Iki Island: the stones and stories that keep paradise from floating away

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Legend has it that many years ago the pretty little island of Iki was not connected to the seafloor. Instead, it floated around at the whim of the currents, presumably bobbing back and forth between Japan, China and the Korean Peninsula.

Imagine what a nightmare that would have been today! All those competing territorial claims!

Fortunately, such awkwardness was averted because the gods, in their infinite wisdom, ultimately decided to anchor the island — which is oval-shaped and 15 km across — by means of eight giant pegs to a spot some 70 km off the coast of Fukuoka, where it can now be reached with comforting predictability by ferry and Jetfoil from Fukuoka’s Hakata Port.

Iki’s inhabitants — almost 28,000 in total — seem to love telling stories like the one about the “eight pegs.” In fact, they appear to have a story or superstition for pretty much everything about their island home.

The story about the “eight pegs” is told as an explanation about the origins of two of the island’s most popular tourist destinations, one of which is Sakyobana, a spectacular geological formation just a 10-minute drive south of the small port of Ashibe, where half of the ferries from Hakata stop (the others stop at Gonoura, on the west). Sakyobana is a 20-meter-high jagged pinnacle that rises up out of the water 80 meters or so off the coast. According to the story, this white-hued rock (colored thanks to a resident flock of evidently well-fed cormorants), is none other than one of the eight pegs.

Peg or rock, though, there’s no denying it is quite a spectacle, and — almost as importantly — it can be viewed from a delightful and gently undulating stretch of grass that is perched up on the facing cliff. So pristine are the lawns you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled onto the verdant greens of Scotland’s St. Andrews golf course, but instead of bunkers and golf carts what you’ll find are some nicely designed picnic shelters and an unmistakably Japanese, red-colored torii gate marking the presence of a small Shinto shrine.

On the opposite side of the island (about a 20-minute drive from Ashibe) is Saruiwa (Monkey Rock), another of the eight “pegs.” Jutting up from a cliff face, the rock certainly resembles its namesake, especially when viewed in profile, from the small carpark and souvenir shop. Still, locals point worriedly at the rock’s particularly prominent eyebrows and speculate that they may soon tumble into the sea, thereby somewhat diminishing the similarity. Presumably such cosmetic changes would do little to alter the rock’s efficacy as a peg.

Perhaps even more of a threat to Monkey Rock than erosion was the brief period between 1932 and 1950 when an emplacement for two giant cannons was situated just behind it.

Fortunately, Japan never faced attack along its western coast during the Pacific War, for, if it had, just one slightly wayward shot from the 40-cm guns would no doubt have accounted for a lot more than the monkey’s eyebrows — and if not, then the enemy’s return fire would surely have done the job.

The guns were destroyed (the explosion could be heard around the island, according to locals) by U.S. forces in 1950, but the giant concrete hole where they rested (roughly 8 meters across) is still there to be peered into. (Just be wary of the large hawk that seems to have taken up residence and scared the daylights out of this visitor as it took flight, circling in tight rings to get up and out of the hole.)

Despite its picturesque, rocky coastline, Iki’s geography is characterized by gently rolling hills — the highest peak reaches just 212 meters.

Architect Kisho Kurokawa took advantage of this landscape when designing the Iki City Ikikoku Museum, which appears to be dug into one such hill. Opened in 2010 (Kurokawa died in 2007, before it was completed), the building is located in Iki’s southeastern corner, about 20 minutes drive south of Ashibe Port. With grass laid over even the top of some of the structure, it would almost be invisible, but for a lighthouselike observation tower that juts out from the top and, on a clear day, offers views over most of the island.

The museum was built to house Iki’s many prehistoric artifacts. Because of its location between the Chinese mainland and Japan, Iki has long been a stop-off point for traders, and a vibrant human community has existed there for at least 4,000 years.

One of the museum’s key attractions is a series of highly detailed scale models of an Iki village during the Yayoi Period (200 B.C. to A.D. 250). Some of the models are several meters long, and they detail such activities as fishing, trading, playing, hunting and fortunetelling. Many of the characters move at the push of a button and, extraordinarily, all of their faces have been modeled on the faces of contemporary Iki residents.

The museum also houses many artifacts from the slightly later Kofun Period (250-552), which were unearthed at large burial mounds (called kofun) that dot the Iki landscape. These include impressive ornaments for saddles, bridles and stirrups, and also decorative sword handles.

Once you’ve poured over the kofun’s former contents at the museum, you can also stop by the kofun themselves and, in some cases, actually crawl inside.

Kakegi Kofun, which is located in central Iki, appears to be an almost perfect dome — resembling a grass-covered igloo. Entering from a low stone-framed doorway at one side, visitors can move through three separate vaults, each constructed from giant stone slabs. While there is nothing left inside, it is possible to see the stone “coffin” where the body of an ancient Iki citizen — evidently one of nobility or wealth, considering the grandeur of his burial arrangements — once lay.

Iki has many other attractions of a spiritual nature. In fact the island has a particularly important place in Japan’s Shinto religion. According to the nation’s creation myth, the god-couple of Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto had eight children, each of whom became the eight “major” islands of the archipelago and, sure enough, Iki was one of them. In fact, as the story goes, little Iki is the older sibling even to Honshu, which is of course now home to Tokyo and more than 100 million people. (For the record, Awaji came first, then Shikoku, Oki, Kyushu, Iki, Tsushima, Sado and Honshu.)

Now the island has one of the greatest concentrations of Shinto shrines (jinja), with 150 in total registered and many more unregistered.

One of the most prominent of the registered jinja is Kojima Shrine, which some have dubbed Iki’s Mont Saint-Michel, because it is situated on a small island that is linked to the main island (in the south) by a thin isthmus that disappears at high tide.

Locals say that not only is the small wooden shrine on the dome-shaped island’s peak sacred, but the island itself is sacred, bestowing good fortune in love to those who visit. But woe betide any traveler who decides to take a branch or rock from the island as a souvenir — misfortune will befall them, the locals warn.

Also connected to religious beliefs are seven little jizō (stone statues of a Buddhist deity) that are lined up on a semisubmerged stone plinth at Ashibe, in the island’s east. The Harahoge Jizo, as they are known, are curious because of the small holes in their stomachs. Dozens of stories are told as to why these little beings ended up like this — the holes might have been made to place offerings for ama (diving women) who died at sea — but what is certain is that the little statues like their watery home. Citing conservation concerns, the local government moved them to dry ground a few years ago, only to be flooded with complaints from elderly locals saying that the jizo had visited them in their dreams asking to be returned to the water. The government complied.

Of course, in addition to such storied wonders, Iki has plenty more immediate delights. The island is home to a small beef industry, and several restaurants — particularly those around Ashibe Port — offer succulent steaks and other dishes. There is also a major shochu distiller, Ikinokura Shuzo, which offers distillery tours and also a store where its renowned product can be sampled.

And, last but not least, there are surfing beaches — many of them, in fact, and they are complete with that rarity of rarities in Japan: white sand.

Now that’s something worth telling stories about!

Getting there: Ferries and Jetfoils run daily from Hakata Port in Fukuoka to Iki Island (travel time by ferry is two hours 15 minutes). Daily flights also operate from Nagasaki Airport to Iki Airport.