This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery.
The journey from Tokyo to the island of Hirado, just off the coast of Nagasaki prefecture on the southern tip of Japan, is a long one. First the bullet train to Fukuoka, then a slower one to Sasebo, and finally a local train to Hirado-guchi. To reach the island one must drive across a brilliant red suspension bridge from the ’70s.
The harbor town at the far end of Hirado’s Golden Gate is quiet and still. A gentle and humid breeze sweeps through the streets. The pavements are smooth as a polished nail, the concrete clean and unbroken. Houses and low buildings cluster along the bay, and further inland, narrow streets meander uphill. There is no one in sight. A taxi driver explains that only the old remain on the island. The young people have moved to bigger cities where there is work. And it’s true: a few schoolchildren play tennis at the edge of town, but there are no adolescents roaming the streets.
The sea, too, is calm. The wind scrapes its surface into small waves, while the dark blue water mirrors the dark green mountains rising to jagged peaks behind. In the middle of the bay, a swim’s distance away, lies a round island densely covered with trees. It pops out of the sea like a button made of thick velvet. The stillness is interrupted by a flock of birds streaming out from the leafy island across the water.
Not only does Hirado appear ghostly, it feels like the very end of the world. A place so isolated and peculiar could only exist as a parallel universe in a Murakami story; it’s the kind of faraway town to which his characters are sent on mysterious, riddle-solving missions. But there is something else that makes this island unusual and enchanting.
Hirado was once a flourishing trading port, the first and most important entryway to Japan for the West and mainland Asia. The Portuguese arrived in 1550, followed by the Dutch and the British in the 17th century. For a while, Hirado was a Christian city until Christianity was banned and all Japanese women who had married foreigners were sent to Jakarta along with their children. The island bears traces of foreign influence, from a small arched stone bridge built using seventeenth-century Dutch construction methods to a Portuguese dessert called Kasudosu, a small rectangular sponge cake dipped in egg yolk and dusted with sugar. In the late 1800s, samurais traveled from Hirado to Tokyo to fight for a modern Japan. No other town or city in the nation has as many palpable markers of the pre-industrial West. And yet the island is truly remote, nothing like cosmopolitan Tokyo with its English subway signs and fluorescent skyscrapers.
Kaijyo Hotel, a gigantic white building whose half-moon shape follows the curves of the bay, also embodies this strange contradiction. In a town defined by small houses rising along the mountainside, the hotel astonishes with its 104 bedrooms and seaside resort aesthetic. Every room offers a spectacular view of the sea. The large reception area remains vacant aside from a man dressed in a formal black suit, asleep in a chair. A soft tinkling music plays in the background. In the hallway, a solitary squid in a tank darts back and forth.
The bedrooms, spacious by Japanese standards, are divided into two sections: twin beds on one end, traditional tatami flooring and a low table on the other. Their small bathrooms are made entirely of plastic, belonging more to a submarine than a home. The frayed fabric of the bed sheets and the warped, stained walls of the bathroom betray gentle neglect, as though the hotel, too, were caught between past and present. Outside a shiny bus pulls up to the entrance and empties dozens of Japanese tourists into the hotel.
The tourists, however, are nowhere to be seen, even during dinner, because the tables of the restaurant are separated by partitions. Only their whispering and the rustling of fabric suggest their presence. The leather chairs have wheels that allow diners to glide up close to or push away from the table throughout the meal, an invitation to court one’s food as one would a lover. A large plate of raw seafood crowned with a fish head still baring its sharp teeth is served. If seawater were solid, made of flesh, it would have the texture and flavor of this sashimi: firm, pure, barely saline, never fishy.
The hotel is famous for its outdoor baths, known as rotenburo, located on the top floor and mostly used at night. The sky, strung with stars, illuminates the pale bodies of women who hose themselves with flexible nozzles before soaking in the steaming bath. In the rotenburo, the hotel comes to life. Women of all ages dress and undress, holding small towels to their chests as they step outdoors. One woman is very thin and as she bends over to slip on her clothes, the bones along her spine crest under her skin like knuckles. The women don’t converse, but the silence is pleasant and soothing. As the bathers soak in hot water, they look out onto the bay where the sea glistens black as ink.