The Arashiyama bamboo grove is one of those must-go places when you visit. Located in the west of the city, at the foot of Mount Arashiyama, it is a major tourist area offering all the amenities you would expect of a trip to the “ancient” capital (including Rilakkuma pancakes!). Likely the most photographed sight in the district is that path through the bamboo forest. Many people even pay $30+ for the privilege to be pulled through the grove on a rickshaw!
I was stunned after a few days living on the remote island of Ikijima to learn that farmers hate bamboo. It grows very quickly and is difficult to remove — an invasive species that can ruin a field. I had no idea. Back in Kyoto people write poetry about the stuff!
Another local guy here on the island is married to a woman originally from Kyoto. She used to work in a high-end department store selling fancy watches. He told me about the first time he went to Kyoto to visit her family. They took him around the city to see the sights, and finally to Arashiyama. He was shocked when they walked him through that bamboo grove, wistful and yet proud in that Kyoto manner. He was flabbergasted that they were so pleased with their highly manicured weeds.
The urban-rural divide defines our modern era. Bridging this is one of the reasons we moved to Iki in the first place. Living here is like simultaneously living in Japan’s past and future — a real eye-opener that I am still processing. Some of the lessons I have learned on Iki, and many more besides, are found in a new book from Camphor Press: Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan. I had the opportunity to read the book and write a review for Writers in Kyoto that you can check out here. I share a few more lessons from remote island-living in that piece. Check it out, and if you are interested, get the book!
Today is our 1 Year Anniversary of moving to the remote island of Ikijima. (More on Why Iki here →)
We have enjoyed clear blue water, white sand beaches, stunning sunrises, windy days, typhoons, unexpected snow, cancelled flights and boats, new friends, tough days at Japanese school, trips to the mainland, and much more.
Last weekend was the first time I left Ikijima for four months. But it isn’t like we have been spending the whole time huddled in our house against the snowpocalypse. The weather was really crappy, and we did have a couple of weeks where coronavirus flared up on the island for the first time since April (56 cases in total during Dec and Jan, everyone got better), but I still got out and made some videos that I would like to share with you now.
Most of these videos are 4K and/or 60fps, so you might want to watch them on fullscreen to get the full effect.
Often on Twitter I will mention hearing about some local happening on the island like new coronavirus cases or massive snowfall stalling bus service. These updates come across the emergency broadcast system, or 告知放送 kokuchi hōsō. We are all familiar with speakers mounted on towers and buildings in every neighbourhood in Japan. But this is the first time I have ever had one in my house!
Mounted on the wall in my kitchen is a wireless radio that beams messages from the city directly into my home. Day to day, this includes a simple time alarm: a chime played at 7am, noon, and 5pm every day (including Sundays!). Islander children are told by teachers and parents that they should always hear the 5 o’clock chime from home.
I recorded a sampling of each so you could hear:
The songs are:
07:00 恋は水色 Koi ha mizuiro or “L’amour est bleu”
12:00 壱岐市民歌 Iki City Song
17:00 夕焼け小焼け Yūyake Koyake
The last one is particularly famous, and used as a time alarm in many places in Japan.
It has been kind of strange to have this receiver in my house. Apparently they are in every house in Iki. There are no fees associated and they are maintained by the city Crisis Management Department (危機管理課) as part of Iki’s disaster plan. They have a manual you can read. The system has been in place for a while, since on the other wall there is an older version that doesn’t work anymore:
It is up near the ceiling by my fridge. The new one was installed in 2010, but that might have been when this house was built.
They have a manual posted online for operating the device. You can even get FM radio on it. There is a volume control, and you can turn them completely off, but that would defeat the purpose.
The reason for these home receivers is for public service announcements, especially in emergencies. Common ones I have heard include:
emergencies: fires (when they start, the location, and when they are put out), missing persons, coronavirus updates
marketing: events run by various city-related organizations (eg. Museum lectures), cancellations of events (eg. due to coronavirus)
I believe these are linked to the J-Alert network so we should get earthquake warnings. I would also expect we would get nuclear disaster warnings since there is a reactor nearby. I don’t know if we would get any type of air raid warning in case of a North Korean missile. 🤷♂️
On almost our first day I was shocked to hear a broadcast from the Iki police directly into my house! It was only a reminder to everyone to wear their seatbelt, but it felt a little Orwellian (I don’t think these things have a mic on them, believe me, I checked right away).
On the city website you can request a broadcast. It must use a specific template and be filed at least three days in advance. Broadcasts can be to one or more of the four towns on Iki, or the entire island. I am not sure who clears these messages, but I seriously doubt they will let me send an island-wide Happy Anniversary! to my wife next month. 😂
Emergency broadcast systems are extremely common in Japan, but this is the first time I have seen them inside of a house. Is this common on other islands, or rural areas? If you have seen this before, comment below!
During the first wave of coronavirus cases in Japan we moved to Iki island thinking it would be safer than waiting out the pandemic wave in Kyoto. It was a good move. Since we came here last May, we have been lucky to lead a very normal life. The kids go to school, we ate out, visited beaches, made new friends.
Life has ground to a halt since the New Year’s holiday. Our kids have not left the house to play with friends since a new case of coronavirus, the first for months, was discovered on Iki on December 28th.
A ferry boat worker, and resident of Fukuoka, felt a little sick but still went to work. On the way to Tsushima he collapsed in the mess while eating a meal. The crew dropped him off in Ashibe, here on Iki before going on to Tsushima. He was taken to the hospital and tested positive. Four other crew members he interacted with also tested positive. But it didn’t stop there. A group of city officials had a year end party with out-of-towners: six out of twenty attendees came down with coronavirus. Then another case amongst ship workers. In a matter of days, we went from historically 7 cases to 57.
Are remote islands havens from pandemics?
Rural areas are natural places to avoid the 3 C’s:
It is very easy to social distance out here, and most of our daily life outside the home is conducted in a private vehicle. There are lots of natural places to hike and get outdoors without being around people.
Being on an island, travel here is restricted to boat or plane, both of which require temperature checks to board. Also, since you have to register to board either, it makes contact tracing a little easier if a breakout happens. And if a breakout does happen, it is easier to contain the population of a small island and wait it out.
So, islands are a pretty good place to isolate oneself from a pandemic raging on the mainland. Of course, if the virus makes it to the island, it can get pretty scary.
Rural areas like Iki have been depopulating over the past few decades. We have 26,000 people here, half of what was here at the island’s peak in the late 1950s. Depopulation does not affect all population groups equally. Usually it is the younger, college-aged people leaving for the city to find education and job opportunities. Thus, rural areas have a lot of elderly, people who are particularly vulnerable to a virus like COVID-19.
What’s more, we have a small population. Even just a few cases can be a serious problem. Back in Kyoto there are about 1300 active cases. For Iki to have the same caseload for our amount of population we need just 13 sick. We are currently at 45, hence why our situation has been upgraded to Phase 4. This makes one wonder if it is safer to go back to the city.
Rural areas tend not to have large medical capacity. Iki only has 20 beds for coronavirus patients at the hospital. There are two facilities with 25 rooms for people to quarantine.
Rural areas usually also have limited shopping options. For example, we only have two FamilyMarts on the island, and people travel from all over to come to the Aeon shopping center near my house. These can act as bottlenecks, potential nodes for virus transmission.
Speaking of bottlenecks, if you do want to get off the island to a “safer” city, you have to either a boat or a plane. The boats have already been the source of a number of cases.
Despite being densely populated, cities do spread out the risk to individuals, as long as they are being responsible.
The curve on Iki seems to be flattening, so we aren’t going to risk moving just yet. Many public facilities have been closed. The hospital is closed to non-emergencies until the 15th. The city cancelled the annual Coming of Age ceremony (成人式). My kids’ Judo club quickly shut down for all of January. It was announced earlier today over the island broadcast system that the first day of school is being pushed back. We have been holed up and taking extra precautions on our own and will continue to do so as we watch the numbers.
Yesterday Nagasaki upgraded the prefectural emergency status to Stage 4, matching that of Iki, and requested residents not to eat in large groups or travel out of the prefecture. The central government will initiate another “soft lockdown” today, but limited only to Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures. But the situation is a lot more serious on small islands like ours. Japan has 257 inhabited remote islands, but their situations won’t make the nightly news.
We turned in at about 1AM after watching 紅白 and ゆく年くる年 I roused the kids out of bed at 6am so we could drive to a spot for a view of the first sunrise of 2021. Shivering in the car we ended up at the cliffs by Sakyōbana, the crumbling heavenly pillar and well-known “power spot” on Iki. From high up on the cliff about 20 people were spread out watching across the sea to see the sun rise from behind the taller mountains of the Kyushu mainland. It was pretty cloudy, so we could only see a blotch of pink. But as the morning light brightened up we watched the wind lash waves against the rock formation known as Sakyōbana.
Shrine of the Moon God
Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun, and divine ancestor of the Emperor of Japan. We greeted her last year on a visit to Ise. She has many famous stories about her and her jerk brother Susano’o, the god of the wind. She also has a lesser known brother, who has been kind of written out of the old stories: Tsukiyomi, the moon god. Between Japan and Korea, the island of Tsushima is known as the “Sun” and Iki as the “Moon.” There are not a lot of shrines to Tsukiyomi in Japan, but Iki has an important one. In fact, the Tsukiyomi Shrine here has a sub-shrine on the grounds of Matsuo-taisha in Kyoto. We climbed the stairs to the shrine and were the only ones there as we hammered a wooden plaque number of times of our age for good luck in 2021. Here we dropped off all of our older charms from last year for burning, and bought new fuda for the kamidana in our house.
On the way back home we stopped by Sumiyoshi Shrine, our ujigami to pick up a fuda from there too. You have to have the full set stacked in the right order to protect your household. I also picked up an omikuji and got a wonderful fortune for 2021! I also got a little daruma charm for my wallet (nice mixing of Buddhism there!). Up at Tsukiyomi a few bits of snow and hail fell. While at Sumiyoshi it really started coming down!
Back home we set up the house shrine for 2021, busted open the money envelopes with the kids, and then sat down for some osechi. Originally we had planned on being in Kyoto for New Years. As coronavirus cases started to explode, we cancelled all of our plans and just stuck to the island. Too late to make an order, my wife decided to try and make osechi from scratch. She is too embarrassed to let me show pics of the inside, but I think she did an amazing job.
According to the old stories, Iki was one of the first islands of Japan, made by the creator gods themselves. It is the island of the Moon, with Tsushima across the strait being the island of the Sun. The gods had to raise up heavenly pillars to keep the island in place. Iki is said to be home to 1200 shrines despite being only 17 km long and 14 km wide.
But gods are not the only ones that tread here.
According to different old stories, Iki was a Demon Island (鬼ヶ島). Not the one from the Momotaro story, a different one. Demons ran rampant in old Japan, and you can see the evidence today here on Iki: there is the famous Devil’s Footprint and many shrines have demon-shaped wooden dolls to keep away evil (and Mongols). But where did all the demons go? The answer to that question can be found in the traditional kites of Iki.
The ondako (鬼凧) or “demon kite” is one of the symbols of the island. You can see them on the backs of tour buses, at the entrance to the museum, and they sell little versions of them as souvenirs. They are ubiquitous.
There is a kite flying festival in April, but on windy days, if you go down to Sakyobana, the north-facing cliffs, there is a group of older gentleman that fly the kites. They are quite large, and when they go up into the strong winds, they make a sort of buzzing sound that is loud. It is like one of those murder hornets, a warning.
The ondako depicts a fierce looking warrior, with upturned moustache, wearing an ornate helmet. The warrior is looking upwards, because perched on top of the helmet is the head of a demon. The story goes like this:
The hero Yuriwaka came to Iki and killed most of the demons, finally facing down their Poison King. The evil demon king attacked Yuriwaka with his massive golden club, but Yuriwaka was able to decapitate the king. The demon king’s head then flew up into the heavens to get some medicine that would help re-attach his head to his body. Meanwhile Yuriwaka hid the body, and waited for the demon head to finally die. When the Head of Poison King returned and could not find his body, the demon attacked Yuriwaka by chomping on his head! The helmet protected Yuriwaka, and soon the demon head died. Since then the people fly kites celebrating Yuriwaka’s deeds high up into the heavens as a warning to any demons who might be thinking about coming down.
Since the typhoon was due to strike on the Monday, we started shopping for supplies on Friday morning. The 9th typhoon of the season, Maysak, had just passed a couple of days ago. We deployed the rain shutters and slept all together in the large guest room, 8 tatami mats, as the wind rattled and rain battered the house. Our house is very well built, so weren’t too worried. But the next typhoon, Haishen, was supposed to be way bigger. It was dubbed a Super Typhoon.
The North Pacific typhoon season has an annual average of 30 typhoons. Of those only about eight will hit Okinawa and the southern islands, usually petering out or veering away at the southern tip of Kyushu. About three will make it further to strike at northern Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu.
The more I went around town to pick up supplies, the more I saw people boarding up their stores and taping their windows, and the more rumours I heard about how this was a “once in a 30 year storm” or “No! Once in a 100 years!”
On Friday afternoon, the kids came home with a letter: school on Monday was cancelled due to the approaching typhoon. Things were getting serious. Haishen was massive, and the nightly news showed endlessly looped footage of historical typhonic destruction. The townspeople were getting anxious. Historically this area had never been hit bad, but with global warming, who knew what to expect? I certainly had no clue. Even though I lived in Japan for eight years, I was far from the truly destructive effects of a typhoon. Living in Kyoto and Nagoya, a typhoon to me was a massive rain storm that meant you needed to take an extra set of clothes and shoes to work, as you would likely be ankle deep in water and totally soaked when you arrived. Typhoon Number 9 hit in the middle of the night, so we barely experienced it. Although we had done some disaster prep, it felt like a practice run for Haishen who had our little island right in the sight of its menacingly calm Eye.
In 1971 a surprising archeological discovery was made on Iki island: the remains of a stegadon (in fact, the remains of two). While mammoths and mastodons have shaggy hair, stegadons have hide like modern elephants and their tusks go outward, which also is apparently different than other prehistoric elephants. Here is a picture of me hanging out with one… well a statue of one:
It’s a fun statue for visitors to take pics in front of. But right beside the stegadon is an art museum dedicated to a famous artist born on Iki: Koganemaru Ikuhisa (小金丸幾久). Born in 1915, Koganemaru has pieces all over Japan. You might be familiar with the “Oath of Peace” outside of Ōimachi St in Shinagawa (Tokyo). Or if you have been to Sasebo on Kyushu, you might have seen the massive statue at the Urakami Repatriation Peace Park (here are some Google Images of it… it is very much in Koganemaru’s style of abstract women). I haven’t been to that repatriation site but I have visited the Maizuru Repatriation Memorial Museum where 6.6M Japanese landed from Manchuria and Soviet improsonment after WWII. Anyways, a couple of months ago I was in Omura city and stopped to see a statue depicting the first Japanese embassy to Europe, a group of 12 year old boys who went over in the late 16th C. Turns out this piece too was a Koganemaru! I didn’t know that until I walked into his memorial hall on Iki, close to that stegadon. Prehistorically predetermined?
All the above are life-size, except the Meiji emperor who is 2x. As you can see Koganemaru primarily worked in metal. It is quite stunning to see these in person, and not being a connoisseur, I have no idea how he made them. There are quite a few effects showing off his different techniques.
Koganemaru’s last statue, erected in 1997, is just across the bay from my house. It is of Shōni Suketoki, a local hero who saw his first battle against invading Mongols at the age of 12. In the second Mongol invasion at Iki, at the age of 18, he led a force to once again defend Japan. This time he was killed in battle. A local park is named after him, and his epic statue is right at the front of the Ashibe ferry terminal.