I love the Japanese islands. They seem uninhabited and yet, there’s always … something. On Nishinoshima (Nishino Island), it’s wasn’t just the stunning landscapes, freely ranging animals, or a 800-yen oyster, I also met a real character: Stéphane, a champion petanque player who lives there, far from everything and everyone.
I didn’t know anything about the island beforehand; I’d just gone to spend a night there out of curiosity. Stéphane’s Japanese wife approached me as the ferry docked. She works at the tourist office and promptly arranged for me to meet her husband. After a huge oyster costing only 800 yen (would you believe – but very good all the same!) in the only restaurant on the island, he gives me a tour.
Hi! I’m Jordy Meow from Arcachon. And yourself?
Stéphane: I’m Stéphane, I was born in Haute Savoie and I’m a backpacker at heart. At 19, I left France to see North America by truck. Then I stayed 10 years in New Caledonia and awhile in Asia. And for 5 years I worked for the French civil service, before it dawned on me that it wasn’t my thing.
What gave you the idea to come here?
Stéphane: I’d just finished my house when my wife decided to go back to her home country. She’d just spent 15 years in France and was starting to feel homesick. I’d never imagined something like this happening, but I said OK on two conditions: I’d need to live away from the big city and have a job to go to when I got there. So she took a vacation in Japan, coming back to tell me: we’re leaving in 4 months to make our home on a Japanese island – at first we’ll both have a job on a 3-year contract, accommodation provided. I couldn’t avoid it any longer!
What! But that’s amazing! How come?
Stéphane: Your part of the deal is to develop an original idea. As you know, rural Japan is becoming depopulated and the government is trying to keep some activities going. The first year was a bit difficult, so playing petanque was a good way of getting off the island for a while.
Who’s eligible for these contracts?
Stéphane: They’re open to everybody. It’s government-funded aid, from the prefecture and the island itself. It can cover up to 50% of the cost of your project, to be used to buy equipment, carry out renovations, pay wages or even rent restaurant space. Some people might buy a fishing boat or farm machinery.
Stéphane: Each prefecture offers assistance to different villages for a 3-year period. You have to be between 18 and 60 with a specific project in mind. After 3 years you can move on to another project somewhere else. As for wages, you’re paid about 140,000 yen net a month for working a 5-day week. There’s 4 weeks of annual leave with a bonus in June and another in December (so that’s 14 months’ pay). Travel and hotel expenses are reimbursed as well. On top of that there’s a 4,000,000-yen budget to cover events or training courses.
And what is it you’re doing exactly?
Stéphane: My job is to organize events for locals and tourists using local produce. Here, a lot of the buildings are new, the college, the library and soon the town hall. There’s only 12 children in my daughter’s class.
So what does your project involve, and how does it work?
Stéphane: You have to draw up a costed business plan, as for the bank, and present it to a committee. You’re given marks and the aid varies depending on your total. The town hall also offers 1,000,000 yen towards each project. These aids are used as your bank deposit to secure a loan.
Stéphane: My plan was to cook, maybe open a restaurant. But I’ve run one before so know about the advantages and disadvantages. Such as having to stay on the island. Don’t know if I was ready for that. So while we were in Tokyo, I saw some food trucks … and had the idea of making pizzas on the move!
Awesome! Have you already talked to the locals about this? Whereabouts on the island will you sell your pizzas?
Stéphane: There’s 3 places where I thought of selling them, one at Beppu where the ferry leaves, the parking lot of the only supermarket on the 3 islands, and the marina. The supermarket did some advance publicity, so on the first day I sold out in 20 minutes and the same the next day. There were some disappointed customers!
Is there a Nishinoshima special?
Stéphane: I want to make a special pizza based on seafood and oysters for the summer season, because these are the island’s premium products.
It’s lovely out here today, but what do you do in winter on an island like this?
Stéphane: Winter is quite difficult, there’s not much to do, the shops and restaurants are closed. So now we take our vacation at that time of year.
Above, Nishinoshima’s only restaurant. Open at noon. An expensive but very attractive oyster. But as I’m from Arcachon Bay, I prefer the oysters there, as they’re more delicate and iodine-flavoured. Not a great fan of the Japanese variety.
Are the locals OK with you?
Stéphane: Yes, everything’s fine with them. When somebody new turns up, they don’t hesitate to talk to you and help you. Some even come round to your place for a meal. The first year, I might have just landed from outer space as far as the islanders were concerned, but now I help with beach cleaning for the masturi (festivals) and I get invites to people’s homes. And because of the day job contacts I was able to organize some foodie events, meals, cookery classes and the like, so people came to accept me. Last year, I was made chief of police – every year a different person is chosen as an honour. My grasp of Japanese is still very poor though.
Could you tell me something about household expenses, and your quality of life?
• Rent: A house of 90 m2 with a small garden is 50,000 yen a month – it was 65,000 yen but I got a bargain.
• Car: Parking is free. Insurance costs 50% less than on the mainland.
• Buses and boats: 100 yen for children and 300 yen for adults, same price for the boat between the islands.
• Sport: Tennis lessons with a teacher cost 200 yen for 2 hours. Subscription for 6 months at the pool and gym is 18,000 yen for the three of us.
• Culture: The library is free and will order any books we need.
• Ferry: To get to the mainland, the ferry costs 5,000 yen return and then you have to stay at a hotel, so it’s quite an outlay.
• Food: We buy meat on the mainland and freeze it; fish and vegetables are sometimes supplied by friends or we buy it at the supermarket. Prices 25% more than on the mainland. Any surplus of fish is announced over loudspeaker and sold off. The islanders share much of their produce – yesterday I got 2 kg of squid, last week some vegetables and wild boar. When the boats come into the next island, everybody can go and buy fish.
• Internet shopping: Amazon Prime delivers for free and Costco delivers once a month.
Are there other foreigners living on the Oki Islands?
Stéphane: There’s a French cook, a German who grows organic veg, some Vietnamese fisherfolk, American teachers and a woman from New Zealand who works at the tourist office. There’s 5 of us with permanent residence and 2 teachers replaced every 2 years. The Vietnamese keep themselves to themselves, the Americans are friendly, the New Zealander’s been here for 7 years. She’s married to a Japanese man and has two children.
Which are the best spots to visit on the island?
Stéphane: I think you can’t beat the cliffs, the beach in summer and the sight of horses and cattle free to roam.
What are all these horses and cattle used for? They’re Japanese Black beef cattle, delicious wagyu, right?
Stéphane: The horses aren’t used for anything; the calves are shipped to the mainland. The oysters are huge here, I’ve made baked oyster burgers!
… and the cattle are indeed big wagyu, delicious! I can see a few curling their lips in the distance, but these beasts seem content with life here 🙂
Any really appealing events coming up?
Stéphane: There’s a boat festival, fireworks, inter-island sumo wrestling and buffalo fighting.
Which are the best restaurants in and around the island?
Stéphane: For me, the best is “Radice”, a litte Italian restaurant on Ama island, 10 minutes by boat. It’s run by a Japanese woman who learned her trade in Italy. For meat lovers, there’s the “Okigyuten” and maybe soon there’ll be my wife’s café.
Okigyuten is a wagyu restaurant, which you have to take a water taxi to reach. Travelling there and back Nishinoshima is like a dream, especially as the restaurant is just amazing, as you can see …
In the end, is Nishinoshima an example of the good life? Would you recommend other French people to settle here, or somewhere else with similar opportunities?
Stéphane: To settle here, you have to love a quiet and simple life. It’s great for children, because they don’t have many restrictions. For adults, I think it’s better to come here as a couple otherwise you might soon be bored. The positive side of life on the island is its tranquility, as well as being far from conspicuous consumption. The negative side is the difficulty in getting around, such as the 7 hours it takes to Tokyo.
How do you see the future on the island? More people, more stuff, or not? And your own future?
Stéphane: I don’t think more people will move to these islands, as the government isn’t doing enough to motivate anyone to settle here. For me, Oki is a stopover, I’ll have to find another place later on. Japan is big enough 🙂
I cherished my trip to Nishino island, especially listening to Stéphane telling the story of his life here. If you’d like to hear from him, especially about his pizza, it’s on Facebook: Stef Pizza.
You really need decent weather to enjoy the landscape, and I highly recommend a water taxi to another island restaurant – a surreal experience!