Seashells in Yakushima Island
‘Seashells in Yakushima Island’ is the title of a brand new book by Shunshiro Taniguchi which has just been published and which is available from Blackwell’s here in Oxford. It is a beautiful self-published book which introduces you to 345 different types of seashell which are part of the collection of a Japanese orthopedist and seashell enthusiast who moved to Yakushima island on retirement. The island is a World Heritage site located in the south west of Japan. This moving and soulful piece explains the story behind the book.
In March 2009 I retired after 30 years as an orthopaedic specialist in Osaka. I decided to settle on Yakushima Island in Kagoshima prefecture, and found part-time work at the island’s only hospital. Apart from 2 days a week working, I spend my time on art, climbing in the Okudake Mountains, and collecting seashells and ancient ‘Yakusugi’ Cedar driftwood on the beach.
Yakushima Island lies in the East China Sea, south of Kyushu, and surrounded by the warm Kuroshio Current. Its high temperature, averaging 19C° all year round, is the reason for its diverse sea life. Apart from a few sandy beaches where turtles nest, the coast is mainly stony, but the vast, sandy bed between Yakushima and Tanegashima is home to many snails and bivalves, whose shells are often washed up around the island.
My first house on the Island was an old wooden bungalow, in scenic Mugio village at the foot of Mt. Takahira, surrounded by orange groves and virgin forest. I felt like the Vedic sage Yajnavalkya, leaving behind family life and retiring to live the woods. Of course, it wasn’t quite like that! Each evening I sat on a big granite rock in the garden as the sun went down, then spent the night sorting my seashell and insect collections, and carving Yakusugi wood. With no TV or radio, I was isolated from day-to-day information and could lose myself in reading and daydreams.
After two years I moved to my current house in Anbou. Its back yard was once a fruit garden, and I can still pick Tankan oranges from December through March and make my own juice. The house has been completely overtaken by my collection, with so many specimens of seashell, local insects and carvings everywhere, it almost looks like a little natural history museum of Yakushima.
I usually go to the beach in the early morning, especially after winter storms and autumn typhoons, to comb for shells and driftwood. One of the most exciting mornings of my life was in October 2009, after a night of terror, with 90 mile/hour winds buffeting my old wooden house. Such heaps of treasure were washed up on the shore; enormous, strange shells with still-living inhabitants, and a 100kg Yakusugi log which had lain 40 years on the seabed at the mouth of Anbou River.
I am fascinated with the beauty of seashells. I can lose myself in imagination, tracing their beautiful forms and patterns, or holding one to my ear to hear the echo of the sea. I decided to make a photo book of my collection in May 2011, and it has taken two years, with the help of many people.
For me, this is the natural extension of a habit I formed in childhood. This dates back to 1960, when I was a twelve year old boy on vacation in my home town, in Kagoshima. Walking along Nishikata Beach, I found a beautiful, pristine Striped Bonnet shell deposited on the white sand after a big wave. I picked it up in fascination and delight, and my life as a collector began at that moment.
I first discovered Yakushima in 1985, on holiday with my family. We drove to a beach in Shitoko, and saw piles of seashells washed up everywhere. It was like stumbling on a gold mine, with countless snails, clams and tiny shells that I had never seen before. This scene was etched vividly into my memory, and has never left me. I would often dream about it, and be reminded of Yakushima Island.
When I finally returned to Shitoko in 2009 I found the same beach buried in concrete blocks, and the mountains of seashells in my memory were gone. Hoping to recapture that scene, I walked along every single beach in Yakushima, but I couldn’t find it. Even today, I feel as though I’m still searching for that beach from my dreams.