This is a report of my trip to the Setouchi Triennale in July 2019.
Megijima is very easy to reach from Takamatsu port. It takes only 20 minutes by ferry, making the island almost an extension of the city. Megijima is also very popular with the locals for its bow-shaped sandy beach, from where you can see the other islands of the Seto Inland Sea on the horizon. For this very reason, in the summer months, it can get quite busy with the sun-seeking crowds, especially at the weekends.
Megijima is considered to be related to the island of Ogijima because of their close proximity. The name Megijima is spelt 女木島 (female tree island), and Ogijima is written 男木島 (male tree island), alluding to siblings or possibly lovers.
Nonetheless, I found Megijima quite different from its male counterpart. Ogijima has more of a lived-in feel, with families, children, and even a school. On the other hand, Megijima looked almost devoid of locals, like a satellite island that is mostly enjoyed on day-trips from Takamatsu.
I visited in the middle of the summer, and I noticed there were some minshuku (pensions) open for the beach season. Anyway, I derived the overall impression of a place that can get very lonely and quiet in the off-season.
Apparently, Megijima gets some nasty chilly winds in winter; the locals refer to them as otoshi. In the port area, I could see the old stone walls built to protect the village from the windchill and sea calamities. These historical walls are referred to as oote, in the local dialect. Legends claim that they were built on the remnants of the castle that the oni (ogres) had erected to defend their island from the Momotarō’s invasion.
Megijima, in fact, is also known as Onigashima (Ogres Island) and is believed to be the legendary dwelling of the horned demons mentioned in the story of Momotarō. Momotarō is a popular hero of Japanese folklore. His name translates as “peach boy” because, according to the legend, he was born from a giant peach. Later on, when he became a teenage boy, he decided to leave his adoptive parents and go after some ogres who were pillaging the countryside.
Along with the folk tale, Megijima is dotted with references and traces of the legend. The most widely known Momotarō sightseeing spot is for sure the Onigashima Caves, on top of the island’s highest peak. To reach the caves from the port it is necessary to hike up a steep and narrow winding road, taking approximately 30 minutes. Otherwise, you can use the local bus which whizzes you there in less than 10 minutes for a hefty 500 yen ticket (800 yen return). Being notoriously lazy, I opted for the bus; they are conveniently timed to match the arrival of ferries so that visitors can head straight uphill upon disembarking.
As I arrived at the caves, I was greeted by a very conspicuous oni statue holding a spiked club. The Japanese ogres are traditionally depicted as giant creatures with unnaturally coloured skin (red, blue and green are the most popular hues). They have big mouths with protruding claws, one or more horns on their head, and wear nothing but a loincloth made of tiger skin. They use their kanabō spiked clubs to torture and kill humans, dismember them, and feast on their meat.
On the occasion of the Setouchi Triennale, the caves were also hosting an impressive art installation: the “Oninoko Tile Project”. Onigawara (ogre tiles) are a typical roof ornament often found in Japanese Buddhist Temples. Making such tiles is one of the longest-established traditional crafts in Kagawa prefecture. For this project, more than 3,000 students of secondary schools across the region contributed by making one small onigawara each. All of the tiles were then transported to Megijima and displayed inside the caves.
During my visit, I was alone. I must admit that being in the dimly lit belly of the mountain, and having all those ogre-shaped tiles gazing at you through the quiet darkness had a really eerie vibe. Fortunately, approaching the end of the visiting route, some friendlier manga-like statues of ogres appeared, and made me revert to a more cheerful state of mind!
Two or three steep flights of steps above the Onigashima caves, and often overlooked by visitors, the Washigamine observatory is probably the best viewing spot that Megijima has to offer.
Its name literally means “peak of the eagles”. One may argue that it is a slightly ambitious name for an altitude of merely 188 metres above sea level. Nonetheless, it offers an unhindered vantage point to admire stunning 360-degree panoramic views of Takamatsu city and of the neighbouring islands.
The peak is also dotted with cherry trees that make it a unique and beautiful hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spot during the spring. I spent a fair amount of time up there, just taking in the sights and feeling the wind on my skin. Being alone and immersed in such a breathtaking setting made for an everlasting memory.
Heading back, I decided to walk downhill to enjoy the quiet rural landscape at a slower pace. In about 20 minutes, I reached the village where most of the other Triennale artworks were located.
Close to the beach, and located in a beautiful traditional house, “BONSAI, Deepening Roots” is an exhibition that explores the possible future directions of the art of making small trees. The bonsai are integrated into the house’s garden and in the interiors, often making use of non-traditional props. The title also alludes to the need for the island’s inhabitants to deepen their roots and be more firmly connected to their territory.
Further down along the beach, an abandoned school was grouping a cluster of 8 installations in a craftily shared space. The “Little Shops on the Island” were born of the intention to mimic commercial activity, such as Leandro Elrich’s “Laundry”. The seemingly real laundromat reveals at a closer look that what is inside the washing machines is in fact videos of clothes spinning.
Another very suggestive piece within the “Little Shops” is a video created by Mai Yamashita and Naoto Kobayashi, recalling a cycle rental. The artists created a bicycle with lights mounted on its wheels, then filmed it while pedalling along the coastal roads of Megijima at sunset. When the wheels rotate the words “世界はどうしてこんなに美しいんや” appear to the viewer. The writing translates to “Why is the world so beautiful?”. A short message, but charged with meaning.
Lastly, one of the most evocative and poignant works on Megijima was: “20th Century Recall” by artist Hagetaka Funjō. It consists of a grand piano cast in bronze with four sail masts mounted on it, making it look like a marine machine. The piano, in fact, plays a melody in response to the sea waves lapping against the nearby shore, highlighting the interconnection of the island with the surrounding waters.
Unfortunately, the Megijima ferry schedule is quite limited, with only 6 services per day. The last ferry leaves incredibly early (around 5 p.m.), making it impossible for any day-trippers to stay until sunset or to enjoy an atmospheric dinner on the island. This sad reality is shared by several other islands in Kagawa prefecture.
It’s a real pity to see destinations with such remarkable tourism potential being held back because of the lack of vision of a short-sighted local administration. A bit more attention to market demands and the right investments in infrastructure could bring so much more business and wealth to the Seto Inland Sea archipelago. And in the long term could contribute to repopulating these almost deserted islands.
Please make sure you come back to read more stories about my Setouchi Triennale trip, and do not forget to have a look at the previous articles too!