Chiba is a large prefecture, something you notice while traveling from Tokyo to the southern seaside resort of Kamogawa. The journey takes a good two hours — and this by express train.
Once past the city of Mobara, the JR lines enter a more truly rural landscape, marked by narrow bunds separating rice fields, forested slopes, views of old graveyards with tiger lilies blooming on their fringes and old wooden stations, their weatherboard siding painted blue or white. As the train slows down to negotiate the winding shoreline, you begin to sense the under-appreciated beauty of this prefecture.
Less impressive are the immediate environs outside JR Awa-Kamogawa Station, which fail to announce this as a seaside resort. Instead, the visitor is met by the familiar set of a convenience store, a police box, a game arcade and a row of shabby shops with gloomy rooms above them. There is hardly an ocean plant in sight to infer the proximity of the sea, though I did spot one traumatized phoenix palm, trapped in a nest of high tension wires, its fronds unhealthily brittle, trunk dry and friable. Fish restaurants, open-air cafes and tree-and-flower-bedizened boulevards leading to beach fronts are conspicuously absent, the visitor having to either ask directions or consult a local map to negotiate the tired streets that run down to the waterfront. (Luckily there is a tourist information-office at the station.)
With low expectations, the esplanade once you reach it is a rather splendid place. And the region’s marine climate, with mild winters, scorching summers and heat that is retained well into the autumn months, offers what is almost an all-seasons destination. Unlike many seaside resorts in Japan, there are no railway lines or major roads running parallel with the promenade, which is graced with a long line of palms that, in this instance, are tall, healthy and replete with orange masses of inedible fruit that resemble the orange betel nut clusters of the areca tree.
A little up from the esplanade, facing the sands, the Kamogawa Grand Hotel sits in magisterial isolation behind a privet hedge. The hotel has the best location on the beachfront, equidistant between the esplanade and Kamogawa Sea World, with grounds big enough to enjoy the sensation of exclusiveness. In late autumn when I first visited, very little stirred. The grounds and spacious lobby seemed deserted, although I glimpsed an elderly man in a wicker chair, dozing at one of the windows. The hollow tread of my invasive feet (I was staying in more modest lodgings) sounded lonely in the long corridors and empty lounges, the hotel the ideal setting for a melancholy French film about a ruined relationship, made at one of those Atlantic-facing, off-seasons resorts.
Autumn may be temperate, decanted of people, but the die-hard surfers were out in small, determined numbers. Back in the early 1960s, American servicemen from the naval base of Yokosuka were the first to discover the possibilities of surfing along these shores. The rest, as they say, is history.
You won’t find the towering concave formations and tunnels that make maneuvers such as floaters, cutbacks and carvings the features of beaches in Hawaii or Australia. Think more along the lines of the Cornish coast of England’s West Country, where a cousin of mine runs a surfing and bodyboarding magazine that has always felt like a pioneering enterprise. Watching the surfers gliding onto the sand, it was difficult to imagine that the citizens of Kamogawa had sustained both injuries and fatalities during World War II, as American bombers flew overhead, strafing the town.
If the autumn months promise warm, calm days, the summer could hardly be more different. A visit in July saw a long line of SUVs and wagons queuing outside parking lots, a garbage-strewn promenade and a congelation of bodies in the sea, the ocean resembling one of those Tokyo public pools, where hopeful bathers are forced to give up altogether the idea of leisure swimming, resigning themselves to bobbing like corks in the oily water.
The sun-basted front suits the young, while older visitors squat under umbrellas or protect themselves with towels wrapped around their heads, lashings of sun cream and tinted glasses. In high summer, there is hardly enough room to spread a handkerchief to sit on. It does create, though, a colorful quilt covering the unlovely volcanic-gray sand. Here at noon, when the beach reaches capacity, we see the selfishness of vacationers the world over. One family of early risers even had a small barbecue set up on their territory, its red coals and black smoke adding to the sensation of entering an incinerated zone.
I took myself off to the Uomizuka Lookout Point at the end of the bay, where the extent of the visitor numbers could be taken in from the moderately elevated height of 110 meters. The Seicho mountain chain is visible from here. A curious goddess statue called Gyofu (Breeze of Dawn), faces the sea, her benign expression reflecting either contentment with the commercial yield from so many visitors or joy at the infinite emptiness of the ocean beyond the human enjambment.
Water is a powerful leitmotif in these parts. In the less humid months, the Kamogawa area is remembered as a hot-spring resort. Chiba is not blessed with especially good onsen, its springs falling mostly into the lower temperatures of the kōsen, many of them in this area iron-based. An advertisement I glimpsed outside one of the more modern hotel complexes, showed a dolphin with a sponge on its head, soaking in a cedar tub.
The sea is a constant companion along this Pacific-facing coast, evoking a past defined by the precarious livelihoods of fishermen and their families. Today, catches are not what they once were, and the port, with its fishing skiffs and masses of nets, chains and winces, is not quite so vibrant. The skipper of one trawler approached me to see if I wanted a tour of the bay; or perhaps he could organize a fishing expedition for the next morning? You know times are hard when fishermen are obliged to turn to tourism to put food on the table.
Climbing up the steep hill behind the port, several of the old wooden homes hang blue net baskets under their eaves, drying apparatus for fish — the shoals of sardines, mackerel and sea bream that still inhabit these waters. As I passed into the grounds of a small, unmarked shrine with a rusty anchor displayed at the entrance, the carving of its main transom appeared to be of inordinate quality. Over the next day or two I would come across several of these masterpieces at other shrines and temples throughout the region, before learning that they were the work of an artist named Nami no Ihachi, born in 1751 in Kamogawa. The extraordinary fluidity of his work is the carved equivalent of Katsushika Hokusai’s print “The Great Wave at Kanagawa.” Surprisingly few Japanese have ever heard of Ihachi, one of those curious oversights of art history that heightens the sense of discovery.
Tanjo-ji Temple, a sacred place to followers of the priest Nichiren Shonin (1222-1282), a devotee of the Lotus Sutra, is located in the environs of Kamogawa. Tanjo-ji was originally built in 1276 to commemorate the birth of the Buddhist prelate, and fires, earthquakes, even a tidal wave have spared little over the centuries except a wooden statue of the priest, which can be seen in the Founder’s Hall. The temple has the distinction of boasting the world’s largest onigawara (ogre tiles) on its roof.
For those with transport, an even more extraordinary sight a little up the coast from the city is Daifuku-ji Temple, or the Gake Kannon, founded some 1,300 years ago. A statue of Kannon, the goddess upstaged by the location of the temple, is worshipped here, built into the side of a cliff. Visitors climb steps to stand on what seems an impossibly precarious deck, with fine views across the sea to the distant island of Oshima.
The Mizuta Residence, a minka-style home with a thatched roof, lies a little inland. The Edo Period (1603-1867) farmhouse was the birthplace of Mikio Mizuta, a former minister of finance and founder of Josai University, whose spacious hillside campus is located on the outskirts of Kamogawa. The ride through terraced farmland is a joy, with rustic farmhouses boasting stone field walls, streams running through forested glades and winding, undulating lanes. Some of these lead to Oyama Senmaida, an amphitheater of paddies. In the daytime, the water in the basins reflects the sky; in October, the terraces are illuminated. A rare sight indeed to see floodlit rice fields.
Like everywhere in Japan, where Ebisu, the God of Commerce, remains the supreme presiding deity, there are shopping stops on any itinerary. Luckily the region is known for its loquat orchards — so rather than buy hot-spring powder or a paperweight in the form of a killer whale or a surfboard, you can instead opt for jam and a few bars of loquat soap.
The nearest train station to the seaside resort of Kamogawa is Awa-Kamogawa on the JR Sotobo Line. Regular express trains leave from Tokyo station and take approximately two hours to reach Awa-Kamogawa Station. There is a small tourist-information office to the right of the exit. The esplanade is a 5-minute walk.