Miyake-jima, Japan: With a population of around 3000, this island is situated approximately 110 miles south of Tokyo and is accessible by ferry. However, there is something quite unusual about this particular place. In July 2000, the area’s main volcano, Mount Oyama, began a series of eruptions which were so powerful that a large number of damaging earthquakes proceeded to hit the island and prompted a complete evacuation of all its inhabitants. After four years, residents began to move back into their homes despite the constant flow of harmful vapours still being emitted from Oyama. This has entailed that all returning residents and visitors must carry a gas mask with them at all times. When levels of sulphur dioxide in the air reach a point considered dangerous, alarms ring out as a warning for all occupants to take the necessary precautions and put on their masks.
- We arrived on the island at dawn having left Tokyo at 10 o’clock the night before. My friend and I were the only western people sleeping on the ferry’s tatami mat floor, the majority of passengers being Japanese nature enthusiasts. With only three crudely printed maps of Miyake Jima and a handwritten list of titles and phrases we began looking for the abandoned schoolhouse. We didn’t meet any people on our first hour of wandering.
The island has a strange, layered atmosphere. It is beautifully overgrown, natural and peaceful, but when you scan the hilltops in the distance you see tall white tree trunks, stripped of all else, growing up through the canopy. Another hour passed, we could hear the occasional car in the distance and there was much more activity from the island’s birds. It dawned on us that birds could very well be the only wildlife - perhaps what all the ferry passengers had come to see.
We happened to find an older couple as they were leaving for the day. They had as much English as we had Japanese, so I drew a sketch of the schoolhouse (my companion laughed at the attempt). They adamantly pointed us towards Ako, the capital town, so we continued walking.
The grocery store was opening and six of the local women were having a chat after getting their morning shopping. They were astonishingly enthusiastic about helping us, and after ten minutes of friendly debate huddled around the shop laptop they had worked out where to send us. In that time a younger man had come into the shop, they called him over, explained the situation, gestured back and over between him, us and the laptop and finally told us to “go with him.” We left the shop even more confused and nervously got into his car.
The Schoolhouse - Only a five minute car journey away, the schoolhouse emerged around the corner (we were roughly a kilometer off). The roof is first to demand your attention. The massive eaves reach down to the road, projecting far beyond the deeply shadowed façade. The timber shingle roof appears woven, like a drape resting over the darkly stained frame.
The material is the one and only generator here. The floor, columns, beams, and roof are all built of reclaimed railway sleepers. The façade is ordered by the sleeper dimensions. Five, three and one bays in ascending order and a beautiful 45 degree pitch on the roof. The set back of the façade is to allow the sleepers to come to an end, like the corners of a log cabin, with the added benefit of leaving the windows in perfect condition over 40 years later. The structure shifts between tectonic and stereotomic, the end-on view of the stacked sleepers reading as slender columns carrying the roof, but the wall behind firmly rising as a wall of heavy horizontal lines.
The schoolhouse was designed in the 1970s while Metabolism was taking hold in Tokyo. The Architect Takasuga Susumu produced a building whose form is elegantly monumental, a product of material limits, void of any misplaced expressionism. Mt. Oyama erupted in 1983, since then the school house has been locked and practically forgotten about.
The following evening, back in Tokyo, we told out tutor about our trip, how difficult it was to find the school and how we eventually came to find it. He wasn’t surprised that the locals knew little about it. Having misheard something I said, he remarked “yes, a faded way, what a great way to put it”.