Tsushima: a boundary island of Japan

by Alon Adika

Special To The Japan Times

If you want to get to Tsushima, an island in Nagasaki Prefecture, by ferry, you will have to start in Fukuoka — or a quicker option would be to start your journey in Busan, South Korea. The jet foil from Busan zips passengers across the nearly 50 km separating it from Tsushima in little over an hour. Compare this with the 138 km and the more than two hours you will need if you start in Fukuoka.

One early morning in late July, I found myself at the Busan International Ferry Terminal chewing on a sample of seaweed chocolate from the small duty-free shop. I had first learned about Tsushima from the history books as the island had played an important role in Japan-Korea relations. Later in life, I met a resident of the island who rekindled my interest in it. I had promised myself that I would someday visit Tsushima, and I was finally going to make good on that promise.

The sealed windows and the whir of the engines made the experience feel more akin to an airplane flight than a boat ride. In no time I saw the mountainous outline of Tsushima in the distance and recalled “The Records of the Three Kingdoms,” a third-century Chinese text that described the island as having steep mountains and deep forests. In fact, 89 percent of the island is still heavily forested and it abounds with mountains and hills.

As I disembarked at the port of Hitakatsu, I stuck out among the Korean tourists and the few Japanese residents and attracted the attention of an immigration official, a customs official and a policeman. By the time I got out, all the Koreans had already departed on their tour buses and I was left in the lonely building to figure out where to go next.

My plan was to make my way down to Izuhara in the southern part of the island with some stops on the way to see the sights. According to the bus schedule posted on the wall, I had nearly three hours before the next bus, one of only four daily buses going south, so I decided to go the beach.

The woman at the tourist-information office handed me a colorful map, albeit one in Korean. I asked for a Japanese or English version, but was told that it was the only one available — a testament to the ethnic makeup of most of the tourists who arrive at Hitakatsu.

As I arrived at Miuda Beach, I heard the sounds of splashing water and children’s laughter. The emerald-green water, so clear you could see to the bottom, shimmered in the sunlight. A large rock with a lone pine perched on top rose out of the water like a miniature islet a short way from the beach. It is no wonder that the beach is considered one of the most scenic spots on the island.

Later at the bus station, I chatted with 82-year-old Mr. Shirae. I learned that he had been born on the island and had lived there for most of his life, except for a time during World War II when he had worked near Nagasaki City and experienced the atomic bombing. In response to my query about the must-see sights on the island, he suggested that I not miss Aso Bay, which was exactly where I was headed.

I was the only passenger to get off at the Nii bus stop. After walking for half an hour, I reached Watatsumi Shrine at the foot of Mount Eboshi with its five torii gates — two of them in the water as if floating — leading to the main shrine. A sign explained that it was an ocean shrine and was connected to a legend about an ancient dragon god. I was curious about the legend, but there was no one around to ask, so I continued following the road leading up to the mountain.

The vista that opened up in front of me at the top was an example of nature’s pristine splendor. The blue waters of the bay, peppered with small islands, are surrounded by green mountains and hills. From my perch up on the observation deck, I tried to imagine the fleet of 227 Korean ships sailing into the bay on their punitive mission to destroy the many pirate bases on the island in 1419.

This was not the first time the island had been invaded: Tsushima was twice devastated by the 13th-century Mongol invasions of Japan. It was also not the last time the echoes of war were heard in these parts. In 1905, a decisive battle of the Russo-Japanese War was fought in the Tsushima Strait in which Japan devastated the Russian Baltic Fleet leading to its victory over the Russian giant.

The sun was low in the sky as the bus rolled into Izuhara. I saw some girls strolling in colorful yukata, traditional summer clothing often worn at festivals. I wondered if it was a festival day, so I consulted one of the tourist pamphlets and was overjoyed to discover that it was the day of the annual Jizo Bon Festival.

However, before I could go and enjoy the festival I had to find accommodation for the night. I took out a list I had prepared beforehand and dialed one of the numbers. Luckily the first place I called, a small inn called Kirakuna Yado, had a room available for the reasonable price of ¥3,500. At the inn, I asked Mrs. Moromatsu, the proprietor, about the festival, so she phoned her daughter Megumi and arranged for her to meet me and show me around.

Megumi was waiting outside with an exchange student from the United States. We walked together down the dark narrow lanes of the old town. We arrived at a temple with lanterns glowing in front. Inside the gate, a line of Jizo statues stood behind a fold-up table with a lit candle, a small Buddhist bell and a stick of fragrant incense burning on it.

Then an elderly woman led me to have some nagashi sōmen. Thin sōmen noodles flow down a bamboo flume filled with running water, and you have to catch them with your chopsticks. You then dip them in a cold sauce before slurping them down. The frigid noodles running down into my belly made the humid summer night feel a little less oppressive.

Jizo Bon is a festival to thank Jizo, the Buddhist guardian of children, for his protection. Residents clean and decorate the town’s numerous Jizo statues. Then after dusk, they go on a pilgrimage-like circuit of the various Jizo in town bearing coin offerings. In return, children receive sweets and goodies from each stop on the circuit. I also noticed some adults enjoying this tradition, myself included.

Megumi told me that there were about 30-40 Jizo in total. We only made it to about five or six that evening. When I returned to my guest room, I had a sugared rice cracker, some hard candy, sweet dumplings, a chocolate-chip cookie and a balloon yo-yo. I felt like a kid on Halloween.

The next morning I had some time to explore the town before leaving. Izuhara was the principal town of the So clan, which once ruled the island. Izuhara still retains some of its medieval flavor in its narrow backstreets and the many stone walls that stand as a reminder of the warrior mansions that once dotted the landscape.

The scorching sun and the sweltering heat made the town seem deserted. It did not deter, however, the screeching cicadas, whose song grew ever louder as I neared the So family temple, Banshoin, by the hills to the west. I sat for a while in the main hall to rest. From deep within the temple I heard some chanting, but it was hard to make out above the loud voice recording, playing on an endless loop, explaining the temple’s history.

Behind the temple is a long flight of stairs lined with stone lanterns leading up to the So family graveyard. It is one of the three most notable graveyards in Japan, evidence of the clan’s wealth and prestige gained from the important role it played in trade and relations with Korea. I walked for a while among the silent tombs and old trees, enjoying the solitude before leaving to prepare for my departure.

Later, as I sped away on the jet foil, I thought about all the people and ideas that had passed through the island in the past. The island was once on a route that connected to the Silk Road. Scholars believe that Buddhism and Chinese characters, among other things, entered Japan via this route. A cast of warriors, monks, pirates and traders flashed before my eyes as I dozed off for the remainder of the journey to Fukuoka.

There are a number of daily ferries to Tsushima from Hakata Port in Fukuoka (www.tsushima-net.org/access/access.php) The regular ferry to Izuhara takes about 4 ½ hours; the jet foil takes about half that time. You can also fly to Tsushima Airport from Fukuoka or Nagasaki. Public transport on the island is limited, so plan ahead, or consider renting a car or using taxis.

  • Nevin Thompson

    Fascinating article. I had never paid any attention to this island before, and now I would like to go there!