Leaving Tokyo on my first shinkansen ride – some time ago – I was stuck to the window eager to see some of the Japanese countryside.
It didn’t happen. 20 or 30 minutes out the buildings still hadn’t stopped, although by then we were going through Yokohama I suppose.The urban sprawl continued all the way to Nagoya by way of Shizuoka, Hamamatsu… Each city merged into the next in a depressing grey continuum, with no green in between at all. In fact a good part of Japan’s population is concentrated into that strip between Tokyo and Nagoya – the Tokai plain which is flat and fertile, while most of the country is mountainous and almost empty, as I found later. In fact it’s possible to be out in beautiful hilly countryside a short 30 minute train ride north from Nagoya.
It was however in the opposite direction that we took the car last weekend: to the south, past Nagoya port, one of the biggest in Asia, past the Chita peninsula, past endless factories, warehouses, drab apartment buildings, tatty shopping centres, all of which we had a great view of from our overhead flyover on a perfect clear sunny day, finally arriving at the fishing port of Isshiki in the Mikawa Bay.
From there it’s a 30 minute boat to the island of Sakushima. The first thing you notice is that the water is crystal clear – you can see right down to the bottom of the harbour! This comes in contrast to the popular beaches on the Chita peninsula like Utsumi, where you might feel as if you’re swimming in chicken soup.
In fact the water, along with a certain “island feeling”, reminded me of our trip to Okinawa a few years ago. Okinawa’s a bit livelier though; here a good half of the houses are empty, several lodges and restaurants have closed down and even on a sunny Sunday afternoon you can hardly hear a soul.
This was fine for us though, and on a January afternoon we managed to work up a sweat walking around in the sunshine of the warmest day so far this year. We’re surrounded by the sea here so it must never get as cold as Nagoya, still less the mountains of Gifu, and flowers are coming out everywhere in a foretaste of Spring.The largest island in the Mikawa bay, it’s still possible to walk from one end of Sakushima to the other in half an hour or so, but there are a number of temples and shrines to see, not to mention 88 tiny Buddha statues built all over the island about 80 years ago in an imitation of the famous temple cicuit of Shikoku, mostly with offerings of fresh flowers, so obviously someone is visiting them. A beautiful sunset, then back to our minshuku for dinner. Out of the half-dozen or so places open in off-season January ours must have been a popular one as there had been a couple of lively parties in at lunchtime; soon we got an idea why. These waters are full of fish, but a few seagulls must have gone hungry that day as we had about half the contents of the bay on our table. Crab, sashimi, fried fish, oysters in miso, sea-slug… it was all really good and by 8 o’clock we couldn’t move, so had an early night. 8000 yen (say, $90) for bed, dinner and breakfast with more fish and oysters seemed a pretty good deal.
The west end of the island, away from the biggest beach with all the hotels, minshuku, restaurants and coffee shops, is much quieter, and the people seem a bit less used to tourists, though everyone is very friendly. The village is a maze of streets about wide enough for two bicycles, creosoted buildings (to keep out the salt spray) and little vegetable plots, tended by old ladies, who could be someone’s great grandmother. Half the houses seem to be falling down; one has been converted into a restaurant by some young people, maybe from the city over the water, but you can’t help wondering what will happen to the place ten or twenty years down the road…
A short walk back to the minshuku through wooded hills, past more little buddhas, wind rustling the bamboo, kites calling overhead; ducks have taken over the west end of the beach; our minshuku owner says he couldn’t see Nagoya as a place for human beings to live and here it’s hard to believe we’re in the same country, let alone the same prefecture.
EDIT: I’ve added a lot more photos here.