So it goes with maps of Japan – when we were plotting out of great cross-country exodus, I went to the book store to purchase a big poster-sized map of the country to hang on my wall. I had also entertained thoughts of purchasing a plexiglass overly for it with some china markers and a compass and protractor so I could re-enact scenes from naval movies (you know, where they calculate courses and fleet movements by drawing circles and vectors and stuff on plexiglass map tables located in battleship control rooms, all the while shouting things like “I need you to plot a firing solution STAT!”), but that’s neither here nor there and is probably just further evidence that I’m a dorky little kid inside. The point is, I have this gigantic map of Japan hanging on my wall and when you look at it, you’re like “damn, Japan is huge.”
This, in turn, initially caused us some consternation when plotting the segment of our great cross-japan autumn adventure that involved driving from Hiroshima in the evening and making it all the way to Amanohashidate at the tippy top of Kyoto-prefecture by the next morning with time for sleep along the way. You look at the map and you’re like “woah. That’s quite a haul.”
In reality, however, it turns out that we made the entire journey in something like 4 hours – which for reference, is about how long it took me to drive to Chicago back when I lived in the states, and that was a journey I made several times a month, and it was no big deal. It seems strange, then, that this is roughly equivalent to just under half the length Japan (well, half of Honshu anyway). It’s times like these that you realise how small Japan really is, at least if you’re an American.
Anyway, so there was this really insane white foggy mist that absolutely blanketed our route, making it seem like you were driving through clouds, and when we settled down for the night in the last parking area right before Amanohashidate, it hung thickly around us in a most unsettling way, reducing visibility to zero – a thick white soupy miasma pressed and roiled suffocatingly against the glass windows of the car, making us quite afraid of venturing outside into the mist. Said my lovely traveling companion: “I need to use the restroom, but on the other hand, I don’t want to get eaten by whatever’s lurking outside. So umm, I’m going to hold it.” If you had seen Stephen King’s The Mist, then you’d understand.
We woke up the next morning, apparently undevoured by ethereal beasts, to find the terrifying mists from the previous evening gone, and in their stead, a few gorgeous rays of sun lighting up the dawn skies. Ah yes – it was going to be a fantastic day.
(You can read about our day in the full entry below.)
Now that the hell mists had vanished, we made our way over to the restroom and got washed up and changed, then hopped in the car and headed over a few kilometers north to the entrance (if that’s the correct word) of Amanohashidate, Kyoto, better known as one of Japan’s Top Three Most Beautiful Views (and the second one we had seen in the past 24 hours.)
If you want to know more about Amanohashidate, you can feel free to read about it online , which is something we probably should have done ourselves instead of just rolling up at 6 AM and being like “sooo… uhh, where and umm, how do we see it?” – without even a clear idea of what exactly it was (it’s a long sand bar in a bay, by the way) let alone where to find the “entrance. ” We drove around for about 30 minutes until a kindly old man at McDonalds (hey, there aren’t a lot of food choices at 6AM in the middle of remote countryside Kyoto) who insisted on referring to Starbucks Girl as “姫様” (“Princess”) managed to point us in the correct direction. After a few more minutes of searching we find a parking lot – remarkable how hard they are to find when there are no big tour buses to lead the way – pay the very sleepy attendant who seemed surprised to see another soul at this hours (he was in the middle of eating a rice ball when we rolled in) and then head off in search of some sweet scenic sand bar action.
We draw closer towards where we think the entrance to the sand bar is and encounter some fishermen busily going on about their day.
“Excuse us,” we begin. One of the men looks up from his work.
“Could you tell us where to see Amanohashidate from?” As I asked, I felt very, very much like a dorky tourist n00b. The fact that I’m a foreigner only compounded this fact and added to my embarrassment.
The men look at each other confusedly.
“Err, you’re on it.”
“Umm, yes. Well, I mean, umm, where can we see, you know, the famous view? Like the one you see in all the postcards.”
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I knew that my life in Japan had come full circle and now I too, was that sad caricature of a Japanese tourist who obediently seeks out the designated photo taking spots to take the same photos that the travel magazines tell him to. sigh.
“Ahh, that. It’s that way.” The man points off at the distant shore, where we can make out the dim shapes of some mountains.
“So it’s within walking distance?” we ask.
If you’ve been following along our Autumn adventure gentle readers, then you know what we think when someone tells us something is “within walking distance.” With a knowing nod at each other, we turn around and make a beeline for a bike rental shop we had passed along the way.
Okay, in reality the sandbar is only 3.5 kilometers long, so technically it is within walking distance, but a) at the time we didn’t know that and b) we were stuffed and slightly queasy from McDonalds, so exercise – no matter how desperately appropriate at the moment – wasn’t in the cards for us at that particular second. Nonetheless, up we hopped on our cute little bicycles and a few minutes later we were merrily cycling along the sandbar to the opposite shore, the beautiful trees swaying gently in the morning autumn wind, the gentle sounds of the waves lapping up against the beach, the smell of the ocean just a few meters away on either side. It was a thoroughly wonderful experience. I also noticed some things that appeared to be barbecue pits near the water, but then my stomach started growling anxiously at me, reminding me it was none too happy about our greasy Mcbreakfast, and threatening a full on digestive revolt if I didn’t stop thinking about food right that instant.
After a few minutes of leisurely cycling, we found ourselves on the opposite shore, staring up at the gates of some shrine whose name I forgot (though I recall it had a gigantic stone turtle statue on the grounds somewhere). After a bit more walking, we came across a tram and a chair lift that lead to the top of the mountains indicated by the old man. Starbucks girl is a sucker for chair lifts, and while I had my reservations about these, seeing as how they were rusty and coloured as if manufactured in the late 70s (which I wouldn’t be surprised if they were!), in the end up we hopped and were whisked (well, slowly moved) to the top of the mountain.
Now I promised I wouldn’t talk too much about Amanohashidate, but just in case you’re not familiar, the name itself means “bridge to heaven” and it’s supposed to look like, well… a bridge to heaven. But standing at the top of this mountain, it looks very much like what it is – a 3.5 km long sandbar that is not particularly heavenly nor bridge-ly in appearance.
This, I suppose, is why the canonical method of viewing the sandbar was invented. Scattered along the periphery of an outcropping on the top of the mountain are some stone benches (perilously close to a steep death), whereupon one is supposed to stand, facing away from the sandbar. Then, you’re supposed to spread your legs, bend over, and look upside down and through your legs at the sandbar below. Behold, ladies and gentlemen – Amanohashidate, the bridge to heaven in all its upside-down divinely bridge-y glory.
Now it may sound like I’m putting you on, but that’s really how you’re supposed to look at it, and with that, we hopped and flipped ourselves dutifully over into inverted panda pretzels to view the bridge. It didn’t quite seem to lead to heaven at first, but as I hung out upside down trying to get a good upside-down shot with my camera and the blood started to pool in my head, I began to grow faint and dizzy and then the entire scene before me started to get very fuzzy and seemingly divine after all – at least until I started to wobble lightheadedly and had to be yanked down by Starbucks girl mere seconds before I tumbled over the edge of the mountain.
And before anyone says anything, yes, I am aware that I could have just taken a regular photo and flipped it over to simulate the view, instead of struggling to take a picture upside down between my legs whilst teetering on the edge of a mountain, but that particular fact did not occur to me then because it was early and mah poor panda brain wasn’t working well (and as we have seen previously, I’m not exactly the cleverest panda in the world even when I’m fully awake).
Anyway, we had ourselves a grand old time at the top of the mountain until the pressing throngs of tourists group which suddenly appeared from nowhere ruined the tranquility of the scene with their waving flags and screaming megaphones (ugh. Japanese tour groups – panda is not a fan.) whereupon which we made our way back down via the perilous chair lifts, had a bit of a nose around the various shops (mmm, chestnut ice cream) and then finally, enjoyed a raucous bike race across the strip (stopping en route to take a few more pictures). By the time we got back, the tour buses were pulling in full force, the shops were buzzing with tourists, and the sun was high in the sky, signaling to us it was time to get back on the road.
And so we bid a fond farewell to the gentle lapping waves and beautiful pine trees swaying in the warm autumn breeze and pulled back onto the road heading towards the final destination of our journey: a sleepy, virtually unknown fishing village on the coast of the Sea of Japan that suddenly found itself thrust into the international spotlight during the US Presidential election last year.
Now listening to: “50 Cent feat. Ye-No – Baby By Me”