takes a village
|A cable car grinds its way to
kasamatsukoen' lookout point
your spirit in Honshu's seaside town, Amanohashidate. Simon Rowe and
Hamada Masami kick their feet up.
rain of May, the world is a single sheet of paper beneath the
clouds," wrote Matsuo Basho, the wily Japanese poet who lived more
than 300 years ago. Scribbling countless haiku as he ambled the highways
and byways of the archipelago with little more than a gnarly walking
stick, straw sandals and cane hat to fend off the elements, Basho drew
constantly on the changing seasons for his inspiration.
soul food is not lacking for travelers who follow in Basho's footsteps
north of Kyoto, to the Japan Sea coast, where fishing communities still
eke out lean existences in the face of extreme weather conditions, and
aging seaside inns and hot-spring resorts provide the perfect place for
rest and self-reflection.
smell of the sea couldn't be stronger in Amanohashidate, two hours by
train from Kyoto station. Blinding snowstorms, biting sea winds and salt
spray ravage the village through the miserable winter months, while
rain-laden typhoons leave its inhabitants sodden and gasping for air
during the humid summers. It is from hillsides overlooking a vast natural
harbor that Basho's words regularly materialize into one of Japan's most
mysterious vistasa panorama that neither snow flurry nor torrential
downpour can deter hundreds of thousands of tourists from struggling to
hilltop viewpoints for a glimpse at each year.
bizarrely shaped isthmus, which spans the wide body of water and divides
Amanohashidates two villages, is billed as one of the "big
three" scenic spots in Japanthe other two being Hiroshima's
Miyajima and the spooky Matsushima-wan ocean outcrops of northern Honshu's
a nation where nobody wants to be the last to do anything, sightseers
jostle their way up the narrow lanes of northern Amanohashidate, taking a
cable car for the final leg, to reach viewpoints where they mount
purpose-built platforms and view the 100m-wide, 3.5km-long land bridge
upside-down through their legs in an age-old ritual. The inversion of sea,
land and sky is supposed to resemble a dragon ascending the heavens,
though in the midst of a driving snowstorm it can seem more like a highway
from the sea
souvenirs for relatives and co-workers back home is another tradition the
Japanese begrudgingly resign themselves to, and one which profits
Amanohashidate's shop-houses whatever the weather. Strategically placed
racks of silver nishin (herring)
create a glimmering channel through which day-trippers are funneled on
their way back down the hillsides to the tour buses.
these grotto-like stores with their teetering stacks and racks of every
chewable sea creature imaginable, the aromas are as mysterious as they are
intoxicating: octopus tentacles drying on coat-hangers, soy-soaked kelp,
fragrant mushrooms, burning chestnuts, and roasting green tea
leavesreminiscent of fermented grass clippingsleave the senses
gagging and desperate for fresh sea air. Only the puffer fish-on-a-rope
souvenirs, dried and cured and bobbing from shop eaves, smell
the Kyoto tour buses have departed, peace and calm return to
Amanohashidate, and travelers staying over make their way back by ferry to
the southern end of the isthmus where many traditional seaside ryokan are
Ryokan opened its doors in late 1800s, toward the end of the Edo period,
and made its name as a weekend hideaway for wealthy Kyoto merchants,
writers, poets and their geisha. The feisty women's rights activist and
poet Akiko Yoshano (1868-1942) was its most famous patron and these days
you can still reserve Akiko no heya,
the room where she used to drain her mind of all things trivial and pen
some of her most politically controversial verses.
network of narrow tatami mat hallways leads to small but cozy rooms, each
bearing the name of a seasonal Japanese flower and supplied with yukata,
thick fluffy futon, green tea urn, and all other necessary comforts of a
typical ryokan. Those facing the sea afford views of the shipping channel
over which a clanking swing bridge allows boats to pass in and out of the
inland sea and provides easy access to the isthmus for hikers.
calls at Taikyou are courtesy of the resident tombi (sea kites), which greet the sunrise with raucous screeching
as they dive for tidbits tossed by fishermen motoring through the channel.
I was greeted in a more personal manner by a rugged-faced barge captain
with a cigarette dangling from the lip, roaring his vessel at full
throttle past the swing bridge and seemingly only meters from my futon.
are a common sight on the streets of Amanohashidate
is a less hair-raising affair. The sunken tables of Taikyou's Agura
restaurant, which spread beneath ancient marinersEmaps and old photos
of geisha strolling the nearby quays, are where you can tuck into a
sumptuous feast of local seafood. Japan Sea crab, is the winter delicacy
and Agura's staff, dressed in colorful judo-style pajamas, serve a variety
of dishes including kanisashimi, kaniyaki
(char-grilled) and kaninabe (hot
pot), all with market-bought vegetables.
in is also possible; you can arrange to have dinner prepared in your room
while you lounge about on the tatami mats and take liberties at the
minibar stocked full with icy Kirin lager and sake. Included in the course
is the worthy once-off dish of crab brains mixed with sake and simmered in
the shell on your own charcoal grill. The perfect accompaniment to this
buttery-tasting broth is a chilled glass of sweet Kyoto sake; then, to
finish, a mikan (mandarin) with hot roasted green tea is served.
Before retiring for the night, it is to Taikyou's communal
single-sex bathhouses one must gothe final act of purification before
hitting the futonwhere bathers can choose between two thermally heated
mineral tubs: the ryoushikama no yu,
or cast-iron cooking pot-style tub, or the sakadaru no yu, a wooden barrel tub of the same design used for
hangovers (for those who took too many liberties) may be instantly cured
at Ryutou no Matsu, a cozy, low-lit coffee house whose name means
"dragon tree" and which is a two minutesEwalk from Taikyou.
Its a cafe with a differencethe rough wood benches where customers
huddle on chilly mornings were hewn from a 50m-high matsu
(pine) estimated to be 800-1000 years old. The tree was reportedly felled
by a lightning strike during a severe typhoon in 1934, and the deep
canyons of blackened wood running through each table testify to the power
surge that toppled the giant.
an equally powerful punch are the beverages served at Ryutou no Matsu.
Dutch coffeeEis the house specialty, and ordering a rough-clay mug
of this heady lukewarm brew, which is drip-filtered for ten hours and then
reheated slowly, is only for those who possess a stomach of steel. Order
wine by the glass and it will arrive in the bottom half of an old fishing
floatation device. A 360ml glass of Amanohashidate wine costs JY2000 and
may also cure the cruelest of hangovers.
By train to
Amanohashidate station: from Kyoto (1hr 45min), from Osaka (2hr 10min); by
car from Kyoto (2hr 30min), from Osaka (2hr 30min). All major sights,
including ferry terminal, ryokan and restaurants, are five minutesEwalk
from the station.
Ryokan, Amanohashidate Kaisenkyomisaki, Miyazu-shi, Kyoto-fu, 626-0001,
tel: (81+772) 222101, fax: (81+772) 222104; nightly tariffs include
dinner and breakfast and begin from JY10,000-JY20,000.
Rates vary from season to season. www.ryokan.or.jp/kyoto/hokubu/taikyou/english.htm
recommended is Taikyou's sister ryokan, Monjusou Ryokan,
Amanohashidate-kaigan, Miyazu-shi, Kyoto-fu, 626-0001, tel: (81+772)
227111, fax: (81+772) 221120.
(Japanese only), firstname.lastname@example.org