Continuing with my posts about my favourite places in Japan, I’m going to write about a place that I have only been to once, but really enjoyed. The place is the island of Yoron (与論島) (also known as Yoronjima or Yoronto), the southernmost island of Kagoshima. I visited Yoron back in 1994 during the Golden Week holiday (end of April to early May) while I was on the JET Programme.
Rather than flying, the trip to Yoron was done taking the ferry. This was the first time that I’d taken such a ferry in Japan. Having arrived at Osaka port, after taking the driver-less train to the ferry terminal stop, I was confronted by a very interesting sign. Rather than a sign saying that ferries going to Okinawa are at a particular terminal, and showing the way to that terminal, the sign simply pointed to Okinawa, saying it was 3 kilometres to the left (although Naha is actually 800 km away). There was then a wait at the central terminal for a free bus transfer for the 3km trip to the ferry.
The ferry looked similar in size to the older cross-channel ferries that go between England and Europe. However, the design inside was very different. There were a few very large rooms – sleeping up to 200 on the floor. Luckily, I was in a room with some bunk-beds. Much more comfortable and relaxing. There was a TV, though out at sea the reception was not very good. Apart from the sleeping areas, there were showers (only open at certain times), one tiny games room, a small restaurant, a small café, and a small shop. The food wasn’t too bad, but luckily I had a stock of snacks and pot noodles (hot water is provided free) as the ferry journey lasts for around 36 hours. The first day was spent at sea (the only time in my life that I have never stepped on land for the whole of my birthday), and we arrived at Miyazaki the following morning. We then spent the day coast-hugging down Kyushu and going in between some volcanic islands. The weather was good and on the top of the boat, one could get a very good tan. The evening and early hours were spent stopping at various ports in the Oshima group of islands.
Then, at around 4 in the morning the ship arrived in Yoron. It was barely sunrise and was a little chilly. From the port we were then taken by small buses to our hotels. I was told that we could not check into the rooms for another six hours, but could use the showers. I decided to go for a walk and have a nap on the beach outside the hotel.
Later in the day, I was taken by our hotel rep to the main beach, Yurinohama, on the East coast of the island. The journey (free bus service) didn’t take very long, after all the island is only around 25 kilometres in circumference. I spent a couple of the days on the island at this beach doing the various activities (including jet bikes, banana boats, etc.), sun bathing, and eating at the local restaurant. Sadly, one of my main memories of that first day, however, was seeing the Japanese news, spotting that there had been a big crash in a Formula 1 race and then reading the subtitles that said that the great Ayrton Senna had been killed in the crash. I was so shocked.
Overall, Yoron was no ordinary beach holiday. The whole place was very different. If it wasn’t for a few signs around the place, there would be no way of knowing we were in Japan. The language was different, the people looked different, and the island bore more resemblance to an area in South-East Asia. Even the cars are different, although they have Japanese registration plates, the cars tended to be yellow rather than white!
Yoron used to be very popular with Japanese tourists, but then they went to Okinawa, and now they tend to go to Hawai’i or Guam. A trip to Yoron is a way to experience what Japanese people used to do before taking planes became normal. The main visitors when I went seemed to be Japanese tourists wanting a cheap or nostalgic holiday, and American servicemen coming over from Okinawa.
The best way to see the island is by bike. There are only a few roads, and little motorised traffic, so it is very easy to cycle around at one’s leisure, and safely. There is only one hill, and even that doesn’t take long to push a bike up if you’re not that fit. Having a bike makes it easy to visit the other sites – the gardens, some caves, the airport, “the station”, and so on.
The ferry journey back to Osaka started off badly due to a rough sea, but after the initial shock, it gradually got better and the next day was very calm and hot.
Overall, I have very happy memories of Yoron and have enjoyed spotting it from the sky when flying between Japan and Hong Kong, for example. One day I hope to go back. In the meantime, some of the ferry experiences are likely to help inspire parts of the third book in my Iwakura series of novels and I plan to further reflect upon what Yoron can teach us about aspects of Japanese society as I work on the update to my book Japan: The Basics.