The Inland Sea through the Seasons: Slices of the Mellow Life of Seto Islanders (Photos)


The Seto Inland Sea offers breathtaking seascapes created by the multitude of islands populating it. The people who live here wear expressions that are as gentle as the climate is mild. “Island photographer” Kuroiwa Masakazu, who has visited more than 350 of the Seto islands, shares some of the images he has captured at different times of the year.

A Sea of Islands

Wedged between the main islands of Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū, the Seto Inland Sea is celebrated for the beauty of its island-studded seascape. It has been an important waterway since ancient times and holds as many as 727 islands, both inhabited and uninhabited.

Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796–1866), a German physician who stayed in Japan in the Edo period (1603–1868), commented on the Inland Sea in his book Reise nach dem Hofe des Sjogun im Jahre 1826 (Journey to the Court of the Shōgun in 1826): “With each turn of the ship, a new enchanted view of the beautiful islands would appear. The coastal landscapes of Japan [Hōnshū] and Shikoku, glimpses of which we could see from between the islands and rocks, never ceased to amaze me.”

The scenery that Siebold saw spreads before us even today, virtually unchanged.

A clear blue sky meets clear blue water—a signature view of the Seto Inland Sea (from the Takamiyama Observatory on Mukaishima).

Living as One with the Sea

I grew up in a mountainous area of Wakayama Prefecture with a view of the Seto Inland Sea. For me, those waters were an ever-present part of life that held a special place in my heart. When I decided to travel around the islands of Japan in between my wanderings in Southeast Asia, which I had begun as an 18-year-old, I started out with the islands of my home prefecture. I then began visiting the islands dotting the Seto Inland Sea, as they were accessible from Kyoto, where I had been living since my college days—and my life as an island photographer took off.

What fascinated me as I went from one island to the next were the nature-based lifestyles of the people I would meet there. Inspired by how they lived side by side with the sea, I became a frequent visitor to the Inland Sea islands they called home.

Getting to Know the Islanders

As I visited the islands time and again, I learned about how the islanders’ lives revolve around appreciating the changing seasons, following their faith, and cherishing their ties with their ancestors and with one another. Life on the islands is mellow, just like the sea around them. For one who spends his days bustling about in the city, the islands seem almost like utopia.

An elderly couple enjoys a peaceful moment under cherry trees in full bloom on Ibukijima.

The islands, moreover, would take on a different demeanor than usual on the day of their annual festivals. They were charged with energy, even without any flashy festival stalls or fireworks displays. I could see that everyone took pride in their island’s festival, and every festival was captivating. And so I became drawn even more to the islanders’ way of living—of spending each day with gratitude to the sea.

On the eve of the autumn festival at Bōzejima’s Ebisu Shrine, an event called Noborineri is held, in which crowds of participants clash with their bamboo poles.

I have been to virtually all the inhabited islands that are serviced by ferry. As my next step, I have obtained a boat license in the hope of visiting those islands that have no ferry service. I am looking forward to meeting more of the people living in the Inland Sea and to making new discoveries. With any luck, I will continue photographing life on the islands—both the changing and unchanging aspects—for decades to come.

The sun setting on the Inland Sea signals the end of another day in burning colors (Kakuijima).

(Originally published in Japanese on May 1, 2018. Photographs and text by Kuroiwa Masakazu. Banner photo: Tenmasen lighters proceed slowly across the quiet waters, forming a picturesque contrast to the blue sea and sky [Ōsakikamijima].)

photography Seto Inland Sea islands