Wed, Mar 4, 2020

Sarushima: Lone-island fortress
off Yokosuka reclaimed by nature

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

The view of Sarushima or "Monkey Island" as the ferry approaches the pier
By Robert Sato / CIR for Yokosuka, Kanagawa Pref.

While Yokosuka is widely known for its rich naval history and culture, I believe that my time living here has made me truly realize how the traces of the past still linger to this day. From the old gatehouses continuing their vigil along the road to the weathered stone-carved mountain passes, there are many remnants of Japanese modernization that can be seen all around the city. Among these, Sarushima stands out as a prime example.

Nestled in Tokyo Bay floats the lone island of Sarushima. While it seems to be an island lush with vegetation from afar, Sarushima is much more than meets the eye. Hidden beneath the canopy of leaves, lies a rich human history recording back to the early Jomon period. Although the island is currently uninhabited, there have been many traces of human activity found on Sarushima ranging from Jomon period earthenware and stoneware, Yayoi period shell mounds, Kofun period burial sites, to the more prominent historic gun battery sites and naval facilities established during the period of Japanese modernization.

Visitors are often curious as to why the name of the island, Sarushima, translates to “Monkey Island.” To the disappointment of many, including myself, monkeys do not inhabit this island. The naming dates back to the year 1253, with the legend of Nichiren Shonin, founder of Nichiren Buddhism, as he sailed from the land of Boso to Kamakura. According to a popular version of this legend, during Nichren’s journey across the waters, he suddenly encountered a storm that threatened to sink his ship. As he chanted the Lotus Sutra, a white monkey appeared before his ship and guided him to the island where he could seek refuge. Today, visitors can peer into the seaside cave where Nichiren was believed to have practiced.

I have read about the historical background surrounding Sarushima before I made my own visit to the island due to translation assignments related to its recognition as a government-designated important cultural property and association with the Japan Heritage story, “The Four Dynamic Coastal Cities of Yokosuka, Kure, Sasebo, and Maizuru — Centers of Japanese Modernization –.”

The defense of Tokyo Bay was a priority for the Japanese government following the arrival of foreign ships. Although the coastal defenses established in 1847 during the end of the Edo period were destroyed by the Ansei Great Earthquakes (1854-1855), it is still possible to see the remains of the gun batteries and their respective facilities completed in 1884 during the Meiji period and the anti-air gun platforms installed in 1941 during the Showa period. Here, visitors can see structures and facilities built by the Japanese government that employed several techniques throughout different periods of Japan’s history. Sarushima’s barracks and tunnels are some of the few remaining large-scale brick structures in Japan using Flemish Bond instead of the more prevalent English Bond.

Barracks with bricks laid in Flemish Bond
Cut passage lined with barracks, ammunition depots and other facilities

As I explored the island myself, I found that those words could not fully describe the experience of exploring the immaculately preserved brick tunnels, barracks, warehouses and other facilities found all along of the island’s pathways. The towering walls and beautiful tunnels completely close off individuals from the outside world, creating an environment where visitors can become completely immersed in the wonders of modernization fused with island’s flora.

Brickwork tunnel laid in Flemish Bond

When I came to the hilltop viewpoints where anti-aircraft guns were once positioned, I could look out into Tokyo Bay and see how different the world was compared to before. International trade hubs such as Tokyo and Yokohama could be seen in the distance, as freight ships and cruise ships sailed to and fro their destinations.

While Sarushima holds a very different meaning for the people visiting today, its preserved ruins and pathways allow us to reconnect and experience its human history in a way that history books cannot replicate. Immerse yourself in the island’s atmosphere and listen to the same sound of the crashing waves heard by many others that have come before.

(Photos courtesy of Robert Sato)

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)


Robert Sato

Robert is from the United States and has been living in Yokosuka for over two years. He mainly translates information to promote the charms and lifestyle of Yokosuka. Other roles include cultivating relations for sister cities through student exchange programs and international ceremonies. His hobbies include photography, hiking and pouring coffee.



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