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A pilgrimage to Japan’s islands of calm

A pilgrimage to Japan’s islands of calm

At the heart of Japan lies the Inland Sea. Sarah Birke wanders its shores

At the heart of Japan lies the Inland Sea. Sarah Birke wanders its shores

Sarah Birke | Japan Travel Supplement 2019

On an autumn day, I climb to a high point on the island of Oshima, a stepping-stone between Honshu, the largest of Japan’s four main islands, and Shikoku, the smallest. I gaze across the shallow waters of the Seto Inland Sea. The wake from passenger ferries shuttling people and goods sends shimmers across the still surface. Far into the distance I can see the outline of island after island.

I have come in search of an antidote to the concrete, bright lights and frenetic pace of Tokyo. I have travelled Japan’s length and breadth since moving here in 2016. Nothing has matched the serenity of the Inland Sea: on this trip I feel as if I am returning to the country’s womb.

Many of Japan’s creation myths are set along the shores of the Inland Sea and its 700-odd islands. The gods are said to have created these isles before the almost-7,000 others that make up the Japanese archipelago.

The Inland Sea, shaped like a long, knobbly finger, has been one of Japan’s most important routes throughout history, home to sailors, traders and pirates, who charged fees for safe passage. Several of the country’s biggest cities, including Kobe and Osaka, lie nearby. Despite that, the islands and the surrounding area are largely traditional and rural. Three sets of bridges now link Honshu to Shikoku, yet a slower pace of life still prevails on the other, smaller islands. People fish and farm. The streets are quiet by 9pm. In the morning I see children clad in crisp uniforms, carrying identical bulky backpacks, catch the ferry to school.

The region has long captured the imagination of those who have travelled here. Sakae Tsuboi set her novel, “Twenty Four Eyes”, on Shodoshima, the second-largest island. The book, which was later turned into a famous film about a teacher and her 12 students in the inter-war years, carries significant pacific undertones. Thomas Cook, a Briton who founded the first modern travel company, was wowed by the sea when he visited in the 1870s, writing that “it surpassed all my dreams of beauty”.

There are many ways to travel around the Inland Sea. On my last visit, I spent time on Naoshima and its smaller neighbour, Teshima. The two islands are now home to world-class museums and old houses that have been turned into interactive art venues, and outdoor sculptures such as Yayoi Kusama’s colourful pumpkins. This time I opt to start my journey in Takamatsu, a laid-back city on the north-eastern tip of Shikoku, on the eastern shore of the Inland Sea. From there I make my way into the Iya Valley (below). The series of mountains and gorges are reminiscent of a verdant Grand Canyon. In the 12th century this secluded area of dramatic natural scenery was a hideout for warring clans and is now regarded as one of the Setouchi region’s highlights for travellers.

The farther west I go into the valley, the more uninhabited it becomes. There is not a convenience store in sight. Trees, their leaves just starting to turn from green to yellow, hang over the river that flows through the valley. I cross traditional vine bridges which wobble unnervingly, on the way to the village of Ochiai, a village deep in the valley that tumbles down the terraced hillside. The lane that winds up the hill is lined with traditional thatched-roof houses, several of which have been stylishly refurbished for guests. Friendly locals, happy to see a visitor, gather on the road to greet me as I arrive. In the evening, they deliver a huge bento box to my door including fresh local tofu, pickles, miso soup and locally grown mikan, a mandarin-like citrus fruit.

My plan is to meander across a handful of islands in the middle of the sea. They are linked to Honshu and Shikoku, and one another, by the Shimanami Kaido, a 76km-long route that passes through six pretty islands joined by seven suspension bridges, which are remarkable in their own right. The journey is best enjoyed on bicycle: the bridges have bike lanes and the route is well signposted and predominantly flat, apart from some kindly designed climbs up to each bridge.

One morning at dawn I set off from Imabari, on Shikoku. It is drizzling and barely light, and the air is fresh. The floor is a carpet of leaves: it is so quiet and still that I can hear the soft patter of new ones falling amid the chorus of insect noise. I climb, panting, up the incline to the first bridge and am rewarded by a view of the islands rising out of the slick grey water. I cross the bridge, passing over a scattering of green and hilly islands, and descend into Oshima, happy to be peddling on flat land again.

The standard cycle route wanders along the edge of sandy beaches, through beautiful fishing villages and less attractive industrial ports, the islands’ lifelines. It winds past groves of huge lemons and small plots planted with lettuces, and by clusters of houses, barely big enough to call hamlets, with their traditional roofs of cascading grey tiles. By mid-morning people are out and about. They wave as I pass by. When I stop to rest they chat about the weather and wish me luck with my ride.

Itsukushima shrine stands off the island of Miyajima near Hiroshima

On Omishima, I take a detour and head up to Oyamazumi, a spacious wooden shrine. Within the shrine’s grounds camphor trees, said to be up to 3,000 years old, give the air a fresh, minty odour. The shrine is dedicated to gods who protect sailors and soldiers; in ancient times samurai visited to pray for success in battle. A neighbouring museum houses Japan’s largest collection of samurai armoury. Today my only companions are a group of elderly Japanese and another cyclist, as sodden as I am.

The island of Ikuchijima is proud of its famous former residents, who include Kobo Daishi, a father of Japanese Buddhism, and some Japanese Christians who took refuge there to avoid persecution during the Edo era, the period between 1603 and 1868, when the country was ruled by the Tokugawa shogun­ate, Japan’s last feudal government. Tourists, mostly Japanese, often spend time on the sands of Sunset Beach, which stretch for miles; today it is too cold to consider a dip.

On Mukaishima, I queue at the ferry terminal to catch a boat to Onomichi. This sophisticated waterfront city on the main island is a welcome place for a weary traveller. I enjoy a cup of coffee in one of the cafés opened by urbanites who have moved here, before soaking my aching limbs and sinking into a soft bed. The luxury is welcome. But I already miss the simplicity, quiet and beauty of life on the islands.

Island guide
The Inland Sea’s mild climate makes it a good destination year-round. Most days are fine, even in June, July and September when rainfall peaks. Stay in family-run lodges on the islands, modern business hotels in the cities and a thatched cottage in the Iya Valley. A majority of the Inland Sea’s islands can be reached from ports in Honshu and Shikoku. Cyclists can start the Shimanami Kaido at either Onomichi or Imabari and end at the other; bikes and helmets are available for hire. The public bike-rental system has stations on every island so you can dump your bike at any point and get a ferry the rest of the way. Tourist information offices have good maps and leaflets.