Bunnies, Bikes and Bodhisattvas on Japan’s Inland Islands

Onomichi is so much fun. In addition to having its own set of charms, it is a staging point for nearby places with other charms. One of them is the Shimanami Kaido cycling course. Visitors, including serious cyclists, come from all over the world to ride the 50-mile course from Onomichi across six incredible inland islands. Most do it in a day and so did we. Except, er, we did 15 miles on one island. But they were great ones!

The inland island of Ikuchjima

We started by taking a ferry from Onomichi to Setoda on the island of Ikuchjima. There, we were greeted by a group of laughing older women who spoke no English but were so enthusiastic about our visit, I thought they must be mistaking me for Susan Sarandon or maybe I did something really good for them in a past life. They fed us island oranges and then more oranges, and then gave us hand-sewn orange pins with smiley faces. We left them, somewhat reluctantly, to rent bikes at a small shop behind the ferry building, then pedaled along the island’s spectacular coastline for a couple of hours. The weather was perfect and the sea air was exhilarating. I was smiling the whole time.

This is the first ferry we took but should not have taken. It was my fault but we got a round trip for free because Japan has a no-fault-wrong-ferry-ride policy.

We returned to the village of Sedota in time for a high calorie, high carb lunch of okonomiyaki and takoyaki. The cafe owners treated us a lot like the ladies with the oranges, and a man at the table next to us gave us little bowls of rice noodles off his plate. It didn’t matter that we didn’t understand each other’s language, because everyone understood something else that was more important even if it was only for a few minutes.

After lunch, we ambled along the main street until we found Kosanji Temple, which is one wacky place. First of all, it is unlike any Japanese temple I have ever seen. Most are made of aging, natural wood, suggesting the Zen Buddhist reverence for nature and understatement. In contrast, the colors at Kosanji temple are bright reds and greens and yellows.

Also somewhat oddly, the temple’s most prominent celebrity is not Buddha, but Kuse Kannon, a hermaphrodite Bodhisattva who set out to unite humanity from heaven. At the temple, he/she is represented in a striking 50-foot statue standing on a lotus blossom. I thought only Buddha posed on lotus blossoms. I am confused but we move on to the temple’s underground cave where hundreds of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are carved into the cave walls. Bats hang from the ceiling and a creek gurgles under our feet.  It’s very cool but who did this and why?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But you know, caves and hermaphrodites and red paint, foof, that’s nothing. Behind the temple is The Hill of Hope, an art project made of 3,000 tons of marble that was imported from Italy by Hiroshima artist, Kuetani Ittou.  As we climbed around slabs of marble hoping to infer their meaning, I tried to imagine the artist’s initial conversation with the head honcho monks about his idea for this project and the monks’ response. Nope, couldn’t imagine it. (Thank you, Karen Hester, for telling me about the bike ride and the temple!)

Photos could not capture the ethereal nature of this installation, which covers the entire top of a large hill.

The next day our adventure was more in the realm of The Adorable. We rode a train to a ferry that took us to the tiny island of Okonushima. But everybody calls it Usagi-Jima or”Rabbit Island” because it is inhabited by a large and constantly-procreating community of bunnies.

As our ferry pulled into the dock on Rabbit Island, we observed a Pavolvian response that was nothing short of hilarious. Dozens of fawn-colored rabbits sprung from lounging positions and bolted toward the boat, knowing it carried their favorite foods, attached to vertical bodies.  These rabbits are so accustomed to being hand-fed, you can drop a carrot on the ground in front of them and they will climb into your lap to ask for another.

The history of the rabbits’ residency on the island is unclear. Some say a group of school children dropped off 8 of them in 1971. Others believe they are the progeny of subjects of torturous experiments by the Japanese Imperial Army in the 1930s when the island was  used to manufacture poison gas. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/japan-rabbit-island-dark-history-180962631/

This grim chapter of Japan’s history is acknowledged on Rabbit Island in a museum that tells the story and advocates for peace. During our visit, we saw hundreds of school children who were not there for the rabbits but to learn something about their country’s history.

After a couple of hours, we ran out of carrots and the rabbits returned to their lounging positions. Temporarily. The ferry was approaching the dock with lots more carrots.

 

 

 

10 comments

  1. What a fun journey, Kim! Love your blogs from this part of Japan. I can just see you riding your bike with a huge smile on your face. Cycling is the best way to travel!

    1. I thought of you all day Wendy. In Onomichi, there is a beautifully converted warehouse on the water called U2 that is all things biking, including a gorgeous hotel. This would really suit you!

  2. I love traveling with you vicariously, Kim! And I’m happy to know there are so many kind-hearted and fun-loving folks everywhere!

  3. What a great series of experiences Kim!

    I saw a documentary about “Rabbit Island” a couple of years ago and was captivated by both the bunnies and the visitors who provided many moments of droll humor and decent humanity.

    It seems to me that the “Hill of Hope” perfectly defies definition and stands on its own allowing different people to have different experiences.

    This is my favorite post ever!

  4. Kim I am so happy you took my advice to experience Sedota and the Hill of Hope and bicycling which was one of my highlights of my entire trip to Japan. Did not make it to rabbit island so maybe next time. Finishing up a week here with Annunciation House in El Paso and headed to NYC where I can enjoy the refuge of the road.

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