When the US occupied the Okinawa islands in southwest Japan, they switched the rules of the road to make everyone drive on the right. When they withdrew, the local people switched them right back. The chaos that resulted from these frequent changes never filtered through to the transport link between Yubu & Iriomote. These remote Yaeyama islanders did what they had always done*: they let the water buffalo choose the route.
These water buffaloes start their training at the age of two and it’s a process that takes a full year. They then plod across the paradise shores at their own pace until easing into part-time work prior to retirement.
What did I make of this unusual journey? Well, when we arrived the water was glistening, the beach deserted and the buffalo carts looked like a mirage from another time and place. *As it turns out, that other time was the early 20th century and the other place was Taiwan.
Never mind. It’s still an iconic image in my mind – and one I’ll always associate with the islands of Okinawa.
You can arrange a water buffalo trip in the Yaeyama Islands yourself through my host Hirata Tourism Inc.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com