Places Worth Visiting in Okinawa: Kudaka-jima
Overview. This is the first in a series “places worth visiting”, a collection of personal travel narratives on visiting unique locations around the world. They are based on personal recollections and photographs and are meant to give the reader a first hand experience of these locations rather than a pre-packaged account for the touristy hordes often found in many Hubpages entitled “top ten places….”. This article highlights the small, inhabited island of Kudaka, which sits about five kilometers off Okinawa’s southeast coast and is accessible by regularly scheduled ferry service. Kudaka is about two kilometers in length, 26 degrees, 10 minutes North latitude, and has a northeast to southwest sliver-like trend and is no wider than a half kilometer at any point.
The Ferry. Our original plan was to visit Komaka-jima, a small pea-shaped island off Okinawa’s southeast tip. Komaka-jima is uninhabited except for its seasonal crowd of divers and snorkelers. It was September 2006 and we were hoping to make a day trip to explore a little bit of Okinawa. Komaka sounded interesting and we eagerly drove over Okinawa’s bony spine to the Pacific side of the island. Crossing a narrow hairpin road among limestone outcroppings we eventually found the small, unassuming ferry port that makes the trip to Komaka-jima during the summer months. Shortly after we arrived we were politely told by the attendants that the weather was too gusty and the Komaka ferry was cancelled for the day. This was not unexpected as the Okinawa weather in September was often disrupted by the relative frequency of the seasonal typhoons. Komaka would have to wait for another day but we were left wondering what to do. We drove into the nearby village of Chinen and spontaneously found the ferry terminal to Kudaka-jima. Kudaka has a number of inhabitants, maybe 500, and the ferry boat was larger and ran year-round. We purchased our tickets and hopped on board for the hour long ferry commute.
Kudaka-jima. Kudaka is a sacred island to the Okinawans. Similar to the Japanese Shinto cults, the Ryukyuan culture recognizes ancestor worship and the two share a common thread with strong animistic roots. According to the Ryukyuan legend, the goddess Amamikyo, the life-giver of the Ryukyu Islands, was descended from the seifa utaki, a jumble of massive limestone boulders that looks out towards Kudaka-jima through a crack in the rocks. From this location people prayed to Kudaka - one of the most sacred places in Ryukyuan spiritual worship. Call it legend, tradition, or even omen, there is also the warning that if the visitor takes anything from the island, such as a stone, pebble, or a shell, bad luck will befall them for the rest of their life. Knowing very little about Kudaka, other than it being a sacred place to the Okinawans, we disembarked ready to explore this relatively flat and narrow island in the Pacific.
Snorkeling. The first thing on my mind was finding a beach for snorkeling, something we had hoped to do on Komaka. Kudaka is ringed by coral reefs not unlike many of Okinawa’s islands. After walking down one of the country roads past the quieting village we found a path that broke through the dense brush and onto a narrow beach with sharp limestone outcrops on the northeast side of the island. Perfect. It was unpopulated and the sharp change in the water’s hue signaled the reef’s abrupt edge. I dropped in and snorkeled in shallow water some of it no more than three feet deep. Okinawa is full of colorful marine creatures some flattering and others ominous. Clown fish, damsel fish, angel, trigger, and banner fish, wrass, and sea cucumbers are common in these waters. Deeper waters have bigger fish which school abundantly avoiding dangerous predators and curious onlookers such as snorkelers like myself. Sea-snakes, some of the most poisonous on earth, and the venomous spines of the lionfish are all common off Okinawa’s colorful waters. But the biggest danger off Okinawa is the strong currents and fickle weather. I was snorkeling by myself with no other soul in sight save my wife and son who carelessly combed the beach for Okinawa’s famous star-shaped sand and shells for our collection. If a current caught me on this side of the islands I would surely be fish fodder before a rescue got underway. So I was careful not to venture too far off shore and after 20 minutes we headed back towards the village. Walking towards the ferry terminal we took some photos of the houses and streets on Kudaka, ringed by the characteristic coral limestone typhoon walls, and guarded by the frozen stares of the shisha liondogs that sit atop homes and buildings to ward off evil kami. After climbing a concrete jetty we hit pay dirt. A sheltered, public beach, unbeknown to us before, with great snorkeling stood before us facing our original destination, the small drop of Komaka-jima, and the main island of Okinawa. There were others there too which always gave me a greater sense of security. I jumped in and was immediately blown-away by the scene that unfolded through my murky mask. Beautiful coral formations and huge schools of colorful fish of all types skittishly swam before me. Despite the twenty foot drop it was reasonably safe as it was a sheltered cove with a jetty on one side acting as a breakwater.
Kami. I had researched places to snorkel in Okinawa but had never read, or heard, about snorkeling on Kudaka. Only vague recollections of kami and utaki, or sacred places in Ryukyuan lore, were mentioned about Kudaka. We headed back to Chinen village happy to have explored one more place on these remarkable islands south of Japan. Only after leaving Okinawa, months later, would I realize I had broken a sacred taboo from my shell collecting on Kudaka – I would surely be struck with bad luck. Although I have had no discernable streaks of ill-fate to date, the kami would resist and fight back. Something strange did happen with those shells. My wife lifted the tightly taped and sealed tote and the shells came crashing out along with the glass jar which smashed violently on the hard linoleum. I carefully cleaned up the mess and collected my prize shells. Ignorant of the taboo, I had underappreciated this detail at the time but I never look upon those shells today without a degree of reverence.
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