By Hideo Hoashi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterTSUSHIMA, Nagasaki — Under a blue sky, the dark-green islands seemed to be floating in the bay, which is surrounded by the shorelines of ria coasts. The scenery of Aso Bay, seen from the Mt. Eboshi Viewpoint in the central part of the Tsushima main island, is proof of the beauty that nature can create.
The Tsushima island group comprises the main island and 107 small islands, with forests accounting for 89 percent of their total area. The group is known as a “treasure box of animals and plants,” particularly the Tsushima leopard cat, a protected species.
To learn about the natural environment there, I visited the Environment Ministry’s Tsushima Wildlife Conservation Center in the northern part of the main island.
In Japan, Tsushima leopard cats live only in the Tsushima island group. Their ancestors traveled from the Asian continent, which was connected by land with today’s Tsushima until about 100,000 years ago. The species’ population was estimated at about 300 in the 1970s, but is now estimated to have fallen to about 100, partly due to traffic accidents.
I saw a stuffed Tsushima leopard cat at the center, adorable with its short, stocky body shape.
In addition to Tsushima leopard cats and other animals that originated on the continent, the islands are also home to species indigenous to the Japanese archipelago, such as Tsushima martens. However, there are no tanuki raccoon dogs or rabbits.
Vegetation includes plants native to the Japanese archipelago, such as Castanopsis sieboldii, a type of beech, and those with continental origins, such as Chinese fringe tree, belonging to the Oleaceae family.
Animals and plants with domestic and continental origins have mingled and formed an ecosystem particular to Tsushima. When senior park ranger Ichihito Yamamoto, 36, said, “Tsushima’s natural environment is Japan’s treasure,” I couldn’t help but nod.
On my way back to the central part of the main island in a rented car, an animal passed in front of my eyes. It had a thick, long tail and, most notably, white spots on the back of its ears. I’m sure it was a Tsushima leopard cat.
I only saw it for about two seconds, but I got an up-close look at this endangered animal, so wild in its nature. Alone in the car, I felt extremely fortunate.
Tsushima’s charms also include its historic features, such as the ruins of Kaneda Castle. The castle was built by the Yamato Imperial Court after the Battle of Baekgang in 663, in which Japanese forces supporting the Baekje kingdom were totally defeated by allied forces of the Tang dynasty and the Silla kingdom.
You can also visit the ruins of Shimizuyama Castle, which was built as a transit point on the orders of Toyotomi Hideyoshi for military deployment to the Korean Peninsula between 1592 and 1598.
Those ruins illustrate the historic relationship between Tsushima, which is 49.5 kilometers from South Korea’s Busan, and the continent.
I also visited Watazumi Shrine, which is located in the northwest of Aso Bay. Two of its five torii gates stand over the sea at high tide. The architectural design is based on the presumption that worshipers come directly from the sea.
As water soaking the bottom of the torii gates rocked about, I passed through the premises and quietly joined my hands in prayer at the shrine’s hall of worship. Wind blowing in nearby forests emphasized the silence on the grounds of the shrine, which enshrines deities of the sea.
In times long past, ships heading for the Korean Peninsula from Kyushu passed through the Genkai Sea, which often becomes rough, and reached Aso Bay, where waves are calm. Sailors appear to have been reassured and offered prayers for the safety of their upcoming voyages at the shrine.
“Seafaring people who traded with the continent and the main part of the Kyushu region established their base of operations in Tsushima,” said my guide Mamoru Nishi, 46, head of the secretariat of the Tsushima Tourism Association.
In the early modern period, the So family were the feudal lords of the Tsushima clan and guided Joseon missions to Japan from the Korean Peninsula. Last year, a wooden ship used by the missions was reproduced in South Korea.
This group of islands near Japan’s national borders, full of unique natural elements and the remains of historic events, will likely continue to attract visitors.
An indigenous variety of horse called taishuba are bred in Tsushima. The horses are small, with withers measuring up to 135 centimeters, but their hooves are sturdy and their natures docile.
In the early years of the Meiji era (1868-1912), more than 4,000 taishuba horses were kept mainly as farm horses. Today there are only about 40.
About 20 taishuba horses are kept at Meboro Dam Baji Koen park, and visitors can pay to ride them. The park is also home to the first taishuba colt of the Reiwa era, which was born June 14.
Nagasaki Prefecture is rich in seafood. Conger eels, called anago in Japanese, are especially famous as Tsushima’s local specialty.
Anago caught 150 meters to 200 meters deep in the sea west of the main island are thick and fatty because they eat high-quality shrimp and sardines. Visitors can enjoy eating anago almost all year round.
The nianago teishoku set meal served at the Anago-tei restaurant (Tel: 0920-58-2000) in the city’s Toyotamamachi-Nii district includes a dish of simmered anago meat. A tare sauce made with condensed soy sauce covers the anago, stimulating the appetite. The price is ¥2,000.
“Because we have high-quality anago, it’s also delicious grilled, without tare sauce,” said Takahiro Shimai, 66, an executive of the restaurant.
Tsushima has many other local specialties. They include ishiyaki, in which seafood and vegetables are grilled over heated stones, and iriyaki, a hot pot of locally produced chicken and fish.
Access: About a 35-minute flight from Fukuoka Airport or Nagasaki Airport to Tsushima Airport. A high-speed boat travels from Hakata Port to Izuhara Port in southern Tsushima in about two hours and 15 minutes, or to Hitakatsu Port in northern Tsushima in about two hours and 10 minutes. Speech