Star Sand

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Star Sand

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In Okinawa, the cluster of sub-tropical islands that makes up the southernmost group of the Japanese archipelago, souvenirs tend to revolve mainly around pineapple and hibiscus. One slightly odd exception, however, stands out. Every omiyage store seems to have a basket full of tiny bottles, a bargain at ¥100, each containing a teaspoonful of pale and spiky ‘stars’.

Not much more than a millimetre across, these are technically grains of sand, but actually the skeletal remains of a type of marine protozoa called foraminifera, which lives on sea algae in warm and shallow waters. In Okinawa they are found on many beaches, especially after bad weather has stirred up the sea bed, although often you have to search for them amongst the regular sand. One of the best places to try is apparently Hoshizuna no Hama or Star Sand Beach, which is on Iriomote island.

Although there is fossil evidence to suggest that sand stars have lived in these waters for more than 500 million years, the locals have a sweeter story. Legend has it they are the skeletons of the children of the Southern Cross and the North Star, who were born in the sea off Okinawa but murdered by an evil sea snake.

My bottle is a slightly fancier version which also contains a pearl and chips of what is supposed to be my birthstone. It was a last minute purchase with the remains of my yen at Naha airport, and – reminding me of a great weekend escape – is currently serving as a phone charm.


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