Japan City Guides: Shodoshima
I boarded a ship named the Olive Maru, of the Olive Line Ferry. When we docked, I caught the Olive Liner bus to the town of Nishimura. That is where the olives grow.
On the side of the hill rising out of the bay, stood a Greek-styled fade. In the central atrium, a towering Athena watched busloads of tourists being conducted briskly through her tiny museum, and then, of course, on to the gift shop.
There, they grabbed up olive chocolates, olive soap, olive cosmetics, olive bath salts, black olives in tins and green olives in jars. They eyed the bottles of olive oil suspiciously, asking each other, "Why does it say 'virgin' on the label? What do virgins have to do with olive oil?" They bought them anyway, because they had come to Shodoshima.
The Seto Inland Sea is called Japan's Agean, and little Shodoshima has been dubbed her "Olive Island". (Read about another island in the Seto Inland Sea, Naoshima.)
Passing up a night at the Hotel Olivian, a sprawling complex of spa and sport facilities, ultra luxurious accommodations, and fine restaurants, I slept at the Olive Youth Hostel, and walked along the shores of Olive Beach. Even the city garbage bags were printed with a sketch of olives ripening on the branch.
With all this olive consciousness, you might think that olives, themselves would be a prominent feature of life in Nishimura. Olives are, for example, food. So I imagined some sort of olive cuisine on every restaurant menu in town.
My first challenge was to find the restaurants. The people of Shodoshima are generally friendly and helpful. It would be unusual if you actually had to ask for directions on the island. Just look unsure about where you are going, and there will be someone at your elbow telling you how to get to the nearest sightseeing spot. But even lifelong residents of Nishimura will cock their heads and suck their teeth, dumbfounded, if you ask after a good place for lunch.
The Sun Olive Spa, to the right of the psuedo-greek monument, has a small restuarant inside. At six o'clock they break out the dinner menu: curry rice and bentos. In the center of town there are two noodle shops: one for udon, one for numen. Their menus make no mention of olives.
To be fair, olives do show up in the role of accents. The house specialty at Sun Olive Spa included sea bream doused with olive oil. There was one tiny, batter fried manzanilla tucked into the tempura at the numen restaurant. I was chastised by a waiter at the Hotel Olivean because I did not order bread with my dinner. It is served, he explained, with an accompanying dish of olive oil into which one dips the bread instead of spreading it with butter.
"This," he said, as he poured it out, "is virgin olive oil, so you can drink it."
But, outside of the gift shop, it is rare to find an olive that is not growing on a tree. Although there are plenty of those. To the left of the monument, the hill is covered with an olive grove, and it is lovely to walk there. You can look out over the tops of the green and silver leafed trees, and the surface of a clear watered sea, to a horizon bursting with little islands that crowd in on one another as they fade off into the mist. You really get the feeling of being on an archipelago.
During the growing season, you can see the olives in all their colorful stages of ripening, from yellowish green to royal purple to deep, reddish black, but what are they ripening for? Come in the fall, and you will see them fallen, unharvested, to the ground, where they remain to be crushed underfoot until they are swept up by gardeners.
There is a clue at the heart of the grove: an old grandmother of a tree. A stone signpost proclaims her as progenitor of olive trees on the island. If you know your olives (or if you turn around after paying your respects to the First Tree and read the other sign) you will see that the olives in this grove are manzanillas, a hardy variety native to Spain, not Greece.
If you think there is something fishy here, then you are more right than you may know. Open a tin of sardines and you'll see why. Oil is used to pack fish. It was not for the sake of the palate, nor aesthetics, nor internationalism. It was for its fishing industry that the Japanese government decided, to produce its own oil rather than buy it from other countries.
In 1908, the prefectures of Mie, Kagoshima, and Kagawa were charged with the growing of olives. Only one town, in one prefecture, succeeded. That is how Kagawa Prefecture's Nishimura, on Shodoshima became the olive capital of Japan.
Shodoshima is well worth a visit, but she is better appreciated for what comes naturally to her, than for anything that has been imported. At the edge of the olive grove, a small shrine lies deep in the shadows of trees native to Japan. A sign outside the torii gate says there used to be a stage here where the townspeople performed plays, and that they would sometimes make a sumo arena there. Now there are olive trees. This, in microcosm, is the story of Shodoshima.
Shodoshima used to be an island of entertainment. While sport and the performing arts have taken a back seat to the olive hype, traditions that go back through generations before the olives came, have quietly continued. There are two Kabuki theaters that host annual performances. The mild climate is ideal for making soy sauce and somen noodles, and you can reserve free, hands on, tours at several of the firms that produce them.
Uematsu Tomoko, third generation owner of the Yamahisa soy sauce company, invited me into her office, after showing me around the brewery, for a steaming cup of olive leaf tea (her latest brainchild). She has lived on Shodoshima all her life, and loves the place.
"We have the ocean and the mountains right together, here," she says, and where they do come together on Shodoshima's coastline, it can be breathtaking.
What is best of all is just the feel of the place. When you step off the ferry from Osaka, Himeji, or Okayama, the change of pace wraps around you like a comfortable, old sweater. No one is in a rush. Bus drivers will spread out timetables and discuss the routes and fares with customers.
When night falls on Shodoshima it is one of pitch blackness that cities never see. You can fall asleep listening to the waves on the shore, the wind in the trees, and you can wake up to see fishing boats cutting across a golden swath of rising sun, splashed over the harbor just outside your door. If you need a break, a weekend away, in a place where you can slow down and hear yourself think, Shodoshima is waiting.
Shodoshima can only be accessed by sea.
There is an express boat operated by Goto Sangyo Kisen (06 6573 0530) to Kobe (1 hour 35 mins) and Osaka (2 hours 10 mins) twice daily with more sailings on weekends and national holidays from Sakate on Shodoshima. A slower car ferry operated by Kansai Kisen (06 6572 5181) travels between Sakate and Kobe (3 hours) and Osaka (4 hours 20 mins).
There is a Kansai Kyuko (0792 34 7100) car ferry between Himeji and Fukuda on Shodoshima. The journey takes 1 hour 40 minutes.
There are ferries to Uno with the Shodoshima Ferry Company (0879 62 1348) and Shin Okayama in Okayama Prefecture with the Ryobi Ferry Company (086 274 1222) and to Takamatsu in Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku with the Shikoku Ferry Group (087 851 0131) from Tonosho on Shodoshima.
From Ikeda and Kusakabe on Shodoshima there are also ferries to Takamatsu. From Ikeda the passage with the Kokusai Ferry Company (0879 75 0405) is 1 hour. From Kusakabe, the journey with the Uchinomi Ferry Company (0879 82 1080) is also 1 hour
There is a 1 hour car ferry to Hinase in Okayama Prefecture from Obe on Shodoshima with Setouchi Kanko Kisen (0869 72 0698).
Text and Photos by Alan Wiren