Almost at the dead end of tropical Japan, less than 130 miles from Taiwan, the ancient tracks of Taketomi island (竹富島) are nearly deserted on that November morning. In the middle of the week, the lively shops and the tiny tourist office did not open as they usually do. More than that, almost no one is to be seen in the traditional coral stone and red tile-roof village, right in the center of the island. Even the water buffaloes are enjoying a day-off in a peaceful scenery of palm trees and hibiscus.
Biking through the quiet streets – a difficult activity giving the amount of beautiful white sand trying to invade the path – finally allow us to glimpse at some shadow inhabitants. They definitely seem to all gather to the same place. Following them, and now hearing a distant singing, we then reached the Yumuchi utaki, a sacred place of the island.
Almost a thousand folks are waiting for the Tanadui festival to begin. Several group of dancers with color-blasting outfits are chatting around, about to reach the open air stage. On the other side, the audience stands on guard, attentive not to miss the beginning of the day-long festivity, the cameras ready to capture each movement. The whole scene is slightly different from what the uninformed tourist may have been expecting.
Taketomi island, an unknown tropical paradise
Before reaching Taketomi, information is scarce about the tiny island of less than 2,5 square miles. Except for a few popular – although true – sceneries, like the long white-sand beaches, the traditional housing or the slow but convenient water buffalo carriage that lead the visitors to each corner of the circular island. Arrived several centuries ago from Taiwan, the tall mammals originally helped the locals to grow the rice and as a mode of transportation.
Taketomi is a serious place speaking about History. The Ryukyu traditional housing is only preserved on two islands – the other being Tonaki in the Kerama archipelago, not far from Okinawa main island. Being that important, the two sites have been registered by the Japanese government in the official list of “Preservation districts for groups of traditional buildings“. On Taketomi, it means that every new structure must respect the ancient pattern.
On that remoted land of Japan, where no combini has yet arrived, the traditions are also strong. Like the Tanadui festival (種子取祭). The about-to-begin biggest festival of the year is held according to the moon calendar and bring together the 350 yearly inhabitants and the island natives living apart. But not only.
Martial art and dances celebrating agriculture
Back in the sacred Yumuchi utaki. The crowd is now quiet (except for some cameras) as a group of men with grey hair is entering holding one large seashell each. While they begin to blow in the empty shells, one of them seems to have trouble getting the sound done right. A few laughs briefly came from the audience; the Tanadui show just started.
The festival, also known as Tanedori for the “rice and millet sowing rituals”, is hold for ten days, while the 7th and 8th are the two main – named Kanoetora et Kanotou. During the period, prayer times are mixed with 80 celebrations, from dance to songs and traditional theater, everything being dedicated to the island fertility. Nowadays, sweet-potatoes and sugar-cane are the main productions of Taketomi.
After the shells opening, Tanudui is continuing with a stick-fight in colourful outfits between two shouting warriors. After them begins the Umanesha, a specific dance honoring horse-riding. The dancers are wearing white and purple while the cameras’ flashes are following them. In the meantime, the tropical sun is playing hide-and-seek with thick white clouds.
The celebrations are performed by the island inhabitants – the genuine stars of the day – of all ages, gender and occupation. A group of women in their fifties is now walking at the pace of their song. Wrapped in kimonos made of check fabrics, they begin to perform the sowing dance. The show will then go on with a group of young women celebrating the harvesting times in light-brown and white kimonos.
Traditional theater and processions are then performed until the end of the morning. Under the shadows of a huge tent, kyogen plays are followed by the funnier Kajiko and Yuhiki. Outside, the elders and local officials soon lead the Miruku-okoshi, a walk processed to bring happiness and health over the village.
Taketomi’s long history
The roots of Tanadui festival are lost deep under the clear waters of the small island. According to the local information center, the “Taketomi Yugafu-kan”, nothing is really sure about the festival’s origins. Yet the prevailing opinion explains that it might have been created “around the 12th century”, at the time farming arrived in the island. Since 1977, it has been registered by the government as one of the “important intangible folk cultural properties” of the country.
What is definitely sure is that Taketomi island do share history with the whole former territory of the Ryukyu kingdom, which used to rule over the many archipelagos of that side of the Pacific ocean for several centuries. From the 15th to the 19th, the independent entity imported a lot from nearby China, explaining why the old traditions are now so different from mainland Japan. The story ends in 1879 when Meiji government integrated it as Okinawa prefecture.
Some of the dances performed during Tanadui date back from these ancient times festivities, when the purpose was to entertain Chinese officials. And because of the shared history, a few other similar festivals aiming at fertility are performed in the others Yaeyama islands, as in Ishigaki.
Hibiscus, coral stones and Shiishaa
As the afternoon festivities are beginning, a few day-visitors decide to take a break and explore the island’s beaches. The two main are Kondoi and Kaiji. Biking to reach the first offers a wide variety of colors, starting in the village with the red tile-roofs and the many flowers, bright red hibiscus and bougainvillea. It continues with the Shiisaa, half-lion and half-dog figurines and often colorful. At the top of the coral stone walls or perched on the red roofs, they are quietly making faces and so repelling the evil spirits.
Far away from the festival enthusiasm, Kondoi beach’s cats are enjoying the palm trees’ shadow. Wild but fed by the locals and the tourists, they have made the beach jungle their territory (but are also making regular raids over the picnic area!).
As the wilder Iriomote, several miles west, Taketomi is the home of a scientific attraction: the incredibly-shaped star-sand, being only found on some Okinawa islands. More than sand, the little stars are the remains of protozoa that belong to the foraminifera family (baculogypsina sphaerulata) and are currently responsible for all the visitors’ kneeling down on the beach looking for them.
How to get there?
Many boats daily reach Taketomi from Ishigaki, taking about 15 minutes for ¥580 (one way). One can reach Ishigaki island by plane from Naha (Okinawa), Osaka or Tokyo with Japan Airlines. Some Peach low-cost planes are also reaching Ishigaki from Osaka.
Useful resources about Tanadui have been uploaded on the town website and on the information center one. Informations about the current/next festival are published on the Ryukyu Shimpo website, the local newspaper.
To go further :
“Tanedori of Taketomi Island: Intergenerational Transmission of Intangible Heritage” by Goya Junko, Research Fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, Nagoya University.
“Contribution of Community Culture for Regional Development – Through Cases of Isolated Group Islands in Yaeyama, Japan” by Peiqian Liu, Makoto Hirano and Feng Liu, Entrepreneur Engineering Graduate School, Kochi University of Technology.