At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nature is Ancient

Iriomote Island

I teach on an island called Iriomote.  It's the largest island in the Yaeyama region of Okinawa and the second largest of all the Ryukyu islands.  Iriomote is one of my favorite islands to visit, not so much because of the people I meet there (though some of my favorite schools and students are on this island), but because I feel a sense of calm on this island that I rarely experience anywhere other than here.  It's as if Iriomote has very little of the interference that exists elsewhere in the world.  By interference, I mean all of the technology that we have come to rely on that inevitably also decreases our ability to connect to the natural world.  My ability to slow down and accept things as they are is increased when I have less distractions and less of the buzz of technology all around me.

There are only 2000 inhabitants on this island, most in small towns on the Eastern or Northern part of the island.  There is one long coastline that stretches from the southeastern town of Ohara over the northern coast and ends in a very small fishing village called Shirahama.  From this point on, you have to take a ferry if you want to reach the remote villages that are on the islands off the southwest.  Apart from these villages and towns, there is only wilderness on this island.  The entire interior and most of the southern part of the island is dense jungle covering large mountain ranges and valleys.  There are beautiful waterfalls and long rivers that run through these little traveled areas.  You can hike or kayak to reach the waterfalls, but there are warnings that if you plan to go beyond the second waterfall, you must report this to the Iriomote forest service, detailing where you plan to travel and for how many days as so many people have lost their way and have never been found again.    

Ida Beach on Funauki (a small island off the coast of Iriomote)

I have yet to travel beyond the coastline (though I plan to take a kayak trip to visit the waterfalls), but even from my experiences in staying overnight on this island (I teach at two very rural locations that require me to overnight in a village on the island) the remoteness of the island affects me in a way that the other Yaeyama islands do not.  I have only felt a similar sense of the extensive power of nature in one other place in my life in a similar way and that was in the Everglades in Florida.   In both Iriomote and in the Everglades I am hit with the endlessness of time, the sense of eternity stretching out before me in the mountains that jut up all around the island.  Place has the ability to affect our sense of time and space and these two areas make me think of how ancient this world is and how time itself is, in all essence, unmeasurable in the natural world (or at least, the way humans calculate and measure time becomes insignificant).  These are areas where the significance of my life is put into perspective.  I feel the least lonely here on this island, even though most of my time spent there is by myself.  All of the small details, the quotidian, banal struggles and stressful situatons are of little importance in the overall scheme of life on earth.  Iriomote exists and its existence reminds me of this.  It also reminds me of how far humans have removed themselves from the natural world and how this removal has enabled us to destroy the natural world without feeling any sense of culpability.

View from the road in Shirahama

Main road in Shirahama

A very large butterfly I saw on my walk

There is so much more I want to write about Iriomote, because I feel like this short description I've given does such a disservice to the island.  It's almost as if writing about its beauty is impossible because such a large part of it is in many ways unknowable.  And this mystery is what is at the heart of my love for it.

The water is beautiful at Ida Beach on Funauki

Main road in Funauki village (only 40 people live here).

Walking through the forest to reach Ida Beach
When I first visited the island in September, it was still extremely hot and the entire island was abuzz with cicadas and other animals throughout the day.  It was only at dusk that the sounds of the island began to shift from the constant drone of the insects to a calm that gave way to short, high pitched shrieks and other noises from animals I've probably never seen before in my life.  The chorus of cicadas have disappeared now as has the humidity and heat, so this time around seemed much quieter.  I stayed in Shirahama overnight and strolled around the one road village.  Then I set off to Funauki the next morning and taught there, went to Ida beach and relaxed and then took the ferry back to Shirahama and then a bus to Uehara for my 45 minute ferry ride back to Ishigaki. 
Leaving Funauki via ferry

View from the boat

 I don't know why, but something about these mountainous islands makes me feel like I'm back in time somewhere.  I wonder though if I lived on an island like Iriomote if my time here in the Yaeyama region would be extremely different from what it has been up to now.  I've been really searching for the meaning to my experiences here and I think the harder I think about things, the further I am from learning about anything here.  What can this island and the other islands here teach me about life, about who I am and my significant role (or insignificant role) on this earth?  Can they?  Am I seeking too much?

I feel like Bjork's song "Wanderlust" captures my feelings about this island and about my life right now. I know she created this song to critique her own constant searching for something that she knows she'll never find. I have to constantly remind myself to snap out of the introverted myopia that I suffer from and open my eyes to the wonder of the external world and to be thankful for the ability to fully experience it and to not take these moments for granted.   So, please enjoy the video and lyrics: