Island of Gods, Island of Demons

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.

Statue depicting a warrior fighting a demon
Yuriwaka fighting the Poison King, statue in downtown Go-no-ura

First island typhoon experience

[This is a long post. At the very bottom is a condensed list of lessons learned if you do not have the time to spare.]

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!

Series of screenshots from a weather app showing the typhoon approaching

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.

Continue reading “First island typhoon experience”

The statues of Koganemaru Ikuhisa

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:

Me chillin’ with the local stegadon

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?

Below are some samples of his work on display in the hall. (These pics are all on Flickr as well if you want to see them bigger.)

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.

Statue of young samurai on a rearing horse
Shōni Suketoki statue in front of Ashibe Ferry Terminal

Statues in Japan actually have a very interesting history. If you want to learn a little more about public history and monuments, check out this podcast on the politics of public statues and monuments in Japan with Dr. Sven Saaler →

Remote island logistics: getting on and off Iki

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.

Jetfoil docking at Ashibe Port

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.

My "Islander Card"
My “Islander Card”

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.

Ferry pulling into Ashibe Port and unloading people

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.

Dash 8 on the ground with ORC markings

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.

Sakyōbana, crumbling pillar of Heaven

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.


Monkey Rock, a pillar of heaven

On the eastern side of Iki, jutting 45 meters out of the ocean is a giant rock formation, somewhat covered in moss-like greenery. From a certain angle the rocks look uncannily like a massive gorilla, solemnly looking out over a nearby cliff. This is the treasure of Ikijima: Saruiwa 猿岩 or “Monkey Rock.”

The Kojiki, or the “Record of Ancient Matters”, describes the creation of Japan by the gods Izanagi and Izanami (the parents of the Sun Goddess). With their jewelled spear they originally created 8 islands, not all are part of modern day Japan. The fifth island created was Iki… but there was a problem. Iki was a “living island” and apparently floated around the sea at its own whim. This was inconvenient for the gods, who preferred that islands stay put. So they cast down eight massive pillars to pin the island, and hold it in place upon the sea. Saruiwa is one of those “heavenly pillars.”

The other seven are not so spectacular — most have crumbled into the sea (I will cover one of the better ones in a future post). But Saruiwa is extremely striking. I wish I had a 50mm lens to give you a sense of how massive the thing is.

Below is a mini gallery from the rock. You can check out a few more photos and short videos, including some from the evening and from the cliff beside the giant Monkey Rock on Flickr.


Sounds of the Monkey Rock

It had been raining for days, so when I went up there the grasses were full of all sorts of life. I decided to take a quick recording. Listen to this while you look at the photos, and maybe you will get a feeling of being there. It was very windy, so I pointed the mic away from the ocean, but you can hear the waves in the background.

Convenient Countryside Karaoke

Hey peeps in Japan, does your FamiMa include a Karaoke room? I mean, convenience stores here have everything but I have never seen karaoke in one before!

On the left is a convenience store. On the right is an attached building with a sign for "Onpu"
“Onpu” — the local karaoke joint in Gonoura

The only big name convenience store on Ikijima is FamilyMart — there are no Lawsons or 7-11s. FamiMa has two locations and both of them have attached karaoke rooms. The above is in the “city” of Gonoura. It is pretty fancy as you can see. Onpu (literally “musical note”) is attached to the FamilyMart. The entrance is right beside the cash register inside the convenience store.

Below is Pop, at the other FamiMa on the island, in the “town” of Ashibe. It is not as fancy, and is not attached. You have to go into the convenience store and get the key, which you reserve in advance.

On the right is a convenience store. Beside it to the left is a small building with a sign for "Pop"
“Pop” — the local karaoke joint in Ashibe

As you can see below, Pop is shaped like a trailer but is a permanent building. It is more like the karaoke trailers that you see around, but nicer.

A different angle of "Pop" with the convenience store in the background

Elsewhere on the island you will see the more “rustic” karaoke trailer. Below we have “Music Studio Shinjo“, which you can see upon closer inspection, is literally a trailer.

I have only experienced karaoke in larger cities, so this is the first time I have ever seen a “country karaoke trailer.” It seems like a good idea to put these little bunkers out in the middle of nowhere where no one will be bothered by my caterwauling. Is this common in other rural parts of Japan? I can’t imagine this is a purely Iki thing… let me know in the comments. 👇

First month at Japanese Elementary school

My feet are soooo sunburnt. It looks like I am wearing crabs for slippers.

It has been one month of Japanese elementary school. My kids have done surprisingly well considering that Japanese is not really their mother tongue. There have been a couple of rough days, but overall they are maintaining a very high level of curiosity and drive.

This is my first time experiencing Japanese elementary school too. Not only am I experiencing through my kids, I am participating more in the school community. Certainly not having a regular job gives me the freedom to volunteer at the school, but Japanese elementary schools drag the parents into all sorts of activities. That is how I got terribly sunburned (more on that later).

Below I thought I would outline our experiences so far, what the kids do each day, what they learn, and then round up with a special event where I helped out at the school. This post is admittedly long — sorry about that! Hopefully I can keep you entertained. Keep in mind of course that whatever I say here can only be representative of our experience: even though the Japanese education system is centralized, there are many small localized variations.

Continue reading “First month at Japanese Elementary school”

A successful move to Ikijima, the Lucky Island

In the last post I described moving to Japan during a pandemic. After all that drama we followed up with an inter-prefectural move within Japan under a State of Emergency! The drama never ends around here…

Golden Week is around the beginning of May when a series of holidays fall in place almost almost one after another (a couple of Emperor’s birthdays, Constitution Day, Children’s Day etc.). Many people take the whole week off and travel around the country — either to visit relatives or for tourism — in the beautiful May weather before the rainy season brings the oppressive heat of summer. Since everyone has the same week off, everywhere is packed. But not in the year of coronovirus: the government asked everyone to stay home on their holidays.

The State of Emergency called on April 7th was to go to the end of Golden Week on May 6th. We considered waiting until the SOE had lifted before moving, but feared another outbreak as the country started up again. Travelling while everyone stayed home seemed like the best way to mitigate the risk. We paid attention to the news, and when the numbers came out that the Bullet Train only had about 6% ridership, we decided to head to the island.

It was a good move. We took the Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka and there were only a handful of people waiting to get on the train. At most there were 10 people in our car, which had a capacity of 100. Everyone was wearing masks and we disinfected our seating area. It was the plane flight to Japan all over again. By the time we disembarked in Hakata there were only two people other than the four of us in the car.

Shinkansen scenery — shot and edited entirely on my iPhone

The jetfoil to Iki was a similar story. We were the only passengers on the upper deck, which holds about 90 people. Downstairs, I saw maybe another handful of people. Thus, we were able to traverse the 700 kilometers through 7 prefectures safely.

Jetfoil to Iki was pretty empty
All aboard…? An empty jetfoil to Iki.

Staying at Wasabi

We still didn’t have a home to go to though. So we stayed in a local guesthouse we found online called Wasabi. This cool little backpacker’s hostel is situated high up a hill overlooking Ashibe Fishing Port. I took a few photos around the guesthouse and made a little tour video:

[That whole video was shot and edited on my iPad Pro. I was really surprised at the capability!]

We stayed here for a couple of days while we met with the school district to secure our house and finalize the selection of our school. But we took the day after we arrived off to recover from the trip, and the master of Wasabi took us on a quick tour around the island (photos). We only drove around the outer rim of the island and visited a series of white sand beaches, some historical sites, climbed the biggest mountain (212 meters) to take a 360 video, and of course saw the famous Monkey Rock. I plan on going to each of these sites again and taking lots of pics and video, but this was a quick taste test since the weather was really nice (but windy!).

Moving into the house and first day of school

On our second day in Iki, a Thursday, we decided on a house and a school. After two and a half months of basically being homeless, we finally secured a place of our own! Friday was fridge and washing machine shopping, as well as other home stuff, and we picked up the 19 boxes we had sent from Kyoto. On the Saturday we began the move. We were going to take a little more time, but the school district wanted the kids in school for Monday, since school here just started up again after Golden Week and a bit of a hiatus during the State of Emergency (they only had 4 school days during the month of April).

Monday came soon enough as we spent all weekend unpacking boxes and cleaning. During the weekend some neighbourhood kids came over and offered to walk to school with my girls. On Monday morning they came over at 7:05. My kids were up and changed before the alarm went off at 6, and were out the door with big smiles on their faces. A couple of hours later, while cleaning, I came across this note:

To: Mom and Dad. I hope you will have a nice day by yourself. Mom and Dad thank you for letting us go to school.

Since Monday was an auspicious day (金剛峯日) we decided to make that our official move-in day. Thus we waited until then to set up Baba in the butsudan, enshrine the Sun Goddess ofuda we got while in Ise a few months ago, spread some Ise sand around the four corners of our house for purification, then we walked up a nearby hill (which reminded me a lot of that scene from Totoro!) to pay our respects to the local kami who oversees this area.

After planning this for nearly six months, we are finally here, and our island life can finally begin.

On May 4th the Japanese government extended the State of Emergency to the end of May, but already they are letting up restrictions in rural areas where the impact has been limited. Ikijima has not had any infections since the original six people back in early March, and is taking passenger temperatures before they board any ships or planes before heading to the island. There are still many restaurant and hotel closures on the island, and everyone is still wearing masks, but it seems to be pretty much a return to normal life here. We’ve been here for just 1 week and have settled into a house, saw some sites, made some friends, and enjoyed some beautiful weather. So far so good! Now I just need to get my internet and desk sorted, and then I can get down to some serious work.

iMac sitting in empty tokonoma
Current (temporary) workstation