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Saturday, July 31, 2010

JAPAN LITE

Ogijima, man-tree island of art


One of the greatest opportunities to visit the Seto Inland Sea is from now through Oct. 31. During this time, the Setouchi International Art Festival beckons you to discover up to six islands in Kagawa Prefecture and one in Okayama Prefecture.

This art festival has a little something for everyone — art lovers and art haters alike (hey, I don't like to discriminate). I recently visited Ogijima, one of the islands imbued with art to host the festival. It's impressive just how much art can help to save an island and its culture. Ogijima (man-tree island) is the 40th island I've visited in the Inland Sea, and I'd have to rank it as one of the best for first-time visitors to the Seto Naikai.

Unlike Shodoshima, where with a population of over 30,000 people you can forget you're even on an island, Ogijima is typical of the smaller islands in the Seto Naikai with populations of "200 or so." It is just 4.7 km in circumference with a mountain in the middle. The picturesque cluster of houses creeps up the side of the mountain like a high tide.

It's the type of place that, if it was in Kyushu, would slide into the sea during the next big rain. But this island belongs to Shikoku, itself one of Japan's four main islands. So how can an island be a part of another island? The Seto Naikai islands have all been double-islanded, which in the case of Ogijima is a treat, more like a double chocolate fudge sundae.

After a ferry ride to the island and alighting from your vessel, you are immediately greeted by art: a large structure with letters of various alphabets all over the roof. It's good to start off with art that can easily be pointed at along with an exclamation of joy such as "Wow, look at that!" Called the "Ogijima Exchange Center" (what they are exchanging, I'm not sure), it is a magnificent glass building surrounded by water. Designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, the title of the work is "Ogijima's Soul," which I hope is not an indication that it is going to rise up to Heaven as soon as the art festival is over.

This building is where you purchase or show your entry ticket to the festival. Soon after you are off on a scavenger hunt through the island's little alleys with stone walls and curvy paths looking at art that has been subtly weaved into its intimate surroundings. As we visited Ogijima a week before the start of the festival, the artists were rushing from place to place adding dabs of this or that to their canvases, which, as in the case of artist Rikuji Makabe, could be the side of a house or even a corner of a building. The mostly conceptual art is displayed with titles in English while the artist names are in both English and Japanese.

The roads can be very steep. Navigating them reminded me of climbing a tree as the little roads branch off in their own directions, and art such as Akinori Matsumoto's "Sound Scenes of Ogijima" is often precariously mounted. You may get pleasantly lost in the foliage. Bring good shoes. Of course, there were the Japanese women doing it in heels. I reckon a shoe rental at the bottom of the hill would do a brisk business.

You can grab a Japanese set lunch for ¥800 at a restaurant and minshuku called Madoka, where you can sit on the porch and take in the view of the sea. If you really want some culture, however, I recommend Murakami Shoten, which, despite the fancy name, is just a prefab building with a tent in front of it and a hand-made noren curtain at the entrance. It's at the bottom of the hill next to the torii gate and my soon-to-be shoe rental kiosk.

Mrs. Murakami has been running her pseudo restaurant out of this storage shed for 13 years now. She cooks up homemade okonomiyaki, yakisoba and noodles for ¥500, right there in her one-table restaurant. The table (which is plastic) has five chairs (also plastic), one of which is reserved for her. She told me her husband is an 83-year-old fisherman who still works every day. She herself is 78 but looks like she's going on 21. With our meal, she brought out some cucumber she had grown in her garden and some tomatoes (she didn't say where the tomatoes came from, so I didn't ask for fear of the tomatoes losing face). In the end, Murakami-san refused to charge us for the salad items.

This is one of those charming Japanese experiences that shouldn't be passed up by foreigners seeking the more laid-back, island-style side of Japan. You can also get inside information from such locals, such as the summer festival she told us about which takes place from Aug. 7-9.

Also for art unenthusiasts, there is a beach, which by some miraculous Japanese soroban-tested logic, is only open one month in the summer. I suppose the idea is that you enjoy things more the less you have of them. In the Seto Naikai, Ogijima is just one of the seven islands in the Setouchi International Art Festival known for its artist-tree.



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