Shodoshima: Movie history with a side of olives

by Louise George Kittaka

Contributing Writer

A visit to the sunny island of Shodoshima in Kagawa Prefecture is perhaps the closest you’ll get to a Mediterranean vibe in Japan, twinned as it is with the Greek island of Milos.

The second largest of the islands in the Seto Inland Sea, Shodoshima was the first place in the Japanese archipelago to successfully cultivate olives, and it is home to some beautiful beaches and scenic vistas. Fittingly, the characters for the name “Shodoshima” translate to “small bean island,” though these originally referred to adzuki beans rather than olives, which are more prevalent today.

While its natural beauty and laid-back feel are very appealing, my prime reason for visiting Shodoshima is the island’s connection to my favorite Japanese movie, the much-loved “Twenty-Four Eyes” (“Nijushi no Hitomi”), based on the 1952 novel of the same name. Shodoshima native Sakae Tsuboi penned the story of a devoted teacher and the connections she maintains with her first 12 students — the owners of the titular 24 eyes. Following the lives of the characters before, during and immediately after World War II, the novel is also a commentary on the inhumanity of war.

Director Keisuke Kinoshita wasted little time turning the novel into a movie in 1954, casting Hideko Takamine (1924-2010) in what would become one of her signature roles, as teacher Miss Oishi. The rest is (movie) history.

The island’s Twenty-Four Eyes Movie Studio pays tribute to both novel and movie, with a reconstructed fishing hamlet for visitors to meander around at leisure. Although the movie set actually dates to the color remake of 1987, the operators wisely decided to showcase the better-known original version.

A vintage movie theater plays the film on loop, while one of the restaurants offers a “retro” Japanese school lunch from the Showa Era (1926-89), complete with a utilitarian metal tray. My significant other, himself a product of the Japanese public education system, declared the lunch to be on a par with the real thing from his childhood. A short walk from the movie village is the tiny elementary school that was used in the original movie and also served as an actual school from 1902 until 1971.

Aside from the movie and olive motifs, Shodoshima promotes romance with the whimsically named Angel Road, a sandy trail connecting three tiny islands to Tonosho Port on Shodoshima. The trail appears only twice a day at low tide, when the waters recede and reveal a narrow sandbank that makes the islands accessible on foot. While the origins are a little unclear, it has become something of a mecca for romantics, with a local story saying that couples who traverse Angel Road together will have a long and happy future. My travel companion and I have been existing in a state of connubial bliss for a couple of decades, but a little support from a higher power never hurt.

No visit to Shodoshima is complete without a stop at Olive Park, which also serves as the local Michi no Eki rest spot. The expansive facility includes some 2,000 olive trees, an olive museum, herb garden, onsen (hot spring) and a cafe serving olive-flavored ice cream. And, as a final nod to Milos, there is a Greek windmill for a touch of the Mediterranean right there on Shodoshima.

Shodoshima’s Tonosho Port is accessible by ferry from Okayama (Shin-Okayama or Uno ports). Car is the most convenient mode of transport around the island, but there are regular bus services to the main tourist areas and bicycles available to rent.