We would be told again, days later, that “Nobody goes to Wakayama.” This is only generally true. Obviously some people go, but mainly the people going to Wakayama are those who live there. It’s not crowded.
One reads in many travel books that the scenery from Tokyo to Osaka is too industrialized or suburban, or too developed or too bland, or strung with excess wires, or otherwise not interesting. I have to disagree. To someone from the east coast of the US, this landscape seemed quite an improvement. The train zoomed past the settings of countless slice-of-life anime series. Japan is a terrain of enclaves that look sometimes almost Tolkienish. Then suddenly we were at the station in Osaka.
Osaka’s huge terminal was loud and bright and full of food. Compared to Tokyo Station it was like a carnival. The temptation to stop and celebrate life was quite strong. It was strange to see so many smiling people in transit with so little anxiety. Maybe Osaka is why nobody goes to Wakayama. But we had our own chosen travel plans and so off we went to catch our rural dead-end line to the Kii Peninsula.
There was a certain irony to standing in a parking lot next to the train station in Shirahama. In months of preparatory trip research before our trip to Japan, I had learned that people trying to get into the interior of the Kii Peninsula seem to start from Kii-Tanabe, a town on the west coast, next to the intriguing resort town of Shirahama.
I originally assumed we would start in Tanabe or Shirahama too. But I had made reservations on the other side of the peninsula entirely. I picked the east side for easier access to the Nachi Shrine, at Kii-Katsuura.
At the limits of planning, here we were in Shirahama despite ourselves. At this point we might have decided that Kii-Katsuura had become impractical. Or we could have rented a car. It would have been the sensible thing to do. But we were caught in the momentum of the situation. The crowded bus lurched away with us on it, stopping at every crossroads between Shirahama and Kii-Katsuura to let someone on or off.
The scenery on the southern end of the Kii Peninsula was rugged and breathtaking. The narrow hairpin road hugs the coast because it has no alternative. I had never imagined a coastline as fractal as this, so closely corresponding to the dragon curve, each nest of rocky embayments harboring its fishing village.
Later research turns up references to the Hashigui-iwa rocks at Kushimoto. I am not sure that feature is the exact thing I saw. Sets of dragon’s teeth rocks are picturesquely common along this coast and what I saw left me disoriented. My reaction was almost like a moment of sudden unexpected recognition. I need to go back to see what this was about.
Kushimoto has quite a wild history for such a small place, including being the epicenter of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake in 1946, the scene of a wildly unlikely Turkish shipwreck, and the first site of unofficial and indeed illegal contact between Americans and Japanese, when the trading brigantine Lady Washington put into harbor in a vain attempt to sell some surplus furs.
It was after dark when the bus pulled into Kii-Katsuura. The bus station, the taxi company and the train station formed two sides of the town square, or rhomboid. We got off the bus exhausted. “I don’t know what I saw. I don’t think I’m the same person anymore,” I said. The night was young but this was a town that had gone to bed long since, probably at the first inkling of impending dusk. The hotel in Kii-Katsuura had emailed us a map along with the hotel confirmation, so although we saw a cab driver smoking a cigarette on the curb, instead of hailing him we pulled out our hotel map and set off on foot, hauling our luggage. Within minutes we knew this map was so indifferent to the actual topography of the town that only a bird could have used it to find the hotel. We found several vague dark intersections with no obvious hotels attached. We found the red light district, a single dim and windowless karaoke bar next to a staircase with a neon arrow pointing upstairs. We found the well-lit and utterly closed and deserted shopping arcade, a street roofed over and strung with lanterns leading back to the main rhomboid at the heart of town. The same cab driver was still parked at the bus station, now smoking a different cigarette.
We helplessly proffered our printed-out reservation, and the cab driver wisely drove us to the perfectly obvious hotel. It was about three minutes away, but on a different promontory. We would never have found it in the dark. The hotel looked so normal, indeed was so normal, that I felt palpably relieved.
We had long since missed our special hot springs kaiseki feast—it was nearly 9:00 in the evening—but the buffet was open and crowded with families enjoying their seaside hot springs holiday. There was a vast amount of food on display and no reticence was being shown about tucking into it. We joined in, and did what we could to demonstrate that Americans can put away their grub as well as anyone. All sorts of amazing dishes were on offer, including small translucent ice fish, grilled top shells, a superb grilled eel, fresh gleaming raw mackerel and tuna, and a really first rate prime rib of beef, which somehow we did not expect, along with scores of other edible curiosities of every imaginable description. We served ourselves a la Russe and the devil took the hindmost.
We were learning to like sleeping in puffy blankets on tatami mats with hard pillows, and quickly fell asleep.
Daylight gratified our curiosity about the layout of the town. Kii-Katsuura is shaped by the fractal dragon curve of its coast. One gets from place to place by going back the way one came. Also, we realized that we had found the subtropics. Kii is the southernmost point of Honshu and even the palm trees have ferns growing out of them. It is a wet and sultry coast.
Getting from Nikko to Kii-Katsuura had seemed like an epic although it really only took all day. The Katsuura trek was a railway epic that ended on a bus. Getting from Kii-Katsuura to Yunomine Onsen by way of Nachi Hongu and Shingu was going to be another epic that would also somehow only take all day. This time it would be an epic of bus travel that ended with us happily bobbing up and down in steaming sulfuric water, which turns out to be absolutely fabulous for whatever ails you. More on that in my next blog post.