at world's end
Japan is an island nation. People here like to say this by way of explanation, as if to excuse their quirks and customs. Shimaguni dakarane. The implication being, this is why we are the way we are. But look closer at a map of Japan, and it is no longer just an island removed from the rest of East Asia. Suddenly more islands appear. This island nation calls several thousand more its own. Most are uninhabited, or in danger of losing its population altogether. Many are little but glorified rocks with a few desultory pines and patches of scrub. Some thrive as tourist hotspots. A few in the south are marvelous subtropical ecosystems, home to fantastical species of moss and ferns. Some, like Naoshima, have been transformed by human intervention and a healthy dose of cash into gorgeous open-air art museums.
Less discussed in a nation of islands is the peninsula. They have less of the mystique of the faraway island, but there is still something inherently fascinating about them. Not entirely self-contained like islands, they range from tiny, sandy afterthoughts to massive, mountainous outgrowths protruding from a main body of land. From the Latin paene and insula, the peninsula is almost an island. They call this strip of land mostly encircled by water a half-island in Japanese, a hantō. Half an island, but an entity in its own right.
No less interesting than its islands, Japan’s peninsulas are many, and they are wonderful places to escape to. Izu, the inverted toadstool tacked on to Shizuoka prefecture, beloved for its hot springs and fabulous geological formations, is one such place. The reptilian-looking Noto, with Noto Island in its maw, is another. Further north there is Oga, a little curlicue clinging to the side of Akita prefecture. And so forth. A peninsula is far more accessible than an island. Traveling to one does not require a ferry or a dip in the sea. With the sea surrounding you on all sides, small peninsulas evoke the feeling of island life, that one has entered a self-contained world much further away than it really is. But the return journey is entirely painless. You could even walk back home, given enough time. Insula, evoking insular and isolation. Insula but not quite. No man is an island, not really.
Oshika in Miyagi prefecture is striking even among the Japanese peninsulas. Protruding from Urashuku and Onagawa towns, it is located at the southern area of the Sanriku Coast, a region with a ria coastline stretching from northern Miyagi, past Iwate and up to southern Aomori in an unbroken, dendritic zigzag. The Oshika peninsula, with its numerous jagged inlets and bays, is a Rorschach test made three-dimensional with earth, rock, and sea. What you see might say a great deal about who you are. Or perhaps not very much at all.
It is the Oshika peninsula to which we are driving on a bright day in early March. For the week in Ishinomaki during which we have the luxury of simply seeing, reflecting, and writing, a scenic drive along the coast is exactly what we need. Lisa proposes driving along Route 220, otherwise known as the Cobalt Line, which takes you on a loop of the peninsula. Near the eastern tip is Gobansho Park, a lookout point from which you can see the three islands surrounding Oshika - Tashirojima, Ajishima, and Kinkasan. If nothing else, it is a delightful diversion from Basho's narrow road to the north.
En route from central Ishinomaki we stop by Onagawa for lunch. Like many of the towns along the Sanriku Coast, most of Onagawa was decimated in 2011. Seven years on, everything is disconcertingly new. We have been transported to a Sim City game. Here is the station, a sleek white building with a roof that swells and dips like a wave, a hot spring bath on the second floor. Here is the shopping plaza, here are the new houses. But Onagawa is as it was otherwise, a fishing town populated by astonishingly kind, friendly folk. Boats in the bay bring in their daily haul of fish. Outside the souvenir shop at the plaza, there are wooden frames with hundreds of freshly-caught sardines hung out to dry. And the tricolour tuna donburi at Myoshinmaru is superb, with a particularly smooth and fatty negitoro (hand-chopped tuna) that tastes like soy-spiked ice cream.
From Onagawa we head onwards to Route 220. Lisa’s kei car, Excalibur, valiantly negotiates the freeway with its sharp curves and steady climbs, wending along the high ridges of Oshika. The Cobalt Line is an apt name, for the Pacific does indeed shine a brilliant cobalt on a day like this. Later I look at the map to look at the mountains we’ve driven through. Koyama, Hitoishiyama, Okusayama. The views both port and starboard sides are spectacular. We spot a cyclist along the way; no doubt the sea breeze is far sweeter for the effort of climbing these hills.
The earliest mention of the Oshika area is an entry in the Shoku Nihongi dated to 737, implying that it has existed for even longer. Scattered among its many inlets and bays are small centuries-old fishing villages, a few of which are centered on whaling. Outsiders, such as exiled samurai and passing travelers, periodically injected fresh blood into these close-knit coastal communities. It remained an independent township within Miyagi prefecture until around 2005, when it was subsumed into greater Ishinomaki City as part of a nationwide movement towards unifying smaller districts into larger cities. So far, so dry.
But Oshika has its fair share of charming peculiarities. For instance, the locals take care to avoid certain bizarre and specific food pairings. To name a few: duck and walnuts; rabbit and pickled plum; crab and clementine; chicken and carp. These pairings are listed sans explanation in a ponderously dry tome of Oshika history. Ishinomori-san from Kitsunezaki on the peninsula, who we meet by chance at a restaurant in central Ishinomaki, tells us that this is aimed mostly at preventing indigestion. He also takes great pains to tell us exactly what the strips of plastic on the lids of single-serving coffee creamer containers are for - to poke a few holes in the cover before peeling, to release some of the built-up pressure and prevent spillages.
Only one person out of the 15,323 people I’ve tested have gotten this right, he announces.
No doubt he, too, is one of Oshika’s local charms.
Little verifiable information on the origins of Oshika’s name is available. The easiest explanation is simply that the Japanese shika have always existed here. Today the deer themselves elude us; but we return on a different day to the peninsula for a delicious venison curry at a cafe overlooking the sea. In recent years Oshika's deer population has exploded, so we are perhaps helping to keep their numbers in check.
Sometimes a man called Daru can be found around the beach near Cafe Hamaguri-do. He traps deer a few times a year on Oshika, and among other things makes a sensational jerky out of the meat. For two days he marinates deer meat in salt, sansho pepper, bay leaf, rosemary, black pepper. Then he leaves it to the elements. The northern winds shrivel the meat to a deep brown, so dark it is almost black, lined here and there with white ripples of fat. I snack on it all evening, addicted to the haunting, floral, ma la taste of sansho pepper.
The several weeks between winter and spring may be one of the grimmest times of the year in Tohoku. Snow makes the cold tolerable; without it all is a listless gray. And yet there is still remarkable beauty to be found here. On our drive, it is cold but gloriously sunny, and the Pacific is in an agreeable mood. Oshika’s mountains are a diverse patchwork of evergreens - cedar, cypress, the native momi fir - and deciduous trees, many of which are still bare, allowing us to see so much more of the sea along the freeway than we would otherwise. When the temperatures drop again later this year, the Oshika mountains will be as though lit by an incandescent autumnal fire of gold and red. Autumn in the Tohoku region is highly underrated by visitors to Japan. Nevertheless, the bare trees themselves are most arresting. I am no botanist, and so recognize very few without their leaves, but they are a varied lot. Maple, zelkova, Konara oak, Japanese elm, mountain cherry.
Many of these trees seem to be quite young. Unlike the viciously pruned specimens in metropolises, these trees grow as they please. (There is an analogy to modern human life to be had here.) Leafless, they draw stark silhouettes against the sky. Some have branches that snake and arc outwards from the central heart of the trunk like the arms of the Thousand-Hand Kannon. There are trees with charcoal-gray bark, and some that are a rough, dirty brown. There are trees with branches so silvery-white that they must gleam in the moonlight, a cluster of lightning held fast to the earth by roots and rock. Some have thousands of fine, reed-like branches reaching upwards to the heavens as if sprayed from a fountain. And some have canopies of stems so impossibly tangled that they resemble spindly, howling ghosts by the road. I imagine them shrieking as we slip past.
At the end of our winding road is Gobansho Park, once used as a lookout point during the Edo period (1603–1868) in anticipation of invading Chinese warships. Today, the waters lying beyond the edge of this peninsula are now known as one of the world’s three great fishing grounds, alongside Newfoundland in Canada and the ocean stretch between England and Norway. Here, the tropical seawaters from the south collide with the cold Okhotsk current, creating a rich alchemical sea soup of phytoplankton. Up and down the jagged coast of Oshika, clear mountain water gushing down into the ocean via the numerous inlets further enrich the seawater. The Sanriku fishing industry has been slow to recover, and there has been much talk of emptying oceans over the years. But for now, the deep cobalt still attracts an international gathering of worldly sea creatures – Kinka mackerel, coho salmon, skipjack bonito, Pacific saury, for starters – who ride the currents here to feast; and offers fishermen fertile ground for farming shellfish like scallops and sea squirts.
Dreams of delicious seafood notwithstanding, the view of the islands occupies our immediate attention. To our right is Ajishima, with its white beaches; and further in the distance is Tashirojima. The latter is most famous for its abundance of feral cats, and indeed is one of several islands across Japan playing host to a largely feline population. A short swim away to the left is Kinkasan, reputedly one of the three holiest places in the Tohoku region. It is said that visiting Koganeyama Shrine three years in a row will ward off financial hardships for life. This is also, of course, a fantastic money-spinner for the island, but one can hardly begrudge them that.
Also, if you bring your boyfriend here three years in a row, says Ishinomori-san, as we talk about Kinkasan, you’ll be together forever.
Maybe, I laugh. If I ever get one.
Alas, I visit none of these islands during my week in Ishinomaki. The already infrequent ferries are at the mercy of sea and weather, and most of this week is marked by rain and wind. But the view from Gobansho Park itself is enough. We follow the path, encountering various structures designed to test your physical strength. Or in our case the lack thereof. We fail to swing along monkey bars or shimmy up fireman poles. But there is a marvelous zip line in the children’s park directly overlooking the ocean, and we swoop along its length over and over again, yelling and laughing, as close to flying as we will ever be today.
The floors of the hills are matted with dead leaves and tiny pine cones, awaiting warmer days to begin the transformation into mulch. Shades of brown squelch lightly beneath our shoes. We walk past short magnolia trees gone berserk with a thicket of ghostly branches. At this time of the year, the peninsula seems strangely devoid of animal life save for a pair of squawking crows, each harsh cry rending the silence with the same intensity of a trumpet. Still, there is already a hint of spring is in the air. Hay fever season has already started for some unlucky folk, instigated by cedar and cypress pollen scattered to the wind.
As a tourist attraction, the Oshika peninsula would hardly be at the top of anyone's bucket list. There are no souvenir stands at Gobansho Park, no shops overflowing with plasticky tourist tat, and definitely no bored part-timers shouting mechanical welcomes to passing visitors. It's just you and the Pacific. In an age where the bureaucrats of Japan are taking pains to make everything tourist-friendly in the most visually disruptive way possible, places like this park are becoming vanishingly rare. It will be a long time yet before the Sanriku Coast fully recovers and indeed becomes fully equipped for the hordes that may one day descend on it. But I hope - perhaps a little selfishly - that the park here stays the way it is.
Standing here, the placid ocean stretching before us, Gobansho could be the park at the end of the world. Peninsulas certainly occupy this space in the wider cultural imagination. Cape Finisterre in Galicia, deriving from the Latin finis terrae; the Yamal Peninsula, the end of the land, so named by the indigenous Samoyeds in northwest Siberia; Shiretoko in East Hokkaido, declared sir etok, world’s end, by the Ainu. On 11 March 2011, it must have seemed as though Oshika had become as such: the epicenter of the earthquake that shook Sanriku was approximately 72 kilometers east of the Oshika peninsula. Just a few minutes into our first conversation, then-stranger Ishinomori-san tells us, unbidden, about where he was that day. Outside his home in Kitsunezaki, shouting frantically through a megaphone for his neighbours to head for higher ground. And then the great wave came.
Life in Ishinomaki has the disaster at its temporal nexus. Before the earthquake. Seven years after. The tsunami is one of the first things people here talk about when you meet them. But when you reach the end of the world, you stay, you move on, you remake yourself, you change your surroundings, or you do all the above. Everyone here in one way or another has contended with these choices. You discover, day by day, what lies beyond the end of the post-quake world.
The tip of Oshika is a wonderful place to watch the sky change. We fall into a companionable silence, and scribble away at our notebooks. Crows caw periodically. Boat engines hum a deep bass from the bay below at Ayukawa, punctuated by the rumble of a car trundling past. As the afternoon wears on, the blue of the sky fades to a gentle gray-white. Cumulus clouds gather low on the horizon, oblong like capsule submarines, velvety purple saury sailing in the sky. Higher above are wisps of cirrus scumbled across the sky. The clock approaches katawaredoki, that hour between daylight and dusk, an especially magical hour where the boundaries between life and death are blurred. The word came into popular parlance with Makoto Shinkai’s hit film Your Name, in which katawaredoki is the backdrop to pivotal moments. Romantic and entirely appropriate. The sun, so brilliant and blinding earlier, almost burning my skin despite the cold, is now obscured by pewter clouds. On another day it would dye the skies blood and crimson. Today the sun fills the world with pale lemon, turning the ocean into a silver mirror, shifting and glinting, as though the three islands surrounding the tip of the peninsula are floating on liquid mercury. Katawaredoki, indeed.
In the fading light we make our way back towards central Ishinomaki, following the coastal road along the west side of Oshika. We drive by areas with evocative names: Ayukawahama, Sweetfish River Beach; Kitsunezaki, Fox Cape; Tsukinoura, Moon Inlet. Here and there along Oshika's coast are unimaginably ugly walls of concrete, Tadao Ando architectural pieces gone awry. Sea walls, designed to prevent future tsunamis from devastating the coastline. These are being built all along Ishinomaki’s coastline, as yet unfinished. Some consider them a blight on the ocean view. Against another tsunami, they could very well prevail; or they might, as the walls in Iwate prefecture did, crack and disintegrate in the face of the sea’s wrath. Nothing is ever black or white; everything is as gray as these hulking blocks that rise out of the coast, cold and forbidding and promising nothing. Between the bulwarks there is an occasional glimpse of the sea. It slides along a spectrum of deep viridian, melted steel, dusky violet.
It rains for a few days after. I hear that it is storming on the Oshika peninsula, and think about how the walls must look in the rain. I wonder what it would be like to splash paint all over them, to stain these expanses of concrete with pinks and reds and greens. To cover them with murals that might transform them into something more than a reminder of 2011. For these walls to be reclaimed by the people in Ishinomaki, who, seven years later, flourish in the wake of wreckage and ruins.