By Natsuko Tamaki / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterAs I passed through a line of evergreen trees with oval leaves called common garcinia, I heard the powerful sound of Japanese drums. Children were practicing “Daito Daiko” (Daito drum), which was passed down by early settlers from Hachijojima island, which is under Tokyo’s jurisdiction.
Two people stand on opposite sides of a drum and beat the drum together. The sounds are different from Okinawa’s Eisa dance, making me feel the history and culture unique to Minami-Daitojima island.
Minami-Daitojima island is located in the Pacific Ocean about 360 kilometers east of Okinawa Island. On Jan. 23, 1900, 23 early settlers from Hachijojima landed on Minami-Daitojima, which has a circumference of about 20 kilometers. Until then, Minami-Daitojima had been an uninhabited island covered by primary forests of palm trees called Daito biro.
The settlers cut down the trees to build houses, planted vegetables and grains for food, and cultivated sugar cane. In the second year of their settlement, they produced a surprising 80 hyo of brown sugar (hyo is a traditional unit of measurement equivalent to 60 kilograms of rice).
People began migrating there from Okinawa Island, leading to the development of the Daito culture combining the customs and practices of both islands.
As I drove a car past vast sugarcane fields, I saw five or six jizo statues standing by the roadside. Jizo worship does not exist on Okinawa Island or other remote islands in Okinawa Prefecture, but a sign near the statues says the oldest jizo statue was built by the wife of a settler, who came to the island from Hachijojima island in November 1900, as directed in her husband’s will.
“I have roots in Hachijojima island,” said Ryoko Kikuchi, 60, an official at the Minami-Daito village tourism association who guided me around the island. Her great-grandparents migrated to Minami-Daitojima island in 1916 from Hachijojima island, and Kikuchi is a fourth-generation resident.
When she was a child, her family visited jizo statues and made offerings such as senbei rice crackers during the Bon holidays and the spring and autumn equinox. When she visited her great-grandparents’ house, they welcomed her in the soft Hachijojima dialect.
I heard that a ship had arrived at the island from Naha, and went to Kameike Port on the southern part of the island. A crane truck parked on the pier lifted cargo from the ship. Minami-Daitojima is surrounded by sheer cliffs and battered by wild waves on the open sea, so vessels can’t reach the shore. Passengers board an iron gondola from an anchored ship and are lifted by a crane to the pier, which is about 10 meters above the sea. Unfortunately, my schedule didn’t allow me to witness this process.
For dinner, I went to an izakaya pub to eat the island’s specialty, Daito sushi. Pub operator Tomomi Kyuna, 64, said, “Today we use a gondola, but in the past, passengers were transported on a board laid over a mokko rope basket.”
There is no high school on the island, so children go to high schools in Okinawa Prefecture and other places after they turn 15. Kyuna also studied at a high school in Naha, and sent her son and daughter to high schools on Okinawa Island.
“We can communicate through email now. In the past, it was a teary goodbye,” she said.
Many people leave Minami-Daitojima in the spring of their 15th year and find a job on Okinawa Island or in other parts of the country. Such people return for the Honen festival, the biggest event on the island, which is held in September every year at Daito Shrine.
The Hachijo-style mikoshi portable shrine is carried during the festival, and dedication ceremonies such as Edo sumo are conducted. Children’s Daito drums; Okinawa sumo, a traditional sport in the Ryukyu Kingdom; and Eisa dance are also performed. An increasing number of tourists have visited the island in recent years.
I imagined the sounds of Japanese drums that have been passed down through the 118-year history of the island and the bustle of people. I want to come back to the island in autumn to see the festival.
Tours of unique natural environments
Another attraction of the island is its unique natural environment. In a night tour operated by Office Key Point, which costs ¥4,500 per person, participants can see Daito flying foxes, which are a designated national natural treasure. They may also see an about 20-centimeter-long Daito scops owl. There are more than 200 limestone caves on the island, and there is an adventure tour for ¥7,500 per person to see rare stalactites and underground lakes.
The only flights to Minami-Daito Airport are from Naha, and it takes about an hour. By ferry, it takes about 15 hours to get to Minami-Daitojima island or Kita-Daitojima island from Naha.
Minami-Daito village tourism association (09802) 2-2815
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