Knowing Tranquility Part VII: Shamijima & Ibukijima
Edward J. Taylor
Read travel guides to Shamishima near Marugame, once a small island off Shikoku now connected by land reclamation in 1967 and Ibukijima, part of Kagawa Prefecture, and a tiny island in the Inland Sea.
It is incredible that Shikoku, gifted as it is with expansive areas of great beauty, can also host some of this country's ugliest cities. And amongst these, Sakaide stands out, a characterless tangle of heavy industry and petroleum tanks. The latter cover like pimples the reclaimed land that now firmly affixes Shamijima to Shikoku proper. If there is a bright side, it is the cooling breezes coming off the water.
The land on this spit is pretty barren and lifeless, little able to take hold in the tainted soil but kudzu vines. To the almost artificial screeching of the cicada, I walk through a dystopian landscape devoid of people, along a high-wired fence and beneath the massive slabs of concrete that hold up the Seto Ohashi Bridge. Little wonder the few buses that run out here.
But the Seto Ohashi Memorial Hall, a museum built in honor of the bridge is delightful, as are the grounds surrounding it. Perhaps it is the weather, the sky perfect, with just the right light shimming off the water, showcasing the white symmetry that seemingly glides across toward the mainland.
Behind the museum, I sit on a Fujimoto Shuzo's sculpture/bench that is one of the projects for the Setouchi Triennale and enjoy the sight of cars and trains moving to and fro. A pair of sandpipers stand on the cool of a marble slab that is a cleverly designed sundial, throwing the small shadows of the birds in the direction of the number 10. This reminder of the rising heat puts me too in motion.
Inside, I linger to enjoy the cool. The first displays are of the old ferry systems that once crisscrossed the Inland Sea. My favorite photo shows a group of well-dressed people sitting in comfortable chairs around elaborately set tables, like those old Pan Am posters of the golden age of jet travel. There were other photos of the ferries themselves, the last four having simultaneously finished their runs on the same April day in 1988.
I have the place alone for a while, until a woman arrives with three children who, based on the conversation, is a teacher with her pupils. A small group, and a ever present reminder of declining population. (I'll later come across a series of poems engraved in stones lining the beach, left behind by students from a now defunct school in order to honor the poem in the ancient collection, Manyoshu that Donald Richie in The Inland Sea reminds us was set here.)
I not usually a fan of these types of museums but this one is quite remarkable, as moving from room to room shed light on how the bridge had systematically been assembled. What impresses most is the concepts behind the design. Who came up with this stuff, and how did they know it would work? How did they place the massive concrete supports into the sea? How did they extend all the supporting cables across miles of open water? To envision such a project I imagine requires a similar suspension - of disbelief, demonstrating once again that in physics lies metaphysical proof.
I walk back across the park, beneath the (symbolic?) 132-meter Seto Ohashi Tower, that not only overcharges you on admission to reach the 108-meter observation deck, but isn't even as high as the bridge that most visitors would have crossed in order to get here.
The long rows of concrete supports for the bridge remind me somewhat of tombstones, but at least they offer shade for the walk over to what had once been Shamijima island. The shade didn't extend over as far as the sidewalk itself, so I walk in the middle of the empty road, wondering how the museum can justify its financial existence.
Once upon the "island" I come across an art work by Tanya Preminger, which is like a burial mound with a concrete path spiraling to the top and back. It is nice to stand awhile at the crest and feel the subtle touch of the wind off the water just behind. Below me is an incongruous park, built primarily for frisbee golf.
I move along to the water, the centerpiece being Shamijima Nishinohama Beach House, a well-groomed beachfront with shaded decks that you can rent for 2,000 yen a day. Children are playing in a small body of water sectioned off by concrete tetrapods a dozen meters or so away.
A sign points me toward an unpaved walking course through the trees. I walk beneath the pines, which occasionally splay their branches enough to offer glimpses of the blue waters beyond. Cliffs of soft stone look as smooth as marble, carved and hewn by an eternity of waves. Out at the point, I sit and pull out Richie's book to review what it was that he found here. But on a day as fine as this one, I find myself more interested in my own journey. Beyond the jagged rocks, more of the bridge has revealed itself. Now and again I look up at the sound of a train rattling over. Just to my left is Honjima, and further out, the steep pitch of Hiroshima Island tempts, a light mist surrounding it, accentuating the mystery.
I walk back through the village, past the abandoned school and to the Higashiyama Kaii Setouchi Art Museum offering good views of the bridge from a nice air-conditioned perch. Then it is time to catch a share taxi back to the station.
A train brings me to Kannon-ji, and it is a short walk to the ferry. Along the way I detour to see a massive sand sculpture amidst the pines of an old Japanese coin.
It is believed that Zenigata Sunae was built in the 17th century as a means of welcoming a well-liked official. From beach level, it looks, well, like a pile of sand, so I climb through the forest to the overlook, and am rewarded for my effort. It is simply massive, 122 meters across, dwarfing the people who play on the beach beyond. Further out still is the small shape of Ibukijima, where I next direct my efforts.
Ibukijima is famous for being one of the last places to maintain the old Heian Period dialect (a charge I've heard leveled at the Izumo region as well), which would make sense as the fleeing body of the Heike clan would have shed members on islands all along the Inland Sea.
On the boat, other riders chat in voices that I imagine sound like how crabs talk. If this was the voice of the Heike, I can understand why they were so disliked. Mine is the fast boat, and as it pulls away, I climb out to the bow to let the wind dry my T-shirt, watching the low hump out to the west swell and grow, and before I know it, we've arrived on the island.
Ibukijima is also famous for its sardines, and this, being height of the season, leads to a frenzy of activity. People move much more quickly than I've come to expect from these islands, with scooters zipping along all the roads at the pier.
There seem to be no cars here, but for the odd kei truck. The lone village itself is built higher up the hill and away from the waters, as is common on many of the islands. I move upward away from the bustle, and come to another art installation, Ishii Daigo's House of Toilet, which I promptly make an interactive artwork. It is flanked by another abandoned school and a shrine shaded by a massive tree. In summer, the sound of any shrine is the sound of the cicada, and when you clap to wake up the gods, the roar of the insects wells up as if in reply.
Beyond the shrine I find the folk museum, set as usual in another former school. I wander the classrooms, separated into different thematic parts of island life. I have an odd experience where I hear the laughter and voices of the students, which is so clear that I think it has been piped in. It takes a moment for me to realize that there is an actual kindergarten on the hill just behind.
There is a temple at the highest part of the town, and behind it, sloping down the hill toward the sea is a cemetery of the island's dead. On the waters further behind, a fleet of fishing boats is going out to catch sardines.
Cycles of life go on. I wander down through the labyrinth of narrow lanes between the houses. At the far end, I nearly add to the cemetery's number in startling an old fisherman, who then looks angrily at me, shirtless to reveal a gristled and tattooed physique. I apologize and turn back, past an interesting set of Jizo statues, and to a stone marker commemorating the linguist who did his research here. Below me, the port continues its bustle. Despite this, I regret that I hadn't booked a night in an inn out here, rather than returning to some anonymous cube in a characterless hotel across from the train station.
Yet I do find a little companionship in the form of a sushi chef, for I am a curiosity in being both a foreigner and the only customer, once he can turn his attention away from the television. I appreciate his talk almost as much as his fish, which costs a fraction of what it would in the cities of Honshu.
Then I am released again into the quiet of a small city night, but for a host rushing from a taxi to buy his client cigarettes, and the dull throb of a bosozoku bike rrevving up for the night, and a salariman drinking from his tall can of chu-hi as he walks lethargically to the station.
JR Sakaide Station is 10 minutes west of Marugame by local train on the JR Yosan Line (220 yen), 25 minutes by local train (450 yen) from Takamatsu Station in Takamatsu or quicker by Limited Express or the Marine Liner (970 yen).
From Okayama Station to JR Sakaide Station is 40 minutes direct on the Marine Liner (1,630 yen).
See here for a full listing of hotels and guest houses on Shikoku.
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