Knowing Tranquility Part XV: Kurahashijima (倉橋島) & Ninoshima (似島)
Edward J. Taylor
Kurahashi in Hiroshima Prefecture is connected to Honshu by bridge. It was a major place of ship-building in the Nara and Heian periods of Japanese history. Ninoshima is just 30 minutes by ferry from Ujina Port in Hiroshima and is known for its 278m-tall Aki-no-Kofuji - a small hill that is said to resemble Mt. Fuji.
Today, Wednesday, somehow resembles Sunday. In the fading light last evening, I had found Kure somewhat attractive, if I turned my back to the water. But the drive out of town officially shifts Kure into the ugly column, and beyond.
I find buses in Japan a problem as the bar across the window is at eye height. My knees are locked against the seat in front so can't really slouch, leaving the scenery outside to look watermarked. Any old buildings I see are made of brick, the only things to have survived the bombings. Next comes the Japanese SDF base, whose ships bob peacefully beside those of the US Navy. The towering grey of their hulls blot out the city beyond completely.
Then Ondo. Hot today. Donald Richie in his book The Inland Sea wandered an old machine gun bunker here, reading the graffiti left behind. There are many such bunkers guarding the well-protected channel into Kure, and I couldn't even imagine finding the one he'd visited. This too would have to remain one of his mysteries. What is more interesting is the back-story: How did he find out about it? What was he doing out there? It didn't seem the type of place he would gravitate to, simply to look at some names scratched on the wall.
The bridge between Ondo and the island of Kurahashi is an engineering marvel, and when the flowers adjacent are in bloom, the road can be backed up for miles. The bridge needed to be built tall in order to let the big naval boats through, but there wasn't enough space to ramp the traffic up to the desired height.
Instead, they built spirals on either end, which resembles film reels that spool the celluloid loftily across the waters. Legend has it that the Heian Period warrior Kiyomori had also built a bridge here, over a single night in order to woo a local beauty. But I doubt his bridge was nearly as impressive.
The bus route ends at Katsurahama, so I of course leave it. This beach, another of Japan's best, has many famous allusions to the Manyoshu poetry collection, namely a diplomatic envoy that sailed from here to Korea in 736.
There is a scale-built model of their ship in a small museum nearby, and I stroll her decks, marvelling at how unpleasant the small cabins would have been, more confining even than my bus. The Manyoshu also celebrated the 500 pine trees here and rightly so.
They line a pleasant stretch of beach, pointing their tops at the rocky cliffs above, whose quarries provided the stone work for the current Diet building in Tokyo. A small industry has been built around the beach, and though I forgo a trip to the hot springs, I do pop in briefly to a small museum, which has little of interest but for a few chalk-like mammoth bones.
What does eventually get my attention is the Cafe Slow. The beach bar and the Reggae music first grabbed me, but it the promise of a cold beer on a hot day that tightens the grip. I could easily spend the rest of the day here, between dips in the sea. But I have a lot more ground to cover.
I had intended to hitch the next section, as bus service is infrequent out here, but compromise on a taxi, as that will allow me more time to follow the example built into the cafe's name. So I splurge on the taxi, which takes me to Nakamachi on Etajima and my next boat.
As it pulls away, I see what I mistake for pandas but realize are mompe-clad women on the shore. They may be affiliated with the oyster industry, massive here on Etajima, the farms filling every bay, and paralleling the shorelines of many islands.
Men tread cautiously across the wooden frames that suspend the still living oysters in bags below the water's surface. In a month or so, these same oysters will begin to appear on table across the country. The islands around here are busy on this workday.
Those of Hiroshima Prefecture are a lot more built up than the islands of Okayama. I reflect on Naomi Klein's concept of Shock Doctrine, and wonder if the citizens traumatized by their unique and horrific form of wartime suffering were easily manipulated into accepting massive amounts of industry that flowed in after the war in order to rebuild. Now sadly, the environment itself looks traumatized.
A bit of nature therapy feels a bit right after the blight of industry. The island of Ninoshima carries the nickname of Aki-no-Kofuji, and the conical shape resembles exactly that, Japan's highest and most recognizable peak, Mt. Fuji.
And what are islands anyway but partially submerged mountains? From the ship the climb promises to be steep and tough, a mere 278 meters, but hard fought. The trail is clear and easy to follow but quite spider laden as is expected in late summer, so I carry a stick before me like a katana and bash my way through.
The final section leaves the forest finally to become exposed earth, eroded away in some places. I rest awhile, enjoying the rare view of Hiroshima city, looking up her delta flood plain. Twin-peaked Miyajima is to the west, the oyster beds at her feet aglow in the setting sun.
I am finding it difficult to leave the view, the surface of the sea dotted with islands in every direction. I am coming to the end of the journey, but feel I could do this indefinitely. Follow the sea out to Kyushu, then island hop to Korea and traverse her craggy south.
Momentum morphs into velocity, and I'm on my feet again. My hike was meant to take one hour, but I did it just over half that time. I'd alloted two hours on the island, but should be able to make the previous boat. I fly down, slowed only by the odd spider webs I'd missed coming up, not taking into account that I'd be taller coming down. Midway down, I pass a group of college students who would camp at the summit. I envy them the sunrise they'll get before powering on.
I have a few spare minutes to circle the town, one barely hanging on. Then I am aboard and stand on deck to dry out, on my way to Hiroshima. My feet barely have time to register that shore before they carry me onto a high speed ferry bound for Matsuyama on Shikoku far beyond.
The boat acts as a Shinkansen, carrying commuters in both directions. Sans ties and in shirtsleeves, in this the final month of cool biz wear, beer cans in one hand acting as counter weights to briefcases in the other. We take in more passengers in Kure, then whiz past factories shooting flames many stories into the air, like the Olympic torch from hell.
The sun is setting now out my carefully chosen starboard side window. It is one of those glorious light shows that attract even the most jaded commuter, and phone cameras begin to click noisily in the circular window frames. It has been a very long day for me. I'll lose the light soon, but when it returns anew, it will reveal the journey to come.
Access - Getting To Katsurahama
Frequent buses serve Katsurahama from Kure Station. Ninojima can be accessed from Ujina Port in Hiroshima city by ferry in 30 minutes.
For Katsurahama, there are a few small inns and hotels, including the Seaside Katsurahama-so (katsuragahamaso.com).
See here for a full listing of hotels and guest houses in Kure.
If you wish for us to reserve accommodation for you anywhere in Japan (for a small fee) please contact us.
See here for hotels in Hiroshima.
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. Edward is the author of the blog notesfromthenog.blogspot.jp