I like islands. Each feels like a little self-contained world with its own character, waiting to be explored.
A short sea crossing adds to the appeal, helping to emphasise the fact that you are temporarily leaving the everyday world and going somewhere different, somewhere whose identity is defined by its separation from the mainland. All the better if you happen to be the only people on the island at the time.
A visit to Oshima, in Fukui prefecture, doesn’t require a sea crossing. It is connected to the mainland by a very attractive pedestrian bridge, a few hundred metres long.
The part of the island in the photo is facing Tojinbo (see my previous blog post) and has the same columnar basalt.
Unfortunately, when we went there on the Saturday of our holiday, this is what we found:
The bridge was closed for maintenance, and the island inaccessible, until the end of November. I was very disappointed.
But when we returned the next day, there was nobody working there on a Sunday, so we were able to visit the island after all. Yay!
This guide map (the inset part, in the top left) shows the general layout of the island and some of its attractions. Its a steep-sided island, with a mix of different habitats and different rocky substrate. It’s a couple of hundred metres wide and long, and the walk is 1.2 km.
The pictured attractions are “magnetic rocks” (1), a fresh-water well that is supposedly so cold that if you put a cucumber into it, it will break (3), and the yabunikkei (Japanese cinnamon) forest (4). I couldn’t wait!
Here we are, about to set off across the sea to the island:
Arriving at the island end of the bridge, we were greeted by a torii shrine gate, stone lanterns and two stone koma-inu guardians.
Passing through the shrine gate, the path led straight into the forest and up a steep path. Turning right, we passed through the cinnamon forest. These trees are close relatives of the camphor trees (kusu no ki) I wrote about before.
Emerging from the forest onto the northern, rocky shore of the island, we arrived at the magnetic rocks. I decided to test the rocks using my compass. Sure enough, the compass was deranged about 40 degrees by the magnetism in the rocks.
This looks like it started out as layers of sedimentary rock—maybe these rocks were lifted and cooked by the extrusion of basaltic rock that formed this island, and somehow the process of heating and cooling caused them to be magnetised?
Leaving the magnetic rocks behind, we went to Oominato shrine, which is in a little clearing near the landward side of the island. The wooden structure is apparently very old.
One of the striking features of this shrine is the torii “window” framing the view across the sea to Tojinbo.
Finally, we went to the southern part of the island to track down the famously cold water spring. It’s rainwater that falls on the island, and percolates along horizontal faults in the rock, emerging at low level near the sea shore.
After clambering over the rocks, we finally found it. It didn’t seem that impressive, and when I tested it with my foot (I didn’t have a cucumber handy) it didn’t even seem excessively cold. But a fresh-water source on a small island is a precious thing, and I could see how it would have been significant in times past.
Shiro waited nearby, wondering why we were showing such interest in a pool of water.
At the top of the rocks I found sea-grapes growing:
We ended our tour of the island with a visit to the lighthouse.
The brass plaque over the door says it was built in Showa 29, which is 1954.
Note on the word of the day:
If you compare the character for “bird”: 鳥 tori with the character for “island”: 島 shima, you can see that they are identical apart from the very bottom part. In the “bird” character this is made up of 4 dots that, in the original pictograph, represented the bird’s feet (yes, I know birds don’t have 4 feet!). In the “island” character, these 4 dots are replaced by the symbol for a mountain.
What’s the connection between “bird” and “island”? I’m not sure. The modern Chinese pronunciations are similar (dao for island, and diao for bird), so that might be the reason; maybe they were originally pronounced the same.
Anyway, whenever you see a Japanese placename containing the word “shima” (or “jima”), you know it means “island”.