Having studied Japanese history since elementary school I had passion to see the legacy of several emperors who had been exiled to Oki Islands. As one of the most famous exile islands for nobles since the middle era in Japan, Nakanoshima Island has all the benefits and geographic uniqueness of abundant nature and being surrounded by the Japan Sea. The most remarkable thing about Nakanoshima Island is the near-perfect silence, broken only by the drone of the waves and the call of the wind. With so much to offer visitors, I’d suggest a minimum of a one-night stay on the island.
A little bit of Hisotry
In 1221, Emperor Gotoba tried to overthrow the Kamakura shogunate, (the Jokyu War) but he failed and was exiled to the Oki Islands. Emperor Gotoba spent 19 years from the age of 42 to 60 years old on Nakanoshima Island. The emperor was exceptionally talented at writing tanka, a traditional form of poetry with a syllabic outline of 5-7-5-7-7 and he wrote down tankas with pathos here.
He penned lots of sad and tragic stories and we wondered how isolated he was and if he had led a difficult life on the northwest small island, but I had always suspected he had enjoyed his time there. My skepticism turned into a conviction when we arrived at Nakanoshima Island.
The Oki Islands were utilized for exile because they had bountiful nature and were located the right distance from the capital. In addition, they possessed a bustling economy and plentiful food resources, so upper-class exiles could live without difficulty or suffering. I witnessed plentiful ocean products, drinkable water from wells and rich fields growing rice and vegetables. In the era before the automobile, islands surrounded by sea were much easier to access. News and information from the capital, Kyoto, came in handwritten letters after a 2-month delay.
Every year, it snows 5-10 cm or below-the-knee. It’s powdery snow, so it is usually melted by strong winds and doesn’t sit on the ground. People don’t need to shovel the snow and I guess Emperor Gotoba was never bothered by any works of labor.
The site of emperor’s house
Emperor Gotoba used to live in Genpukuji Temple which is no longer there but you can still see the ruins of the site. A crematorium for Emperor Gotoba near the site seemed very quiet.
Oki Shrine, constructed in 1939, is dedicated to Emperor Gotoba who passed away 700 years ago. From April to October, you can join the Oki Shrine night tours for one hour. Reservations are needed at least three days in advance.
Murakami Family House
The Murakami House is potentially one of the most beautiful houses on Nakanoshima Island. As the most influential family at that time, the Murakami Family was asked to take care of Emperor Gotoba. Murakami House – complete with tatami mat rooms for living and dining and a doma kitchen. This historical house is beautifully appointed with vintage furniture and has detailed and sophisticated decorations such as nail hiders and handles for sliding doors. There are four separate wells for different purposes; for making Japanese green tea and producing Japanese sake liquor for Emperor Gotoba. We can still see the same wells here today.
My favorite places are a large bathroom and a resting room next to the bathroom facing the garden. Even a well designed toilet made of pottery expresses hospitality to the guests. I don’t think Emperor Gotoba used them though.
The original building was completely burned out and was reconstructed in 1900 based on the original blueprint. Since 2014, it has operated as a museum to let visitors experience the old Japanese lifestyle. It costs 300 yen to potter around and is worth a visit to see the beautiful architecture and interior elegance. You’re sure to find plenty of opportunities for a photograph.
There are few places in Japan that I would say have left me entirely breathless and lost for words. Hishiura Port is one of the most gorgeous small ports in all of Japan. It was difficult to find cute cafes, restaurants and concept stores, but you will love it. The contrast of the ridge lines of the small hills around the port and the blue sky made me speechless. Koizumi Yakumo might have had the same experience here. This gorgeous port has a fine reputation and is frequently cited as loved by Yakumo.
Koizumi Yakumo, (Patrick Lafcadio Hearn) visited Japan as a journalist and became an English teacher assigned to teach in Shimane Prefecture. He visited Oki Islands with his wife and gathered old tales from her and the local people, compiling them in a book titled, “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things”.
Hishiura Port is also the most suitable fishing place and we visited here several times during our stay. We caught horse mackerel, filefish, pearl-spot chromis and Wrasse. OK, wrasses are usually released by anglers due to their hard scales, but we sent them home and ate them all anyway. The souvenir shop next to the Hishiura Port is my favorite place to find something special to remember our trip by. Staff were so helpful to send our fish along with our souvenirs to my home.
Underwater outlook ship: Amanbou
Although quite touristy and often crowded in the Summer months, a tour boat in the Hishiura Port is a great way to see the view and inside scenery. It takes 30 minutes and costs 1,500 yen. The sightseeing association offers a night cruise to see Noctiluca Scintillans known as sea sparkles. Reservations are needed.
We travelled to Oki Islands to experience the stunning coastline and our favorite beach was Rainbow Beach, located just an 8-minute walk from Hishiura Port. We enjoyed swimming, snorkeling and constructing sand castles on the beach for over 5 hours. As it is not a major tourist destination, this is a beach where you can actually relax and blend in to local life. The crystal water is really see-through. In the swimming area, the water-depth gradually became deeper but we could still see 20 meters ahead of us. One high school student stood on the spines of a sea urchin, so marine shoes are needed.
Himawari Spa is a nursing facility for elderly people but you can take a bath here. The number of public baths is shrinking across Japan, but there are still many public bath facilities available on Oki Islands.
Tengawa water area is a beautiful place to walk through and take a little break. You can walk all the way from Chichii District through the pass from the coast. The district is so cozy and compact. Recently, locals have started to open nice cafes and it is a perfect escape from the hustle of the surrounds. Tengawa water flows into Hobomi Port and enriches oyster farms which are a local speciality. When I visited Tengawa water, a local lady brought her grandchildren and encouraged them to drink the water. She said she always cleans the place and takes care of the guardian deity Jizo.
Check In: Tajima-ya Inn
There are many choices of Minshuku Inn and ocean view hotels on Nakanoshima Island. We stayed at Tajima-ya Inn where the landlady often sings old folk songs that describe traditions on the island. When I stayed with my kids, she sang a song about a mother who tried to pour a Sake, Japanese liquor, for her son with trembling hands and then tears when the son departed from the island. The “Kin’nyamonya” song, dancing with rice paddles, is also a popular local folk song which started after the Seinan War, the last civil war in Japan, waged in 1877. Someone who went to the battlefields started to sing the song, but no one knows the meaning of the words of the “Kin’nyamonya”. The landlady explained how local folk songs started and were transmitted on the island. Females prepared food and drinks for social events, weddings, festivals and funerals and they were called for entertaining their guests. They brought lids, ladles and any kitchen utensils and sang with them.
The landlady’s parents started Tajima-ya Inn to offer local delicacies and traditions to guests. You can enjoy a hearty dinner and breakfast, clean bathrooms and linens. The restroom is separated by gender which is trivial but significant for some guests.
Where to Eat
Oki Beef restaurant (maps): Oki Islands have a long history to supply high-quality calf to other branded production districts, but now they produce high-quality beef as Oki Beef brand. The production amount is limited, so even local islanders have Oki Beef only on special occasions. So if you’ve come to Oki Islands to get a real taste of Oki Beef, “Oki Beef Restaurant” is where the locals go.
Italian Cafe Radice: I didn’t have a chance to visit, but one of the locals recommended it. I have made a note to myself about this.