally, I chanced upon a story-telling event for school children held below a spreading banyan tree, wandered windswept paths between fields of sugarcane, and never stopped thinking about the world flowing below the island's surface. Okinoerabujima struck me as, much like Ithaca, a home you'd never forget.
Okinoerabu island is not as touristic as Okinawa, yet it has all the charms of a tropical island and warm, welcoming residents. Caving here is world-class, and it is a little known secret of Japan’s southern islands.