It takes a village
A cable car grinds its way to kasamatsukoen' lookout  point

Feed your spirit in Honshu's seaside town, Amanohashidate. Simon Rowe and Hamada Masami kick their feet up.

 "Long 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.

Seasonal 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.

The 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 vistas—a 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.

The bizarrely shaped isthmus, which spans the wide body of water and divides Amanohashidate’s two villages, is billed as one of the "big three" scenic spots in Japan—the other two being Hiroshima's Miyajima and the spooky Matsushima-wan ocean outcrops of northern Honshu's Sendai Prefecture.

In 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 to hell.


Gift from the sea

Bulk-buying 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.

Between 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 leaves—reminiscent of fermented grass clippings—leave 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 unthreatening.

Once 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 located.


Bed and breakfast

Taikyou 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. 

A 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.

Wake-up 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.

Fish-drying racks are a common sight on the streets of Amanohashidate

Dining is a less hair-raising affair. The sunken tables of Taikyou's Agura restaurant, which spread beneath ancient marinersEmaps 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.

Eating 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 go—the final act of purification before hitting the futon—where 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 brewing sake.

Following-day 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 minutesEwalk from Taikyou. It’s a cafe with a difference—the 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.

Packing an equally powerful punch are the beverages served at Ryutou no Matsu. “Dutch coffeeEis 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.


Getting there

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 minutesEwalk from the station.


Where to stay

Taikyou 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. 


Also 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), (English OK).


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