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Stalking the Iriomote Gomi Cat

Cane of Wrath

“The Year of the Tiger… is definitely an explosive year. It usually begins with a bang and ends with a whimper. A year earmarked for war, disagreement and disasters of all kinds. But it will also be a big, bold year. Nothing will be done on a small, timid scale. Everything, good and bad, can and will be carried to extremes. Fortunes can be made and lost. If you take a chance, gamble for high stakes, but understand that the odds are stacked against you.” – Theodora Lau, Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes (Harper & Row Publishers, 1988).

The Year of the Tiger

“Don’t you know someone who will cut my cane? I want to hire a foreigner, so I can practice my English.”

We were cold, tired, and hungry. Our hike through the terrarium-like interior of Iriomote island, Japan’s rain forest wilderness island, to catch a glimpse of the rare Iriomote wild cat, and the ghosts of lost miners, had ended in failure and mild cases of exposure. The farmer’s jars of hot sake were the first thing besides rain water to hit our stomachs in hours. Warmth and light from the village store, an oasis in the chill, rain-soaked night, and the farmer’s hot brew, worked their way through our systems. Cane cutting. Why not?

We had come to Iriomote, a semi-tropical island of palms and mountains and sand at the southernmost tip of the Japanese archipelago, to hike through jungle and ring in the New Year on a deserted beach. The Year of the Tiger had seen us through the Montreal Ice Storm, grad school, marriage, and the start of new lives in northern Japan. It seemed only right that it be rung out in the same spirit of adventure that had fueled us all these months.

In the process, we hoped to catch sight of the elusive Iriomote wild cat, Japan’s “living fossil.”

Picking cane for a manic farmer was not on our list of New Year’s resolutions. But then, neither was dying of hypothermia on an unlit jungle road.

Iriomote is a speck of volcanic peaks in the blue-green waters of the Pacific, a 14-hour ferry ride from the cities and pineapple plantations of Okinawa. Broad-leaf rain forest and mangrove swamps. Humpbacked mountains covered in a thick gauze of jungle gauze, straight from a Jules Verne novel, or a Spielberg movie. Gaudy flowers and butterflies clustered along choked stream banks. Fields of ripe sugar cane spread out at the base of the mountains. A beach lover’s wet dream of white sand and clear water. We made our first camp on Iriomote’s remote south shore, pitching our tent where a dry riverbed emptied onto a beach backed by jade and rubber trees. During the long tropical days we skinny-dipped in the green-tea ocean, and hiked a volcanic shoreline at low tide. Cool, shaded grottoes along the shore gave us our first impression of the jungle’s fecund, overgrown interior.

At night, living fossils prowled through the undergrowth. Blue-green eyes waited outside our tent.

There were others on the beach, refugees from the cities on Honshu who lived in driftwood huts and dome tents pushed into the jungle. By day they gathered shellfish on the gently sloping beach. At night, from far out on the sand banks, the pale blues and oranges of their fires glittered in the dark shadow of the jungle and the humpbacked mountains. Some of the squatters worked the nearby cane fields. Others gathered driftwood along the high tide mark.

Existence for the people on this strip of sand between jungle and sea was as temporary and provisional as the hermit crabs that tumbled and fell among the rocks all day and dug themselves a new burrow each night.

Life on a beach, even a semi-tropical one, under an unchanging blue sky, is measured by the ebb and flow of the tides. Not everyone is built to function well at this steady saltwater rhythm, however, and after about a week we grew anxious to explore the island. The wading birds on the sand flats at dawn, and the green and gold finches that darted through our campsite, were the wildest animals we had yet seen.. Even the horned cows, in open, roadside pastures, seemed thoroughly domesticated as we passed into town for supplies.

This was not adventuring worthy of the Year of the Tiger.

Iriomote’s north shore is exposed to the winds that blow in off the Pacific and the East China Sea. Here, the jungle gives over to grazing land and pineapple plantations. On a derelict spot of grass on a rocky bluff overlooking a lagoon and the pounding sea, a motley group of travelers had made a camp. We pitched tent in a windbreak of palms, , close to the other tents, and in the evening gathered around the communal fire. That evening, we passed around a bottle of Japanese whisky and exchanged tales.

Iriomote’s remoteness, its Lost World status, attracts a curious group of travelers, Japanese and foreign. Stories were told, of backpacking the Karakorum Highway, and kayaking the atolls and uninhabited islands that brooded dark and mysterious off Iriomote’s coast. A snowboard instructor, who hitched his way south all the way from Hokkaido, told us the story of Iriomote’s ghosts, of men from Honshu, desperate for work, lured to Iriomote’s mines with promises of jobs and wives. Some of the men escaped from the prison-like work camps into the jungle, where they died of malaria or starvation. According to the story, their spirits still haunt the island’s gloomy interior.

Dusty roads skirted pineapple plantations and more cow paddocks. At night tidal pools in the lagoon swarmed with translucent crabs and starfish. Always, Iriomote’s jungle-clad, humpbacked mountains loomed in the background. Safe in our tent, wildcats prowled through the undergrowth. Ghosts floated through the shrouded mangrove swamps.

It was at the lagoon one night, among the water bottles, nets and floats washed up from Okinawa and Taiwan, from Thailand and Indonesia and Australia, where a pair of diamonds shot back at us in the beam of our flashlight. The blue-green eyes froze a moment on the far side of a tidal pool, then streaked into the underbrush, leaving a phosphorescent trail that lingered several moments in the damp night air.

We followed the trail into the brush on the steep side of the lagoon, until the knotted vegetation pushed us back onto the rocky beach.

Around the campfire, the others were unimpressed by our news.

“Wildcats are very rare,” a lecturer in modern language replied.

“Did you actually see the animal?”

“Not clearly,” I exaggerated, “but it moved like a cat, the way it bounded across the beach.”

“There are many cats here,” answered the snowboard instructor. “Maybe a few hundred. They are over there,” he waved past the shadowy line of palms, in the direction our quarry had disappeared. “Where we put the garbage.”

“Have you seen a wild cat?”

“No. But I have seen many garbage cats.”

“Gomi cats,” I suggested, and the name stuck. The rest of the evening, as the whisky bottle made its rounds, we joked about gomi cats, gomi birds, even gomi people who caused too much trouble in the world. Who wouldn’t sit down at a fire and share a bottle of whisky.

As I made my way across the dark campground, a second pair of eyes flashed around an outbuilding. A stub-tailed cat with tortoiseshell fur disappeared into the treeline as I approached. from the rear this cat had the same skinny body as the wild cats I had seen on postcards.

“Maybe gomi cats breed with wild cats,” I suggested, back at the fire.

Several more time that night eyes sparked at the edge of the firelight. Later, safe in our tents, the cats passed through camp, fighting over scraps in the dark.

The next morning we set off for the cross-island hike.

“Maybe you will see a ghost,” the snowboard instructor teased as we left camp.

The problem with hiking through trees, I had discovered long ago, back on the trails of my boyhood in southern Ontario, is that the view never changes. An endless corridor of trunks and branches and trees. There is little to break the monotony of carrying a pack over footsore ground. On Hokkaido’s bonsai-sized mountains we discovered a new world of hiking above the treeline. So far north, the treeless alpine zone starts around 1,000 meters, an easy day hike to vistas of mountains rolling in one direction to the Sea of Japan, in the other to the far blue line of the Pacific.

Now we were back in an endless green tunnel. The trail cut through Iriomote’s Jurassic Park-like interior for seven hours, from the waterfall and tour boat drop-off in the north, to the forestry road at the other end of the island, across Iriomote’s broken spine. The jungle was empty. No birds called from the canopy. No animals appeared on the trail, or by the algae-covered pools and overgrown riverbank.

The jungle smelled of rot and decay, of life returning to the rich soil from which it had sprung. It was easy to imagine the horror of the miners as they fled deeper into what turned out to be one great, green composter.

Within an hour we were drenched from the slippery trail, and from humidity trapped in the dense tangle of leaves and vines. Clouds blew through the jungle on a regular basis, and sudden, violent downpours flooded the trail. The day had dawned clear and blue at the seaside campground, as it had every day this trip. The constant drenching and gusting wind chilled us in our lightweight beach wear. Umbrella-sized palm fronds proved useless in the gusting rain.

The jungle spat us out in worse shape than it had taken us in. The rain that hounded us across the island turned out to be the front edge of a new weather system settling across the islands. Our camp, our dry clothes and food, was a full day’s hike back through a jungle that exhaled a constant, bitter chill now as night descended quickly. The nearest town was several miles from the trailhead, down the unlit forest road. Once again, the jungle was becoming a place for living fossils and lost souls.

So the cane farmer’s ghostly white pickup emerged from the jungle like a hypothermia-induced hallucination. And, half an hour later, we stood in the warmth and light of this outpost of civilization, a convenience store, in the rain-scudded jungle night.

We owed the farmer for picking us up, two apparitions by the side of a creepy road at dusk on New Year’s Eve. The farmer’s proposal offered us a way to repay that debt and, not incidentally, an antidote to the cabin fever that awaited our return to snowbound Hokkaido. For the duration of the cane season, at least, we could experience island life first hand. the novel was already starting to write itself.

Orwell. Faulkner. Steinbeck. The great Japanese novel of the working poor. Down and Out on Iriomote, I would call it. The Cane of Wrath.

Problem was, this farmer wanted more than a couple of participant-observer farm hands. He wanted workers, out in the fields all day, and at the table all evening, drinking sake until our hands shook and practicing conversational English.

Besides, back on Hokkaido we earned in an hour what a cane cutter earned in a day in the field. And, when I wasn’t teaching, I was free to write post-apocalyptic fantasies about the decay of civilization, and the meaninglessness of all effort.

There was, however, still the problem of getting back to our campsite. The last bus had made its run up-island hours ago. The only other people out and about at this time, it seemed, were locals who popped in and out of our warm, dry oasis for fresh bottles of sake.

The intrepid farmer made a few phone calls, however, and half an hour later a ride up-island materialized in the form of a four-door luxury sedan with tortoiseshell upholstery.

Our companions had deserted the windswept campground during the day, and we arrived to a forlorn lagoon. Even the gomi cats were hiding from the miserable wind that blew in off the ocean. We fell asleep before the Year of the Tiger slipped quietly and inconspicuously into the night.

The Year of the Rabbit

“A placid year, very much welcomed and needed after the ferocious year of the Tiger. We should go off to some quiet spot to lick our wounds and get some rest after all the battles of the previous year.” – Theodora Lau, Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes.

The next day, the first of the new year, we retreated further up-island, beyond the end of the coastal highway, beyond the commuter ferry’s last stop; down a track lined with ancient, turtle-backed shrines. Here, in a solitary cove, we pulled thorns, dressed fly bites, and healed infected scrapes in warm salt water.

On our second-last day, as we built yet another magnificent castle in the sand, a Frenchman in beach shorts and sneakers , and his suitcase-toting girlfriend, stumbled into our camp desperate for food and hashish, three days after walking into the unmarked jungle on the other side of the island.

Iriomote kept its living fossils, its wonders natural and supernatural, to itself. The island did, however, show us yet another side of Japan, different from the frantic urban hothouses of Osaka and Tokyo, and rustic, 4-season Hokkaido. Here life flourishes on the margins of sea and jungle, and a community of eccentrics has found a place in the sand and red soil of this volcanic speck at Japan’s southern frontier.

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