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The naked and the (almost) dead

Our columnist flirts with death and other things in the lovely seaside town of Choshi

by Simon Bartz

The feast of fish being delivered to our table is fit for the Emperor, as is the price of the room I’m eating it in at Inubosaki Kanko hotel in Choshi, a small seaside town in northeastern Chiba Prefecture. But I’m not complaining about forking out ¥36,000 for one night as it’s the biggest and best room here — a field of tatami that a whole stable of sumo wrestlers could fit snugly upon, and not so much an ocean view as being virtually on the beach.

Looking out of our third-floor windows — the top floor — my companion, Mina, is taking in the view. “Wow!” she exclaims. “Look at this!” I stroll over and she points to the onsen (hot-spring bath) below where a bunch of naked men are soaking and gazing at the ocean. “Get the video camera,” I say, “we can make one of those pervy Peeping-Tom sex films and sell it to my local DVD shop. It will help cover the cost of this room.”

Soon, I’m sweating in the hot bath myself while the sea breeze simultaneously cools me. I look up to see if there are any cameras pointing down, and I toss a thumbs up to the sky and laugh. The beach starts next to the low wooden wall that surrounds the bath, the waves within spitting distance. At night, stars dot the sky, unlike in Tokyo. The area in front of the onsen has no bathers because of a mass of rocks littering the water, but a short three-minute stroll along the sand and you’re at an area good for swimming and surfing with a clean sea and the beach house Nagasakiya serving ice-cold beers for when it gets too hot.

Next morning, we walk 15 minutes along the seafront to the old Inubosaki Lighthouse, on the way passing scores of children hunting for crabs and other sea creatures hiding among the rocks.

I don’t want to climb the 100 steps to the top of the lighthouse, but Mina urges we go up together. I struggle breathlessly as excited kids overtake me until I eventually step out on to what is not so much a viewing platform as a narrow ledge, with a disturbingly low railing to prevent you from falling off. Throughout my life I’ve suffered recurring nightmares of being dragged by some unseen malevolent force off ladders, balconies and cliffs. Immediately, I feel dizzy and lurch forward, my hands grip the railing. I look over the edge at the ground below and my head starts spinning. I have a sudden urge to jump off, which would be easy, but I control myself, loosen my grip on the railing, stumble back from the precipice, apologize to Mina, and stagger back down the 100 steps to escape this pillar of peril. Safe from the lighthouse, my hands shake as I light one of the most welcome cigarettes of my life. Vertigo is not fun.

If you’re a lighthouse otaku (obsessive), they’ve got a museum here charting the history of this one. For me, it’s a total bore apart from a huge egg-shaped glass mirror, a previous “eyeball” of the lighthouse, which could have been plucked from the eye socket of a titanic Transformer.

Back at the hotel at night I realize that this is the perfect place for a romantic getaway — just wave-watching and sake-imbibing at our wall of windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I feel a whooshy high even though I haven’t downed several Es. We test the thick futon and later the lullaby of the waves licking the beach ensures we fall quickly into a deep loving sleep.

To get here, we’d jumped on the Choshi-Dentetsu railway from Choshi Station, a delightfully quaint old line that took us to Inuboh Station (for ¥300), where a driver had been dispatched from the hotel to pick us up. The famed Eno-sen miniature railway in Shonan is a bullet train compared with the Choshi-Dentetsu, which crawls along a tiny track through fields of rice and sunflowers, stopping at a bunch of minuscule ultracute stations that I imagine are straight out of “Toytown,” a British TV series from the 1970s. I almost expect to see Larry the Lamb and Dennis the Daschund prancing playfully in a nearby field. On the way back from Inuboh we stop at Kannon Station as Mina wants to try the taiyaki (fish-shaped bean-paste cake) that is sold in the station and was on a TV show the previous night touted as being some of the best in Japan. She lines up for 15 minutes. I’m not a big fan of taiyaki but this is pretty good and I wolf one down, so she goes and lines up to buy more.

Back in Choshi we get lost a few times looking for one of the oldest soy-sauce factories in Japan, Higeta, outside of which is parked a fleet of huge truck-tankers ready to spread the crucial condiment throughout Japan. The smell of the stuff hangs heavy in the air as I fall asleep during a 15-minute documentary about the factory. At the on-site museum I see old wooden vats, pictures of soy sommeliers tasting the stuff, and photos of lab-coat-clad soy scientists using pipettes to draw samples from beakers.

Back opposite Choshi Station, we nibble on some sublime, soft senbei (rice crackers) at the shop Ishigami, which is famous for the snack, but we need something more substantial. One option is the Sardine Factory across the road, where you can choose a can of ramen or a can of saba (mackerel) curry or a can of whatever weird stuff and they will heat it up and serve it to you. But we’re distracted by a matsuri (street festival) procession, so we follow it down the main drag toward the bay, which is packed with yachts, and then up a side street until it stops outside the Ko Kai fish restaurant.

Ko Kai is very “shitamachi” (old town), just like most of Choshi, and I love that. It’s all tatami and low tables, a small TV flickering in a corner, Showa-style posters on the wall, a signed photo of actor Toshiro Mifune’s daughter, Mika, eating here and a few yakuza gangsters taking a beer break from the matsuri and asking me about my tattoos, and if I’ve got any gang affiliation.

“Have you ever seen a gaijin (foreigner) yakuza?” I ask. “Maybe I could be the first!” They laugh and we clash glasses.

Mina and I eat raw oysters topped with negi (green onion) and momiji-oroshi (spicy raddish) and dipped in ponzu (soy and vinegar) sauce, and boiled kinmedai (alfonsino) in a sweet soy-and-sake broth. Choshi is famous for its seafood, but I imagine this is more tasty and nutritous than Angelina Jolie’s milk and, with a few beers, comes to a mere ¥3,000 for two.

Later, we slip into the Okinawa-themed bar/restaurant Faimiru next door for a few awamori (Okinawa liquor) cocktails. Faimiru is an Aladdin’s Cave of all things Okinawan — trinkets, colorful shirts, surf paraphernalia and, of course, an obligatory TV. Everyone I’ve met in Choshi is ultrafriendly and here there’s more banter.

“The last gaijin who came in here was an English boy three years ago. He worked in the Higeta soy-sauce factory,” the rotund master says. “He looked as sh*t as I do, but he was very cool. Just like me.” And then he gives out a hearty bellow.

Back on the train to Tokyo, I am depressed. I have felt so relaxed, romantic, rudderless, the last thing I want to do is set sail for home and the office.

Choshi is two hours from Tokyo Station. A round trip will cost you ¥8,040 on the Sobu Line limited express. Inubosaki Kanko Hotel, tel: (047) 923-5111. Room price depends on season and size and dinner. Faimiru, tel: (047) 25-1267