I have a thing for islands.
Ever since I started this blog, I have slept every night on an island. The only times I have been on a continent were the day trips I made to Kowloon and the New Territories in Hong Kong and the Macau peninsula.
Here is a list of all of the islands I have been to since the start of this blog, not including artificial islands, islands where I did not step off the boat/bus, islands without freshwater, or islands within lakes:
– Little Liuqiu (Taiwan Archipelago)
– Xiyu (Penghu Archipelago)
– Tongpan (Penghu Archipelago)
– Qimei (Penghu Archipelago)
– Wangan (Penghu Archipelago)
– Hujing (Penghu Archipelago)
– Baisha (Penghu Archipelago)
– Niaoyu (Penghu Archipelago)
– Lanyu (Taiwan Archipelago)
– Green Island (Taiwan Archipelago)
– Dongyin (Matsu Archipelago)
– Nangan (Matsu Archipelago)
– Beigan (Matsu Archipelago)
– Dongju (Matsu Archipelago)
– Xiju (Matsu Archipelago)
– Ishigaki (Yaeyama Archipelago)
– Iriomote (Yaeyama Archipelago)
– Taketomi (Yaeyama Archipelago)
– Zamami (Kerama Archipelago)
– Yoron (Amami Achipelago)
– Yakushima (Osumi Archipelago)
– Takashima (Nagasaki)
– Miyajima (Japan Inland Sea)
– Naoshima (Japan Inland Sea)
– Guishan Island (Taiwan Archipelago)
– Lantau Island (Hong Kong)
– Hong Kong Island
– Taipa (Macau)
– Lamma Island (Hong Kong)
– Rishiri island (Hokkaido)
– Rebun island (Hokkaido)
– Sado-ga-shima (Niigata)
– Shikoku (which is where I am right now)
That may seem like a lot of islands … but Japan alone has over 400 inhabited islands. One could spend a lifetime traveling around the islands of Northeast Asia.
Why do I have such a thing for islands? It is because islands juxtapose isolation and connection.
Islands are isolated enough that they can develop their own unique character. Isolation often means that islands preserve things (cultural practices, forests, governments, etc.) which have been lost in the “mainland”. I would say that every island on the list has a distinct atmosphere different from any other island (okay, I admit that I blur Honshu and Kyushu together in my mind a bit, and that Beigan is a lot like Nangan).
In this respect, the Yaeyama islands particularly stand out: in spite of being so close to Taiwan, they feel very different, in spite of once being part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, they feel very different from Okinawa, and Ishigaki, Iriomote, and Taketomi are so different from *each other* that it is incredible that they are all less than an hour away from each other by ferry.
As one Taiwanese person put it ‘Taiwan’s islands do not feel like Taiwan’. Of course not – Taiwan is an island, and though those other islands are under the same government as Taiwan, and some people on those islands identify as Taiwanese, they are separate islands.
Yet islands are often points of connections. Some islands have historically or continue to be major centers of maritime trade, and they are often places where different species can mix (Lanyu/Green Island, for example, has plant species from both Taiwan and the Philippines, as well as endemic species found nowhere else in the world), and where different human cultures can mix. Macau/Taipa is a classic example, though many other islands on the list – such as Kinmen and Okinawa – are also excellent examples of cultural-exchange islands.
In some ways, Hong Kong Island is the best example. On the one hand, it is the location of one of the most famous cities in the world, a major financial center, tons of human history, culture, and engineering feats, and amazing human population density. Yet in addition to being a human metropolis, it is also an avian metropolis since it is along major bird migration routes and Hong Kong has some really good bird habitat. Furthermore, 40% of Hong Kong Island is covered by forest, there are many wild animals running around – including a ridiculous number of wild butterflies – there are little waterfalls and brooks in the woods, there are beaches which look like they belong to vacation island rather than an urban island, and there are ancient rock carvings. Oh, and there is a peak high enough to create clouds to rain on everybody. There is even a species of frog which is only found in the islands of Hong Kong.
There is so much wildlife in Hong Kong because the hills are so steep that they inhibit human ‘development’ (and when people try to develop them, nature gets revenge with landslides and water system disruptions), at the border of land and sea different biological resources can get pooled together and, being islands, some species which cannot survive on the mainland can find refuge in isolation. Likewise, Hong Kong has historically been a melting pot of Chinese, British, Indian, and many other cultures, and much of its cultural and political vibrancy is due to the fact that it has been a place where Chinese people have had greater freedom of expression than in mainland China – in short, because of Hong Kong’s unique combination of isolation (from Chinese government control) and connection (to China and the world outside of China).
Perhaps I should not go to continental Eurasia next week.