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The Majestic Fukugi Trees of Bise in Okinawa

Tall, stately rows of fukugi trees line the rustic streets of Bise, a tiny hamlet in the Motobu peninsula, Okinawa.

Just a short drive from the famed Ocean Expo Park and ChuraUmi Aquarium in Okinawa is the hamlet of Bise (pronounced ‘BEE-say’), known for its picturesque streets planted with rows upon rows of fukugi trees, know colloquially in English as the ‘happiness tree.’ Walking the tranquil streets of the sleepy coastal hamlet, one can almost get the sense of stepping outside of time. Thought not promoted as one of the Okinawan “power spots,” the neighborhood rightly lays claim to the kind of idyllic charm for which the Ryukyu Islands are famous.

History of Fukugi Trees in Okinawa

The fukugi trees, the rows of which used to be a common feature of Okinawan villages, were planted as windbreaks to help protect against the fierce winds that routinely batter island during typhoon season. Growing up to 20m (60+ feet) in height and with straight, almost uniformly round trunks, the trees, when planted close together resemble wooden posts in the walls of a tall fortress. With extremely compact crowns that enable them to be planted in tight rows, their deep root structure helps them to resist being blown over and their dense composition prevents them from breaking. Resistant to high salinity and able to grow in sandy, nutrient-poor ground, they are the perfect tree for blocking strong coastal winds.

However, taming Okinawa’s powerful winds is only one purpose that has been served by this humble yet impressive tree since its introduction to Okinawa from Southeast Asia (some say the Philippines, some say China) hundreds of years ago during the golden era of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Its thin bark also produces a potent yellow dye and its tiny fruit (also yellow) have a long history of use in Asian folk medicine. 

Casualties of War

Fukugi trees, though relatively slow growing, can live as long as 300 years and there are trees in Bise approaching that age. Think about that for a moment. When you stroll through the streets of Bise, you are walking in the presence of trees, some of which were planted in the mid 1700s. Of course, most of the trees that line the quaint alley ways were planted much later, well after World War II. Many of the trees that stood before that area were felled for lumber during and after the Battle of Okinawa and some reports say that numerous fukugi trees were destroyed during bombing in the battle.

Offerings to the Gods

It’s hard to imagine that such a peaceful little hamlet was embroiled in such a brutal war, and it’s sad that so many of the majestic trees were harmed in the bombing. But what makes the trees of Bise so special is not only the trees themselves (which can also be found in other places not far away, like the hamlet of Imadomari, close to Nakijin Castle), but the almost invisible history right in front of your feet. Buried amid the rows of trees are historical gems such as stone survey markers used to delineate the edges of the allotments on which people could build their houses. Note the shells left on the stone. Okinawans leave shells in important places, such as the walls of their homes, as a gesture to the gods asking for protection from the elements (and the various supernatural entities that, according to their animistic religion, inhabit the area).

An old survey marker with shells that once held offerings.

In addition to relics of the past are more commonly known Okinawan cultural icons, such as shisa lions. These statues, which are ubiquitous in Okinawa, guard the entrances to Okinawan homes all over the island. However, the fact that they are literally everywhere hardly matters. They seem take on a whole different significance in a place like Bise.

Are the fruits of fukugi trees edible?

Many people will be surprised to find out that fukugi fruit, which ripens in late summer in after a flowering season in June, is edible by humans. At least one Okinawan blogger has written about her experiences harvesting the fruit and preparing fukugi jam to eat. Her feeling was that it wasn’t the best jam she’s ever tasted, but she reported no ill effects from it. Other bloggers around the world have written of their experiences as well, although it pays to be cautious applying what you read about trees in other regions, since there are many close relatives of the fukugi tree (at least 300, possibly up to 400, but the matter seems debatable) and it’s not always clear that the author is talking about the same species of tree (garcenia subellipitca) commonly found in Okinawa.

Immature fruit on a fukugi tree

The fruits contain two or three large seeds and once they are removed, there isn’t much fruit left to cook. Fukugi fruits look like kaki (persimmon), but smaller, and the taste is very different. Some say kaki fruit tastes like durian (which is to say not all that good), and it can give off noxious odors when it ripens, so don’t leave the ripening fruits in your house. On the plus side, fukugi fruit is scientifically proven to posses potent antioxidant and antibacterial properties. On the down side, most people will probably need to add lots of sugar before they’ll find it palatable, so it it might not be all that healthy by the time it ends up on a plate. People with juicers might find fukugi fruit an interesting addition to a medley of other ingredient, but given how little flesh is left after the seeds and pulp (Japanese call it ‘wata’) are gone, so it may be that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.

Real Homes with Real People

It’s tempting to think of Bise as a tourist attraction because it is so popular with visitors to the island. However, it’s important to remember that Bise is a residential neighborhood and that people really do live there. In fact, there are more than 200 homes in the little hamlet. That’s why it’s important to keep track of what is public property and what is private and, as best a possible to stay on the roads, remain off of driveways and refrain from crossing people’s yards. I mention this because it is not always obvious what is and isn’t private property. You are more than welcome to take photos of the houses and yards, but be sure to get permission before photographing an identifiable person.

A rusic Okinawan home in Bise

Tips for Visiting Bise

Bise is the only place on the Okinawan main island where you can get a ride in an ox cart, so if the wait isn’t too long (sometimes it is), you might as well avail yourself. Rides cost about ¥2,000 for four people. Extra fees apply for more people and there is a maximum, so maybe this isn’t a great choice for particularly large groups.

While Bise is a world-famous destination and without doubt a must-visit spot in Okinawa, it’s not thought of as a go-to place for committed foodies. There are a number of tiny cafes in the back streets, but their hours are not always convenient and they are often sold out. There are some restaurants near the parking areas which seem pretty good, but don’t go there expecting a lot of variety, and, as in all locales popular with tourists, they can be pricey. If you’re going north for the day and you want to eat the best food Okinawa has to offer, you’re better to have lunch at a place like Avocafe. It’s not exactly next door, but it’s worth the drive if you’re in the region. Or, since you’ll likely be passing through Nago, you could try Niceness Vegan Cafe. They provide such a great meal that the cafe is popular even with non-vegans. 

You might even hit up Nakijin Castle, since it’s not far. This is a particularly good thing to do in late January or early February, when the cherry blossoms are at their peak and the castle puts on its famous blossom festival (just be sure to check that the blossoms are in full bloom before you make the trip).

A trip to Bise also combines well with a visit to ChuraUmi Aquarium, since it’s so close. If you want to stay the night, you can rent a camping space for about ¥2,000. The camping area is at the far end of the hamlet. It’s right on a beach where you can go swimming or snorkeling, there is parking there and there, and there is even a little tuck shop operated by one of the locals. If you go, leave about three hours to allow yourself time to amble around the back streets, stroll along the beach, and take photos of all the beautiful fukugi trees. Oh, and don’t forget mosquito repellent. In summer, the bugs are quite active.

The beach features a view of Ie Island.

As magical as the experience of being there has been for me every time I’ve gone, I can’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia for an aspect of Okinawa that has been lost to time. Villages like Bise with tall, majestic rows of fukugi trees, once lined the coasts all the way from Itoman to Okuma. The trees give so much character to the hamlet of Bise that I find myself wishing that more villages would adopt the practice of planting more of these beautiful trees. But I don’t suspect we’ll see a lot of towns emulating Bise in the foreseeable future. That’s sad, but it makes the streets of Bise that much more of a treasure.

Bise, Okinawa

Motobu, Kunigami District, Okinawa 905-0207
Motobu Village Website

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