Living in Osaka – a congested city filled with people, buildings, cars, and bursting with activity 24/7 – it’s difficult to picture Japan as anything other than an artificial manmade beehive.
Where are the trees? The animals? Sure, there are beautiful cherry blossom trees in full bloom, harboring festive picnickers as I write this. And quite a few popular rivers extend in just about every direction. Far be it from me to forget the neighborhood red weasel that slips from shadow to shadow in the dead of night.
But aside from those small trinkets of nature, is there anything else – anywhere else – worth exploring?
For those of you who can relate to this question, you needn’t search very far.
How to get away from it all
Japan is a relatively small chunk of land, surrounded by water on all sides. Traveling from one city or prefecture to another is fairly simple. First – board the appropriate form of transit. Whether it be a train, bus, or airplane. No location in Japan is unreachable. Second – pick up a magazine of your choosing. Third – Savor that bento (lunch box) that you bought just for this occasion. Now, lean back and enjoy the scenery.
Considering that Japan is comprised of about 60%+ forests, 67% mountains, and 29% plains, we could travel in any direction and be set for an adventure. Of course, these are little known facts because people become far too comfortable with the city life. But, wouldn’t it be nice to get out once in a while? After all, Japan hosts around 100 lakes and too many rivers to count. Not to mention unusual and rare creatures that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else on the globe.
We could go anywhere but I think it would be best to start with Fukui – my first real out-of-Osaka experience.
Fukui is located on the Sea of Japan, west from Tokyo, and is about as picturesque as vacation spots come. Sounds far? Not at all! Board the JR ‘Thunderbird’ at either Umeda or Shin-Umeda station and relax for two and a half hours. It’s as simple as that.
When I first ventured in the direction of Fukui, I really hadn’t expected it to be much different than Osaka. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of Fukui before coming to Japan. It didn’t have the same ring as ‘Tokyo’ did. Perhaps it was this lack of familiarity which allowed Fukui to keep its charm. As the train sped through the mountainside, I began to realize that I’d been mistaken to assume that Fukui would be anything like Osaka. Not only was there not a department store in sight, the land also seemed to be covered in rice paddies and fresh crops. This could prove to be interesting.
The air in Fukui is much fresher than in the city and you can see for miles for lack of any building blocking the view. It’s miraculous actually when one takes into consideration the durability of this distant mountainous farmland. Having been completely leveled in World War II and then becoming the unfortunate victim of an earthquake, Fukui and its inhabitants are far more resilient than history may have thought.
Upon disembarking the train, I was met by an oven-baking heat that promised to accelerate my expected tan within the next thirty seconds. Thank goodness for parasols! Cheap, pretty, effective. I quickly opened my bargain parasol and held it aloft to protect my head and bared skin. It was such a beautiful, fresh, sunny day. Despite the smoldering sunrays, I immediately felt at ease. There were a few cars parked outside the train station but they were unoccupied. Otherwise, at this time in the morning, there wasn’t a soul in sight.
I was met at the train station by my ride that pulled up with a casual air of laziness. Even the driver seemed to be drifting into a realm of dreams, bewitched by the glare of the sun. It must have been some dream because my presence went unnoticed until I let myself into the car.
From the train station, we drove through a mildly populated city with very little to no traffic. Although we passed many traditional Japanese houses with curving shingles of various hues and stages of renewal, not a shopping mall was to be found. After making a vocal note of this fact, I learnt that Fukui’s main shopping mall was about thirty minutes… in the other direction.
This city – small and quaint – fascinated me on a very mellow level. Not a single driver on the road was speeding or in a rush to get anywhere. The traffic proceeded at a polite pace, pausing every now and then for an unexpected vehicle to merge in from either a dirt trail or side street. As we drove on, the low buildings and accompanying vehicles fell behind to reveal a long stretch of countryside. I recognized some of the fields that I’d spotted from the train. Only now, they were much more vivid and alive with activity.
In one field, an elderly couple wearing waterproof work boots was busy tending to the land’s needs. To one side of the field, a big white bird with a rather long neck was making itself comfortable in the long grass. It seemed to be eating something. Somehow sensing the bird’s intrusion, the woman turned around and grabbed a long tool in order to chase the bird off. Her husband followed suit, and soon the couple were scurrying about in a wild chase after the bird. Unfortunately, the bird seemed to be amusing itself with the entire ordeal, flying from one corner to the next but never leaving the small patch of greenery.
I made some comment as we passed by this curious scene. Something about the cleverness of cranes. I was quickly corrected on my error. The bird hadn’t been a crane… and considering how difficult the names of Japanese animals were to me at that time, I can’t really recall what the bird had been called. Thinking back on the bird and its would-be captors, I fondly recalled Thanksgiving Dinner in Canada with my family. I wonder if Fukui has turkeys…?
On we continued with me hanging halfway out the window in order to capture photographs of the scenery. We traveled along at warp speed thanks to the absence of any local traffic. As for the quality of my photos? Never try to take pictures from a moving vehicle! Not only is it dangerous and foolish, it also wastes a whole load of film.
By the time I’d gone through quite a lot of film, we had just barely reached the seaside. Now, the road winded around and around, bending and winding to match the outline of the seacoast. Every now and then, a rocky hill would spring up out of the sea to create intricate patterns. Occasionally, one of those hills happened to sport random trees or miniature forests with grass so green and luscious it would have made a wonderful golf resort.
The sea itself was a beautiful dark, crystal blue, bathed in white highlights from the sun overhead. I returned to my bad habit of hanging out the window in order to inhale the rich salty perfume of the sea mingled with pure ozone. If I hadn’t been very alert – and told off numerous times – I might have lost my face to one of the many tree branches extended close to the side of the road. Either that or an oncoming truck.
Finally! We’d arrived!
I got out as soon as the car engine died down and stretched my cramped legs. One look at the far too glorious sun and I hurriedly snatched my parasol and popped it open once more.
So far, I’d had a relaxing train ride with a delicious sushi bento. A pleasant drive through the city. Witnessed a quarrel between a couple and their unwanted feathered intruder. And seen just about every part of nature that I’d been deprived of for the past few months. As a bonus, I will also include the mountains although this was actually the first time that I’d ever seen them. Although Canada does have mountainous regions, none of them were ever within driving distance.
I think it’s just about time to eat again.
I was lucky enough to have my pick of anything in the little marketplace leading up to Tojjinbo. It would hardly be any fun if I ventured out there on an empty stomach. So, I chose a restaurant that boasted all forms of crab – my favorite seafood next to lobster. We sat down for a few minutes, not bothering to spare more than a mumbled “oishii” (delicious) between mouthfuls of crab and miso soup. That had to have been one of the freshest, tastiest crab leg rice bowls I’d ever eaten! Omitting the rice. As much as I love rice, I really would have preferred to substitute everything at that moment for more crab!
As we headed down through the marketplace, I caught my first glimpse of Tojinbo. Wow! It was a really spectacular sight to behold indeed! At the bottom of a steep staircase imbedded in the rocks were two twin rows of rocky mountainous growth, reaching out from the depths of the sea. They rose upwards in the shape of pillars, just far enough apart to allow the space in between to have been converted into a mini bay. A single tour boat crowded full of people began to sail off in the churning waters as I watched – mystified.
On the far side of the bay and Tonjinbo`s legendary pillar formation, said to have been caused by volcanic activity, lay a beautiful forest. That forest connected to a little island by way of a red bridge. According to the locals, the island was haunted and quite popular with the brave at heart. I would definitely be checking into that island at the first opportunity.
All this breathtaking scenery served to clear my mind and ease my spiritual turbulence. I imagined letting my stress and worries loose on the sea, casting them into a faraway point, far past the beloved `Lion Rock`. If anyone wants to know what on earth a lion rock is, you will just have to go to Tonjinbo to see for yourself.
I might have thought that I’d experienced the best of what Fukui had to offer. However, my real brush with nature occurred down on that uneven staircase that led to the boat that I was just dying to leap into. I could just imagine the glossy photographs that I would be sending back to my parents and siblings. Me in a boat, `Lion Rock` behind me, forests, islands and mountains in the background.
My companion had anticipated both my desire to board the rickety craft and my ceaseless appetite. I was handed a ticket for one boat ride and a dish of yaki-ika (grilled squid). Stuffing the ticket into my pocket, I set to work making the sweet squid vanish. I’d been in the same position continuously on my way down the stairs, and if I’d stayed this way – facing forward – I might have been safe. But, do you know how difficult it is to poke rubbery pieces of squid with a toothpick? Add to that the glare of the sun and sweaty palms.
I missed one piece of squid and was poking around trying to spear it when I bent down to have a closer look. Big mistake!
From out of the sky, a gush of wind beat against the back of my neck and something hard knocked me on the side of my head. Automatically, I dropped the squid and raised my arms to protect my head from what I thought might have been a thrown rock. I blinked back shock and confusion as a wave of feathers brushed against the side of my face. I must have staggered a few paces forward because when I looked down, the squid was nowhere in sight.
When I looked back, I saw a majestic hawk fluttering about the fallen squid, catching it with its talons. It didn’t stop until it had all the remaining pieces, and then it spread its wings to an enormous width, and flew off.
I might have been concerned about the bump on my head but shrugged it off because I realized that the hawk wouldn’t have touched me if I hadn’t moved unexpectedly. Watching the hawk escape, I only had one thought on my mind.
Just wait until my parents hear about this!
That night, not only did I take back a load of photographs and memories, but I also took back an amazing story to share with family and friends to years to come.