Knowing Tranquility: Inujima & Teshima 犬島 & 豊島
Edward J. Taylor
Inujima & Teshima are two islands in the Inland Sea that are part of the Setouchi Triennale with art exhibits by Japanese and international artists.
Descending the steps, I watch a pair of feathers brushing a young woman's shoulders. She is wearing these feathers as earrings, each so soft and so perfectly white that they might have come from the wings of angels. Yet what really helps her take flight is the music coming throughout the ear buds inserted just past each feather's spiny tip. It all looks connected, all part of a single accessory.
I started my journey at an hour before the Shinkansen run. After a slow ride through a light tinting all in silver and gold, I was whooshed along westward, feeling some pity for the salarymen forced to stand at such an early hour, heading as they were away from a three-day weekend spent presumably with family. I'd wager that a great number of these men did this trip every week, beckoned away by a conflicting loyalty to their company.
The roads to most of the islands of the Seto-Naikai begin here, at Okayama. It seems that most of the trips I had taken out across her waters had initiated with transport out of this station. I jump a taxi and repeat my destination to my driver at least twice, before his aged ears and my accent find some common ground. We wheel out, following a streetcar carving its way through a city scape bright and bleached out in the morning sun, the sparks bursting overhead an unnecessary accentuation. Green begins to temper the harsh glare at the edges of the city then eventually take over altogether, in the bright rows of spry rice stalks, and the duller hues of kudzu overtaking abandoned farm houses.
Ferry to Inujima
My taxi driver's sense of direction is as bad as his hearing, but he is persistent and finally gets it right, depositing me in a place that at least isn't too far a walk to my ferry. I'm at first uncertain of the boat when I see it, hardly bigger than the cabin cruisers that joy-riders had undoubtedly motored off shore this past holiday weekend. Indeed, it only sits 26, far fewer at this early hour, though most seem to be heading over to Inujima in order to perform work of some sort, the women carrying boxes of soft drinks, the men sitting along the seawall smoking. Behind them, an old woman collects rubbish with a pair of extended tongs, her disfigured face straight out of a Greek tragedy. I ask another woman issuing tickets whether there is bicycle hire on the island, and she smiles and asks why I would need a bicycle, as the whole island can be walked in under ninety minutes.
Indeed, Inujima proves to be so small that I can't make it out against the larger Shodoshima behind. I start out by sitting flanked by propane tanks in the aft, but then move to the bow so as to look out the front windows and face the future I am heading into, yet one that looks remarkably like the past.
And it is upon the past that I am relying on as a guide. In my pack is a copy of Donald Richie's iconic The Inland Sea, which I feel offers the most penetrating insight into Japanese society ever written. When I first read it shortly after my arrival here in 1994, I found it full of insight and truth. But truth is as fleeting as time. So with the book as template, I set off, to visit some of the places he visited, as well as others, in order to find out how much remains of what Richie saw nearly fifty years ago.
Once ashore, I find that the old cliche applies, of a place that time has given up on. A few new things have appeared however, as the island is now home to an art project that has sprouted up at various locations amidst the village. Serving as younger siblings to the world-renowned Naoshima, a number of islands in Japan's Inland Sea were chosen in 2010 to host an array of art exhibits that both highlight not only the artists but the traditions of the islands themselves. Dubbed the Setouchi Triennale, the project proved so successful that it will be repeated this year, co-hosted across 12 islands. Autumn events run from October 8th to November 6th.
Inujima's most notable new structure is the Seaside Gallery, whose wooden walls have been singed in order to protect it from the weather. Its shape and color reminds me of something out of the American Midwest, but rather than prairie, it instead rises from the sea. I have two hours until this and all the other structures open up, so I wander town, returning again to the dock within 15 minutes. I find a patch of shade and sit and wait, allowing time to give up on me too.
The coming of ten o'clock and the 'opening' of the island pulls me back. The ticket in hand is further reminder of the arbitrariness of place, as the limitless of both the spacial and the temporal are now once again open to me. Fitting then that my first destination, Seirensho Art Museum, looks simultaneously like it has both existed, and been abandoned, for ages.
I enter the museum proper into a darkness that further confuses since what at first appears to be a long passage turns out to be a zigzag path, 'straightened' by a series of mirrors. Senses by now completely confounded, time and space begin to further break down. When they finally do reassert themselves near what I assumed was the end, I found myself facing a mirror filled with sky, clouds passing mockingly. Through a side chamber next, into a room from whose ceiling hangs the pieces and fragments of an old building, fused only where the mind fills in the gaps. Reality thus totally shattered.
To step outside is a return to the world complete. But even here is a definitive incompleteness, in the decay of this former smelter that surprisingly stood for a mere decade at the turn of the last century. Smokestacks tower over all, devoid of foundation, rising from and toward nothing. One has chunks missing as if it bitten into. I enjoy a lovely morning hour beneath their brick, following a sandy trail that ducks in and out of the shade of jungle. It is a bit like the Buddhist ruins of Ashokan India, until the glimpses of the sea remind me again of where I am.
My stroll continues, taking in the better part of the island, past exhibits that have been incorporated into abandoned houses, representing the various natural elements in a variety of unique and creative ways. Upon approach a figure will emerge from shadow to stamp my ticket, then vanish again into shadow. It is after all a very hot day.
There is as much art on display in the views of the water that opens at the end of alleys, in the beautifully marked wings of a kite, in the triangular prows of fishing boats, in the etched faces of a pair of grannies staring out at a sea like at a third companion. The smile I receive as I pass is the greatest art of all.
Further on, a man sits in his garden listening to his radio. He beckons me over, and tells me to go inside the tumbledown shack behind to have a look at the simply massive carp he keeps in a small pool. It never fails to amuse me when I get into conversations with people who talk to me as if I were living abroad, ignoring completely the fact that we are conversing in perfect Japanese. After complimenting the man on the magnificence of his fish, I wander over to the port and performed my best imitation of him, waiting until someone comes along to take me to places far away.
Moments off the boat that sprinted me across to Teshima, I rent a bicycle to help me get around the art exhibits dotted about this hilly island. I have never ridden an electric bicycle before and am delighted at its speed, as I whiz along the harbor scaring stray cats. In the middle of the village of Ieura is a home designed by Yokoo Tadanori, who is perhaps my favorite Japanese artist. I don't usually go in for pop art (have never really gotten Warhol and his ilk), but I like Yokoo, perhaps because I have always been intrigued by Taisho and Showa period advertising.
This house then is a wonder to me, whose traditional garden has a carp pond of tiles so brilliant they rival the color of the fish themselves. The house is the opposite, subtle and dark like most old country homes, which makes Yokoo's work pop off the walls brilliantly. In one room, the floor is glassed so that you can watch the fish swim beneath the house itself. In the adjacent room you can enter a tall cylindrical tube with a similar mirrored floor, which in reflecting the height above gives the illusion that one is walking on air. The windows of the main house are tinted red to give the sky a post-apocalyptic look.
Back beneath the blue skies, fifth gear of my electric bicycle helps me fly up the long steep hills of the island center, then descend to the Art Museum, which is Teshima's showpiece. Museum is a bit of a stretch actually, as the only exhibit is the structure itself, a white domed roof covering a vast concrete floor. Two ovals have been cut out of the dome, to reveal not only sky and trees above, but also the song of bird and cicada. Despite this, there is a quality to the silence within that is metaphysical, like that of a Buddhist temple or, considering the coolness of the floor, a mosque.
There are two dozen or so people here sprawled out on the floor, in various states of doze. Resting perhaps after the long bicycle ride up. I walk barefoot between them, dodging the puddles of water that are moving across the floor in a way that looks like they are crawling toward one another, and eventually toward a larger primordial pool at the center that little by little is taking them all in. The spiritual metaphor is again oh so present.
Les Archives du Cœur
It takes a great deal of effort to pull myself away, but I have one more stop to make. At the island's far end is Les Archives du Cœur. A woman clad in a doctor's uniform meets me, then gestures toward a door off to the side of the room. Entering, all is dark, but for a single light bulb that pulses red in time to the beat of a human heartbeat emitted by a massive pair of woofers at the room's far end. Since the exhibit's installation, over 42,000 people have recorded their heartbeats, to be played at some point for the benefit of visitors to come. I am listening to the heart of a young Parisian woman who was the 16th person to contribute her rhythm. I return to the door, and out once again to the beach, to the rhythm of the cicada whose own hearts will cease beating within a fortnight.
With their roar in my ears, I look across the waters to the east. I have left behind now the room of red, of white, of black, and the blue above that has been my constant companion is now going grey with the building of storm clouds. Across similarly tinted waters lies the island where I will spend the night, and as I pedal away I greatly anticipate the day's final array of color, tinting the local specialties of both farm and sea.
Access - Getting to Inujima & Teshima
From Okayama Station ride a JR Ako Line train to Saidaiji Station (20 minutes) and change to a Ryobi bus going to Higashi Hoden (東宝伝).
Get off the bus at Nishi Hoden (西宝伝). There are only 3-4 buses a day and the journey takes an hour. See the Ryobi bus timetable.
There are ferries from the ferry terminal to Inuyama that take just 10 minutes.
For access to all the islands participating in the Setouchi Triennale festival, please see this website for details.
The Japan Rail Pass is valid on the Shinkansen and JR Ako Line.
Accommodation options are more plentiful on nearby Shodoshima. There are a number of hotels and ryokan in Tonosho including the recommended Shodoshima International Hotel, the Resort Hotel Olivean Shodoshima, Hotel Green Plaza Shodoshima and the Bay Resort Hotel Shodoshima. Traditional ryokan and minshuku on Shodoshima include Irifune, Shodoshima Olive Youth Hostel and Matsukaze.
About the Author
Based in Kyoto, Edward's work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications. Co-editor of the Deep Kyoto Walk anthology, he is currently at work on a series of books about walking Japan's ancient highways.