Trev and Signe's Oki Island Adventures
For the first leg of our Golden Week Extravaganza, Signe and I decided to go to the Oki Islands off the coast of Shimane in the Sea of Japan. The islands consist of two sets of inhabitable islands, "Dogo" which is one large island consisting of one town, "Okinoshima," and "Dozen" southwest of Dogo consisting of three much smaller islands (in order of size, largest to smallest: Nishinoshima, Ama, and Chibu) close together with each island consisting of one town named after the island itself.
Actually, Chibu isn't even a town, but a village. With the Japanese definition of a village, or "mura," being under 1000 people in residence. This sleepy cattle-filled island of 725 humans (and 500 cows) was our first destination. Chibu Village is the smallest community in Japan to boast a JET participant. This is the person we stayed with during our time there. He works at the combined elementary and junior high school on the island which has a total of 37 students in all. To get to his house we has to walk from one side of the island to the other. Although the hill in the middle provided a taxing climb, it only took us a little under an hour to arrive at his abode for the port.
After relaxing some, buying breakfast food at the microscopic store next to his apartment run by an abacus-wielding octogenarian, and marveling at his larger-than-life HDTV, we set off for a walk around the island to explore the coastline.
The Chibu coast is a joy to walk and we found many interesting stones on the rocky beaches to skip along the water and add to Signe's growing collection of nature's curiosities. After about an hour we had walked as far as we could without exposing ourselves to the watery depths. Not wanting to turn back and face that which we had already explored, we looked up to find an inviting rock face to climb. I have to admit, the me from three years ago most likely would not have had the courage to climb such a cliff, which by climbing terms at about 15-20 meters was quite tame, but my time here in Japan and the adventurous friends I have made here have helped me to see that sometimes taking risks reaps great rewards. And indeed, the reward of having climbed that paltry cliff and the gift of the view from the top was quite a wonderful treat.
After we returned, we relaxed and played Final Fantasy XII on the big screen for a few hours. Although the game was in Japanese, it was pretty easy to understand what was going on.
That night we ate curry rice and watched "Serenity," the Joss Whedon Firefly movie, with the ALT on Chibu that we were staying with. "Serenity" answered a lot of questions that the abruptly cut-off 13-episode sci-fi western left unanswered. It was a great TV show, and a great movie to end it with.
We woke up on Sunday the 30th well rested. Our host was departing for the mainland for the week and allowed us to stay there by ourselves one extra night in his absence. We left the apartment early to catch the "bus" to the largest of the Dozen islands, Nishinoshima. The "bus" is actually a small boat that is used to ferry people between the three Dozen islands called the "Isokaze II."
We got off the bus in the Nishinoshima port of Beppu. Beppu is also the name of a famous spa resort town in Kyushu, this humble fishing port is about as apple as you can get to that Kyushuian orange. We soon hopped on a real bus to the port of Urago and towards our sightseeing goal for the day, the (relatively) famous cliffs of the Kuniga Coastline on the northeastern shores of Nishinoshima. The most breathtaking feature of the coastline is a natural rock bridge going out to the sea called Tsutenkyo, or the "bridge to heaven." The reason we went though is to see the wild horses.
Wild horses? On a small island in the Japan Sea? If you are thinking that is weird, you would be right. Starting in the 710 AD, the Oki Islands were a place of exile for Japanese people. Two Emperors in particular, in the 1100s and 1300s, were exiled to the islands and brought with them a great many things. It has been said that these horses started out as royal riding beasts, but later escaped to roam free on the island. Now, hundreds of years later, the horses and free-range cattle roam the windy cliffs of the northern Nishinoshima shoreline. This being a main attraction for tourists, the wild beasts have grown very accustomed to human companionship and do not flee, even when a person is right next to them.
Of course we wanted to see all of this, and we also wanted to hike to do it, and hike we did. After having a spot of breakfast in a portside cafe in Urago, we started our 10 km roundtrip hike to the coast. It took us well over an hour to reach the starting point of the coastline trail. More than a few tour buses passed our way as we hikes to the beginning of the trail. Few of our fellow tourists felt up to hiking from the port to the start of the cliff. When we did get there we discovered that is was an extremely windy day, but determined as we were, we marched on.
Most of the bus tourists stopped at the small park set up to view the "bridge to heaven," Tsutenkyo, and we, too, stopped there for a break and some picture-taking, but for us the mission was to hike the cliffs and frolic with the animals. With that mindset we pushed on. The trails in Japan, unlike their American counterparts, tend not to take into account the concept of the switchback. Only rarely does this genius invention to ease the burden of uphill travel come into play on Japanese hiking paths. They do believe in steep stairways, though, and that is exactly what we got to hike t the top, the wind was so strong we removed our glasses in fear of them flying off our faces. We didn't know there was a second peak, but not wanting to backtrack, we decided to press on. Our decision was reaffirmed by the fact that we had yet to see any majestic beasts as of yet on the cliff tops.
On our way to the second and final peak of our journey, though, our fight with the winds of doom paid off. We encountered four cows hanging out near the cliff's edge and a family of horses, three adults and one baby trying in vain to suckle its annoyed mother's teat as she grazed. We got up very close to them and Signe got a few very nice pictures before we moves on to the final peak. I have to say that last peak was the windiest place I have ever had the opportunity to visit. We could easily lean into the wind without fear of falling down. With these experiences on our belts we decided to follow the trail back on the other side of the cliffs back down to the Urago port.
We got a bit lost on our way back, and pot. After the long hike the food was delicious and we had a great time talking with the restaurant owner and his wife and relaxing. While we were eating some local elementary school kids came in to hang out and have some snacks. They saw us and we told them that we were friends with the ALT on Chibu, who they knew. One of the interesting things about the Oki Islands are that boys and girls, men and women, freely mingle together. Out here in the small mountain town I teach at boys and girls, and to a smaller extent, men and women, usually do not socialize with each other. But with the population of the islands being what they are, the residents find that camaraderie between the sexes greatly increases their circle of friends. I found it a refreshing change from the typical Japanese view of sex segregation.
We finally headed back to the port at Beppu and took the bus back to Chibu for the night. At our host's house we dined on curry rice once again and enjoyed zoning out to BBC Japan all night before showersurprised about. The ferry is separated into sections: 2, Special 2, 1 and Special 1. The price for a 2 ticket is reasonable, while the price of a Special 1 ticket can run over 100 dollars. You see, the 2 and Special 2 classes are seat-less. That is you get a big carpet and must stake your claim to an area of the carpet by laying down there (of course having taken your shoes off first). There are some seats on the viewing deck, but none inside. The Special 2 class is almost identical to the 2 class, but the carpet is cushier and you get a blanket. There is also more room to spread out since less people spend the extra 700 yen to upgrade. the 1 and Special 1 classes consist of mostly staterooms and lounges, complete with beds and TVs. Since we were on a budget, we opted for the class 2 tickets. There's nothing like a carpet to take a little nap on.
After our afternoon ferry nap, we arrived at the Saigo port on Dogo to meet our friend and fellow ALT living there. She agreed to put us up for the night at her d parking lot at the start of a hiking trail is the most private place for couples to share intimacy. Most Japanese live with their parents, and when and if they leave, they end up living with their spouses parents and children, usually in cramped quarters. It is no surprise that "parking" is a popular pastime here.
After that fun encounter we decided to view the three "god trees" of Dogo. Dogo has three trees that are so massive and complex that they have been declared gods, or Kami, in the state religion of Shinto. The first one we went to see was the largest and by far the coolest of the three trees. It has been aged at over 800 years old and has a structure unlike any tree I had ever seen before (a picture of my literally tree-hugging wife: http://flickr.com/photos/ginshari-san/142839503/in/set-72057594129458296/). The next tree we encountered was taller than the next, but pretty standard in design. It reminded me a lot of the great Redwoods of the Northern Californian forests. Finally our travels led rk is actually a private hillside packed with over 10,000 Rhododendron bushes. When we got there the bushes were not in full bloom because of an earlier cold spell this year, but there were enough for us to get a few good pictures and to enjoy the natural pink flowers that were in bloom. For Signe, this was especially nice. The Rhododendron is the Washington State flower and every year nearby her hometown in Port Townsend, there is a big Rhododendron Parade. Seeing them here must have given her a small taste of home.
After the park, we decided to head up to the northern coast for lunch. At the most northern point of Dogo we were a mere 168 km from the contriversal Takeshima Islets I referred to earlier in the explanation of the Golden Week holidays. From the viewpoint you couldn't see the islets, but we did have a great view of the northern coastline.
Our ferry was leaving at around 3 pm, so we had to make it back to the port at Saigo by 2:30 pm to return the car, but Signe and I were bound and determinedn one day to share that wonderful place with our friends and family.
Until next week, take care.