Shiwaku Shoto (Islands, 塩飽諸島)
Small unspoiled islands in the Inland Sea, near Okayama
Introduction & Access
The Shiwaku Island Group, near Okayama, is one of many small collections of islands in the Inland Sea. Shiwaku is just a name on a chart; the islands are known by their individual names. I have visited the main island, which is called Hon-jima ("Main Island"), and Mukkuchi-jima ("Six-Mouthfuls Island"; or sometimes translated as "Six Inlets"). The islands actually belong to Ehime Prefecture, on Shikoku Island, but are best visited from Okayama. It is unlikely that you will find these islands mentioned in any English-language guide book, that's your tip that they are relatively unspoiled getaways!
These places are not really spectacular, although there is some very nice natural scenery. What can make them interesting is their situation in the midst of the Inland Sea, and the leisurely pace of little island villages, far, far from the madding crowds. In the summer holidays, they can (like everywhere else) be easily overrun with tourists and school kids, but in the off-season the few tourists are mostly sport-fishermen. See Donald Richie's personal travelogue, "The Inland Sea
", for a more intimate view of island life in the Inland Sea. (It's now in a new paperback from Stone Bridge Press, 2002, ISBN #1880656698. The original hardback, 1971, is now out of print, and I gave mine away!)
I once wrote an article about traveling to these islands (see "Six Mouthfuls and Tired of Salt
" on my Travel Articles Page
), and I ended up doing quite a bit of historical research. I'm going to share some of that information with you and perhaps it will make them a little more interesting. But as I said, the main attractions here are the quiet island setting and atmosphere, not any individual sights.
Getting to the Shiwaku Islands can be an adventure in itself. Take the bullet train to Okayama (岡山), just one hour from Osaka, or four from Tokyo. From Okayama, take the JR Marine Liner (reserved seat, 990 yen, 24 minutes - some more expensive limited express are also available) to Kojima station (児島駅). At Kojima, you can catch directly a ferry (本島汽船, 30 minutes, 620 yen) for Honshima (本島). The Hon-jima ferry runs four times a day: 06:25, 09:30, 15:55 and 18:30, taking 30 minutes and turning around for the return to Kojima. I believe this is a passenger-only ferry. Check this link
You can also get to Kojima by bus from Kurashiki; this makes a nice circular trip.
There are 7-8 ferries a day from Marugame (丸亀, on Shikoku) to Honjima, at 06:10, 07:40, 10:10, 12:10, 15:30, 18:00 and 20:00, taking 35 minutes. All but the 12:10 and 20:00 take cars. The last boat back to Marugame is at 19:30, or 18:50 for cars. Check this link
In the off-season, Mukkuchi-jima is only reached by hiring a private boat at the docks near the ferry in Shimotsui. In mid-summer there are a few excursion boats to Mukkuchi from Shimotsui (下津井); it takes less than fifteen minutes.
Hon-jima Island is not large and can be covered on foot, but you can also rent bicycles, and nowdays motorbikes, near the ferry. You can walk to just about anywhere on the island in an hour or so, but a bicycle is handy if you plan to see the whole island. There are no buses and almost no traffic on the few roads that reach most of the island, but do not completely circumnavigate it. Update 9/2006: A bus now runs around Hon-Jima Island, leaving the port town just six times a day and taking several different routes. If you have a ferry ticket, you can get all All-Day bus pass ("ichi-nichi kippu") on the bus for ¥500. (Regular ¥200 per ride). This is the Current Bus Schedule
, in Japanese! With a little time, you could match up the characters in the schedule with those on the map below.
There are five small Buddhist temples and four Shinto shrines on the island, plus the imposingly modern sanctuary hall of the Tenri-kyo sect. A thorough inventory of public buildings need only add two cinder-block school houses, the old Shogunate offices, and the new branch office for the city of Marugame. These are all in the main town, which seems to have no particular name except Hon-jima - but it is officially called "Tomari"; this is the port where all the ferries arrive. You can wonder around the old Shogunate offices, which have been converted to a modest museum, but only if you find someone to let you in. Also in town is a cemetery with the grave stones of "famous people" of the islands.
Other than that, the sights are the pleasantly forested hills, rocky coastline, an occasional sand beach, and several small fishing villages. Just get a map at the local government office, follow your nose, and turn back when it starts getting dark.
Honjima Map East of the main town, you can walk up to the Hachiman shrine (八幡神社), and back down to Toko-ji temple and out to Kameyama (カメヤマ) point. Along the way you get a good view of the large salt beds, a major source of income for the islanders. Heading north from Kameyama, you come to Shin-zaika and farther on Kasashima (笠島) village, with oyster beds in its harbor. From here you can walk up Tomiyama hill, which is also served by a road from the south. Beyond this you can head down to the northern shore of the island to a couple of other small villages. We spent the night here (surreptitiously) in a wayside shrine, and enjoyed the evening view out across the sea as the last of the fishing boats returned.
The most isolated village is probably Fukuda (福田), on the western shore, and the road there was all sand and dirt, passing a small shop at Oura Cove. South of Fukuda the road ends at a long stretch of empty sand beach. On our way back from the beach in the afternoon, the town had sprung to life with the return of the fishing boats, and the sea wall was alive with the local people unloading and cleaning fish and mending nets.
Back in 1974 when I first visited, only the large Kokumin Shukusha was open in June (still the off-season). It is just to the left of the village as you leave the dock. They have a nice bath, recreation room, and also rent bicycles. The price is about the same as a nicer minshuku. A few houses in the villages had minshuku signs, but they were only open in July and August. Ten years later, things didn't seem to have changed too much; there is now a ryokan not far from the dock, but it was also closed. By now there may be some other lodgings open all year, but probably not in the smaller villages; the Kokumin Shukusha is probably your best bet (local telephone: "#27).
During the Sengoku period, while the entire country was in the grip of civil war, these islands were the home of the Shiwaku Armada, a fleet of pirates who held sway over the islands between the straits from their headquarters on Hon-jima.
Despite their isolation, the Japanese were never great seafarers, rarely venturing beyond sight of land. These pirates however, ensconced in their island strongholds, were among the most experienced sailors. In 1586 they were recruited by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to sail for Kyushu in his efforts to subjugate the mighty Shimazu Clan, and they later joined unsuccessful attacks on the Korean coast. As a reward, the pirates were pardoned and granted retainers, as well as official title to the Shiwaku Islands. So these were the first "famous people" of the islands.
Mukkuchi is a long and narrow island that can be seen from the northern shore of Hon-jima, as well as from Shimotsui on the 'mainland'. The main, eastern part is one long forested mountain ridge, and is separated from the smaller western hill by a sandy hollow. If the sea were much higher, it would be two "cat and mouse" islands. On the south side of the western hill is a fair-sized sand beach with a couple of simple inns. Mukkuchi literally means "six mouths", or "six mouthfuls".
Very few people live here, but there are a couple of abandoned old farm houses near the hollow, and when I first visited there was an old woman living in one of them. Along with her onions and sweet potatoes, she was growing the special jochu-giku chrysanthemums that were once the mainstay of the tiny island economy. The jochugiku chrysanthemum is the natural source of pyrethrum, a natural insect repellent still used in making mosquito coils. The rest of her family had immigrated to the mainland of Japan to escape the desolation.
There are no roads, no cars, and no souvenir stands. The only transportation is by a dirt path that circles the island. It runs along the shore of the northern part, then across the hollow to the south side, where it turns back and through the forest along the southern slopes of the island, crossing over again to the northern path near the west end. This circular walk is about six kilometers. Small boats land at a small dock on the north side, at the beach, or at another jetty on the south side of the island; otherwise, the coast is too rocky.
Check this link
for some information in Japanese and a satellites picture of the island.
Just walk around the island, it only takes a couple of hours if you go too fast. Near the southern beach is a modern stone pagoda, commemorating a 12th century sea battle than took place near here. Just beyond it, the Elephant Rock (photo left) rises about 15 feet out of the shore, washed smooth by the sea into a close resemblance to the head and body of an elephant. From near the elephant, the path leads steeply up to the brink of the southern cliffs, then winds through dense forest along the south side of the island. You can also walk along the narrow beach below the cliffs, revealing a few sheltered coves with little white sand beaches that are always deserted. But you cannot normally walk all the way along this shore, and eventually you will have to turn back.
Back on the main trail above the cliffs, you come to the Koshi-so ryokan in a clearing up on the slopes about half-way down the island. Here you can stop for a cool drink in the pleasant grounds. The path continues to the end of the island where it turns back to the northern shore. Near this turn is a little-used and stony path leading up to the top of the mountain. At 300 feet, the trees give way to a stone outcropping, affording a fine view out across the Inland Sea to the south and east. As always, you can see numerous islands big and small, near and far, clear and hazy, as well as a few boats passing among them.
When you make a reservation at one of the few inns on the island, they usually make arrangements (in the off-season) for a boat to take you out and bring you back the next day. The charge goes on your bill, and is not as much as just hiring a boat out on your own. They will drop you off and pick you up at any place you want; so you can be met at the dock on the opposite side of the island if you want to walk over there.
There are a couple of simple minshuku along the beach on the southwest end of the island. This is where tourists come in the summer to swim in the sea, and a few stay over. But there is one very nice inn on Mukkuchi-jima, the Koshi-so ryokan, run by a nice woman whose family once lived in Singapore. There are several small buildings nestled among the pines up on a slope facing south near the middle of the island. It has a fine view, and the inn and its garden are quite nice. They have their own boat jetty down below the cliffs.
This little inn gets filled up when a few fishermen come for the weekend, so it's best to call for reservations. The second time I visited the islands, in 1984, we spent the night on Mukkuchi. When we called from Shimotsui, the Koshi-so was full, and they gave us the number of one of the two or three minshuku down on the beach. We stayed in a quite basic place there.
The following is a story told to me by a local man we found working in his garden. After asking directions, I asked him how the island got its name. "Well," he said slowly, "do you have some time?" And this is the abbreviated version of the tale he told, accompanied by great gestures and pantomime.
Over 250 years ago, at the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate, this island belonged to the feudal lord Ikeda of Okayama Castle. Times were generally peaceful, but local power struggles still occurred between neighboring clans. Lord Ikeda sent his horsemen to this little island to train for battles on the shore. All day long the men worked with their horses, running on the beach in full battle armor, and swimming in the bay that now spread out before us.
At the end of each long day, they led their horses through the hollow to their camp on the north side. But all that awaited them for supper were large caldrons of rice and a few onions and pickles. In the bay, however, fish were bountiful, and the soldiers soon took to fishing in the midst of their training. They kept a fire blazing on the beach and all day the warriors feasted on large broiled fish between their workouts in the sea.
So when night fell and they returned wearily to camp, they had little taste for their rice and pickles. But just to make a good showing, they would dig into their rice bowls and shovel down one, two, three, four, five, six mouthfuls, and then "No more! I'm full!"
One evening, Lord Ikeda himself arrived to review his troops. His first impression was of his weary warriors eating only six mouthfuls of rice, and he was concerned for their lack of appetite. In honor of the lord's visit, it was decided that the island should have a name. Ikeda himself proposed the name of Mukkuchi ("Six Mouthfuls"), since no one seems to take more than six mouthfuls of his food here.
The tale is simple, and probably only one of many once told to explain the island's name, but sadly almost all the story-tellers are gone.
Washu-zan is a pine-covered rocky promontory on the tip of Kojima Point, with a deservedly famous view of the Inland Sea. It used to be a very solitary and isolated point with just a Youth Hostel as the only building. I stayed there once and it was quite beautiful and quiet. It is still promoted as a beautiful spot, but the huge new highway and railway bridge from Honshu to Shikoku passes very close by, and I wonder what effects it has had. In any case, the woods are still there and you can enjoy the walk up to the promontory, about half an hour from the Washu-zan station on the little Shimo-den train from Kojima to Shimotsui. There are also buses from Okayama, Kurashiki, and Kojima. (See Getting There, above.)
Check this link
(in English) for more details (picture below coming from there)
This text was published on Randy Johnson's Favorite Getaways In Rural Japan, which is probably the most comprehensive guide for serious travelers in Japan. Reproduced with the permission of the author.