By Masanobu Tokieda / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterHotojima island is about 14 kilometers from Tsukumi Port in Oita Prefecture. On the ferry, a hillside packed with three- and four-story concrete homes comes into view as the island gets closer.
This unique scenery — dubbed the “Naples of Japan” after the Mediterranean fishing port — was included on a list of 100 fishing villages the Fisheries Agency wants to preserve as historical and cultural assets.
Hotojima island is only 0.86 square kilometers and it is only four kilometers to go all the way around, but as a base for deep-sea tuna fishing, it was the home port to as many as 167 tuna vessels in 1980. At its peak, the catch brought in more than ¥14 billion a year.
Disembarking from the ferry, the eye is drawn to stately buildings that bring to mind the island’s heyday. Some homes are nicknamed “tuna mansions.” Yet in a place with few flat spaces to build, the plots are all quite small.
Between the buildings wind roads that are only about a meter wide, giving the place a labyrinthine feel. Many of the roads going inland from the sea are stairways that take one’s breath away — from exertion.
Naoki Watanabe from the Tsukumi municipal government’s commerce and tourism department was our guide. “People who aren’t from here get lost quite a bit. If you do, just head toward the sea and you’ll figure it out,” he said with a laugh.
At the end of a convoluted path is prefectural road No. 612. Despite the official-sounding name, it’s only 256 meters long and 1.2 to 1.8 meters wide. Although the lid of a gutter that runs down the middle of the road is marked 612, it feels like little more than an alley.
The road is too small for cars, so residents use two-wheeled carts and “tebo,” or baskets that are carried on the back to transport goods.
Designation as a prefectural road was granted in 1973. The current prefectural official in charge of such matters could not say why it was given this status. This funny path might be the narrowest prefectural road in Japan.
At the end of our exploration of these narrow ways, we reached a municipal road running along the side of 179-meter-high Mt. Tomi.
This road is 3.5 to five meters wide and we occasionally were passed by minicars and motorbikes. After the narrow paths, it was a relief to be more out in the open.
Along the way, we encountered a group of elderly people sitting on the side of the road chatting. One of them, Naoto Nishida, told us about a tragedy that occurred on the island long ago.
At about 10 a.m. on July 25, 1945, close to the end of World War II, U.S. fighter planes bombed Hotojima Kokumin Gakko, a school on the southern part of the island that is now Hotojima Elementary School.
Two teachers, 124 children and one infant were killed. Why the elementary school was targeted is still unknown.
Nishida, who at the time was a second-year student in the advanced course (equivalent to the second year of junior high school now), was saved because he happened to be going home from school when the bombs hit.
“During the war we had no food. This whole area was a potato field. War’s no good, no matter the reason,” he said.
There is now a new schoolhouse on the site and a memorial stone next to the gymnasium recounts the tragic event.
On this day, the soft spring sunshine filled the island with peace. For a minute, looking down on the harbor from the mountaintop, it felt like time had stopped. I could understand why tourists came to this island looking to be soothed.
The attractions on Irukajima on the Youra Peninsula in Tsukumi include dolphin shows, and opportunities to take photos with and feed dolphins.
The facility’s 15 dolphins are kept in a 12,500-square-meter ocean enclosure that is more than four meters deep.
One of the animals, Tsubasa, was born in May last year. This summer the birth of a second dolphin from artificial insemination is expected.
Tsukumi Station is about 3½ hours from JR Hakata Station, which includes a transfer to a limited express. Bullet trains run between Hakata and Kokura stations. Tsukumi Port is a five-minute walk from Tsukumi Station. The ferry to Hotojima island takes 25 minutes.
Inquires: Tsukumi tourism council (0972) 82-9521
Yamamaru marine transport, Tsukumi office (0972) 82-2507
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