Our Lives | JAPAN LITE

Discovering the mystery behind 'Goat Island' in the Seto Inland Sea

by Amy Chavez

There was a man living on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea who had a goat. He was not an old man, and he didn’t know much about ruminants, so when his goat grew bigger, and its stubbornness exceeded its usefulness, the man started looking for a way to get rid of it. Rather than roast the goat, he put it in his boat and left it on an uninhabited island.

That was several years ago, and not many people know about it, but I had been told by someone close to him. Because of the peculiarities of Japanese grammar, however, I was not sure if it was just one goat or two that the man had betrayed.

Then one day recently, a red trimaran sailed to Shiraishi Island and dropped anchor. The owners wanted to meet me because, as it turned out, we had a mutual Czech friend. Bruce and Alene were an American couple sailing around the world, and Japan was just one of their many stops.

One evening we sat on the deck of their boat, bobbing up and down, while I answered their questions about Japan: Why do people keep bringing us gifts? What’s the Japanese word for mooring? Do you know where I can get a 10-kiloggram LPG gas canister? You know … those kinds of things.

They also wanted to explore more islands in the Seto Inland Sea. Did I have any recommendations?

“There is a secret island,” I told them.

“Where?”

“You’d need someone to accompany you,” I admitted.

“Is it far?”

“It’s only accessible by boat.

“Is there an anchorage?

“I’ve been told there are wild goats living there.”

“Goats?”

“I could show you,” I offered.

“Well then, let’s go,” they said.

We embarked the next day and sailed to “Goat Island,” which is actually two islands connected at low tide, not an uncommon phenomenon in the Inland Sea. With a sandbar connecting a north hump and a south hump, it looks like a Libra island, in perfect balance.

We dropped anchor offshore in 8 meters of water, climbed into a dingy and alighted on the sand bar strewn with old fishing nets tossed for good. Determined to be useful to the bitter end, the nets continued to trap plastic garbage while a solitary rusting anchor looked on.

There was no suggestion of goats, or anything at all, living there. In particular, the foliage was unnibbled, there were no animal footprints and nary a path into the wooded interior of the islands on either side. Indeed, the only sign of life was the ominous sign of death: a delicate, sun-bleached jaw bone, teeth extant, of a goat-like creature. So it was true, there had been at least one hooved creature here. Were we too late?

First, we explored the southern hump by walking around the rocky shore afforded by the low tide, but found not a trace of a bovid.

Back at the sand bar, we surveyed the northern hump, the salient feature of which was a precipice — too steep to climb — slowly being eroded by the rains.

My experience has been that most people are not that adventurous. This was the point where my companions would give up, call it a day and we’d peacefully go back to where we came from, while I fought the nagging suspicion that we had missed something big.

So it was with great intrigue when I saw Bruce leap forward and start scaling the wall of dirt, grabbing roots and branches barely there.

I scrambled to catch up with him, feeling it necessary to kick off my shoes to clutch the dirt with my toes for a better grip. I looked back to see Alene, the longest limbed of the three of us, ascending with calculation. I realized then that we had made a rookie mistake — we’d never be able to get back down.

For this brave ascent, we were rewarded half way up with hoof prints! More like cloven skid marks, really, where a goat had lost it’s footing and slipped, creating two sliding grooves in the mud. Moments later, fresh Pachiko-size balls of excrement squished between my toes as I continued up.

Once at the top we came upon a native yoshinoki, a type of bamboo grass that leans over when it gets too tall to support itself, creating a shelter for cuddly living things. The lair was empty, but encouraged us nonetheless.

We walked and walked, but an hour later, still no goats. Where could they be on such a tiny island? They were not in the clearing at the top, nor near the trees stripped of their bark. They weren’t at the end of their well-trodden pathways that led us nowhere. Yet we had canvassed nearly the entire place.

We stopped and listened to the rhythms of the island: Silence enhanced by bird song and waves kissing the rocks below. We lay on our backs and marveled at the tree-branched sky. We squatted down to the level of grazing goats and waited. But still we heard nothing ruminant.

So we stood up and pushed on to the last smidgen of the island left unexplored.

Swish, swish. The sound of long stalks of grass brushing together made us freeze mid-stride like actors in a play. Swish, swish, the grasses were being pushed aside by something very big. Swish, swish, snort.

Although we could not see through the wall of grass, we were soon enveloped in the beast’s musky aroma. Then he vanished, leaving only his odor behind.

Our ensemble forged ahead, oh so tacitly, baby-stepping down the hill through the towering grass, until quite unexpectedly, someone gave us a magic key, and the grasses opened up onto a mesmerizing sight below: think Maxfield Parrish does goats.

Our eyes were immediately attracted to the middle of the grove, where a beam of sunlight shone through the trees onto a white creature resting on the ground as radiant as if Capricornus had just descended from the night sky.

These were the most handsome goats I’ve ever seen: a society of goats with very fine coats, magical beasts with divining eyes, creamy pink ears and beards that hung like silk tassel. Their ribbed horns curved back then flattened out like wings. On the far side of the small valley stood two of the dandies, their eyes sparkling and slowly more appeared like stars popping out of a night sky. They watched us more with suspicion than alarm.

Then I noticed a cream colored one with caramel markings off to my right. He looked at me with the same eyes as apes at the zoo do when they look straight through to your soul, prompting you to ask yourself why this creature has been caged. However, there were no iron bars between us this time and I couldn’t help but feel the man had done the right thing by leaving his goats here. As the animal’s eyes flickered with forgiveness, I knew it was imperative that I keep this goat paradise a secret.

When they’d had enough of our presence, the goats made their exeunt. Much to our delight, a baby goat jumped out of the brush, bleated and scampered after them.

In the absence of the winsome creatures, the forest lost its charm and returned to its previous nondescript trees and grasses pointing us to an easy exit onto the rocky shore.

Then, just as silently as we had come, we sailed away, into the gloaming, each of us touched deeply by our secret migration. And I took that magic key, and I flung it into the deep sea, where no one would ever find it.