Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chibu-mura, Chiburijima Day 1

Chibu-mura is the furthest of the Dozen islands, and the least inhabited. It takes over twenty minutes to reach Chibu-mura by ferry from the other inhabited Dozen islands. Chibu-mura consists of the main island of Chiburijima, with a population of less than 600 people, as well as the four uninhabited islands of Okagashima, Shimazujima, Asashima and Kamishima. After walking 10 K in Nakanoshima, I would be completing 13 K on Chiburijima to concluded my first day of the 3-Day walk across Oki.

I embraced Chibu with a sense of wonder. This is one of the most remote and sparely inhabited places in Japan. I felt exhilaration at the chance to see and experience a place so few other had experienced. When the coast of Chibu-mura came into view, huge concrete sculptures emerged from the water around the coastline, with staircases leading to the sky. I felt as though I had entered a Dali painting. These structures are not decorative, they break the sea’s rough waves as they come crashing to the shore.

The coast like a Dali or M.C. Escher painting

The port of Chibu-mura is what one would expect from an island of 600 people: a small, empty room with a few posters and T-shirts. To me, Chibu-mura is an interesting eample of rural Japan. Unlike small villages on the mainland, which were once booming towns before mass migration drew hoards of people out of the countryside and into the citie, Chibu-mura has – since the dawn of time– been a sparsely populated farmland with virtually no economy.  

Chibu Port is an unusually busy due to the 13K Walk

When Lafcardio Hearn visited Chibu-mura 200 years ago, he wrote that it was “nothing more than a fishing station.” But Chibu-mura is astonishingly beautiful, not in spite of its sparse population but because of it. This remote village is also home to some of the most spectacular scenery in Japan:

“The first impression was almost uncanny. Rising sheer from the flood on
either hand, the tall green silent hills stretched away before us,
changing tint through the summer vapor, to form a fantastic vista of
blue cliffs and peaks and promontories. There was not one sign of human
life. Above their pale bases of naked rock the mountains sloped up
beneath a sombre wildness of dwarf vegetation. There was absolutely no
sound, except the sound of the steamer's tiny engine--poum-poum, poum!
poum-poum, poum! like the faint tapping of a geisha's drum. And this
savage silence continued for miles: only the absence of lofty timber
gave evidence that those peaked hills had ever been trodden by human

Almost as soon as we arrived I boarded a bus that would take us to our start point. I was a bit resistant at the idea of taking a bus to the start point. That’s like taking the elevator in a gym. I thought the point of this event was to walk, but as the bus wove through steep winding roads, and minutes turned into almost one hour, I realized why we had been driven.

When we reached the summit of the mountain the bus finally came to a stop at 12:05 pm. What Ama-cho lacked in natural beauty, Chibu-mura more than made up for. The view from the top of the mountain was breathtaking. As soon as I stepped off the bus I felt an intense wind and saw that we were in fact on the highest point on the island. At this elevation, there are no trees, a result of the impact of centuries of steady winds. However, all is green and mossy. It was not so much a mountain, as the climax of several steep hills, rolling down in green lumps to the sea. Beyond the green mounds was a tranquil blue sea blurring into the horizon.

I was tired after the 10K walk in Ama, and was uncomfortable with dry sweat sticking to my body, but that biting cold wind and commanding view spurred me on me.

The moment I started my journey downhill I was approached by herds of cattle grazing to either side. The stopped eating and stared at me. Their eyes more sad than indifferent. The road was paved in cow dung. This was the only obstacle as there appeared to be no bees or hairy caterpillars like in Ama-cho. Knowing nothing of cow dung before, I learned a fair bit by merely observing it along the trail. First of all, cow dung dries very quickly in the sun. Since cows only eat grass, dry cow dung is basically dry grass, and smells little more than mud. I didn’t feel gross at all by stepping on it, because it didn’t stink and or stick to my shoes. Rather, it softened the asphalt road and made it more comfortable to walk.

The cows themselves were much more obstructive than their dung. There were no fences separating them from the roads, (which is why their dung is all over the road), so they could roam freely. Sometimes they stood in the middle of the road and I cautiously walked around them.

The ropes on their noses allow ranchers to guide them

Halfway down the mountain, I came to a fork in the road. To the left, the course continued on to the finish line. To the right, an optional course left to Sekiheki, which means "Red walls”, a scenic gorge just half a kilometer away. Realizing that I would never be in Chibu-mura again, I decided to take the opportunity to lengthen my walk and check out the gorge. I turned right.

Although the distance may have only been 500 meters, all of them were painfully uphill, and it took me nearly 15 minutes to ascend what felt like a really long, steep staircase. Eventually I came to the edge of a cliff, overlooking a massive red gorge. From where I stood, I could see the entire red face of the cliff, down to its rocky shoreline, white waves crashing into its sharp edges. I sat down for a short break while staring at the cliff. Then I headed back downhill and resumed the trail, having added 1K to my course.

Sekiheki the Red Gorge

Sekiheki the Red Gorge

Feeling a renewed energy, I walked briskly the rest of the way, until I realized that I needed to catch the 3:00 pm ferry back to Ama-cho, and it was 2:45. I still had one kilometer to go. I was too close to give up and take the next ferry at 3:30 (something that would have drastically altered my evening plans), but I was too exhausted to move any faster. Fortunately the last 1K of the race was a downhill spiral slope leading directly to the pier. Gaining the momentum from gravity, I jogged the last 1K and made it onto the ferry with one minute to spare.

Coming around the bend

The circular roadway marked the last 1K of the course

I was sweating, panting, and smelling terribly, which made for an unbearably long 37 minute ride back to Nakanoshima. My reward for the day’s work was a relaxing dip in the local hot spring, where I had about one hour to bath and change clothes before catching the 4:47 ferry to the island of Nishinoshima. 

The manhole cover of Chibu-mura

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ama-cho, Nakanoshima Day 1

The horizon, as seen from the ferry to the Oki Islands

“The edge of the horizon is not a sharp line, it is blurred with mist, an indefinite separation of sky and sea. The atmosphere too, is as flat and uniform in color as the sea. There are no distinguishable clouds, and the hue of the sky fancies itself to be almost pure white. We are heading directly north; at half past three the sun is directly behind us. Some minutes ago, I lost cellphone service and now I am totally isolated from the mainland, having all communication cut off.”

                                                        From my Diary, May 31, 2014

The wooden pavilion greeting visitors to Ama-cho

As the speedboat neared Nakanoshima Island, I was first greeted with the sight of a large wooden pavilion, and was at once struck with its unusual make and design. Since I moved to Japan I have only seen concrete building with pitched roofs, many with traditional Japan tiling. This pavilion was entirely made of a rich amber wood, likely from the trees on the island. Perched on the edge of the sea, amidst the lush forests behind it, the pavilion seemed to both embody and defy nature.

The edges of Nakanoshima island

I at once thought of Lafcardio Hearn, and what he wrote of this island’s beauty in Glimpse’s of Unfamiliar Japan:

“From Urago we proceeded to Hishi-ura, which is in Nakanoshima, and the
scenery grew always more wonderful as we steamed between the islands.
The channel was just wide enough to create the illusion of a grand river
flowing with the stillness of vast depth between mountains of a hundred
forms. The long lovely vision was everywhere walled in by peaks, bluing
through sea-haze, and on either hand the ruddy grey cliffs, sheering up
from profundity, sharply mirrored their least asperities in the flood
with never a distortion, as in a sheet of steel. Not until we reached
Hishi-ura did the horizon reappear; and even then it was visible only
between two lofty headlands, as if seen through a river's mouth.

Amamura, a very small village, lies in a narrow plain of rice-fields
extending from the sea to a range of low hills. From the landing-place
to the village is about a quarter of a mile. The narrow path leading to
it passes round the base of a small hill, covered with pines, on the
outskirts of the village. There is quite a handsome Shinto temple on the
hill, small, but admirably constructed, approached by stone steps and a
paved walk.”

Ama-cho encompasses the entire island of Nakanoshima, and two other uninhabited islands, Omorijima and Matsushima. The total population is 2,400 people, and at the time of this post there are five non-Japanese residents on the island. My Mexican-American host is one of them. 
My host was waiting for me at the pier as planned. He rode his bike down the hill to meet me, expecting to be able to carry my luggage back on his back. Instead, I decided to leave my luggage inside the pavilion, and meet him again at the port after the Welcome BBQ.

BBQ at the pavilion

BBQ at the Pavillion

The BBQ began just 30 minutes after I arrived at 6:00 pm. It was a feast of local seafood, such as squid, fish, and clams. Everything was family style. Each large wooden table was assigned a grill, and food was served on paper plates that were passed around from guest to guest. I enjoyed the communal atmosphere. It helped eased tension as I was the only foreigner at the event. Of course, everyone wanted to know where I was from, but I was equally curious about them. Of the people who sat at my table, one was from Asahikawa, one from Tokyo, two from Kumamoto, one from Nara, and another from Himeji. No one was from Shimane prefecture. They had all traveled much further than I to participate in the three-day walk.

Seaweed in its any forms





Cooked squid


In addition to a delicious seafood BBQ, the party was all-you-can-drink sake and beer. At first, one bottle of cold sake was placed on the table for the kick-off toast. I drank it greedily thinking there would be no more. But after that bottle was emptied, a new one appeared, then another new one, and another. Suddenly men started falling out of their chair with drunkenness and everyone was laughing. I almost went under the table myself. Not the best idea to get so drunk the night before a 23 K hike.

KinyaMonya Dance with wooden spoons

Towards the end of the evening we were treated to a show of the local dance, Kinya Monya. It is a traditional dance involving two wooden spoons that are used in both the music and the dance to set the rhythm. After observing the dance, spectators were each given two wooden spoons to try it out themselves. I am sure that being slightly drunk facilitated this, though it did nothing to improve my sense of rhythm.
After two hours of drinking and partying, I met my host at the pier and he escorted me back to his house by way of an evening walk. It was after dark and the sound of bullfrogs could be heard singing in the rice paddies. It was a forty minute stroll uphill on foot, but I was eager to walk-off my sake buzz, and we had no other options besides a taxi at that point.
Soon we arrived at his charming home, situated between two quiet rice paddies. In true traditional Mexican fashion, my host insisted that I sleep in the master bedroom, and be treated to homemade Horchata before bedtime at 10:30 pm.

My lodging for the night



That next morning I awoke naturally at 6:45 am to get ready for my first day on the trail. I needed to be at the port by 8:00 to sign in, so in the interest of time, my host lead me to a bus stop just outside his house. The bus stop was marked with a giant wooden spoon, the same one we had used to dance that previous evening. The bus arrived promptly at 7:34 am and I was at the port by 7:45.

The bus stop

View from the bus stop
On the bus to the port

Once at the port I signed in for the day’s hike and ate a very non-traditional breakfast of bread and a Starbucks latte. Less than 24 hours on Oki and I was already missing the comforts of the mainland.


The walk began at 8:45 am after warm-up stretches. We were lead on a paved road into a think bamboo forest slightly uphill from the port. At first, we all followed behind each other in a line, but as time went by groups and individuals broke the pace and the line lengthened until it was no longer a line, but intermittent groups of people walking the same path.

Start of the walk

There were two obstacles along the path. One came in the form of hairy caterpillars, of which there were thousands crawling along the streets. Countless squashed caterpillar bodies lined the roads, as one would have to tiptoe carefully to avoid crushing them. At first I swerved to avoid them, but once I tired of caring, so I accidentally stepped on dozens along the way. The next obstacle consisted of truly gigantic bees that hovered in the air around flowers and sometimes dive-bombed into my head as I walked. They didn’t seem interesting in stinging me, but they came frightfully close to my face a number of times and I had to constantly swat them away.

Obstacle 1: the hairy cat pillar

The trail wove through the bamboo forest and back into town, where we walked along the main roads and past a school. Every 2.5 kilometers a booth was set up offering tea, water, and snacks to walkers. The first booth served a delicious fruit mix. I reached the second one thirty minutes later and was given a banana and Aquarius.


The checkpoint was located in the Shinto Shrine of Exiled Emperor Go-Toba, who died in 1239 on this island. Some of the walkers stopped to pray, and other to take pictures. Although the route was quite residential and not as scenic as I would have preferred, I was relieved that there were so many bathrooms after every few kilometers.

Entrance to the shinto shrine

The 10 K course led back to the port. I did the 10K in two hours and arrived at 10:45T. here I was given a traditional bento for lunch, but I decided to save it for later and instead catch the 11:00 ferry to Chiburijiuma, where I would complete the next 13 K. 

My bento lunch
The manhole cover of Ama-cho, showing the KinyaMonya dance

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