In this journal:
- Twenty-Four eyes;
- a road for angels;
- meals with views.
“Aren’t you going to cry because we lost the war?”
“I cried all right. I cried for the dead.”—二十四の瞳/Twenty Four Eyes (1954)
More than an Island
On a sunny Monday morning in 1930, a happy young woman rode her bike across the dirt fields of Shodoshima Island, shocking the villagers she passed by.
“Look! Look! A girl without traditional clothes!” Bellowed a housewife washing clothes in the river.
This is Hisako Oishi, an upcoming teacher aspiring to bring knowledge to this remote school district a sense of hope. Her smile, her kindness and her uplifting spirit breathed a new life into the dilapidated island, one of the poorest places in Japan. She looked at her students, 12 barefoot kids with nothing but innocence and curiocity, and 24 large shining eyes. At this precise moment, she promised to herself to be the best influence on those pure souls. Oishi sensei would continue to ride the bike every day along the treacherous coast roads and against heavy rain, just to get to class in time for those inquisitive little souls. Though proverty-struck, she was more than happy to accompany the kids forever, because their future brings her life. However, things were about to change as nationalism and war encroached onto the land…
This is the opening from the overlooked Japanese classic, 二十四の瞳/Tenty-Four Eyes. And our journey to the equally overlooked Shodoshima, begins here.
Arrival: Shodoshima Village
The ship arrived in Fukada harbor on the lazy April afternoon, and I realized that my footprints were officially off the beaten paths: there was not a single English or Chinese sign at this port handlingly 2 ferries a day, and there was not one single information point. It was just me, a small bus stop, and the undulating waves of the Seto Inland Sea. I sheepishly purchased a ticket from the Japanese-speaking attendant, who was shocked to find out that I was a visitor. The empty bus slowly winded its way down south of the coast, eventually dropping me off at a tiny bus stop at the 7-11 convenience store in Shodoshima village. My Airbnb host, Teppen, was already waiting at the small shop, which was practically the heart and center of the village seemingly dozing off into a siesta. I was welcomed into his seaside home, and was given free reign over his 4 rooms: I would be the only guest for the next few days. It was a simple lodging solution: a few open areas with weaved bamboo mats, and a cozy futon, so what else would I need? The view looking out my tatami was spectacular, as the sun was slowly beginning to set into the seemingly-abandoned bay.
I was given a bike as my primary transportation. This is quite useful to get around the small village spanning about a kilometer in each direction, but is rather useless when it comes to sightseeing, as big sights are all a dozen kilometers away: Shodoshima is shockingly large! Interestingly, the transport hub of the island is on the other side of the island, called Tonosho town, so buses here are extremely infrequent while reliable. Even though there may be only a bus a day going a certain direction, as long as you show up in the bus stop in time, you will be able to tour around the island without problems. I rode my bike back to the convenience store, as it was my only way of gaining access to any food in this town consistently on island time.
The small settlement is big on soy sauce production, however, as a dozen high quality factories congregate in the same area. Shodoshima is famous for its traditionally-made sauce, which is aged for a minimum of a year in wooden barrel with only soy bean and salt. This practice produces the best soy sauce money can buy under the sun, made in the same way as half a millenium ago, which means the volume is extremely low. You can take a walk in the still family-run factories and see the 50+th generation successor hard at work stirring the 3-meter long stick in chest-deep brine. Now that is what I call dedication. Another famous local item is tsukudani, a kind of food-preservation method by cooking seafood or other materials in soy cause and sugar for an extremely long time so that it coagulates into a little side dish of exploding flavors. You can find it in many combo meals as a little brown unrecognizable patch on top of rice, and is usually served as a snack.
On the tiny hill my little house sits upon, a small shrine called Utsumihachiman is located at the peak. I took a little walk around the spotlessly-clean yet eerily-vacant place, and found out that it is the 8th place on the Shodoshima Cannon Pilgrimage. This is a smaller version of the Shikoku Cannon Pilgrimage, where a devout Shinto follower would tour the island and visit every single one of the 88 designated shrines in a row. Shodoshima also has 88 shrines and you will see many to follow. The cherry blossoms were reaching peak bloom at the time, and the quiet bell chimes, fragrant flower scents, and the flying petals all formed a harmony of senses. I brushed my hands against the prayer papers tied on the trees, and felt the sense of joy flowing through me, the joy of remembrance, remembrance of something I never had.
Shodoshima’s unbridled beauty is perfectly placed on the big screen in Twenty Four Eyes, and the little park of Twenty Four Eyes Film Village at the edge of the island was a perfect place for me to show its unsrupulous yet authentic charm. The park is a replica of the shooting location in the movie, and a lot of monuments were erected for this iconic mark on film history. The school shown below was actually a local elementary school. It was running with its 5 students all the way until 1976, when its remote location finally led to the dilapidated building being shut down by local authorities. Let’s continue our story of Oishi sensei, and her 12 students.
Oishi began her carefree days in the remote yet splendidly beautiful village with the students. They practiced Japanese in the classrooms, and played outside in the cherry blossom fields when it was recess. They ate together, played together, laughed together, and cried together. Oishi learned the nicknames of each student in class, and decided to call them that way. The bond grew so inseparable that when an older student from another class intentionally hurt Oishi sensei, the entire class came to see her off at the small harbor as Oishi had to be transported to the main town. Little did they know, it would be the last time they see sensei in this way.
Oishi had to be transferred to the main school in Shodoshima town for the injury, and the students started to grow worry for the teacher they loved. Finally, one day, they decided to walk all the way to the main town, nearly 10 kilomters away, to see her, but their grass shoes and little feet could not handle the treacherous trek under the scorching heat, and soon all broke down in tears in the middle of the road. Just as when all hopes were lost, suddenly a bus passed by the sobbing youngsters, carrying nobody else but Oishi Sensei! The group of students chased after the bus, some dragging others still wiping tears off the muddy cheeks. Sensei was so moved by the dedication of these little boys and girls that she took them back home for some snacks. This effectively ended the part of the movie that is heartwarming and carefree, as the next scene begins with nationalism and fascism taking over the nation, even the remote Shodoshima, in mid-1930s. The students are now young teenagers, each vowing to defend the honor of the great Japanese empire. Oishi’s pacifist ideology was deemed harmful to the nationalistic ideology, and she had to quit her beloved teaching career under pressure. She watched each of her male students walk the road of glory onto military transports, and each of her female students quit school and aid in the home front.
Fast forward a few more years, Oishi found an opportunity to reunite with the students once again. This time, only 9 young adults were able to show up. Three boys, along with her own husband, died fighting the pointless war, and of the two who managed to come back alive, one was permanently blind, and the other so traumatized that he could not work normally any more, or function like a part of society. Trying to stop the harsh reality from setting into this already-dreadful-looking room, Oishi sensei pulled out an old photo of the kids taken during the day they came to see her, and the blind man, barely recognizable as an older version of one of those cute faces, ecstatically yelled out every student’s nickname. Yet sadly, because of his lack of sight, his pointing were all off. He stuttered as he pointed to the middle of the air, reminiscing about the old days when they would fool around in the rice paddies. And when he reached the boys who never managed to survive the war, Oishi’s tears were already streaming down her cheeks.
“Yes, yes.” She replied, trying to sound as normal as she could to the unusually happy blind man pointing way off out of the photo.
The seven girls sat there, dead quiet.
3 children died outside in the battlefields. The rest died inside in the hearts. 6 eyes were shut forever, 2 were never used again, and the other 16 lost their light.
The movie is one of the first showcasing the post-war Japan mentality. Not only did this masterpiece revealed some people’s deep hatred towards violence and the pointlessness of war, but also reflected the maternity and beautiful hearts of Japanese women. Oishi may not wear a traditional kimono, but deep down in her heart, she just wishes to have a normal family, and hopes her beloved students can maintain their purity and innocence, and return alive. Now, even though the nation of Japan endured, the kids were never the same again, broken, traumatized, abused, and dead inside. This movie not only was an anti-war message, or a beautiful postcard for Shodoshima, but also a warning to all those who never learned their lessons before: war can be won, but the people will always lose.
I highly recommend you take a look at the movie, as it is like nothing you have ever seen, or will ever see.
I took the bus all the way to a tiny hillside settlement. I approached a small restaurant called 野の花/Wild Flower by the grassy greens. Flowers were blooming in full force, perfectly reflecting the restaurant’s name. After entering and taking off my shoes, I ordered a set menu they offered in the family establishment. Sitting on the wooden bar table, overlooking the tranquil bay covered with iridescent flowers everywhere, furiously demonstrating their petals to the world under the warm spring sun, I was put into a trance, not awakened until my dishes were presented with a bow on my table.
All food were sourced locally in the village or in the town not too far, and were freshly prepared to order. Needless to say, it tasted even better than it looked. Nothing can possibly beat the meticulousness of the Japanese, as every cup of water came with a coaster, and every dish came correctly oriented towards me, and they withheld cleaning the lunchroom until I was finished, as I was taking way too long to indulge in my food. I was welcomed to take a sit in the family gardens after paying a mere 13 dollars for the food, and I gladly took them up for the offer. A small shrine sat underneath a cherry tree blooming with raging fury, and the buddha seemed to be laughing under such a fortunate setting, even though he was a bit worse for wear.
A walk along the sea took me to the famous Olive Park, where thousands of olives were planted along a scenic hillside. Shodoshima is famous among many Japanese magazines for being one of the very few places with a Mediterranean climate, hence its status as the first place in Japan to successfully cultivate olives does not come as too surprising. The park now stands at a place where the first tree was ever planted, and you can still come up to the old tree and taste its olives!
However, in order to maximize the feel of the sunny Mediterranean, Shodoshima fully utilized its charm on its sister island, Milos, Greece. The sister from a world over donated a large carved-rock sun disk, and also an authentic white windmill typical to the region. Now, when you look out into the horizons from the park, you can barely comprehend the fact that you are in Japan. This is a country whose people are so deprived of anything European, that they developed expectations for Paris so high that they sometimes get physically sick from disappointment upon visiting. Seriously, it is called Paris syndrome, and it almost only affects Japanese.
This olive grove is why the mascot of the island you can find on the island ferry in the last journal is an olive, and everything they produce or do is added with olives to stand out. Soy sauce? Yep, you can find olive-added version. The bus? Yep, painted with olives. Ice cream? Olive flavor, if you do not want soy sauce flavor. Oil? Olive oil coats everything in restaurants. You are constantly bombarded with the pride of olives being grown here, so much so that I somehow started missing Spain, where it was just another shrubbery overgrowth.
The park is also the location for the 2014 domestic film 魔女の宅急便/Kiki’s Delivery Service, an adaptation of the manga classic depicting a young witch growing up delivering goods to all kinds of customers. Despite the fact that the movie was pretty unwatchable, unlike its original cartoon series inspiration, Shodoshima perfectly depicted the fantacized European setting for the village, and now you can be a real-live witch by borrowing one of the classic brooms in the visitor center.
Another bus ride hailed me to the main gateway of the island: Tonosho town. Its harbor is where all major ferries to Okayama and Takamatsu depart and arrive, and is the center of all traffic activities on the sparsely populated island. The bus dropped me off right at the heart of the island, the harborfront, and I proceeded walking from there.
Tonosho is also famous for having the world’s narrowest strait, the Dofuchi Strait featured above. It is about 2 kilometers long and comes to less than 10 meters wide at its narrowest location, making it a very unimpressive sewage drain if you do not know its significance. I continued walking around the town in its narrow alleyways, eventually reaching the 58th temple on the Cannon Pilgrimage, 西光寺/Saikoji. A large pagoda was painted a bright red, and surrounded with a small unattended shrine as well as thousands of graves. On the hill where the pagoda sits comfortably, you can also find a large buddha statue and a bell used to pray for the peace of the dead.
At the side of the sea, I saw Shodoshima’s claim to fame: Angel Road. A narrow strip of sand that sits in the sea, only protruding out of the waves during low tide, allows passage to the small islands on the other side. For lovers, the passage might as well lead to eternity, because legend says that if a couple walk across the road of the angels while holding hands, they will be together forever. I am more of the “forever alone” type, so I held my own hands while walking around the area. It was incredibly painful, but it is okay. I did not cry, because every day of my existence is in pain far greather than this.
On the island on the other side, you can write down your wishes with your partner, and it shall come true. I stopped believing in this crap a long time ago, (or I would have had a dozen girlfriends by now!) and secretly wondered how many of these couples have broken up, hopefully in the most unpleasant means possible. Broken up via text? That is juicy. Finding out someone is cheating? Even better. Oh, oh, maybe traffic accident and death! Perfect! (Whoever says I am a dark person can now be proven wrong!)
As much as I found consolation in imagining horrible ways relationships end, I found peace sitting on a bench on the sand bar. A cat, apparently very famous on the internet for hanging around this area seemingly for forever, joined me on the bench, and we just enjoyed each other’s company until the sun slowly descended into the hilly mountains on the other side of the bay. Sometimes in travels, you do not have to go to the instagram hotspots to capture the perfect shot, or dive into a trendy bar for some good old fashioned intoxication. Sometimes, you just need to wait for life to happen in front of you, and all you have to do is to grasp it firmly, and never let it go. Truly extraordinary travel experiences never come with a schedule.
The white-spotted black cat was my guardian angel, and we just sat there, waiting for something, or maybe nothing, to happen. That was all the console I need.
The small hill overlooking the Angel Road is the so-called 約束の丘/hill of promise. If a couple rings the bell on the top, then they will be together as promised. I begrudgingly moved out of the way of a few Japanese couples, and expressed my love to dinner in a small ramen shop on the bay. I sipped my delicious tonkatsu soup in solitude, while trying to enjoy the disappearing sunlight coming from the west. Who needs warm embraces when you can have warm noodles?
Next day, I began with a quick bus ride up into the mountains, where I would transfer onto a cable car bound for the peak of the island. The area is a designated scenic area, and has been listed as one of the top 100 views in Japan. This is 寒霞渓/Kankakei, a gorge with large outcrops of rocks covered with vegetation.
From the top nearly 800-meters high, you can see every corner of the southern part of the island, as well as the glimmering waves in the Seto Inland Sea. On good days, you may even catch a glimpse of Shikoku on the other side. I walked along the edge of the gorge, and eventually reached a lookout so spectacular that a whole list of TV shows were filmed there. In the fall, this view is particularly famous because the entire valley is populated by small Japanese maple trees, which burn a fiery red during the last month of autumn, and the entire view from here would be just red leaves and blue sea.
From the top, I walked on a trail that would take me through the “outer 12 sights,” including the above kinbyobu, which is numbered as 3rd. (Kinbyobu means something along the line of “fancy room shades.”) This is a way to label notable rock features with artistic names, and has been widely used in east Asia, especially China, for thousands of years. I did not find those strange ways of calling rocks particularly interesting, but I thoroughly enjoyed the steep one-hour descent. From the bottom of the hike, a bus took me to the next destination, where I expected to have a simple lunch, but encountered so much more.
Finally, I got to the tiny village of Nakayama. On the tiny intersection, I was welcomed into a locally famous canteen for lunch, which mainly served rice balls, onigiri. Nakayama is famous for its tiered rice paddies, and the rice making up the onigiri comes exactly from the fields my table was overlooking, and do not forget, I was right underneath a cherry blossom tree.
All vegetables are from the family-run canteen’s backyard, and all fish were caught straight from the sea nearby. Soy sauce is from the brewery a few kilometers down the road, and so does the tsukudani. It does not get any more local than that. The beef comes from the island of course, and it is almost trivial to ask what those cows are fed: olives, duh!
After completing a hearty meal in the village canteen, I asked the owners where I could explore. The owner laughed, and just pointed towards all the directions with a circle gesture, signaling me that everywhere is nice! Well, how silly was I; how come I never thought of the fact that ever since arriving into Shodoshima, I had encountered greatness in almost every corner! I thanked the owner and his daughter hard at work, and started walking along the rice paddies full of farmers getting ready to plant the crops for the year.
I climbed all the way up to the top of the fields, where a large mineral spring gushed out of the rocky cliffs into the streams below. This is the water source used to grow all the crops. No wonder the rice tasted ridiculously good! The rice drinks water better than what I drink in bottles in China! A small shrine commemorates the kami, deity, of this spring, which is also designated as the 45th temple on the Cannon Pilgrimage. I winded downhill, back towards the settlement, when I discovered another shrine, one that was covered in pink cherry blossom flowers.
This is number 43 on the pilgrimage, but number 1 in my heart. A dozen fully blooming cherry trees surrounded the hallowed grounds of this quiet little temple. I am not too religious, but seeing a view as serene and elegant as this instilled hope and reverence into my soul, whether it is directed towards the very fabric of the world itself or any deity, that is up for discussion among theologicians. I just am happy to be able to remember that I have had this piece of beautiful memory.
I am just enjoying the joy of remembrance.
Not Ready to Let Go
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Finally, the last day came, and I had to move on away from Shodoshima. Yet, I was not ready, not ready to let go. I hopped onto my bike for one last time, and explored the town one last time. I flew by rice fields, cherry blossom trees, the crashing waves, and the silent shrines. I wanted to remember everything, the breathtaking cherry blossoms in Nakayama, the gorgeous views from Kankakei, the purring cat on Angel Road, the delicious lunch in Wild Flower, that cute bow on the broom in Olive Park, and the joy of seeing them all. I want to savor the joy of remembrance, my personal treasure in a cove of unforgettable experiences.
I rode harder, and harder on my bike, just as the last scene in Twenty-Four Eyes, as Oishi pedaled hard on her bike as she was being passed by another bus again. This time, nothing had changed, just the fact that she was a lot older, and a lot more in pain. We both rode on, knowing that to create memories, you have to do your best now. Pain is a fuel, and it propels the machine of memory into motion, and with immense amount of fuel, we carry on, faster than ever. Oishi slowly disappeared among the rice paddies, just the same as me slowly sinking below the horizons on the ferry.
Before I jumped onto the ferry heading towards Takamatsu, I grabbed a cup of ice cream in a local shop, as recommended by a bus driver. It has the ungodly flavor of soy sauce on offer, and I took a lick of this salty concoction. It slowly gets better after a few bites, but definitely is of acquired taste. The two hours spent on the ferry felt quite a bit shorter because the strange taste of salty ice-cream made me forget what the concept of time was, and before too long I was staring down an empty cup in front of the skyline of Takamatsu, the gateway of Shikoku.
I better make my last stop count. I thought to myself as I hopped off the ferry.
Last stop, in the L.A.S.T. trip: Takamatsu.