Knowing Tranquility Part VI: Omishima, Oshima, Majima
Edward J. Taylor
Read travel guides to the islands of Omishima, Oshima and Majima in the Inland Sea north of Shikoku.
I forego breakfast for the short climb up to Kojo-ji, to gaze past its National Treasure pagoda into the direction of the day's ride. Hirayama Ikuo had been here before me, of course, and dotted along the temple grounds are sketches he has made. Simplistic and filled with brighter colors, I appreciate these far more than the larger works that made him famous. The hour is early but people are already working. A woman sweeps leaves in the narrow lanes of the village below, and some unseen hand has lit a fire that burns its way through the rubbish of the day before.
I repeat this on the far shore of Oshima, looking backward along the route I'd just pedaled. I find myself thinking a great deal about bicycling, about how much I am enjoying myself, but that I still find it an inferior form of travel to walking, as the pace is too fast and I often find myself wheeling around to get a better look at something I'd whizzed past.
A large complaint is with the unfriendliness of the 'fraternity' of bicyclists. When passing a fellow hiker on a trail, nearly all will return a greeting. With bicyclists it is perhaps one-in-ten. And the one who does smile back is inevitably clad in casual clothes like me, riding something equally shabby. The more professional among us never even make eye contact. Perhaps their spandex is too tight on the muscles to allow for the curt nod of the head, or the upturned edges of a grin.
But I love being here, with the wind and the sun. The weather is absolutely perfect as I follow Omishima's 'Island Explorer' course around its northern corners, between the shimmer of water and the gentle colorful sway of the cosmos flowers.
I eventually arrive at Oyamazumi Shrine, one of Japan's three most important shrines. I wander beneath the shrine's towering ancient camphor trees, trying and failing to remember a visit made here in 1997. On that visit, I chose to give the shrine's Treasure House a miss, something I later regretted after learning that close to 80% of its collection are National Treasures. I won't make that same mistake today.
Victorious warlords would donate weapons here after an important victory, and it was fascinating to see all these names familiar from Japanese history. Could that really be Kiso Yoshinaka's sword? I wanted to believe it, although in his 2001 afterword to the later Stone Bridge Press edition of The Inland Sea, Richie mentions that what was Yoshitsune's spear today had been attributed to Benkei on Richie's visit three and a half decades before.
In a similar vein, this island's most famous daughter Tsuruhime Ohori (whose armor is here too) was renowned for near single-handedly repelling an invading force at age 16. Unfortunately no records of her can be found prior to a novel written in 1968. Like the branches of millennia-old trees, memory can be pliant, twisting and bending to the ravages of the winds, and to time.
Over and across Hakatajima, an island on which I never actually set foot, as my feet never once leave my pedals. Oshima is next, and last. After a quick lunch, I board a boat that takes me out amidst the powerful whirlpools that had been both a threat to the powerful pirate clans here, as well as a clever defense system for their fortress that once stood atop a trio of small islets between.
In order to move through the swirling water, a boat's engine needs be powerful, and powerful it is, roaring so loudly that I can't make out the narration coming through the speakers. So I choose to sit back and enjoy an hour out of the saddle. The pilot cuts the engines from time to time, allowing us to pitch and spin within the eddies, before reengaging them just before we smash upon the rocks. I can't help thinking that I've experienced a great deal in my life, but never have I been tossed about by a whirlpool. Highly recommended.
I make a quick visit to the Murakami pirate museum, a twin to the one I visited yesterday on Innoshima. Apparently a large number of the current residents of these islands bear this surname, so at least one of them must be among the workmen currently rebuilding the old fortress just across the water. It is bound to be more interesting than this place, which doesn't really capture my attention. Perhaps its because the day is growing late, and I have a lot more riding to do.
Naturally, I encounter the only hills on the Shimanami Kaido, two coming in quick succession. The busy road upon which I travel too conspires to making this one of the least pleasant parts of the journey. I eventually find myself atop the four kilometer-long Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge. Three-quarters of the way across I come to a broad elevator, which brings myself and my bicycle down to Ma Island, which has a few roads but no cars.
And this final morning brings an easy one-hour journey into town, against a wave of workers bicycling to the shipyards beneath the bridge I've just crossed. Many have the darker faces of India, the Philippines, South East Asia, faces that never fail to turn toward me with a smile. Just outside town I feel my pace slowing, and notice a middle-aged Japanese man riding my draft. I ponder the etiquette here, as he doesn't know me but is purposely using me to my own disadvantage. I consider slamming on the brakes as I have done a few times in Kyoto in order to chastise a student doing this same thing. But today, I merely swerve to the side and let him go onward into his day.
My own brings me to Imabari proper, a city in which I find little to hold my interest. I must have spent some time here during my Shikoku pilgrimage in 2009, but I can't distinguish this place from any of the others that I passed through. By that time I'd been on the road for two months, and each lurch of the foot had been simply to propel me forward and to hell with what was beside me. I have a vague recollection of Imabari Castle, but a closer look doesn't reveal much, certainly not the 'seafront castle' as I'd been promised, unless by this they mean the sea of indistinct grey apartment blocks. The castle's rebuilt keep stands proud but is losing the battle to encroaching development. So I wheel then through an arcade called 'Ginza, which is fighting its own battle against a modern and more global economy.
Then the train station, to see a trio of mascots bobbing around and shaking hands more convincingly than any politician. Without any irony they stand before a recruitment poster for the Self-Defense Forces, whose 61 year-old mascot status was just revoked last month by a parliament whose true visages are just as effectively hidden.
I can see where this line of thought is taking me, so I suppose it is just as well that this leg of the journey is complete. I board a train that carries me through the ruined landscape of northern Shikoku, as beside me a moth flits and bashes itself against an artifice of sky.
On Oshima and Omishima, accommodation is more limited to guesthouses and ryokan. Try the Guest House & Cafe Ohana on Omishima.
See here for a full listing of hotels and guest houses on Shikoku.
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