As I boarded the Honjima (本島)-bound ferry at Marugame, a port situated in Kagawa Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku, I did not fully know what to expect from this small island. Other islands in the Seto Inland Sea, which host the Setouchi Triennale, a festival of contemporary art that takes place every three years, have become famous throughout the world for their iconic images. For example, Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin became the official symbol of Naoshima island. But Honjima remains a mystery, and even my Japanese friends had no idea what I would find there. For me, it was such a pleasure to begin my voyage of discovery, free from any expectations.
Honjima is such an interesting island, and it’s surprising that it remains so unknown, to the point of calling it a true “hidden gem.” My cycle route would take me to a historic district, passing through winding streets lined with contemporary art inspired by the local history. The journey would give me an impressive view of the Great Seto Bridge, which straddles the inland sea and links Okayama and Kagawa’s prefectures.
The Former Glory of the Shiwaku Islands Witnessed from the Kasajima Historic District
After disembarking from the ferry, I rented a bicycle to take me to the historic district of Kasajima (笠島集落), just over 2 kilometres from the port, along a pleasant road with few cars. After about 10 minutes, the area appeared slowly below me, slotted between the hills and protected by the port’s sea wall.
Honjima is the most populated of the Shiwaku islands (塩飽諸島), an archipelago of 28 islands dotted between the prefectures of Kagawa and Okayama. Today, it’s a peaceful island of about 280 inhabitants and, even though, during the Edo Period (1603-1868), it had a population of around 2000, the calm streets are still alive with local life.
During the Sengoku era, a time of war from the mid-15th century to the end of the 16th century, the island was a base for the Shiwaku Suigun — a naval force made up of pirates or “samurai of the seas.” From the end of the 16th century, the Shiwaku Suigun governed the Shiwaku islands, and Honjima became its administrative capital. At the start of the Edo period, the island developed as an important platform for maritime trade before the times changed again at the beginning of the 18th century when many inhabitants took up work constructing boats or putting their joinery skills to build structures across the island. The joinery trade is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the exceptional condition of the historic district of Kasajima, and the excellent preservation of its buildings has been recognised since 1985.
The historic district features many buildings that date back to the Edo period and, along with the paved, winding streets, are typical features of a fortified town. Three of these buildings allow visitors to enter and explore.
Mr Ishii welcomed me to the first of these buildings, the Kasashima Machinami Centre for Preservation (笠島まち並み保存センター), in the former residence of an influential family, who were probably prominent figures in the Shiwaku Suigun navy. It was clear to see Mr Ishii’s passion as he revealed its construction details and allowed me to discover every part of the site, from the garden to the barn. Several objects showed the ingenuity of the time, harking back to a more prosperous period for the island. A “soroban”, a type of abacus which allowed heavy doors to slide with ease was on display, as well as an “anka” (行火、あんか), a boat-safe brass instrument that provides a heating source on boats. If you speak Japanese, you will be able to enjoy all the impressive anecdotes about Honjima and the Shiwaku islands as well as tales of the great historical events and the daily life of its inhabitants over the years.
The other two buildings allow visitors to enter freely. In the community centre (Fureai no yakata ふれあいの館), there is a model of the village accompanied with explanations about the various local construction techniques, and you can also view old documents and books in the Archive Centre (笠島まち並み保存センター文書館).
Panoramic View of the Great Seto Bridge from Tomiyama Hill
After having explored the streets of Kasajima, I headed to the Onoue-Jinja Shrine (尾上神社) from where a path leads to the 101-metres high summit of Tomiyama hill (遠見山). The climb takes about 10 minutes and features an impressive view of the entire Great Seto Bridge (Seto O-hashi, 瀬戸大橋), 13.1 kilometres long and linking the islands of Honshu and Shikoku. You can rest and enjoy the view of the six different parts of the bridge and the area’s natural beauty, with clear views of the Seto Inland Sea’s islands in the distance.
Rather than go back along the same path towards the historic district, it is possible to continue to another slope, passing an observation area along the way.
An Island Where Art is Rooted in History
As is the case in many of the other islands involved in the Setouchi Triennale, the contemporary art installations found in Honjima are works in situ, conceived with a sharp awareness of local history and culture. They seem very much at home in the landscape.
Facing the sea, many of the structures are reminiscent of boats, which echoes back to the island’s naval heritage and former shipyards. A building rises from the ground, and a tall chimney pays tribute to the carpenters of Shiwaku (Zenkonyu x Tamping Earth by Tadashi Saito × Shiwaku Carpenters). You can find plastered reliefs called “kote-e” (こて絵) across the island (A Project of Signboards of Shikkui and Kote by Kazuko Murao) displaying motifs of local life. Among them is a plastered image of Daikokuten (大黒天), one of the seven divinities of happiness, featured on an old building on the main street in Kasajima towards the Tomiyama hill. This last piece was the one that drew my attention the most, mainly due to its simple colours and the fact that it made you pay attention to the detail of the buildings to spot the smallest pieces.
Some works of art are installed in public spaces and accessible all year, whereas others are only available at certain times. I, therefore, advise you to check the calendar on the Setouchi Triennale website before you visit. For contemporary art lovers, the festival is the ideal time to visit Honjima and the other “islands of art” in Setouchi. The next festival is planned for 2022 and will be held across the three seasons of spring, summer and autumn.
Tour Honjima by Bicycle
My visit to Honjima lasted 3 hours. That may seem like enough time to visit an island of 6.74 square kilometres. Still, effectively I only had time to visit Kasajima historic district and discover the principal works of art. As I boarded the boat to leave, I was confident that I would return one day to explore the island in more detail.
If you have more time to visit this island, you can travel around the entire island by bicycle. It takes 2 hours to travel the 13.3 kilometres of road and return to your starting point, but only if you limit the number of stops. In reality, you can spend a whole day exploring the island, stopping off at historical buildings, temples and shrines dotted around the island and admiring the works of art (mainly concentrated around the port and Kasajima historic district) and the landscape. If the weather permits, why not go for a dip or sunbathe on one of the island’s two beaches where swimming is allowed.
Bicycles are available from Marugame Port and can be taken on the boat. To tour the island, it is advisable to choose an electric bicycle (1500 JPY) as the other rental bicycles (500 JPY) are usually “mamachari” city bicycles that can be heavy when you’re cycling uphill.
How To Get To Honjima
Honjima can be reached by boat from Marugame port. Allow 20 or 30 minutes to get to the island, depending on whether you choose the express boat or regular ferry.
The port is situated less than 10 minutes walk from Marugame station (丸亀駅), which is 45 minutes from Okayama and 25 minutes from Takamatsu on the Japan Railway Line (JR).
Okayama is situated on the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen, making Marugame easy to get to from major cities. The journey from Kyoto or Osaka is approximately 2 hours, and 1 hour and 30 minutes from Hiroshima.
Honjima’s glorious past gives the island a rich history and culture, but, like other islands in the Seto Inland Sea, it has suffered from a decline in economic activity and population. The Setouchi Triennale art festival is helping to revive the island, and many of the pieces are available to visit throughout the year. Honjima is the perfect place to explore by bicycle; you can discover its history and art installations or spend the day taking in the landscape and its beaches.
Text and photographs: Clémentine Cintré
Translation from French: Mark Webster