Worlds apart: The Oki Islands in the Sea of Japan seem remarkably unchanged by the tides of history that have for millennia washed over them. Some sights on Nishinoshima Island include its Kuniga coastline.
If you only make one trip while you are here, make sure it’s to the Oki Islands! They are little patches of ye olde Nihon as yet untainted by pachinko, high-rise apartments or junk-food joints: perfect antidotes to big-city stress.
A mere three-hour ferry ride across the Sea of Japan separates the Oki Islands from the coast of western Honshu, but it’s as if you voyage through three centuries getting there. If it wasn’t for the roads, the inhabited islands would be all forest.
A couple of hours after our boat cast off from Matsue, in Shimane Prefecture, we espied the first islands — black volcanic humps like debris from some cosmic collision. Soon the ferry will be weaving through a veritable maze of these extrusions, some just bare rocky outcrops, others large and rugged and dark with pine trees.
There are some 180 islands in the Oki chain, none of them very big and only four that are inhabited.
Ancient Takuhi Shrine that emerges from a hilltop cave.
The best place to stay is at a minshuku (guesthouse). Often times the people running the place will be waiting for you in anticipation.
There is actually a minshuku located just across the street from the ferry terminal on the second largest island; Nishinoshima (pop. 3,900). On the wall outside, your name will be written in chalk on a slate. Not a good hideaway for fugitives. In your room, a pot of freshly-made green tea and some adzuki-bean pastries awaited you on a low table — the only furniture in the room besides a television.
Nishinoshima boasts several must-sees, and your first priorityshould be a boat tour of the island’s spectacular Kuniga coastline: a 7-km stretch of wave-eroded basalt cliffs, including the perpendicular Mantengai. At 257 meters, it’s Japan’s tallest cliff.
The small launch wil go past dreamlike rock formations with names such as Palace of the Dragon King and Bridge to Heaven. Then the boat will head straight for the red and black cliffs. Really something worth wile.
After this the boat will enter the Cavern of Light and Dark. It will be slow sailing as you inch into the darkness.
Any time now, you might think, we’re going to hear an awful wrenching as the boat’s hull is ripped open from below or on the jagged walls that are now no more than a finger’s breadth away on either side.
Still you don’t have to worry too much though. After a few eerie moments, a crack of light will appear up ahead and you will emerge safely into sunshine and open sea again.
Isles of wonder: A colorful festival parade on Nakanoshima Island (aka Ama).
Once you are back on dry land, you will hear a voice emanated from a loudspeaker at the Town Hall reminding everyone within earshot that it was 6 o’clock, and urging all young children to go home.
If you stay at this particular guesthouse across the ferry, your landlady will call you down to dinner and you will get to sit on the tatami floor at a long low table shared with other guests. The colorful fare mainly comprises of superfresh seafood, including lots of sashimi ika (squid), hirogi (a kind of scallop with bright purple or orange shells) and sazae (turbo sea snails), as well as a whole tai (sea bream) accompanied by local vegetables such as burdock and lotus roots.
The next day you should go exploring the small town. Squid are a major concern in the Oki Islands, where fishing and tourism are about the only money-spinners. Everywhere you will see the squid being dried. At the end of one tiny inlet, there is a small but beautiful Yurahime Shrine, dedicated to the guardian deity of the sea and said to have been founded in 842. And as if they sense its spirituality, sometimes in winter so many little cephalopods throng the adjacent Ikayosenohama (Squid-calling Harbor) that you can catch them with your hands.
Squid drying on Nishinoshima Island.
Another fun activity is to find the mysterious Takuhi (Burning Fire) Shrine, hidden away near the island’s highest point. If you want to go there, then just hop a bus as far as it goes, and then take a taxi to take you from the bus stop to the foot of the mountain.You’d best ask the ladies at the tourist office to book one for you ahead of time.
Along the wat be sure to enjoy the view as you take the path up the mountain. The countryside is delightful: Narrow roads wind round soft green hillsides dotted with mossy shrines and cattle with oddly twisted horns graze on the slopes while black butterflies the size of bats flop around like lovesick fedoras.
When the asphalt runs out and a steep overgrown path begins, the taxi driver will have to stop. The rest of the way you will have to walk.
During the hike, the constant chirping of cicadas revs up to an intimidating roar as you will beat your way up the narrow path through thick dank vegetation. The tree cover will give you a welcome shelter from the sun’s midday ferocity. Occasional clearings offere stunning views of the shimmering golden sea, with mist-shrouded islands stretching away like a dragon’s tail.
Fortunately, the mountain’s summit is at a none-too-lofty 450 meters, and before long you will be confronted by a magnificent 800-year-old cedar that stands before the shrine up there — a building every bit as impressive as you’d might expect. Built out from a huge cave in the mountainside in the mid-Heian Period (794-1185), so that it’s half inside it and half in the open, the astounding structure looks as if its builders just gave up and left it there.
Like Yurahime, Takuhi is dedicated to the sea-guardian deity. In olden times, islanders used to light a beacon outside it to guide boats into the bay in bad weather — hence it’s called either the Burning Fire or Torch shrine. Hiroshige made a woodcut print of the scene, and boats still sound their horns when they come in sight of this shrine.
Before leaving Nishinoshima, don’t forget to go to the Kuniga cliffs, to see them from above. A regular bus service takes you from the port to the wide-open spaces of the clifftops, with their delicious breezes and lush pastures. Up there, it felt a world away from the humid claustrophobia of Takuhi’s snake-and-mozzie kingdom. The cliff-top trail has been voted one of Japan’s Best 100 Hikes.
Cows and horses rule these heights. They love to prove the point by resolutely dozing in the middle of the road, holding up traffic as if in sit-down protest. Atop the cliffs in blissful satori, we watched entranced as wraithlike wisps of mist streamed over the rocky coves below.
If you have time left, then tak a short ferry ride over to Nakanoshima, more commonly known as Ama. If you are there in the summer you might even get to experience a matsuri (festival). The cool evening will bring a colorful parade, spurred on by mighty taiko drums and the consumption of much beer and sake — along with lashings of scrumptious festival food: takoyaki (octopus balls), baked sweet potatoes, dumplings, taiyaki (fish-shaped buns) and, of course, heaps of skewered roast squid. Definitely fun to experience.
Japan is known for its amazing Hanabi (fireworks) shows which are usually held in summer. These small islands have they own stellar fireworks display, launched from a floating platform out in the bay, a free bus will be arranged to take everyone home.
Next morning take a stroll to Oki Shrine. There will be priest walking around in white tunic and baggy purple pants and they might even tell you the story of how the emperors Go-Toba (1180-1239) and Go-Daigo (1288-1339) were banished to these islands. Still as banishings go, this really wouldn’t have been such a terrible punishment.