Before he left his home in the country, novelist David Mitchell gave me a piece of advice: “If you only make one trip while you are in Japan, make sure it’s to the Oki Islands.” They were, he assured me, a little patch of old Japan as yet untainted by pachinko, high-rise apartments or junk-food joints.
A mere three-hour ferry ride across the Sea of Japan, or East Sea, separates the islands from the north coast of Western Honshu, but taking it feels as if you’ve travelled three centuries back in time.
The first islands – black volcanic humps, like debris from some cosmic collision – come into view a couple of hours out of Matsue, in Shimane prefecture. Soon the ferry is weaving through a veritable maze of these humps, some just bare rocky mounds, others large and rugged, dark with pine trees. There are some 180 islands in the Oki chain; none are very big and only four are inhabited. Our destination is the second largest: Nishinoshima, population 3,900.
The kind folks at the Matsue Tourist Information Office phoned ahead to book us a minshuku (a small, family run bed and breakfast) and our landlady is waiting for us on the quayside, smiling and waving a flag. We are easy to spot, being the only non-Japanese on board.
Our minshuku is across the street from the ferry terminal. On the wall outside, my name has been written in chalk on a slate; this would not be a good hideaway for fugitives.
Nishinoshima boasts several must-sees but our priority is a boat tour of the island’s spectacular Kuniga coastline: a seven-kilometre stretch of wave-eroded basalt cliffs, including the perpendicular Mantengai. At 257 metres, it’s Japan’s tallest cliff.
The small launch speeds us past dreamlike rock formations with names such as Palace of the Dragon King and Bridge to Heaven before suddenly turning and heading straight for the red and black cliffs.
“We are about to enter the Cavern of Light and Dark,” the driver announces. I hope he is joking; he is steering the boat towards an alarmingly narrow crevasse.
On we inch, however, into the darkness. I expect to hear the awful wrench of the boat’s hull getting ripped open on the jagged walls, no more than a finger’s breadth away on either side, and the driver’s prank of turning the lights off so we can “appreciate” the total darkness does little to assuage my fears. After a few eerie moments, though, a crack of light appears ahead and we emerge into sunshine and open sea again.
Back on dry land, a voice emanates from a loud speaker at the town hall, reminding everyone that it is six o’ clock and urging all young children to go home.
With appetites invigorated by the sea air, we do the same.
Our landlady calls us down to dinner and we sit on the tatami floor at a long low table with the only other guest, an engineer over from the mainland. The colourful fare consists of locally caught seafood: sashimi (including lots of squid), hirogi (a kind of scallop with bright purple or orange shells), sazae (turbo shells) and a whole sea bream, accompanied by local vegetables such as burdock and lotus roots.
The next day, exploring the small town, we are intrigued by what look like white socks spinning round on small motorised clothes driers. They are everywhere. Closer inspection reveals that the “socks” are squid torsos, gutted and impeccably clean. Squid are a major concern in the Oki, where fishing and tourism are just about the only industries. At the end of one tiny inlet, there is the Yurahime “squid shrine”, dedicated to the guardian deity of the sea. In good years, the priest assures us, the little cephalopods throng here in such numbers that you can catch them with your hands.
Our main challenge of the day is to find the Takuhi (“burning fire” or “torch”) Shrine, hidden away atop the island’s tallest mountain. A helpful lady at the little tourist office recommends we take a bus as far as it goes, then books us a taxi from the bus stop to the foot of the mountain.
The countryside is delightful: narrow roads wind round soft green hillsides dotted with mossy shrines and cattle with oddly twisted horns while black butterflies the size of bats flop around like lovesick fedoras.
When the asphalt runs out and a steep, overgrown path begins, the taxi driver stops and tells us to help ourselves to a stout stick from a box by the path.
“Walking sticks?” I ask.
“No, to ward off snakes,” he explains, gesturing that we should beat the undergrowth as we walk.
The constant chirping of cicadas crescendos to an intimidating roar as we beat our way up the narrow path through thick, dank vegetation. The tree cover gives us welcome shelter from the sun’s midday ferocity and the occasional clearing offers stunning views of the shimmering golden sea, with mist-shrouded islands stretching away like a dragon’s tail.
The mountain is only 450 metres high and before long we are confronted by the magnificent 800-year-old cedar that stands before the shrine. The shrine itself is every bit as impressive as we’ve been promised. Pushed out of a huge cave in the mountainside sometime in the mid- Heian era (AD794-1185), the structure lies half inside and half outside, as if its builders had given up and left it there.
Like Yurahime, the Takuhi Shrine is dedicated to the guardian deity of the sea. Islanders used to light a beacon outside the shrine to guide boats into the bay in bad weather and vessels still sound their horn when coming in sight of this unique place.
Before leaving Nishinoshima, we return to the Kuniga cliffs, this time to see them from above. A regular bus service runs from the port. The wide-open spaces of the clifftops, with their delicious breezes and lush pastures, are a world away from the humid claustrophobia of Takuhi’s snake-and-mozzie kingdom. The clifftop trail has been voted one of Japan’s best 100 hikes.
Cows and horses rule these heights, proving the point by dozing immovably in the middle of the road. Atop the cliffs in blissful satori, we watch entranced as wraith-like wisps of mist stream over the rocky coves below.
A short ferry ride from Nishinoshima is the island of Nakanoshima, more commonly known as Ama. We arrive at midday to find the island’s town buzzing in anticipation of the evening’s matsuri, or festival.
The cool of evening brings a colourful parade, spurred on by mighty taiko drums and the consumption of much beer and sake, along with plenty of scrumptious festival food: takoyaki, baked sweet potatoes, fish-shaped taiyaki buns and, of course, squid on a stick.
Following a stellar fireworks display, launched from a floating platform in the bay, a free bus is laid on to take everyone home. It drops us off in the middle of nowhere in utter darkness, but the jolly island ladies who packed the bus assured us that our minshuku, booked for us by the tourist office in Ama port, was just a few yards down the road. They were right.
Next morning we awake early and visit the Oki Shrine, conveniently located just across the road. The priest arrives in a white tunic and baggy purple trousers and tells us emperors Go-Toba (1180-1239) and Go-Daigo (1288-1339) were banished to these islands. I suppose exile is always a bit ignominious, especially when you’ve been brought up to believe you’re a demi-god, but, gazing around at forested mountainsides glistening in the soft morning sunshine, I can’t help feeling that, as banishings go, it could have been a lot worse.
Getting there: Japan Airlines (www.jal.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Osaka’s Kansai International Airport. Buses run throughout the day between Kansai International and Osaka Itami Airport (a 75-minute journey), from where JAL Group flights operate daily to both Matsue and Dogo, the largest of the Oki Islands.