If you ask the average Japanese person a question about the Oki Islands, they might say, “Where?” However, the Oki Islands of Shimane Prefecture have plenty more to offer to anyone who seeks them.
Located only a two hour ferry ride from Matsue and Sakaiminato, Oki’s four inhabited and 180 uninhabited islands are like no other place on earth. In fact, they are so geologically unique that they became a UNESCO supported Geopark in 2013. These islands are filled with a rugged natural beauty, created after years of volcanic activity, erosion and weathering. The four large islands are Dogo, Nishinoshima, Nakanoshima and Chiburijima.
Like the Greek-Irish travel writer Lafcadio Hearn, who explored Japan in the early twentieth century, my husband, Jesse and I were determined to go to Oki, despite threats of an imminent typhoon. The ferry left the harbour at Shichirui Port under cloudless blue skies. The Oki Kisen ferry was an experience. One staff member looked at our tickets and motioned us to the right. What we saw shocked us. There were no seats; only large, carpeted sections. Already, many people were sprawled out in every available space. In true Japanese fashion, we slipped off our shoes and sat on the floor. The air inside the air-conditioned cabin smelled of coffee, cola, peanuts and beer. Some passengers were already asleep, their heads resting on pillows that looked like brown bricks. Children were squealing, shouting, laughing, playing card games and colouring. The older folk chatted, read, slept or drank beers. Soon, the floor began to rumble. The boat gently rocked to and fro as it cut through the ocean. I fell asleep, propped up against my backpack. Everyone else soon settled down for a nap and the noise faded.
We disembarked at Hishiura Port, Nakanoshima (Ama Town) and headed to Oki Gyu Ten, one of the few places that serves Oki beef on these islands. Oki cattle are raised on the islands and feed on its lush, green vegetation. Oki beef is some of the best gourmet beef I have ever eaten. It’s tender, fresh and delicious. In fact, most of this premium beef is auctioned off in Tokyo markets and Oki calves are often sent to Kobe, where they eventually become the famous Kobe beef.
After lunch, we rented bikes to explore the island. First, we cycled to Rainbow Beach, which is very close to Hishiura Port. Then we climbed further inland to find Oki Shrine, which was built to honour Emperor Gotoba. This nobleman was one of many who were exiled to the Oki Islands during the Middle Ages. The streets were virtually empty. In the heat of the early afternoon, cicadas trilled unseen from trees and shrubs that sprouted from the nearby hillsides. A trio of junior high school boys passed us. “Konnichiwa,” they said. “Konnichiwa,” we replied, wiping the sweat from our brows. As we pedalled faster, the wind whipped up. We coasted up and down, past the deep blue sea, vibrant green fields, and white and brown houses. Oki Shrine was deserted. A bunch of hydrangeas greeted us, their purple heads drowsing in the heat.
We headed back to the port and climbed aboard the Amanbow underwater viewing boat. Our guide, Honda san, spoke mainly in Japanese. However, he included some English words to check that we understood what he was saying. Fishermen in nearby boats waved at us. One man was fishing off a rock in the middle of the sea. We approached three solitary rocks called Saburo-Iwa, or The Three Brothers. They looked naturally picturesque, perfectly arranged from the tallest to the smallest.
Later on, we descended the stairs into the bottom of the boat. Here we peeked through square windows cut on the boat’s sides. Schools of tiny fish swam past us. Tiny bubbles trailed across the windows. A single branch of seaweed glided away in slow motion. We pressed our noses against the glass of this giant aquarium. Rays of sunlight streamed through the murky depths, flashing on silver-skinned fish. Then, something amazing happened. The crew begin to drop round pellets of fish food into the water. A host of fish suddenly appeared: huge silvery ones, rainbow coloured fish, even striped fish. They darted to and fro, swooped above and below, their mouths open to catch any stray food.
After a couple of hours, we left Nakanoshima for Nishinoshima. Nishinoshima is the most popular of the Oki Islands. Its mountainous landscape is dotted with hundreds of Oki cattle and horses. As the afternoon waned, we headed to the Kuniga Lookout. Here, we saw the beautiful Kannon Iwa or Candle Rock gilded by faint yellow light. The dying sun slowly dropped directly above the rock so that it resembled a golden flame atop a candle.
After sunset, we arrived at the retro-feel, family-run hotel Kuniga-so for dinner. The table was laden with everything imaginable: fresh seafood including huge Iwagaki oysters, white squid, and scallops, pickled abalone, fresh sashimi, hot fish stew, soba salad and sizzling Oki beef slices.
The next morning, we headed to Matengai Cliff. The car climbed and climbed further into the hills. Suddenly, we turned the corner. There were three strawberry blond horses nibbling grass on the hill. Simultaneously, they looked up and stared at us. The smell of horse dung hovered in the air. When they realised that we were harmless, they continued to nibble the shorn grass. Green mountains and blue sea spread behind them, creating a breath-taking, picture-perfect postcard moment. The wind picked up, rocking our parked car gently to and fro.
On the top of Matengai Cliff, the wind was so strong that we forget the searing summer heat. Some cows stared at us, but we were armed with bamboo walking sticks to defend ourselves if they got angry. The coastline here was too beautiful; large pieces of green headland jutting out into the calm blue sea. I wished I had brought a book. It was the perfect place to read all day. Further afield, cattle and horses grazed calmly. It was so surreal that it looked like a painting.
Then, we drove back to the Kuniga Lookout. Here, the strangely formed rocks or Tenjyo-kai (Heavenly Area) looked different under the late morning sun. The coastline here, also one of the top 100 walking tracks in Japan, is perfect for gentle strolls and dipping your toes into the ocean. One of the highlights of this coastal walk is Tsutenkyo Arch. The wind and waves have stripped the rocks into a dramatic, multi-coloured arch through which the ocean flows.
On the way back to Urago, we passed Yurahime Shrine, which honours Yurahime no mikoto, the goddess of fishing and maritime safety. Every autumn and winter, thousands of squid (ika) flood the inlet in front of the shrine. According to local legend, when the goddess was returning to Oki by boat, some squid in the area nibbled her fingers. She was quite offended so every year, several squid come back to the same spot to apologise for their terrible behaviour to the goddess. The squid story made us hungry, so we headed to a small but busy restaurant in Urago. At Asuka restaurant, Jesse ordered a steaming bowl of ika don and I downed a plate of delicious ika curry.
As the day lengthened, the heat climbed to an unbearable 35 degrees Celsius. We headed to the nearest beaches, Sotohama and Mimiura. Both were completely different. Sotohama was easy to find. It had a lovely sandy beach and a clear, wide bay perfect for swimming and snorkelling. On the other hand, Mimiura was a bit trickier to discover. Armed with our basic tourist map, we drove down a non-descript road off the main street and went further inland through a dense pine forest. Soon, the ocean peeked through the top of the trees and we came upon a hidden cove. Although the narrow beach was strewn with large pebbles and stones, the water was calm and aquamarine. Some kayaks lay on the shore and a few tents were perched along the beach.
As we surveyed the scene, a man ran up to us. “Hey!” He faced Jesse. “Handsome face!” he said. “You go swimming?” We shook our heads. “Chotto nihongo…jikan,” I said, pointing to my wrist. Not enough time. “Ah.” He pointed to his chest. “Eigo…sukoshi,” pinching his thumb and forefinger together. “Where from?” “Karibukai,” we replied. He roared and shook Jesse’s hands vigorously. We wished we could stay but quickly hopped back into the car to catch the ferry back to the mainland.
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Photos: © Jesse Ramnanansingh
This post originally appeared in the author’s blog, Hot Foot Trini.