I’m fond of telling my friends that Okinoshima exports a lot of nice views. We have little nightlife, no otaku hub to speak of, no trains, but we put together a mean photo album. We are home to an international geopark, after all.
I think people value Okinoshima less for what they can buy and take away, and more for what they come to see. Chichi-sugi, the ancient mother cedar; Rosokujima, the candle rock; Kuniga, the coastal cliffside grazing grounds for Okinoshima’s native horses – all these places draw tourists every year from around the world.
Yet the islands remain for the most part a little-known corner of Japan. We’re far off the beaten tourist path, and it’s easy to see why with a name that translates to “The Hidden Isles.” Getting here is an adventure all in itself, requiring a bus ride to the Sakaiminato or Shichirui Ferry Terminal in Shimane Prefecture.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Hundreds of years ago people went out of their way to make pilgrimages to Okinoshima, and for at least two weeks every year Okinoshima had the nation’s attention during hanami. Before almanacs to help predict the weather and crop harvests, people looked to the blossoming springtime sakura, and Okinoshima’s ran like clockwork.
The signs of nature are not something most people pay attention to these days. We have science and precise instruments, and many people don’t think about where their food comes from. It’s no longer a concern, but life in old Japan revolved around rice. They used it as a standard of payment in the same way westerners used precious metals. Knowing what sort of rice harvest to expect was important, and on the island of Dogo in Okinoshima there was, and still is, an ancient sakura tree known as Yononakazakura.
The name loosely translates to, “The Sakura World Tree.” Yononakazakura is estimated to be around six hundred years old and still blossoming. In eras gone by Yononakazakura was how Okinoshima residents knew what sort of harvest to expect. A full blossom meant a good harvest, and a weak blossom meant a poor harvest. Yononakazakura was so consistent that news of it spread and eventually reached the capital in Edo. The government began to circulate an annual Yononakazakura report, and pilgrims traveled to the island to sit beneath the blossoming tree. It’s one of Okinoshima’s claims to fame from days gone by, along with a slew of banished princes.
Although it’s no longer used to predict rice harvests, each spring people on the island still make the trek to see Yononakazakura during hanami. I have gone these last two years, and the trip has a fairytale quality.
The initial drive through rice fields and valleys is beautiful -- I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of Japanese pastoral views -- and as we approach the small town of Nakamura things begin to go unnaturally still. No one is around, and as we park on the side of the road it’s easy to imagine we are alone on the island. We follow a narrow path through the tall grass, beaten down by many feet before our own. The path snakes up through the woods, following a makeshift staircase of wooden beams staked to the ground, and eventually levels out at the old Kenpuku-ji Temple site. The temple was relocated years ago, and over time nature has begun to reclaim the Buddhist stone reliefs.
From Kenpuku-ji the path takes a sharp incline through a bamboo grove. Thankfully there is a guide rope, otherwise I would have wound up on my backside several times during the climb. The path ends at the base of the gnarled tree, enormous for a sakura, and among the roots there is a wooden plaque, alongside a bench and a notebook for visitors.
On calm, clear days the tree is alive with the buzzing of bumblebees. The place is removed, even on Okinoshima, an island already tucked away from the rest of Japan. To be sure, it’s no Mt. Fuji, no cultural juggernaut, but Yononakazakura is real. It’s something from Japan’s past that has lingered into the present. Sitting beneath its wide pink canopy feels as significant as seeing that first glint of the Golden Pavilion at Kinkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto.
In some ways it’s strange to think that news of a single tree on a hidden island was carried throughout all of Japan, regarded as noteworthy. In other ways, it makes perfect sense.
Okinoshima has enough natural wonder to draw tourists at any time of the year, but if you find yourself here during hanami, don’t pass up Yononakazakura. It’s understated, but worth it. At the very least, it’s brought me back two years running.
Okinoshima, Nakamura Town on the map.
To reach there take a ferry from Sakaiminato Ferry Terminal.
Or, you can try the Shichirui Ferry Terminal