When people think of international travelers visiting an island in the Seto Inland Sea, they may think of Naoshima, where the International Art Festival is located, or perhaps Shiraishi Island, with its international villa for foreign guests. But French tourists are heading somewhere else–to a tiny island of just 230 people. Although the place is known as one of Japan’s cat islands, that’s not why French tourists go to this island. And even though Ken Watanabe, Masako Natsume and Hiromi Go have been there, the French go for a completely different reason than they did. Our floating reporter takes a ferry to the remote island to find out what makes it so popular with French tourists.
Inside a room in the back of a restaurant called Gori-Gori on Manabe Island is a room set up like a museum. Hanging on the walls are photos of actors who starred in movies that were filmed on the island. In 1977 the movie Gokumonto used Manabe Island as a locale (the movie was later turned into a TV drama). But the movie foreigners would be more familiar with is MacArthur’s Children (1984) that described the impact of the American occupation on a small island community in Japan after WWII. Ken Watanabe appeared in the movie (called Setouchi Shonen Yakyu Dan in Japanese) which was directed by Masahiro Shinoda.
Ken Watanabe made his feature-film debut in MacArthur’s Children.
▼Ken Watanabe on Manabe Shima when he was 25 years old.
▼Ken Watanabe on the scene.
▼Masako Natsume, MacArthur’s Children
Masako Natsume was also a fashion model…
▼Who obviously had a sense of humor.
This is all very interesting, but you’re probably still wondering, what’s so French about Manabe Island?
Well, sleepy little Manabe Island was propelled to fame among the French in 2010 when a funky book called Manabe Shima by French artist and author Florent Chavouet was published. Gazillions of hours of creative work and genius must have gone into the sketchbook-format, 141-page book that introduces the island residents and their life in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.
▼Before Chavouet’s book, few people realized that Manabe Island people fish while sitting on watermelons.
Manabe is part of the Kasaoka island chain in Okayama Prefecture. It is just a short sail from Shiraishi Island, where I live. When I go to Manabe, I usually go by mai yotto (Japanese for “my yacht”), but with all the inclement weather recently, I decided to take the ferry instead. I also took with me my 20-year-old nephew and a copy of Manabe Shima, even though I can’t read French.
As I stepped off the ferry, I was met by Atsumi Nakamuro the energetic ferry port manager and general island run-about person. To be fair, Atsumi and I are friends from back when she moved to the island in 2008 with her 5 children. I noticed she had developed some gray hairs since I had last seen her but decided not to mention it. Afterall, she was the person who gave me a copy of the Manabe Shima book.
▼Atsumi and her family as portrayed in Chavouet’s book. See? She has no gray hairs.
Clutching our Manabe Shima book, we wandered around the port, feeling very French. In a matter of moments, a local, probably attracted to our apparent Frenchness, called out to us. After some small talk, he said, “Be sure to greet the old ladies on the island. This helps develop a rapport with the residents.” As if on cue, an old lady walked past us pushing a cart. “Konichiwa,” we said. Who would have thought it would be so easy to be French!
Chavouet, affectionately referred to as Furo by the local residents, is almost as big a star on the island as the movie actors. The ferry ticket office is filled with his drawings and photos of him with various locals. He obviously touched their hearts very deeply.
▼A photo of Chavouet with Atsumi
By now, Atsumi was back whisking us off to spots highlighted in the book while informing us that 80 percent of foreign tourists to the island are French.
I’ve juxtaposed some of my photos with Furo’s drawings just so you can see how exact his renditions are (even four years on).
▼This is the ferry ticket office. Atsumi works here, so if you go to Manabe, be sure to say hello.
▼The old wooden school, still in use.
▼Notice the unobtrusive montage aspects in his drawings, just to make them all that much more interesting.
▼A Manabe resident’s house.
▼No angle is to0 tight for the eagle-eyed Furo!
When you leaf through Furo’s book, you are immediately intrigued by the life of the people in his realistic drawings. It’s a wonder anyone comes to visit Manabe island at all when it feels so warm and cozy staying inside this book.
But there are always the intrepid travelers who want to go out and see these places in their real settings. So for them, I offer some advice. If I had paid more attention to Furo’s book, for example, I would have known what this drawing meant:
▼If you dare to go on the hiking trails, you may have a near-death experience and see a white light at the end of the tunnel.
But rather than heeding this good French advice, we took it upon ourselves to trek through the mountains.
It started out innocently enough.
And the signage was very good.
But at one point, we started thinking twice…
And the growth was getting thicker…
Usually, lack of signage is why people get lost. But in this case, there was too much signage–and not enough path!
▼Eventually, the path disappeared completely, almost taking my nephew with it!
But being intrepid French travelers that day, we kept pushing on.
And eventually, we were rewarded with this.
This is Santora, the main accommodation on Manabe Island and the place the French tourists head to. This is where Furo stayed too.
▼We were glad we didn’t have any luggage.
At Santora, we were able to relax and take in the views of the Seto Inland Sea…
…with beers, of course.
▼The view of Santora from the sea.
▼Luxury log cabins on the waterfront.
▼A quiet place to relax
▼And a Japanese style rotenburo outdoor bath.
As much as we would have liked to have stayed at Santora all day drinking beer, relaxing, and feeling French, we had to get back to the port to meet Atsumi for lunch. We decided to take the more direct route this time.
Since we were on island time, we still had a few minutes to meet some of the island cats. We had studied up on the “chats” as they call them in French, and I felt like I already knew them when we entered the first neighborhood.
▼A most extensive study of the territory of the chats
Most chats live on the port where access to fish is plentiful. The exceptions, as Furo noted, is Les Hippies who live in the mountain.
We met these chats from “Le Gang des Docks B.”
They walked right up to us…
…and gave us that universal meow that means “Feed me!”
But we didn’t feed them and that seemed to be okay with them too. They were very friendly.
When we asked this cat where the restaurant was…
…he pointed in the direction with his tail.
And here’s a chat we met from “Le Gang du Caid.”
▼Even though this is a stray cat, someone was nice enough to give her a flea collar.
Florent Chavouet’s drawings capture the every day life of the island people in extraordinary detail. In addition to the island characters themselves, he reveals a community that still carries out their traditions.
They worship sacred rocks and 200-year-old trees.
▼If you think you’re the only foreigner on this island, you might be humbled to know that this is a foreign tree brought from Portugal over 200 years ago. It seems to have achieved permanent residence.
And through thick and thin, the islanders manage to keep their traditions alive.
▼The annual hashiri mikoshi festival.
▼Atsumi’s two boys
This is the life of 230 people in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.
That cat’s tail directions proved to be accurate and we finally reached the restaurant.
Atsumi had called up some old friends I hadn’t seen in years, and we all had lunch together. Two friends who couldn’t make it sent a letter in their place instead!
It made me remember why I always come back to Manabe Island. These are good people. They live a good life. And they are happy to share that life with others.
So go visit the good people on Manabe Island! The French have discovered the island for you. Now it’s your turn to enjoy the island life!
Can’t make it out of Tokyo? Florent Chavouet has another book called Tokyo on Foot (2012). Check it out!
Photos: Amy Chavez/RocketNews24 unless otherwise noted.