Taking it easy on stroll-size Omi-jima

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

Mr. Hirohisa had made it clear when I called him from the nearest mainland city to the island — Nagato in western Honshu’s Yamaguchi Prefecture — that there would be no supper provided that night; nor would he be able to pick me up from the station as expected. He would be hosting a private barbeque party that evening, with all hands needed on deck.

Luckily, there was a small general store on Omi-jima Island. My eyes fell hungrily on tubs of cup noodles, cubes of Kraft cheese, fresh oranges and canned beer. I would conjure a royal repast that evening.

When I arrived at the hotel, preparations for the feast were already under way. A hammock, picturesquely facing the Sea of Japan, was slung between two phoenix palms. Though it was the perfect place for guests to take a nap, I never saw anyone using it during my entire stay.

The owner quickly checked me in, then resumed his tasks setting up for what looked like a large party of guests. One of their number later told me they came in carloads of five every week during the summer, one person in rotation abstaining from alcohol. It was a sensible arrangement.

As the evening wore on the merriment grew audible as the beer kicked in, but unlike the partying youth where I come from, no one felt the need to urinate on car roofs or tear their clothes off and plunge into the sea drunk as a newt.

Mr. Hirohisa’s blandly named Omi-jima Seaside Hotel was a mix of provincial inn, guesthouse and, just conceivably, hotel. Shoes were removed at the entrance; keys were not required for rooms. The long out-of-print guide I was carrying, Jay Gluck’s idiosyncratic but still very readable “Japan Inside Out,” praised the inn for its abundant seafood and spacious baths. Published in 1991, the telephone number that it gave had remained the same.

The ornamental paraphernalia found in the older kind of hostelries all over Japan was on exhibit in the lobby: polished tree stumps, eerie cases of stuffed pheasants and mongooses with eyes far too intense for life, a horse bridle, framed pictures of sea bream and (lest we forget) glass vitrines full of polished shells. Oh, and the reception desk was positively gorgeous, what with its large conch shell and an ashtray.

Nonetheless, what the hotel lacked in taste it made up for in space: the rooms large, corridors wide and a bath the size of a hot-spring pool — with expansive sea views.

And grubwise, whatever I’d lacked in dietary balance the night before was more than made up for during breakfast the next morning. Grilled fish, sashimi, miso soup, rice, pickles, a slice of melon and home-brewed coffee. Yellowtail and sea bream are local specialties; when in season, fugu (blowfish) is a delicacy. The skin is also dried and used to make fugu-chōchin lanterns.

The hotel was clearly a one-man operation. Affable and energetic, Mr. Hirohisa had been running the place for close to 40 years. Yojaku, his given name, was unusual and was spelt in hiragana on his business card to avoid confusing Japanese guests who would likely have been stumped by the kanji. He offered to drive and pick me up from anywhere on the island I cared to visit. I asked him to take me to Ohibi, a village on the western coast, telling him I would happily walk the 10 or so kilometers back, dropping in on sights along the way.

The well-swept compound of Saien-ji stood on a plinth above the village. A prosperous, well-supported temple, it boasts rare, blue-flowered lotuses blooming in its pond during high summer.

A little further west, in a more secluded location, the hermitage of Hosen-an is a Buddhist convent dating from the 1700s. A more secular-looking building than the temple, it is still home to a contingent of nuns who, living by strict commandments, are seldom seen.

Crossing the road, I came to the small but immaculately neat fishing village of Ohibi. More used to seeing quays in Japan congested with shambolic heaps of twisted nets, Styrofoam cases, rusty anchors, carelessly stowed hooks, plastic buckets and assorted sea wrack, the little harbor here was a model of order. This atypical civic pride seemed to be reflected in the village residences, with their fastidiously clean surfaces, neat gardens and roof-tile finials adorned with dolphin motifs. They were there as a superstition against fire — fooling the lightning gods into thinking the roofs are sheets of water.

The villagers of Ohibi were not exactly unfriendly, but neither were they embracing this stranger, conforming instead to the guarded mannerisms of these rather inbred communities.

Kayoi, a quiet settlement toward the eastern end of the island, was a major whaling village until the early 20th century. Fleets would herd schools of small migratory marine mammals into nets set out across the bay, then slaughter them.

Traces of this period are visible a little south of the village, where Hayakawa-ke, ancestral home of the head of the whaling fleet, is open to the public. Close by as well is Kogan-ji, a temple that contains ledgers listing the posthumous Buddhist names of whales caught during this period. A granite memorial, erected in 1692 by Sansei, a priest serving there, is dedicated to the unborn fetuses of more than 70 female whales speared to death in the bay.

I didn’t come across a large number of residents on these walks, despite the relatively large proportions of the island. After Ogi and Sado islands, Omi-jima is the third-largest in the Sea of Japan, though its population is under 4,000.

Returning across the island in a lateral direction, it was a walk of 4 or 5 km along an almost deserted road to the trailhead for Shizuga-ura, a 2-km nature trail that snakes above steep cliffs affording superb views of the Sea of Japan. Here, the cragged rocks, clefts, arches, blowholes and caves scooped out by the salt water — oft times the subject of traditional Japanese landscape screen and ink-wash painters — spring to life. Pine trees grow on the edge of cliffs that look friable, about to crumble into the green waters. It’s all very picturesque, but to actually step into these living canvasses, into the framed compositions of master artists, is an extraordinary sensation.

I would later see the cliffs from a tour boat. Cruises around the island provide a reverse view of the cliffs, one well worth beholding. Some of the boats take a circular route around the entire coast. This is just as well as there were no access roads to much of the island’s geologically splendid northern litorals.

Boats depart from the port of Senzaki, back on the mainland, passing under Omi-jima Bridge, then following a clockwise route around the island. The first stretch of coast is actually a narrow spit of land called Nami no Hashidate, meaning “Bridge over Waves.” This separates the fresh waters of Lake Omi from the sea, and is a good introduction to the rugged 16-km coast.

The boats have the advantage of getting close to the shoreline, passing through rock arches, entering into watery caves and seeing the curious striations left on the cliffs. One of these, known as the “snake mural,” does indeed resemble a serpent, writhing in a coppery-brown skin. Another formation, two facing stones, have been named “male” and “female” rocks.

Given such prototypical landscapes and seascapes, there were surprisingly few hikers on the walking trail. Hearing voices below the cliffs, I stepped down into a cove, finding several groups of divers suiting up on a very decent beach. It was easy to see why such waters, as translucent as green stained glass, would attract such folk.

Somewhere along this route there was supposed to be a huge hatchery breeding more than 500,000 sea bream every year, but I never saw that. Stepping out of this horizontal scroll, I intended to walk back to the hotel along the leeward side of the island. My hike was, however, delayed when, on the way out of the parking lot for the trail, I noticed an attendant’s booth decorated with theatrical images, posters and magazine cutouts.

The car park attendant, Mr. Matsumoto, had spent years working as a taishugeinin, an all-round performer in a troupe that had toured the country, even staging its old-style music hall turns in Korea.

He hadn’t quite given up on entertainment, treating me, and anyone else who showed an interest, to a quick turn on a trumpet and spinning top. Then, before I left, he mounted his bicycle and rode it around the car park — facing backward. Working as a car park attendant after a life of circus and vaudeville tricks was clearly not enough to satisfy a man once known as a master of the short sketch.

San’in Line local trains run to Nagato, between Shimonoseki to the south and Hagi to the east — all in Yamaguchi Prefecture. From Nagato, buses and taxis cross over a long suspension bridge to Omi-jima. Buses cover the east side of the island, but only run once an hour.