ISLAND OF SEROW
By Amy Chavez
Japan is known for its cat islands where the resident strays can outnumber the humans living there. There is also a rabbit island populated by cute cavorting rabbits. I’ve even been to an uninhabited island in the Seto Inland Sea where wild deer and pheasants run amok. But nothing could have prepared me for what I found on Goat Island.
I had heard about Goat Island from some locals on Kitagishima, an island in the Seto Inland Sea. “Sometimes I can see the goats walking across that sandbar at low tide,” said a venerable ojiisan while pointing his crooked finger to an outcropping of rocks a few kilometers away. He was sitting on an equally ancient tree stump that had been uprooted and brought on shore by the last typhoon.
We were on the opposite side of Kitagi Island’s Chinohama, or “Blood Beach,” where in the 1185 Gempei War, when the Heike clan lost the great sea battle of Dan’no Ura against the Genpei, the dead Heike warriors washed up on these shores. The souls of the fallen Heike are said to still haunt some of these islands in the Inland Sea.
“You’ve never been there?” I enquired. “No interest,” he said and dropped the subject.
I felt a challenge presented before me. I guessed the sandbar to be about four kilometers away, and I find it very difficult to turn down anything that involves goats.
I had raised a couple of goats when I was a child in the U.S. and I’ve found myself falling for them more and more the further away from childhood I get. Oh, those long floppy ears and slender legs! And who doesn’t marvel at the way they suppliantly kneel when grazing?
A few days later, I was watching cute goat videos on the Internet at home and one of those Amazon ads came up on the side menu selling inflatable kayaks for just 20,000 yen. Ooooh, just what I needed to get to Goat Island!
The price was a promotion, only good for the next 24 hours, after which they’d return to the original price of over 30,000 yen. According to the Amazon website, there were only two kayaks left in stock and I was being informed, in bold red letters, that three other people were currently browsing the same product.
Click–the kayak was mine! I also ordered some goat cheese to celebrate my impending journey since the order confirmation promised me free shipping on any additional goods.
While I waited for my provisions to arrive, I got deeper and deeper into goat. I sent an endorsement to Gary the Goat, who is running for prime minister of Australia (via his Facebook page) and I read up on Japan Railway’s goat employment, and how they were managing to use the ruminants to tame the weeds along the train tracks.
The very next morning, while working through a Wikipedia article about ungulates, I heard the delivery man in my genkan: Ohayogozaimasu! My Amazon order had arrived!
As excited as I was about my kayaking trip, I felt a lingering sense of trepidation brought on by some dark incidents in my past. You see, although I love animals, I had been physically assaulted by them before. The first time was as a ten-year-old when a farm dog bit my leg while I was riding my bicycle.
I am blond-haired and blue-eyed, but I had never thought of myself as being particularly attractive. Not until the second abominable episode, that is.
This one involved a Saint Bernard. I was walking across a snowy field when this ponderous creature came bounding towards me out of nowhere. I really do like dogs, so I was not afraid and besides, Saint Bernards are not vicious animals. The slobbering mastodon knocked me down on to the ground and started licking my face. I laughed as I found this extremely funny. But when I tried to regain my footing, I realized I was pinned down and could not move–and the dog was humping me. Luckily, the owner was not far behind and he just managed to pry the beast off me. Since the owner was obviously horrified, and apologized profusely, I did not press charges.
As an adult, I once befriended a cow in the field next to our house. After a few minutes of innocent scratches behind the horns, I noticed he was actually a young bull–and extremely excited. Thank god there was a fence between us. Ever since that day he would run to greet me at the fence whenever I walked out of the house. Unrequited love, I supposed.
I’m not sure why animals find me so attractive. Do you think it’s my pheromones?
Then, rather foolishly I admit, I posed in front of the balls of the 15-meter Big Merino statue in Australia. It was just a joke, but after I posted the photo to the Internet, it went viral. From then on, my reputation among sheep was cemented. I stay away from sheep now. Or at least make sure there is a good strong fence between us.
These days I am more cautious around animals. I am careful about my demeanor and I watch what I wear. In Japan, you don’t come across large animals very often but I knew a prudent approach to Goat Island was required.
I set up the inflatable kayak, packed provisions for a few days and a tent. I also took a solar charger for my cell phone. I boarded the ferry to Kitagi Island and launched from the same beach where I’d met the old man, as this was also the closest point to Goat Island.
It took me the afternoon to kayak to the rocky outcropping and nigh upon the coast I could see it was densely wooded and almost entirely surrounded by rocks. If it hadn’t been for the sand bar, I wouldn’t have had a place to land the kayak at all.
Pulling the boat up onto the sand, heikegani crabs frantically dispersed under my feet. I was happy to see them as it is rare to see this type of crab these days. They’re said to bear the visages of the fallen Heike warriors.
Next, I heard a whistling snort from the other island residents. I could see them huddled together looking at me from a slight rise in the forest. It appeared to be a small herd, perhaps a family.
And they were adorable: little black ears, straight but smooth horns of the same ear length, and a thick dusky coat with a whitish ruffle around the neck and a black line tapering down the ridge of their backs. But while they acted like goats, there was something odd about that snort.
That’s when I realized they weren’t goats at all, but Japanese serow, or kamoshika. These animals, sometimes called goat-antelopes, were nearly hunted to extinction. Since 1955 they have been protected. While the head is like a goat’s, their body looks more like an antelope. They have big, black snouts. With these large soft noses, they sport the rock star looks of the capybara.
The older serow, quite thankfully, ignored me. One particolored elder did fix his gaze on me for an uncomfortably long time, but I wasn’t about to give him the time of day.
And there were babies. The kids were wild with joy at my arrival and capered in front of me in ebullient play. As it was getting late, I decided to pitch my tent just above the high tide mark on the sandbar and get a good rest after an exhausting afternoon. I also wanted to lay low and not upset the herd too much on the first day.
That night, while the tide lapped up close to my tent, I could hear serow noises outside. I looked out the tent flap and spied some serow in the moonlight–dancing. It could have been a mating ritual for all I knew, but on hind legs, in pairs, they locked heads and horns and parried forward and backward. It was an agile, delicate maneuvering, among whispering grunts. I didn’t dare leave my tent to get a closer look, just in case it was a mating call.
The next morning I sat on the beach and powered up my cell phone but there was no Internet service on Serow Island. That’s when I noticed the particolored bull staring at me again, through the thistle this time, trying to insinuate himself into my thoughts. I snapped his picture but otherwise ignored him.
Meanwhile, the kids were already at my tent door, pawing to get in and play. I proffered a bit of my goat cheese and was amused at their curiosity in finding something so exquisite in the familiar.
That day I observed the serow, carefully documenting their social behaviors in a notebook and taking images with my cell phone. The kids spent their time skylarking while the self-possessed elders led a languid life of chewing their cuds (curiously, always facing the mainland as if there was some answer to their ruminations out there).
They sustained themselves by nibbling the foliage of young trees, scarfing the barks of older trees and ingesting the occasional adventitious morsels such as mikan oranges that washed up on the sandbar among other rubbish of the Inland Sea. They drank from a spring on the leeward side of their tiny island.
In the distance, the Seto Ohashi Bridge loomed, the occasional cargo ship churned past and more frequent ferries trundled back and forth between the islands and the mainland, never veering from their stayed routes.
The second night, I watched the serow dance again, not daring to leave my tent. This time I glimpsed some hitodama, those ghostly fire balls, hovering in the air above the animals. I fell asleep listening to the soft whistling yet plangent blows of mating serow.
The adult ruminants seemed to have adopted me into the herd in a certain capacity–as baby sitter. I was good for their kids and allowed the adults to do more of their indolent mastication exercise. Devoid of cupidity and desiderata, the serow hadn’t a care in the world! It was, perhaps, an ideal life.
Some time passed and although I was comfortable on this peaceful patch of world, calm with no Web or social media connections, I knew it was time to end my sojourn on Serow Island. I had two kids of my own by now, and the old particolored serow didn’t care about me anymore. The kids, both male, were going to get big and smelly soon. I didn’t want to leave the kids, but I knew they’d be scoffed at on the mainland. People would tease them and call them satyrs. Besides, why would I want to lure them away from an already perfect world?
The kids lined up on the rocks whickering at me as I slipped away, my own two standing out from the young herd with their lighter hair and bushier coats. I left this charming land of ruminating reveries with tears in my eyes.
I paddled until I reached Kitagi Island. But I was surprised at what I found upon my return. The island had been abandoned and the houses were overgrown with weeds. There were no people and, more surprisingly, no cats, rabbits or other strays. All remnants imputed to an aeonian civilization were gone.
I fished out my cell phone and turned it on. The case made a loud cracking sound and the white plastic turned yellow in an instant. My hands started to tremble and I realized how terribly wrinkled they had become–I’d turned into an old lady!
I looked out towards Serow Island. The Seto Ohashi Bridge still loomed on the horizon. But there were no cargo ships and no ferries plying back and forth. And Serow Island had vanished.
My phone was useless but my photos were still intact! I frantically fumbled with my crooked fingers until I found a selfie I’d taken with my kids. They were so cute, wearing those silly Heike masks they’d found washed up on the beach one day.