Before he left Japan after several years spent in Hiroshima, the multi-award-winning English novelist David Mitchell advised me: “If you only make one trip while you are here, make sure it’s to the Oki Islands.” They were, he assured me (in not quite so many words), little patches of ye olde Nihon as yet untainted by pachinko, high-rise apartments or junk-food joints: perfect antidotes to big-city stress.
He wasn’t kidding. A mere three-hour ferry ride across the Sea of Japan separates the Oki Islands from the coast of western Honshu, but it’s as if you voyage through three centuries getting there. As my wife Angeles noted, with only the slightest hint of Spanish exaggeration: “If it wasn’t for the roads, this place would be all forest.”
A couple of hours after our boat cast off from Matsue, in Shimane Prefecture, we espied the first islands — black volcanic humps like debris from some cosmic collision. Soon the ferry was weaving through a veritable maze of these extrusions, some just bare rocky outcrops, others large and rugged and dark with pine trees.
There are some 180 islands in the Oki chain, none of them very big and only four that are inhabited. Our destination was the second largest: Nishinoshima (pop. 3,900).
The kind folks at Matsue Tourist Office had phoned ahead to book us a room in a minshuku (guesthouse), and our landlady was waiting for us on the quayside, smiling and waving a flag. We were easy to spot, being the only non-Japanese on board.
Our minshuku was just across the street from the ferry terminal. On the wall outside, my name had been written in chalk on a slate. Not a good hideaway for fugitives. In our room, a pot of freshly-made green tea and some adzuki-bean pastries awaited us on a low table — the only furniture in the room besides a television.
Nishinoshima boasts several must-sees, and our first priority was a boat tour of the island’s spectacular Kuniga coastline: a 7-km stretch of wave-eroded basalt cliffs, including the perpendicular Mantengai. At 257 meters, it’s Japan’s tallest cliff.
The small launch, carrying us and two other couples, motored past dreamlike rock formations with names such as Palace of the Dragon King and Bridge to Heaven. Then, quite suddenly, our boat performed a right-angle turn such that we were heading straight for the red and black cliffs.
“We are about to enter the Cavern of Light and Dark,” our captain announced. Part of me hoped he was joking as I spotted an alarmingly narrow fissure he appeared to be steering us straight toward. But on we went, though slowing to a put-put crawl as we inched into the darkness.
Any time now, I thought, we’re going to hear an awful wrenching as the boat’s hull is ripped open from below or on the jagged walls that were now no more than a finger’s breadth away on either side.
On top of that, our jolly tar’s prank of turning the lights off so we could “appreciate” the total darkness did little to assuage my fears. Happily, after a few eerie moments, a crack of light appeared up ahead and we emerged safely into sunshine and open sea again.
Once we were back on dry land, a voice emanated from a loudspeaker at the Town Hall reminding everyone within earshot that it was 6 o’clock, and urging all young children to go home. With appetites invigorated by the sea air, we did the same.
Our landlady called us down to dinner soon after we’d got back, and we sat on the tatami floor at a long low table with the only other guest, an engineer over from the mainland. The colorful fare mainly comprised superfresh seafood, including lots of sashimi ika (squid), hirogi (a kind of scallop with bright purple or orange shells) and sazae (turbo sea snails), as well as a whole tai (sea bream) accompanied by local vegetables such as burdock and lotus roots.
The next day, exploring the small town, we were intrigued by the ubiquitous sight of what looked like white socks spinning round on small motorized clothes-driers. Closer inspection revealed that the “socks” were squid torsos, gutted and impeccably cleaned. Squid are a major concern in the Oki Islands, where fishing and tourism are about the only money-spinners. Then later, at the end of one tiny inlet, we stumbled across small but beautiful Yurahime Shrine, dedicated to the guardian deity of the sea and said to have been founded in 842. And as if they sense its spirituality, sometimes in winter so many little cephalopods throng the adjacent Ikayosenohama (Squid-calling Harbor) that, the priest assured us, you can catch them with your hands.
However, our main challenge that day was to find mysterious Takuhi (Burning Fire) Shrine, hidden away near the island’s highest point. The helpful lady at the little tourist office recommended us to hop a bus as far as it went, then booked us a taxi to take us from the bus stop to the foot of the mountain.
The countryside was delightful: Narrow roads wound round soft green hillsides dotted with mossy shrines and cattle with oddly twisted horns grazed on the slopes while black butterflies the size of bats flopped around like lovesick fedoras.
When the asphalt ran out and a steep overgrown path began, the taxi driver stopped. He instructed us to help ourselves to a stout stick from a box by the path.
“Walking sticks?” I asked.
“To ward off snakes,” he explained, gesturing that we should beat the undergrowth as we walked.
The constant chirping of cicadas revved up to an intimidating roar as we beat our way up the narrow path through thick dank vegetation. But the tree cover gave us welcome shelter from the sun’s midday ferocity. Occasional clearings offered stunning views of the shimmering golden sea, with mist-shrouded islands stretching away like a dragon’s tail.
Fortunately, the mountain’s summit is at a none-too-lofty 450 meters, and before long we were confronted by a magnificent 800-year-old cedar that stands before the shrine up there — a building every bit as impressive as we’d been promised. Built out from a huge cave in the mountainside in the mid-Heian Period (794-1185), so that it’s half inside it and half in the open, the astounding structure looks as if its builders just gave up and left it there.
Like Yurahime, Takuhi is dedicated to the sea-guardian deity. In olden times, islanders used to light a beacon outside it to guide boats into the bay in bad weather — hence it’s called either the Burning Fire or Torch shrine. Hiroshige made a woodcut print of the scene, and boats still sound their horns when they come in sight of this shrine.
Before leaving Nishinoshima, we returned to the Kuniga cliffs, this time to see them from above. A regular bus service took us from the port to the wide-open spaces of the clifftops, with their delicious breezes and lush pastures. Up there, it felt a world away from the humid claustrophobia of Takuhi’s snake-and-mozzie kingdom. The cliff-top trail has been voted one of Japan’s Best 100 Hikes.
Cows and horses rule these heights. They love to prove the point by resolutely dozing in the middle of the road, holding up traffic as if in sit-down protest. Atop the cliffs in blissful satori, we watched entranced as wraithlike wisps of mist streamed over the rocky coves below.
For our fourth and final day, we took a short ferry ride over to Nakanoshima, more commonly known as Ama, where we arrived at midday to find the town buzzing in anticipation of the evening’s matsuri (festival). The cool of evening brought a colorful parade, spurred on by mighty taiko drums and the consumption of much beer and sake — along with lashings of scrumptious festival food: takoyaki (octopus balls), baked sweet potatoes, dumplings, taiyaki (fish-shaped buns) and, of course, heaps of skewered roast squid. After a few days communing with the mountain gods, it was a cheery welcome back to the world.
Following a stellar fireworks display, launched from a floating platform out in the bay, a free bus was laid on to take everyone home. We were debouched in the middle of nowhere in utter darkness, but the jolly island ladies who packed the bus assured us that our minshuku, booked for us by the tourist office in Ama port, was just a few yards down the road. They were right.
Next morning we awoke early and strolled round Oki Shrine, which was handily just across the road. The priest arrived in his white tunic and baggy purple pants and told us the story of how the emperors Go-Toba (1180-1239) and Go-Daigo (1288-1339) were banished to these islands. I suppose exile is always a bit ignominious, especially when you’ve been brought up as a demigod. But, gazing around at the forested hillsides glistening in the soft morning sunshine, I couldn’t help feeling that, as banishings go, this really wouldn’t have been such a terrible punishment.
Ferries to the Oki Islands leave from Matsue and Shichirui in Shimane Prefecture and Yonago and Sakaiminato in Tottori Prefecture. There are daily JAL flights from Osaka Itami Airport to the largest island, Dogo.