As I trudged through the jungle on the northern side of Ioujima island, I was on the lookout for monkeys.
The canopy was so thick it kept out the light. The air was heavy and wet.
With my head craned, I looked through the vines and undergrowth: nothing. Nary a sound, smell nor shadow.
That night, in the Japanese town’s center, I laid eyes on the only monkey I would see the entire trip to the small fishing hamlet, a poster with a primate’s mugshot resembling a wanted poster. It warned of the dangerous yet elusive monkeys.
People were equally hard to find.
About a year ago, a bridge was built connecting Nagasaki city and Ioujima, an island of less than three square kilometers and home to fewer than 1,000 people, according to tourism websites.
In the offseason the lone beach is empty, the hiking paths and trails are empty, as are the roadways save for an empty bus that navigates empty bus stops and a lost-looking motorist from Tokyo or Fukuoka.
Nine hundred years ago, the island was a place where samurai and monks were exiled by warring clans, as well as a haven from religious persecution. It looks much today as it did then.
One unfortunate was Monk Shunkan from Kyoto, part of a trio caught plotting a coup against the ferocious Taira clan. They plotters were exiled to Ioujima in 1177. His accomplices were freed a short time later, but Shunkan remained and died soon after. He was buried at the top of a hill by his servant Arioumaru. A tomb has marked the spot where his body is believed to be buried since 1756.
Also on the spot is a memorial for all of the island residents who died in World War II. There are hundreds of names, seemingly more than there are houses today.
A short distance away lies Japan’s first lighthouse. Ioujima Lighthouse was illuminated in 1870 and served dutifully until it was damaged by the atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki, residents said. It was rebuilt later as a museum and tourist attraction.
Contained within the seawall, there are hillsides filled with colorful crabs, palm trees, sheer rock faces and rock jutting from a wild sea, picturesque views to other islands, and vibrant yet rustic fishing boats tied up on shore.
The Kazekaoru Hotel lies just over the bridge from the mainland, across from the island’s only school. This area provides the only real semblance of civilization. There, you can rent a room or a seaside cottage on the sprawling grounds that harken the Mediterranean. The well-kept grounds are lush and green, with palm trees and olive saplings. To get around, the hotel offers golf cart rides that weave around the tennis courts, gardens, pillars and cottages. On the grounds are stores, the island’s two main restaurants, onsens, sand baths and massage spas.
The small island — which you can see in a few hours — has no bars, a handful of smaller mom-and-pop restaurants, and one small supermarket. It is not for those who crave action or nightlife.
The fun of the island lies in the exploration, the isolation, the unknown. There is nobody around to assist you, nobody to ask questions. The fire department was shuttered. I saw only one police car drive over the bridge before turning around at the beach.
The summer brings people to the beach for sure, but in the offseason, as when I was there, it is one of a few places left on the planet where you can be an explorer. You can walk an overgrown path to a cliff that was frequented by samurai and see what they saw, feel what they must have felt: loneliness.
The bridge was meant to bring people to the island, but it might have helped them escape. I wonder if the monkeys left, too.