Island hopping from Korea to Japan: A journey through water and time
By Vicki L. Beyer
Where the East China Sea meets the Sea of Japan, the distance between Korea and the Asian continent and Japanarchipelago less than 200 km.
In this narrow water strait are the so-called border islands of Japan, which for millennia served as a stepping stone for people who wanted to cross between mainland Asia and Japan.
My journey followed in the footsteps of those historical travelers, the island that jumped across water and time. I embarked from the port of Busan on the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula.
From here it is only 50 kilometers from Tsushima, the furthest from the Japanese border islands. The strait is known for rough seas. In my case, what should have been a one-hour crossing took two hours thanks to strong winds and waves.
Most of my companions were Korean, some traveling for duty free shopping and many to fish in the waters around Tsushima. Most of the international tourists in Tsushima are Koreans.
From my seat in the center of the ferry at the back, supposed to be the most stable place on any ship, I looked out at my fellow passengers and out the windows.
I found that at first they were filled with the dark blue of the churning waves, were lined with white foam, and then suddenly only the light blue-gray sky was visible as the ship rolled.
I found it best to close my eyes. Judging by the sounds around me, many of my companions were not so wise. Finally, the northern coast of Tsushima came into view, rocky and stormy.
We soon docked at the port of Hitakatsu. The entire island of Tsushima, about 70 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide at its widest point, has fewer than 30,000 inhabitants.
The island is mountainous and mostly covered with forests. people live mostly on the coast. The soil is bad, so the main occupation is fishing, not farming.
Even with its international ferry terminal, Hitakatsu is really just a sleepy seaside village with plenty of squid fishing boats jetting along the coast during the day.
On my first walk through town, I spotted a plaque explaining that the particularly peaceful Nishidomari Bay was a favorite stop for Korean diplomatic envoys traveling in the eighteenth century.
Later, circling the upper half of the island in a rental car, I came across a beautiful beach with white sand and lots of rocks and a rocky shore.
A lopsided battle monument
North of Hitakatsu is a large monument to his memoryBattle of Tsushima,fought between the Japanese and Russian fleets on 27-28 May 1905.
The naval strategies of Japanese Admiral Togo Heihachiro gave Japan a decisive victory at a cost of only 117 Japanese sailors, compared to 5,045 dead on the Russian side.
Apparently from this point the smoke from the naval battle could be seen.
A large observation platform on the northwest coast of Tsushima is said to offer views of Busan. unfortunately not visible on the cloudy day of my visit.
Nearby are the ruins of a fascinating artillery emplacement from the First World War. Apparently, the Japanese remained wary of the Russians even more than a decade after they defeated them.
Shinto temples on the border islands
Although it is possible that Buddhism was also brought to Japan via the border islands, Shinto shrines far outnumber Buddhist institutions on the islands today.
In Tsushima, many of the earliest shrines were built by the sea, with one or more of the stone Torii shrine gates partially submerged at high tide.
Sumiyoshi Temple, home to the three sea gods who protect travelers, fishermen and sailors at sea, is a popular place for newly acquired ships to be blessed by a priest. This shrine claims to be one of the oldest of the more than 2,000 Sumiyoshi shrines spread across Japan.
Watazumi Temple, also on the north shore of Aso Bay, is said to be the site of the second sea god's dragon palace and the burial place of his daughter, Princess Toyotama, grandmother of Japan's legendary first emperor Jimmu.
From Tsushima, I took the ferry to Iki Island, 50 kilometers to the east. This time the passage of an hour went smoothly and easily.
Although Tsushima and Iki are the two largest islands in the strait between Korea and Kyushu, they are like two different worlds.
Iki is smaller, just 17km north-south and 14km east-west, with rolling hills of rich, volcanic soil. The islanders boast that everything can be grown in Ika. That's probably just as well, since much of its coastline is rocky and it has fewer natural harbors for fishing boats than Tsushima.
Iki is also home to a significant number of Shinto shrines that come with fascinating legends. Sumiyoshi's shrine is located in the center of the island. Legend has it that the sanctuary's gods requested that the coastal sanctuary be moved inland so they wouldn't have to hear the crashing waves.
Iki was a large commercial center
Perhaps because it was always more rural, even in ancient times Iki was an important trading center. The archaeological remains of Haranotsuji continue to be excavated, but it was already clear that this Yayoi period (300 BC - 250 AD) settlement on the Hatahoko River half a kilometer from its mouth was an important market and transit point for envoys who traveled between the Asian continent and the Japanese archipelago.
Numerous buildings from the period have been reconstructed in the site's park, augmented by detailed displays and explanations at the nearby Ikikoku Historical Museum.
The museum also has a replica of a wooden boat believed to have been used by these ancient voyagers.
I cannot but think that such a vessel would have foundered in the seas I encountered on my first passage.
Perhaps the ancients were wise enough not to go out to sea on such windy days.
There is also evidence at Ika of thirteenth-century Mongol attempts to invade Japan.
Inland Iki is home to a surprising number of sixth-century kofun burial mounds. Before the introduction of Buddhist burial rites, it was common for community leaders to be buried in huge dolmen mounds covered with earth.
An interesting aspect of Iki's kofun is that visitors can enter many of them, as their valuable contents (including the deceased) were either looted or moved to museums long ago. Apparently there is an ongoing debate as to whether this type of burial mound was first used in Japan and then introduced to Korea, or whether it was the other way around.
Another easy one-hour ferry ride finally brought me to Hakata Port in Fukuoka, the largest city on the island of Kyushu. During this crossing I could see various small islands, sometimes just a rocky outcrop topped by a lighthouse.
The Dazaifu area, an easy train ride from downtown Fukuoka, is famous for three things: the archaeological ruins of the Satellite Yard, the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, and the Kyushu National Museum of History. At first glance, the archaeological ruin looks like a grassy park with a wide but short staircase in the center.
A stroll through the park reveals the stone foundations of various buildings. The layout is similar to Korean royal palaces and even the Forbidden City in Beijing.
No doubt the design was a deliberate attempt to show visiting foreign diplomats how the Japanese Imperial Court was equal to its cousins on the Asian continent. The site was used from the late seventh to the late 12th century.
Information aboutFerry Busan - Tsushimait's a bit hard to get to (ferries were suspended due to Covid and only started running again in February. The main ferry company is Korean, Panstar, but their website doesn't reveal much. I think there is some infohereInformation about the Kyushu Yusen ferry company, which provides services between Hakata and the two islands, ishere
Australian-American Vicki L. Beyer has studied and worked in Japan for more than 35 years. He writes regularly about travel in Japan, especially looking for fun and interesting non-random destinations to share with readers.
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