KUME ISLAND, Japan — A man with a sunburned face thrust a small glass into my hand.
"Drink it, please," he nodded in encouragement.
I took a tentative sip. The taste of the alcohol was strong but not bad.
" Oishii, " I said politely. "Delicious." Whereupon the man slapped his leg in glee and led me to a nearby shelf to show me what I had just drunk. In a jar was clear rice wine--and coiled in the middle of it a preserved snake.
Knowing that snake sake is supposed to increase sexual virility, I tried not to take it too personally. Besides, this was Kume Island, the Japanese island that is unfamiliar to tourists. Which is surprising, considering that in a recent international competition for "the most beautiful island in the world," the Japanese National Tourist Organization chose Kume Island as their nation's entry in the competition.
Southwest of Okinawa
"Have you ever been to Kume Island?" I asked all my Tokyo friends before my trip.
"Where is it?" was their usual response.
Kume Island is a subtropical island 85 miles southwest of Okinawa about halfway between main land Japan and Taiwan.
With close historic ties to both China and Okinawa, Kume developed a culture similar to Okinawa's, adopting the larger island's architecture and dialect. But whereas much of Okinawa was pummeled in heavy fighting in World War II, Kume Island remained untouched. It therefore offers an unparalleled view of traditional Okinawan architecture.
I rented a bicycle and rode through a tiny village of stately old homes. Each home is like a fortress, surrounded by its own concrete wall and orange-earth yard. Raised a foot off the ground and encircled with sweeping verandas, the square wooden homes have roofs of clay tile and walls that slide open to take advantage of cool breezes washing in from the sea. Sturdy, they are built to withstand the fury of typhoons.
I cycled through the village and out into the countryside, entering a world of ocher-red earth, deep-blue skies and field upon field of sugar cane, the slender leaves tossing and glinting in the sunlight.
Toiling in Fields
Men, women and children toiled in the fields, their faces protected from the sun by peaked straw hats as they stripped the cane of its leaves. Around them, scattered throughout the fields, are huge family tombstones where they will one day join their ancestors, and far in the distance are the hills of the interior, a tumult of rock and stubby palm trees.
Finally, oppressed by the heat (I should have bought one of those straw hats), I turned toward the sea and the beach. With a circumference of 30 miles and a population of 10,000, primarily farmers and fishermen, Kume Island has no industry, no factories and is surrounded by some of the clearest water in the world.
"Kume Island has the second-clearest water in the world," islanders told me.
"Second to whom?" I ask, but no one seems to know. I begin to suspect that the islanders are simply too polite to boast of being first; claiming to be second, after all, will incur the wrath of no one.
But at any rate, with an underwater visibility of about 60 feet, no one will deny that the water is crystal clear. Put on a mask and fins and you will immediately find yourself in a world of electric-colored fish, coral and seaweed, of lobsters hiding in crevices and of squid, starfish and sea urchins.
12 Miles of Beaches
As for swimming and sunbathing, Kume and its surrounding reefs offer 12 miles of white beaches, and one of the best things about them is that they remain virtually undeveloped, with nothing but pine woods stretching on one side and water on the other.
Considering all this, it's rather surprising that Kume Island remains virtually unknown. Chances are that you won't see a single other non-Japanese on the island. Of the travelers reaching its shores, only 1% are non-Japanese, making it unusual among tropical and subtropical Asian destinations, where foreigners often outnumber the residents.
For the Westerner who comes here, therefore, Kume Island offers both the chance for relaxation and the opportunity to immerse yourself in rural Japanese life. You can visit old homes open to the public. You can drop in on the sugar cane mill or a kimono shop where dyes are derived from such things as bark and plants and where all the cloth is woven by hand.
And if you want, you can also stop by the island's sake factory. I know a product you can buy there that makes a special wedding gift. . . .