3. We need to talk about Okinawa
Traditional boats on Ishigaki Island
The sail catches the wind as the sabani starts moving on the quiet Okinawan sea. We are in Kuura, a small village in the northern part of Ishigaki Island, about 35 minutes by car from Shin-Ishigaki Airport. The coast is dotted with beautiful small beaches created by wave erosion. It’s a natural paradise of sorts, left largely untouched by mass tourism. Yoshida Tomohiro, the guy expertly steering the sabani, lives here, surrounded by the Hirakubo Peninsula’s lush nature. He has lived in Ishigaki for the last 17 years and is one of the last surviving sabani makers in Japan.
Sabani (literally “shark boat”) are traditional Okinawan sailboats. In the past, they were a common sight on the seas around Ishigaki. They were used to fish and transport supplies to and from neighboring islands. In recent years, however, more and more people have turned to modern motorboats and the elegant sabani have become an endangered naval species.
Yoshida was born and raised in Tokyo. After graduating from high school, he had no particular goals in life and contented himself with helping at his mother's tavern. However, he found city life suffocating; he wanted to travel and experience different things. “I first travelled to Ishigaki with my wife in 1993, when I was 19 and she 18,” Yoshida says. “We camped on the island for about one month and were mesmerized by its beauty and the richness of the natural environment, so much so that we told each other that we wanted to live here someday.
“After returning to Tokyo, I went back to my usual life, but in 2004, a friend of mine who had a small restaurant in Ishigaki asked me if I was interested in working for him, so we moved here for good.”
Things, unfortunately, didn’t go well and Yoshida left the job after one year. After that, he went through different jobs, including working in a fruit plantation, in roadworks and as a construction builder. Then, one fateful day, Yoshida went to a bookstore and found a book by Arashiro Yasuhiro, a boat craftsman living in Shiraho, a town in southern Ishigaki, who made traditional sailboats called sabani.
“I’ve always liked making woodwork, especially practical things like tables and stools,” Yoshida says. “Finding out that there were people who made wooden boats on this very island was a stunning revelation. I was curious to learn more but for some reason, I thought that it was too early to meet the guy. I kept this idea in the back of my mind until, eight years later, I heard that Arashiro-san was retiring from the job. I hurried to meet him and after a short exchange he agreed to teach me how to build the boats.”
At the age of 37, Yoshida became a boat maker and his life changed completely. “As well as this traditional craftsmanship, Arashiro-san taught me the importance of thinking independently and finding the wisdom within my own thoughts,” Yoshida says.
In the next five years, Yoshida learned the finer points of sabani-making as he assembled three boats with Arashiro’s help. Finally, in 2015, he made the fourth sabani all by himself and turned his passion into a business. To this day, he has made 21 boats. “I still have the first sabani I made,” he says. “I use them either for my private pleasure or to take clients on tour around the island.”
Sabani are made with cedar planks that are bent and assembled using age-old techniques. No iron nails are used because they are vulnerable to seawater. Instead, the boards are joined together by using fundou (X-shaped woodworking joints) and kasugai (bamboo nails). The finished boat has a smooth shape as if it were carved from a single log. “Indeed, in the past sabani were made by hollowing out a whole tree trunk,” Yoshida says. “With time, this approach became unpractical and now we assemble different parts instead.”
Building a sabani from start to finish, including cutting the tree and letting the wood dry, takes one year. Historically, sabani builders use a kind of Japanese cedar called obi-sugi to make their boats. “As it’s now almost impossible to find it in Okinawa, we get the timber from Miyazaki Prefecture,” Yoshida says. “Obi-sugi is an ideal wood because while it can stand rough ocean swells, it’s also elastic and can be bent to make the sides of the sabani.”
The actual process of cutting, curving the boat’s sides, assembling and painting takes about two months. Yoshida starts by praying and throwing salt on and around the slab of wood that is going to be cut – an ancient Shinto tradition that is believed to have purifying powers. In the past, shark liver oil was applied to improve the hull’s resistance to corrosion while the sails were treated with a local paint called kuuru (made with pig blood) to enhance their ability to catch the wind.
A typical sabani is 7-8 meters long and carries up to 9-10 people. Depending on its size and each customer’s unique specifications, it costs between 1.5 and 2.5 million yen. Many of the customers live in the little islands that make up a good part of Okinawa Prefecture. “They are mostly young people who want to preserve traditions and help the local economy through tourism,” Yoshida says.
One of those clients is Uesedo Akira, who lives in nearby Taketomi Island. Since he was a child, Uesedo dreamed of owning a sabani. He finally had his desire fulfilled a few years ago. When the brand-new sabani was ready, Yoshida sailed it to Taketomi to take part in a local ceremony to bless the boat’s maiden voyage. “When the wind is right, the distance between the two islands can be covered in just one hour,” Yoshida says. “But you need to be careful about the ferries that cross the strait in between.”
Today, Uesedo is the proud owner of three boats that he uses for his tourist business. “For me,” he says, “sabani hold the knowledge of our ancestors and represent the struggles they faced living in Taketomi. I hope that my boats will act as a bridge between the past, present and future of our island, uniting us across generations.”
Sabani used to be a vital tool in the life of the Taketomi residents because there are no rice fields on that island. “Rice was grown in Iriomote Island and during the harvest, whole families would sail over from Taketomi (the children even taking time off from school) to help out in the fields,” Uesedo says.
“I want to help the people of Taketomi learn to sail sabani. It’s great taking visitors to Taketomi out on the sabani to teach them about our island. In this way, the sabani will help us connect with all kinds of people. I hope one day to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors and sail to Iriomote on the sabani as they did.”
Sailing a sabani on the open sea is easier said than done. Though sabani are simple boats, learning to sail them can take time. Most importantly, one needs to learn about wind direction. According to Yoshida, apart from the typhoon season in summer, the weather is usually quite stable. However, if you see dark clouds fast approaching, you better head back home because a squall may be coming.
When not working on a new boat, Yoshida spends the holiday season taking customers on a cruise around Ishigaki. Gliding smoothly on the quiet sea, his sabani takes the tourists to beaches and small caves that can only be reached from the sea. From early summer to autumn, sea turtles are spawning and can be easily spotted. Since the sabani doesn’t make any noise, the turtles are not afraid of coming close. Tours that include snorkeling are particularly popular. A lot of coral remains in the sea in the northern part of Ishigaki where the unspoiled nature is breathtakingly beautiful.
According to Yoshida, right now there are at least five more sabani makers in Okinawa, among them a woman in Iriomote, Kunioka Kyoko, who learned the craft with Yoshida from Arashiro-san. As for Yoshida’s two children, they don’t seem interested in following in their father’s footsteps. His 20-year-old son, however, shares his dad’s passion for woodworking, while his daughter, who is still in junior high school, has already decided that she wants to open her own tourist company.
Every day, Yoshida blesses the time when he decided to move to Ishigaki. “At that time, I was tired of the expensive and wasteful convenience offered by city living,” he says. “I wanted to live as naturally as possible. Living here year-round can be difficult – it’s very different from spending just a few days as a tourist – but it taught me the importance of helping each other. You can acquire a lot of wisdom from living in connection with nature.”
After all these years, Yoshida is still very active in building, teaching and promoting the use of the sailboats that changed his life. He has decided that he is going to make sabani until the day he dies.
On Yoshida’s website, you can watch how a sabani is made. https://www.cicadae-sailboat.com
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These are really cool conversations you're having with people about cultural practices. Always a joy to read.
That's the kind of holiday I like.