Knowing Tranquility Part X: Bozejima & Iejima 坊勢島 & 家島町
Edward J. Taylor
Ieshima in the Inland Sea is a group of 44 small islands off the coast of Himeji and Ako in Hyogo Prefecture, of which four are inhabited. Ieshima and Bozejima are the two largest islands with populations of about 4,000 inhabitants. Tangashima and Nishijima make up a quartet of islands closest to the Honshu coast. Fishing and quarrying are the main industries on the islands, which includes Shodoshima. Various islands in the group supplied stone for the construction of Osaka Castle.
The ferry's upper deck is out of an old film, with a wide-open space bare but for a few benches for the smokers. In those films, passengers would stand at the rails, holding a long streamer whose other end is held by someone standing on shore. Environmental consciousness has caught on with the Japanese, so those streamers are long gone.
But the sentiment remains, and as the boat pulls away, a group of middle-schoolers bound for a three-day school excursion wave farewell to their mothers whose own frantically waving hands look as if they are shoving us off.
I too stand at the rail, waving to no one, watching the boat free itself from the concrete breakwater that looks like the legs of a massive gray crab. Himeji Port is pretty typical as far as Japanese harbors go, overbuilt and industrial. But it is an interesting study in verticality, with the smokestacks and cranes, and even the lean grace of an egret standing on the jetty.
The Iejima Islands loom up gradually, forty-four of them, though only four are inhabited, and two of those just barely. In his The Inland Sea, Donald Richie does a bit of sleight of hand in claiming that Bozejima is uninhabited. Poetic license perhaps, in order to better frame his story of the girl Benten, who drowns herself in an act of filial piety. In fact the island has close to 4,000 residents, the most famous being the first, a Buddhist priest from Hiei-zan who washed up here in a storm and gave the island its name, bozu being a common term for monks.
I presume it will take me about an hour to walk a loop around the island. Leaving the harbor behind, I pass through the narrow labyrinthian lanes of the village until the buildings peter away. I am surprised at the sight of an old fishing junk floating past, before a backdrop of small scrub-covered islands rising like the curved backs of swimming bison.
Perhaps in keeping with the morals of its Buddhist roots, the residents are friendly and quick to offer a warm greeting. Even from the saddle. A trio passes on motor scooters, offering three bows. As usual, there are very few cars here, people preferring to navigate the compact confines on two motorized wheels. In a few cases, toddlers stand between the clenched thighs of their mothers, tiny hands on the dashboard, faces in the wind.
Come to think about it, there is a surprising amount of traffic, but I did choose to follow the island's main ring-road. Another loop sprawls up and around the thicker mountainous body to the south, but I will keep things simple today as the map shows that there is little up there worth seeing.
An overlook at the top promises one of the best sunsets in the region, but the sun is still high in the sky, and at the height of its thermodynamics.