Travelogue: Yoron island in Japan
“Why Yoron?” Chie wasn’t the first person to ask me this question.
That I was in Japan was itself pretty random! When I decided to travel in July, I had no clue where I wanted to go. So, I began thinking of countries that started with a “J” (because July starts with J!). Three countries came to my mind — Japan, Jordon and Jamaica — in that order. Japan won.
After I’d arrived in Japan, I had to choose between Yakushima and Yoron islands and the latter seemed like the kind of place where there would be less tourists.
Yoron is the southernmost island of the country’s Kagoshima prefecture with an area of roughly 20.5sqkm and some 5,000 residents. This island, which doesn’t feature on the top of most travellers’ checklists (precisely the reason I was there), has pristine white beaches and shallow waters around it teeming with colourful fish and corals.
It was my first night on Yoron and I was having my Sunday dinner at the restaurant next to Myojoso’s guest house, which was were I was staying. Chie (pronounced Chee-A), a forty-something woman who was sitting two stools away from me on the same counter, started the conversation. She was an elementary school teacher, who was in Yoron for the weekend to do some diving. She told me she’d seen some big turtles, apart from lots of fish when she went diving earlier in the day.
Snorkelling in Yoron had been on my mind but I had never dived before.
At this point, our waitress Yukiho, who spoke good English and who I found rather sweet, revealed that her regular job was that of dive instructor! She only worked at the restaurant two days a week.
All this talk about diving got me interested and I decided to try it out. I took the number of the diving club where Yukiho worked and said I would call back.
When I called the next morning, Yukiho picked up the phone, but said the slots were sold out for the day. She said I could dive the next day and that someone would pick me up from the guesthouse in the morning. That worked for me and I decided to go snorkelling on Monday afternoon.
At 1pm, Myojoso knocked on my door to say the snorkeling guy had come to pick up me, and another girl staying at the guesthouse, who I later found out was called Chiho. There were some other people in the car and it took only a few minutes to get to the beach.
“Do you want to go to Yurigahama too?” the guy who picked us up asked me.
I said yes. Yurigahama was an island off Yoron that surfaced only during low tide and according to my guidebook, it not something to be missed.
The guy got his boat ready and some 15 people (some of whom were waiting on the beach) climbed in. The way to Yurigahama is treacherous and filled with rocks so you cannot just ride straight to it. The experienced boatman turned left and right and slowed down to almost a complete stop where the way through the rocks was particularly narrow. Around halfway there, he said this was the snorkelling spot and asked us to get into the water.
Before me and Chiho jumped in, he gave us each a little bit of something that looked like some kind of a dough.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Fish food,” Chiho explained.
The water was clear and hundreds of colourful fish, which were apparently familiar with snorkelers feeding them, crowded around us. The small ones started pecking from the glob in my hand until a big one came from nowhere and snatched away the entire thing from me!
Chiho had an underwater camera and she clicked lots of pictures of the fish and the corals.
After a while, the boatman was back to pick us up and take us to Yurigahama.
Beautiful is an understatement to describe this disappearing island. I sat on the white sand partially immersed in the crystal clear blue-green waters and tried taking it all in.
Yoron was a good idea.
As we lazed around and the minutes flew by, Yurigahama became smaller and smaller. It was time to go.
That evening, I wanted to check out Chabana, the little town on the island. So, at 6pm, I took the last bus of the day and went there. It didn’t take long to walk across it and in some 30 minutes, I had a fair idea of the area’s geography. There were two places which I wanted to check out — Bar Natural Reef, apparently the most popular watering hole on the island, and the beautiful Umi Café.
I couldn’t find Umi Café and I went to Bar Natural Reef. It was a nice place, but it was rather early and I was the only customer at that time. I got a little bored and didn’t stay long. When I started walking back to my guesthouse it was around 8.15pm and quite dark. My map showed that the road, though long, was pretty straight. But with many parts of the road not having street lights, I couldn’t check the map regularly and was a little confused. After walking alone in the dark for some time, I encountered a 62-year-old runner. When I showed him the address of my guest house, he said he was going the same way and we could go together.
We chatted while we walked briskly. He didn’t speak much English and I spoke no Japanese, but we managed just fine. He said he ran 10km every evening. There was a nice wind blowing and I was quite enjoying it after the particularly humid day. But he said, “The wind feels like a typhoon is coming.”
I asked him how many of them hit Yoron each year.
“Three or four,” he replied.
After about half an hour of walking, we came to his house and my destination was still a kilometre or so away. He offered to drive me to my guesthouse but I thanked him and said I’ll manage the last kilometer just fine.
I reached the guesthouse to find all the boarders sitting and drinking with the owner, Myojoso. They were having yusen, a local brew made from sugarcane. I joined then and they offered me the same. Strong stuff!
Most of the conversation was in Japanese and at times, one of them would translate a bit of it for me in broken English.
Myojoso offered us fried fish and other snacks to go with the yusen.
“Kampai” is Japanese for “cheers” and they asked me how we did it in India. I told them most people back home usually just said “cheers”, but there was a Bengali (my mother tongue) version. So, before taking the next gulp of yusen, everyone said “ullash!” and clinked their glasses.
We clicked pictures, exchanged stories and made some lovely memories. Then it was time to go to bed.
I woke up the next morning with a bit of a hangover. I freshened up, had breakfast and got ready excitedly. It was dive day!
Rickie of the diving club picked me up at 9.45am. He spoke a little English and we talked as he drove. A family of three was going to dive with me today. The club was attached to a resort on the other side of the island near Chabana. The family was already there when we reached.
The room where we were in had a little pool in front of it and beyond that was the beach and the beautiful blue-green sea sparkling in the morning sun. Lots of people were bathing and splashing about.
Yukiho met us there and gave us our diving suits. Then Richie gave us a little introduction to diving. He spoke Japanese and Yukiho translated it for me. The most important thing to remember is to never stop breathing. This may seem funny but while diving, you breathe through you mouth and not through the nose. So if, during the dive, you panic and forget that and try to breathe through your nose and realise you are unable to do it, it makes you panic further. This could pose a big problem. Another thing was pressure equalisation. Just like your ears block up when the airplane climbs, water pressure does the same to your ears when you dive. So, you need to block your nose and try to yawn and get the pressure all right. And then there were the signs you needed to use under water because talking, of course, was impossible.
I thought Yukiho was as close as it got to Zindegi Na Milegi Dobara‘s Laila. Like Katrina Kaif’s character in the movie, this girl had left her Tokyo home to do what she loved. I decided I was going through quite a filmy phase of my life!
We did some practising in the resort pool and off we went to the pier. The guys took us out into the sea on a boat and we got all our gear on. It was time to get into the water. Yukiho helped me into the water and asked me to wait while she got her gear together. She was in a minute later.
And then, both of us, slowly, went under the water. We held onto the rope of the boat’s anchor and slowly climbed down. All the while, she held me firmly so that I didn’t slip. We kept eye contact and every 10 seconds, she gestured to ask me if I was ok. My pressure equalisation wasn’t working so well initially. So, we went up and tried again. This time it was better.
At this point, I had another filmy deja vu! I remembered the scene from the same movie where Katrina Kaif’s Laila was training Hrithik Roshan’s Arjun to breathe with the apparatus under water.
By the time we were at the sea bed, which was just about five metres below the surface, the equalisation was working fine. We spent some 30 minutes exploring the sea bed with Rickie guiding us around. It’s a different world down there. Since we weren’t very deep and the water was clear, visibility was very good. But you could only see till a point. Beyond that point was the unknown blue.
Yukiho had an underwater camera and she clicked pictures of us with the fish and corals. Rickie was really good. At one point, he took the breathing gear off from his mouth and blew air rings that floated to the surface through the clear water. It doesn’t get any cooler!
When Myojoso dropped me at the pier the next day, it was windy and there was a man checking the wind speed with an instrument. I went into the ticket counter that was nothing but a big cargo box. The lady there asked me to wait. After 15 minutes, they informed me that there was a typhoon alert and the ship would not be coming.
The runner guy was right!
“Will it come tomorrow?” I asked.
No one could say for sure when the next ship was coming.
There was another guy, who I later learnt was called Ryosuke, waiting for the ship and I asked him what he was going to do. He said he would fly to Kagoshima. I decided to do the same. The lady at the ticket counter gave me the refund for my ticket and drove both of us to the tiny Yoron Airport.
It was raining heavily by this time and we found out that the flight to Kagoshima had been sold out and they kept us on a waiting list. But after an hour, they told us no one had cancelled and we could not get on that flight. When we asked about the next available flight, they said all flights to Kagoshima for the next nine days were sold out. The only flight out of Yoron that had seats available was going to Naha, the capital of Okhinawa prefecture. But this was totally in opposite direction of Kagoshima, where both Ryosuke and me wanted to go.
We had no other choice. The airport in Naha was bigger and the chances of getting flights from there to the Japan mainland was more. So, we booked our tickets to Naha.
At the airport, we met Daisuke, another guy who stayed at Myojoso’s guest house. He was heading to Naha as well. The three of us decided to hang out together and we went to have soba (a kind of Japanese noodles) for lunch at a nearby restaurant. After we finished our delightful lunch, we still had more than three hours before our evening flight.
“Is there something on Yoron that you’d like to do?” Ryosuke asked me.
I didn’t tell him I wanted to have dinner with Yukiho. “I wanted to see Umi Cafe. But I couldn’t find it the other day ”
“Let’s go there,” he said, and called a taxi. “My treat,” he winked.
It was pouring and we got considerably wet in the 10 seconds it took for us to rush into the taxi that was parked 10 feet away from the restaurant door.
But Umi Cafe was beautiful. With its terraced gallery-cafe look and sea views, you could begin to wonder whether you were in Japan or Greece. We were full from our soba lunch and while I had only some ginger ale, the two guys had cold coffee there.
A couple of hours later, when I looked back at a disappearing Yoron through the window of the small aircraft, I decided it had been a wise decision to skip Yakushima and come to this island.
I mentally raised a glass of yusen to the new friends and experiences Yoron gave me.