The Ice Cream Man: A Tale of Kindness in Japan

Kumejima. You probably haven't heard of it. I'm not saying that to sound cool or well travelled but because it's pretty much unknown to the majority of the world. Located off the coast of Okinawa, it's claim to fame (if you can call it that) is a bout of ancient seismic activity that left a string of strange, lava-cooled stones around the island. Beyond that, like many places in the world, nothing terribly noteworthy has happened there. And by no means is that a bad thing. Kumejima is just a place where regular people live regular lives, ignored by annals of history. More often than not, those are my favourite places to visit because the onus is on you to discover the charm and beauty of the place. The information isn't handed out in guidebooks or reviewed on travel blogs; it is there, in the moment, where you must discover the character of a destination. In that regard, Kume was no exception.

Backpacking Kumejima. Visit Kumejima. Hiking Kumejima.

We left Okinawa on a hulking, aged ferry. Our rusted vessel ploughed through the waves for a few hours, the constant churning and dropping leaving me queasy. Out here the dreadnaught swells were towering and indifferent, continuous in their passive dominance. With no land in sight I felt vulnerable, that on a whim the unrelenting fathoms would swallow us whole. We were but a speck of potential flotsam, a vessel of crossed fingers.

By Poseidon's grace we arrived on land, my legs taking their time to adjust to their newfound stability. Lingering nausea kept me company as we took in the lay of the land. Already it was clear that this was a different sort of Japan. Sparsely populated, only a few thousand people called the sub-tropical island home. Having grown up in small-town Canada I felt comfortable in the rural landscape. It was simple, unpolished. It was also decidedly not white. With only half a handful of caucasian visitors at a time, Kumejima offered an interesting cultural role reversal. Here I was the minority. I stood out, my foreign privilege a visible shade of off-white. Growing up in a predominantly white town and having gone to a predominantly white university this was a new experience – and a profound one. Privilege can be a subtle, invasive entity. It takes a lot of conscious effort to break though the filters and bias it imbues. It requires being critical of your own views and of the framework of your experience. In that regard, I've found travel – a privileged act in itself – to be a helpful tool and my visit to Kumejima was, at the very least, an illuminating cultural milestone

As my stomach settled we meandered up the coast with no real plans nor direction, nor even a map of the little isle to guide us. The island itself was lined by sandy beaches, and where there weren't beaches there were lush sugar plantations as far as the eye could see. Most of the work – if not all of it – was done by hand, old school farm work that breaks backs in the most literal of ways. It stood in stark contrast to the visage of a hyper-modern Japan, a far cry from the sleepless streets of luminous Tokyo. Even when compared to the relatively tedious farm work I did back in Canada, this was something else entirely. Every so often we would pause on the beach to watch the farmers work. One would hack away at the sugar stalks as someone else collected the fallen canes and bundled them into piles. Even in the humid sub-tropical heat they worked in long-sleeve shirts, bandanas fastened around their necks to battle both the heat and the pooling sweat. Wide-brimmed conical hats were the norm, wrapped fastidiously around their heads as protection from the worst of the dog day heat. By no means did it seem to be a particularly easy job, but honest work rarely was. I suppose back breaking labour is, perhaps, a reasonable price to pay for paradise. Then again, I wasn't the one struggling out in the fields.

After standing distant witness to the laborious task we continued our clueless exploration, trudging up the beach simply because we could. We trekked further down the coast for a few hours until, rather surprisingly, we discovered we had walked the length of the island. We arrived at what was either a small hotel or an apartment building...or possibly both? The unattractive concrete building was a rather drab addition to the vibrant landscape but it enabled us to maneuver away from the beach and onto our first road. For better or worse, roads inherently require you to make a choice: which direction will you go? We had nowhere in specific to go, no particular destination to arrive at. With us was a tent and enough food to last us a few days, all we needed was somewhere to camp. Tentatively paralyzed by indecision, we were at a loss. That is, until we met our would-be guide.

A middle-aged Japanese man approached us in his van, rolling to a stop as we stood adrift on the curb. This is precisely the kind of situation one usually tries to avoid when alone in a foreign place. The semi-tinted windows and the dozen rusted-out dents were far from reassuring, but we held our ground. After all, I had a bigger knife, this time – a lesson learned from Costa Rica. It wouldn't be long, however, before I found out he had an even bigger one.

Leaning out the window, the potential murderer asked us where we were going. His choppy english was only slightly better than my abysmal Japanese, so it was understandable when he didn't comprehend my reply of, “I don't know.” There was hardly a moment's pause before launched open the door and told us to get in. Admittedly, there was a slightly longer pause before we did.

As it turned out, the bespectacled man was an ice cream salesman. We would have appreciated this fact ever more so if it weren't for the fact that we were vegans, but it seemed oddly fitting nevertheless. After piling onto the worn and sun-faded back seat the sliding door was slammed behind us. The engine kicked to life and our new-found chauffeur started rolling down the semi-paved road. Not knowing what he was doing nor where we was going we couldn't really protest. With a shrug and a smile we buckled our seat belts and readied ourselves for an off-the-cuff adventure. So much for not getting into vans with strangers who offer you candy!

We headed inland toward the rolling hills that rose up beyond the beach. Lining the winding road were rows of Japanese cherry trees, their knotted branches reaching out to cast frail shadows over the pavement. The delicate petals caught the sun and shone a cascading pink light throughout the dishevelled and run-down van. In the slight gusts of wind the flowers would tumble free, the road littered with windblown petals, soft under our bare feet. We were standing in a graveyard of rarefied grace. Sacred ground, inevitable. We worked to capture the fleeting beauty, the life and death, with a few photos, accepting that those photos would never truly capture their transitory elegance.  

Hiking in Kumejima. backpacking Kumejima. Visit Kumejima.

From there we drove to one of the many sugar plantations that called Kumejima home. Our guide chatted up a farmer who was working by the road, no doubt explaining that he caught two clueless gaijin and was giving us the unofficial tour.1 After shooting the shit he meandered back toward the van where we were sitting, still not quite sure what was happening. Pulling open the side door, his thick hands reached under my seat and pulled out a kama – a small, sharp sickle. I froze, momentarily tense. The bitter taste of fight or flight crawled up my throat like reverse vomit. In North America, when you are in a stranger's van and he pulls a weapon on you, you're fucked. That isn't the case in Japan, however.

Smiling, no doubt clueless to the terror he had instilled, our guide marched back over to the farm, climbed over a fence, and bent down to cut a few stalks of sugar. Handing each of us an oozing chuck, he gestured that we should give them a try. Grabbing a foot-long cane, I gave it a chew. It was warm and sweet, but tough and fibrous. I chomped the stalk to bits while we continued down the narrow road, slurping every drop from the syrupy stalk. Liquid gold.

Eventually we came to a tiny cafe where we once again stopped. Our guide, going above and beyond our wildest expectations, bought us each a coffee. We sat in the quaint little shop while he talked up the server, leaving us to our own conversation which predominately focused on just how wonderful this person was. Now, I must confess that I hate coffee. It's a gross acquired taste that I have never bothered to waste my time or money acquiring. Out of sheer respect and appreciation for his assistance, however, I downed that black cup of Japanese joe. That kind of charity and goodwill is something I have experienced quite a bit on the road – perhaps even more so than when at home. And I am not the only traveller who has experienced it. There is something about helping a stranger that resonates with people from all walks of life, and has led to some wonderfully serendipitous moments...and you don't get much more serendipitous than a guided tour by an ice-cream salesman on a backwater island in Japan. I'll drink a gross coffee to that any day of the week.

Our final stop was a camp ground where we said farewell to our impromptu guide. I will never see that man again – I never even got his name – and yet here I sit many a year later still reflecting on his profound kindness. I've done my best to pay it forward, and I will certainly continue to do so because it's these simple joys and kind gestures that make a place noteworthy, regardless of what relics lay amongst the history.  

Hiking in Kumejima. Visit Kumejima. Backpacking Kumejima.