March 22, 2019

Charming Himeshima

Found of the coast of Oita's Kunisaki Peninsula, Himeshima is a small island that is actually home to a treasure trove of hidden allures.

An overhead aerial shot of Oita Prefecture's island of Himeshima

In my journeys across Japan, I have come across two distinct types of places. On the one hand, there are hidden gems like Kanazawa or Atami that are very popular with Japanese tourists but have yet to establish much notoriety overseas. On the other hand, you have many places that are simply off the radar all together, even for many Japanese. Today, we’ll be taking a look at just such a location. Known as Himeshima (lit. “Princess Island”), this tiny isle off the coast of Oita Prefecture’s Kunisaki Peninsula is about as far off the beaten path as one can get. Still, what this seven kilometer long island lacks in urban development and infrastructure, it makes up in authenticity. If you’re looking to experience what a real Japanese fishing village feels like, I cannot more highly recommend that you spend a night on Himeshima.

Now, just like the transformer Optimus Prime, Himeshima is a lot more than meets the eye. Despite the island’s meager stature, it is very important historically. In fact, the very first accounts of Himeshima can be found in the Kojiki, Japan’s first written record of ancient myth and history. Originally published as far back as the eighth century, this text recounts how the primordial Japanese gods Izanagi-no-Mikoto and Izanami-no-Mikoto came together to create the islands of Japan. According to the Kojiki, the isle of Himeshima was the twelfth such landmass created by these two deities. Frankly speaking, when visiting in person, it’s hard to imagine that this minuscule island of only about 2,600 people appears in what is essentially Japan’s creation myth.

In addition to its links to Japan’s earliest tales, Himeshima also has other historical significance too. The island was famous throughout the early annals of Japan’s development for the high quality of its obsidian. Unlike the normal varieties of the stone which are black, Himeshima’s obsidian has a signature milky grey hue. Over the years, archeologists have found tools made from this stone as far south as the island of Tanegashima in Kagoshima Prefecture and as far east as Osaka. That’s a HUGE stretch of land and its goes to show how highly prized wares made of Himeshima’s obsidian were during Japan’s prehistory. Remember, this island is only a mere seven kilometers long. For it to even register on the map is a feat unto itself, let alone be the place of origin for so many primitive tools.

By the way, if you’re curious about the name Himeshima (again, lit. “Princess Island”), know that this moniker has ties to one of the isle’s most famous legends. Allegedly, long ago, a distraught princess from the Korean mainland fled her home to avoid an unwanted marriage. Eventually, she washed up on the shores of Himeshima and the local fishermen and shrimp farmers have passed down this folklore from generation to generation. Even today on the island, you’ll still find landmarks that pay homage to this quirky tale. In fact, a few of these are even included in the so-called Seven Wonders of Himeshima but more on that in a second.

Getting to Remote Himeshima

A roundtrip ticket to Oita Prefecture’s Himeshima from Imi Port in Kunisaki City

I’m not going to lie. Reaching Himeshima is no simple task, even for someone like myself. For starters, you’re going to need to get yourself all the way down to Oita Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. As I’ve recounted in all of my other articles on this southern prefecture, your best bet here is to simply book a flight. While the journey to Oita can be made with a headache-inducing hodgepodge of train connections, you’ll easily end up wasting the better part of a day in the process. Here, you’re just going to want to bite the bullet and fly. After all, if you are actually considering a place as remote as Himeshima, chances are high that you aren’t exactly strapped for cash. Do yourself a favor and just book a flight.

Once you’re actually in Oita Prefecture, the real fun begins. From the airport, you’ll need to make your way to Imi Port in Kunisaki City. All in all, this leg of the journey should take you no more than 45 minutes. Now, normally I suggest that people rent a car if possible when exploring Oita. If you’re just planning to go to Himeshima though, this presents an additional challenge in that you need to find something to do with the vehicle during your stay on the island. While you can actually bring it onto the ferry that runs out to Himeshima, it’s certainly going to cost you a pretty penny. If you’d rather not deal with all the hassle of figuring out the logistics of a rental car, do what I did and just opt to move around by taxi.

Note that since Himeshima is but a mere few kilometers long, the island itself is best explored by bicycle. These can be rented on the isle for a nominal fee from a handful of spots. Alternatively, you can also rent an eco-friendly electronic car for a reasonable price. These are perfect for navigating Himeshima’s many narrow streets. Especially in the colder months of the year, this is my recommended option for transportation assuming that you can drive. After all, few things suck more than having to bike all the way back to your accommodation in the frigid winter.

Behold Himeshima’s Seven Wonders

Himeshima’s Sennindo Buddhist hall set against the backdrop of the setting sun

So, what’s one to actually do once they arrive on Himeshima? Well, here I suggest that you start by checking out the so-called Seven Wonders of Himeshima. Scattered about the island, tracking each of these down is the perfect way to explore most of the island. The following is a list of these attractions as well as a short description of each.

  • Sennindo
    Overlooking an obsidian-studded volcanic rock formation on the island’s northwest side, this small hall is quite the sight to behold. As can be seen in the picture above, it’s especially magical at sunset. According to a local folktale, 1,000 people hid in here to avoid paying taxes to a local lord.
  • Hyoshimizu
    Said to be originally founded by the Korean princess herself, this “hot spring” flows out of the ground at only approximately 23°C. Rich in iron and naturally carbonated, these waters are actually consumed as-is by many Himeshima locals. Moreover, Hyoshimizu’s waters are also used next door in the island’s only public bathing facility.
  • Ukisu
    Though situated on a piece of land that juts quite far out into the ocean, the locals claim that even in the worst of storms, this torii gate has never been claimed by the waves.
  • The Inverted Willow
    This tree is said to have sprouted from the runaway Korean princess’s toothpick after she inserted it in the ground upside down.
  • The Ohaguro Stone
    Also tied to the legend of the Korean princess, this strange stone bears stains from an antiquated cosmetic practice whereby women in Japan would blacken their teeth.
  • Ukita
    This small rice field sits atop a place where the local villagers accidentally buried a large snake. It is said that the spirit of the reptile is still seething and you can feel his vengeful anger when stepping foot here.
  • Amida Oysters
    Below Himeshima’s iconic lighthouse is a cave where there are many oysters. Supposedly, they are said to look like the Buddha and eating one will give you a particularly bad case of “disaster pants.” Note that this cannot be seen from the island itself, only from the sea.

Savor Himeshima’s Local Delights

Himeshima’s speciality of kuruma ebi at a ryokan on the island in Oita Prefecture

One of the best allures of Himeshima is the island’s fabled Kuruma Ebi. These giant, delicious prawns are prized all across Japan and are the island’s most well known meibutsu or local specialty. Though they can be had elsewhere, Kuruma Ebi are at their freshest on Himeshima but they certainly aren’t cheap at over 1,000 yen a piece. Of course, seeing as they are the areas most famous dish, the shrimp are served at any of the islands restaurants. While available all year long, the best season to have Kuruma Ebi is the fall, at least according to what I’ve read online. In fact, Himeshima even has a local festival in October to pay homage to the yummy little buggers.

Putting their scrumptious taste aside for a second though, the locally preferred way of eating Kuruma Ebi is bound to piss some advocates of animal rights off. Here, on Himeshima, the villagers prefer to consume their prawns as raw as it gets in a style known as odori (lit. “dancing”). Though there are other methods of enjoying Kuruma Ebi, those brave souls who opt to dine like the local fishermen are in for a surprise. After ordering some Kuruma Ebi, you’ll be served a heaping plate of these yummy shrimp. While they will look perfectly dead, this is anything but the case! In fact, according to custom, you’re supposed to behead the delectable creatures, deshell them and then dunk their still writhing flesh into soy sauce before consuming whole.

Is the above method a little too savage for your civilized tastes? Fret not! You’re not alone here. Rather than do it yourself, you can also just ask the staff to take the prawns back to the kitchen for a backstage decapitation. Just be mindful that the critters’ death throes can continue far past the stage of losing their heads. In fact, when I visited with Bunny Tokyo in February, the leftover tails of both of our Kuruma Ebi started moving AFTER we had consumed the body. As you might imagine, terrified screaming ensued…

Himeshime’s Foxy Obon Dance

Kids dress up as foxes for Himeshima’s annual Kitsune Odori festival during autumn

One of Himeshima’s most famous seasonal attractions is its annual Kitsune Odori (lit. “Fox Dance”). This unique take on the traditional Obon Festival was selected by the Japanese government as an Intangible Folk Cultural Property in 2012. Every year during August, over sixty unique dances are performed on the island of which the Kitsune Odori is the most famous. As can be seen in the shot above, during this celebration, the local children take on the appearance of Japanese foxes. While holding large paper umbrellas, the costume clad kids move about to the beat of a taiko drum. Allegedly, a new dance is created by the islanders every year and those who will participate practice rigorously in the lead up to the festival.

Those familiar with any of the standard Obon festivals all across Japan may be curious why Himeshima’s take is so distinctly different. Here, you need to know that the fault lies solely with the island’s remote location. You see, Himeshima’s primary place of Shinto worship is a shrine known as Otarashi Hachiman Shrine that venerates the deity Hachiman. Because of this, it is technically a branch shrine of the powerful and influential Usa Jingu back on the Kunisaki Peninsula. Since Himeshima was so far removed from the happenings of the mainland and of Usa Jingu though, it’s cultural evolution took a very different course. Over the years, this atypical trajectory gave birth to the Kitsune Odori that we have today.

Attractions Near Himeshima

A pair of Nio guardians watch over the entrance to Futago-ji on Oita Prefecture’s Kunisaki Peninsula

As long time readers already know, I’m a huge fan of Oita and have been doing a lot of pro bono consulting to help the prefecture from behind the scenes. Rather than belabor why I think you should dedicate a significant portion of your time in Japan to Oita, I’ll instead just direct you to my previous articles on the prefecture…

Before closing though, note that I’m of the mind that the Kunisaki Peninsula perfectly suits what foreign tourists have in mind when seeking something “spiritual.” I cannot more highly recommend that you commit to exploring this unique and off the beaten path region of Japan!