Encyclopedia of Islands

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Japan. Stores in the Shadow of Mountains

Modern and traditional architecture meet in Osaka, on Honshu, largest of Japan´s islands. The sleek towers reflect the nation´s economic rebirth; tree-edged Osaka Castle evokes a feudal past.

It may be the most famous garden in the world. But to most foreign visitors, the rock garden at the 15th-century temple called Ryoanji, in Japan´s ancient capital of Kyoto, hardly looks like a garden at all. Its designer purposefully scattered 15 rocks of varied sizes and shapes around a large, level rectangle of raked gravel. From any vantage point at least one rock always, teasingly, remains out of sight. In this "dry landscape," as such Japanese gardens are called, the only hint of green is the thin layer of moss encircling the base of each rock.


There are dozens of other gardens in Kyoto, retreats offering eye- soothing lushness and the cool scent of pine as a balm to weary travelers. Yet as I begin my third trip to Japan, I seek out the austerity of the Ryoanji garden, as though on a private quest. As the morning mist lifts, I take in the sight from the wooden veranda of the Zen Buddhist temple to which the garden belongs. Viewers enter the garden not physically, but mentally; it was intended as an aid to meditation for those trying to attain the goal of Zen, satori, or spiritual enlightenment.

In this setting, a contemplative mood can creep up even on the uninitiated. Soon I leave behind my overwhelming image of Japan: the view from my airplane window of Tokyo, 230 miles to the east, a capital whose downtown spreads toward the horizon in all directions. In its own way, the garden at the Ryoanji also invites a loss of perspective, so that after a few minutes, this serene enclosure becomes a wild seascape. In my mind, the rippling sand is transformed into great swells, and the rocks become remote islands. Now my viewpoint changes: The rocks are majestic mountain peaks floating above thick clouds. This mix of imaginary land, sea, and mist seems both dewy with newness and as ancient as all the ages.

The garden at the Ryoanji is not meant to represent any single image in particular. We viewers each supply a personal meaning. I realize that I keep coming back to this place because, to me, it captures the traditions of Japan. On one level, I see the quiet spirit of Zen; on another, the Japanese reverence for simplicity, raised to an art. I marvel at the way tiny spaces are landscaped to evoke the grandeur of natural settings. But more than anything else, I see the essence of Japan, past and present, in the gravel and scattered rocks that bespeak the nation´s island setting.

Japan Mountains

With a penchant for ordering, categorizing, and ranking, the Japanese once designated their nation´s three most beautiful sights. All were island-studded vistas on Honshu: a potpourri of pine-clad islets on the northeast coast; Miya Jima, or Shrine Island, in the Inland Sea; and a sinuous sandbar and island in Wakasa Bay, off the Sea of Japan. In all, the archipelago, slightly smaller in land area than California, ranges more than 2,000 miles, from the Sea of Okhotsk off Siberia to the subtropical fringes of Taiwan. This sweep includes thousands of small islands and islets.

Japan´s four largest islands—Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku—are the vital core of the archipelago. With most of its people, and many of its major cities and industries and cultural centers such as Kyoto, Honshu forms the large midsection of dragon-shaped Japan. The country´s mountainous spine rises to its most formidable heights here, where several 50 peaks of the Japan Alps exceed 10,000 feet. Kyushu, the dragon´s tail, also boasts bustling cities and highly industrialized areas in a setting of palm trees and citrus orchards. Its neighbor to the northeast, Shikoku, contains areas of industry in the north but has remained primarily rural in the south. The greatest contrast, though, is between urban Honshu and the sparsely populated setting of Hokkaido—the dragon´s head. This island, the northernmost of Japan´s major isles, is noted for dairy farms, vast forests, and large crater lakes, along with some industry.

Despite the contrasts, Japan´s mountains and coastlines form a continuous tapestry of scenic beauty. No place in the nation is more than 93 miles from the sea. Gentle forested slopes, in one location, frame a rugged, wave-lashed promontory; in another place, sunbathers on a creamy beach gaze up at a smoldering volcano. On a world map, the surrounding seas define Japan´s four main islands as a tidy unit. About 120 miles of the Korea Strait—six times the width of the English Channel—separate Japan from mainland Asia to the west.

Japan Mountains

Practically from the moment I arrive, I never stop seeing how geography has influenced the Japanese. In the airport, I watch corporate managers, back from abroad, and think of Japan´s lack of raw materials and its dependence on imports as reasons for its need to be powerful in the international marketplace. I delight in the politeness that I am accorded and think of the traditional need for civility in a crowded land: Japan is one twenty- fifth the size of the United States but has a population about half that of the U.S. When schoolchildren in Tokyo stop and stare wide-eyed at me, a foreigner, I think of feudal Japan, whose leaders took advantage of its island status to isolate it from the world for more than two centuries.

My quest for the uniqueness of island Japan comes into clearest focus, however, on the smaller isles and on the more remote coastlines of the larger ones. There the water still endows tradition; the shifting scenes of sand and sea, crag and coast, remain unmarred; there I can taste and touch island Japan.

At Sakurajima—formerly an island—near the southern tip of Kyushu, I receive a bone-numbing lesson in the origin of all of Japan´s islands from Ishi Nakashima, a 63-year-old farm woman who skillfully balances a sheaf of newly cut rice straw and a glinting scythe on her head. She has lived for the past 40 years about a mile from the crater of an active volcano. Moreover, this is the most active of more than 60 active volcanoes throughout Japan, one of the earth´s most geologically unstable regions. It has erupted many times since A.D. 708; in 1914, it disgorged about four billion tons of lava that joined Sakurajima to the Kyushu mainland. Since the mid- 1950s, volcanic activity has been picking up again.

What "activity" means right now is that the dense billow of white smoke rising from the crater turns black as we watch. At the same time, the noise coming from the crater, a distant swoosh a moment ago, begins to approximate the rumble of a 747´s take-off roll. The ground seems to quake, and I fight an impulse to run away. Terrifying! Not to Mrs. Nakashima, though. Real fright to her takes the shape of fiery two-ton boulders that have occasionally catapulted out of the crater and down the mountainside. Smaller ones pose a danger too.

Japan Mountains

Japan may be a nation fragmented by water, but it is also the land of Toyota and Nissan, a nation increasingly enamored of the automobile. Though hundreds of ferries ply coastal waters, an ever growing network of highways offers alternative means of travel to most destinations. At the time of my visit, construction neared completion on a 33.5-mile tunnel—the world´s longest—to link Honshu and Hokkaido. Mammoth bridges, some of them still unfinished, span the Inland Sea, the large body of water enclosed by Shikoku, Kyushu, and southern Honshu. The most ambitious is the Seto Ohashi, Great Bridge of the Inland Sea—in fact a complex of 11 bridges, which will hopscotch its way 5.8 miles across five small islands. An upper deck will hold an expressway for motor traffic; a lower level will accommodate trains. It will be the largest such bridge system in the world, its builders say.

On Awaji, the Inland Sea´s largest island, I am surprised to discover how a new bridge has affected a centuries-old local tradition, the Awaji puppet theater. Attending a performance, a sad play, I´m intrigued by the narrator´s voice spiraling into a high-pitched plaint to the accompanying strains of a samisen. The detailed costumes of the stringless, almost life-size puppets entrance me, as do the incredibly subtle movements of the black- hooded puppeteers who stand behind the puppets and manipulate them.

The Awaji puppet theater is known throughout Japan as part of the nation´s great cultural heritage. After World War II, according to Masaru Umazume, the director of the theater, movies and television almost killed it. Puppeteers and audiences became scarce. But as the country recovered from the war and tourism increased, the theater found new energy. Now the bridge is helping to give the theater a vital boost. The parking lot is filled with cars and tour buses, and extra performances have been added.

On other, smaller Inland Sea islands, the bridges promise truly disruptive change. One such place is Yo Shima. Home to some 300 inhabitants, it is merely a high mound that can be crossed in half an hour on foot. Now a high pylon for the Seto Ohashi Bridge overwhelms one end of the island. Construction required that dozens of homes be torn down. The elementary school, perched on a hillside, is near the bridge; children will hear cars and trains streaking by every day. After centuries of relative isolation, change will surely seem sudden. Yet most island residents look forward to the bridge because it will facilitate basic services such as mail delivery.

One resident points out that bridge construction at sites around the Inland Sea has turned up many treasures for archaeology. The artifacts indicate that for centuries this body of water has been a major trade route as well as a cultural crossroads. Yet today, the Inland Sea, in some ways, is viewed as an obstacle to transportation and development.

Nevertheless, oceans near and far are one of Japan´s most important natural resources, providing an amazingly varied bounty of seafood. I fancy myself a seafood connoisseur, but I never dreamed that in Japan I would savor half a dozen new varieties of crab, or clams ranging in size from a thumbnail to a large man´s fist.

In places, where tides and currents permit, the sea is now farmed as intensively as level land. Oysters and scallops are raised beneath offshore rafts. In the Japanese way, nothing is done halfheartedly. Musical sounds broadcast from radio towers to underwater speakers lure fish that, like Pavlov´s dogs, have been trained to associate sound with food. Sea bream, in particular, rise to the bait of soft tones.

Raughter lights the faces of two schoolgirls on Honshu sharing fruit slices after class on Saturday. Like all Japanese schoolchildren, they attend class five and a halfdays a week. The color of the identical hats that the girls are wearing identifies their grade level. Hats of a single color help teachers keep an eye on youngsters during field trips.

For everyday wear, sneakers and rubber boots have replaced straw sandals and wooden clogs. Outdoor shoes (opposite) line shelves near the entryway of a nursery school. In class, students wear soft shoes made for the indoors. At left, a morning-glory vine, used in the study of natural science, twines past the window of a preschool classroom.