Japans

Wild West

Travelling to the remote Okinawa island of Yonaguni is a step back in time to rugged coastlines, tiny seaside villages, wild horses and an ancient underwater mystery.

Words and Photos Deborah Dickson-Smith

Japans

Wild West

Travelling to the remote Okinawa island of Yonaguni is a step back in time to rugged coastlines, tiny seaside villages, wild horses and an ancient underwater mystery.

Words and Photos Deborah Dickson-Smith

IN PARTNERSHIP WITH

Plunging

into clear blue waters off the rocky coast of Yonaguni-jima, I follow my dive guide ‘Shorty’, through a narrow tunnel, curious what I’ll see on the other side.

PLUNGING into clear blue waters off the rocky coast of Yonaguni-jima, I follow my dive guide ‘Shorty’, through a narrow tunnel, curious what I’ll see on the other side.

I’m diving Yonaguni’s famous underwater ‘Monument’, which some speculate is the remains of an ancient civilisation, lost to the depths by a catastrophic event. It has been the subject of several books and TV documentaries, and a topic of debate between archaeologists and geologists, since its discovery in the early 1980s.

My levels of anticipation and excitement are high, kept in measure by a healthy level of scepticism. I’m envisioning myself as a modern-day Thor Heyerdahl, where after this adventure I’ll come up with my own amazing theory and dazzle the world. Or maybe it’ll just be a fun dive and I’ll see some turtles, who knows?

Emerging from the narrow passage onto a flat rock platform we see two tall identical pillars directly ahead. From a depth of around 15 metres, they almost break the surface of the water, an impressive structure worthy of fascination.

Steps in the background at Monument.

We then swim along a wide ledge, much like an underwater road, and as we round a bend, the Monument looms before us. A high platform that drops 30 metres almost perpendicularly into a wide trench. The water is so clear, that from my shallow depth I can see a couple of turtles at the bottom munching on algae and a giant moray eel peering out from under a cluster of coral, swaying in the current.

As we approach, I see three wide steps leading to the platform from our ‘road’, each one the same width, height, and depth and this is where my scepticism starts to falter. How can nature produce something so geometrically perfect? At the back of the platform, more steps lead to a higher level, and on the far side, steps lead back down to our road.

Divers above Turtle rock at Monument, Yonaguni Okinawa.

Diver looking up at Monument diving Yonaguni.

Turtles swimming along the bottom of the trench.

Further down the road, our guide shows us a ‘chapel’, a narrow triangular cut in the rock platform, and in the open space beyond, a large formation that looks exactly like … a turtle. It's an ancient turtle god, according to our guide.

It’s my first day on this remote Japanese island, and I’m already in love with its wild landscape, above and below the water, and the wonderful, animated storytelling of our hosts, father and son, Kihachirou and ‘Shorty’ Aratake.

This is the most remote island in Japan’s Okinawa archipelago, roughly 60 minutes flight from the capital city Naha on Okinawa’s main island. It’s the western-most point of Japan, where on a clear day, you can see Taiwan just over 100 kilometres away.

On our flight from Naha, in a little Dash-8 plane, we’re served tea and white-bread sandwiches (with the crusts cut off), and the flight attendant hands me a hand-written postcard; “Welcome aboard Ryukyu Air Commuter!” informing me of the captain, first officer and flight attendant’s names, the estimated time of arrival, altitude, speed and weather, signed off with a smiley face. It’s all very Japanese.

Yonaguni wind-swept coastline.

As we approach Yonaguni, I see a wind-swept island with a rocky coastline, a few small villages, beaches here and there, and an interior largely made up of wild-looking meadows. Even from our high altitude, I can see the other attraction the island is famous for; wild horses.

Our accommodation is a small guesthouse, Hotel Irifune, also managed by the Aratake family, and we check in first, before going for a stroll through the village and to the dive centre, to meet the renowned Kihachiro Aratake.

Kihachiro actually discovered the infamous Yonaguni Monument in the early 1980s, while scouting for good locations to see the island’s other underwater drawcard, schooling hammerhead sharks, which congregate here in huge numbers between November and March.

He describes his moment of discovery animatedly – and while he has probably told this story hundreds of times, there’s still a sparkle in his eye as he recalls the moment he first set eyes on this ‘underwater Machu Pichu!’

Kihachiro and Shorty Aratake.

Kihachiro Aratake proudly showing his magazine article.

The good-natured Yonaguni horse.

The island’s other natural attraction is the Yonaguni horse. These critically endangered small horses are endemic to Yonaguni, and historically used to carry sugarcane and rice around the island. They now roam as they please, with some of these good-natured ponies available for good-natured guests to ride.

Yonaguni’s Hanazake Sake is 120 proof and highly flammable.

Okinawa’s Awamori sake is distinct from that found in other parts of Japan. First, it is made from Thai long-grain rice, a legacy of the archipelago’s long history as an important trading route, and importantly it is not just brewed, it is distilled, a technique also introduced to Okinawa by Thai traders, and is typically 60 to 86 per cent proof. Meaning it's by no means hangover proof.

Yonaguni’s Hanasake sake is 120 proof and highly flammable. Despite its combustibility, the distillery is well worth visiting – if just for a taste of this surprisingly smooth-tasting liqueur, and a photo of the accompanying fire safety message.

The tiny wild island of Yonaguni has much to recommend it: a rugged windswept landscape, stunning underwater world, and fascinating legends, shared with lucky visitors by some of the world’s best storytellers.

Distillery warning sign.

Hanasake is a unique distilled spirit produced on Yonaguni.

The view from Yonaguni lighthouse.

Japan's western-most point is in Yonaguni.

get in the know Yonaguni Island was occupied by the US from 1945 to 1972 before being returned to Japan and integrated back into the Okinawa Prefecture.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE

Get subscribed and get inspired. For FREE!