The Inland Sea of Japan doesn’t sound like a place that one can actually visit: too distant, perhaps even not quite real. I have long known its name thanks to Donald Richie’s marvellous book, The Inland Sea (1971), and know people who have been there, but never thought I would see it myself. It is a romantic idea, an Inland Sea, and Japan has the only one, as far as I know. It lies between three of the four large islands that make up the country, and contains many small islands of its own. Richie travelled the whole length of it, in search as much of himself as the Sea, and wrote about it so beautifully that no-one else ever need try.
I am still quite surprised to have found myself there, last month, not only on its shores but on three of the small islands, two of which, Miyajima and Naoshima, are described by Richie. They have changed since he was there, especially Naoshima, then “a small, beautiful, somehow sad little island,” now an “art island” with a good hotel and a museum designed by Andō Tadao, and a number of other art sites. Knowing beforehand that these buildings were there, and that they were made of unadorned concrete (except the part of the hotel I stayed in, which was made of friendly wood), didn’t help with finding one’s way around them, as they sometimes seemed intended more to be looked at than to be in. At one museum I rounded a corner to find a group of people standing in semi-darkness in front of a closed door with a red light beside it, waiting to be allowed in. Two Japanese women arrived and sorted things out immediately: the light was the fire alarm and the door didn’t open, we had simply taken the wrong turning. One man told me how embarassed he was as this was his second time there and he had got lost the first time too.
Reaching an actual door, with more people waiting outside, I think for Monet’s Waterlilies, and hearing that only eight persons, shoeless, were allowed in at a time, I gave up, retrieved my lovely transparent Japanese umbrella (exactly like the ones held over politicians in photos in the Japan Times) and blundered back out into the rain. It rained heavily on Naoshima, but the next day, when I set off for the next island, Teshima, the weather was glorious.
There is art on Teshima too, and what I wanted to see was by Christian Boltanski, his Archives du Coeur and Forêt des Murmures. I also hoped to see a Shintō temple in the countryside, a sight someone had told me was not to be missed. Transport was a bit tricky on Teshima; the bus was so full that the driver rejected some of the passengers. I went to a little harbour at one end of the island and walked further, feeling as if I were alone in the world. It was an adventure, going from one small island to another one yet smaller, so very far from home. The sun shone, nature was all around me, there was nobody about, but there were signs to the Archives du Coeur, one of them beside a torii indicating a Shintō temple. It was part of the triennal Inland Sea art show, for which one must be grateful, but for romance an absence of signs would have been better.
The temple was wonderful (on the way back there was an even more beautiful one), and eventually I came to the beach, which really did feel like the edge of the world, and was also where, in the words of Donald Richie, “I wanted to spend the rest of my life”. There, half hidden among the trees, was a little building where you could record your heartbeat and add it to many thousands of others. I didn’t do that; I had come to write Rudy’s name on a sheet of paper which would be transferred onto a metal label and be hung up with others on a tree in the Forêt des Murmures, to be blown about by the winds of the Inland Sea, and rained upon, and for ever be part of this extraordinary and incomprehensible place, where everything is alive and everything has a soul.