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Saturday, Oct. 23, 2010
Megijima, where the wild, cute things are
By AMY CHAVEZ
Megijima (Woman Tree Island) is a small island in the Seto Inland Sea where 200 very quiet people live. It is said that long ago Megijima harbored demons. No wonder there are only 200 people left. The island was made famous by the legend of Momotaro, the Peach Boy.
Here is the story: Long, long ago, in Okayama Prefecture, a boy was born from a peach. His parents named him Momotaro (Peach Boy). The Peach Boy is, in short, a "fruman," the result of breeding humans with fruit. We don't recommend you try this at home. Frumen, however, are known to have special powers.
One day, in a heavy state of fermentation, the Peach Boy decided to do something really crazy — fight demons! And he wanted to fight real Japanese demons, called oni, the kind that would eat you for morning tea. And where did he find them? Demon Island, of course! Called Onigashima in neighboring Kagawa Prefecture, has since been renamed Megijima (Woman Tree Island — hmm, think there's a connection?).
You can actually visit the oni's previous residence, which is an old mining shaft up at the top of a mountain. Legend has it that the Peach Boy traveled to this island with his friends the monkey, pheasant and dog, who together slew the demon.
The Peach Boy's mother, who was probably related to the mother of Hansel and Gretel, didn't try to discourage him from going away from home and possibly getting munched up by demons. Instead, she made him some kibidango to eat along his journey. Kibidango is a sweet, sticky mochi-inspired treat often enjoyed with green tea. They come as four small balls on a stick.
You're probably wondering why a mother would send her child off to fight an oni with this stuff. Kibidango just doesn't strike one as an energy-producing, demon-slaying snack. Perhaps the idea was to leave them sitting out for a couple days to harden, and then pelt the demons with them, like stones.
No, you would think the mother would have sent the Peach Boy off to fight an oni with onigiri. At least it sounds like a demon-slaying snack. Onigiri are rice balls. Geometrically speaking they're not "balls" at all but triangles. The person who originally translated the word into English, probably one of my students, was not someone versed in the English language.
Aerodynamically speaking, a triangle is a much safer shape, and mothers know this. Rice triangles won't roll away if their child drops one, even if he is standing on a hill. Considering the mountain the Peach Boy and his mates had to climb just to get to the demon's cave on Megijima, onigiri would have been a better all-round snack.
No matter, though. Our fruman was able to slay the demon anyway and because of this, kibidango is now the meibutsu (famous local souvenir) to bring back from Megijima and Okayama Prefecture.
This being such an old folktale, when I visited Megijima, I was surprised to find that the demons are still living in the cave! But now they are in the form of sculptures that look like cartoon characters. And, not only that, these demons are cute! And their demon friends are cute! I'm quite sure this is a tactic — they offer you a cute demon cuddle, and then eat you for morning tea. With kibidango!
Should you wish to tour the demons' cave, there is an entry fee: adults ¥500, "old man" ¥450 (cheaper perhaps because they are tougher to chew) and children ¥250 (just cheap snacks!).
Across from the entrance to the demons' cave is a souvenir shop that the lady proprietor has been running for over 50 years. She'll sell you kibidango and any other of the gazillions of Peach Boy paraphernalia, some of which looks like it has been sitting there as long as she has. I bought some kibidango anyway, because she was such a nice lady and also because even if they had passed their expiration date by a few years, I could still use them as pebbles in my rock garden. And fight off demons with them in my free time.
Megijima also has a nice beach, popular in the summertime with those living in Takamatsu on the mainland. Minshuku are strewn up and down the beach, each featuring a shack-like restaurant in front. This is old-style Japan, with old-style people running them.
When you tire of getting burned up at the beach, I recommend a restaurant called Irara set inside a traditional old Japanese house up the hill from the beach. It has a rather large art exhibition inside it. If you're like me and like to dine with your art, this is a great place and the food is fantastic. Or if you prefer, you can just share a piece of cake and coffee with the art.
When you leave Megijima, you'll leave on a boat via the port, which has a large concrete oni sitting at the exit to see you off. He has been known to wave and say, "Thanks for the children, they were delicious!"