There’s a passage from one of my favorite Michael Crichton books that’s easily overlooked the first time around:
“There’s no ambient noise here: no radio or TV, no airplanes, no machinery, no passing cars. In the 20th century, we’re so accustomed to hearing sound all the time, the silence feels creepy.”
Even here, on one of the most remote islands of the Toshima Mura, my life remains governed by sounds.
The regular beating of the motor, the turning of the regulator, as black smog slowly dissipates in the air surrounding the transient ferry to the Toshima islands.
A large rope hitting the shore, awaiting two men native to Nakanoshima, whose sole responsibilities are to catch it, drag it, and moor it.
My feet scrambling for a frictional surface as I avoid the smooth boulders of the eastern shore, still slippery and wet from the steady pounding waves. There is an art to jumping from rock to rock that leaves one’s footing secure and one’s carcass not scattered across southeast Asia, or wherever the tide chooses to take it.
The crashing of bamboo made by my own exhausted attempts to make a path where none is meant to exist, to find a route from the lowermost point near セリ岬 (Cape Seri) back to the “civilized” roads of this small Japanese territory, to the silence allowed by the open road beneath a sky as blue as there ever could be, or, later on, a moonlit world reflected only by a few passing clouds and the eyes of pensive cows.
The faint, very faint, cry of butterflies struggling to move against the slightest gust of wind, flying beside me, flaunting an intricate wing of fluorescent blue. You know you are truly at peace with nature when a shirochou (白蝶, butterfly) lands on your hand, when you have allowed yourself to stay in one place long enough to appreciate the sights and sounds for more than three minutes. Let them land.
Or perhaps the crunching of green grass stalks in the mouths of the few Tokara Uma (トカラ馬) on the island, not restricted to horseshoes or load-bearing, but allowed to roam free in a sunny meadow, a protected reserve for these noble creatures.
Sulfurous gas hissing through yellow volanic fissures on towering Ontake (御岳), the reward of a long afternoon climb.
These are my escapes from the modern world – a world always in motion from cars honking, children screaming, airplanes buzzing overhead.
I’m hardly in the midst of the Ginza district of Tokyo. And yet, I cannot escape the pulls of 21st century interconnectivity. No matter how remote an island Nakanoshima is, if it’s accessible, it’s wired. Even now, my hand is gently moving across the tatami mat in a private room of the Oki Ryokan, accompanied by the gentle hum of the heater and the hushed Japanese conversations next door… buoyed by the hydraulics of the construction equipment ensuring a secure place for future ships to dock.
If I should somehow forget the time my means of escape will approach the island, there are speakers scattered everywhere, interrupting my moments of zen as I gaze longingly at the fish in the shallow waters of the northern coast, reminding me of noon with a siren that should be reserved for warnings of incoming enemy aircraft.
Despite the inconveniences this technology may bring those truly seeking to get away, it provides many wonders in return.
The tenmondai (天文台, observatory) allows sights not long realized by human eyes to come into focus, humbled by our desire to reach into the unknown. The craters of the moon as clear as if we were in an Apollo spacecraft on approach. Two stars caught in each other’s gravitational pull over two hundred million light-years away, yet close enough to touch in my mind.
And the opportunities it affords by allowing me to come into contact with fellow travelers and residents alike…
Onsen-goers who enjoy the not-so-tepid sulfurous waters of the Nishiku (西区) and Higashiku (東区) hot springs, milky-white from the effects of dormant Ontake (御岳). One of the few native children, giggling as her father makes sure she bathes properly, unabashed in the presence of so many others.
I know I’m still new to this world, a child attempting to understand divine intent. There are still those that came before me to this island, wanderlust and courage in their hearts, inspiration in their eyes.
Their descendents follow their footsteps to honor the memory. A family of five brothers and sisters retrace the journey their parents undertook in 1946. At a time in postwar Japan, when Okinawa remained in seige and overseas travel was questionable, a single family set out to explore their homeland to remind them that despite the horrors of war and whatever changes lay in the future of their country, some aspects of culture are eternal. Some things cannot be taken away by force, a broken spirit, or a great loss. The feelings we hold, the memories we cherish, that adventurous desire to prove our self-worth and break boundaries some dare not.
It takes 7 hours 20 minutes to reach Nakanoshima from Kagoshima South Dwarf, at a roundtrip cost of ¥12,020. As I mentioned, there is currently a lot of construction going on all over the island… a surprising amount. The onsen are free and very nice; sulfuric and mineral-rich. The people are friendly and few. It’s about 8.5 km from the Nishiku area (literally “western district”) to the top of Ontake, but the view of the island is well worth it; it’s completely unrestricted up there; if you like, you can sacrifice yourself to the volcano in one of the five or six fissures, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
The observatory is definitely worth a view; it’s open from 7:30 PM to 11:30 PM Weds-Sat, but you need to get the attention of the man running the place; he might not have it open if there don’t appear to be any visitors:
Overall, this is just a pleasant stretch of farmland filled with retired couples and a few families wanting a safe life for their kids. Most of the walking is restricted to the paved road – believe me, you don’t want to try to navigate the dense bamboo – but the northern side is very quiet and scenic; be sure to take most of the morning and afternoon to trudge out to the northeast cape (セリ岬).
Profile page on the Tokara website
Nakanoshima Junior High and Primary School
(apparently, there are nine students)