Adrift from Amanohashidate on Heaven’s Floating Bridge

by Chris Bamforth

Special To The Japan Times

The Japanese have long had a fondness for categorizing impressive features of the world around them into numbered lists. And in this enterprise, trios hold particular fascination. Thus, in addition to the Three Great Festivals and the Three Great Night Views, among well over 100 prestigious triads are the Three Top Ramen Noodle Dishes, the Three Top Karst Topographies and the Three Top Poisonous Creatures.

But in this Japanese world of threesomes, most celebrated by far are the Three Most Scenic Places (Nihon sankei), as designated around 1643 by a neo-Confucian scholar, teacher and government administrator named Hayashi Gaho.

Hence along with the mystical island of Miyajima near Hiroshima — site of the famed “floating torii” and beautiful Itsukushima Shrine; and lovely Matsushima Bay near Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, with its dozens of pine-clad islands; visitors also flock to cast their eyes on the so-called Floating Bridge of Heaven sandbar of Amanohashidate.

Amanohashidate is located in Kyoto Prefecture, but the place is spiritually and physically far removed from the celebrated prefectural and former Imperial capital about 80 km to the southeast.

As the train leaves Kyoto Station and heads north, the character of the surroundings swiftly changes. Gone is the milieu of temples, pagodas and ancient history. Instead, the train plunges into tunnels and emerges to cross deep-forested gorges, through which run dark-jade rivers sparkling in the sunlight as they break over boulders. By the time it reaches Amanohashidate’s station 90 minutes later, the blue stretch of Miyazu Bay, an inlet of the Sea of Japan, has swept into view.

With a width of 40 to 110 meters, the sandbar of Amanohashidate is about 3.6 km long. Since it is traversed at its southern end by two narrow channels, each spanned by bridges, that connect Miyazu Bay with the lagoon of Asokai, the sandbar isn’t quite an isthmus.

Moreover, the sandbar we see today is different from how it looked in the feudal Edo period (1603-1867), when it made the grade as a top landscape. Through the gradual accumulation of sand from both the sea and the lagoon, it has grown bigger over the centuries. The sandbar we see now is distinctively graced with around 8,000 trees, mostly black pines. Originally, the pines were a natural feature, but then later people took to planting the trees because they rather liked the look of the things.

The sandbar is a truly delightful place for a walk or bike ride. You make your way on a sandy path strewn with pine needles and cones, with the warm smell of pines and tang of the sea in the air. As you proceed along the causeway, you are flanked by the seaward-leaning pines so eloquently indicative of prevailing offshore winds. Beyond the trees on either side extend stretches of seawater, with the grays and blues of the bay subtly different from those of the lagoon.

Close by the northern end of the sandbar, just beyond the Kono Shrine, rises the 400-meter-long funicular that visitors to Amanohashidate simply have to ride. At the top is the small Kasamatsu Park, which offers the classic view of the pine-clad sandbar.

And the panorama is indeed rather lovely. The elegant sandbar cuts obliquely across the bay, and at the time of this writer’s trip in spring the background hills were still flecked with snow, while away from the sandbar appear the indented coastline and the dark shapes of islands out toward the Sea of Japan.

What you are also treated to in this park is the sight of numbers of people standing with their legs spreadeagled and their heads dangling between their knees. Though it looks like individuals dealing with a case of mass simultaneous dizziness, what they are doing is performing the time-honored custom of mata-nozoki.

This popular Kasamatsu Park gymnastic involves the ungainly pointing of the derriere in the general direction of Amanohashidate in order to peer at the view from beneath that posterior. But when seen in this inverted fashion, the sandbar does in fact look uncannily like a suspended bridge gracefully extending up to heaven — if you happen to possess a particularly florid imagination and can cope with the rush of blood to the head.

From the park, a bus takes you along a spectacularly steep road that winds up the mountain toward the Buddhist temple of Nariaiji. The temple seems much higher than its elevation of 350 meters would suggest, and on this writer’s visit there were massive banks of deep snow piled on either side of the walkways, even though down in Amanohashidate the temperature was rather mild.

After you trek up the cryptomeria-lined slopes and stone steps to the wood-built main hall, entering the temple comes as quite a surprise. In utter contrast to the stark natural surroundings of the mountaintop, the interior opens up in a sudden exuberance of red and gold. Golden bells on long golden chains dangle from the ceiling amid a profusion of brass lanterns, golden lotuses, exquisite wooden carvings and statues of Buddhist deities around the main golden altar. Hanging over it all is the sweetly acrid scent of incense.

The temple belongs to the Shingon sect, which was founded by the great ninth-century Buddhist saint, polymath and all-round genius Kukai (aka Kobo Daishi). The route linking 88 temples associated with Kukai on his home island of Shikoku, known as the Hachijuhakkasho, is the most famous pilgrimage in the country.

However, Nariaiji is also part of a pilgrimage route connecting an auspicious number of temples, being the 28th temple on the 33-temple Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage of western Japan, which, as the name indicates, is dedicated to Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion. This trail is decidedly less popular than the far more famous one in Shikoku, and Nariaiji priests say that only about half a dozen pilgrims a year trudge their way around the whole 1,300-km route.

After seeing the local sights, visitors who have elected to spend the night in the village of Amanohashidate are best advised to set their sights on enjoying a quiet evening in. Since the whole of the village seems to have turned into a dormitory by about 8:30, this is hardly the place for people with fond thoughts of going out on the town and painting it red. But for those seeking a patch of gentle respite from both the hurly and the burly demands of city life, Amanohashidate is, well, rather heavenly.

Amanohashidate is 90 min. from Kyoto via the JR San-in and Miyazu lines.