Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Tokashiki Island

Tokashiki Island

Sunny weather is predicted today and we are going to Tokashiki Island but he skies are still grey when we board the 10:00 A.M. ferry. Our one way tickets are 1,470 yen each. We plan on returning this afternoon, but the regular return ferry leaves at 4:00 P.M. and I think we may want to return on the later and slightly more expensive 5:30 express ferry.

20 minutes out at sea, we see a gathering of 6 to 8 boats still in the water. These are the whale watching boats and our ferry slows and actually stops so we can watch the whale (or whales?) We are not as close or well positioned as the smaller chartered boats, but we see the whale spout, surface, dive, flip its tail and then resurface and lie on its back in the water and flap its flippers together a number of times. He is quite a show off! After his show is over another whale surfaces and spouts further out. It is very amazing to see these creatures and to know that these huge mammals are gliding beneath the waves. As we near Tokashiki Island we spot a pod of dolphins but they don’t pose for photographs and swim quickly by. John catches a glimpse a flying fish launching itself from the water and soaring through the air. (I personally didn’t witness this, but Art verifies the sighting and recalls the flying fish he saw as a boy living on Okinawa.)

The sun begins to break through the clouds just as we dock on Tokashiki. We catch a mini bus “taxi” to Aharen Beach. The price is 2.50 yen per person and 11 of us cram into the bus. This is my third trip to Tokashiki Island and to Aharen Beach. The bus takes us up a steep road cutting through the lush mountain vegetation, switching back and forth and then dropping back down on the other side, to Aharen Village and beach. I would guess Aharen Village has less than 1000 inhabitants. The village itself is an odd mixture of ancient wooden homes with traditional red tile roofs, hinpins, limestone and coral walls, interspersed between ugly modern 2 and 3 story concrete menchkus, (guest houses.) All the houses and menchkus are behind walls and often the ancient walls morph into cinderblock walls. The village is a mish mash of architecture and portable storage containers serve as out buildings, their ugly steel exterior contrasting with the beauty of the traditional island homes.

Our mini bus drops us at the end of the street. There are a handful of tiny shops and restaurants on this 2 block stretch of town. The pathway to the beach drops abruptly down from the small asphalt parking area and John, having been here twice before makes a beeline for the white crescent beach. I follow on John’s heels and flop down on the sand. John is already in the water wearing his snorkel and mask. The turquoise water is crystal clear and John swims out to take a look at this underwater world. Although the sun is out, it’s not one of those scorching beach days that make one want to cool off in the water. When John returns to shore he is shivering and his lips are blue. Last April we stayed here overnight and we prearranged a dive trip for Art and John. Wet suits were provided by the dive shop and I went along and snorkeled above them. John coaxes me to join him, but I balk. (I regret this decision in retrospect.) Art doesn’t want to go into the water without a wet suit, and I wonder where I will change into my swimsuit and worry about how cold it will be etc. Art and I stand on the beach and watch John swim further and further out and soon his snorkel is indiscernible from the snorkels of a dozen divers. We have neglected to tell John exactly how far out he is allowed to swim and I begin to panic. I assure myself that the ocean is calm and that there are other divers out with him but I had a terrible scare three years ago, snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands with John and Alisha. John disappeared from our group and was missing for over 20 minutes. I refused to believe the impossible but it was the most terrifying 20 minutes of my life. Gratefully, John was eventually spotted on the far side of the bay snorkeling with a young man from our ship. John had been with us one minute and then he was gone. His excuse was that the water was clearer away from the rocky ledge so he swam with his new friend to the distant side of the bay and with the sun low on the horizon; their snorkels were invisible to us.

Art waves and apparently catches John’s attention and I am greatly relieved to see a lone snorkel moving back towards shore. Back on land, John excitedly describes all the colorful fish, tells us that there is a lot of live coral, including table coral and that he saw some clown fish swimming inside anemones. John also reports that the divers have hooks and nets and that he thinks they are collecting abalone. We discover shortly that they are collecting the “Crown of Thorn” starfish, an invasive starfish that eats the coral. I take photos of their nets filled with the villain starfish. We take a long walk together along the sand and then up and along the road above, to take the perfect photo of this beautiful beach.

Our lunch options are limited and all the restaurants serve pretty much the same thing at the same price. We choose a restaurant with the half dozen cats lounging in the sun outside the door. Art orders me a Yasai Champuru, (Vegetable Stir Fry.) The vegetables are cooked with the virtually unavoidable spam chunks. I push the spam to the side of my plate and do my best to appreciate the flavoring it gives to my cabbage stir fry.

On our last visit to this island we stumbled into a magical spot just outside of the village in the edge of the Jungle. I named it the “Salamander Utaki” and I want to go there again. We walk away from the beach along narrow village streets towards the far left corner of the village. The village ends abruptly and there are fields and small private vegetable gardens here. One of these tiny gardens is fenced creatively using broken fishing poles tied together with wire and rope. Plastic bags and colorful paper are tied to the wire and flutter in the breeze keeping the crows away. A stream runs along side of the path and the ground is soggy and overgrown. I am certain that there are habu here, (a poisonous Okinawan snake) but equally certain that the habu don’t want to meet us any more than we do them, so we push through the high grass and duck under overhanging vines. The pathway enters the jungle and crosses over the stream. The jungle has all but taken over. I am surprised how this magical place has changed in less than a year.

The following excerpt is what I wrote about this spot in April of 2006: “John discovers several newts in the shallow water and as our eyes adjust to the dim light we see dozens of red bellied newts. We tread carefully as we walk further up the stream making certain not to step on any of these wonderful creatures. We are all delighted to have stumbled upon this enchanted spot. When we return back along the path towards the village a wizened old woman is now tending one of the tiny gardens. She is surprised to see foreigners but greets us warmly. She points to where we just came from and tells us that it is a spirit place. I understand because I just experienced the magic.”

Tonight we “Google” Ryukyu Salamander and we believe that these creatures are the Ryukyu Fire Bellied Newt, a member of the salamander family.

We have never visited Tokashiki beach, another popular snorkeling beach on the island. Art speaks with the woman who owns the private mini van and she agrees to take us there for $1,000 yen. Again John is in the water in an instant, and reports that the water is cloudy near the shoreline but that snorkeling is even better than at Aharen Beach. We walk together along the rocky shore for an hour. The rocks are slippery with mossy seaweed and I almost take a plunge. It’s nearing 5:00 P.M. and time to catch our express ferry back to Naha. It only takes 35 minutes to return, the sun sets a brilliant orange and we see another whale.

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