Kutsuna Islands & Aoshima

Knowing Tranquility Part XVI: Kutsuna Islands, (忽那諸島), Matsuyama & Aoshima (青島)

Edward J. Taylor

The Kutsuna Islands are a chain of small islands (nine of which are inhabited) off the coast of Matsuyama in Shikoku. They are known for their production of citrus fruits and marine products. Aoshima ("Cat Island") is famous for its large population of cats that outnumber humans six to one.

It had been a strange night. My lodging had been perhaps one of the most remote on the entire journey, but had proven the liveliest. A group of workmen looked to be long-term residents, occupied with a public works project of some sort. I'd worried about them and their cigarettes and their possible noise, but I barely noticed they were there. The real noise came from a private party raging away somewhere in the inn, a group of drunken old timers having a reunion of sorts. Luckily they ran out of steam around 10 pm.

Tattered flag on high speed ferry, Japan.
Tattered flag on high speed ferry

Reunions

I am always amused by the concept of reunions in Japan. People in their 60's still meet regularly with kindergarten mates, and I still get emails for meet-ups from a three-day drum workshop I took 15 years ago. But we all know that the group is the thing, and the only time people seem to be alone in public is when they walk their dog.

Kutsuna Islands

There are plenty of dog walkers as I head through the sleepy suburbs toward the ferry dock. I sit by the water and eat a basic "road breakfast" of convenience store bread and canned coffee.

Others begin to show up for the early commute out to Nakajima, the central hub of the Kutsuna island chain. One is a young foreign woman, who I take to be the English teacher for the schools out there. I am curious about what life must be like for her, but rather than pester her with questions, I choose to leave her alone. I probably know the story already: Former teachers had probably lived on the island itself, but finally one had asked to be relocated to the mainland. More anonymity that way, while simultaneously more access to others from abroad. Being foreign in Japan is a special type of loneliness.

As the boat speeds along, I decide that while I'm not lonely, I am a little bored. These islands don't seem to offer much to look at, and I could see from a distance that Nakajima has been overbuilt.

Maybe I am getting tired of seeing similar looking places, or again, maybe I know I am nearing journey's end. Donald Richie in his book The Inland Sea had come here by mistake, having boarded the wrong boat. In my own case I was beginning to feel the same way. One of my favorite parts of this trip was riding around on the boats anyway, so I decided that I would do something different and remain aboard, following the commuter line around to four of the other islands in the chain.

Not that there is much. Nuwa-jima hides behind tetrapods. From the first floor of a house in the port you'd never see anything of the sea. Tsuwaji-jima has more charm, but is somewhat forlorn. Little surprise as this island is the furthest out. But the name of Futagami-jima had intrigued and been the real catalyst for my change of heart. It has only a few houses, and small intimate harbor, above which stands a small and beautifully weather-beaten temple. I wonder about the other deities, the two that had given the island its name. While that information eludes me when I investigate later, I do find that in 1972 National Geographic had done a pictorial on the island, as one place untouched by the modernization of the mainland. But time has proven to leave it behind. All the schools have now closed, as there is no one under the age of 16.

But two shonen (youths) had left an impact on the island, one I was surprised to find that I had witnessed. In 1998 a comedy duo known as Rokkotsu Mania had elected to be stranded on nearby Yuri Island, and I had followed their story for over a year on the program Jump! Dempa Shonen, up until they had eventually escaped to this very same Futagami Island. A coincidence befitting the gods.

And the divine can be felt in the winds building out to the west past sprawling Yashiro Island, which closes on the Inland Sea, upon the hinge of a bridge that connects it to the mainland. A number of fishermen are out on the water, trying to get in one last catch before the typhoon roars by in a day or two.

Matsuyama Castle, Matsuyama, Japan.
Matsuyama Castle
Matsuyama Castle, Matsuyama, Japan.
View from Matsuyama Castle

Matsuyama

Windswept I arrive in port, then ride a rattletrap train into Matsuyama proper. While leading tours, I've often stayed the night over in Dogo Onsen, and it dawns on me that I've never really looked around town proper.

There are a few old buildings at the base of the castle, of minor historical interest in the Meiji Period. Matsuyama Castle above is an original, as are many others in a remote Shikoku, barely touched by World War II. I give my weary legs a break with a ride on a chair lift, then wander a long while around the castle grounds, before descending a forested and uneven walk down to the quiet of the Ninomaru Shiseki Garden below.

Feline Inhabitants of Cat Island, Ehime Prefecture, Japan.
Feline Inhabitants of Aoshima, aka Cat Island, Ehime Prefecture

Aoshima

I was given time to dawdle since there are only two boats a day out to Aoshima. The train rattles me further down the coast, well beyond where Richie ever got. The train is surprisingly full, for a weekday, most of them college students. Nearly all of them disembark at Shimonada Station, due to the fact that it is an unmanned station, in keeping with the current trend to 'collect' visits to remote lines and stations. Shimonada is special in that it has been featured numerous times on the Seishun 18-Ticket train pass for young people. (No I am not making this up. I suppose it beats sitting around a tiny flat on a sunny afternoon.)

The rest of the youth get off with me, and we all share the same boat out to Aoshima, aka Cat Island. At the time of writing, the island has dwindled to a mere 15 residents, not enough to put together a baseball game. But there are well over 100 cats. The latter advance at the sound of our engines, running for the dock. On further look, I see that food has been left nearby, probably to draw them out. Some of the cats rub themselves in what looks like the dust of former meals. A number of people, including another foreigner, are wandering around, having come on the morning boat. Ours will wait for an hour until taking us all back.

While waiting to board the boat the rain had begun to potsu potsu off the water, but out here it is clear. I leave the group clustered around the cats and wander off to a shrine that I'd seen on approach. It is on a lonely promontory, near a marker commemorating an SDF plane that crashed here in 1986. To quote the inscription, they now rest in the treasure house that are these waters.

I wander back past the pier and through the town. I climb up to a small shrine and look around. This is the real appeal to me, the ruins of a community that once supported 900. Today I see only four or five structures that look livable. The rest are listing, falling in, being overtaken by ivy and vines. I continue to climb, up to the open field where the elementary students had played until 1976. The middle school, closed a decade before that, and is now nearly overtaken with vegetation. I carry on out to the far end of village, before turning back. There are cats literally everywhere.

For such a large island, the human community of Aoshima has clustered itself in a single small cove. The cats too seem to linger there. I don't like their chances. A nurse visits regularly, and there are obvious stockpiles of food, but what's going to happen to these cats when the people eventually die off? How can they survive, fed and pampered as they are. Those able to adapt would probably devour anything edible soon enough, and then the island would truly become uninhabited.

I have a little time before the boat leaves, so go sit awhile with the cats. One woman teases them with toys she has brought with her. How often has she been here? There are a number of photographers here too. I'd seen a number of them stalking between buildings, like they were hunting game. They are representative of the popularity of the island, which has been drawing day-trippers since the island began to appear in blogs a few years ago.

As we pull away, a man comes out to the waterfront and waves us goodbye. I had seen him earlier. Startled by the sound of a television coming from somewhere, I noticed him sitting in one of the houses, thus absorbed. What else are you going to do, I suppose, when all of your neighbors are gone? I couldn't imagine anyone spending the night here. It all seemed so haunted.

Looking at the others on the boat, I think of how different our time on the island must have been. They were consumed with life, with the time spent with the cats. Me, sentimental as I am, saw the decay, the death of what had once been a thriving community.

But there is hope. Aoshima, like a number of other islands I visited have been getting a lot of attention on social media. The falling birthrate and flight of young people to the cities is most certainly killing off a lot of rural Japan. Yet it is these same young people who are also instilling life, albeit second hand through social media or their interest in manga or films set in small communities. This revitalization around pop culture is literally life imitating art.

Decaying houses on Aoshima, Ehime Prefecture, Japan.
Decaying houses on Aoshima, Ehime Prefecture

Access - Getting To The Kutsuna Islands

The Kutsuna islands can be reached by Nakajima Kisen ferries from Matsuyama. The terminal is a 2 minute walk from Takahama Station.

Ferries leave twice a day for Aoshima from Iyo Nagahama port, five minutes walk from Iyo Nagahama Station, 75 minutes from Matsuyama Station on the JR Yosan Line.

Accommodation

Matsuyama city makes a good central hub, and has a good choice of accommodation,

These include the Hotel Sunroute Matsuyama, Matsuyama New Grand HotelGuest House CasablancaTerminal Hotel Matsuyama, the Japanese style ryokan Yamatoya Honten and the New Kajiwara Hotel.

See here for a full listing of hotels and guest houses in Matsuyama.

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


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