Thursday, August 7, 2014

Farewell to the Oki Islands

“Once more, homeward bound, I sat upon the cabin-roof of the Oki-Saigo--
this time happily unencumbered by watermelons--and tried to explain to
myself the feeling of melancholy with which I watched those wild island-
coasts vanishing over the pale sea into the white horizon. No doubt it
was inspired partly by the recollection of kindnesses received from many
whom I shall never meet again; partly, also, by my familiarity with the
ancient soil itself, and remembrance of shapes and places: the long blue
visions down channels between islands--the faint grey fishing hamlets
hiding in stony bays--the elfish oddity of narrow streets in little
primitive towns--the forms and tints of peak and vale made lovable by
daily intimacy--the crooked broken paths to shadowed shrines of gods
with long mysterious names--the butterfly-drifting of yellow sails out
of the glow of an unknown horizon. Yet I think it was due much more to a
particular sensation in which every memory was steeped and toned, as a
landscape is steeped in the light and toned in the colours of the
morning: the sensation of conditions closer to Nature's heart, and
farther from the monstrous machine-world of Western life than any into
which I had ever entered north of the torrid zone. And then it seemed to
me that I loved Oki--in spite of the cuttlefish--chiefly because of
having felt there, as nowhere else in Japan, the full joy of escape from
the far-reaching influences of high-pressure civilization--the delight
of knowing one's self, in Dozen at least, well beyond the range of
everything artificial in human existence.”

- Lafcardio Hearn, Glimpse’s of Unfamiliar Japan

My journey to Oki was a culturally rich experience.  It was my first time to venture out to the islands surround the mainland of Japan, and of all the places I could have gone, I picked one of the most remote and cultural distinct places in the country.

Once the 'islands of exile' in the 7th century to the 12th century, Oki continues to be isolated from the mainland, a place few Japanese have ever ventured. This isolation and preserved culturally rich traditions, such as Ama-cho’s Kinya Moniya Dance, and the famous dried quid that came be see hanging from the windows of local shops.

Very few things are imported from the mainland, due to cost and also the desire for self-sufficiency. There are no convenient stores, and almost all businesses are local. The building are made from wood, on islands where trees are abundant and importing raw materials would be costly.

The Oki Three-Day Walk is what I would call “athletic tourism.” This is a form of tourism that focuses on physical activity, but the highlight is actually being in the exotic place. In other words, you get a good workout, but it is still not so rigorous that you can’t enjoy the scenery.

Although I never participated in an organized walk, run, marathon, or any kind of athletic event, I observed some characteristics in the event style and participants that I feel are very different from my home country.

One very noticeable difference was the way women dressed. Although it was over 30 degrees, women covered every inch of their bodies. They wore long pants, long sleeved shirts, gloves, and wide-brimmed hats with detachable veils that draped over the face leaving only the eyes uncovered, as a niqab does. These clothes were not worn out of modesty, but rather to protect the skin from exposure to sunlight. Being pale is still the ideal for women, and they take extreme measures to ensure that not one part of their bodies are exposed to direct sunlight. This is very different from America, where women wear shorts and tank tops when the workout, whether or not they care about tanning. I too would rather just apply sunscreen than walk 60 K underneath a sheet.

Hats, long sleeves, and gloves in 100-degree heat

Back view of the Japanese face veil

Another interesting cultural item is the ubiquitous towel. Long narrow towels printed with the event logo are typically given out at every kind of athletic event. Businesses may also have their own printed towels to give to customers on special occasions. In America, these would be called “hand-towels” and we would use them exclusively in the bathroom after washing our hands. In Japan, they are worn like a fashion accessory. Most people wear the towels around their necks to absorb sweat, or they may tie them around their heads like a bandana. At concerts, people in the audience swing their towels in the air like helicopters. There is no escaping the towel.

Towel in the package

Eating a Japanese bento everyday was also a delight. In America, if lunch were provided at such an event, it would doubtlessly be a sandwich, salad, or tortilla wrap. I dreaded company lunches and picnics in America for fear of these tasteless wraps. In Japan, lunch is always a bento, and it is also always delicious. There is always a healthy mix of meat, vegetables, and rice, with plenty of different flavors to keep the taste buds entertained.

Lastly, I will say that Japanese service really is unparalleled in the world. This extends beyond the expected demeanor and assistance of event staff. Superior service and hospitality can be seen throughout the community. Residents of the islands sat outside on their porches to wave and greet us as we walked past. Restaurants opened their doors to give us free cold tea and miso soup along the way. Rather than being merely tourists, we were treated as guests.


When the ferry departs Oki, local residents bid goodbye in a unique way. Colorfully streamers are affixed to the edge of the ship, and they slowly unravel, like a rainbow coming undone in the sky. From the ship’s deck we can see through the colorful streamers to the people on the coastline waving goodbye.

Colorful streamers fly from the boat's deck

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