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What it was like to visit the Island of Aogashima in Japan

April 21, 2014, 11:01 pm | This story has an Influence Score of 1227

By riazhussain

During the reign of the Tokugawa Shoguns, Tokyo, the present-day capital of Japan, was called Edo. It was a center of power and economy. Therefore, the Tokugawa period (1603 -1867) is also called the Edo period. Tokugawa Shoguns promoted Buddhism in Japan. However, there were places where Shamanism was being practiced, the followers of which believed that the world was permeated with spiritual forces in the forms of gods, spirits, ghosts, demons, genies and goblins. People could save themselves from the malignant interference of these supernatural forces with the help of certain words and chants. Aogashima, a small volcanic island in Southern Japan, had a Shamanistic concentration. The isolated island had been formed as a result of volcanic activity. Its steep rugged cliffs and the rough sea had kept it nearly unreachable.

Towards the end of the Edo period, there took place a killing spree on the island. ‘Once, a son of the headman of the small village on the island killed eleven people and then committed suicide by throwing himself in the sea. People on the island feared that if they gave the son of the headman an ordinary burial, the roving spirit of the "noble" killer would curse the village. In order to escape the curse, they buried the murderer with the elite class as god and built a shrine for him’.  This rarely-heard story was contributed by An Yaqiu during an interview about her visit to the island of Aogashima.  

An Yaqiu was born in Tokyo in the 1960's. She got her master’s degree in international relations and business from the University of California, in San Diego. Currently she is working at a university as a secretary. She is fond of sightseeing and reads books for leisure. She has been to twenty-nine countries on six different continents. Five months back, in November, 2013, she went to Aogashima.  

We began our interview by asking about the allurements the island offered her. She explained, ‘The shape of the island and the difficulty of the access are the things that fascinated me. Although the island is a part of Tokyo, it is remote and its culture and landscape are different from those of Tokyo. The untamed nature of the isolated place attracted me.  Traveling to the island by helicopter was still another thing that fascinated me’.  

As we have already pointed out, the locale is not easily reachable. The reason behind this difficulty is the availability of only limited modes of transportation. She explained, ‘Aogashima has two ways of transportation, by air or by sea.  The travel to Aogashima begins from Hachijo Island which is located in the Pacific Ocean 287 kilometers away from Tokyo. The helicopter that goes to Aogashima once a day from Hachijo Island has the capacity to accommodate only nine people. Boat service rate is only 50%, in other words, it is a sort of gambling to go to Aogashima by boat because the sea around the island is always too rough to get to the pier’.

When our landscape lover reached Hachijo Island, the ferry service was unavailable for a week . Therefore, she decided to travel by helicopter. She reached Hachijo Island and got into the chopper.

As the helicopter went up, there appeared to be blue color all around--the blue sky and the blue sea below. She could see the shadow of the helicopter on the foamy clouds.

If she had come by boat, it would have taken her three hours. The helicopter took only twenty minutes to reach the destination—Aogashima. As the aircraft got closer, she could see the steep cliffs all around the island.

The copter moved to a flat area of the island and touched down on a landing pad marked with circles.

Telling us about the location, administration and population of the tropical paradise, she said, ‘Aogashima is actually a part of Tokyo, but the island is located in the Pacific Ocean, 358 kilometers away from Tokyo city. The island itself is a live volcano. It is still alive. The shape is caldera. In the late 18th century, the volcano erupted and Aogashima's people escaped to Hachijo island which is 70 kilometers away from Aogashima. A half-century after the exodus, the Aogashima people returned to the island, and since then, people have been living on there safely. The current population is around 165. I assume a quarter of the population has employment with the Tokyo government. It seems that people on the island are enjoying their life positively and happily. They are not poor at all, but the distance makes the island maintain its infrastructure. I met many women who are come from other places in Japan but got married to Aogashim guys. The nature is harsh. I felt the rigors of nature, but at the same time, its beauty touched my heart. Although I had a brief stay in Aogashima, I felt people's warm hearts and the relentlessness of the nature, and these contrary aspects attracted me’.

We drew her attention to the pictures she had taken during the brief tour. She explained, ‘Since my father was a journalist and he had taken pictures during the course of his job, cameras were a part of our life. So, naturally,  I became interested in photography’.

Going through the pictures, then, we asked her about the cliffs of the island, she replied, ‘The outer side of the island is almost all cliffs and this natural condition prevents people from constructing and maintaining ports. There is small flat area on the skirt of the cliffs. Most of people live on the flat area. The exact origin of human existence on the island is a matter of speculations . However, the record says that in the 15th Century a few people settled in the island.

A port has been built at the edge of the rugged cliff. There is no space to moor fisher boats. Boats are lifted up by the use of a crane and placed on land. She also saw fisher boats moored on land'.

She witnessed the sunrise at Ohchiyo port. The special thing about the island is that within the caldera of the volcano, there is another smaller caldera. So the whole island, if seen from above appears to be a double-volcano island. 

Talking about the huge bowl-shaped depression or caldera on the island, she pointed out, ‘Caldera has forests and fields for farming. The climate is subtropics, and  humidity is  85% all around the year. Plants grow and flourish in the moist and warm weather. People grow here sweet potatoes and vegetables. Sweet potatoes are a famous product of Aogashima. They use sweet potatoes to make liquor. We call the liquor "Shochu". "Aogashima Shochu" is very famous for its good taste and rarity in the market. Originally, housewives made Shochu to entertain their husbands who worked very hard all their lives. Since the island is small and has limited resources, people used to be poor and had to make everything by themselves. Liquor makers are generally male in Japan, so Aogashima Shochu is unusual in that way’. She further said, ‘The center of the mysterious island is very hot because of geothermal activity. The village has geothermal ovens and natural sauna in the basin of the caldera’.

Our interviewee utilized the geothermal energy and prepared her lunch which contained  dried fish, eggs, potatoes, and rice balls.

In addition, she also came across plants burned by geothermal energy.

People in the island call geothermal energy "Hin gya". There is a salt factory which is run with geothermal energy.

She stopped to look at holy places of Shamanism.  The shrine of the killer still stands on the island. 

As she neared  the temple of the nefarious individual, she was unsettled by some uncanny feelings. She explained, ‘I did not know the story when I visited the shrine, but I felt something weird and scary from the entrance of the shrine. I did not go up to the shrine. I felt the same weirdness at the other shrines too’. Talking about the reason behind the presence of places of worship on the island, she said, ‘I think that the forces of nature on the island are so harsh that people had to worship nature. They tried to tame the nature through worship. Traditionally women in the island used to visit all the shrines with offerings to worship these gods. The worshiping visits would take a few days and during the visit, they did not go back home. Since the visit is a kind of religiously sacred activity, women who were having their menstrual period were not allowed to participate in it. Before the visit, older women always asked younger women if they were in the period or not. That was very annoying to younger women. The Ohsato shrine was yet another one. But she did not enter the sanctuary because there were some indescribable feelings which prevented her from visiting it.  

She again said, 'I felt something weird at this place, too. I felt that "something" appears when I get to the top of the hill'.

After spending thirty hours on the island,  she decided to leave the wild paradise. She spent her last moments at a high spot on the island. She stood there and tried to listen to the coastal winds.

The sounds of the aggressive winds touched the strings of her heart and she began to wonder about the unique beauty and attraction of harsh and untamed elements and objects that nature possesses.

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