Knowing Tranquility Part XII: Osaki-kamijima 大崎上島
Edward J. Taylor
The Osaki Islands consists of four islands: Osaki-kamijima, Osaki-shimojima, Kami-kamagarijima, Shimo-kamagarijima now known for their slow pace of life and cultivation of fruits: blueberries, lemons, mikan oranges. Many of the younger population have left, schools have closed and the islands are gradually depopulating.
The Shimanami Kaido makes a large turn on Omishima Island, extending southward to Shikoku. This of course makes far better commercial sense, as a means to flow goods and materials to the larger population base there. But geographically speaking, the road could have continued its gradual bend to the west, connecting across a chain of islands all the way to Kure.
It takes nearly as much time to pronounce the names of the islands as it does to traverse them: Osaki-kamijima, Osaki-shimojima, Kami-kamagarijima, Shimo-kamagarijima. You'll note the repetition in the words 'kami' and 'shimo,' upper and lower respectively. The kami islands are closer to Kyoto and therefore considered the superior. Yet ironically, they seemed the least healthy economically of the four.
There is still a boat service from Takehara at least, and I arrive early, watching an inconceivable number of large trucks piling aboard like clowns climbing into a Volkswagon. A small speedboat pulls up next to it, and I realize then that this little one is mine. Perhaps this service won't last long after all; the boats get smaller and smaller until poof, they disappear. I hoist my backpack over one shoulder and walk down the gangplank, whistling the tune for Old Spice
This particular boat undertakes a commuter run of sorts, dipping in and out of coves to pick up and drop off. After a while I notice a pattern. Upon approach, they will cut the engine and blow the horn, then the pilot will scan the shore to see if someone waves him in to pick up a passenger.
Otherwise, they will bob a few minutes until the actual departure time, then rush off to the next stop. Osaki-kamijima was historically a quarry island though no longer, so the vegetation has grown once again around the cliff-like scars in the hills, creating an attractive landscape. With the rain clouds, it is not unlike a Chinese landscape painting. On the more natural hillsides I see mysterious white rectangles amidst the abundant mikan orchards that climb impossible heights up to the tops of the mountains themselves. Not high mountains per se, but it is said that you can see 115 other islands from there.
We're pulling into the next port now, Kinoe, which in the Meiji Period had been renowned for its abundant pleasure quarter. Even the vegetation on the hillsides has a certain fecund quality, thick and exaggerated in size, but that is probably just the moisture in the air. I walk down a narrow one-lane street, which is the only thing looking old enough to be Meiji. These had all been inns at one time, probably the houses of ill-repute that Donald Richie examines in fine detail in his book The Inland Sea.
The Anti-Prostitution Law of 1956 would certainly have had a profound impact on Konoe's economy, and from the looks of things it never recovered. Likewise the population has declined to third of what it was then. There was a brief spike in population when Yamada Yoji brought a film crew here in 2012 to shoot his film, Tokyo Family.
Judging from the abundant photos in the ferry terminal they did a lot of set dressing to bring life to the town. But even that has fallen into decay. There is no sign of life here but for a small dog laying in the doorway of a run-down house that looks a few years away from abandonment. Completely incongruously, above the dog's head is a Confederate flag hung like a curtain.
Where this narrow lane comes to an end stands a squat four-story apartment building, its paint faded, the metal grills on the windows rusting into pencil-thin spikes. The weather, and time, have not been kind to this place. Even the hospital has closed.
I retrace my steps over to a more modern part of town. A busy road leads through the heart of it, past all the old shops, and symbolically, out of town. Fashion Shop Watanabe is missing the 'h' from its sign, as well as a lot of product, for half of its shelves are bare. What does remain would have no appeal to anyone under sixty. And that is entirely intentional. The old elementary school is missing but for its gates, the grounds beyond built upon by a care center for the elderly. Sadly, the most picturesque thing in this part of town, a breathtaking, five-story abandoned inn, has been defaced by a large power pole directly in front. Modernity is ruthless in its lack of aesthetic.
Over the last couple of days I've found that people down here love any excuse for a chat, even if that is simply answering questions or giving directions. The replies are always detailed and dense and word-heavy. It is thoughtful and certainly helpful, but things could be easily condensed. All part of island time I guess, "sit and jaw a-spell." (What do the Hawaiians call it? Talk story?) Richie too experiences this, in a long convoluted explanation about a goddess whose name forgotten by the storyteller, who eventually becomes so obsessed with it that Richie feels disappointed at the breakdown of the pleasant chat they'd been enjoying up until then.
In that light, perhaps the saddest things I see are the benches in front of the shops on the main street, empty. No longer enticing to the old, what with the fast moving traffic. And the younger folks are occupied with individual pursuits, locked in a room somewhere, facing only themselves, reflected in a screen.
But that same screen later provides the name of the goddess that had eluded Richie: Ichikishimahime, who decided ultimately to build her shrine on Miyajima rather than here, after a local bird shat on her head. Yet escape from this town is no longer so easy. A sign near the ferry terminal shows various routes, yet over half have been discontinued. I wonder if any were those that Richie took. Nearly fifty years later, it would be impossible to create his journey exactly, and I'm sure in another ten, I would no longer be able to recreate my own.
Access - Getting To Osaki-kamijima
Kinoe, on Osaki-Kamijima island, can be reached by ferry from Takehara Port. There are seven boats a day and the trip takes 20 minutes.
Takehara can be reached by train on the JR Kure Line, about 90 minutes east of Hiroshima usually with a change in Hiro or Mihama.
There are a handful of basic business hotels near the station in Takehara. The Green Sky Hotel (Tel: 0846 22 1166) has over 70 western-style rooms, just one minute from Takehara Station.
If you wish for us to reserve accommodation for you anywhere in Japan (for a small fee) please contact us.
See here for a full listing of hotels and guest houses on Shikoku.
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