Experience Local Culture at Ishigaki Yaima Village

Ishigaki is the most populous of the Yaeyama Islands, the southern and western-most island group in Okinawa (just 250 km. from Taiwan). As with all Yaeyama Islanders, the people who live on Ishigaki celebrate their local culture and history at every opportunity. Visitors to the island have many opportunities to enjoy that, but for a quick and intense fix, perhaps there is no better opportunity than a visit to Ishigaki Yaima Village. (Yaima is the local Okinawan dialiect for the name of the island group.)

Ishigaki Yaima Village is a registered cultural property containing a number of reconstructed traditional Yaeyama-style houses, a mangrove wetland, and a small zoo of squirrel monkeys, water buffalo and an endangered eagle that is indigenous to the island. On week-ends and in high seasons, there are handicrafts, traditional costumes, and traditional music performances to experience. A couple of hours spent here is a great way to learn about the local lifestyles of this island a century ago.

There is also a cafeteria serving traditional Yaeyama soba and other local dishes. If you arrive at lunchtime, as I did, you can enjoy lunch to enhance your island mood before commencing your exploration of the village.

There are six reconstructed houses in the village, each arranged with its own garden and outbuildings, surrounded by walls constructed of local stone. The first one encountered by most visitors is the 1909 Morita Residence, a classical shizoku (samurai class) home. Notwithstanding the high social status of its former inhabitants, it features a pigsty on its grounds.

The largest, and arguably most resplendent, house in the village is the Makishi Residence, which was originally built in 1923 in the town of Ishigaki for Sotoku Makishi, a physician who also served as mayor of the town. A film on local lifestyles is showing inside.

Behind that is Ishigaki Residence, the restored home of a fishing family. It is furnished with amparu (nets) and other items used by fishermen to ply their trade.

As long as you’re thinking about the relationship Yaeyama Islanders have with the sea, wander over to the Amparu Lookout, a spiral lookout tower affording views of Nagura Bay and even the neighboring islands of the Yaeyama group.

The next house you’ll encounter is the Kishiba Residence, which also dates to 1923. Here visitors can try out some local handicrafts, including weaving palm fronds.

Nearby is the Uechi House, another farmhouse, this one belonging to a sugar cane-growing family. On its grounds is a set of gears to be turned by a water buffalo, used to crush juice out of sugar cane. Nearby is a hut with a set of stoves for boiling the cane juice to produce sugar. Apparently the sugar produced on Ishigaki is white, while sugar on nearby islands is much darker.

Behind the Uechi House is a water buffalo enclosure. Water buffalo were the equivalent of tractors for islanders before mechanization. They not only operated the cane crushing device, they also pulled carts and plows.

There is also an enclosure that is home to a crested serpent eagle, a local species that is endangered, with only 100 believed to live in the wild. This particular bird appears to have been injured and probably cannot survive in the wild any more.

As long as you’re exploring native fauna and flora, follow the trail down to a boardwalk through the mangroves growing along the river bank. This is also a protected area where you might find the native yellow-margined box turtle or the giant skink or fiddler crabs…or maybe just some crab nests.

As you emerge from the mangrove walk, you’ll come upon the last house of the village, the 1907 Ohama Residence. The house was built by the father of Dr. Shinken Ohama, who was instrumental in eradicating malaria in the Yaeyama Islands. He also used rooms of the house as a hospital for a period.

The houses, their gardens, the water buffalo, the eagle and the mangroves are all interesting. But I’ve saved the best for last, the enclosure containing the squirrel monkeys. Follow the instructions carefully, leaving your bags and loose items outside the enclosure, because these little imps will happily separate you from your possessions. Just trying having something in your pocket! You’ll soon find a monkey on your shoulder or clinging to your leg, its little paw feeling around in your pocket for whatever you might have in there.

Ornery though these critters may be, they are adorable and fun to spend some time with. They move more like cats than either squirrels or monkeys, except insofar as they wind their tails around your limbs for stability as they climb all over you. Although they are not native to the Yaeyama Islands, they clearly thrive in this climate. What a delightful way to finish your visit.

Hours: daily 9:00 – 17:30 (last entry 17:00)
Admission: adults JPY1,000/children JPY500

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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