The amphitheater into which the bulls are led is ancient, and the stone slabs that make up its stands are weathered and edged with moss. The arena is cut from the summit of a hill where the 16th-Century remains of Agena Castle lie half-buried.
Outside the passage to the ring, massive bulls snort and drink from buckets. The tradition is to feed them beer and raw eggs before fighting.
Okinawan bullfighting, called togyu , is more like sumo wrestling than Spanish bullfighting. Asians see no need to taunt charging bulls in a test of human courage--they pit animal against animal.
Along the Ryukyu Islands chain, where Okinawa is, stretching from below Kyushu to 70 miles west of Taiwan, bulls are raised to fight. They are taught fighting by trainers who stand beside them and coach during the combat. The first bull pushed, or that runs, from the central ring loses.
More Protein in Diet
In the days before the fight the owner adds more protein to the bull’s food and sleeps by the bull to make sure he is not harmed. On the morning of the fight, family and neighbors lead the bull in a parade with dancing and drumming to foster a fighting spirit.
The toughest bull on record, from Tokuno Shima, won 29 consecutive fights. The strangest fight happened on Amami-Oshima, where two opponents sniffed each other for several minutes and then calmly lay down to nap, side by side, as the crowd hooted.
I saw six fights. Like sumo wrestlers, the bulls pawed the dirt before charging. Several fights lasted as long as 15 minutes, with trainers changing every five minutes or so. Two fights were over in less than a minute, with one bull bolting away from the more intimidating one.
The bulls got winded and scraped, but received no serious injuries. In one match the losing bull proved to be a poor sport. He charged the stands and nearly climbed over the short protective railing.
Several trainers yelled and pushed him back. He circled the ring twice and charged again, half-leaping over the railing and scattering everyone.
Feast in Winner’s Honor
Meanwhile, the victorious bull stood peacefully as trainers draped him in victory banners and hung ribbons from his horns. The owner would give a feast that evening in the bull’s honor, and neighbors would fawn upon the beast like a house pet. Until the next fight.
The United States maintains bases on Okinawa, but returned control of the Ryukyus to Japan in 1972.
With Okinawa as a starting point, one can visit the smaller islands north and south in the East China Sea. They are volcanic, coral-reefed gems that are diminutive versions of Hawaii without Waikiki-style tourism.
They have sugar cane, pineapple, papaya, snorkeling and a shocking absence of crime. Camping is permitted at many public beaches and nearly all islands have hostels and bed-and-breakfast inns.
Among the 40 inhabited Ryukyus, 10 have easy access by plane or ferry from Okinawa. Compared to prices in Tokyo, they are a bargain.
Naha is the capital city of the Ryukyus (Okinawa means “Greater Naha”) and radiates from the banks of the Kokuba River. It has an international airport and is not to be confused with Nara, Japan, where the tame deer eat from your hand.
Okinawa Harbor View
I stayed at a hotel near the central bus station--Okinawa harbor view--and at the youth hostel just across the river that at $14 a night is expensive for hosteling but very economical for Japan.
The central city is fascinating to walk about and, when red light turns to green, mechanical birds that chirp let pedestrians know its OK to cross. Jaywalking is discouraged.
Naha offers a spectrum of cuisine from Chinese stir-fry and noodle dishes to seafood, Japanese and Ryukyuan style, to American fast food (U.S. dollars may even be used to buy it in Koza).
Naha has the ruins of Shuri Castle, from 1429, plus the remains of the Japanese Navy’s World War II underground headquarters, vast limestone caverns and the Awase Yacht Club.
The bullfights are once a month, Sundays, at Gushikawa near the end of the line on buses 21 or 22 from Naha Station. There are several karate schools. I visited one that had students from as far away as France.
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Of the neighboring islands, the closest is Ie Shima. It is a 40-minute ferry ride from Okinawa’s Motobu Peninsula, the site of Nakijin Castle (AD 950), a formidable redoubt whose thick walls are of rough-hewn mortarless stone, and Marine Expo ’75, where the Aquapolis shows how people might live in a city at sea.
For about $2 an hour you can rent a bicycle and go completely around Ie Shima in a day. At the eastern end of the island is an extensive camping ground on the beach; just north there’s an area where jagged lava cliffs drop into the sea.
Surf fishermen cast from along these cliffs, and paths are maintained that lead down to the ocean. I walked down one path and felt as if I was on Maui. The sea in several shades of green slapped on top of hardened magma.
From the summit of Mt. Gusuku, the edges of little Ie Island curve through a wide-angle lens like the earth’s horizon from space. There were the natives and myself; I noticed no other tourists. It’s like that in many places away from Tokyo, if you carefully avoid travel during school vacations and business holidays.
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Yoron Jima is a four-hour ferry ride north of Okinawa and is about the size of Nantucket, the island I live on. I was on Yoron in November, its tourist off-season, and the people were as friendly and eager to meet a stranger as Nantucketers are in March after bouts with cabin fever.
In fact, Kaneyoshi was waiting at the ferry pier for something to do after cutting sugar cane. He greeted me in the English he had learned from Armed Forces TV and offered to show me the island.
“How much?” I asked.
“No bucks,” he said. “No money. I want to practice English.”
With that amazing instant introduction I was off on the back of a motorcycle for an afternoon spin around, and over the top of, Yoron Island. Kaneyoshi later dropped me off at Chabana Town youth hostel and said he would stop by the next day.
The hostel had only one other paying guest so, for the same bargain price, I could sleep without the worst scenario of hosteling--seven unknown snoring roommates who hang their socks to dry between bunk posts. I remembered one man in the Tokyo youth hostel who didn’t just snore, he practiced hacksawing through steel all night long.
The following day Kaneyoshi introduced me to his friend, Shinshei Minami, who is now my good friend and fellow island correspondent. Shinshei-san runs a coffee shop called Hare and Tortoise and pushes it as an “English-speaking lounge.”
There, with a coffee or tea, one could study English from Armed Forces TV and radio and sample his delicious snacks. He would stand, always smiling, behind the bar and chop up bits of raw fish with sauces, tropical fruits and pickled vegetables.
It didn’t matter that his English was mainly a listening variety and my Japanese was likewise. We communicated and drank papaya tea from cups that revealed an incandescent coral reef on the bottom as one drained the contents.
Yoron has everything an East China Sea paradise island should have. Ume Beach is famous for its “star” sand--each individual grain has points like a child would draw for a star.
There is an ancient sumo court and shrine on a hill overlooking the southeastern corner of the island, covered with sugar cane, pineapple and sweet shima banana.
In addition, there is an island park with traditional thatch-roof homes, a pottery-making neighborhood, a fishermen’s cooperative and a side street with colorful discos that fill in July and August with Tokyo girls. According to Shinshei, that’s the most exciting time to visit.
But I enjoyed Yoron in the off-season, in November. When the sun broke through the morning cloud cover, it got to 70 degrees. And everyone I met was an islander.
The locals worked at a steady, amiable pace. I had the beaches to myself and went for swims in a tropical sea the locals thought nobody entered after September. I made friends and watched night baseball with the sound of sugar cane rustling in the trade wind.
Miyako Island, farther south than Okinawa and slightly warmer, was untouched by war and has preserved traditional Ryukyuan architecture, low homes surrounded by high coral walls to block typhoon winds.
Seven smaller islands circle Miyako that are perfect for camping. Farther south are Ishigaki and Iriomote islands, much of the latter being taken up by Iriomote National Park, one of the few wild areas left in Japan. The primeval interior forest is home to the Iriomote wild cat, a feline found only on that island.
There’s nothing I’d rather do than return and spend days exploring each of these islands. But in the meantime, I wait for the dollar to stabilize before the typhoon days of September loom once more.
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Naha City: Kanko Hotel Kyuyokan, $96 a night. Naha Youth Hostel: 15 minutes on foot from Naha Port, $14 a night.
Yoron Island: Yoronto Takakura, $15 a night, including breakfast.
Ie Island: Uyama Minshuku, $12 for a room, a 10-minute walk from the ferry pier.
Naha City: Inaka restaurant at the Ichi Dollar Minshuku. Best for sashimi, sushi and eight-legged starfish.
Nago City, Okinawa: Daruma Sushi Bar. Exceptional assortment, with food guide in English on the walls.
Yoron Island: Hare and Tortoise Coffee Shop, 195 Chabana.
For more information on travel to Japan, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization, 624 S. Grand Ave., Suite 2640, Los Angeles 90017, (213) 623-1952.