This will be the final blog entry for this "Elina in Japan" blog. It was three years in the making, and I hope some of it was interesting to read. The blogging experience has been a great one for keeping the memories of my time in Okinawa fresh in my mind, for being a collection of moments that I might forget but now will have a tangible place to recall, and also a wonderful exercise in public writing.
The last entry will be a lengthy one because it is an article I wrote for the July issue of the YAK (Okinawa JET publication). I feel that it's a good way to close the blog and to share again a little about Okinawa with anyone who might happen to pop into this place through a search. And if you've happened upon my blog because you were searching specifically about the Okinawan Kuina, please please please, leave me a note. :)
I left Okinawa at the end of July and from there traveled through parts of Asia, Russia, Eastern Europe, Turkey, Greece and finally the UK. I'm considering putting up some of the thoughts from the trip in a separate blog as a start to a new space where I'll be sharing some thoughts about my life back in the United States. So stay tuned for that. The link to it will appear here once it's up and running.
And so without further commentary, here's the article, hope you enjoy it!
Of Yanbaru Kuina and Goodbye
Until recently one thing has repeatedly eluded me on this island—meeting the one and only Yanbaru Kuina. Ever since coming to Okinawa three years ago, I have heard about this unique creature that lives in the jungles near my home. But for three years I haven’t been able to get a glimpse of the tiny, black bird, and so I started doubting its existence. Maybe it was just a hoax created by the tourist hungry Yanbaru authorities. A way to justify building a giant Kuina-shaped outlook at the northernmost cape of the island, or a reason to order and sell cute Kuina Hello Kitty merchandise, or a lure for unsuspecting tourists into the jungle cafes of northern Okinawa. Any of these and numerous other clever schemes could be perpetrated in the name of a defenseless, flightless bird. And yet the evidence showed otherwise. For one, I have seen plenty of photos of the bird to convince me that it is not a fictional creature of the north. And secondly, a friend told me he saw one on the road between Ogimi and Higashi a few weeks back and my hopes for catching a glimpse of the bird after years of fruitless driving around the windy, northern roads have been rejuvenated. But before I speak of my success—and as you might have guessed I did get to see this beautiful creature with my very own eyes—a little bit about the hero of this piece.
Yanbaru Kuina’s full name is Gallirallus okinawae and it’s known in English as Okinawa rail. It’s in the Rallidae family of birds and its only habitat is the Yanbaru area of Okinawa’s main island. In the Yanbaru it is primarily confined to the area around Mt. Yonaha. And even though large portions of Kunigami-son were officially designated as a national park in 1996, Kuina’s numbers have been on a decline and in 2006 it was put on the Red List as an endangered species. It is mostly flightless and feeds off the ground floor. It also builds nests on the ground and lays 2 to 3 eggs in the spring. Kuina’s numbers have been decreasing for several reasons, including loss of habitat to logging and dam construction, road and golf course building, as well as attacks by mongoose which are foreign to Okinawa and were brought to the island in 1910. Speeding drivers are also responsible for a small number of birds being killed every year but because there are so few birds already—less than a thousand by recent estimates—even a few birds a year killed by drivers is a significant loss to the overall population. So if you come north in search of this tiny black bird with a red beak and red matching legs, please remember to drive slowly on the 70 north of Higashi and on any of the roads in Kunigami that link the west side with the east.
Which brings me to the logical conclusion of this tale.
One sunny Okinawan day in late May, I went to a beach on the east coast of Kunigami-son. To get there I drove on the 70 north from Higashi for twenty minutes or so and as you guessed, a Kuina bird ran across the road in front of my car, forcing me to slam on my breaks and my mouth to hang open in disbelief. I sat there for a few seconds savoring the moment of pure happiness at finally having seen my query! But that was not the end of my perfect day. Two more Kuinas graced me with their presence on the same day, on the same road. The second one I saw as I was walking from the beach to my car. It simply walked out in front of me to the middle of the road, stood there for a moment looking around and walked back into the jungle. The third bird startled me on the drive back from the beach as it nearly flew across the road but slowed down enough for me to catch a glimpse of it walking into the forest as I slowly drove past. Three Kuina sightings in one day! Three beautiful birds for the three amazing years I have been lucky to spend on this gorgeous island.
Okinawa has opened up itself to me in more ways than I could have possibly imagined when I first stepped off the plane in Naha. I don't think I’ll ever be able to fully describe what living here has meant to me, but I will say that you absolutely must explore this prefecture and let its islands open up a little bit of their soul to you. Just like those Kuina did for me on that brilliant May day.
And if I may, in conclusion, also thank all the fantastic people who have become my friends during the last three years on Okinawa. Without them, this island, as beautiful as it is, would not have become the best place for me to be. It has been an absolute pleasure sharing my Okinawa time with the people I am lucky to call friends and I hope our paths cross many times again and we can find some Orion beer and reminisce about our time in paradise.