Were it not for the well-nourished faces of the passengers suffused with keen expressions of expectation and purpose, the supine bodies, unpacked food, luggage and blankets strewn across the hard flooring of the ferry’s modern equivalent of steerage class resembled those of a migrant ship.
Almost three hours later, we arrived no worse for wear at Beppu, the local port on Nishinoshima, one of four inhabited landfalls in the Oki Islands of Shimane Prefecture. Unlike Japan’s southern littorals, where the first features of interest are their white, coral peripheries, Nishinoshima is noted for the greenery of its shorelines, rising like forests out of the sea.
A caldera formed from the eroded summits of stratovolcanoes of immense proportions and a thermal power that can only be imagined. The cliffs of Oki erupted from the salt waters, scalding hot, then froze in abrupt verticality, like the edges of giant massifs. They are fine examples of the drama that geology can sometimes offer us. The eruption may have been the most exciting event visited upon the islands for millennia. It is not excitement, though, but the prospect of experiencing these pristine, rural-marine environs that draws a small but discerning number of visitors to the islands.
On my first morning, I strolled down to the nearest quay, where stevedores were offloading Styrofoam boxes for squid catches brought in that morning from the night fishing skiffs. It was only a short stroll to Yarahime Shrine, a rustic place of worship with an earthen sumo ring standing in grounds where occasional performances of Kagura are held, these events hinting at the island’s more profound cultural life.
Drawn by streams of seaweed and persuasive currents, squid swim into Ikayosenohama, a cove directly facing the shrine. Here they are easily scooped up by hand or in small nets, the waters turning black with ink. The inlet was saved quite recently from being turned into a landfill, through the efforts of a resourceful local priest who presented the site as an important part of the island’s fishing legacy. Squid is on the menu at most of the restaurants on the island, but also visible as engravings on steles and lichen-mottled dedicatory stones at Yarahime Shrine. One could easily imagine a squid cult thriving on this island, covert masonic rituals taking place in the grounds of ancient cliff-side shrines.
Of the island’s roughly 3,000 people, most are engaged in the complimentary fields of fishing and agriculture, with some service industry workers such as restaurateurs and members of the tourist industry taking up the slack. Tozan Kato and his wife, Hiroko, however, are an altogether different breed, craftspeople from the pottery town of Mino who resettled on the island some 18 years ago. A lively couple with experimental inclinations, their modest showroom consists of examples of work executed in a mix of Mino clay and a yellow earth removed from the slope at the rear of their workshop.
Inspired by the discovery of ancient bronze swords and bells in Shimane Prefecture, the couple create pieces of ceramic ware whose surfaces recall the milky green finish of Korean Goryeo celadon work.
Among several plastic buckets containing clay samples of diverse colors and hues, including cedar charcoal used as a dye for clay glaze, was a strong red powder extracted from seams present in local cliffs. Hemmagan (gneiss), a metamorphic rock high in oxidized iron content found inside basaltic strata, is mixed with other clays before firing, to create pleasing tonal effects in their pottery. Hiroko has gone a step further, creating her own form of aizome, a tie-dye textile. Instead of using plants as pigments in the dyeing process to make her akatsuchizome (red-clay tie-dye fabric), Hiroko is testing the effects of hemmagan as a colorant that could be fixed by immersion in the sea.
I would see the red, iron-infused rocks, running like seams of fire through the cliffs, when I took a boat cruise later that day along the Kuniga coast, a rugged, serrated marine scape indented with caves. The hiking trail above this coastline, across a wild grassland used as an open paddock by small local horses, is a gentle walk of a little under 3 km, one that affords an alternative perspective on this belt of curious cliff erosions.
The walk passes a natural rock known as Tsutenkyo Arch (Bridge of Heaven), before dropping to a shelf where a jam of rock configurations, known collectively as Tenjyo-ka (Heavenly World), is visible. The centerpiece of the ensemble is a rock pinnacle called the Kannon-iwa, the name deriving from an androgynous deity of Indian provenance known in Japan as Kannon-sama, the Goddess of Mercy.
The island’s fish theme resurfaced outside the Nishiwaki Fish Shop, where a dried, 10-kg squid hung in salted splendor as fine an advertisement you are likely to find for such an establishment. The eponymous Nishiwaki-san is the kind of avuncular restaurateur you instinctively trust. Descended from a local ship-building family, he served up a set lunch featuring slices of raw amberjack and yellowtail that were positively tingling with saline freshness. It was not surprising to find in these coastal environs the nearby rafts of iwa-gaki (rock oyster) gatherers, a man from Oki the first, apparently, to cultivate the now much-imitated crustaceans.
Earlier that morning, we had been accosted in a friendly, bantering manner by a woman selling fresh sardines. The itinerant vendor, it transpired, had once lived in Italy. Fish may have been a dominant theme on the island, but so was the presence of a number of interesting local characters. I would meet another such individual later that day after climbing to the mountainside Takuhi Shrine, its 18th-century structures tucked into a rock shelf of Takuhizan (Fire-burning Mountain) the name traceable to legends of ghostly fires or the residual memory, perhaps, of ancient volcanoes.
The scion of a family that founded the local ferry company, Michihito Matsuura, is the 21st-generation priest of the shrine, though he manages to divide his time between religious duties, holding down a position as president of the tourist office, working as a guide, sitting on the board of directors of the ferry company and acting as the contemporary version of a village headman.
An engaging, unorthodox man, with his feet firmly planted in the earthly as well as spiritual realms, he sat us down in a tatami room overlooking the sea, while busying himself preparing powdered green tea. The silence of the sanctuary was broken only once by a ship’s horn. As a tutelary site for sailors and fishermen, it is a long-standing custom for vessels to sound their horns in thanks to the shrine for a safe return.
Upon arriving at Beppu Port on my first day, I had been met and shown around the island by Nicola Jones, a New Zealander and long-time resident of Nishinoshima, now a valued member of its tourist office. A zealous believer in the future of Oki as a destination, her untiring enthusiasm for her adopted home is infectious.
Dropping me off at Kuniga-so, a Japanese-style ryokan on a hill above the unassuming fishing port of Urago, Nicola had warned me that the inn was a touch “retro,” the word conjuring Showa Era (1926-89) lapses of taste, the type that embraces carved tanuki (racoon dog) models, stuffed pheasants in glass cases, faux-marble walls and rooms with giant ashtrays and the works of Sunday painters.
As it turned out, any whiff of tackiness evaporated at the sight of my spacious room, its window views of the port, and the inn’s attentive staff, who served a dinner that was a smorgasbord of the sea’s plenitude: clams, sea urchin, turban shell, mozuku seaweed, and slices of sashimi, the flavors enhanced by the mineral-rich salt of the local waters.
I may have been the only foreigner at the inn, but hardly the first to visit the island. Richard Gordon Smith, in his 1918 book “Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan,” wrote about the islands as a decidedly “weird, wild, and rocky group, difficult of access,” adding, “few indeed are the Europeans who have visited them. I know of only two — the late Lafcadio Hearn and Mr. Anderson,” a naturalist dispatched there by the Duke of Bedford to collect animal species.
Hearn, a gifted Greek-Irish writer much given to self-pity, visited the islands in 1892, spending an entire month there. In his book, “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan,” he wrote, “Not even a missionary had ever been to Oki, and its shores had never been seen by European eyes,” a doubtful assertion that nevertheless highlights the relative isolation of the islands at the time of his visit.
Hearn stayed in Urago for several nights, trying to avoid the attentions of locals bent on gaining a glimpse of a foreigner. As news spread of his presence at the port’s only hotel, the street outside became blocked by a crowd, the building besieged on all sides. As the upstairs rooms of houses opposite the inn filled with onlookers, several young men scrambled onto the eaves above the galleries below his windows. All the openings of his room, he wrote, “on three sides, were full of faces.” The public’s curiosity appears to have been insatiable, lasting an unabated three days, and “would have lasted longer if I had not fled from Urago.”
The interest in foreign visitors had clearly cooled down since Hearn’s day, my presence eliciting little more than friendly nods and greetings. There were no security issues at my inn. As it happened, I slept wondrously, drugged by the best narcotic of all: fresh air, wholesome food and a matchless environment.
Getting there: There are regular ferries from Sakaiminato in Shimane Prefecture to Beppu Port, the journey taking two hours and 45 minutes. JAL operates flights to Dogojima, the largest island in the Oki group, from where local inter-island ferries depart. ANA flies to Yonago, a short train ride to the ferry terminus. For more details, visit www.nkk-oki.com (Nishinoshima Tourism Association).
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