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 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.
The term ritō means “remote island.” Japan has lots of remote islands. When living on islands like this there are some things you need to take account of such as transportation to and from the island. Iki Island has three main ways to get on and off the island:
Jetfoil: this is the high speed hydrofoil that leaves from two of the ports on the island, and connects us to Fukuoka, the biggest city on Kyushu (1.5MM population). Time: about 1 hour
Ferry: there are a few ferries that operate from all three ports. Two routes go to Fukuoka, and one to Karatsu, in Saga prefecture. Time: about 2 hours
Air: Twice daily are flights from Iki to Nagasaki Airport. Time: about 20 minutes
In the other direction, you can catch a ferry or a jetfoil to Tsushima Island from which you can head on to Korea. The boats that go to Tsushima from Fukuoka have a stopover on Iki.
Of course, if you had a boat yourself you could probably make the trip to the Kyushu mainland, but these three modes of transportation are the usual way people and products go to and fro.
The jetfoil is pretty quick so people take it on day trips to Fukuoka all the time. Some islands are very remote, but Iki is lucky to be so close to the biggest city in Kyushu. It is like a bus from the suburbs: you jump on and in an hour you are in the big city for shopping and good eats. You can catch the afternoon jetfoil back, or even catch the late night ferry back if you want to stay out a little longer. The parking lots at the terminals are free for locals, so people just park their car for the day, or for a few days, or even a week or more while they are away on the mainland.
Locals also get the benefit of something called the “Islander Card” (島民カード), or more literally the “Frontier Remote Island Islander Discount Card”. This is a residency card that gives you all sorts of benefits, the best being travel to and from the island at about half price. A flight to Nagasaki is normally about $100 but only $50 for me.
The Islander Card system is run by the prefecture of Nagasaki, which Iki is part of. It is one of the ways that islanders benefit from all the development money that flows from the national government to support the remote islands (more on that in the future). Another thing we get from the Nagasaki prefectural government that connects us to civilization is access to the interlibrary loan system. I can use the amazing Mirai On prefectural library and get books shipped over to one of our small libraries on the island for pickup.
So, hydrofoil, ferry, and plane, those are your options. Of course, weather being weather, these often get interrupted. It was my first time here when I learned the term 欠航 kekkou, which is “flight cancellation” but is also used for ships. When we first came to the island back in January the seas were too rough due to wind, and our jetfoil was redirected to a southern port. Then on the way back, our jetfoil was cancelled completely, and we had to take the ferry. The ferry being bigger and heavier, can withstand a lot more weather wise. But even then it can be cancelled. When it does, the island doesn’t get that days newspaper, and a bread shortage will happen.
Out here on the ocean fog and mist can be a big deal, and this causes flight cancellations all the time. A few weeks back, when I was to take my first flight to Nagasaki, the plane was cancelled due to visibility concerns. I had to postpone for a few days.
The planes that service Iki are Dash 8s, operated by ORC — Oriental Air Bridge — which has a codeshare with ANA. The Dash 8 can only haul just under 40 people, so they are quite small, and I don’t think there is a ton of instrumentation.
The flight to Nagasaki is just 20 minutes, and the route is Nagasaki to Iki and back. Even if there is iffy weather they load up all the passengers and cargo in Nagasaki, then take off, then come over to Iki, fly around for a bit and wait and see if there is an opportunity to land, and if not, head back to Nagasaki. I was waiting in the lounge, having passed security and everything, when they cancelled my flight. It was a bit annoying, but probably not as bad as the poor people who were stuck in the plane and had to go back to their starting point!
With cancellations being pretty common, all of these travel agencies, and even the hotels on the mainland are pretty forgiving in terms of refunding or rescheduling. I don’t have a ton of experience, but so far every time it has happened to me, all the companies involved have been very understanding.
Iki Island is a great place because it is self reliant: fish, rice, beef, freshwater, and electricity are all produced on the island — great for emergency preparedness (knock-on-wood for the coronapocalypse). However, with such a small population (26k) it can be a little inconvenient for getting certain products. There are no malls here… not even a McDonalds or a Starbucks… never mind an Apple Store. Having a few daily ferries, jetfoils, and planes each day means that you can get products shipped pretty easily and quickly, you just have to watch out for the ritō price — a lot of places will charge you extra to ship here. Luckily, Amazon Prime actually includes Iki so we tend to order things from there if possible.
In my last post I explained about the “Pillars of Heaven”, the eight objects sent down by the gods to prevent Iki island from floating around the Sea of Japan at its own free will. Other than Saruiwa the Monkey Rock, most have crumbled into the sea. Of the remaining pillars, my favourite is Sakyōbana, a lava rock formation that looks like a massive, stubby finger pointing up to the sky. You can just imagine this as the remains of a “heavenly pillar.”
Sakyōbana sits just off the coast on the Easternmost part of the island. The cliffs are about 20 meters high, and covered in stiff vegetation, clinging to the rocks as the ocean winds whip at the rock face. It is spectacular seascape viewing at this part of the island. There is not much civilization, and the road runs right along the cliffs so you get amazing views. Also, these cliffs are where these cool sea cows hang out.
At Sakyōbana is a wide grassy field atop the cliff with a memorial sign, a gazebo for windy picnicking, and a shrine overlooking the sea. Here is a 4K video of Sakyobana from the top of the cliffs:
I climbed down the cliff to take some shots of the waves close up. All the rocks are igneous and dangerous. I was on the lookout for snakes, imagining if they popped out and caused me to fall, the lava rocks would tear my flesh before I fell into the big waves crashing into the rocks. It was very dramatic. My wife looked down upon me from the cliff tops, impassive as a stone statue.
The tide was starting to come in, so I didn’t spend that long taking footage of the waves, as the water began lapping at my feet. Here is a 4K video at the water level:
Below is a bit of a gallery. It is just one of the stunning natural spots that Ikijima offers.