25.05.2013 - 25.05.2013 27 °C
BGM: " Sea Sand and Sun" by Arnica Montana (Cafe Del Mar)
Back in Alaska, I was a water baby. Like a limpet sealed fast to a rock, it was hard to pry me off the beach when it was time to go home. Up until last weekend, I didn't think much of the beaches of southern Hiroshima. Don't get me wrong: the golden sand mixed with recycled oyster shell is quite nice for spreading a towel and getting your tan on. Watching all the day-glow colored ferries and tankers scooting by is quite entertaining, too. But my heart's been yearning to see signs of an ecosystem. I needed to know that some of these beaches still had life in them, like the ones I was used to back home.
Nagahama Shizen Kaihin Hozenchiku (Long Beach Coastal Wildlife Reserve)
One muggy moody evening, our car hugging the sensuously-curving coastal road out of Takehara, headed for Mihara along Highway 185, my husband smiled at me and stopped somewhere just past the power plant and just short of Cafe Hoxton on the outskirts of Tadanoumi Town. We ascended the steps to the scenic viewing spot above the parking lot. "You might like this beach," he said. What beach? I looked down and there was only the deep azure sea and the rocks below.
He pointed towards the small rectangular break in the concrete wall across the road from the cafe. We gingerly descended the steep concrete stairs and hopped onto the smooth golden sand, watching the sun set and the full moon rise simultaneously. I looked down at my feet and noticed charming little sand fleas jumping cutely away from my every step, burrowing frantically into the sand. Sand fleas! An indicator species! I agreed that we should get here early the next morning and spend the whole day out of our pop tent, just chillin' with the fleas and seeing what else was out here.
Perfect view of Okunoshima ("Rabbit Island") from the shore (the one with the tower on top). We could even see hikers on the trail with a pair of binoculars!
Our little piece of heaven...
In my travels around Japan, I would always be put off by all the garbage I'd see piled up on the beaches (and this was before the great Tohoku Quake of 3/11/11). Some places like Niigata City and Tsuruga, Fukui have so much trash on the beaches that it's safer to just stay up on the sand bar and not poke around the edge. Unlike my husband, I didn't have the city skills to keep the trash out of mind and just enjoy the view for what it was. Though Japan likes to blame neighboring China and Korea for all its pollution ills, nearly all the garbage I've seen on her shores had Japanese writing on it. No more excuses.
But Hiroshima's Seto Inland Sea, for all its beach goers and boat traffic, has the cleanest beaches I'd seen in my life. I don't know whether the locals do frequent cleanups or if the fines for littering are steeper here, but whatever they're doing, it's working. On every island I've visited in Hiroshima so far (around 9 or so), the beaches have been utterly pristine. Not only are the beaches of Hiroshima clean, but the water is also calm, clear and peaceful, perfect for swimming. (But even in late May, it's still a little chilly for that).
An elderly husband-wife team bringing in their morning catch of fish.
We scarfed down our provisions before I could think to take a picture of them. But the menu was rolled pickle sushi and baked chicken courtesy of Takehara Fuji Palty grocery store. Yes, it was all good. (Sorry, Dear Readers. Not like me to leave out the food pics, I know).
We weren't alone for the first several hours. Sitting at the base of the cliffs underneath the scenic lookout, a randy young high school student was busy feeling up a willing female, with two other girls of junior high age just twenty feet away, trying not to watch them but certainly looking jealous. A worldly-wise gentleman in his late fifties settled in the grass right behind our tent. After spreading a lime green plastic mat on the sand, he stripped down to a pair of summer shorts and lay face-down in repose, tanning his back in the sun. He seemed to appreciate the Bob Marley I cranked up for him on my iDevice. My husband and I sang along to "No Woman No Cry" as he shifted on his mat, baking evenly like a rotisserie chicken. We envied his inability to burn.
A elderly man of about seventy years, silver beard glinting in the sun, staggered along drowsily in baggy torn pants, black rubber boots flopping, carrying a bright orange bucket and staring suspiciously at us as he passed by our pop-tent. He returned our way after about 20 minutes with nothing in his pail. My curiosity began to pique. When the heat let up and the noon breeze started flowing into our back mesh screen, it was time for me to check out what the outgoing tide had revealed. There was certainly more to this beach than the sand fleas!
An elegant crop of green sponge weed in crystal Seto seawater
I was awestruck by the variety of sea vegetables on these rocks. It made me wonder if that old guy with the bucket "planted" them there. I could easily imagine this stuff dipped in a strong, aromatic soy sauce spiked with freshly-grated wasabi! The sea lettuce in particular looked particularly appetizing!
I kept finding myself mesmerized by this sponge weed swaying gracefully in the surf, flowing gently back and forth like a yogi's breath. I wanted to take it home and keep it in my bathtub. The sea foam fizzed and bubbled over and around it with each splash. I felt my mind clearing out with every push of the sea.
When our young, amorous neighbors left their spot by the cliffs and had staggered drunkenly back up to the highway, we seized the chance to check out the main intertidal splash zone before the tide came rolling back in. It was a full moon and there was a high tide warning for our area. We had an hour or two left at most.
As our shadows fell across limestone rock, the cliffs hissed with the sound of hundreds of scuttling cockroach-sized isopods the Japanese call funamushi ("boat bugs"). Ligia exotica, common name "sea slater" are fast, leggy crustaceans that mainly feed on the seaweeds stuck to the rocks. But they're quite unnerving when they move as one massive group, disappearing swiftly into the cracks and shadows. My husband was a little freaked out and high-tailed it back out to the water's edge. I tried to snap pics of them but they were too fast. Below was the best I could do:
I personally think they're kind of cute. Look at those sweet buggy eyes!
Though the air was thick with the pungent, noxious reek of ascophyllum seaweed rotting in the hot sun, combing the cliffs was a delight. As the water lapped delicately around at my ankles, I marveled at the artistic wizardry of the sea, admiring the small caves and patterns it carved into the gritty, shell-encrusted limestone around me. I spotted oyster, chitin, limpets, barnacles and a few mussels though they were sparse. Surely these were what the old guy with the pail was after! I kept an eye out for octopuses, shore crabs and jellyfish- supposedly common sights along the shores of the Seto Inland Sea. Apparently they were all on vacation that day.
I could've walked on forever but I didn't want go as far as the power plant farther down the beach, so I turned back. Lucky for me, I noticed a pure-white alien cluster of finger-length egg cases, sparkling like crystal in the setting sun. I'd seen something similar in a book on marine life and since the signal was good, I quickly looked it up on the Net. Sure enough: squid eggs! I couldn't help but try to touch them. They were cool and smooth like glass. The eggs in each case were stacked up perfectly like iyokan oranges in a net.
I was so grateful to finally have found a beach with signs of life. The low-pitched waves moved back and forth with a relaxed and easy rhythm, kissing the shore like an attentive lover who knew to take his time. I was so used to aggressive dynamism from the sea, but it was a blessing to see this whole new peaceful side to it. Twelve years on an island nation yet I never felt that familiar calling from the sea until I came to Takehara. Who knew? I suddenly felt long-neglected scales growing back on the sides of my legs and an itching to throw myself into the water and just melt in the blissful weightlessness. This summer, I promised myself. This summer.
The sun sank drowsily behind the cliff, coloring the sky with a gorgeous palette of breathy pinks and peaches. Intoxicatingly sweet neroli perfume from the nearby orange groves flowed lavishly across the beach, mixing with the salty air. Acacia trees in full bloom along the highway couldn't be left out of this reverie, their jasmine-like blossoms adding an intense woodsiness reminiscent of temple incense. So this is what Paradise smells like, we mused. My husband and I watched trout-sized fish jumping out of the water as if waving "goodbye" to the sun with their fins. Looking down at my left foot, a tiny crystalline sand flea had chosen a spot in my shadow and started digging a home for himself, kicking out the sand with tiny hind legs. (Japanese sand fleas are harmless crustaceans, unlike their biting cousins that live in the Caribbean. They might try to dig into you if you catch one and it feels a little like a pin-prick, but they won't bite. They're dreadfully charming in their innocence).
In the distance, a red-throated diver had caught her 5th fish in the last 15 minutes we'd been watching her, wings flapping to shake off the seawater before diving back in again for more dinner. Our last neighbor of the evening, a solo fisherman about our age, gave up snagging his hooks on the seaweed and started packing up in obvious frustration to head on home. That was our cue to fold up our trusty pop-tent and leave this natural utopia in search of our own provisions.
For the next two days, I felt a lightness in my soul as if I'd been to an old-time spiritual revival. It will be fun watching the cycles of life on this beach change throughout the seasons. Kudos to the people and government of Takehara and Hiroshima for keeping places like this so clean and intact. May it stay this way for generations to come.
"Hands in the sand, feet in the sea
Facing the sun, an empty mind,
A free body..."