Isles of imperial exile where nature is king

The historic Oki Islands present an unsolved botanical riddle

by Winifred Bird

Special To The Japan Times

Geology buffs take note. “By understanding the Oki Islands, you can understand how the Japanese archipelago was formed.”

These bold words come from Kazuhiro Nobe, chief of cultural revitalization at Oki’s Board of Education — who is also the man behind a current push to turn the islands in the Sea of Japan into a UNESCO Geopark in view of their fascinating biology, geology and culture.

Oh, and if understanding how Japan came into being isn’t enough, here are a few other things you can expect to encounter on a visit to the cluster of islands lying some three hours off the coast of Shimane Prefecture: one-stop-access to plants found from Hokkaido to Okinawa; bullfights minus the flight to Spain; and a peek into the center of the Earth.

Before Nobe began his Geopark campaign, the Oki Islands — comprising 19-km-wide, nearly circular Dogo, three smaller islands in a group named Dozen, and 176 tiny satellites — were better known as the place where Emperors Go-Toba (1180-1239) and Go-Daigo (1288-1339) were exiled due to political maneuverings at court.

According to Nobe, rival factions wanted to dispose of the emperors, but “in those days, the most dreaded thing was a curse from the gods. If they killed the rival emperor outright, an earthquake or plague might strike the capital.”

So the emperors and 20 or 30 of their closest friends were packed into boats and pushed out to sea on a current that would carry them to the Oki Islands — a remote yet hospitable location with plenty of fish and rice. Go-Toba lived out the remainder of his life on Dogo. Go-Daigo, on the other hand, escaped to the mainland after just two years and retook the throne, later setting up a new center of power in Yoshino. Tourists can still visit the site of the so-called Kurogi Palace, where Go-Daigo spent a year (kurogi, or “black wood,” refers to the rough local wood the emperor had to settle for in his island home; high-quality peeled cedar and cypress was called shiragi, or “white wood”).

By the time the emperors showed up, archaeologists believe the Oki Islands had already been inhabited for 30,000 years or so. The evidence lies in Oki obsidian. Razor-sharp arrows carved from the Okis’ black rock have been found in ancient tombs from Russia to Korea; scholars speculate that the islands’ prehistoric inhabitants likely thrived as traders of the prized material formed during undersea volcanic eruptions that created the islands.

By studying other rocks and fossils found on the islands, scientists have also been able to confirm what was going on geologically in the area when the islands where still submerged. A 20-million-year-old alligator tooth uncovered on the coast of Dogo last year illustrates how, before Japan fully separated from the Asian mainland, a lake or river full of alligators and other freshwater creatures existed in place of the present-day Sea of Japan.

Nearby, diatomaceous earth — which forms as algae accumulates and is fossilized on the ocean floor — is evidence of the transition from lake to sea as Japan broke fully away from the mainland.

Meanwhile, chunks of hardened lava littering a beach offer an unusual glimpse of the material that makes up the Earth’s inner layers — leftovers from which locals once built walls.

Modern-day prospectors favor yet another kind of Oki rock: the very hard Oki gneiss, ideal for building foundations and grinding into cement. Two mountains on Dogo have been eviscerated in the name of extracting gneiss, much of which ends up propping up seaside nuclear power plants.

Mines, dams, plantation forests and massive retaining walls aside, however, Oki retains a good deal of native fauna and flora.

Koji Yawata, a local eco-tour guide, obsidian carver and insect enthusiast, says the unusual distribution of plants on the islands poses a riddle that botanists have yet to solve. For instance, maples and oaks usually found only high in the mountains are present on the Dogo coast alongside camellias, a seaside standard. “It’s unheard of. These species are absolutely not found at low elevations,” Yawata said.

Similarly strange are some plant combinations found on the islands, such as Okinawan orchids growing from the trunks of fir trees, as well as numerous endemic species found nowhere else in the world, including the critically endangered Oki salamander.

Says Nobe, “These aren’t flashy islands. But they’re very popular with a certain set of specialists.”

Indeed, those with a less-than-passionate interest in plants, rocks or ancient Japanese history may find the Oki Islands disappointing. But then there are the famous village bullfights to keep one and all entertained. In this brutal, 800-year-old tradition that’s said to have originated as a diversion for the exiled emperors, two massive animals are goaded to lock horns in battle (the winner enjoys the privilege of being tied to the central post of its owner’s house; the winner’s owners enjoy a raucous drinking party).

Manga lovers might also want to leave time for a walk around Sakaiminato, home to Shigeru Mizuki, creator of the wildly popular “GeGeGe no Kitaro” series. Bronze statues based on his bizarre characters (360-year-old rat-men, demonic shellfish, walking plaster walls) line the streets, and GeGeGe souvenirs abound.

Despite its charms, however, Oki has been losing population for years. Nightlife is nonexistent, restaurants scant, and even the main town of Saigo has an aura of lonely dilapidation. Checking in to a minshuku (family-run guest house), where meals are served, is probably the safest bet for travelers; rooms go for a standard rate of ¥4,200 per person, and about double that with two hearty meals.

Ferries run once or twice a day from Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, and Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture. If you’re traveling second class (about ¥3,000 each way), arrive early to stake out a corner of the open seating platform; the boats can be crowded, especially on weekends.

Once on the islands, rental cars and taxis are available. However, getting around can be difficult and costly for those who don’t drive (or speak Japanese). The very fit might try bringing their own mountain bike in summer; cars can be brought over by ferry as well.

For help booking hotels, arranging transportation and planning an itinerary, contact the Oki Tourism Association at (08512) 2-1577 or the town hall at (08512) 2-2111. And go soon — before the Geopark crowds arrive.