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2022.03 Discover Japan’s ancient bridge to the Asian continent and the islands that shaped Japanese history and culture [PR]

The Japanese archipelago consists of over 6,000 islands, including more than 900 in the area surrounding Nagasaki alone. Among these, the islands Iki and Tsushima are located like stepping stones between Kyushu and the Korean peninsula, and the Goto Islands are located west of Kyushu in the East China Sea. Iki, Tsushima, and the Goto Islands have a long history of maritime trade and cultural exchange with the Asian continent, beginning in prehistoric times. New technologies, religious teachings, and architectural styles were introduced to Japan via these islands, and the information obtained from the continent had profound effects on the development of Japanese culture and society. These borderlands tell the story of Japan against the backdrop of Asian history and are designated Japan Heritage. Visit the islands to explore archaeological sites, mountain fortresses, samurai cemeteries, and time-weathered Buddhist temples.


Iki Island—Explore the site of a large-scale prehistoric settlement


Iki’s history is long. It is mentioned in the Kojiki, Japan's oldest history book, and in ancient texts from China. The whole island is renowned as a power spot and has more than 150 shrines. Clear waters comparable to those of Okinawa lap the coast, vast rice fields spread out on either side of the Hatahoko River which runs through the center of the island, and delicacies such as fresh seafood, Iki Beef, and shochu made using distillation techniques from the continent await visitors. 


Ancient Chinese texts refer to the island as Ikikoku (“the country of Iki”) and suggest the island was well-populated. Archeological surveys of the island have revealed settlement sites, the largest of which is the Harunotsuji Site. It is the site of a large-scale settlement circa 3 BCE–4 CE. Evidence of Japan's oldest harbor, as well as exchange with the Asian continent, have been uncovered at the site. Dwellings and other structures have been recreated at the site, which visitors can stroll freely. This site is a Special Historic Site of Japan.


Haranotsuji was one of the first places in ancient Japan to have access to technology and information from the continent through cultural exchange and trade. The island is thought to have been a vibrant place where people of many nationalities mingled. Rice cultivation was introduced to Japan via sites like Harunotsuji on the islands of Iki and Tsushima. Farmlands surround the Harunotsuji site as a reminder of this.


Visitors can learn more about the site and its discovery at a nearby visitor center, the Haranotsuji Guidance Center. The center also offers prehistoric-themed experiences such as pottery making, fire kindling, and magatama (curved jewel) making. If you are interested in archeology, be sure to also visit the Ikikoku Museum, which houses a large collection of artifacts from the Harunotsuji site.



Dwellings and other structures have been recreated at the Harunotsuji site.


The Haranotsuji Guidance Center offers prehistoric-themed craft workshops.


Tsushima Island—Mountain fortresses and samurai heritage


Tsushima is the Japanese island closest to the Korean peninsula, only 49.5 km from Busan. It is home to spectacular views of steep mountains, precipitous cliffs along the coast, and virgin forests and precious wildlife habitats. The island is popular for outdoor activities, including trekking and sea kayaking. 


Because of Tsushima’s proximity to the continent, the island has played an important role in the defense of Japan, from ancient times to the modern era. Kaneda Castle is an ancient mountain fortress built in the seventh century CE following a major battle (Battle of Baekgang, 663 CE) on the Korean peninsula that saw Japan and China ally with rival Korean kingdoms. 


The castle uses masonry techniques from the Korean peninsula and is built in a similar style to the fortresses of Korea’s ancient kingdoms. A path leads around the remaining ramparts and offers gorgeous views of the island and its topography.


Tsushima has had a long history of exchange with Korea. More recently, between the seventeenth and nineteenth century, the So family who ruled the Tsushima domain conducted diplomatic relations between the two countries. Many envoys were sent between the two countries, and with those new ideas, technologies, and culture were introduced to the island and its inhabitants.


To learn more about the fascinating history of Tsushima, visit the Tsushima Museum (scheduled to open in April 2022) and the Tsushima Chosen Tsushinshi History Museum. Other interesting sites on the island include Kaneishi Castle, the remains of a castle built in the sixteenth century by the So family. The castle had a garden which has been recreated, the Kaneishi Castle Garden. 


You may also want to visit Banshoin Temple, the ancestral temple of the So family. The temple was built in 1615. It has an ancient feel and its main gate (the sanmon) is the  oldest structure in Tsushima. The grounds are home to a vast cemetery, where many generations of the So family are buried. The temple also houses valuable worship implements (an incense burner, vase, and candle stand) gifted to the temple by a Korean king.


Visit the Tsushima Museum to learn more about the island.


The former site of Kaneishi Castle is a National Historic Site.


Banshoin Temple is one of the most famous temples in Tsushima.


The path to the So family cemetery


Worship implements at Banshoin (a vase, incense burner, and candle stand) gifted to the temple by a Korean king


The Goto Islands draw nature enthusiasts and fans of history. The island scenery is beautiful, from the cobalt-blue waters and the white sand beaches to the church-spire-dotted townscapes. The islands are part of the Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site that tells the story of Christianity in Japan. However, they are also important to Buddhism, and were the final port of call for envoys travelling from Kyushu to Tang-dynasty China between the eighth and ninth century.


The envoys Japan sent to China went via the Goto Islands. Fukue Island was the final port of call before crossing the East China Sea. The journey was perilous, and the representatives risked their lives, but the knowledge they brought back had a profound impact on the development of Japan as a nation in its formative years. The legacy of these envoys is preserved at sites across Fukue Island. 


Great monks such as Kukai and Saicho joined the envoys between Japan and China. They studied Buddhism in China and returned to Japan to found temples and new schools of Buddhism. There are several sites across the Goto Islands with connections to these great monks. Daihoji Temple on Fukue Island is said to be where Kukai stayed when he returned from China. Mt. Sanno on Nakadori Island is where Saicho, the founder of the Tendai school of Japanese Buddhism, established a shrine. The site is a Japan Heritage site. Trails up the mountain are under maintenance work, and exciting new history treks are being planned for visitors.


Other sites of interest on Fukue Island include Myojoin Temple, a site of worship for the Goto family, the lords of the Fukue domain. The current main hall was built in the eighteenth century and the woodwork is beautiful. The Tomozuna Stone on the shore of Shiraishiura Bay is a relic from the days of the envoys. Ships are said to have tied their mooring lines to the stone when they made stops there. The Mimiraku Peninsula, along the coast from Shiraishiura, is where envoys are said to have stopped for drinking water. The well they are said to have used remains on the peninsula. 


For more information on the history of the Goto Islands, visit the Goto Tourism and Historical Materials Museum, which is located within the walls of Fukue Castle.


Daihoji Temple is the oldest temple on the Goto Islands.


The coffered ceiling of the main hall of Myojoin Temple is adorned with 121 richly colored paintings of flowers and birds.


A spectacular view from the summit of Mt. Sanno


All the islands are accessible by air from Fukuoka or Nagasaki. If you have enough time, a trip by sea makes for a wonderful memory. There are regular ferries from Hakata Port to Iki and Tsushima, from Karatsu Port to Iki, and from Nagasaki Port to Fukue Island and Nakadori Island. From the exquisite beaches of Iki and Goto to the nature activities of Tsushima, the unique food culture of these remote islands, and the relaxing hot springs on the island, Nagasaki’s remote islands make excellent travel destinations.


Tasting fresh, seasonal seafood is one of the best parts of a trip to a remote island (photo for illustration purposes only).


The Goto Islands are home to many excellent beaches. Fukue Island’s Takahama Beach pictured here is one of the most popular.


Related Links


The Border Islands Iki, Tsushima, and Goto: A Bridge to Ancient Times



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