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The Sea of Japan

Updated: Apr 28

A Visit to the Japanese Coastline

On Saturday, I undertook my longest roadtrip yet through the Japanese countryside. Beginning in Nagai, I drove straight West through a number of small towns (such as Oguni) to arrive at the Japanese coastline. There, for time constraint reasons, I had to mostly remain on toll roads until near the end of my journey. Before turning inland again, and around sunset, I finally had a few moments to spare in which to explore the Japanese coastline and take some pictures of the Sea of Japan (which I will share below).

Before talking about the Sea of Japan, however, it is worth taking a few moments to talk about my drive through the mountains to get to the coast. I was truly surprised by this drive - it was one of the most beautiful I have ever performed in my life. Up and down rolling hills, over countless rivers, under mountains, across bridges and ravines, through forests and under glimmering blue skies. This drive left a deep impression on my spirit, and reminded me once and for all that Spring has indeed come to the land of the rising sun.

Along the way, I took a chance stop that turned out to be very fortunate as well. I don't even know the town's name, but on taking a turn down a side alley I realized I was suddenly driving along some very beautiful historical buildings. I pulled over to look them up on google and found that the town contained a number of preserved (and renovated) buildings that had once belonged to a rich and prominent Samurai family. Two of these buildings were now, respectively, a museum and a cafe. So, I decided to take a quick detour for a walk in an old Samurai home and some matcha in an old Samurai estate garden.

The home was beautiful. The main hall alone was remarkably vast, with a wide hall and extremely high ceiling. It felt almost like being outdoors, the space was so large. It was split between a stone floor portion where you were meant to walk with your shoes, and a raised portion on the left hand side with a mix of wooden floors and Tatami mats. Between these were also two large fire pits with tea pots hung from a rope that extended all the way from the ceiling, keeping the metal pots extended just a foot or so above the fire. To add to the atmosphere, the museum staff had actually lit the firepits so that thick clouds of smoke wafted through the hallway. In a normal home, this surely would have caused difficulty breathing from all the smoke. But in a space as vast this Samurai home's entry hall, the smoke simply dissipated, leaving an ashy smell and taste behind.

I read on one of the signs that the reason the floor was divided into a wooden and tatami area, was that the tatami was reserved for the samurai family and the wooden floor the family's servants. The servants were not allowed to even step foot upon the tatami mats, and slept upstairs on a stretch of wooden floor as well. Harsh. But, a good example of the sort of rigid discipline and class structuralism ingrained within traditional Japanese culture.

Behind the main hall were smaller rooms, portioned off by sliding wax paper doors. Some of these had incredible works of art along the wall, including of a bearded dragon that reminded me of another artwork I once saw in a temple. Then, at the very back of the building was a beautifully maintained Zen garden, complete with a Koi pond and stone lanterns. It was easy to imagine the family members of the Samurai nobleman who'd lived there, taking leisurely strolls through that garden, and maybe tossing little pellets of food to the fish. Apparently, the family that lived there once had been extremely rich, and owned many acres of farmland. They flourished during the Tokugawa shogunate than disappeared completely after WW2 (how and why, its not clear).

It must have been a great life, I mused upon leaving the building. A truly beautiful home in a truly beautiful stretch of country, surrounded by nothing but peaceful farmland, forests, rivers and mountains - not to mention, not at all far from the sea. The teahouse proved equally romantic and tranquil. A large building overlooking a sort of open park (but what had also once been a garden belonging to the samurai family), the other diners and I could look out over the grass as we ate and drank. In the background, soft flute sounds played on a loop, adding to the Zen-like atmosphere created by the tatami mat floors and empty, open space. I ordered a matcha tea set - which came in a large and very beautiful ceramic bowl, and with one red-bean paste candy - then decided to have soba for lunch since it was on offer for so cheap there. A hot bowl of soba with mountain vegetables, while the flute played softly and other cafe-goers softly chatted and laughed around me. It was profoundly peaceful, especially on the cool spring morning with the fresh breeze flowing in through the open doors.

After that, it was a hard drive down to the coast. The toll roads moved quickly, but required a rushed pace and constant vigilance. I was very happy when finally I made it to the seaside and could begin to scout out the legendary Sea of Japan, and the most exotic of all coasts - the coast of that once walled off and forbidden country. As it so happen, the first stretch of coast I stopped at was a lovers point and many many couples had evidently come to hang little hearts with their names (and perhaps wishes) written on them. It made for a very sweet little spot along the cliffside.

As for the sea, what can one say? It was the sea. Vast, beautiful, tranquil and awe-inspiring, as it always is. The sea doesn't really change much from country to country. It is always perfect. Though, the Sea of Japan did have a sort of cold, dark quality to it.

I spent almost an hour looking for a proper beach, after that. To my surprise, the first two beaches I went to were absolutely filthy. A far cry from the usual cleanliness of Japan. I can't imagine why that would be the case. But, fortunately my third attempt was produced the results I was looking for. It seemed this particular stretch had once contained a little town, built right into the cliffs and hillside. Now, most of the buildings seemed abandoned, aside from a few elderly folk who could be seen working the gardens of the remaining buildings or wandering here and there. But, the abandoned buildings added a sort of romantic atmosphere to the whole hillside, in conjunction with the sounds of waterfalls flowing down the cliff, the site of shinto shrine halfway down, and an old train line running right along the water's edge.

When I finally got to the sea itself, I was surprised to see a Tori (red-gate) shrine resting at the water's edge at the end of a pier. I wandered out the shrine and saw that it contained several smaller shrines and a massive ship anchor, almost completely rusted but still retaining the iconic shape. I guessed it must have been a shrine dedicated to the sailors at sea. I took some pictures then, seeing that sunset was approaching, set up my camera to record the sunset before wandering along the sand barefoot so I could feel the water and the sand coursing through my toes as the sun made its final descent. After the sun had disappeared, I sat there for a while and watched as the elaborate golds and yellows of the sunset played along the sea's surface, and as dozens of small fish broke the water's surface to grab bugs (some even leaping out of the water altogether). Then, I gathered my things and left to complete my final drive through the mountains.

I spent the night in Nakano in the mountains to the East, in the center of Japan. They were stunningly beautiful - a long drive up through the forest-covered mountain sides, before breaking into a valley at the far side of which hundreds of small lights glimmered like stars. My hostel was run by an extremely kind and friendly older Japanese couple, in their private home - a place so quiet you could barely hear a whisper, and where you could still see the stars due to the absence of city lights. Laying down on a futon on a traditional Tatami mat, I went to rest and fell asleep - grateful for a beautiful day in Japan.

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