Up until around fifty years ago, young women on the island of Kamishima, would go to shore to help winch in the returning fishing boats. Just before starting down the sloped path to the beach. They stopped at the “mirror-stone” . By pouring water on the stone's surface they would reveal a clear reflection of themselves. They quickly arranged their hair and maybe even make-up, anxious look their best for a their brief sanctioned encounter with the young fishermen coming back from the sea.
Having read Yukio Mishima's 1954 novel The Sound of the Waves a few years ago, I had always been drawn to visit Kami-shima, the model for the island of Uta-Jima. The story is simple enough, two young islanders with a “pure-love” that must overcome obstacles to survive. I found the descriptions of the Island itself, and some aspects of this simple Island society to be appealing at least in contrast to modern life. The scene where the main character Shinji and his younger brother and mother get up early to visit the grave of their father who was killed in the war. They visit not just on the yearly anniversary but for the monthly commemoration also. The boy visits the local shinto shrine everyday to pray to the god of the sea.
It was time to come and visit the place for myself in 2011. Taking the ferry from Toba, we arrived 40 minutes later. As we got off the boat and walked onto the Island, I noticed a few older ladies hanging around trying to see who would be coming off the ferry. Other than that they seem to just walk around on the main road, near the post office or in front of the Elderly citizens club chatting away. I overhear them saying “Oh thats a rare face” looking in my direction.
The Island now has a population of 440 people, down a thousand since 1954. Running water is active on the island and the old washing corner is now just marked by a tourist sign. Vending machines dispense Coke- Zero. The spots in Sound of the Waves are well mapped out and sign posted , as well as extracts from the novel describing the place with Mishima's prose.
We set off toward the first of the two “surprisingly beautiful spots” on the Island. Yashiro Jinja, a shinto shrine dedicated to the sea god, and where Shinji prays and gives gratitude daily. After a tough climb up 200 stone steps we get to the Tori gate. The wood looks fresh and it seems that this shrine has been recently re-built.
Pushing up the road climbing Higashiyama (Mt Higashi) toward the light-house. I was disappointed to see that it had been locked up and automated, and the old lighthouse keepers residence was gone and replaced by a horrible looking concrete shed. The view of the Irako channel and the Pacific Ocean was the same as ever though. As in the novel, the shipping lanes seem quite busy , we saw many vessels including large freighters.
Niwa-Hama (Garden Beach), is where the pearl diving women or Ama set out in June. The place is so well described by Mishima that I will quote here.
Garden Beach embraced a small cove, directly beyond which, there stood the Pacific. Summer clouds were towering over the distant sea. ..
Many lime stoned crags surrounded the beach, seeming to have been placed purposely in order that children could hide themselves and fire their pistols in games of cowboys and Indians; moreover, the surfaces of the rocks were smooth to the touch, with occasional finger size holes as dwellings for crabs and sea lice..
|Niwahama (Garden Beach)|
The locals seemed quite shy but friendly if approached. As we walked from Niwa-hama along the coast road back to the Port, a truck, with three or four construction workers in the back drove by. They didn't smile at first but then after the truck drove passed me they called out and waved with big smiles.Perhaps they were working on the old military observation tower, which has been deemed unsafe because the ground around it as become unstable. This development only happened last month (Aug 2011), which is such a shame. It is a key place I the novel. I took photos from the safety signs.
|The Taisho period patrol station , where Hatsue and Shinji encounter each other in Sound of the Waves|
We get back to Port and decide to sample some local food. A set meal of Octupus ,rice, red stingray and miss soup. Its a good taste and decent price. Its almost time to get back onto the ferry. Some fisherman are sitting in front of the workers club and laughing and pointing at some boxes in the middle of the road. An old man in the distance, advances with a wheel-barrow. It seems that he is stocking the vending machine, and has decided to leave the stock in the middle of the road. Suddenly some older ladies come out to talk about the box. This seems to be quite an event.
|The house where Mishima stayed when he visited the island in 1953|
With such a small population almost devoid of young people, and with the automation, internet , vending machines you can't help but feel that a lot has been lost here since Yukio Mishima visited. This generations is less entranced by the type of “pure love” story of Sound of the Waves which was so popular in the fifties, and has had had five move adaptions. The last being in 1985.
|Narrow street in the residential part of the island|
Kami-shima is a beautiful place and a great day trip. Hiking around the island takes about three hours and the views of the ocean are amazing. The locals have done a lot of things to promote the island and get tourists, especially pushing the novel. Even having the island declared a “sanctuary of pure love” by a famous wedding dress designer. In spite of these efforts, I feel that it won't be long before the place becomes virtually uninhabited. While the remnant of the population remains something of the old spirit is still here.
The whole island I feel is sharing the fate of the “Mirror Stone”. Women have not needed to help with the boats for over fifty years. The stone soon came to be forgotten, and with erosion over the years, it has come to lose its reflective properties. No matter how many times and how hard the locals have tried to polish it; they have been unable to restore it to its old radiance.
|The Lighthouse today. There is no lighthouse keepers residence anymore.|