Japan’s border islands of Tsushima and Iki offer simpler, slower pace of life

Japan is known as an island nation, with its four main islands and thousands of small islands fringing its coast. The four main islands are often referred to by the Japanese themselves as “the mainland”, especially when on one of the smaller islands. And it is on these smaller islands where one feels the slower, simpler island life.

The so-called border islands in the Tsushima Strait between Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula, are a great example of this. Tsushima, just 50 kilometers from Korea’s port city Busan, and Iki, another 50 kilometers to the east, have between them a population of just over 50,000, most of whom make their living as fishers or farmers.

The islands are also teeming with history, having been used as stepping stones between the Asian continent and mainland Japan for millennia. This has earned them Japan Heritage designation. Visitors spending a few days on either or both islands can steep themselves in the island history and culture, or just slow down and enjoy the island life.


Tsushima, the larger of the two islands, stretches some 70 kilometers north to south and about 15 kilometers east to west. It is mountainous and heavily forested, but has a number of calm harbors which are home to fishing families, their boats bobbing gently during the day and heading out to sea at night. Squid and amberjack are the main catches.

Photo: Vicki L Beyer

The island is popular with hikers and long-distance bicyclists, but also hosts an annual half-marathon in June. At the wildlife conservation center on the northwestern coast, visitors can see the island’s native but endangered Leopard Cat. Not far away is a viewing platform from which Korea can be seen on a clear day. Miuda Beach on the northeastern coast makes the cut as one of Japan’s top 100 beaches.

Tsushima is nearly bisected by Aso Bay, which opens to the west. The bay has lots of inlets and separate waterways and has been described as a “watery wonderland”. The adventurous may enjoy sea kayaking. For a different perspective, plan visits to some of the island’s oldest shrines, which face the bay, often with their torii shrine gates inundated at high tide. Sumiyoshi Shrine, home to gods who protect travelers, fishermen and sailors, is popular with local fisherfolk and seafarers. According to legend, Watazumi Shrine is the site of the dragon palace that was home to Princess Toyotama, grandmother of Japan’s first emperor, Jimmu.


Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Mountainous as the island is, there is only one waterfall, Narutaki, in the northern part of the island. In dry times it is a thin thread of water dropping some 15 meters over a rocky cliff. Ayumodoshi Nature Park, far to the south, is a riverside park and campground where water tumbles over a weir after rains.

The island is the product of geologic upthrust with granite, quartz porphyry and lots of layered mudstone. In the far south, the latter was used in thick slabs as roofing on warehouses, a number of which still stand today.


Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Historically, visitors between the Asian continent and Japan’s mainland often transited Tsushima. One can still find traces of these ancient travelers. The ancient stone walls of Kaneda Castle, a mountain fortress built in the seventh century to repel invaders from the Asian mainland, overlook Aso Bay. On the hills overlooking Tsushima’s primary port, Izuhara, in the south, stand the stone ruins of Shimizuyama Castle, ordered built by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 1590s as he prepared to invade the Korean peninsula. The town itself, then home to his warriors, still has many laneways lined with stone walls demarking those samurai residences.


Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Wandering through any of the towns or coastal villages of Tsushima visitors are struck by how quiet they are, almost like ghost towns. Many fishing harbor communities have no shops or restaurants, more evidence that island life is different indeed.


Iki island, just an hour by jetfoil from Tsushima, is completely different from its western neighbor. Comprising rolling hills and rich volcanic soil, it is just 17 kilometers north to south and 14 kilometers east to west, but has a population of around 24,000, nearly as many as live on Tsushima.

There is archeological evidence of ancient peoples on both islands, but the most fascinating ruins have been found on Iki. Don’t miss Harunotsuji, site of an ancient trading center on the Hatahoko River half a kilometer from its mouth. While excavations and study are ongoing, the site is now a park with a number of reconstructed Yayoi Period (300BCE-250CE) buildings.


Photo: Vicki L Beyer

At the nearby Ikikoku Museum visitors can learn more about life during this period and how foreign visitors transited the island and traded here. Among the excavated finds on display are jars filled with ancient coins from far away and ancient tools and weapons. The museum is also home to early Buddhist statues bearing distinctively Korean features. (Open Tuesday through Sunday, 8:45-17:30; entry 410 yen)

Before Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the sixth century it was common to bury community leaders in kofun, tumuli made of dolmen covered with earth. Kofun can be found across most of Japan, but the ones on Iki are plentiful and easily accessible, making this a great place to explore them. Visitors can step inside several of Iki’s kofun; some have even been rigged with electric lighting. Like Egypt’s pyramids, most were looted long ago, yet it is fascinating to observe how they were constructed and to wonder at how people of those times could shift such massive stones.


Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Iki has fewer harbors than Tsushima and much of its coast consists of sheer cliffs. It also has a number of fascinating stone formations, most popular of which is probably Monkey Rock, which looks like a Japanese macaque sitting upright. In Makizaki Park a collapsed sea cave has left a stone arch opening to the sea that is known as Oninoashiato (Ogre’s Footprint). On the opposite side of the island, an outcrop of basalt columns known as Sakyobana stands among the waves just offshore.


Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Shrines also abound on Iki. Curiously, Iki’s Sumiyoshi Shrine is located in the center of the island, rather than by the sea. According to legend, the gods of the shrine asked for it to be relocated as they were disturbed by the constant sounds of the waves, the usual location of a Sumiyoshi Shrine. It is one of the places where Kagura, an ancient musical offering to the gods, is still performed from time to time.

Kojima Shrine sits on a tiny sugarloaf island in Uchime Bay, accessible via a sandy causeway at low tide. Sai Shrine, on the opposite side of the island in Gonoura, venerates a giant wooden phallus. It is a popular place for women to pray to conceive or deliver safely.

Iki is also home to a distinctive barley-based shochu, white liquor distilled in a process said to have been introduced from China centuries ago. Iki Shochu has received Geographical Indication (G.I.) designation from the World Trade Organization. Genkai Shuzo distillery is open to visitors and even offers tastings of a number of their excellent products.


Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Getting there and getting around

Both islands have airports and daily flights to/from Nagasaki. Tsushima also has flights to/from Fukuoka. There is domestic ferry service between Iki and Karatsu as well as service between Tsushima and Hakata stopping at Iki. Internationally, there is ferry service between Busan and both of Tsushima’s ports.

Both islands have bus service, but it is slow and infrequent. Travelers with limited time may prefer to rent a car from one of several rental car outlets. At Iki’s Gonoura visitors can rent electric-assist bicycles from the portside tourist information center by the day or half-day. Hourly tuk-tuk rental is also available from the friendly folks at Crossport, near Gonoura harbor.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at

© Japan Today

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *