猿島 Brick Battleship

So I haven’t written this blog for almost a year. I will keep the grovelling short so as to get to the content, but exams, leaving Japan etc. kinda got in the way. Though I now live back in the UK, I have a huge collection of pictures from Japan as well as several blog posts I didn’t write for whatever reason. The mood has taken me to write, and I was surprised to see this blog still gets around 300 hits a month despite my doing absolutely nothing, so I decided I’d write the rest of the posts when I am able.

Today I’d like to take you back to March of last year, where I took a trip to an island called Monkey Island (猿島 Sarushima), which had no monkeys, but lots of history. Part of the reason I decided to write this post is I have exams coming up and this post required a lot of translation work due to all of the signs being in Japanese. I thought that this would be some good practice. It turns out Monkey island is not only pretty but very historically interesting.

Monkey Island is a small island, about 0.055 km, 1.7km off the coast of Yokosuka, a town in the Tokyo bay area. It is also the only natural island in Tokyo bay (there were artificial islands built during the early 1900s) and has been inhabited since the Jomon period (about 12,000 BC). Its position as the only island in the bay has led to its use as a military outpost through the years, making it great place to visit if you like ruined buildings or military history.

We reached the island by ferry from Yokosuka jetties (next to the battleship Mikasa) which took about 15 minutes. The ferry runs until about 6pm, giving people plenty of time to explore the island or just have a BBQ on the beach. It might even be fun to stay on the beach over night in the summer, though an abandoned military fort at night seems a bit too much like a horror setting.

We took the path up from the beach towards the ruins. All the fortifications were cut into the breakwater, effectively making them invisible from outside the island; what appears a small island with some trees and steep cliffs becomes a moss covered maze of fortifications as you walk further in.

The main ruins of the island date back to the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), the period of ‘opening’ for Japan, after the arrival of the American Black Ships in 1853 caused a revolution that overturned the old Shogunate system. Prior to this, in 1847, the Shogunate built three buildings on the island to prevent foreign ships entering the bay (they were not successful in this endeavour). Commodore Perry, as he passed the island, named it Perry Island, though the name didn’t really stick, and it’s still called Monkey Island by both Japanese and the Americans at the nearby base.

The fortifications from the Meiji period consist of a series of rooms and tunnels in the centre of the island. Facilities included barracks, a medical room, command rooms and a gunpowder magazine. The barracks are the rooms with the small windows, while the gunpowder storage rooms have large well-like holes in the ceiling, presumably for transporting the gunpowder up to the guns, which were mounted on the top of the fortifications. You cannot actually enter the rooms (presumably for safety reasons) but you can peer inside and walk through the main tunnels.

Though the island was bristling with men and weapons and ready to fight throughout the Meiji period, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which devastated most of the Tokyo area, caused the collapse of many of the rooms. This, along with the development of fighter planes and long range guns, meant that the island never saw war.

Monkey Island was also used as a military facility during World War II. Guns and surveillance buildings were placed on the island, but the older red-brick buildings were not used, so they survive in the same state as they were in the Meiji period.

Translating the signs has certainly enriched my knowledge of the site; it turns out the red brick tunnel, which looked very clean and almost new, is actually one of the oldest red brick buildings in Japan. Brick buildings, originating in Nagasaki, were popular from the 1860s onwards, but due to earthquakes and disrepair, only 22 red brick buildings dating back to before 1887 remain in Japan.

The red brick section of the fort, built from bricks originating the Aichi prefecture, is an example of what is know in Japanese as ‘French-style’ brick building. In the Meiji period it was commonly known as ‘English-style’. It is in fact known to the rest of the world as the Flemish Bond, as it is thought to have originated in Flanders, Belgium. There are only 4 examples of this style of brick building in the whole of Japan, making Monkey Island’s tunnel pretty special.

Aside from the stunning ruins, Monkey island is also a prime fishing spot for locals, as well as a popular BBQ location. You can rent BBQ equipment from the main reception building when you get off the ferry.

I highly recommend a trip to Monkey Island if you find yourself in the Yokosuka/ Yokohama area, especially if you love exploring overgrown ruins. The signs are all in Japanese, but this blog is basically an entire translation of them, so consider yourself far more informed than any other non-Japanese speaker visiting the island. And no, I have no idea why it’s called Monkey Island.

横須賀 The False Fuji

久しぶり!It’s been a long time! (久しぶり, hisashiburi, is something you say in Japan when you meet someone you haven’t seen in a while). You can blame my absence on my parents – they visited me from the 1st until yesterday (the 9th), and that, combined with the start of the spring semester at my university has left me with no time to write. I have been to see loads of cherry blossoms and I’ve nearly filled up my stamp book, so look forward to lots of blog posts in the near future!

Today I will pick up where I left off, in Yokosuka visiting my friend in March. I may choose to mix up the next few posts and alternate between Yokosuka and Kyoto, but we shall see what takes my fancy. This will be the story of the False Fuji.

When visiting Yokosuka I looked at Google maps for inspiration for a day out, something I do a lot and has led me to a lot of great adventures. I noticed a mountain to the south of us called 富士山, Mt Fuji. Clearly the real Mt Fuji is not in Yokosuka, I checked it was in its proper place myself when I passed it on the Shinkansen on the way there. But there it was, Mt Fuji the 2nd. The lesser, the pretender. As I am nowhere near physically fit enough to make the 12 hour trip up the real Mt Fuji, we thought it would be fun to check out this one. That way I can honestly say that I have climbed Mt Fuji, just not the one everyone thinks about.

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We made our way to the vicinity of Fuji 2.0, walking towards the mountain and looking for a way up. We noticed that sat atop the mountain was a figure. A rather familiar figure by now, it was yet another giant Buddha. This is my third giant Buddha since coming to Japan (one of which I saw in Hong Kong, the other in Kamakura). We managed to find the entrance to the way up the mountain, and discovered that it was a large mountainside graveyard. Undeterred, we climbed up to the Buddha anyway, enjoying the view from the path.

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Japanese graves are not the same as those in the West; They  are often a small stone tower with wooden markers sticking out the back, and offerings of flowers and sake in front. I did some research into what the wooden markers signify and it turns out they are actually new names given to the deceased. The idea is that if you are given a new name when you die, if someone says your name you won’t come back to life (presumably as a terrible zombie). Temples charge for these names, and the higher your donation the more elaborate and cool-sounding your post-departure name is. One’s real name is also written on the gravestone, and sometimes even the name of one’s spouse is engraved while they are living to save money (one engraving is cheaper than two). The spouse’s name is painted in red to signify they are still living, and the red paint is removed when they die. It probably isn’t a great feeling to know your name is already written on your grave-stone, waiting for you.

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The graveyard was fairly uniform, which is hardly surprising as 91% of funerals in Japan are Buddhist. Japanese funeral customs are unique, and while a foreigner will probably never have to partake in a Japanese funeral, these customs are felt in every day life. There are a few things you should be careful to avoid doing in Japan, as they are considered a social faux-pas, and are very easy to do.

For example: Your mum wants to try some food on your plate, so you pass her the food from your chopsticks to hers. This reminds Japanese people of passing bones chopstick-to-chopstick in traditional Japanese post-cremation ceremony, so don’t do this. Later you go to a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel, and you are given a yukata, a lightweight kimono-style garment, to wear. You cross the two flaps over right over left, not thinking about it. Soon, a Japanese person sees you and helps you correct it to left over right. This is because only the dead wear their kimono right over left. In addition, sticking your chopsticks vertically into your rice is also reminiscent of offerings of food to the dead, which is offered with the chopsticks in this position, so best to avoid doing that as well. As you can see, you learn a lot about Japanese funeral customs from daily life in Japan without ever going to one. 

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I would recommend the film Departures (おくりびと) for anyone who wants to know more about Japanese funeral customs. While it is a morbid topic, it’s interesting seeing how other cultures deal with death, and the film itself is actually light-hearted, funny and has beautiful cinematography. I strongly recommend it, even if you have no interest in the funeral practices, and it’s won several awards, so I’m not alone in this recommendation.

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We made it up to the top of the hill and discovered a pagoda and the large Buddha statue. The statue watched over the graveyard and looked out to sea, giving the sense that the graveyard was in safe hands. Under the Buddha was a gated hall, and the inside seemed to be a well kept lobby or a vault. We were unsure what was inside but it seemed like it could be a secret spy den, or illuminati related. Or something related to Buddhism and funerals, but I still think it was suspicious. It was guarded by two demon-like statues that seemed determined to keep people out.

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They even had a memorial for pets, which was a really nice thing to see, though it made me sad, as my family dog, Jasper, died a few weeks prior. The inscription just says ‘thank you, thank you’ and there was a memorial wall next to it with pets’ names and the date. It was a lovely way of remembering pets and the joy they brought their families.


Once we’d climbed that mountain we decided to head round to see if there was another path up. On the way round we came across a place that made statues – graves, statues for gardens, and a pair of rather… intimate, statues. I’ll let you spot them.


I wanted to see the shrine that was on the other side of the mountain (according to Google maps), but it turned out to not be a real shrine but a collection of old statues in the woods and a stone alter at the peak. We climbed up False Fuji, a little slowly as it was steep, muddy, and I’m pathetic, making it up in time to see the sunset from the top. I think had the sun been out of the way, we would have been able to see the real Mt Fuji from the top. Many mountains in Japan are named ‘Fuji’ or have ‘Fuji’ in their names if you can see the famous mountain from the top.

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We made it down the mountain just before it got really dark, taking it slowly as the steps were uneven and very muddy. I really enjoyed getting off the beaten track and going on an adventure, especially as it turned out to be a great experience.