I left Kagoshima late in the afternoon, boarding a ferry for the small island of Okinoerabu, north of Okinawa. The trip would take about sixteen hours, and, by Japanese standards, was fairly inexpensive, around 6,000 yen. Considering a modest hotel room in Japan costs this much, the ferry seemed like a bargain.
All I knew about Okinoerabu before getting on the ferry was that it had good ferry connections to Okinawa, where I could head on to Ishigaki, Japan’s southernmost island, and then over to Taiwan, from where I planned to fly to Macau.
Kagoshima is a major ferry terminus, with service to all of the islands between there and Okinawa, of which there are plenty. The ferry to Okinoerabu, though, was the one that fit my schedule best. Other ferries to other islands departed Kagoshima later on in the week, and I had been there long enough, about five days, which had afforded me plenty of time to walk around and become acquainted with the city. Since coming to Japan, I had held some fascination for Kagoshima, at the southern most tip of Kyushu. It was a city that took the brunt of each year’s seasonal typhoons. Rivers flowed over their banks, mudslides slid across highways and railroad lines. Across the bay was Sakurajima, an active volcano. Plumes of ash rose from the cone, dusting the windshields of cars, which people brushed off like snow before heading off to work or to do some shopping. The bay, with the volcano as a distinctive landmark, also had the dubious distinction of being the practice site for the raid on Pearl Harbor. The city when I was there, however, in late spring, was warm and pleasant, the people friendly and helpful. Imminent disaster was not on anyone’s mind.
I boarded the ferry and found my stateroom in the bow, stowed my pack, and then went back up onto the deck to watch Sakurajima fade away behind the stern in a swirling blue and white sea, seagulls squawking away overhead. When night came, I went back inside, expecting to get some dinner, and learned that the galley had closed. On the deck I had heard an announcement concerning the galley but couldn’t make out what was being said. Certainly the galley isn’t closing before seven, I had falsely assumed. A kind waiter took pity on me, however, and called on the chef, who had gone to smoke a cigarette, to serve me a plate of curry rice, a popular Japanese dish.
Afterwards, I returned to the deck and sat on the stern behind the funnel, looking up at the night sky as the ferry chugged on, rolling from side to side, a plume of diesel smoke drifting back over the ocean. I wondered if I would become seasick.
A few hours later I was more confident that I wasn’t going to have to hang my head over a rail and returned to my room, which was now occupied by my two bunkmates, a carefree middle-aged man who asked me some polite questions (what country I was from, where I was going), and another, about thirty, who was moody and sad and didn’t seem interested in talking to anyone. Later the next day the middle-aged man confided in me that the young man was from one of the islands we would stop at along our way to Okinoerabu, had been to Kagoshima to look for work, was unsuccessful, and was having to return home to his family.
In the morning I had some toast and coffee for breakfast before going back onto the deck. The seas were calm, the sky blue. It was a perfect day to be on the deck of a ship, feeling a stiff breeze on my face. I felt lucky to be free, traveling as I wanted, no schedule or commitments.
The ferry made several stops before arriving at Okinoerabu. I don’t remember the names of these islands. What remains with me are images of them. They were all a little different, one with the spines of forest-covered hills descending to a rocky shoreline rung by a thin line of white. On another, a farmer on a tractor worked a potato field as the shadows of clouds rolled by. On another there was a small airport next to the sea. An airliner hurdled down the runway, gleaming in the sun, and broke free, climbing steeply as the landing gear drew up into the wings. And there was the village where the young man lived. He was the only one who got off the ferry there, walking across an expanse of concrete to his wife and children. Her expression, even seen from the rail of the ship, was clearly one of love. Somehow they’d get by.
At each island the ferry had docked in a harbor near a town. The passengers who got off could walk home. I was expecting that Okinoerabu would be the same, a little town only a few hundred meters away where I could find what the Japanese call a minshuku, a room which includes two meals, breakfast and dinner.
When the island of Okinoerabu came into sight, I felt my heart begin to pound away a little as I anticipated walking down the gangplank and wandering into town. The locals would certainly stare at me. Westerners didn’t come here. Then the ferry cruised right past the town, to an isolated port several kilometers away. No taxis were waiting on the quay. If someone didn’t take pity on me, offering a lift into town, I would be stranded.
The few passengers that did get off quickly got into waiting cars and were driven away. Only two old men remained, and neither of them seemed too concerned about my situation. One of the men, a gnarled up, brown little man, was waiting for some cardboard boxes to be offloaded. I approached him, thinking I would ask him for a lift into town, but, unlike any Japanese I had ever met, he did his best to ignore me, more concerned with the two boxes he was now carrying in each arm. There were holes in the sides of the boxes. I peeked inside and saw fighting cocks. Okinoerabu was not the Japan I knew. I had never heard of anyone in Japan raising fighting cocks.
Before he made it to his truck, I did manage to corner him.
“Is there a place to stay on the island?” I asked.
His regional dialect was so strong I couldn’t understand him. And, paying me no mind, he loaded up the cocks in the bed of his truck and sped off, a trail of dust lingering in the air.
I turned to the other man. He, too, was holding a box, but it was too heavy to have chickens in it. Looking at me, he knew what I wanted.
“There’s a place down the road,” he said. “I’ll take you.”
I dropped my pack into the bed of his truck and got in.
Driving away, he asked me the same questions most people did—where I was from, where I was heading, my job, if I was married—and I answered them all politely, as if I were being asked these questions for the first time.
His name was Miura. He was the retired elementary school principal of the only elementary school on the island and had lived there his entire life. Gentle, patient, and soft-spoken, he fit the part of a retired elementary school principal. It was easy to picture him at a school athletic event handing out ribbons to children. Now he kept a garden. The box he had picked up was full of bedding plants.
A narrow little road led away from the ferry terminal, up a hill past fields of tobacco. He drove carefully, as if children were riding in the back, the two of us jiggling from side to side. On the backside of the hill, he turned off the road onto a dirt trail which returned to sea.
“I know a woman who runs a minshuku here,” he said. “Maybe she’ll be able to put you up.”
The minshuku came into view through a stand of scrubby pines. It was a one-story frame building that faced the sea. A sliver of beach was only a few steps away. This was just what I wanted, a restful little minshuku on a peaceful lagoon. Though I had known nothing about Okinoerabu before boarding the ferry, by risking adventure I would soon be rewarded with a peaceful rest. That was the way traveling was: sometimes it was better not to read the guidebooks and make out an itinerary.
Before Mr. Miura had even stopped the truck, I was thinking about how I would spend the next few days—going for a swim before breakfast, lying on the tatami and reading, eating lunch as the sea broke in long waves just outside, taking long walks along the beach or through the hills.
We got out. A woman was out in front of the minshuku, raking up the sand.
“How are you, Mrs. Ishibata?” Mr. Miura said.
“Just fine. Beautiful weather.”
“Very beautiful indeed.”
She hadn’t even looked at me.
“Do you happen to have a room for this foreigner?” Mr. Miura asked.
I didn’t take any offense at being called a foreigner. That was just how the Japanese sometimes referred to me; they didn’t mean anything by it, the way they might call a child a child.
She stopped her raking and said, “I don’t take foreigners. They’re too much trouble. They don’t understand Japanese customs. I have to make Western dishes. They’re just too much trouble.”
“I speak Japanese,” I said, “and I eat Japanese food. I’ve lived in Japan for more than ten years.”
It was only after I had spoken that I realized I didn’t want to stay here. Every Westerner who has lived in Japan has experienced some kind of subtle racism, but this was the first time I had confronted it so directly.
Mr. Miura said, matter-of-factly, “She doesn’t take in foreign guests.”
“I understood her,” I said.
“Let’s try another place.”
We turned to get into the truck.
“How’s your garden, Mr. Miura?”
“It’s coming along fine.”
“I’d like to see it one day, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
“Why don’t you and your husband come over for tea?”
In the distance I saw the funnel of the ferry disappearing over the horizon and felt a bitterness and rage building inside.