I leave Vancouver, Canada, in rainy November in search of paradise. My destination is Okinawa, an exotic group of islands in the south of Japan. Watching a national geographic documentary, and reading a few travel magazines were what sparked my interest in this part of the world. But it was watching Kill Bill Vol.I four times that pushed me to buy my plane ticket there. The intention of my trip is not to become a karate master like Uma Thurman, but to find my own little piece of paradise.
A 14-hour flight later, I arrive on the main Island of Okinawa, population approximately 1.4 million. I find some beautiful beaches and palm trees, but most of the island is covered in concrete and full of traffic. I continue my quest to find my paradise, and hop on an overnight ferry south.
As the sun rises we dock at our destination, and I step off the boat onto Ishigaki-jima where around 48,000 people live. This is one of the most southern islands of Japan close to Taiwan, and the landscape is gorgeous but very manicured. This is not what I’m looking for, so I head to a café in Ishigaki town to research where to go next.
One of the hardest parts about travelling in Okinawa is deciding which islands to visit – there are over a 100 of them. Luckily I meet a girl at the café who has visited over 30 of the islands, and she reveals her favourite – Taketomi-jima, only a 10-minute ferry ride from Ishigaki-jima. When I ask her why, she tells me to go see for myself.
I take her advice and travel to the tiny island of Taketomi-jima, which only has 361 inhabitants. I talk to a man selling postcards at the pier, and find out that in order to preserve the island’s historical ambience, residents have joined together to ban many signs of modernization, such as asphalt and convenience stores. Instead, the streets are made of crushed coral, and all shops are locally owned and run. I buy a postcard, and set off to explore the 3 km by 2 km island on foot.
I stroll through the little shops and restaurants, and notice that almost all the houses have little monster-like statues on their roofs or at their gates. The postcard man also told me about the Shisas – a part dog part lion – traditional decoration from Okinawan mythology. They are said to ward off bad spirits, and keep the good ones in.
I take a few pictures, and walk over to a small shop for some shade and ice cream. Even though mid-November is one of the coldest months of the year, sub-tropical Okinawa is still 30°C and humid. I ask the owner of the shop to recommend a good place for swimming, and she points me in the direction of Kondoi, a sandy beach on the west coast of the island.
A 15-minute walk later I arrive at Kondoi in a pool of sweat. The only other people at the beach are Japanese tourists hiding in the shade wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants. Snow-white skin is considered beautiful here, and Japanese people go to great lengths to cover their skin from sunlight. Even most facial beauty products in Japan contain bleach. This is a strange concept for myself – I grew up surrounded by tanning beds, bronzers, and spray-on self tanners.
This difference in beach culture provides me with something people back home spend a lot of money on
to have – an empty, beautiful tropical beach. I think of my friends back home in the rain as I sprint to the ocean and dive in. The water temperature is perfect. I look out to the sea and notice a small island of sand forming with the low tide.
The island is about 50m long and 10m wide, and I swim over, get out, and walk to the edge. I look out, and for as far as my eyes can see there is nothing but ocean. I turn around and notice that the long-sleeved tourists have left. I am totally alone.
I sit down and close my eyes. I can feel the warm sun and soft breeze against my skin. I take a deep breath and inhale the salty ocean air. The only sound I can hear is my breath, and the rustle of the wind passing through the nearby palm trees.
I have found my paradise.
PHOTOGRAPHY AND WORDS BY // kanami anderson