David Billa, the Frenchman I met who lives with his family in Takamatsu City, agreed to take me to Ogi Island, or Ogijima, his favorite spot in Japan. David writes the blog Setouchi Explorer, in French and English.
In the last decade or so the island’s population declined to about 120 and the school closed, but the mayor and the islanders developed a plan to encourage new people to move there and its been a success, as the population has come back to 200, the school has reopened (though high schoolers must go to the mainland).
All of the surrounding islands have garnered a lot of attention due to the Setouchi Festival, an international art event which brings artists from all over he world to do installations on the islands. I built a local style of boat in the Festival in 2013. But Ogijima is committed to creating a truly sustainable community, and not one necessarily depending on the tourist trade via the Festival.
One of the earliest art projects on Ogijima was decorating fishing boats. According to David the artist in charge got rip-roaring drunk with the head fisherman and at the end of the evening he agreed to the project. Then, when sober he tried to back out, but his wife said he’d made a promise and had to keep it. Actually the artist who led this project wound up staying and becoming a fisherman! Having one new fisherman on the island was a very big deal, and they’ve since gotten a second.
There are two overpopulation problems facing the island: feral cats and wild boar. Its estimated there are about 200 wild cats roaming the island and some tourists come specifically to see — and unfortunately feed — them. There is a project now to trap and spay/neuter them to control the population. The boar actually swim among the islands and while the entire island was completely deforested at one time, with every scrap of land cultivated with vegetables (not enough fresh water to grow rice), now all those terraced fields have reverted to forest providing perfect habitat for boar.
The island is also now one of the rare places left in Japan where one can see old boat planks reused has house siding. I first saw this on Sado Island my first trip to Japan in 1990, and I’ve seen boathouses along remote stretches of the coast with this feature. This particular building was abandoned but is now a gallery and installation space for the Festival. You can make out the curves of the planking, all of which still have nails in them. Another feature of some of the older homes are the curious fortified front entrances, with a confined opening and an absurdly small door. These were defense against pirates that once roamed the Inland Sea.
An IT worker decided to move to Ogijima since he can work remotely, and his wife opened the Ogi Library, a reading room and cafe space in a (very) renovated old house. Note my photos of some snapshots showing what it looked like before they started!
Abandoned houses are everywhere. I believe David said the island’s highest population was about 1,000, so there is a huge surplus of homes. Many are decaying but those who do move here are buying, renting, and renovating.