Knowing Tranquility Part V: Mukaijima, Innoshima, Ikuchijima
Edward J. Taylor
Read travel guides to the islands of Mukaijima, Innoshima and Ikuchijima in the Inland Sea.
The weather has taken a turn. It is no longer the heat of a hazy July afternoon, but the first stirrings of a chill borne upon an October morn. This chill envelops me as I disembark the train in Fukuyama. Looking to bring some heat back into my body, I undergo a long search for a vending machine that has the tell-tale red strips which signify hot cans of coffee, its bottom shelves having switched from blue at the top of the month. Forgoing the escalators I produce my own heat in the climb up to the platform, at the edge of which I stand with my face turned to a sun that promises Indian summer.
Since my previous posts, I have jumped ahead a fair bit in Donald Richie's The Inland Sea. But Richie's travel narrative too was spliced together from a variety of trips over the years, despite the book's seamless flow. He wrote a great deal on Onomichi, the town to which I was currently headed. While he had spent a fair number of pages detailing the ins and outs of its back-alleys, I'd merely be passing through, with only enough time in town to get on a rented bicycle and move myself toward the water.
Onomichi 尾道 & Mukaijima 向島
It's no real surprise that Richie had in Onomichi alluded so much to sex (a favorite topic of sorts that can be found throughout his writings), as the Chinese characters for Onomichi (尾道) could be quite liberally read as 'the path on which to pursue tail.' In a similar distortion of kanji, I find myself whistling the old World War I classic, "Over there," during my ten minute journey across the strait to Mukaijima.
The island itself is essentially a suburb of the city. I've always had a complicated relationship with Onomichi. I greatly appreciate climbing the hills between its temples and strolling along its 'path of literature.' (I have a fond memory of walking the latter with a friend who struggled up the slopes on a leg crippled from polio, in a scene that could almost be found in one of Mishima's works.) Despite that, I've always found it a godawfully ugly port city, whose unattractiveness can be seen even in 1953 in that marvelous closing shot of Ozu's Tokyo Story.
But that is behind me now. I make my way across the island, on a rented bicycle that bears the scars of multiple accidents. Chipped paint, frayed wires, and a front basket misshapen like a gourd. As I move along, the saddle wobbles a bit, but I am thankful for this play as it will spare me from a sore bum at the end of the day. nd most of its 24 gears are in good working order. So it would be that on this machine I'll be spending the next three days, at an unhurried pace, over a route that could be covered in eight hours if done in one go. Thus, I begin to follow the blue line toward Imabari on Shikoku.
The first part of my journey is along a rather uninspired shopping street that eventually spills me out on the open waters of the bay. Amongst the boats anchored there is an old fishing boat with wooden cabin and neat triangular sail, which shines a fine white against the green and blue behind.
The sun shimmers off the water as I weave along the shoreline, stopping time and again to take photos. Traffic along the road is thankfully sparse, and unhurried as it goes. In contrast, vehicles move at great speed along the highway above, racing toward the first bridge which is beginning to loom up around the curves.
For us bicyclists, an access road has been built parallel, one that zigs and loops up through the fruit orchards toward the bridge's great height. Mercifully, the road's pitch is kept at about 3 degrees, which allows for a slow but not terribly difficult ascent.
I reach the apex and am fed onto the bridge, one level down from all that speeding traffic overhead. The bridge vibrates at their passage, which along with the height, has me feeling a bit uneasy as I cross its kilometer-long span over the channel.
The road down the other side is a tight spiral, and before long I am back at the water's edge. I wonder whether the bicycle paths were planned along with the bridge, or were an afterthought. In any case, a good amount of concrete has been poured, no doubt to the delight of the LDP and the local construction industry.
I have often written of my disgust with Japan's concrete coated countryside, but I find that I don't particularly mind it in this form. Rather than looking at roads to nowhere, I think I would quite enjoy riding similar paths through unkept forests and hills over the length of the country.
On Innoshima now. I could cross the island in less than an hour, but decide to detour and look at its sights. I had seen a trio of lighthouses from the bridge above, so try to seek them out. I pedal up a steep mountain road, and notice the steps leading downward to structures so gleaming white that they once again bring out the comparison with Greece.
Climbing the steps is another bicyclist, spandex head to toe. He is startled to see me, but once recovering, asks me where I am from. I know the answer he is after, but I am feeling obstinate and say "Kyoto." He mutters a bit after that, wondering why I am out here since Kyoto is such a beautiful place and has so much to offer. People have to go somewhere, I retort.
This encounter sets up a thematic tone for the next few days. Once again, the inhabitants in these remote corners rarely treat me as any different than they. It is only the other travelers, those from the 'civilized' cities, who take note of the difference of my Caucasian features.
I nurse my 'wounds' with a coffee down at the water's edge, eyeing a lovely campsite edged up across the trees. A few kilometers further on, I pass a small hand written sign reminding riders to travel safely. Beside the sign is a bouquet of cosmos and other wild flowers. They are slowly drying in the sun, giving their lives for whomever lost theirs on this shaded curve in the road.
I find my detour road to Shirataki-san, which twists upward at a 15-degree slant. It isn't long before I am off the bike, pushing its heavy frame toward the sun. Easier than riding, harder than walking. I take a rest at a fork in the road, and eat a power bar. I had very little breakfast this morning and am feeling it. It must be affecting my judgment as well. As I return from scouting out a route down, I notice a crow atop my backpack, about to tear into my first aid kit. I clap and holler to scare him off, but it is too late; he's already gotten the rest of my snacks. Just when I am calling him a murderous bastard (and things worse), I turn to see a pair of Australians with curious looks on their faces.
The rest of the uphill goes quickly due to conversation. I snap a few photos of them, then continue on my own, wandering over the hillside amongst the 700 stone Buddhas, praising each and every one for such a clear day and rewarding views. From this aerie I confirm my ride down, and before too long I am following it, around and to the south to a village where I get lunch at a kaiten sushi shop, inspired not in the least by the roundabout where I was raided by the crow.
From this encounter with a sanzoku (山賊), I seek out the kaizoku (海賊), although here the pirates were called the euphemistic suigun, or navy. I think back on the pirate lore of Megijima and others, but here is physical proof in the form of a castle keep standing on a hillock.
It is a rebuild to be sure, as a society as top-heavy as the Edo shogunate would never have allowed such blatant contrarians to exist, but it allows me an enjoyable half an hour to wander the displays of weapons and ships of yore, beneath the booming voice familiar from commercials and NHK.
I loop back around to rejoin the path where I left it, then follow it off the island. Up and over now to Ikuchijima, pausing briefly for a mikan gelato on the way to Kosan-ji.
I have been here before, in a journey by car and ferry in those days before the bridges were built. Besides the kitschy entertainment of the passage through Buddhist hells, all I remember is a bustling courtyard framed by gaudy architecture.
Today, it is lackluster, a bit forlorn, and I am nearly alone. What a difference two decades makes. It presents a wonderful example of mono-no-aware, and how poignant that a shrine built to the memory of a deceased mother has become so neglected upon the death of the filial son.
There has been some attempt at resuscitation in the construction of the bright white marble 'Heights of Eternal Hope' that tops the hill behind. Sadly, sometimes hope springs infernal, and perhaps they should add a new display to the passages through hell below, of death due to slow economic decline.
I make one final stop for the day, at the adjacent museum of local artist Hirayama Ikuo. I don't think much of his art (which might present better with black lights and lava lamps), but am quite taken with his story, of a wanderer who covered a great deal in his time, along some rather remote pathways.
His steps took him far from this hometown of Setoda, a place of which Richie was quite critical in his book due to its crass commercialism, including his classic quip, "Travel hopefully broadens those who travel. It usually narrows those who have to deal with the travelers." Today, I find the place quietly charming, as my legs pump through their final revolutions of the day, coming to rest at my waterfront hotel.
After dinner, I sit before my window and read. Time and again, my attention is pulled by movement from outside. Below me, water flows black through these narrow straits. It carries a long small water taxi along, which I watch until it disappears beneath the monochromatic rainbow of a small bridge. It is only then that I realize how few boats I'd seen today. I tend to associate the Inland Sea with the old ferries shunting residents from island to island. How truly superfluous the bridges have made them, and the era in which they ruled.A high school girl is waiting in the light of the ferry terminal, to be eventually picked up by her mother. I imagine that the mother too grew up on this island, with this scene repeated a generation before. I compare her to the schoolgirl of a similar age who had served me dinner downstairs, in this hotel run by her family for countless generations. Lives follow the lives of those who came before, time spinning like the movement of the eddies just offshore.
Onomichi is on the JR Sanyo Line, 20 minutes from Fukuyama, 90 minutes from Hiroshima, or 70 minutes from Okayama.
Shinonomichi is a shinkansen station but only the slow Kodama trains stop there. There are buses from Shinonomichi into the town but it is easy to get off the shinkansen in Fukuyama and take a local train from there.
Ferries from Onomichi go to many of the islands in the Inland Sea as well as to Imabari in Shikoku and Tomonoura near Fukuyama. One of the most popular ferries is to Setoda on Ikuchijima. Several ferries frequently cross the narrow waterway to Mukaijima.
Visitors to Onomichi should also visit Onomichi Castle, a replica castle erected in 1964.
Onomichi has a range of hotels and ryokans for those wanting an overnight stay, but Mukaishima (Mukaijima), the small island just two minutes away by ferry also has accommodation options. Some recommended places to stay include Hotel Cycle, the Onomichi Kokusai Hotel near the station, the Onomichi Royal Hotel and the Senkoji Sanso, a traditional Japanese inn or ryokan just 300m from Senkoji.
See here for a full listing of hotels and guest houses in Onomichi.
On Ikuchijima try Suminoe Ryokan near Kosanji.
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