Typhoon-nurtured landscape, culture and spirits

Ishigaki Island, at the southwestern tip of Okinawa Prefecture’s Ryukyu Islands, is the main island of the Yaeyama Islands group. The center of the island is nearly square, each side approximately 13 km long, with the Nosoko and Hirakubo peninsulas extending from its northeast edge, and the Kabira Ishigaki and Yarabu peninsulas extending from its northwest edge. The island’s geology is complex, with a coastline formed of solid rock, even some Paleozoic strata dating back more than 100 million years, and clear streams flowing from the highlands, including from the highest peak in the Ryukyu Islands, Mt. Omoto (526 m), creating reef lagoons and ridges in the immediate vicinity of the land.

My first impression of Ishigaki was the atmosphere of the island’s natural features, which are subject to waves, winds and rain. One can see traces of exposure to these intense forces everywhere, in the texture and sea-eroded charm of the coral stones, on the walls and roofs of the old houses and on the modern concrete exterior walls. A typhoon-prone area, this unshielded island is hit by winds that can reach up to 70 meters per hour, a speed that defies the imagination. I felt that the foundation of the island’s natural features is formed not only by its geology and vegetation, but also by the violent force of these typhoons.

The islanders, roughly stacking coral stones as best as they can by hand, build fences and walls around their houses. Directly inside the entrances are more walls, many appearing to be made of painted plaster. These are intended to guard against the intrusion of evil spirits. There is a beautiful contrast between the red roof tiles and the plaster holding them in place. Those tiles that have been exposed to the wind, rain, and strong sunlight have developed a terrifically weathered look and feel. A compelling feature of the island is the contrast between the lustrous vegetation and the humble man-made structures that embody the human sagacity that daily confronts the tenacity of the island’s natural elements.

There are several distilleries on the island that produce awamori, a strong and uniquely Okinawan distilled liquor, but I happened to have a relationship with the distillery Yaesen Shuzo, which has long valued aged awamori, letting it rest and mature for several years before releasing it on the market, rather than immediately upon distillation. With some 30-year-old awamori in hand, Yaesen Shuzo approached me to take on the concept and design of a series of products utilizing this treasure. After discussing the idea of making three types of awamori in the high-end price range with the president, Moriyuki Zakimi, I agreed.

There is no consistent or prescribed appearance for awamori, which is just as likely to sport a flamboyant label as be bottled in earthenware pots. In Okinawa, perhaps because of the reduced alcoholic beverage excise tax that’s been in effect since the 1972 return of Okinawa to mainland Japan, the image of awamori is that of a cheap alcoholic drink. However, the sweet distillate produced by the action of black koji malt, when matured in oak barrels, develops a dignified sweetness similar to that of fine rum. Honing this method will result in spirits of incomparable quality that can rival any alcoholic beverage in the world.

The rain falling around Mt. Omotodake flows out to the foot of the mountain, providing high quality water. I visited a source of spring water called Narungara. There I came upon a small shrine set into the thick foliage, where a cup of awamori had been placed as an offering to the water deity. The islanders have long revered this water for what they see as its divine nature. Multiple rivers flow on this island, and as I passed by the Miyara River, I was so taken by its atmosphere that I naturally got out of the car. The luxuriant surrounding vegetation seemed to harbor a vigorous and ferocious wildness that glorifies the abundance of this place.

The three newly released products are Yuku, Kao and Taifu. In the unique brushwork of the calligrapher Kazuki Kamamura, I sensed something evocative of the atmosphere of the dreadful, haunting rocks and traditional houses of Ishigaki island, so I made prominent use of his calligraphy on the products’ labels. For Taifu (meaning typhoon), I asked him to convey an expression of an island battered by storms. For this line of products, called Zakimi, I wanted to create a completely new image for awamori, a far cry from the spirit’s conventional look.

Once more, I look out at the sea surrounding Ishigaki Island. Wave erosion has given strange shapes to the coastal stones of the Hirakubo Peninsula. The horizon line stretches taut behind them. And though the line of the horizon may look the same on any ocean, when contrasted with these uniquely shaped rocks, weathered by marine erosion, sunlight, wind and rain, it looked every bit like a delicately graduated scale cutting the field of view right in half. Over the past few days, a break in the continuous precipitation of the rainy season has produced sunny skies. The backlit horizon brims with light, divine.



1834, Ishigaki, Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture