Islands can quickly lose their charm when they become attached to land masses. This, mercifully, has not happened to Ikuchijima Island in Japan’s Geiyo archipelago, a cluster of islets in the Seto Inland Sea that, despite its two connecting bridges, feels defiantly detached.
Writers have often compared the rocky outcroppings of the Seto Inland Sea to the Greek Islands. The ripening oranges, olive terraces, lavender-smelling grasses and clove scents, the vernal purity of forested slopes, the sails of distant fishing skiffs, and small shrines cantilevered over rock faces, can easily evoke the wine-dark Aegean Sea.
Yukio Mishima set his popular novel “The Sound of Waves,” in these waters. An unabashed love story between a young fisherman and a female abalone diver, it could easily have been set on a Cycladic island. Smaller than Crete but larger than Amorgos or Astypalaia, Ikuchijima, with its citrus groves and bleached beaches, supports the Ionian analogy.
Like many island clusters, the one in the Seto Inland Sea had its fair share of pirates, known in Japan as wako. Today, Setoda, the island’s main port, is a small, retiring place, making it hard to believe it was once a place of skullduggery. The powerful generalissimo Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98), is said to have stayed for a time on the island, as did the 12th-century warrior Kumagai.
The roster of well-known figures who took up temporary residence on the island includes the influential priest Honen (1133-1212), there not to seek spiritual sanctuary, as you might think, but to escape the attentions of a woman in hot pursuit of the holy man. Kobo Daishi (774-835), another towering figure in Japanese Buddhism, came to dig wells, while Japanese Christians fled to the island to escape persecution under the Tokugawa shogunate.
The shallow coastal waters of the island were also ideal for salt extraction, the extraction done by prisoners at this time. When labor was in short supply, corvee workers were rounded up from neighboring islands in a process not unlike the recruiting by press gangs of drunkards from English taverns in the 18th century.
The past has given way to less harmless pursuits, notably art, the island now forming one of several Seto Inland Sea venues hosting galleries and open-air installations. Stopping to check the air pressure in my bicycle tires, I almost leaned my rental vehicle against a gigantic saxophone, the object turning out to be one of several public art works located around the island.
Setoda’s Hirayama Ikuo Museum of Art offers a more traditional fare of paintings — large canvasses executed in fast-drying paint. Hirayama (1930-2009) was born in Setoda, so it is fitting that many of his best works, including his highly illustrative, rather dream-like paintings of the Silk Road, are housed here. The exhibits include several of his drawings and preparatory sketches for paintings, which were executed at high speed.
Phoenix palms line the bicycle lane that parallels the coastal road south of Setoda, making this an ideal route for a circuit of the island. A little short of Sunset Beach, I stopped to photograph what appeared to be a large weather vane bolted to an offshore rock. Appearances can be deceptive. In this instance, the item, titled “Wings of the Waves,” defined it as another art installation. Negotiating a bend in the road, a giant hairpin-shaped sculpture by Shin Matsunaga called “Clairvoyance,” came into view. This time, more acculturated to such sights, I was able to identify the object as part of Ikuchijima’s Island-Wide Art Museum project.
Sunset Beach is man-made and looks it, but its facilities, including a good fish restaurant, barbecue areas and plenty of recreational space, are good places to take a break before returning to Setoda or continuing along the coast, where three tiny ports — Miyahara, Sunoe and Akasaki — provide ferry connections to still more islands. Ultimately, though, all roads lead back to Setoda and what is undoubtedly the island’s jewel in the crown: Kosanji Temple.
Construction began on Kosanji Temple in 1936, after a hill was leveled on the instructions of Kozo Kanemoto, a wealthy munitions manufacturer and owner of a steel-tubing monopoly. The obsessive affection and grief that drove the design and construction of the temple may recall the single-minded love and dedication that produced the Taj Mahal, but this being Japan, the complex is dedicated not to a deceased wife, but a mother.
After Kanemoto’s mother passed away, he gave up the presidency of his company to become a priest. Letting his hair grow long in an ecclesiastical version of the latter days of Howard Hughes, he vanished into hermetic silence before emerging with an offer to buy the rights to a temple in Niigata, a deal brokered by the great Nishi-Honganji Temple in Kyoto. In Japan, it seems, wealth can open even the most traditional temple doors. It would be second-guessing to say that he greased the palms of the elders at Nishi-Honganji Temple, but a donation of an undisclosed amount was made, priesthood swiftly obtained and the name of the temple in Niigata transferred to Setoda. Now Kanemoto was a man of the cloth, the reverend Kozo Kosanji no less.
As you would expect, Kosanji Temple is strong on statues of female deities such as Benzaiten, goddess of music and the arts, and Kannon, a reincarnation of the Hindu figure Avalokitesvara, now serving in the Buddhist canon as the Goddess of Mercy. A bodhisattva strongly associated with compassion, Kannon’s female attributes are most strongly manifested in its Jibo Kannon (loving mother) personification, one very apropos the congestion of statuary at the temple, where many of the figures of bodhisattvas and avatars look like they were picked up at a celestial job lot.
If Kosanji Temple is an exercise in bad taste, the site soaked in contrived divinity and a lachrymose mood of bereavement, why bother to visit? Essentially, because the overwhelming vulgarity of the complex, its unabashed ostentation, results in a summation of form that can only be called a masterpiece of high kitsch.
Like the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in France, or Shiva’s sacred ice cave of Amarnath in India, Kosanji Temple needs a good deal of spiritual, not to mention economic support to sustain it. Like a voodoo fetish, the magic needs to be renewed if it is not to wear off. This is accomplished in a number of ways, including entrance fees, the daily petitioning of deities with offerings of flowers, prayer, incense and money, the latter a commodity that appears to pass effortlessly into the next world.
If the temple resembles an effulgent, embellished mausoleum, the theme park concept is never far away. Besides deifying a saintly mother, Kanemoto set out to create an architectural digest of Japan’s best known landmarks, a compression of architectural treasures that would save the time-pressed or financially pinched the trouble of visiting the originals.
Thus, we have a version of the Heian Period (794-1185) Phoenix Hall of Byodoin Temple in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, combined in reduced scale with Nara’s Kasuga Grand Shrine, and a life-sized replica of the gorgeously carved encrustations covering the torii gate at the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, finished off in lashings of primary colors, the effect as sumptuous as a Faberge egg. Look a little closer at the torii, though, and its materials — stenciled plywood and plaster — reveal the work of carpenters unable to match the artistry of their 17th-century counterparts.
Kanemoto’s chief concern seems to have been the overall effect the structures would have when seen from a respectable distance. There are small triumphs in the design. In his classic, “The Inland Sea,” Donald Richie, traveling through these islands in the 1960s, allows that Kanemoto’s attention to detail was meticulous, the priest overseeing, “even the least important toe on the smallest dragon, enriching the impoverished original with treasures of his own.”
At the center of Kosanji Temple’s quadrangle of buildings — finished in painted lintels animated with flying dragons, seated bodhisattvas, deer, foxes, crane and goddesses mounted on elephants — are water basins full of pink, white and rare blue lotuses. Like Kannon, immortalized here in a towering concrete statue, Benzaiten is a major figure in the compound, incorporated in painted friezes, carved into the stump of a tree or, in one striking instance, supporting an iron framework representing the aureole of a saint. At some point in the visitor’s assessment of this glorious mash of forms there is a transition in our perception from high kitsch to art.
The bombardment to the senses is akin to seeing the tiers of painted deities at some of India’s better-endowed Hindu temples. Like the snow goggles considered a prerequisite for visiting the Himalayas, you might consider slipping on a pair of tinted glasses at Kosanji Temple to protect your eyes from the heavenly glare.
Getting there: Regular ferries leave the ports of Onomichi and Mihara for the 40-minute trip to Ikuchijima Island. Fares are ¥820 for adults and ¥410 for children. Local buses also depart from Onomichi Station, terminating in Setoda.