On my summer vacation to the Oki Islands last year (which was fantastic in so many ways), I took two half-days to try out an art project: mud dyeing.

It was something I decided rather randomly. I showed up on Nishinoshima having only decided that I wanted to see horses (and I saw lots of horses), but I had no plan for the next day. The tourism information office directly across from the ferry port was extremely helpful, and has lots of information lined up to answer my “what shall I do?” question. Not only did they give me suggestions, but they made all the reservations for me. That’s also how I suddenly wound up SCUBA diving the following morning.

Following my dive and my seafood lunch, I went out to start my art project. Mud dyeing starts with bright red rocks like this, one of the many, many geological features in this UNESCO Geo-Park.

It’s broken up into even brighter pieces like this, which we use for the dye. You can also make it into clay for pottery.

It can be used to dye many differents of fabrics, I was sticking with a very simple weave that would make the color show up really well for a tie-dye effect. I enjoyed trying out a bunch of different ways of folding and tying the cloths so that I could see what sort of effects I’d get, but if I were ever to do this again, I’d probably start with a pattern in mind and attempt to stick to it. As you can see in these charcoal tie-dyes, you can do a lot of cool stuff with it if you have some clue what you’re doing.

After binding the parts of the cloth you want to leave undyed, you work the mud water into it…

…and then hang it out to dry.

The following day, I returned to finish up. Usually, in order to get a very deep color, you’d want to leave them out longer before giving them a salt water rinse, but in the interest of time we sped up the process a bit. Off to the beach we went!

The water was super clear and you could see lots of tiny fish until you rinsed the cloths and the muddy color clouded about. While out there in the sun, the lady who taught to do this and I had a fun conversation about her sudden decision to move from Gifu to the Oki Islands after seeing a segment about them on TV, and about how pleasant it is to live among both mountains and the sea. (Later, she also made me lunch, drove me to the port, and just when I thought we had said good-bye, she came back and asked if I wanted ice cream. So we had ice cream together, too.)

While giving them a little more time to dry in the sunshine before packing them up and taking them with me, I took a stroll around the area to see the greenery, the flowers, and the water.

My “designs” turned out kind of cool, but very uncoordinated.

That’s okay. I went to the islands to enjoy going with the flow and doing things in the moment instead of trying to stick to a plan.


This is a well-known story in the Oki Islands. It’s a story about Yurahime Shrine on Nishinoshima, but it is said to have originated on Chibu. They are both small islands to the west, and Nishinoshima is one of my favorite hiking spots in Japan. Despite all the semi-wild horses that roam Nishinoshima, the island’s mascot is a squid.

One day, Yurahime, who was said to be a daughter of Susano-o*, floated out to sea in a wash bucket for potatoes. What she was doing in the bucket, I do not know.

Along the way, she amused herself by lightly dipping her hand in the water. A squid thought it would be funny to mess with her and yanked on her hand. Some say that it bit her.

As punishment for that one squid that picked on her, giant groups of squid has to gather in the harbor right in front of Yurahime Shrine every year.

(*Some people say that this is another name for Suseri-bime, but I don’t see much to back this up, and that’s just asking for more confusion. At least I’m pretty sure she’s not a potato.)

I don’t know, if I were Yurahime and was trouble by the squid teasing me, I probably would not want bunches of them showing up at my door step.

This is a real occurence, though. So many squid would show up in this harbor that, from the Meiji period through about 1945, there used to be about thirty fisherman’s’ shops set up annually right around the harbor to wait for them, and they come in huge group into such shallow water that they can just put on a pair of rubber boots and then scoop up bucketfuls with their hands.

However, the squid eventually figured this out and stopped flooding the harbor. Or at least, they don’t do it as often any more. Every few years it still occurs, it seems.

However, even if this phenomenon is not quite what it used to be, squid fishing is still a big, big thing on the Oki Islands (and other places along the Sea of Japan coast of the San’in region).

Especially around Oki, fishing for them at night is very common, and they use boats with lots and lots of giant light bulbs. They’re really massive, cool looking things that are also used for decoration around some spots on the islands, and their light is so bright that the seasoned squid fishers have tanned skin from working all night right under them. The squid think that this bright light is daylight and come to the surface, only to caught. Who is the joke on now, squids?

They look somewhat squid-like, too.

They look somewhat squid-like, too.

I didn’t used to like squid, but I’ve come to appreciate it while living here, the translucent raw squid that is often served as part of a sashimi course at fancy dinners. For those looking to try it for the first time, dried squid is nice. One of my earlier interpreting jobs was explaining how to gut the things and prep them for drying, but I didn’t do it myself.

My most distinctive San’in squid memory was last December, on a winter night spent at the Takobana cottages in Shimane-cho, overlooking the Sea of Japan from high cliffs. While making hot pot and playing games with my coworkers and waking up to the sound of the waves was nice, we all shared a strange experience looking out at the sea that night and seeing the bright white lights on the horizon. In the sky, however, they were straight, vertical lines of white light, not reaching down to the horizon and not reflecting off of any visible clouds. If we were not away that it was squid abduction going on, we all would have been convinced that it was alien abductions going on.

There are multiple stories of Yamanba: “Old Mountain Ladies.” Some of these hermit ladies, like the kindly old Yamanba of Nishinoshima in the Oki Islands, are welcome visitors. Nishinoshima’s Yamanba would supposedly come down from the mountain around the start of winter, and teach the villagers how to weave fabrics and fish, before disappearing again towards the end of winter.

Then there were the feared Yamanba, like the one from this story from the Izumo region.

A long time ago, there was an Ushigata–that is, a merchant would would take goods from village to village on an ox. On this particular day, he bought some fish at the coast to sell inland. As he reached a mountain pass on Sanbe (the highest mountain in Shimane Prefecture), he was approached by a hideous Yamanba–her hair like silver, her gleaming eyes bulging, her mouth wide as if torn ear to ear, and her ghastly teeth large and sharp. “Hey, you,” she addressed him. “Gimme one of those fish. But should ya’ refuse…”

The Ushigata screamed and turned to run. As he picked up speed, the ox tripped, so he left it behind as he ran faster and faster as if falling. Soon he found himself with no place left to run, and he panted heavily as he looked for some place to hide. He spotted a little hut, and rushed in. “I’m sorry, but please help me!” he shouted. “I’m being chased by the Yamanba!”

He found, however, that the house was empty. Though he felt a little awkward entering someone else’s home, he had no other choice, so he hid himself in the rafters. Soon, he heard a growling voice outside. “Drat, he got away. I ate the fish an’ the ox, but I really wanted t’ eat that man!”

Oh no, I’m in her house. I’m done for! Kami-sama, tasukete kudasai–Gods, save me! he thought and held his breath.

As the Yamanba entered, she sat down next to the stove and wondered aloud, “Now should I sleep ‘er should I grill some rice cakes and then sleep?” Deciding on the later, she stuck some rice cakes on sticks by the fire. “Hmm. Does these smell like rice cakes, ‘er do they smell like human?” With a terribly sucking sound, she sniffed the air, then dozed off.

When he smelled the roasting rice cakes, the Ushigata realized he was terribly hungry. Feeling sure that the Yamanba was asleep, he used a long pole he found in the rafters to stab the rice cakes and pull them up so he could devour them. Soon after, the Yamanba woke up and noticed they were missing. “Where’s my rice cakes? Somebody stole my rice cakes! Who done it? Who’s there?” She then started to rummage around the hut looking for the thief.

Then, the Ushigata held his nose and quietly spoke like a Kami. “It was I who ate your rice cakes. Hi-no-Kami–the Fire God!”

“Ohhh, Hi-no-kami. Well, if a Kami ate it, there’s no helpin’ it. I’ll just go t’ bed. Letse, should I sleep in the rafters, or should I sleep in my cauldron?”

The Ushigata was hiding in the rafters, so of course he could not let her sleep up there. Using the Kami voice again, he said, “The cauldron is best.”

Thinking that it was a Kami who told her to do so, she climbed in the cauldron to curl up and sleep. The Ushigata took this chance to quietly climb down from the rafters. As he heard her terrible snoring, it occured to him that he should take that chance to rid the world of such a foe. He found a large rock outside, rolled it inside, and then put it on top of the lid of the cauldron.

The noise woke up the Yamanba momentarily. “I hear rumble-rumble birds singin’ out there, but it’s still night time!” So saying, she went back to sleep.

The Ushigata then proceeded to add firewood underneath the cauldron. Hearing the noise, the Yamanba woke up again, this time saying, “I hear rustle-rustle birds singin’ out there, but it’s still night time!”

Now, the Ushigata light the firewood, and as it started to grow, the Yamanba said, “I hear crackle-crackle birds singin’ out there, but it’s still night time!” Just as she said this, the fire roared, and the Yamanba tried to jump out of the cauldron. She was trapped by the rock on top, and screamed and thrashed around, but soon she grew quiet.

Once there was no sound coming from inside the cauldron, the Ushigata opened the cauldron and peered inside. There, he saw a giant old wolf with a mouth so wide that it looked like it was torn ear to ear, and it was burned to a crisp. Since then, no one ever spoke of running into the Yamanba.

Photo credit to my colleague for this photo taken near Sanbe this weekend! This is on the west side of the mountain (note the cows!). The “feminine” side, he explained, as opposed to the “masucline” east side where all the skiing spots are.