“Out on the islands
Lights are turning on
Sea in springtime”Masaoki Shika
The Inland Sea sparkles in the hot afternoon sun, my eyes are blinking, white skin gently burning. It truly is a romantic idea that brought me here, to the shores of a sea that is hiding its true nature under the appearance of a borderless lake, dotted with islands and rocks, thousands of them. A book first of all, The Inland Sea, narrating Donald Ritchie’s quest for a lost maritime Japan, a need for inner peace finally, triggered by this name, Inland Sea, that promises stillness and introversion. Impossible not to get lost, then, in this infinite multitude of islands between Miyajima and Shodoshima, the two extremes of my journey during these early May days. And here I am, in the middle of Japan, hitting the sea towards the islands of Kasaoka, a tranquil community in Okayama province, towards my hoped for harbour of peace for the coming days.
Shiraishijima, literally White Rock Island, is set to be my shelter during the busy Golden Week.
An izakaya filled with habitués where shochu is flowing continuously in a joyful hustle and bustle, a beach bar run by an American-Australian couple, a handful of small pensions, family-run, a guesthouse for international travellers which commands a splendid view over the beach (those sunsets!), a grocery store and an alcohol shop. What else would you need? And there is yet more to be discovered: a Buddhist temple is tucked away in the green heart of the island, and then there is this not-to-be-missed panoramic hiking trail, including some easy boulder climbing that grants spectacular postcard views of the Inland Sea. A hidden beach on the back of the island, accessible through a narrow footpath through the jungle-like forest. Finally, the icing on the cake, and maybe the most surprising of all, a pilgrimage path, hidden in the intimacy of the forest that retraces the 88 sacred places of the Shikoku pilgrimage.
I am given accomodation at the International Villa under the guidance of the friendly manager couple Ayumi and Moyo– the flowering red azaleas provide a poignant contrast with the blue skies, and the elegant austerity of the villa architecture, with large bay windows where the sky and the sea meet in infinite reflections. Amy, expat and good island soul, invited me to a religious ceremony during the afternoon, when the birth of the Buddha is celebrated at the local temple. The island community is already gathered as we reach the place and take the opportunity to bath the Buddha and drink sweet tea handed out by volunteers. This is also the occasion to have a rare glimpse at the local dance tradition, the Shiraishi Obon dance, usually performed on the beach during the Day of the Dead in summertime. The evening inaugurates itself through an epic sunset, with the industrial skyline of Fukuyama as a charmingly haunting background silhouette. A freshly married couple from Kyoto, Yama-chan and Mai-chan, share a cocktail with me at Moooo Bar, we exchange business cards and would meet again later on my journey. On an island, there are few people, but many encounters, the slow way of life promotes sociability, and the evening fades into darkness around a bonfire at Sanchan’s pub, with grilled oysters from the neighbouring island waters and shochu, of course.
On the subsequent morning, I make it to the trailhead of the Pilgrimage Path. The complete loop can be done, in as far as the shrines are accessible and depending on the vegetation, in a whole day, or on two shorter days. Amy gets me dressed in the traditional pilgrimage gear: the hat and a pilgrimage stick that would later be useful on some slippery slopes. The route of the Pilgrimage Trail passes under trees most of the time, a perfect feature for a hot and sunny day: wild flowers, ferns, bamboo groves can be admired along the way, and of course, the 88 little Boddhisattva and Jizo statues, typically hidden under a rock, or inside a cave. Quietness is a major attraction of the trail and I find myself lost in self-consciousness in the midst of the forest, albeit never far away from a settlement. And a question keeps returning to my mind: What was it that I was looking for?