The last stretch was a toll road lined with palm trees. … I tramped past a picnic area ringed by small round straw-thatched huts that resembled a travel agent’s vision of Tahiti, then paid a hundred yen to walk through the tunnel that led to the lighthouse at Cape Sata. Hawaiian guitars serenaded me out of loudspeakers, uniformed schoolgirls tut-tutted about the state of my jeans, and the admission ticket to the tunnel informed me that I had arrived at latitude 31º south—the latitude of Alexandria, Shanghai, and the Punjab.
The Roads to Sata, Alan Booth (1977)
You can sometimes—though not always—learn a lot about a country by its extremities. Take my own, for instance: the cheerful fish ‘n’ chips tawdriness and zealous efforts to part tourists from their money that characterize both Land’s End, mainland Britain’s southwestern point, and John o’ Groats, its northeastern point, tell the traveler much—though not everything—about what lies between.
Japan, being more of a north-to-south country than my own, marks its mainland extremities more cleanly, helped by the asymmetrical euphony of their names: Cape Soya to the north and Cape Sata to the south. Cape Nosappu, to the east, is celebrated, too, for its proximity to the lost lands of the Kurils. The westernmost point of the mainland, Cape Kozakihana, is the orphan of the four, known by few. Having made it to Cape Soya and Cape Nosappu last year, a perverse desire to visit all Japan’s extremities stole over me, which is how I found myself far too late one brooding, sweltering evening getting lost on the backroads of Sasebo in search of Cape Kozakihana, meandering through fishing villages on narrow inlets with ghostly fingers of mist rubbing on the water and tapping at the windows of houses set low against the lapping tide, cicadas screaming like sirens, setting the night aflame. Signs for the cape appear only a few kilometers distant from it, and after a few final wrong turns on concrete jetties with deep-stacked nets, I pitched up at a tiny municipal park and scrambled along paths on which crabs and wharf roaches scurried away at my footsteps down to a Modernist monument symbolizing who knows what that marks the end of land.
Cape Sata is much more remote than its three sister capes: while they can be reached in short jaunts from civilization, it lies at the far end of the forested wilds of the vast Osumi peninsula, some 80km from the center of the nearest city, Kanoya, and some 100km from a railhead, about as far as it is possible to get in mainland Japan from train tracks. Like all of Japan’s remote places, the peninsula is hemorrhaging people: its population fell by a third from a 1955 peak of 466,000 to 314,000 in 2000. The four towns that comprise the southern half of the peninsula are undergoing even more dramatic collapse: from around 60,000 people in 1980 to just over 41,000 today and a projected 26,000 in 2035, a decline of nearly 60% in two generations—and the collapse will not come to any miraculous halt in 2035.
Foreigners rarely make it to Cape Sata; if they do at all, it is to start or finish the 3,000km cape-to-cape Sata/Soya trek, whether on foot, by bicycle, or even on stilts. They blog determinedly about their journeys, but preoccupied with the state of their knees or their sprockets, the weather, and the sheer mechanics of their trips, they rarely linger, notice little, and learn less.
Heading south down the peninsula, the signs to Sata disappeared and I found myself cursing for the first time my lack of a navigation system, ending up in the tiny fishing village of Izashiki convinced I had reached the cape, before being told by a passing motorist that there was still another 20km to go. It was as if the people of the peninsula wanted to keep the secrets of the cape to themselves.
Nearing the village of Odomari, the southernmost in mainland Japan but still 9km from the cape, I speculated on where the southernmost ruins would come. Would it be, for instance, this house
on the corner of the final turn-off to the cape?
The last stretch of road, twisting and turning, rising and falling across the rocky subtropical promontory out to the cape was unlike any I have ever encountered in Japan, mossy verged and fringed with curtains of lianas.
Huge black-and-white butterflies danced among the foliage as pheasants strutted nonchalantly into the undergrowth. Rocks littered the road and fan palm debris slowed progress.
Halfway along the road, a marker proclaims the 31ºN line: Shanghai, New Delhi, and Cairo to the left, New Orleans to the east.
A male sago cycad, relic of the Permian, highly toxic, and here at the very northernmost tip of its natural, only-in-Japan range, puts forth a cone.
In the car park at the cape stands an ancient banyan, symbol of Asia and the tree under which Buddha sought enlightenment, its aerial roots knotted in magnificent contortions.
I parked up next to the southernmost public telephone on the mainland. There were only half a dozen other cars, all but one from other parts of Kyushu.
I paid my Y300 admission at the tunnel entrance only to be told to hurry, as the cape would close at five on the dot, in half an hour.
The dank and slimy tunnel opened out onto a patch of green so brilliantly verdant my eyes began to water.
The path to the cape clung tight to the cliff. Signs pointing off it promised jungle promenades; it was here I began to realize something was amiss. The faux-log concrete guardrail was dislocating itself from the disintegrating path, ready to slide away into the abyss with a vigorous push. In places its horizontal bars had vanished and rope had been slung between the posts in makeshift repair.
A shrine slumbered on in the late afternoon heat, its torii gates engulfed by lianas, its steps invaded by cycads and its eaves shut off from the sun by an archway of palms and tree ferns.
The observatory at the cape was within sight when on the left of the path appeared what had once been a restaurant. To my delight—I confess—the penultimate structure on mainland Japan, less than a hundred meters from the end of land, was falling down.
Truly, truly this is a nation of ruins, from sea to shining sea, I marveled to myself, but aware that time was pressing, I resolved to return and hurried on—to find that the observatory, too, was in tatters.
Almost all of the upper windows had been blown out and chunks of masonry had fallen away from the underside of the observation deck. Tiles had peeled from around the entranceway and where once above the doors a sign had welcomed day-trippers only rusty bolt-holes remained. It was still open, though; a grandmother sat reading the paper and listening to the radio.
Her role was to sell Y200 admission tickets to the observation deck, one of the most ludicrous attempts to rake in tourist dollars I have ever witnessed, as we were already far above the sea, the view was anyway sublime, and the observation deck was barely two flights of stairs above us. A dog-eared exercise book served as the visitors’ log. We were halfway through July but the book had attracted only a handful of comments in the past fortnight. Just what happened to the exercise book when it finally filled up, I wondered. In search of a soft drink, I made a pass at the solitary vending machine.
“It doesn’t give change,” barked the grandmother. “Have you got the right money?” I had.
In front of me the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea met, and splayed out in their waters were the islands of the Osumi Archipelago, almost unknown to foreigners: Tanegashima, home to Japan’s space exploration program, to the east, and moving west, Yakushima, covered with enchanted forests the haunt of millennia old Cryptomeria trees and one of the wettest places on earth; the fantastically named Kuchinoerabujima, the Island the Mouth Chooses; and from Cape Sata at least, the star of the show, Iojima, Sulfur Island, its volcano in an endless state of eruption, its surrounding seas dyed yellow and its port waters stained brown by sulfur, the hundred-odd folk who make it home clinging on for dear life as it seems to steam across the ocean, an unearthly cross between a demented locomotive and a liner from the era of the Titanic.
Due west lay Mount Kaimon, another volcano and the most southerly of all the Fujis.
Standing there in the observatory I felt like an early explorer gazing on new-found lands for the first time.
“OK, it’s five o’clock, time to go.” The grandmother shooed me from the observatory and locked up. I tried to tarry and shake her off.
“I think I’ll just take one more picture here and catch up with you.”
I could have slipped away and hid, but the prospect of the tunnel gates grinding shut and of being stranded on the cape for the night did not appeal. Further exploration would have to wait until morning; I decided to spend the night as close to Cape Sata as possible.
A little distant from the village of Odomari, Hotel Sata Misaki commands a view of the harbor, disfigured though it is by no fewer than six tetrapodded piers, wharves, and breakwaters. The sand was the color of the concrete that came down onto the beach to meet it. Anywhere else in the subtropics, gulls and terns would have been swooping and darting around the bay; here jet-black jungle crows cawed with malice from perches on the piers and scruffy black kites circled listlessly in the sky.
“Erm, I don’t have a reservation, but I was wondering if you have a room?”
“Yes, I should think so. What about dinner?”
“I don’t suppose there are any restaurants around here, are there?” As if I needed to ask.
“No. You can have dinner here,” he said, gesturing at the restaurant, “what time is good?”
I sensed the hotel would be going to bed early. “How about eight?”
“That’s a bit late for us. How about seven?”
Seven it was then. A party of three locals departed the restaurant soon after I arrived, leaving me, the sole lodger this Friday night at a hotel with 25 rooms and capacity for more than 40 guests, to eat alone to the prattle of the TV news, which told of the failure of the summer sumo tournament, a victim of the scandals plaguing the sport, and of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease at my next destination.
I took a beer to the lounge but by eight I was being shooed off and bade goodnight. There was barely enough space in the poky single to squeeze behind the desk and jot away at some notes. After a tour of the room to crush a dozen flying earwig-like creatures that sought refuge in the folds of the net curtains and thump a couple of cockroaches as an encore, for the southernmost foreigner on mainland Japan that night it was lights out at nine to the wash of the waves, with only the bedbugs for company.
Unsurprisingly, I woke early—and badly bitten—the next morning. With hours until breakfast, I snuck down to the lobby, the hotel as still as the grave. Like many hotels in out-of-the way corners the world over, Hotel Sata Misaki was a repository of exquisitely bad and random art.
Camels crossed a sandy beach on their way to the dusty shade of some caravanserai above a reproduction Ming vase, grotesque in its gaudy bulk, next to a pond of algal green in which no fish swam.
The lights in the atrium swarmed down like a cloud of giant glass insects.
Everything about the hotel, from the plastic flower troughs in polite disarray that held only withered stalks to the bare stand-hooks of the gift shop, on which the odd snack and pair of sunglasses dangled like condemned criminals, exuded a neglect born of despair.
It proved impossible in retrospect to track down when the hotel was built but it must have been within a year or two either side of the Bubble’s final efflorescence in 1989-1990, the last construction project of any substance that the Cape Sata environs will ever see; I give it another decade of life, at most.
On closer inspection, Odomari was an ugly little pug of a village, and no mistake.
The beauty, as ever, lay in the details. Abandoned houses composed silent tone poems in their courtyards.
Outdoor washstands, long forsaken, were inlaid with sixties tiles and stones that shone like jewels.
Some streetside water pumps remained in active service. This Kawamoto Dragon dates from 1950 or thereabouts; its arm, almost rusted through, was in splints, but it still hissed out water with venom.
Others, retired, were now more ornamental, but no less lovely.
While Odomari has its share of battered white farmer trucks and ultrabasic minicars, its transport staples, though belong to a slower, simpler era, as befits a place where almost everyone is a pensioner: step-through moped and cart combos, tricycles, power-assisted bicycles, gardening trolleys, and mobility scooters.
Not to forget these, a symbol of rural Japan and the cliché that every metropolitan news network reaches for in the opening shots of reports from what they perceive to be the boondocks.
As I catalogued away, I struggled to come up with a word for them, in either Japanese or English, settling for “buggy”, which also happened to be the first word that a native Japanese speaker used when I described them. But this is Japan, where everything, but everything has a name, and some ferreting around revealed that they have no less than four, two for casual conversation—silver car (シルバーカー), potentially comically misleading for the uninformed, and shopping car (ショッピングカー, the final “t” seems to have dropped off along the way)—and two for more formal reference—walking assistance vehicle (歩行補助車) and long-term care vehicle (介護車).
And this is how they look in action.
The other, melancholy, mystery associated with them that has long puzzled me is why Japanese women of a certain age—mainly but not solely in rural areas—suffer from such horrific spinal curvature as to make these buggies indispensible for locomotion. Asking around, consensus coalesced around three explanations, all of which were familiar and all of which still raise doubts, to me at least: calcium deficiency in youth, inherently weak stomach muscles in the women of East Asia, and the rigors of rice-planting, although there are no paddies or terraces in Odomari and the seas must have always been a bountiful source of calcium.
I wondered, perhaps fondly, whether their owners grow attached to their buggies, seeing them as extensions of themselves, holding on to the same ones for decades, becoming intimate with their scars and tears and idiosyncrasies—a wobbly wheel here, a loose nut there—that grow as they, like their owners, age.
The buggies, though, are a product of a particular combination of circumstances—prewar poverty and postwar affluence, as in earlier times a cane would have had to have sufficed—and I expect that within a few decades, as healthier generations come to occupy the ranks of the oldest old, they will have vanished from the fabric of rural Japan, along with their stooped and wizened pushers.
I returned to the cape, where a troupe of macaques was moving through the forest around the shrine.
Soon the forests rang out with monkey whelps and monkey shrieks as a hawk quartered overhead, greedy for monkey babies.
The obscure object of my desire was naturally the restaurant.
One of the first objectives of any explorer of ruins, I was coming to discover, is to date their demise. The restaurant offered enough clues.
A copy of Fishing Lover magazine, only found in Kyushu, dated July 1994. This, I reasoned, was likely to have been left by some passing fisherman seeking shelter soon after the restaurant closed. The mottling of the grouper on the cover was a perfect foil for the mottling of the rust on the table.
Photo albums from the days of film blown open by the wind and strewn across a table, dated September 4, 1993. Just these two pieces of evidence left little doubt that the restaurant had served its last curry rice in 1993 or 1994.
Ruins ripen like fruit. While the ripening of fruit is slowed by a cold snap or spurred by a hot spell, with ruins a caved-in window, a door adrift from its moorings, or a leaky roof expedites the ripening, just as inherent structural integrity retards it. Out on the edge of the cape, so often ravaged by storms, the restaurant was ripening fast. As some prefer their fruit al dente and others pulpy, so connoisseurs of ruins—I would not count myself as one—have their preferences, some savoring the first small surrenders to the elements, others the last gasps of utter dereliction. The goal of most, though, I suspect lies somewhere between the two: ideally, the ruin should have kept wind and sun and rain at bay for eons before succumbing, not long before the connoisseur discovers it, pickled in time like an insect in amber.
Vandal-sacked ruins can have their own squalid charm, but for me, to rank among the elite, a ruin must also have contrived to have evaded the vandal’s kicks and shoves; the restaurant in this regard was blessed by its remoteness and the barrier of an entry fee. It offered a feast of opportunities for my favorite form of photo, the still-life—or better perhaps, the still-death.
A register roll and a pornographic manga. The photographer is (very loosely) saying, “Wahey, this is one of the perks of the job! Coming my way today! Alrighty then, say cheeeeese!” The giant isolate breast is gratuitous. Convinced that it had been left by a recent interloper, I didn’t bother to check the date.
A far greater authority on the ruins of Japan than me reckons that porn is present in fewer than a fifth of them, although having just written that I came across a Japanese haikyoist who puts the encounter rate as high as four-fifths. Whatever the precise prevalence, there’s no denying a link—in some minds—between the Thanatos of the ruin and the Eros of desire. At the more innocent end of the spectrum, I know of serious photographers both Japanese and foreign who thrill to the lure of a leg dangled through a hole in a ceiling. It does not take more than a few moments’ search to unearth a series of pornographic videos titled Bewitched by Ruins (廃墟に魅せられて). And because ruins are intrinsically tenebrous locales, the products so often of scuppered dreams and wrenching change, they can attract the darkest of male sexual fantasies: a search for ruin (廃墟) and rape (レイプ) yields not far short of a million hits.
I tallied up the number of chairs, upstairs and downstairs: nearly 300. Cape Sata would these days be lucky to see that many visitors a week, some weeks. What a catastrophic miscalculation! Clearly something had gone epically awry with the tourism industry at the cape—the question was, could I find out what? And in the process, could I date the birth of the restaurant, more of a challenge than dating its death. As with some medieval luminary born in obscurity, whose dates might be parenthesized thus—(c1250-1323)—I still had only the vaguest notion of when the restaurant had served its first deep-fried pork cutlets.
This final photo proved to be of the most assistance in the elucidation of Cape Sata’s secrets.
There was something entrancing about the structure, a huge pink pigeon resting in the road and caught suspended in the act of leisurely flapping its wings. “Cape Sata Road Park”, says the deliciously faded red sign above the wings. More mysteriously, a sign on the left says “Free access, just drive straight on”. And why would anyone expect to do anything else?
[Incidentally, the nondescript building in the background is Odomari Elementary School, which is celebrating its 130th anniversary. With just eight pupils spread over six years and some 10,000 schools set to close across Japan at the current run-rate over the next couple of decades, the odds must be heavily stacked against mainland Japan’s southernmost school celebrating its 150th.]
Planning for the 9km-long Cape Sata Road Park, the last of all the roads to Sata, began in 1955. It took seven long years and Y570mn (some Y2.2bn or $26mn in today’s money) to build, opening for traffic in August 1963. You can see what the pink pigeon looked like in July 1964 here. The reverse of the postcard headily brims over with optimism:
Heading into the summer tourism season, Cape Sata is thronging with tourists arriving day after day. With tourist buses now having permission to use the toll road, the inconvenience of having to change buses has been eliminated. The Road Park is really starting to pitch the appeal of Sata tourism.
Construction was in the hands of the shadowy Iwasaki Group, a resort hotel-to-golf course-to-gas station conglomerate based in the prefectural capital of Kagoshima and which boasts on one of its now barely maintained websites of having been, after the war, among the first companies to foresee the advent of an era of tourism and leisure.
Once the road—and the restaurant and observatory—were open, Cape Sata was perfectly positioned to get caught up in the first and least known of Japan’s tourism booms and busts: the Miyazaki honeymoon boom of the 1960s. Honeymoons had been all but unknown in Japan before then, but as wallets grew fatter and purses fuller in the glory days of the Izanagi boom, the spurt of blistering growth from 1965 to 1971 so powerful it nearly tripled nominal GDP in just six years and was bestowed with the name of a Shinto god, so young newlyweds began to clamor to go on vacation after their nuptials. But where to go? Foreign currency controls and still exorbitant costs precluded overseas trips for all but the wealthiest. Southern Kyushu, though, and Miyazaki Prefecture in particular, with its palms, temperate winters, and its purported tropical mood, fitted the honeymoon bill for the times, and Cape Sata rode the brief boom as a day-trip side-show.
The reversion of Okinawa to Japanese suzerainty from US occupation in May 1972 robbed Miyazaki of its tropical crown and this, together with tax breaks that made flights to Okinawa from the mainland and shopping once there cheaper than Miyazaki, swiftly doused the fires of the honeymoon boom. The number of vehicles on the Cape Sata Road Park peaked at around 60,000 in 1973, just a year after the reversion of Okinawa, falling to around 20,000 in 2005, which masks an even greater decline in the absolute number of people visiting the cape, as in 1973 many of the vehicles would have been tour buses; by 2005 almost none.
After the Bubble, the Iwasaki Group faced mounting difficulties across its empire: the corporate history timeline of glorious achievement on the website stops ominously in 1989. The Iwasaki clan, with a finger in every prefectural pie from ferries to fish farming, are known as the “dons of Kagoshima”, and as late as 2004 the capo, Fukuzo Iwasaki (85), was listed by Forbes Magazine as the 72nd richest person on the planet and the 5th richest in Japan, with an estimated net worth of $5.7bn; by 2007 he had fallen to 458th place and his net worth had mysteriously more than halved, to $2.1bn; by 2009 he was off the list altogether, meaning his net worth had more than halved again, to below $1bn. [Forbes doesn’t deign to explain how this happened, how it calculated the worth of someone whose companies are unlisted and offer no disclosure at all, nor how anyone could amass several billion dollars running a handful of hotels and a few buses in a drowsy provincial backwater…]
I quizzed my very best sleuth, a former journalist with a Rolodex of the gods and a nose trained for scandal like a pig’s for truffle, about Fukuzo Iwasaki, but drew a blank: “just another gentleman of the Bubble” was his conclusion.
The road to Sata appears to have been a microcosm of the inept and imperious management of the Iwasaki Group: tourists were stiffed for a steep Y1,000 (about $12) per vehicle at the pink pigeon and then another Y100 per person at the car park, while cyclists and walkers were not permitted on the road at all, frustrating the ambitions of the Sata/Soya pedal-pushers and trekkers. As part of its desperate efforts to restructure, the Iwasaki group applied, unsuccessfully, in 2004 to close the road and the facilities at the cape for a year. The observatory was struck square on the jaw by a typhoon in 2005 and fenced off for some while before being declared just structurally sound enough to allow visitors. Most of the road was finally handed over to the local authority in 2007 and made toll-free, with the Iwasaki Group adamant that not another yen will be spent on the rest and determined to hand the whole caboodle over to anyone who’ll take it, although the obvious candidate, the tiny municipality of Minami Osumi, dependent as it is on central government largesse for more than 80% of its revenues, could not conceivably afford the cost of repairs and upkeep.
So for now the sorry tale of Cape Sata ends at this impasse. It’s worth briefly turning the clock back, to the passage from Alan Booth with which I began, to ring the changes at Cape Sata—and elsewhere—in the intervening third of a century. Of the picnic area that “resembled a travel agent’s vision of Tahiti” there is no trace and the presence en masse at today’s cape of uniformed schoolgirls, tut-tutting or otherwise, is implausible—it’s far too neglected a nook for a school excursion. No more, either, do Hawaiian guitars serenade the visitor through Tannoys; indeed, the tinny public-address systems that assaulted Booth’s ears at every landmark from his very opening sentence on (“one of the noodle shops at Cape Soya has a pair of loudspeakers perched high up above its door…”) have in many cases been torn down or silenced, which seems right somehow: in 1977 Japan was a gaudy, thrusting, brash upstart of a nation, whereas in 2010 it wants to be home in time for tea to put its feet up.
So what have I learned from Japan’s extremities? From Cape Soya and especially Cape Nosappu, I learned first-hand of the tetchiness of the country’s relationship with Russia, our often not-so-friendly neighbor to the north, from Cape Kozakihana nothing much at all. From the four collectively, I came to realize how Japan is like a day-old sandwich, curling up at the edges. My trusty friends the population data, in this case for the three cities and one town in which the capes lie, will help explain.
Wakkanai (north): 1980 population 53,471; 2010 population 39,005; 2035 population 26,656
Nemuro (east): 42,880; 29,868; 18,542
Sasebo (west): 288,231; 261,249; 201,724
Minami Osumi (south): 14,344; 8,837; 5,161
Japan is in full retreat from its peripheries, clustering ever more tightly in the three city-state enclaves of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, which have come to account for more than half the entire populace. You can see this process of retreat at work on a smaller, prefectural scale, too: while the population of Kagoshima is projected to fall by a fifth from 2005 to 2035, the population of the eponymous prefectural capital, which has more than a third of the people, is set to fall by only a tenth, the population of the rest of the prefecture by more than a quarter. Japan is destined more than ever for a desert geography of scattered urban oases surrounded by sands of abandonment.
While I admit that on first encounter I was amused by the dilapidation of Cape Sata, in retrospect and as I learned more about its history I grew appalled by the institutional paralysis—the cape is not some anonymous promontory but somewhere known at least by name to almost all Japanese, if rarely visited. It would only take a philanthropist with a couple of million dollars to spare to restore the cape to its rightful state—alas, such acts of charity are in short supply in contemporary Japan.
In a Nikkei newspaper article not so long ago, a writer plausibly referred to the government’s reliance on debt issuance, at the expense of future generations, for one yen out of every two that the state raises in revenue as the shadow of death stealing across the face of Japan (日本の死相). For me, that shadow of death is Cape Sata. Perhaps it really is time to start writing the Nippon Necrologues.
[With many thanks to D.B. for last-line inspiration.]