Thursday, August 14, 2008

Yagishiri Island

On July 29, we took the bus from Sapporo bound for the port city of Haboro on Hokkaido's north western coast. The 3-hour journey was through beautiful small farms and lush green forests, with hillsides to one side and the ocean on the other. At Haboro, we took the ferry to Yagishiri Island. We bought second class tickets for the one hour trip, not knowing that we would not have seats. My fellow passengers were sitting or lounging on the floor, so I too stretched out and took a nap!

On the ferry to Yagishiri

Disembarking at Yagishiri
Yagishiri is a small island in the Sea of japan, 25km to the west from Haboro. The island's area is 5.21 km² and its population is 315 people. (It was 379 in 2003.) The island is noted for its beauty, much of the island being covered with untouched forests, especially of the Japanese Yew.

We chose to stay at the Isono-ya Inn, a traditional Japanese style inn run by the Isono family, only a 20-minute walk from the ferry terminal. As usual, we were greeted by a line of slippers at the entrance, to be worn in the inn. This custom used to amuse me when I first went to Japan and stayed at traditional inns in Kyoto and Hokkaido, and also in Japanese homes.

Because it was late afternoon when we reached the island, we took a walk nearby before dinner. We saw a modern post office, a police station, a clinic, a small fire station, and a traditional museum, and most houses had beautiful gardens although there weren't too many people around. The few we saw appeared to be rather elderly. We saw two grocery stores, one or two eating places, a few more inns, and that seemed to complete the town.

Later, we sat down to a delicious Japanese dinner, consisting mainly of seafood dishes. The Japanese, with their love of tradition and beauty, serve the loveliest meals I have seen. They take their time over the meals, sitting on cushions at low tables. This particular meal had fish, crab, prawns and vegetable dishes along with rice.

After dinner, we went for another walk. Lights had come on at some houses, but they were absolutely quiet, typical of the peoples' respect for privacy and silence. A couple of cars passed us on the road. We were later told that most residents were fisherman and went to bed early because they had to get up early to go fishing.

The breakfast next morning was again served beautifully, seafood being the main item.

We later rented bicycles and entered the Yagishiri "Quasi" (whatever that means) National Park, to be greeted by tranquil views of green trees. This is virgin forest, and, because few visitors come to island, is undisturbed. As we cycled, we paused to take occasional detours, one to an area called Nightingale Valley. Unlike in other Hokkaido forests, this was safe to walk through because there were no bears. In fact, there were no deer or foxes either. As for domestic animals, cats seemed to be popular, with only two dogs, brought by the policeman and doctor to the island.

The forest bed and coast are covered all over with seasonal wild flowers. As Yagishiri is an intermediate stop for migratory birds, we were told that more than 100 kinds of wild birds come flying in spring and autumn. However, as in New Zealand, the forest was strangely still with only a few bird sounds.

A lovely wooden bridge in Nightingale Valley

As we emerged through the forest into an open area and a long, straight road. The sun shone brightly, the sky and the sea were the bluest blue, the weather was cool and all was tranquility. On either side was the only sheep form on the island. This sheep farm has an interesting story behind it. Because the fisherman in the island had little to do in the long winter months, the sheep farm was proposed as alternative employment in winter. However, the fisherman didn't take to sheep herding and the farm is now under private management. It appears to be prospering. The grass fed Suffolk lamb is said to be in big demand by chic restaurants in Tokyo.

A view of the sea in Yashigiri

As we cycled along the coast, the scenery took our breath away. The local people had added to the beauty by planting flowers not only in the front yards but also on common ground. Hydrangeas were the most popular variety.

We stopped for lunch at a tiny cafe run by Kazu, an interesting character. She is a graphic artist and used to work in Yokohama and later in Sapporo. On a visit to the island, she fell in love with it, bought a house, renovated it and moved in with her books and music CDs. Being the sole immigrant in a place where the population is dropping, the locals have welcomed her. The cafe is her living room. She doesn't advertise it but hopes a few people will drop by for a chat. We enjoyed a simple meal of pasta and curry with iced coffee while listening to Norah Jones and Miles Davis, and enjoying a chat with Kazu.
As we cycled along, we met this elderly lady who had donned a hat and with the help of a broom, some simple tools and a wheelbarrow, was cleaning up her neighborhood. She posed shyly for the photo, claiming she's too old. She must be at least 90.
More hydrangeas along the road
A kitchen garden, a feature of nearly every home
A ferry aproaching Yagishiri

The park at dusk
Sunset at Yagishiri

A word about Mr. Isono. He inherited the inn from his father and runs it with the help of his mother and wife, and a temporary assistant. He works tirelessly, both at the inn and in improving the livelihood of his neighbours. He's the city councillor for Yagishiri (the council is Harboro) and is also a naturalist and a fine photographer. One evening, he drove us to watch the sunset. On another night, he drove us to the highest point on the island to show us the spectacular starlit sky.

Waiting for the ferry

We spent three nights in Yagishiri and enjoyed it thoroughly. With luck, I might get a chance to return.

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