Lighthouse serves as beacon of reconstruction

Ryuzo Suzuki/The Yomiuri Shimbun

The gourd-shaped Horaijima island is located off the coast of Otsuchi, the large hill of which, on the left side of the photo, is connected to land via an about 340-meter-long levee. This aerial photo was taken from a drone.

By Fumihiko Abe / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterOTSUCHI, Iwate — “There may be sad things, but they will never get us down. We don’t want to cry. Let’s laugh; let’s keep going.”

These are lyrics from the theme song for the NHK puppet drama “Hyokkori Hyoutanjima,” which was broadcast for five years from 1964, entertaining adults as well as children. I was born in 1962, and the theme song remains in my heart.

The setting for this slapstick show is the fictional island of Hyoutanjima, which drifts in the ocean. In the 1970s, after the show ended, people in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, along the Sanriku coast reportedly began a rumor that the town’s Horaijima island was the model for Hyoutanjima. Hyoutanjima means “gourd island.”

What kind of island is Horaijima? I was driven there by storytelling guide Ikuya Akazaki, 76, who belongs to the Oraga Otsuchi Yume Hiroba, a group that informs people about the damage caused by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the subsequent reconstruction.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Visitors to the central community center in Otsuchi town are welcomed by the puppets of Hyoutanjima island, which were donated by an incorporated non-profit organization of Osaka Prefecture.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

In the town of Otsuchi, where nearly half the downtown area was flooded by the huge tsunami, construction work is still underway, with dump trucks coming and going. We passed through the former water gate and came to the coastline. In Otsuchi Bay, which is surrounded by mountains, there was a small island.

Passing a sign saying: “Danger. Do not play on the levee,” we drove along the six-meter-wide levee.

“The huge tsunami completely destroyed the levee, and the current one was constructed three years ago,” Akazaki said. “The island was also submerged and damaged. A lighthouse was also damaged.”

As we came close to the island, which has a circumference of about 200 meters, I could see two connected large and small hills that reminded me of a gourd. A red lighthouse stood on the small hill and a shrine on the large hill, along with oak and pine trees. Before traveling to the island, I rewatched the “Hyokkori Hyoutanjima” puppet show through the NHK archives. In that story, a lighthouse also stood on a small hill.

There are other islands said to have served as the model for Hyoutanjima island across the country, such as Hachijojima island in Tokyo, and Hyoutanjima island in the Seto Inland Sea. Gourd-shaped islands are not unusual, but it is said Horaijima is the only one that has a lighthouse standing on its small hill.

“This is the only place that looks exactly like Hyoutanjima island,” said Daisaku Okamoto, 69, who manages Akahama Yahata shrine on the island.

After the disaster, the island became a symbol of reconstruction and overcoming adversity. The Benzaiten statue at the shrine was repaired by local residents with the support of people across the nation, which drew nationwide attention.

I left the island and climbed Shiroyama mountain, where I could enjoy a panoramic view of the town. There were few houses in the downtown area. When the tsunami hit the town, residents of the town escaping to the mountain reportedly cried, “Horaijima island has disappeared!”

At the entrance of the town’s central community center, halfway up the mountain, I was welcomed by puppets of residents on the fictional Hyoutanjima island. In the first installment of the puppet show, Hyoutanjima island began drifting due to the eruption of a volcano. We call it drifting, because it does not have a destination, but the island’s main purpose is to make a journey.

I enjoyed the landscapes of the Tohoku region, covered in autumn leaves, through the window of the JR Kamaishi Line train on the way to Horaijima island. However, on the JR Yamada Line, a section between Kamaishi and Miyako stations via Otsuchi Station has been impassable since the disaster, meaning the trains have been discontinued. The Yamada Line will resume operations in the spring of 2019 after being taken over by the Sanriku Tetsudo railway company, which became popular thanks to the NHK morning serial drama “Ama-chan.” A new Otsuchi Station building with a gourd-shaped roof will also open at that time.

I wonder how Hyoutanjima island will produce new travels.

Just as many models as islands

Was Horaijima island really the model for Hyoutanjima island? There is an anecdote permeating the town that Hisashi Inoue, who wrote the scripts for the puppet show, temporarily lived in Kamaishi, which is adjacent to the town of Otsuchi, and people believe he might have visited areas around Horaijima island.

Inoue reportedly said, “The model for the island is wherever the fans believe the model is.” There are probably just as many models as there are islands.


It takes 2 hours and 50 minutes on the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Shinhanamaki Station. From Shinhanamaki Station it takes 2 hours and 10 minutes on the JR Kamaishi Line to Kamaishi Station. It takes 25 minutes to Otsuchi town by route bus operated by Iwatekenkotsu Co.

Information: Otsuchicho Kanko Bussan Kyokai (Otsuchi town tourism and local products association) at (0193) 42-8725, and Oraga Otsuchi Yume Hiroba at (080) 8209-2330 (from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

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