Monday, July 21, 2014

Into to Oki: 50 kilometers, 4 islands, 3 days


I had never heard of the Oki Islands before moving to Japan. Then again, few people have. This chain of sixteen islands is one of the most isolated places in the country. This is not just a matter of distance. Although the islands are 2-3 hours away by ferry from the mainland, they are by no means the furthest islands from Honshu. This is not mere isolation by three hours of lonely seas, but they are buffered by the two of most rural and sparely populated prefectures in the country (Tottori and Shimane). These islands were once considered a “land of exile” for emperors who lost power in Japan’s period of political instability. One was banished to the island never to return, while the other one managed to escape.
 
Oki-gun (Oki county) is a set of sixteen islands, with only four of them being inhabited. They are further divided into two regions of Dogo and Dozen. Dogo is the largest island to the east, and Dozen consists of a cluster of smaller islands (three inhabited and seven uninhabited) encircling each other to the west. Although they appear close, it takes over an hour to move between Dogo and Dozen by ferry. Until 150 years ago, Oki was actually its own prefecture, until it became part of Tottori, then Shimane prefecture, where I live.
 
The Oki islands have for centuries remained sparsely inhabited and few Japanese people on the mainland had ever heard of them. Not surprisingly, they are a place of astonishing beauty, and cultural richness.
 
When Shimane’s most famous foreign resident, Lafcardio Hearn, visited the Oki Islands at the end of the 19th century, he wrote of their unparrelled beauty in his book Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan:
 

“The shores on either side at once receded and heightened: we were
traversing an inland sea bounded by three lofty islands. At first the
way before us had seemed barred by vapory hills; but as these, drawing
nearer, turned green, there suddenly opened magnificent chasms between
them on both sides--mountain-gates revealing league-long wondrous vistas
of peaks and cliffs and capes of a hundred blues, ranging away from
velvety indigo into far tones of exquisite and spectral delicacy. A
tinted haze made dreamy all remoteness, an veiled with illusions of
color the rugged nudities of rock.
 

…These landscapes possess charms of color extraordinary,
phantom-color delicate, elfish, indescribable--created by the wonderful
atmosphere. Vapors enchant the distances, bathing peaks in bewitchments
of blue and grey of a hundred tones, transforming naked cliffs to
amethyst, stretching spectral gauzes across the topazine morning,
magnifying the splendor of noon by effacing the horizon, filling the
evening with smoke of gold, bronzing the waters, banding the sundown
with ghostly purple and green of nacre.”
 
 
Flash forward to 2014 and not much has changed. The islands have continued to remain a remote and mysterious place in Japan. However, since being named a World Geopark in 2013, the islands have been trying to promote tourism. It’s a tough sell, given that most of the residents in Tottori and Shimane haven’t even been there, but the ever-growing tourism industry has created a medley of events to attract visitors from all over Japan.
 
In early June, I made the journey that so few of my fellow peers have made, and I ventured across the sea to all four islands. I participated in the Oki Three-Day Walk, a self-guided walking tour of all four islands over the course of three days.  I paid a cheap entrance fee which also included the cost of a inter-island ferry pass and souvenirs. I also ordered lunch for all three days, and signed up for the BBQ Pre-Party the night before. If I was going to make that long journey to Oki, I wanted to take advantage of every possible opportunity.
 
In addition to having the logistical support of participating in a large-scale event, I was also lucky enough to have one friend on each island who could host me overnight. Not only did this prove useful in the evening, when I needed a place to shower and help getting to and from the port, but also it also provided me with an insider’s look into the lives of residents on these islands.
 
Although I only stayed on the islands three days, the entire trip was four days and four nights long, due to the logistics of getting to and from the islands and my house.
 
My schedule was as follows:
Friday morning-afternoon:       Get to Oki via car, train, bus and ferry.
Friday evening:                        Pre-Event BBQ Dinner in Ama-cho
Friday night:                            Stay at a friend’s house in Ama-cho
 
Saturday morning:                   Walk 10 K in Ama-cho, Nakanoshima island
Saturday afternoon:                 Walk 13 K in Chibu-mura, chiburijima Island
Saturday evening:                    Take the ferry to Nishininoshima
Saturday night:                         Stay at a friend’s house in Nishinoshima
 
Sunday morning:                      Walk 20 K in Nishinoshima
Sunday afternoon:                   Take the ferry to Dogo Island
Sunday night:                          Stay at a friend’s house in Okinoshima, Dogo Island
 
Monday morning:                     Walk 10 K in Okinoshima
Monday afternoon-evening:      Return home via ferry, bus, train, and car
 
As the time drew near my anticipation increased. I was excited to test my athletic limits and to explore this off-beaten path in Japan. It would also be my first time traveling off the mainland, the “mainland”, in this case meaning the four major islands that comprise Japan (Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu). Despite having been to all four islands, I had previously never traveled to any of the 6,000-something smaller islands just off the coast.
 
This would truly be an adventure.

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