SHODOSHIMA - JAPAN'S MEDITERRANEAN ISLAND

 

With close to three thousand islands, the Seto Inland Sea isn't short on destinations. Awaji Island is the largest of the lot, and serves as a bridge between Shikoku and Kansai. The second largest, and my destination, is Shodoshima, an island famed for its olives and soy sauce. 

 

The ferry from Takamatsu comes in two flavours: regular and high speed. I chose the one-hour regular ferry so I could savour the feeling of being at sea. When I boarded, I started having flashbacks to my last ferry trip some twenty-plus-years prior, a treacherous crossing in which I joined what seemed like half the men onboard being violently sick in the restroom.

 

Confident that my stomach had grown stronger in the years since, I took to the top deck to take in my surroundings. The sky was overcast, with the morning mist obscuring the islands big and small that rose and fell along the horizon. The waters below were deep and ominous, and carried boats and ships of all sizes across the spiderweb of sea lanes. It felt less like a Robinson Crusoe-esque adventure, and more like sailing alongside Martin Sheen and Albert Hall navigating the jungle rivers of Vietnam.

 


Fortunately, by the time I disembarked at Ikeda Port the mist had mostly cleared, the gunfire was absent, and the faces were smiling. A distant temple near the summit of a forested mountain immediately drew my attention. Perhaps it’s out of some deep-rooted and ancient desire to explore that I just do things rather than make solid plans, but I decided to do just that. I stocked up on water and Pocari Sweat, then ate a couple of lukewarm salted rice balls before setting off for the mysterious temple. 

 

The island might be free of Ho Chi Minh’s forces (that I could see), but it does have its share of wild boars, which a local gleefully told me like to swim all the way to the mainland on odd occasions. I was also assured that the likelihood of running into one or more of them (or them charging into me) was quite low. It was also Saturday, so I walked in the comfort that there was a higher chance of someone finding me on the road in the event of an untimely mauling.

 

Ikeda is small, and not much was going on when made my way towards the mountain. I followed a narrow irrigation canal through the quiet back streets, unsure if I was walking on a public path or up someone’s driveway, such was the condensed nature of the place. A lone capybara joined me for a short time, keeping its paws cool in the canal water. But we soon parted ways when I turned off the path towards the rows of olive trees that reached the foot of the mountain.

 

By this point, the clouds had parted, and the heat from the sun beat down on my skin. I was thankful when I reached the road for the temple to find it was mostly shaded by the trees. As the forest became more dense, and signs of human life disappeared, snapping twigs and rustling bushes kept me on my toes for the sight of tusked beasts. However, I would soon find it was a different animal that threatened to send me to an early grave.

 

The path became steeper, and together with the increased heat and humidity, it made me question my life choices. This was until a loud thud beside the small bridge I was just about to cross interrupted my wallowing. Lying there on the stone waterway below, struggling to get up, was a crow. I stood looking on, pondering whether, or how, I could help, until at last it got to its feet, but evidence of a broken wing showed itself all too clearly. It hopped off into the undergrowth as a series of loud caws came from its two friends above. They took to the sky and continued to fly dangerously close to my head in what looked like a scene from Hitchcocks’s “The Birds.” They left me alone after ushering me an acceptable distance away. Unfortunately, no sooner was I in the clear that the road zigzagged and sent me back in their direction to enact the direct-to-video sequel.

 


The extra exertion took its toll when the road became even more steep. My legs were burning, and the humidity made breathing hard, but my peril was short-lived as a row of stone lanterns revealed themselves. I had made it to the top, and the temple was much more impressive than I’d anticipated. The old wooden buildings blended into the mountain itself, with various coloured flags hanging from roofs not dissimilar to those seen in the Himalayas. I felt a great sense of calming bliss as I admired the view over Ikeda Bay. It always feels a lot more pleasant being able to explore places like this without roves of other tourists disturbing the peace. And this time even more so, for I was soon greeted by an elderly woman eager to give me a personal tour.

 

Nishinotakiryusui is an ancient temple said to be over a thousand years old, though, like most ancient buildings in Japan, it was rebuilt after being destroyed by fire, with only the main hall being original. The story attached to this temple is of an influential Buddhist monk named Kobo Daishi who, after seeing villagers’ crops suffer from flooding caused by a dragon on the mountain, went up with a jar of stones and trapped the miscreant inside. Fresh water flowed calmly ever since. Lovely.

 


There are several buildings you can enter, the most popular being a temple built deep within a cave, and a narrow path that wraps around it. After telling me the story, the elderly woman told me to walk through and watch my head. Sage advice. It definitely wasn’t made with twenty-first century foreigners in mind. At the back of the cave are some ancient relics and fresh spring water, and the exit, which leads out to a pretty spectacular view.

 

After some barley tea and small talk, I made my crow-free descent. It took less than half the time it took to get up, and was followed by a rather uneventful hour-long walk to the famed Olive Park. An amusing roadsign depicting a raging boar threatened to inject some excitement from the forests on either side, but ultimately, the only excitement came from a rush of vending machine coffee that boldly claimed it was “made for caffeine.”

 

The Olive Park sits on a hill opposite a nice beach where people were riding jet skis and paddle boarding. Olives have been grown here for over a century thanks to the Mediterranean climate, and there’s a museum, bathhouses, and even a workshop to partake in some herbology. I sat on the steps below the farm for a moment and watched lizards with blue tails scurry about the rocks. The sign told me it wasn’t pressing season, so access to the farm itself was blocked off. I stopped at the restaurant for lunch and ate curry (what else on a hot day), and for the first time in my life, olives. Verdict: Good.

 

Afterwards I followed the signs to the Greek windmill, where groups of young Japanese women stood in line for their turn to be snapped jumping with magic broom sticks between their legs. I later learned the reason for this was that the live-action version of “Kiki’s Delivery Service” was filmed here. A white windmill, a backdrop of clear skies, deep bluish sea, and perfect green grass. It all made sense. The benches adjacent occupied by patiently waiting boyfriends sitting on their phones didn’t make the final cut, I’d imagine. The park is extensive, and I could’ve spent a few more hours exploring if I hadn’t been suffering from a sunburn-induced headache.

 


I turned off the main road to escape the traffic on my way back to Ikeda. The narrow roads along the river lined with small houses were almost completely silent. Some of the more modern looking ones were sprinkled amongst ancient and rusted corrugated iron that seemed on the brink of collapse, with disused beer and cigarette vending machines sitting outside like a faded memory. The distant crashing of waves soon drowned out the sound of the gently flowing river. Up ahead, a gang of cats blocked the path and lazily watched the water flow by. Rather than risk another battle, I hit the main road again. 負けるが勝ち (makerugakachi) there is victory in losing, as the old proverb goes, after all.

 

I made it back to Ikeda Port with an hour to spare before the ferry set off, so I went to a little cafe near the port, where I sat with an overpriced iced latte and admired my new sunburned arms, only able to guess how red my head was. Right outside the window on the wooden balcony was a shelled bug of some sort lying on its back, doing its best to distract me. It desperately wriggled its legs, trying to flip itself and escape the sun’s searing heat. I opened the door, went out, and let it crawl onto my finger until it flew to freedom. The waitress smiled as I came back inside. My finger was red for the next few hours. Maybe it bit me.

 

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