Okinawa: Haemida Beach on Iriomote Island

I have a hard time trusting the Pacific Ocean, and a really hard time trusting “the beach.” I’ve lived in Oregon for almost twenty years, and any delusions that I had about the Oregon coast being in any way a “beach” were dispelled when I tried to frolic in the waves only to discover that 60 F (15 C) is considered exceedingly warm. If the water’s too cold to swim in, what’s the point of sitting in the blazing sun on a million tiny hot rocks that will inevitably get onto every inch of skin you have? It was hard to convince my animal brain that ocean water could be good for recreational purposes, but something in me held out hope, which is why I decided to try out Haemida Beach on Iriomote Island.

Cropped from Untitled by Jason Gerecke; used with permission.

Cropped from Untitled by Jason Gerecke; used with permission.

We rode the ferry from Ishigaki to Iriomote, a speedboat of some kind that bounced over the water in leaps and made my teeth click together. The water was a deep cerulean, white caps streaming out from behind the boat. It took an hour, but we finally arrived on the island at Ohara Port and began our walk to the beach. The road took us through the town, which was beautiful in its tired-out way: worn-down houses and empty streets, dirty and dented cars in almost every driveway, the one or two new ones garish by comparison. No one was out, and everything was perfectly silent. After walking most of the way out of town we came across a group of kids riding razor scooters, laughing to one another. We must have been a very strange sight, a couple of tourists schleping our way along a major prefectural road, because they paused and stared at us, not sure whether they should approach or stay back.

The sign told us we had 6 kilometers to get to the beach, but we weren’t worried. We’d averaged 10 miles a day in the past three week, and taken so many stairs that we’d nickednamed the trip the “Epic Stairventure.” Still, all that walking had been in the relatively cool mainland. This was Iriomote, where it was a good 80 F in November, the air so thick with humidity I could almost get a drink just by sticking my tongue out. I’d worn a long-sleeved shirt because it had been a tiny bit cool that morning, but in less than a kilometer I sticky and wishing I could take it off.

Photo by Jason Gerecke, used with permission.

Photo by Jason Gerecke, used with permission.

As we walked the long road to the beach, I was struck by Iriomote’s resemblance to southeastern Missouri. When I was a child, we’d visit my dad’s family in Missouri nearly every summer and Christmas. The weather was similar in terms of heat and humidity (just replace “November” with “July”), as well as in terms of apparent geography. Although the island was created by an underwater volcano, it doesn’t rise high above the ocean surface, giving you a sense of rolling hills. Rather than houses or trackless jungle, we were surrounded by farms: rice and sugar cane on Iriomote taking the place of wheat and corn in Missouri. Cows were everywhere—we definitely saw more cows than people—and the smell of them was very present as well: manure a strong bass note with the occasional tang of green things.

Here and there along the walk we could see the ocean in the distance, an odd juxtaposition of the sights of my childhood and the sights of my adulthood, beat-up trucks and fields and cows against an unending blue horizon. It was slightly overcast (thank goodness, as I hadn’t brought any sunscreen) but Jason said the forecast was definitely not for rain. Still, we got a few drips here and there. Not enough to call it rain, and also not enough to cool us down, but just enough to make the heat so terribly oppressive that I was tempted to change into my swimsuit right here on the public road.

We finally reached the entrance to the beach, a tiny dirt path through a finger of jungle. Near the entrance was a bush absolutely swarming with butterflies, probably twenty of them all gathered and fluttering together. They were the same crazy blue as the harbor at Ishigaki, and although it was hard to catch them at rest while there was so much activity, we did manage to get a photo of just one.

Photo by Jason Gerecke, used with permission.

Photo by Jason Gerecke, used with permission.

We followed the path, which opened suddenly to a massive, wide beach, jade green water lapping golden sand. As we walked out to the water I noticed that the sand crunched and tinkled under my feet like glass. I looked down to find that, instead of sand, we were walking on hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of broken coral and seashells. We don’t get many shells in Oregon, and what few we get are almost always shattered, whereas many of these were hardly broken at all. I stooped down to gather the best ones, but after getting a handful in under 30 seconds, I realized there was something interesting and noteworthy in literally every inch of the beach. Something in my brain clicked and I found myself suddenly unimpressed by shells more beautiful than you could find on the Oregon coast in a year of searching, taken instead with the few that were so impossibly complete and beautiful they looked like they had to have been bought at a store, or better! Among them, a cowrie shell as long as my palm is wide with nary a blemish.

I took off my shoes and hobbled across the  beach, the shells and coral being sharper than sand, and collected shells, but after a time even finding the good ones didn’t seem as nice as getting my feet into the water. I found a little hidden depression where a tiny stream ran out into the ocean, and I changed into my swimsuit there, then I walked to the water and stuck a toe in, not sure it would really be as warm as everyone said. And indeed, it wasn’t like a bath tub (maybe I like my baths warmer than other people?) but it was still very pleasant. It was like swimming pool on a very hot day, where the water seems sharply cold at first because your body is so hot, but within hardly a moment you realize that it’s not the water that’s cold but yourself that’s hot, and then the water feels exceedingly pleasant.

I was tempted to walk out into the water and swim—I had my swim suit, after all—but there were visions of rockfish and crown-of-thorns starfish and cone shells in my head, and found I was too afraid. The rockfish in particular worried me, as they’ve evolved to blend in with the sea floor. I waded about, getting halfway up to my shins, but each time I tried to take a step I remembered the terrifying spines on the back of the rockfish I’d seen at the aquarium and I hesitated over every step for long moments, trying to get a clear view through the swirling water. In the end, as delightful as the water was, I couldn’t convince myself that it was worth my life to swim and I came back in.

Untitled by Jason Gerecke; used with permission.

Untitled by Jason Gerecke; used with permission.

I gathered more shells and hiked around the beach and looked at the plants up in the finger of jungle, and Jason took pictures and dug a huge hole into the beach to find where the water seeped through, then we filled it. Huge hole dug, coral picked through, waters tested, we wandered to a grouping of rocks we saw littering the beach and tumbling into the water. They seemed to be some kind of sandstone or volcanic rock, full of holes and divots and crannies and nooks. There were hermit crabs everywhere on these rocks, some as big as my thumbnail and many, many more that were half the size of my pinky nail. It seemed that every time I found a good shell here there was someone living in it! I picked one up and the little crab nestled itself back into its shell, and I turned it over to look at its miniscule pinchers folded flat against the opening.

Atop the rocks was a memorial: a massive stone pedestal with the bust of a man on it, plaques all over it with white text shining out from the black. The Japanese was too challenging for me to fully understand, but the word “malaria” was everywhere, as well as names and ages in solemn rows. It seemed obvious that there had been some kind of malaria outbreak on the island, and these were the names of those who had died. I could only find two dates: one in the 90s that seemed to be the date the monument was dedicated, and the other was in mid-1945, right in the middle of the Battle of Okinawa.

Untitled by Jason Gerecke; used with permission.

Untitled by Jason Gerecke; used with permission.

Even here, we couldn’t escape the legacy of World War II. We’d flown a hour away from the site of the main action, then taken a boat an hour away from that, and still there were people who were severely affected by the war. I researched the monument later and found that it was a memorial dedicated to a local school principal, Shikina Shinsho. He and many others from nearby Hateruma Island were forcibly evacuated to Iriomote Island during the war, despite reports of malaria on Iriomote. Although the people of Hateruma protested, the local Japanese commander threatened to kill every person on the island if even one remained behind. Predictably, the people of Hateruma contracted malaria on Iriomote, and Shikina plead to have everyone return to Hateruma. He was ultimately successful, and just before he and his people returned, he carved “wasurenaishi” into the rock—“forget me not stone”—so that their struggle was memorialized in some small way. Although they were successful in returning home, the malaria outbreak couldn’t be stopped. All but three people on the island eventually contracted the disease, and 30% of their population died.

We took in the monument solemnly, not sure what it meant but recognizing that it was something important and somber. We took pictures for research later, then collected our things and walked up the dusty path to the road, past the waving fields of sugar cane, on to the harbor and home.

Untitled by Jason Gerecke; used with permission.

Untitled by Jason Gerecke; used with permission.

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