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Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011

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Spanning the ages: The elegantly modern Ikuchi Bridge (above), linking Ikuchijima (foreground) and Innoshima islands, straddles a narrow stretch of the Seto Inland Sea where once only those who paid their dues to the Murakami pirates could safely pass. Today, most of the fighting in this tranquil idyll is between anglers and fish. alon adika

Setting a course for pirate isles in the Seto Inland Sea


By ALON ADIKA
Special to The Japan Times

A Portuguese Jesuit named Padre Louis Frois, who was one of the first Europeans to write extensively about Japan, described Murakami Takeyoshi as the most powerful pirate in Japan and a man feared by all.

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The Murakami clan dominated the Inland Sea for more than 200 years from late in the 14th century. Alongside their legitimate fishing and salt-making activities, these consummate seafarers also excelled at piracy and became very powerful due to their control of key sea routes. Some of their recorded activities included: escorting vessels to ensure (at a price) their safe passage, operating toll barriers, hijacking ships and fighting naval battles with rivals.

As a young boy, I had been fascinated by pirates after going on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. So, after first hearing about the Murakami pirates during a lengthy sojourn in Japan several years ago, I was eager to learn as much as I could about them. Also, the sheer beauty and charm of the Inland Sea was alone enough for me to return there on any pretext. During this past, sweltering summer I got that chance — and planned a trip to navigate the old stomping ground of the pirates of the Inland Sea.

The heartland of Murakami territory lay roughly at the midpoint of the Inland Sea between Onomichi in present-day Hiroshima Prefecture and Imabari in Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku's northwest. A chain of islands stretches between the two cities, and those were the Murakamis' bases.

The route that now traverses between the Hiroshima and Ehime mainlands is known as the Shimanami Kaido. Fortunately, though, this series of island highways linked by elegant bridges that's primarily designed for motor vehicles is also bicycle-friendly, since most of those bridges have a lane for cyclists and pedestrians. As well, there are several rent-a-cycle shops en route that allow you to return your bicycle to any of the others merely by forfeiting your deposit.

It was on a sweltering morning in mid-July that I arrived at Onomichi, on the Sanyo Main Line from Fukuyama Shinkansen Station. I had just enough time to hurry down to the pier, buy a ticket, and board the ferry to Innoshima Island. The breeze felt good as the ferry made its way through the sparkling sea — and I almost expected to see a pirate ship appear flying the Murakami flag.

I was the only one to disembark at the nearly deserted East Shigei Port. I soon realized that the bicycle rental shop was at West Shigei Port, and as the distance between them didn't look much on the map, I set off walking. Presently, I saw an elderly couple sitting in a car, whom I greeted and asked for directions. They consulted each other and then said that it was too far to walk and they would give me a lift. Warmly gushing my thanks, I hopped aboard.

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Lord of the waves: A statue in Miyakubo on Oshima Island (above) of the pirate leader and naval commander Murakami Takeyoshi (1533-1604); and a manhole cover on Innoshima Island showing one of his ships with the Murakami clan's crest on its sail.
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My first destination was the Innoshima Naval Castle. Perched up on a hill overlooking the island, the "castle" is in reality a modern structure that was built as a small museum to display some artifacts connected with the Innoshima Murakami pirates — items such as armor, weapons and old manuals on naval strategy. While there, I asked a staff member some questions about the Murakami pirates — and soon learned that about 10 percent of the current population of the island is descended from the Murakami clan.

Leaving the Naval Castle, I made a brief stop at Konrenji, the Innoshima Murakami family temple. Located right below the museum in a quiet valley surrounded by green, tree-covered hills, the temple dates from the middle of the 15th century. Behind it there is a Murakami family cemetery.

It was time to cross over to the next island, Ikuchijima. A spectacular view of the Inland Sea awaited me from atop the Ikuchi Bridge, which, like the others that connect the islands, is built high above the water to allow large ships to pass beneath them. Up there, too, the wind that brushed against my face as I cycled across was a blessing in the heat.

At the end of the bridge, there was a small tollbooth. The toll for crossing the bridge was ¥50, but I only had ¥40 in change. Then, as I stood at that unmanned toll point wrestling a little with my conscience, along came another cyclist, a local, who told me not to worry about it. Reassured, I dropped the coins into the box and moved on, glad that the Murakami pirates were no longer around to extract that other ¥10 from me in some blood-curdling way.

Ikuchijima has several attractions, including the remarkable Kosanji Temple that was founded in 1936 by a wealthy businessman in memory of his mother. On the temple's extensive precincts there are some stunning, and massive, examples of modern sculpture, as well as replicas of a number of well-known and important Buddhist structures from around Japan, including a gate from the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture.

By then, it was getting late and I was a little tired. However, I wanted to explore Ikuchijima more in my quest to learn more about the Murakami pirates, so I resolved to stop off there again on my return ride from Shikoku to Honshu.

Before that, I pedaled ever onward to the next island, Omishima, which is home to Oyamazumi Shrine. The shrine's museum has one of the largest and most important collections of arms and armor in Japan. Over the centuries, military commanders donated items as offerings to the shrine after victory in battle.

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Back in the day: Konrenji (above), the temple of the Innoshima branch of the Murakami clan, with their graveyard around, dates from the 15th century. The timeless beauty of Shigei fishing port on Innoshima Island surely remains much as the pirates once saw it.
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Among the treasures to be found there is a suit of armor that tradition attributes to no less than Minamoto Yoshitsune, the renowned samurai whose victories on the battlefield brought about the downfall of the Taira clan in the Genpei War and paved the way for his brother, Yoritomo, to establish the Kamakura Shogunate in 1192 — the first of the military governments that would rule Japan until the Restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1868. The shrine also served as the family shrine to some branches of the Murakami clan.

When I reached Hakata Island, I was ready for a break. Hakata is famous for salt. This was obvious as soon as I stepped into a roadside gift shop, where I was confronted with salt cookies, salt caramels, salt chocolate, salt ramen . . . and more. I wanted a snack, so it was a cone of soft-serve salt ice cream for me — which turned out to be surprisingly good as the salt in it was almost like a trace element.

As I cycled along the coast of the next island, Oshima, I glanced out toward the sea in search of Noshima, the islet upon which the clan's Noshima Murakami branch had their headquarters.

The fortress-like isle is certainly small — but its location at a choke point for shipping is nothing if not strategic. From a defensive viewpoint, too, it benefits from tidal currents swirling round it that can reach a tidy 9 knots (nearly 17 kph). A tour boat from Miyakubo on Oshima Island takes visitors out toward Noshima so they can experience the speed and power of these tidal flows.

In Miyakubo itself, the main street hugs the coast and is dotted with small shops. A lone Shinto shrine stands by the sea as if gazing out at it. The pier is full of fishing boats, a testament to one of the main industries here.

After passing the pier, I arrived at the Murakami Navy Museum. The relatively large establishment tells a tantalizing story of the Noshima pirates through its many exhibits. Visitors can also try on armor or experience rowing a pirate skiff in the Pirate Experience room.

Later, as I explored the town, I noticed a small tobacco shop with the name Murakami on its sign. This reminded me of what I'd earlier been told — that the Murakami family name is still prominent in these parts.

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Furthermore, while many things may have changed over the centuries since the Murakami clan called these waters their own, some things have not. The people of these islands, many of them working in industries such as fishing, shipping, salt-making and shipbuilding, still make their living from the sea much as their ancestors did.

With that thought in mind, I rode off to find a bed for the night before returning to Honshu via the stopover I'd promised myself at Ikuchijima, in my marvelous voyage of discovery where once the Murakami pirates ruled.

Onomichi is a 20-min. train ride from Fukuyama Shinkansen Station. The following websites have details in English about the Shimanami Kaido: www.goshimanami.jp/global/english. www.city.onomichi.hiroshima.jp/english/ kanko/shimanami/shimanami.html.


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