Shades of Greece on the Inland Sea

by Mandy Bartok

The windmill is the first thing I notice, its delicate white blades gleaming against the cloud- flecked sky. Nearby, a semi-circle of polished Doric-style columns occupies prime position overlooking the glassy sea. As a breeze blows gently through olive trees on the shady hillside, it’s easy to imagine I’ve landed on some idyllic Greek isle.

Instead, this is Shodoshima (Shodo Island), at just 152 sq. km, the second-largest (after Awajishima) of more than 800 islands in Japan’s Inland Sea, and the only one where commercial olive groves impart a taste of the Mediterranean.

Olives aren’t indigenous to Japan, making the pale-green-leafed trees a somewhat anomalous site spread across the island’s slopes. But Olive Park, an organic farm-cum-Greek theme park on Shodoshima’s southern slopes facing the island of Shikoku, does a fine job of allowing visitors to trace — and taste — the story of this bountiful tree and how it came to take root in this part of the world.

While the decor can be a bit kitsch — with its large murals of olives and grapes decorating the buildings’ interiors, and a statue of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry (equivalent to the Roman god Bacchus), greeting visitors to the gift shop — Olive Park is nevertheless one of Shodoshima’s most successful attractions.

Around the hillside complex, a day-spa tempts with olive-oil facials and baths ornamented with faux Greek columns, while plant-lovers can wander through an inviting herb garden and a restaurant awaits to treat diners to a wide range of olive-themed dishes.

For those who just want to soak up the peaceful atmosphere and long-distance views, though, there are numerous walking paths on the sprawling grounds.

I start in the main building, lured by the tables of free samples of olives and olive oil, and soon find myself drawn into an engrossing history lesson.

“Olives arrived on the island as a result of Japan’s love affair with seafood,” explains Tomoaki Kinoshita, a staffer at Olive Park’s museum, as he leads me around its small but well-prepared historical exhibit.

But rather than any unquenchable Japanese taste for tapenade, I learn that it was the annexation of Hokkaido in 1905, and the opening of its new and plentiful fishing grounds, that led to the importation of olive trees in the early 20th century. As sardines from the northern waters were soon being harvested and packaged in record numbers, factories began looking for ways to source olive oil — an excellent preservative for the salty fish — in their own backyard.

“Three places in Japan were selected as suitable for growing olives,” Kinoshita explains, proudly showing me dessicated cuttings of the grove’s first trees, which were gifts from the United States. Unfavorable conditions caused the failure of the plants in both Kagoshima Prefecture in southern Kyushu and Mie Prefecture on the Pacific coast of Honshu between Osaka and Nagoya. In contrast, the 519 trees planted on Shodoshima’s hillsides here in Kagawa Prefecture — though afflicted with blight and parasites for the first few decades — eventually began to thrive. Indeed, olives even briefly eclipsed soy sauce, somen (thin wheatflour noodles), chrysanthemums and building stone as the island’s prime earner.

Though the exodus of much of the island’s younger generation and primary workforce led to a fall in olive production, Kinoshita says he feels that with the emphasis on organic food now sweeping the globe, a resurgence of Japan’s olive business is just around the corner.

“We’re very mindful today of how the olives are grown and picked,” he says, stressing the park’s use of traditional methods and tools. “No insecticides are sprayed on the leaves and all of the actual harvesting is done by hand.”

The harvest, I learn, is a twofold process — the olives collected in September and October eventually make their way to customers as table snacks, while a later harvest lasting through December sources the island’s much-prized olive oil. I sample a little of the latter on a nearby table, first letting the golden liquid soak into my slice of bread. It’s delicious, though if I want it to feature in my future dinners, I had better stock up now, according to Kinoshita. The park’s products are only sold either on the island or by mail order (domestic delivery only).

Still savoring the oil’s rich taste, I step outside to wander among the celebrated trees, searching — at Kinoshita’s suggestion — for heart-shaped leaves that bring good luck. In the spring months, the hillsides are a carpet of white, as millions of olive blossoms gleam in the island sun. It’s the perfect tableau for a leisurely picnic . . . olive-themed, of course.

Shodoshima (which means Small Bean Island) is also known for its somen noodle production and soy sauce factory — though, as its old name of Azukishima makes clear, it’s not soybeans its name refers to, but fruits of the azuki vine. With all this gastronomy at every turn, I’d originally planned a food-focused theme to my explorations. However, as a slave to the limited local bus timetable, the only afternoon route took me south — away from the other edible attractions — and along one of the island’s many tiny peninsulas. At the end of a narrow byway, the bus reached journey’s end on a small spit of land where a picture-perfect community hugs the coast.

The houses have never been lived in and the paths are as polished as the day they were laid, but the story behind this small village is real enough.

The model community served as a set for “Nijushi no Hitomi” (“Twenty-four Eyes”), a 1954 film directed by Keisuke Kinoshita based on a story by Shodoshima native Sakae Tsuboi that chronicles the lives of a local teacher and her 12 students from 1928 through World War II and beyond. The poignant film, widely lauded for its messages of peace and healing in postwar Japan, remains to this day a fixture in Japan’s pantheon of classic movies.

Small exhibits detailing the life of Tsuboi and the story behind the making of the film are tucked into several of the period houses, while others act as the obligatory gift shops, bursting with old-fashioned toys, candies and others nostalgic items.

On the edge of the village sits the schoolhouse, just a few steps from the sandy beach. Inside, wooden desks crowd into the homey classroom, impeccably laid out in ordered rows. Prewar maps of Asia act as wallpaper on the back walls, while a dusty, decades-old movie camera stands at the ready. And through the windows, the aquamarine sea is visible — an ever-present part of life on Shodoshima.

As the public bus bounces back up the winding cliff road to meet the evening ferry, the sun begins its slow descent to the horizon, casting Shodoshima in the kind of soft warm glow usually reserved for an Aegean paradise. Greece may be thousands of miles away, but I’ve at least found a similar slice of heaven on my own doorstep.

Shodoshima is accessible via ferry from Osaka, Himeji, Okayama and Takamatsu. For an overview of ferry schedules and companies, visit www.town.shodoshima.lg.jp/en/ map a _access.html Local buses meet all incoming ferries; bus schedules are posted both on the ferries themselves and at the port. Buses run several times a day to Olive Park (open 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; admission to the museum and grounds is free) and the “Twenty-four Eyes” Movie Studio (“Nijushi no Hitomi” Eigamura; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m.).