Tomogashima: A Trip Worth Taking

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May 17, 2017

If Capcom ever needed some inspiration for their next series of survival horror video games, the ammunition bunkers around Okinoshima would be a perfect setting for the final level. Okinoshima is one of the many islands off the coast of Wakayama Prefecture. Technically speaking, Tomogashima is a chain of islands, but Okinoshima is the main one and the only spot anyone really visits.

It’s the middle of a sunny autumn day as I walk down the stairs toward the subterranean rooms that used to house men and munitions during the war. What little light that can get through the reinforced walls soon disappears. It’s replaced instead by total blackness — the type that the feeble glow of my smartphone’s flashlight app barely penetrates.

Instead of going back, I switch on the flash from my camera. The walls are so thick that the only sound I hear is the whirring of my speedlight as it prepares to flash. It sparks periodically, giving me just enough light to illuminate long-since abandoned bunkers where armaments used to be stored — now full of nothing but ghosts.

It gives me just enough light to illuminate long-since abandoned bunkers where armaments used to be stored — now full of nothing but ghosts.

If these underground chambers were the setting for the dark and scary final level, then the route to the islands would serve as a good beginner’s tutorial level. The path from the train station to the ferry port takes you through pre-war backstreets that seem designed to confuse and entertain in equal amounts. However, much like in your favorite video game, losing your way a little offers its own rewards as the area is filled with unexplored places that most visitors only find by chance.

Before heading to the island, it’s worth walking past the port to visit Awashima Jinja, a Shinto shrine. If the name sounds familiar to you, it’s because it was recently embroiled in a dispute after the temple’s staff lent out its collection of traditional Shinto dolls to Universal Studios Japan. The theme park decided to turn the sacred objects into a creepy Halloween attraction, angering the religious authorities. Whether you consider these dolls to be creepy or sacred will determine your response to the sudden appearance of hundreds of their glassy eyes staring out at you upon entering the hallowed grounds.

After experiencing the dolls, the next challenge is simply the boat ride over to the island. This is a ferry that has seen plenty of challenges from the sea and comes out a bruised survivor each time. Every part of it shows the wear and tear of its numerous crossings, even resting my camera against the wall for only a moment caused the paint to peel off onto its protective cover.

This is a vessel that has clearly seen some tough times and any people wanting to visit the island should be aware that this boat tosses its passengers from side to side every time the waves attack it. At one point, it even lifted me into the air! Your inventory should definitely include motion sickness pills if this sounds terrifying to you.

Upon arrival at the well-worn port, the sight of the island’s main fort greets you, thrusting up from the horizon. While it’s the most famous image from the area, this isn’t the only thing that gives the island character: everything here is satisfactorily rusty or crumbling. Perfect for photographing.

Most of the buildings are so old and untended that they are in the process of being reclaimed by either the land or the sea. It’s easy to see that Mother Nature has decided that the contents of the island are part of its dominion. Everywhere you look, there are signs warning about different kinds of risks — from landslides and crumbling roofs to the vicious wasps that are the new rulers of the island.

The only thing that seems to be winning its fight against the elements is an old tower — the sort that would be an obvious save point in a video game. It sits proudly on the shore, a lone survivor of the relentless challenges it has seen. This spire was mostly used as a lighthouse, but these days it serves as a testament to how times have changed in Japan. Instead of uniformed soldiers and warnings hanging about, the tower now has tourists and strings of flags. These include those of wartime enemies France, the U.K. and China. A defiant statement of how society has changed.

It’s easy to see that Mother Nature has decided that the contents of the island are part of its dominion.

Even a few generations ago, such flags would have been impossible to hang. Designed by the Japanese military, the island was used as part of what was known as Shusei Kokubo, a military strategy favoring the construction of coastal defenses to deter foreign warships. The idea was that if no one could access Japan by sea, the island nation couldn’t be invaded.

However, events occurring within Japan changed and Japan instead embraced a policy “rikushu kaiju” (“military first, navy second”) leading to the area’s current state. This change of emphasis is never more apparent than when I finally visit the bunkers at the top of the hills. With the torn open peepholes and collapsed walls, the insides look like the sort of place that has been constantly under siege, even though this damage is a result of bureaucratic neglect as much as it is natural erosion.

Appropriately, the final challenge that the island gives its visitors is a riddle. After seeing all the wartime remains that the island has to offer, near the ports on the way back is an old man waiting. He will ask you a simple question: “Which ferry do you want to ride?” If you name a particular boat, he will then give you a number. People with a numbered card are prioritized for boarding onto that particular ferry; while people who don’t hold a number simply have to wait for the next available one that isn’t already reserved.

The return trip couldn’t be more different than the tight spaces and dank rooms of the island. The sun setting on the island’s buildings colors them in a look as if they still might come to an accord with the natural forces they constantly challenge. Even the sea seems to have calmed, exhausted from a day of bullying visitors. Perhaps it’s the way it should be — after all every scary game needs a happy ending.

Details

Tomogashima is accessed by a ferry from the port near the obscure Kada station. When returning from the island, it’s worth waiting a little longer for the special tai (a type of local fish) train covered with all sorts of colorful fish designs and hearts — a strange sight after such a bleak trip — that leaves Kada station periodically. These trains with their gaudy colors, dolls stuck into the wall and heart-shaped handles are a good final addition to the trip. Basically, the easiest access is from Namba, Osaka (about 90 minutes) or the center of Wakayama City (about 30 minutes).

Stay

Kada station is the best place to access the ferry port.

On the island, there are a number of options if you’d like to stay overnight:

  • Sea House has the feel of a house from the American south with its wooden exterior and animals that range freely on its grounds.
  • For those more into nature and who want to stay in the great outdoors, there is also Tomogashima campground (友ヶ島キャンプ場).
  • Near the ports, the Tomogashima guest house (友ヶ荘) has seen better days, but remains one of the more convenient choices.
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