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JapanFocus
Tsushima Island: Korean Fishermen's Heaven
Japanese island has long history of close relations with Korea
Robert Neff (neff)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2007-02-05 15:44 (KST)   
Located in between Pusan and Japan is the Japanese island of Tsushima (Daemado in Korean). It is actually closer to South Korea than it is to Japan. So close, in fact, that it is claimed on a sunny day that Korean mountains and buildings can be seen from Tsushima's west coast.

A Korean tourist standing near one of the many huge trees
©2007 Robert Neff

Tsushima is a beautiful rugged island covered with thick forested mountains and surrounded by a ragged coastline that provides deep, calm coves filled with fish. The forests are made up of bamboo and tall ancient trees and are crisscrossed with small quiet paths. Deer spores are found everywhere. According to an employee at the Tsushima Culture Center, there are more than 40,000 deer. The large deer population and scarcity of food causes them to invade the farmers' fields, causing great damage and limited hunting has begun in an attempt to cull their population.

Stone bridges straddling streams are found everywhere in the mountains
©2007 Robert Neff

Deer are not the only pests to farmers. Nearly 20,000 wild boars roam the mountains and often raid the sweet potato fields. Like the deer, limited hunting has been started in an effort to keep their numbers down.

In addition to the deer and boars are weasels and a multitude of birds, including pheasants, doves, and huge crows. Although the island is famous for the Tsushima Cat, there do not appear to be many of them left -- but there are a lot of wanna-be Tsushima cats, yellow tabby strays that follow visitors around in hopes of receiving a small treat or a friendly pat on the head.

A wanna-be Tsushima cat
©2007 Robert Neff

Most foreign visitors to the island are Koreans, not so much as tourists, but as recreational fishermen. Hundreds of Korean fishermen and their families ride the 쏶eaflower from Busan to Tsushima weekly. Loaded down with fishing tackle, kimchi (who can travel without kimchi?) and alcohol, they animatedly boast to one another of the fish they will catch. On the return trip they are even more animated. Reeking of fish and more often than not partially intoxicated, they grandly exaggerate about the fish that got away. Fishermen's exaggerations are not confined to any one nationality.

Sea Flower ferry operating between Busan and Tsushima
©2007 Robert Neff

The Tsushima fishing fleet
©2007 Robert Neff

The main city, Izuhara, is a small picturesque fishing port with two large canals that run through its center. These canals are lined with trees and fences graced with stained glass murals. These murals depict the Korean envoys sent to Japan via Tsushima, as well as local customs and ceremonies.

The canals are filled with fish, some as large as five or six inches, that suddenly leap from the water in an attempt to snatch an errant insect flying low over the water. Ducks are found in the morning on the smaller canal, swimming peacefully, but when provoked loudly quack, protesting any intrusion into their solitude. During the summer time small children hunt eels in the shallower waters of the canals with butterfly nets, jabbering excitedly as they stalk their prey. What they do with their catch is anyone's guess.

The picturesque main canal, filled with fish and framed with trees and bridges
©2007 Robert Neff

There are many hotels on the island, some operated by Korean companies, but if you are willing to try something different, there are a number of private homes and lodges that offer housing for affordable prices. There is also a youth hostel, housed in a beautiful traditional Japanese building located on the mountain and built, strangely enough, in the middle of a cemetery.

The youth hostel surrounded by the cemetery
©2007 Robert Neff

Izuhara city has several historical attractions, including Samurai Alley and the museum, but more importantly the Soh Castle. The Soh family controlled Tsushima from the 16th century as warlords. Part of the walls that guarded their castle still stands, and a large and beautiful cemetery carved into the side of the mountain bears witness to their long reign.

The main gate to the remains of Soh Castle
©2007 Robert Neff

The relationship between Korea and Tsushima literally goes back hundreds of years.

Homer B. Hulbert, one of the early Western missionaries to Korea, claimed that Tsushima was dependent on the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla. "It is important to notice that the island of Tsushima, whether actually conquered by Silla or not, became a dependency of that kingdom," because of its poor soil and inability to feed its own inhabitants and was annually aided by the Silla government.

Later, after the Imjin War, the Lords of Tsushima were the only ones allowed to conduct trade between Korea and Japan until just prior to Korea's opening to the West. Envoys sent to Japan also passed through Tsushima on their way to the Japanese capital.

This close relationship has led to the establishment of the annual Arirang Festival -- an event that involves the island's residents dressing up in Korean traditional clothing and hosting a parade attended by large numbers of Koreans. I was surprised several years ago to see Korean and Japanese flags prominently displayed and shown the same respect at the island's airport.

Many of the residents do speak a little Korean. In fact the last time I visited the island I noticed that most of the public servants studied some Korean. However, even though I speak Korean fairly well, most of the residents would not speak Korean with me. Considering almost no one speaks English -- including at the tourist hotel -- it made communication very difficult.

Of course the relationship between Tsushima and Korea occasionally has problems. During the spring of 2005, the government of Japan's Shimane Prefecture declared Dokdo a Japanese island and celebrated 쏷akeshima Day. In retaliation Masan city declared Tsushima a Korean island and celebrated 쏡aemado Day.

That May I visited Tsushima, which was busy making preparations for the centennial of the Russo-Japanese naval battle that occurred off the island, and noted with some alarm that along the main canal that many of the glass mosaics depicting the Korean envoys to Japan had been smashed. I informed some of the organizers of the centennial, who were very surprised and assured me that they would be fixed immediately. To be honest I am not sure if they were damaged through deliberate vandalism incited over the Dokdo issue or due to an intoxicated driver's impaired ability.

One of the many canal mosaics of the Korean Embassy
©2007 Robert Neff

In the summer of last year Japanese media reported several instances of unbecoming behavior displayed by Korean visitors. While many of these could be blamed on the differences of culture, others were plainly the immature actions of a few irresponsible Korean tourists. Perhaps the chief complaint was the graffiti at one of the temples. In Korean someone had wrote: 쏧f Dokdo is Japan's then Japan is Korea's. Another comment insulted the Japanese prime minister.

A large cemetery
©2007 Robert Neff

Another complaint was Korean pollution. Every morning the ocean's current brings a lot of floating debris from Korea to the island, irritating both the island's residents and visitors. However, there have been a lot of improvements, including large numbers of Korean students volunteering to clean the beaches and shores of Tsushima -- a noble effort. And while there may be some Korean tourists who do litter, the majority of litter that I witnessed in the mountains appeared to be garbage and broken furniture discarded by the residents of the island.

However, these are small problems and for the most part the relationship between the people of South Korea and Tsushima is excellent. If you are an expat living in South Korea and occasionally need to do a visa run and are tired of Fukouka, then a short trip to Tsushima might be just what you need. Prior to leaving, however, I would encourage you to change your money into yen because exchange facilities -- especially during holidays -- aren't always available.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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