When ‘nothing’ is exactly what you want to doBetween the Land of the Rising Sun and the Land of Morning Calm, Tsushima sits calmly in the sea. For centuries it has been a meeting point for Korea and Japan. Korean rice culture entered Japan from here. When both countries sealed themselves off from the outside world, roughly from 1600 to 1850, their envoys met here to trade. Even today, though the island is Japanese, many signs are in Korean as well.
But there’s nothing much here, other than mountains and sea.
“There’s nothing there,” laughed an airport police officer when we told him we were going to the Beautiful Lady Tomb. “Nothing at all.”
Actually, that’s what we ended up liking about Tsushima. The island’s tourist industry is almost totally undeveloped. You’ll have to look pretty hard for night life, amusement parks, even movies. There’s nothing here ― except beauty and quiet.
But the airport officer was wrong about Beautiful Lady Tomb. There is an inn and a legend.
A lovely peasant lass caught the eye of a nobleman. She declined his attentions, refusing to leave her aged mother, who toiled in the fields. He moved to seize her by force, but she cut out her own tongue so that she would never be able to speak to her possessor. A stone pillar marks her supposed grave, and the mountain inn overlooking scattered green islands in a clear blue sea perpetuates her name.
Tsushima is actually two islands measuring 682 square kilometers (262 square miles) with a surrounding cluster of islets. It is roughly equidistant from Korea’s southern port of Busan and Japan’s Fukuoka. Seen from the air, Tsushima’s low but continuously rippling mountains look like plush green ski moguls. We came by boat, approaching an emerald, wooded coastline of coves.
We hopped in our rental car and started to look about. There may be “nothing” in Tsushima, but there’s also nothing to block the view. No billboards. No love hotels. No golf resorts. No tourist buses with loudspeakers blaring information and instructions to straggling camera snappers. Hardly any commercial signs at all.
The island would be silent if not for the murmur of tree branches in the soft summer wind, the soothing wash of the ocean against rocky banks and the island’s indigenous animals, that made themselves seen along our way, including deer and mountain cats (slightly bigger in the hind legs than domestic house cats).
The roads are marvelous. For the past decade or so, Tokyo has been trying to spend its way out of an economic slump by paving every cart track and spanning every stream in rural Japan. Tsushima’s winding mountain single-lane roads are beautifully graded and smooth as dance floors. Every few hundred yards, switchbacks reveal sensational views of forested mountains and islets lapped by sparkling sea.
We made our way to the top of Mt. Eboshi, one of the island’s highest points, and enjoyed the 360-degree panorama of seashore and scores of forested islets that seemed to hover like lush green clouds in their own aquatic sky.
One has to look for the hiking trails, but they are there. Beaches are, too, though they have not revealed themselves to the island tourist bureau. In response to our question, a tourist consultant spent several moments in deep thought before finally saying, “There aren’t really any swimming beaches.”
But there were. We found a number of beautiful, quiet rock enclaves suitable for an exhilarating dip.
Although tourist facilities are rare, there are nevertheless a number of attractive places to stay. Smaller, family-owned minshuku or larger ryokan, Japanese-style hotels, can put you up with comfort and charm, with dinner and breakfast usually included in the price of a night’s stay.
Dinner at our Beautiful Lady Tomb minshuku was a feast of fresh seafood featuring the island specialty, aji, or horse mackerel. It came several ways ― as sashimi, grilled, coated in tempura batter. Rokube, noodles created from the starch of mountain sweet potatoes made for another original dish of the island, served in a clear soup.
Our tatami-floored bedroom overlooked quiet, green mountains with the calm blue of the sea visible in the distance. To remind guests that they have indeed escaped the ceaseless susurration of the teeming city, the inn’s cooped roosters start crowing at daybreak. It’s delightful ― for the five minutes it takes to realize that it’s your sleep that Chanticleer is disturbing.
We enjoyed chatting with the friendly inn staff, who were proud to tell about local history and other points of interest. A large family, seated next to us at dinner, lives on the north island of Tsushima but journeys to the south to Beautiful Lady Tomb minshuku every year for a family reunion.
Most minshuku on the northern area of Tsushima are older, but they too are clean and friendly, offering warm, traditional Japanese hospitality. We spent our last evening on the north island at an onsen, a hot spring, and enjoyed some freshly brewed island beer.
A great deal of what is today thought of as Japanese culture originally came from Korea, and Tsushima was the bridge.
The island exported gold, zinc and lead to Korea and imported food, vegetables and rice. The first rice in Japan is said to have come from Korea and been grown on Tsushima. But because 89 percent of the island is mountainous, there are few rice paddies today.
Korea’s “Hermit Kingdom” years were roughly concurrent with Japan’s similar period of withdrawal into intentional international isolation. Tsushima became a convenient, low-key meeting place for traders and diplomats from the two countries.
A scroll, in Tsushima’s history museum, shows a procession of about 500 Korean diplomats and their retinues of guards, musicians, servants, cooks, horses and wagons. These missions would remain on the island for five to eight months at a time.
The meeting place has been restored on the south island at Iterian. A temple with beautiful gardens and a youth hostel are on the site now.
Another sight worth seeing is the tombs of the 20th and 21st lords of Tsushima in an impressive park-like surrounding.
Our final Tsushima adventure was leaving the island. We chose to take the hydrofoil to Busan. Departures are once daily from Hitakatsu in the north of the island or Izuhara in the south. The two-hour trip costs 7,000 yen ($60). But we had to wait 18 frustrating hours ― from 3 o’clock in the afternoon until 8:30 the next morning ― to get off the island. Our further itinerary in Korea was destroyed. Choppy water, they said.
Well, we learned something. If the hydrofoil people say the sea is unsuitable for travel, they are right. A hydrofoil is built to rise up in the water and skim the wave tops. Supposedly, it is a smoother, more comfortable ride. But only when the waves cooperate.
Seven minutes into the voyage, we wished they had delayed the trip a while longer. The scheduled two-hour crossing became five hours of violent lurches and crashes from wave to wave. Safely docked at last in Busan harbor, neither the crew nor the passengers thanked each other as they spilled gratefully onto land.
A more comfortable way to travel from Korea to Tsushima is to fly to Fukuoka, Japan, and back to Tsushima, a 25-minute hop; flights are hourly. A 4 1/2-hour ferry is also available from Fukuoka.
Our turbulent boat escapade failed to dampen our enthusiasm for one of the most serene and beautiful places one can visit in East Asia. But a lot depends on whether you want to be on Tsushima or have to be.
“All we have are mountains and the sea,” a waitress in her early 20s told us at dinner one evening. This young native of the island longed to get away. For us, Tsushima was a get-away, and a welcome one.
by David Piper
For information about accommodations and attractions, contact the Tsushima tourist office by telephone (81) 9205-2-1566, fax (81) 9205-2-1585 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. A Tsushima “passport” offers discounts on places to stay, car rentals and restaurants.