The Island Without Tourists

Koinobori, traditional carp windsocks, flying over Naoshima’s school grounds this month.

By A. D. McCormick

After a few days of perfect, cloud-free blue, the sky on Naoshima settled into a muted gray. Up the street from us, an old man was burning wood scraps and other garbage in a barrel, and the campfire smell made its way through the village. But unlike most Aprils, this year there wasn’t anyone walking around to notice the smoke. The island has no tourists.

Back in January, when a still-nameless virus was spreading disease and fear through Wuhan and China locked the entire city down, I was in America with my son, reading the news online. Like just about everyone else, the prospect of a pandemic was a remote idea. I flew back home to Japan at the end of the month, and the black facemasks that the flight attendants wore seemed like a quaint accessory, added to the black uniform out of an abundance of caution. Still, I felt my breathing grow shallow.

Smoke wafts down an empty street in Honmura on Naoshima.

In February, as cases of acute pneumonia appeared in the west, the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at Yokohama, and the coronavirus got a name, I attended an academic conference on tourism in Wakayama. Covid-19 became a part of every conversation among the world’s leading tourism experts who gathered there. With them, we envisioned a crisis enveloping the world, yet even then I think most of us did not fully grasp its significance.

At the time, two colleagues and I were close to finishing an article on small business entrepreneurship on islands in the Seto Inland Sea, including Naoshima. Years of arts investment and a successful triennial art festival have brought an explosion of tourism to the islands, which has resulted in a surge in small business development. These businesses are mostly cafes and restaurants, small guesthouses, bicycle rental shops—the sorts of things you would expect to find in tourist places. Many of these businesses share a certain laid-back island quality, with casual decor and hand-painted signs. The sterile, hyper-polite efficiency of Japanese city hospitality recedes, and things slow down.

Tourists at a cafe on Naoshima in 2019.

In the summer, you sip iced coffee on an old couch in a semi-converted tatami living room, watching as little boats motor by outside the window. The lunch menu is written out in Japanese and carefully-transcribed—but still glitchy—English. Cool music is playing, by a band whose name you’ll never know. Our article was for a scholarly journal, but it was difficult to resist putting something of the feel of these places into the writing. People came here for this feeling as much as for the artwork. When they go, they take it with them.

I’ve lived on Naoshima for a year now, and I know how carefully the cafe owners craft this nostalgia-generating magic. The magic still works on me, even though home is a few doors down. After the conference in Wakayama, we guided a small group of international professors around Naoshima and the nearby island of Inujima, as Covid-19 took hold in northern Italy. It was a holiday weekend, the new emperor’s birthday, and it was noticeably crowded, though with the recent ban on travelers from China, there were almost no foreigners—highly unusual for Naoshima. But we still managed to get a last-minute table for 15 people at one of the few restaurants open for dinner in our village, a place called Ebisukamo. We sat on the floor and ate thick cuts of local yellowtail sashimi, fried mackerel, and fluffy steamed rice. Ebisukamo has several kinds of sake from throughout the region, and the best one is called Gaijin, which is also the word for foreigner, making it difficult for me to order it unselfconsciously, though order I did.

A quiet road on Naoshima this week.

Afterwards, the academics traveled back to New Zealand and Montreal and Hainan and Poland. Many of them went straight into two-week quarantine.

In the two months since, tourists on Naoshima slowly, then rapidly, declined. Now there are none. Last week, while we were eating dinner at home with our neighbors, the front door opened. I went out to discover a forlorn French tourist standing in the entranceway. He asked plaintively if this was a restaurant, and I told him that, unfortunately, it was not. Everything was closed, he said. I thought wistfully of a time when I would have happily invited him inside to join our meal, without a moment’s hesitation about unwittingly introducing disease into our community. Instead, I did my best to provide directions to the one restaurant we thought might still be open, and wished him luck.

Tadao Ando’s “Labyrinth of Cherry Blossoms” is in bloom on Naoshima, with no tourists to see it.

The next day, our neighbor saw the man and learned that, happily for him, the restaurant I sent him to the night before had indeed been open. Even this fact, a week later, seems almost like a dream. Everything is closed now. Another neighbor, who runs a bicycle shop on the island, has resigned himself to long-term closure, giving his part-timer odd jobs—for now. Still other staffers have gone back to live with relatives in Tokyo or elsewhere. After so much time spent among these wonderful entrepreneurs, it’s painful to contemplate a future where some or many may go out of business forever.

In the meantime, if someone showed up on my doorstep tonight looking for a place to eat, I wouldn’t know what to tell them. But then, no one would show up. The streets are now truly deserted.

As a westerner in rural Japan, you become used to a certain look you get from locals. But locals on Naoshima rarely give you a second glance. Western tourists are abundant here, and have been for over a decade. Until this year. Now, a few other resident gaijin and I are the only westerners here, and locals who don’t know us do give us looks, and I don’t have to work too hard to imagine what they are thinking. Perhaps this was a tourist place before, but it isn’t now.