‘Bull sumo’ on the subtropical island of Tokunoshima
The island’s coastline strongly resembles parts of nearby Okinawa. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
It was 5 p.m. when my plane touched down onto the small airstrip at Tokunoshima, an island in Kagoshima Prefecture that, in its climate and fauna, bears a strong resemblance to nearby Okinawa.
The warm subtropical air asserts itself the moment you leave the plane, and the tropical analogy is reinforced by the greenery of cycads, the aerial roots of the ficus tree, the pineapple-like pandanus, which grow along beaches as white as coconut powder, and by the roadside clumps of bougainvillea and wild hibiscus. But the sultry climate and flora belie Tokunoshima’s other side, with its rugged, undeveloped coastline and an equally rugged male population, who pit hulking bovines against each other in the island’s six bullrings.
The friendly woman at the airport information counter was quick to respond when I mentioned I needed a scooter to get to a bullfight that day. Calling the rental shop, the machine was delivered and papers signed within 15 minutes.
“You’ll have to hurry,” she advised. “The first contest begins at 6 p.m. — and its the only one this week.”
I wasn’t expecting much from the experience. Photographs of tōgyū (Japanese bullfighting) that I had pored over before the trip were disappointing: The event looked flat, the audiences unmoved as they politely watched the bovine equivalent of sumo wrestling. In these matches, one of two bulls is declared the victor after locking horns, engaging in a few brief minutes of maneuvering to gain footing and, finally, prevailing over its exhausted counterpart.
My experience, however, was quite different.
The moment I arrived at the stadium, there was a great eruption of voices and movement as a the ring disgorged a stream of people, who jogged alongside their team bulls. The excitement was palpable, and the spectacle reminded me of the moment when the bulls are released in Pamplona, Spain. There was a similar element of the unscripted outside the Tokunoshima Nakusamikan — a bullring in the Metegu district — as there always is when in the company of animals with the potential to cause injury.
That danger didn’t seem to worry the young men and children who darted around the bulls, playing trumpets, clarinets, hand drums, rattles and whistles, creating an unholy sound mash. Adding to the color, the necks of the bulls were rigged out with red and yellow braids and ribbons, their horns decorated with hibiscus flowers made from nylon.
The event, clearly one of the social highlights of the island, was supported by an audience of more than 300 spectators, ranging from infants to octogenarians and farm boys to fashionably dressed young women. Everyone appeared rapt by the matches, stirred to great collective excitement by the mayhem.
Thinking about how young people in Tokyo or Osaka would be passing a similar Saturday evening made the event all the more astonishing.
The atmosphere was electric. The entrance of the bulls preceded by children and youngsters storming toward the gate, hollering and creating more din with their instruments.
The purpose of each match is for one of the bulls to relent and give up, exhausted, but it was often the handlers who retired to the sidelines to catch their breath and grab a restorative drink. Inside the ring it was an all-male event, unabashedly macho, with much mock heroic posturing. Often barefoot in the sand ring, the handlers’ role appeared to be to goad the bulls into a fighting spirit by slapping them or stamping the ground. They were clearly in close proximity to danger — horns swerved unpredictably, and calm could quickly turn to fury, as the air filled with snorting and flying spittle in a second.
At the end of each match, members of the audience flood into the ring, feeding off the energy surrounding the winning bull and its team. There was a touch of superstition in the way parents lifted up babies and infants onto the backs of restless bulls to take photos of their toddlers. Like baptizing children in rivers and lakes, or the faithful stepping forward to touch the hem of a Virgin Mary carried on a float, it’s likely this represents a belief that mounting a bull, an animal of great strength and resilience, will confer good fortune and protection.
Even before the first bout, the air was pungent with tobacco smoke and beer. After the last match, the audience were more muted as they filed out, the atmosphere subdued, the air stale and used up. Back at the hotel in Kametsu, the island’s main town, the air in the lobby and corridors was only a fraction better. I asked for a nonsmoking room, but the manager looks puzzled, unfamiliar with the concept.
It is difficult judging how much of the island’s machismo is for real, or whether the strut and swagger is simply an inherited posturing. Men, when engaged in conversation or consulted for directions, couldn’t have been more considerate or generous with their time. After spending a fruitless hour searching for the ruins of a large pottery kiln in the southern Isen region, I stop a farmer for directions. Jumping into his truck, he tells me to follow him to the location, which is a good 5 kilometers into one of the most rural areas of the island. It was a measure of the kindness I would find all over Tokunoshima.
As it turned out, the kiln was a disappointment, the structure long gone. All that remained was a stone plinth commemorating the site. At least there was something to see at Cape Kanami to the north, where the map indicated a dense labyrinth of paths winding beneath giant cycads, a site known as the Sotetsu (sago palm) Tunnel. Even though the day was sunny, it was dark inside the tunnel.
Trumpeted as one of the main sights of the island, the pathways were badly managed, with dead fronds carpeting the ground and those that still clung to plants, ghostly, blanched of color. Taller visitors will spend a lot of time brushing away cobwebs from their faces.
Spiders are the least of your worries in such natural confines as tree tunnels. Tokunoshima, like most of the subtropical outer islands of this prefecture, boasts a healthy reptile population, including a number of poisonous serpents. Among these are the curiously named Oriental odd-tooth snake and the highly venomous, well-camouflaged habu viper. At least with the Hyan coral snake — another common species whose orange scales are patterned with black stripes — you’re less likely to accidentally step on it. Most of the vipers I saw were flattened and dried out on the roads, as if they had been steam-pressed with a tailor’s iron.
It was only a 10-minute ride from the sago palm tunnel to Mushiroze, a truly impressive sight. A muscular compression of smooth boulders, shaft-like rocks, stone plates and flagstones, it is easy to negotiate this formation, which is a little like a series of interlocking staircases, each offering a different route. Tokunoshima has some extraordinary beaches and stretches of coastline yet to be damaged by development.
At the southern extremity of the island, Cape Isen is another such place, a wild, stunningly beautiful, concave-shaped cliff-scape. A fine view of its green slopes, like the edge of a crater smothered in spinach, can be glimpsed from the well-appointed Inutabu Observatory.
Before I caught my ferry to a neighboring island in the Amami archipelago, I went back to the Metegu bullring for a last look, hoping to rekindle some of the excitement of that first night. The site was silent, the only sign of life was an old man with a twig brush, sweeping the sand pit. In my mind’s eye, the ring filled with heat and voices, dust circulated under batteries of electric light and I breathed in the sour smell of beasts goaded into combat.
What I had seen there went far beyond sport. The ring, it seemed to me, had been transformed into a sacred space, a stage for the conducting of social rituals of intense masculinity, linking island inhabitants in a collective experience of noise, color, fury and a little mayhem.