Oki Island

Oki Island

A beautiful, rubbish-strewn island in Lake Biwa

place Area: Omihachiman access_time Published: 2020.12.03

Name in Japanese: 沖島
Pronunciation: okishima

Okishima is an island in Lake Biwa, about two kilometres from the shore in the town of Ōmihachiman. It’s the largest island in the lake, and the only populated island. It’s home to about three hundred and fifty people, many of them elderly. The island is registered as a Japan Heritage site.

You get to Okishima from the attractive Horiki Port. The fast ferry goes at intervals of one or two hours, depending on the time of day. A one-way ticket costs 500 yen and the ride takes about fifteen minutes. As the ferry heads towards the port on Okishima, you can see the red torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine on your right.

The habitation on the island is concentrated around the port and in a narrow strip along the shore on either side of the island, extending a little way from the port. The islanders are descended from seven samurai and their families who fled to Okishima after losing a battle near Kyōto in the mid-12th century. Their descendants still live on the island, and the majority of residents have one of seven family names. After WWII, the occupation government banned the possession of weapons, including antiques, so the islanders dumped what remained of their samurai heritage into the lake.

Today, most of the islanders make their living from fishing. There are fishing boats moored in the port, and you can see nets hanging up to dry and for repairs along the shoreline. In fact, the shoreline seems to be partly made up of generations of waste from fishing, much of it plastic. Since the local people also clean and gut fish by the water’s edge, you’re also likely to encounter fish heads by the shore. You might also find heaps of the fermented rice from funazushi simply dumped over the concrete blocks lining the shoreline path.

In addition to fishing, the islanders keep small gardens of vegetables and fruit trees. Here too, old fishing rubbish is very much in evidence. Polystyrene boxes are repurposed as planters, and the old plastic and metal containers for marine oil are used to collect rainwater. In some of the gardens, there are electronic animal scarers that combine maniacal laughter with dog-barking and machine gun fire.

Despite all of the scruffy detritus, the island is beautiful. There are many old houses, and a couple of pretty shrines and temples. The view across Lake Biwa to Mt. Hōrai is spectacular, and it’s pleasant to wander around the paths through the town and out along the shoreline. Many homes have Jizō statue placed near the entrance. They’re brought inside and treated as family once a year. The islanders get about on tricycles, and they greet visitors with a friendly smile.

A footpath starting near the port goes up the ridge of the central mountain to a height of 220 m, passing several open spaces offering spectacular views over Ōmihachiman. The walk up through the woods is most enjoyable. Another path comes down from the peak to the southern shore, passing by a primary school before returning to the port.

In the port and around the town there are several places to eat. Naturally, the food features freshly caught fish from the lake. On the southern shoreline, there’s a new café and gallery offering simple dishes and snacks.