Knowing Tranquility Part IV: Honjima (木島)
Edward J. Taylor
Honjima in the Inland Sea is an island home to a number of Edo Period buildings once occupied by the Shiwaku Suigun pirates.
Days amongst the waters had spoiled me, had created a space within for quiet to fill. It was little wonder that I felt so cooped up in Marugame, like its eponymous turtle, forced into a cramped shell of industrial and visual blight. The sea was a five-minute walk away, but I couldn't see it. All that was revealed to me through my hotel window was power lines, a mish-mash of roofs and building styles, and the towers and cranes and smokestacks of the petroleum works somewhere out there by the water. This northern shore of Shikoku was a horror show, a succubus that even the stake of the Seto Ohashi Bridge couldn't kill.
Yet even this landscape took on a certain charm as the stratus clouds striated the light of evening into one of the most beautiful sunsets I'd seen in a long while. And this light of dawn too, is soft enough to shear away the hard edges of the city, as I walk through the morning cool to the ferry port. I stand at the water's edge and watch the boat to Hiroshima go. I had originally planned to spend the morning out there, not to the city with a famously tragic history but to an island with the same name.
Upon closer look, the island had seemed to be little more than a quarry, though its high peak of over 300 meters would have offered a wonderful view. But the five-hour return hike put me off. Instead, I catch the 6am boat to neighboring Honjima, intending a leisurely bicycle ride around its shores, watching the life come into the day.
Unlike the previous mornings, I am most certainly the only tourist on board. The other half-dozen others are workmen, heading over to work on some sort of project (which I would later see is restoration on the elementary school - an optimistic undertaking on an island of 625 people. First thing I do when disembarking is to bid an old woman standing onshore a good morning. Rather than return it, she simply brushes me off and tells me to go inside the tourist office.
When foreigners begin to learn Japanese, they learn that good morning is ohayō gozaimasu. But in looking closer, you'll notice that the root word is hayai, meaning early. The nuance here is that in greeting someone this way, you are essentially complimenting them on how early they've gotten up, in order to get a jump on a day of hard work. So it is a common mistake to use this ohayō at 10am, which tends to get you a look that accuses, "Are you calling me lazy?"
I begin to ride, the sun at my back. A few people are busy near the water's edge, fishermen, either just going out or just returning. They smile at me as I go past, animated faces that are little more than crags carved deep into thick brown skin.
Beyond the village I am alone, as I make my way up the first of many steep hills. Island roads tend to be built high above the sea so as not to be washed away. This makes for challenging bicycle rides, especially in the summer when the pristine beaches taunt from far below and far out of reach. Somehow, an entire army of crabs has made their way to these heights, their ranks divided into an array of sizes and colors. The only true commonality is their down-turned claws, as if expressing an eagerness to play the piano.
Where the road levels out I come to one of Honjima's highlights, the Meotokura, which is an unusually built double storehouse. I wonder at what might be inside, as there are no apparent homes that I can see nearby. Not far away is perhaps this island's premier tourist site, a movie location for a film set in yet another schoolhouse, whose name Kikansha Sensei is perhaps more familiar than the island on which it was shot.
I am surprised at how decrepit the place looks, a far cry from Shodoshima's pride in its cinematic history. It is as if it hasn't been touched in the 12 years since the filming. Then I notice some simple displays about the school's history, and read that the building itself fell in a typhoon only 6 weeks after the cameras stopped rolling. Photographs show islanders rebuilding the school, simply for the benefit of people like me who happen to drop by.
After days of rain, the morning continues to impress. In the early sunshine, the sea looks stretched taut all the way across to the shores of Honshu. The island cats too appear to be enjoying it, and I am forced to slalom around their laissez-faire dozing in the sun. I imagine the only thing that makes them move quickly is the sound of the engines of the fishing boats returning with the day's catch. Out on a nearby sea wall, a cormorant leisurely shakes its wings as if fanning itself in the heat. Just beyond the village, a trio of nutria display a similar slowness, wriggling their backsides as they walk up the road, completely unperturbed by my form pedaling past.
People begin to appear now, breakfast consumed, work calling. About a half dozen old women are busy amongst a cluster of graves, perhaps starting their cleaning before the ancestors return for Obon a few weeks on. I will see another graveyard a little later, the graves hardly there, just small piles of stones more often seen in the hard earth of Mexico. Just as I am wondering if this village is poor, an ancient granny pushes her cart from out of a field and gives me three freshly picked tomatoes. Not all wealth is measured in money.
I've come three quarters of the way around the island to Kasashima, but it is still too early for the tourist sites to open. So I sit out by the water and read. It dawns on me at some point that in four days not once have I touched her waters. But the concrete around me, and the residue of trash puts me off somehow. This particular island is too close to all that industry, to all those chemical plants of Shikoku. But we still romanticize it. Even the massive Seto Ohashi Bridge whose shadow falls close to this island had started out as a dream. I image the locals here looking out their windows every morning to watch the ten-year progress on the bridge, finally breathing a sigh of relief as the silhouettes of the first vehicles went across. And over on Honshu, the Ferris wheel eye of Washuzan's amusement park surveys all.
Nine o'clock finally turns up for work, and I enter the first of three villages houses that are open to the public. The village itself is very old and picturesque; not the twisted maze of the usual island fishing village, but one a product of bureaucratic planning that the Edo Period did so well. But nothing ever goes according to plan. The caretaker of the first house opens a sliding screen to reveal a hidden storehouse beyond, but then apologizes for having lost the key.
Not far away stands the center of that bureaucracy, in the form of the old administrative office. This island had been the headquarters of the Shiwaku Suigun, those highest caliber of naval officers, who were not only fierce fighters but also master navigators and shipbuilders.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was quick to enlist them for his invasion of Korea, and nearly 400 years later, they were the first Japanese to travel across the Pacific. It looks as if the pirates of these islands have been civilized after all.
And it goes a long way to explaining the behavior of the woman this morning at the pier. Residents of towns that grow in the shadow of castles or other forms of authority would inevitably be a bit standoffish, a bit suspicious of outsiders. And their descendants would carry this behavior forward.
The woman who had come across as gruff had in fact taken a moment to assist me, to direct me toward those who would best be able to help. She had cared enough to do that. I can't say the same for those with whom I ride on the return train in the direction of home, each of whom is dozing, reading, playing with their phones. Each encased in their own protective bubble, defending that island that is themselves.
And while with The Inland Sea Donald Richie goes a long way to show that there is no such thing as anonymity in Japan, even beginning the book using a classical Chinese epigram that states literally that no man is an island. But oh how hard we continue to try.
Access - Honjima
From Marugame Port on Shikoku take a high speed ferry or car ferry to Honjima. The journey takes 20 or 35 minutes depending on the ferry and costs 550 yen. Usually the high speed ferries go via Ushijima. There are eight sailings a day.
From Honshu there are high speed ferries from Kojima Port to Honjima. Trains from Okayama Station take 30 minutes to JR Kojima Station, which is adjacent to the ferry terminal. The ferry journey takes 30 minutes and costs 640 yen. There are four daily sailings.
On Honjima a local bus stops at the major attractions such as the Mizumiiro Elementary School, the Former Government Office and the Kasashima Town Residences. Bicycle rental costs 500 yen for the day plus 500 yen deposit.
Accommodation on Honjima
Accommodation options are scare on Honjima and it is easier to stay in Marugame. Some recommended places to stay close to the ferry terminal and Marugame Station include the APA Hotel Marugame Ekimaeodori, the Okura Hotel Marugame, the Hotel Route-Inn Marugame, Hotel Sunroute Seto-Ohashi, and the Chisun Inn Marugame Zentsuji.
See here for a full listing of hotel accommodation near Marugame.
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.