Hachijo: Super Maniac Place

Hachijo: Super Maniac Place

Imagine that somewhere off the coast of South Carolina there was a tiny, isolated island and it was actually a borough of New York City. Crazy right? Well, here in Tokyo this actually exists. Hachijo is the southern-most island in the Izu Peninsula; it is officially part of Tokyo, but juts magnificently out of the Philippine Sea about 750 km away from the mainland. It takes less than an hour to fly there, or about 11 hours to take a ferry. In the 1960s, as Japan pulled itself out of the ashes of WW2,  the island became known as the “Hawaii of Japan” and everyday Japanese citizens flocked there on vacation.  Giant, luxury hotels were erected throughout the island including what was then the largest hotel in all of Japan – The Hachijo Royal Hotel. Things were great for a while, the coral souvenirs flew off the shelves, the wedding bands were in full swing, the local sport of “cow fighting” thrived and the banquet spaces were packed to the brim. Then, the 1980s arrived. The Japanese economy skyrocketed and for the first time regular folks had the time and money to travel internationally. They headed to Europe, to New York and they decided that the “Japanese Hawaii” was really not as good as getting on a plane and going to Hawaii for real.  Very quickly, Hachijo went into a steep decline. It was as if an iron gate closed around the island and the rusty lock of history snapped shut.  The grand hotels were abandoned to the elements, ferns growing out of the lobby floors, moss collecting on out-of-date computers.  The youth, faced with no jobs, headed for the mainland. The cow fighting arena collapsed into a skeleton of concrete and cracked plaster. Hachijo’s second-hand ticked once, and stopped altogether, frozen in time.

I arrived at Hachijo on a surprisingly packed flight (one of three that leave Hanada airport daily) knowing nothing about the island and having zero idea of what to expect. I was travelling with one of my oldest friends who had come to Tokyo to visit me and my family; in turn he had been invited to Hachijo by Hoppy Kamiyami, an avant-garde musician and resident of the island.  I decided to tag along.  Hachijo is dominated by two volcanic peaks (one active – dubbed “Little Fuji” and one not) that seemingly soar from the coastline directly up to the 2800 ft. summit. The “city” itself sits in the valley between the two.  Across the bay, another volcanic peak shoots out of the ocean (dubbed “Little Hachijo”) and looks like the direct replica of any desert island that I have ever imagined or seen in a movie — a bit startling to have fantasy come to life.  January is definitely the off-season for a place whose “on-season” has been whittled away — Our fellow passengers were clearly Tokyo construction and road crews there for public works; others were greeted by elderly grandfathers and relatives with warm calls of “welcome home”.

The population of Hachijo has declined to about 8000 and is steadily dropping.  The town streets are very quiet, a few elderly residents slowly padding down the sidewalks.  We made a stop at a lavish, concrete structure — small sign on the door reading “Music School.”  Inside, we met one of Hoppy’s friends.  Born in Tokyo, he had lived in London during the 70s playing percussion with the iconic glam-rock band T Rex.  He moved to the island around 25 years ago, drawn by the abundance (and uniqueness) of the island’s traditional Taiko drummers.  He teaches kids modern drumming, percussion, guitar and his wife has about 60 students studying piano – which seemed to me all out of proportion to the island’s tiny population.  The same building houses a gigantic performance space, decked out with a Magical Mystery Tour type grand staircase, a decorative pool and a cafe/bar.  It once was the largest souvenir shop on the island and the top floor housed a luxurious banquet space. Abandoned, the current owner bought it for pennies on the dollar.  We sat back, drank wonderful coffee and watched some videos of the cafe owner singing traditional Hachijo songs alongside the former T Rex member on feedback heavy guitar and a carpenter playing Taiko drums.  The island operated as a penal colony from about 794AD until about 1881 and this isolation created a unique style of music, song and language — in fact many older residents still speak an ancient form of Japanese which is now considered one of the top endangered languages in the entire world.  I noticed flyers for DJ events and asked how the club was doing.  The cafe owner laughed, “We don’t have a lot of entertainment here.  So, everyone comes out when we are open.  300, 400 people.  So many musicians on this island.”

We headed up the mountain: winding roads, hill-sides reinforced with flowering aloe vera plants, lush vegetation, tiny farms carved out of the jungle.  While semi-tropical, January is chilly, in the low 40s and the winds were blowing strong at a cattle farm on the barren slope close to the summit of “Little Fuji”. Hundreds of Asian Jungle Crows looped in the wind currents, flocking to excess grain.  Down the road, a workshop clattered away with hand looms weaving kihachijou — the traditional, vegetable-dyed silk fabric that was used for tax and tribute until 1909.

Our guide, our host,  Hoppy Kamiyama, is a legend of the Japanese Avant-Garde. Classically trained, he has created, produced and released uncompromising, uncommercial and to many, un-listenable music ranging from string quartets to pure noise.  He had visited Hachijo for decades, but concern with radiation fallout from the Fukushima disaster prompted him to pull up stakes on the mainland and move to the island full-time.  His house is about 20 minutes from town, but he says it is much different up in the mountains…”very old-fashion style.”  As the island is volcanic, it is powered entirely through geothermal energy and hot springs are everywhere.  We boiled like octopus, in the saline-rich onsen overlooking the ocean where days before a pod of humpback whales leapt like zaftig ballerinas gorging on squid.

Our first local meal was simple.  The restaurant empty. A young girl minding a baby, elderly husband and wife doing the cooking.  We ate fresh sashimi, a salad of ashitaba (the ubiquitous and delicious local green), a tempura of ashitaba leaves and then…we were hit by the profound smell of shit.  The local specialty Kusaya fish had been served. Kusaya means stinky.  This was no understatement. “So stinky,” said Hoppy.  “But so delicious.” This was not true, at least for me.  The fish is fermented in a secret sauce which seems to involve the cast-off rice mash used in making sake.  I also suspect that pure cow manure is an ingredient as the fish has a grassy, barn-yard, shit taste that brought to mind one of my great food mistakes of all time: the andouillette.  I ordered this in Paris once, thinking that it would be an andouille sausage of which I had enjoyed many times.  Wrong. The andouillette is a sausage of colon-tubes and pig shit and is the worst thing that anyone could ever eat — so much so that it took a major effort to even take one bite, so much so that I didn’t even mind the waiter’s smirk as he removed my barely touched plate. The kusaya fish is only a bit more tolerable.  I managed a few nibbles and commented, “Its bracing!” and  “That is a powerful taste!” and finally, “That is amongst the most awful things I have ever put in my mouth.”   We finished with the local Rock n Roll brand of Shochu and retired to our hotel.

The young concierge/cook/front-desk manager spoke very good English.  He was born on the island and took off for five years as a cargo ship navigator where he travelled the world.  The world, it seems, was pretty cool, the money pretty good, but Hachijo had hooks in his heart and gradually drew him back.  He told me that the island is hard to leave — that even those people who move away, cannot stay away forever.  “They come back all the time!”  There was something about Hachijo that made him feel like he owed it something, that it was important for him to live there.

We spent the day amongst the ruins.  Mysteriously intact, coffee cups left at the checkout desk, the abandoned hotels give themselves back to the jungle.  The interiors are silent — even the birds and animals avoid them. The fixtures are all there, bedrooms still set up, Galaga arcade games lined up waiting for some power, telephones gone green with mossy growth.  It is cinematic beyond belief — whole scripts dance in my heads: lovers on the run, silent hitmen, a wedding feast amongst the fern-infested sofas. Later, we travel back to town and eat a lunch of Red Snapper heads braised in mirin and soy sauce, plucking the best bits out of the cheeks, collar and eye socket.  At the Hachijo Dairy Industry owned Jersey Cafe (as super-fashionable as any mainland Tokyo cafe) we have coffee and rapturous soft-serve ice cream (in both vanilla and ashitaba flavor) made from locally produced Jersey milk.

Once again in the hills we head on foot up a well maintained vertical path alongside a deep ravine punctuated by waterfalls.  The vegetation is Jurassic, giant ferns, endless vines, ruby-red flowers and no people anywhere.  We circle down to the coast where waves break violently against the jet-black outcroppings of volcanic rock.  Swimming pools have been carved into the stone for adults as well as a sky-blue pool for children.  Hundreds of daikon radish are strung up on a retaining wall to breathe in the salt air before being made into pickles.  Above sits a shallow pool, studded with smooth rocks, fed by hot springs.  We massage our feet with the stones and stare for an hour out into the ocean hoping the whales will make a pass.

We are at a small harbor with fishing boats docked for the day. The parking lot surrounding a ramshackle building smells a lot like shit.  We enter the building and my eyes water.  It is the Kusaya factory and it smells like a mass grave unearthed in Cambodia. An ancient woman, leads us in and, despite my mental warnings, uncovers the fermenting troughs so we can get an even deeper, undiluted, more smelly smell of the smelly fish. She doesn’t try to sell us anything, not even one fish, one stinky fish keychain.  We end the day in a local izakaya, drinking frozen beer, more of the Rock n Roll Shochu, eating Ashitaba in many forms and warming ourselves on stewed daikon served with a powerful mustard. We are the only people under 70 in the whole place, we are speaking English and no one even looks up at us. The perfectly happy crew of elder regulars sit at the bar bemused by the televised images of Tokyo proper, encased in snow, and in total chaos.

We stay at Hoppy’s house for the night and are awakened in the morning by the pungent smell of Kuysaya fish wafting in from the kitchen. It is an ominous way to wake because you know that sooner or later the stinky fish is coming for you.  Happily, Hoppy served the fish in a sort of salad with stewed ashitaba which made it less difficult — there was also locally sourced miso soup,  pickles, rice and natively grown green tea.  We headed down to the harbor to take our absolutions in the public onsen, built for fisherman.  For Hachijo, it was crowded.  Four, silent older men lined the bath, the steaming water bubbling from a pipe onto their shoulders.  One dead-eyed, younger man encased in full body Yakuza tattoos clocked us carefully as he used the shower.   A five-minute drive away, 3 young surfers paddled out to a break described as the “Diamondback of Japan.”

“This is super maniac place,” announced Hoppy as he let us off in front of a mouldering concrete arena. It was a half-completed structure, proportioned a bit like a Roman Coliseum, built for the local sport of cow fighting…which I assume is really bull fighting, except for the fact that the bulls fight each other and not some fancy matador. The entrance gate was decorated by coral, shochu jugs and glass globes, but banyon trees were growing out of the mortar and boxes of unpacked coral marked the moment when the money ran out, the work stopped and the elements were welcomed back.  As we headed for lunch, Hoppy’s car died, a snapped engine belt — victim of driving up mountains for two days with two fat Americans in tow.  We pushed the car to a gas station that was fortunately close-by and with no paper-work exchanged, and seemingly no money changing hands, a loaner car suddenly appeared.  Unfazed, we continued on. For lunch, we dined on local sushi called shimazushi which is marinated in soy and uses a local pepper for seasoning rather than the common wasabi. As our departure time loomed, we made a quick stop at the beautifully appointed welcome center at the Botanic gardens.  The same woman who was manning Jersey Cafe, was running a small snack counter and, understanding that no local ATMs accepted international cards,  gave us coffee and a taste of sweet potato ice cream and motioned that we should keep this freebie a secret.  The welcome center was a beautiful building with a high domed ceiling allowing light to pore in illuminating the exhibits of local flora and fauna — the sea turtles that spend the summers, the glowing mushrooms that line the hills, the exceptional coral and sea-life that ring the island, the hammerhead sharks that like to throw a bit a terror around.

Something clicked in my mind, some familiarity that had been nagging at me in this most unusual of islands: this whole place reminded me of my beloved Prince Edward Island on Canada’s east coast.  Hochijo may once been the “Hawaii of Japan” but there seemed to be no left-over cutesiness, no obsequies bowing to tourism — nothing seemed fake or staged and even the traditional craft centers had nothing sentimental about them, no cheap tsotchkes for sale, no women dressed in Olde Tyme outfits.  The local people, while happy no doubt to see tourists, seemed ambivalent about tourism itself. There was a lingering reticence to turn a hard-scrabble culture into something commodifiable.  After all, they had already sold out in the ’60s and the tourists turned their back on the island as soon as a hula dance and lei became affordable.  The ancient songs the cafe owner sang were not for the benefit of anyone beyond his friends that knew the words and that carpenter who put down his saw to play the Taiko drums wasn’t miming some forgotten past — the culture of Hachijo is stubborn, it is alive and like that stinky fish, it really doesn’t seem to care what a tourist might think of it.  Precisely like the Scot-Irish musical culture of Prince Edward Island. But even more similar to PEI was that “welcome home” that I heard at the airport as grandparents welcomed their grandkids: I could be totally wrong, but I think that even as the population decreases, those that have left retain Hachijo in their hearts; they carry a fierce devotion to this tiny place, to its foods, to its eccentricities, to the family spirit that survived there all those hundreds of years.  So, as the 250 room hotels sink back into jungle and as the phrase “Hawaii of Japan” becomes meaningless, the abiding spirit and culture of Hachijo will not budge and will be as indomitable as the windswept peak of Little Fuji.


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