In northwest Kyushu, on a peninsula of a peninsula of a peninsula, like a fractal made from prehistoric solidified lava, lies the vibrant city of Nagasaki.
Nestled amongst rugged volcanic hills, Nagasaki is one of the most important ports in all of Japanese history. The narrow bay quickly gives way to steep mountains, carpeted with thick, sub-tropical jungle fauna thanks to the rich soil and humid weather. Here and there buildings cling tenuously to the hillside, almost stacked upon one another.
Below are narrow gullies where rivers flow into the bay. The rivers are interconnected by a series of canals, crisscrossed with bridges supporting the movement of people and goods. Higher up, the mountains are connected by bridges and tunnels. Driving into the city from the airport your view constantly alternates between smooth concrete lit by drab fluorescent lights, and soaring vistas of cities, rivers, and farmland below. Just entering the city one sees how Nagasaki has conquered its rocky landscape with feats of infrastructure.
The ruggedness also has its boons too, beyond natural beauty. That craggy geography protected much of the city from history’s second atomic bomb in August 9, 1945. Fat Man was a bigger bomb too. Little Boy, the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan, flattened about 70% of Hiroshima’s buildings, leaving another 6-7% severely damaged. An old teacher of mine was a child living in the suburbs when the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. He described to me his memory of coming over the hill to see a total wasteland. He could see all the way to where Hiroshima station used to stand, an unimaginable sight for a 6 year old. It was now a plain of rubble, the only things standing were the occasional telephone pole. A few days later, Nagasaki’s furrowed topography frustrated the Fat Man who could destroy only (!) 40% of its buildings.
That was 75 years ago. Since then the city has built itself back up. Nagasaki has long been a city of industry. A 150 years ago Nagasaki was at the center of Japan’s industrial revolution. Scholars from all over the country would come to Nagasaki to engage in 蘭学 rangaku or “Dutch Studies.” Engineering, medicine, technology — much of the transfer of knowledge from the West happened here in Nagasaki. Specifically on one little island. You just had to get over the bridge.
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.
Before coming to Iki on the Remote Islands Exchange program, I didn’t know “remote islands” were. I mean, all of Japan is islands right? In English there is lots of content on “Japanese islands that are remote” but not much on “remote islands”, or ritō, as a singular concept. Now that I live on one of those remote islands, I started to dig in.
How many islands?
Quick quiz! Name the islands that make up Japan!
🤔 Well, there is the main island Honshu which has most of the population and the big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Kyoto. Hokkaido is the big one in the north famous for potatoes and the Ainu indigenous peoples. Tucked under Honshu is Shikoku connected by that really long bridge and the 88 temple, 1200km walking pilgrimage. Then, in the southwest there is Kyushu, from which it is a short ferry ride to Korea. That’s the major four islands. Then of course there is Okinawa, the old Ryukyu Kingdom which was only returned to Japan by the American military in 1973. Those are all the major islands, but there are obviously many more. Like the Senkaku Islands that Japan and China are fighting over, or Takeshima, which the Koreans dispute as Dokdo. The Russians have some claims on the Kuril islands in the north. Then there is that bunny/poison gas island and like 11 cat islands.
Being a “stratovolcanic archipelago” Japan has a lot more islands than you can likely name. In fact, there are 6,852 at the last official count. The vast majority of these are uninhabited, but there are 257 islands where human beings (and cats probably) reside. But they are all important for Japan. I will go into that in a future post, but today I would just like to introduce you to the concept and the geographic context of the ritō.
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.
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.
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:
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.
We have now spent 1 month in Japan. This post is a bit of a personal update, for friends and family wondering how things are going on the other side of the world, and also to document my experience during the early days of the pandemic in Japan. This is obviously a snapshot, written during the 10th and 11th of April. The situation is constantly changing, so I refrain from adding too many official details.
The first time I moved to Japan, as an exchange student to Ritsumeikan University, it was Y2K. My friend and I had a plan to escape to the small neighnbbourhood grocery store. It was packed full of food, and had a shutter that could be pulled down in a siege. Seemed like a logical place to go…
The second time I moved to Japan was just after 9/11. During the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, I happened to be in Japan for a week visiting my girlfriend (now spouse) before my final semester at university. When all planes were grounded I was stuck here in Kyoto and started looking for a job. I interviewed at my old alma mater, and secured a position in the PR department. The ban on flights lifted, and my new employers let me go back to Canada to finish my degree. I returned on January 2nd, 2002. It was a different world.
The third time I moved to Japan full time was in the aftershock of the financial crisis in 2008. I was just out of grad school, and having a tough time interviewing for jobs in Canada. Luckily, the company I worked for part time in Nagoya (Apple) was willing to give me a full time position.
This is the fourth time I have moved to Japan to stay for an extended period of time. We arrived on March 11th, the 9th anniversary of the Tōhoku Earthquake Triple Disaster. Again, there is a global crisis happening in the background.
That narrow corridor of water between Japan and continental Asia, the confluence of three seas — East China, Yellow, and the Sea of Japan — is called the Korea Strait. It is about 200km wide, and is bisected by the long and narrow Tsushima Island. From Tsushima, on a clear day, it is said one can see Korea across the Western Channel. In the opposite direction, across the Tsushima Strait, it is a mere 65km jaunt to Kyushu, one of the four major islands of Japan.
The Tsushima Straight bears a heavy historical significance for Japan. It is over Tsushima Strait that a metaphorical “bridge” stretched from Japan to Continental Asia through the ages. The Jōmon Peoples crossed the Straight 14,000 years ago, one of the first settler groups to the Japanese archipelago. Thousands of years later Buddhism and all sorts of Chinese culture crossed over. The straight was plied by wakō pirates for centuries, and the Mongols crossed it a couple times in their attempts to invade. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the “great unifier” of Japan struck out across the Strait on his failed attempts to invade Korea. At the turn of the 20th century, the Straight was the site of a decisive battle between Japan and Russia — the first time an Asian power defeated a Western power in the modern era.
There has been more than just pirate ships, Mongols, and gunboats floating in these waters. In legendary times there was a magical island that roamed around called Iki Island (or Ikijima). The gods decided that was inconvenient and pinned the island within eight pillars (one in the shape of a giant monkey).
In the final foray of our New Year’s trip around Japan, we headed for the “Lucky Island” of Ikijima.
In a time before time, the sibling deities Izanagi and Izanami (who were married, but that is a different tale) stood on the Floating Bridge of Heaven. They had a jewelled spear which they dipped into the ocean below. After pulling it out, the drops from the spear formed the islands we know today as Japan.
Later, Izanagi was washing his face. When he washed out his left eye he “begat” Amaterasu — the goddess of the sun. Amaterasu’s brother, the god of the wind named Susano-o was begat when Izanagi was washing his nose.
Susano-o was a bit of a bully, and did some really mean things to his older sister. Once, when Amaterasu couldn’t handle things anymore, she hid herself in a cave. This was problematic as she was the sun goddess, so the other gods got together in the dark with a plan and tricked her into coming out using a mirror. There is obviously lots more to the story, but the mirror is important: it becomes one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan.
Much later, about 2000 years ago in our history, the daughter of the emperor of Japan at the time set out to find a permanent location for the worship of the Sun Goddess. She settled on Ise, in Mie prefecture, a beautiful area with spectacular sunrises. Two millennia later Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Jingū) is the most important of Japanese Shinto holy sites, considered the “home” of Amaterasu, and houses the mirror from the myth. It is a primary pilgrimage destination for people all over Japan. Ise Jingū is actually two complexes consisting of 125 shrines to various deities.
Kyoto was a short stop during this trip. We did all of our regular traditions when visiting home: met with family for our own New Year’s, went for hatsumōde at Yasaka Jinja, visited the family grave.
One day I had a couple of hours alone time so I decided to take a little walking tour of a couple of spots that I had recently read about, but had never visited. The first stop was Otafuku, a cafe I have walked by countless times, featured in Merry White’s excellent book Coffee Life in Japan. I had a little jam-toast and a cup of coffee and live-tweeted my observations.
Once fortified with magical java juice, I walked westward down Shijo all the way to Omiya, checking out what was new (Kyoto Apple Store!) and listening to the familiar street sounds of Kyoto. While travelling and walking I never put in my headphones to listen to audiobooks or podcasts. I want the full sensory experience.
From Omiya I turned north and headed towards Nijo Castle, famous for its Nightingale Floor (mentioned in another post). This time I stopped at Shinsen-en, the oldest existing garden in Kyoto. This was the private garden of the Emperor built in 794. But that is not the reason I wanted to visit.
A couple of years ago, during New Years 2017-18, I travelled alone to Mount Kōya, one of the holiest mountains in Japan. (Unfortunately I never wrote a travel log of this amazing experience, but you can see the obligatory Koya-san photoset here). Koya-san is a sprawling temple complex of the Shingon tradition of Buddhism. It was masterminded by the tradition’s founder Kūkai in 819. Kūkai was an amazing person with many legends surrounding him. In fact, his body is still sitting in meditation on Mt Koya right now, 1185 years after his “death.” I spent a lot of time researching him before visiting Koya, and that’s when I learned about one such event in Kyoto.
Kūkai was very famous in his time, and was tipped to run Toji, a very important temple in Kyoto. In 824 there was a long drought in Kyoto, causing all sorts of fear about crop failure and famine. The emperor called on Kūkai for help. It was here, at Shinsen-en, where Kūkai performed the rain-making rite, calling upon the Dragon King who lived in this pond. The temple area of this garden is small, but there is quite a bit to see in the details since it is a curious mix of Buddhist, Shinto, and Taoist symbolism and architecture.
After leaving Shinsen-en I walked down Oike, a street I used to live on, and stopped by a very crowded “Money” shrine to pay my respects for the previous year (when I finally became debt free) and the future (who knows!). The crowd was insane, so I just gave a quick bow and word of thanks across the street from the gold torii. From there I walked to Teramachi, swung by Honno-ji to see Nobunaga’s mausoleum and this really creepy statue before heading home.
So much to see in a mere 5km jaunt! I really love Kyoto.
We spent less than a day here, getting up early on Jan 1st — known as gantan (元旦) in Japanese. A friend who I had not seen in many years picked us up from the hotel, and we all went for hatsumōde together. My friend lives mostly in Dubai where his three kids go to British school. His brother-in-law also came with us with his two kids who are schooled in Singapore. My kids obviously are educated in Canada. It was amazing to see all the bi-racial kids, educated in totally different countries, interact with one another at a shrine in the Yoyogi area of Tokyo. The became fast friends, griping about how difficult Japanese school is. 😂
While my buddy and his family were gathering over some osechi ryori [sidenote: get a nice binaural intro to osechi at the Uncanny Japan podcast] we took a quick jaunt to the New National Stadium, a 1 billion dollar multipurpose stadium built to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. Walking through the streets of Tokyo in the morning, I was struck by how empty it seemed. Of course most stores were shuttered, and people would be at home having New Year’s meals with their families, or be outside of Tokyo in their hometowns. Yet “empty” Tokyo was a little spooky. That said, we still had to line up for 30 mins for the local shrine.
We took a taxi to the Olympic Village where in front of the official Olympic Museum there is a display of giant Olympic rings that people lined up to get photos with. It was pretty busy around this area. The New Year’s cheer and Olympic fever was in the air. Everyone was really helpful, politely offering to take photos for other people. We were able to get a family shot, and then quickly headed to Tokyo Station where saw the countdown clock for the 2020 Olympics before catching the bullet train to Kyoto.
The weather was amazing: clear blue skies. I was happy to be sitting on the right side of the train because we would get a clear view of Mt Fuji. However, the only clouds in the sky had gathered around that mountain obscuring the view. Alas, the only good photo I got of Fuji-san from the Shinkansen was this one.
This year I celebrated New Year’s in Tokyo for the first time. We landed at Haneda on New Year’s Eve, stayed in the airport hotel, and over the next 10 days crossed about 2200km of the country. As I summed up on Twitter: