Yes, there is such a thing as too many ocean views
8th March 2019

Couples who are very comfortable with each other might start dressing the same. Or finishing each other's sentences. And then there's the Kims, Sinyeol and Sung-do, originally from South Korea, who made the unusual decision back in 1991 to move to – well, CNN put it best – "a lonely outcrop of islands at the heart of a long-standing territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea". (Real estate agents might prefer to describe the area as "up-and-coming", having learnt the hard way that "lonely outcrops" don't do well at auction.)

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:

But who knows what goes on inside a marriage, right? Because it turns out the couple loved their life there. Mrs Kim worked as a freediver (the Korean term is haenyo) until 2017, when she quit at the age of 79. Mr Kim died last October, but his wife is still there. I haven't named the island because that's a whole other can of sea slugs: it's part of what the Koreans call the Dokdo Islands, but the Japanese refer to the chain as Takeshima.

"She said living on Dokdo is relaxing," Kim's son-in-law told reporters recently. "Being there, her mind is at ease." This makes some sense. Hell is, after all, other people, and there are none around to complain about parking. Also, islands are often what we imagine when conjuring a vision of peace and serenity: palm trees dipping lazily into azure seas, golden sands dotted with hairy coconuts. Some of the world's most sought-after tourist destinations are islands. Bora Bora. St Lucia. The Maldives. Santorini.

And yet. I've been living on an island for some time now, a real one, by which I mean you can get from one side to the other in a day. Not an island continent, as we were taught Australia was as schoolkids. (Somewhat confusingly, as it happens, because most geographers consider islands and continents to be separate things.)

This island is beautiful in all the ways you want. Passionfruit is in season six months of the year. There are reliably balmy breezes, and a gin and tonic never seems like the wrong choice. But I'm beginning to understand what a long-time resident told me when I first got here. This resident was moving to a big city across the ocean and he explained that he suffered from "island fever", a sense of claustrophobia occasioned by close proximity to every shoreline. (Another shocker for the real estate agents reading this: there is such a thing as too many harbour views.)

Once you start thinking about it, there are all sorts of examples of islands vanquishing their visitors. Take Pitcairn: another of the Pacific's countless rocky outcrops, about halfway between New Zealand and Chile. As we all know, the Bounty survivors didn't have a fabulous time there. After a decade, only one man was left. Asthma, drowning and murder felled the rest. My life on an island isn't nearly as dramatic, and I can't complain too much about the isolation: Amazon delivers here; there are, for better and for worse, multiple branches of Starbucks.

As for Kim Sin-yeol, she's staying. I feel confident in saying that she probably has faster internet than most Sydneysiders. And her daughter and son-in-law have decided to move to Dokdo, too. They are going to open a business selling stamps, soaps and seafood to interested parties from the mainland, a four-hour ferry ride away. I'm worried about what this means for life on the island. Isn't a shop selling soap the universal sign you've arrived in a tourist trap?

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