Japan City Guides: Himeshima
- Literally "Princess Island."
- Situated off the north east coast of Kyushu in Oita Prefecture.
- Famous for its delicious tiger prawns.
- onsen hot springs.
- Population around 2,600.
- Great sea views.
Himeshima (Himejima) is a tiny island just off the north east corner of Kyushu on the Kunisaki Peninsula and even to Kyushu inhabitants it is a remote place. So, why would you want to go there?
Enjoying a tranquil weekend away from all the urban hustle may be one reason, but Himeshima has more to offer than just that. As the island is only 7km long, a bicycle is the best way to explore it. You can rent a bike on the island.
From Imi Port in Kunimi Town on the Kyushu coast, you can already see the whole length of the green, hilly island. Like islands always do from a distance, Himeshima appears mysterious. The name adds to the mystery. Himeshima translates as "Princess Island."
The island still looks like a good place to escape to. In fact, in the Junji Sakamoto movie Kao (The Face, 2000), the murderous female protagonist makes it all the way to Himeshima on her desperate run from the law. I won't spoil the end of the movie for you but I will say that the closing scenes take place on the island during the famous Kitsune matsuri (Fox Dance festival). This traditional Obon festival, in honor of the ancestors, takes place annually from August 14-17. During the festival, the island is crowded with visitors. Not on an average day of the year, though.
Taking the ferry, it's mostly local farmers and fishermen, still dressed in their work clothes, many coming back with bags full from the shopping malls in Kyushu. The boat ride takes only twenty minutes but the ferry is equipped with an open rest & sleep section and yes, there are some people who take the chance to rest. As quiet and tranquil as life seems to be around here to the visitor, for the locals it means a lot of hard work.
Many of them are busy putting Himeshima's most famous product, the kuruma ebi (tiger prawn) on the plates of gourmets across Japan. It's best to eat them on the island itself, though, and pretty much every Japanese visitor takes the ferry to do exactly that.
Most kuruma ebi are raised in the numerous prawn farms on the island. They are good, very good, but for the real, old-school locals nothing but wild prawns will do.
Before heading to your meal, take in a few of Himeshima's sights. Walk through the narrow lanes of the main village close to the harbor and you will feel like you are walking through a bygone era. Quiet alleys lined with beautiful old buildings are preserved in excellent condition. A perfect match between the conservative ways of the island and the wealth being made from the prawns. The people on Himeshima use their riches to keep the island's old-style beauty in its best condition.
At sunset, head off to the Kannonzaki Peninsula which forms the north-east point of Himeshima. Climb the hill and you arrive at the most scenic spot the island has to offer - the Sennin-do. A tiny temple building sits on a rock looking out over the sea, wind-bent pines gripping the stones right next to it.
In the distance, you can see the mountains of Kyushu, Honshu and Shikoku, and fishing boats far out in the sea. The view is one of breathtaking, traditional beauty and ranks among the very best of Japanese scenery. Best of all, most likely you will be all alone to enjoy it.
Right in front of the little temple are some rocks that seem as if they are made of black glass. Feel them. The rocks are obsidian. The Aztecs in pre-Columbian Mexico made their knives and swords from this stone. Not knowing metal, the Aztecs used obsidian knives to cut out the hearts of their prisoners of war to offer them to Huitzilopochtli, their blood-thirsty god of the sun and war.
Himeshima never had any trade with the Aztecs but in the very early days of Japanese history, people also relied on obsidian blades. Researchers have found Himeshima-made obsidian arrow points, knives and tools on the sites of dawn-of-civilization camp fires all over Western Japan.
There's also a beautiful lighthouse on the eastern tip of the island with more fantastic views.
Are you ready to try the fabled kuruma ebi now? Do you want to eat them island-style, known as odori - alive and "dancing" while they are eaten?
Head back into the village and try the Ichifuku sushi house. Ichifuku is the most famous eatery on the island. They serve wild tennen kuruma ebi from August through October.
October is the main season for the prawns and in that month the island also hosts a kuruma ebi festival. The prawns stay delicious all the way through winter, most critics agree, they also concur that spring is not the best time to eat them.
But even if Ichifuku is closed, Himeshima would not be known as kuruma ebi island if you couldn't satisfy your tiger prawn fix. In fact, every single one of the few restaurants on the island offers the dish.
The salt-roasted tiger prawns are delicious and inexpensive. The farmed odori kuruma ebi cost about 1200 yen each. Wild prawns sell for more.
Drink a beer, nibble through the appetizers and salad and wait for the big moment. Voil The kuruma ebi sits perfectly still in a large glass bowl. You might think it is dead. But once you touch it, it suddenly jerks and almost jumps out of the bowl. Now, on the second try, grab one forcefully, hold it by its lower body and, while it jerks wildly, break off the head. All the legs continue to move. Peel the shell off the body, dunk the shivering flesh into soy sauce and enjoy!
The waiter will take the prawn's head back to the kitchen. Repeat the procedure with as many prawns as your budget allows. Now, with some money in your pocket and some like-minded friends around, what could be a better way to spend the evening?
Himeshima offers a peculiar onsen experience - clear, cold, mineral-rich water emanating from the ground that turns milky-coffee-brown once it hits the air. To make it a bit more comfortable for the visitor, the brown water is heated up in the bath. Don't drink the water, though, unless you are constipated. It works like a strong laxative once imbibed.
If you visit in the right season, check out the butterfly gathering places on the island. The butterflies migrate north from Okinawa in early June and rest on the island in big swarms, then go to the north to Gifu and return to Okinawa via Himeshima in November. Thousands, millions of colorful butterflies surround you - an incredible sight.
Kunimi offers a few sights after the ferry journey back to the main island. Right next to Imi Ferry Port is Mibetsugusha Shrine, with a beautiful and anatomically correct phallus fertility sculpture in its grounds to the side.
The first ferry in the morning leaves Imi Port for Himeshima at 5:50am, the last one in the evening at 7:10pm (from December through March at 6pm). In between those times, ferries leave every hour.
For the return trip, the first morning ferry leaves Himeshima at 6:20am, the last one at 7:45pm (from December through March at 6:35 pm).
Bicycle rental: Higashi Rentacycle (Tel: 0978 87 3436). First hour 200 yen, with additional hours 100 yen.
Ichifuku Sushi Restaurant (Tel: 0978 87 2017, open from 11am-11pm, closed on Thursday, out of season it is closed more frequently. Wild tennen prawns available from August through October.
Words + images Johannes Schonherr
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