Fabled strand of 500 pines

by Steve John Powell

Special To The Japan Times

Beautiful beaches, we’ve all seen our share, right? But a beautiful beach that’s also historic and sacred? That sounds worth driving out of our way for — especially as the way takes us over a span I’ve long yearned to traverse: the Ondo Bridge, a delightful crimson structure over the Ondo Strait, a 90-meter wide channel that separates Kure City from the island of Kurahashi, Hiroshima Prefecture. Legend has it that, in the 12th century, the great warlord-politician Taira no Kiyomori carved out the strait in a single day to facilitate trade with China.

At either end of the 172-meter bridge, the approach roads take the form of convoluted snail shells that set your head spinning nicely en route to the parallel universe on the other side. For Kurahashi Island may lack the caché of its feted neighbor Miyajima, with its pushy deer and offshore orange torii, but its relative anonymity just enhances its magic.

As soon as you’re across the Ondo Strait, you feel “island time” taking over: The very air seems different as traffic evanesces and life slows. You find yourself in a realm of citrus groves and rice paddies embosomed in the folds of the mountains. In autumn, roadside fruit stalls tempt you at regular intervals — just help yourself and leave money in the box. Since the postwar demise of shipbuilding, growing citrus fruits, especially mikan (tangerines), has been the main activity here.

Meanwhile, the sea is dotted with beds of oysters — umi no miruku (sea-milk) as they are known because of their high nutritional content. Forests reach down to the shore. Come evening, so do wild boar.

But today our goal is beyond — a beach near the far end of Kurahashi, named Katsuragahama, whose beauty was praised way back in the eighth century in the oldest known anthology of Japanese poetry, the “Manyoshu” (“Collection of 10,000 Leaves”). There, an anonymous scribe wrote, using the old name for Kurahashi: “If only my life had the grace and countless years of this small pine forest at Nagato Island … ”

But Kurahashi Island isn’t just a pretty place — it’s also the second largest of the Geiyo Islands, a little archipelago at the western end of the Seto Inland Sea between Hiroshima and Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku. And with an area of 69 sq. km., it’s more than twice as big as Miyajima.

In days gone by, Kurahashi was famous for shipbuilding. As far back as the reign of Emperor Suiko (554-628), the islanders made the ships that carried Japanese envoys to China and elsewhere. In 1944, the Hiroshima Prefectural Government designated Katsuragahama Beach as a Site of Historic Interest after it had been verified as the place from which envoys were dispatched to Shiragi in Korea in 736 — an event important enough to earn Kurahashi another mention in the “Manyoshu.”

Serendipitously enough, just as we come round the mountain and behold the mind-melting view of the little blue-roofed town and the islands stretching away across sun-dappled waters into the misty distance, Lucinda Williams materializes on our car’s stereo singing, “I wanna watch the ocean bend the edges of the sun/ I wanna get swallowed up in an ocean of love.”

Ah, but don’t we all? Indeed, it’s time to pull over to the side of the road for my wife Angeles’ first photo session of the day.

On arriving at the beach, we find there is a “small pine forest” between the road and the strand, as mentioned in the poem. Legend has it that there are exactly 500 pines, though in this heat we’ve no inclination to count them. Where the beach merges with the pine grove, a giant stone torii rises out of the sands. In olden days, for those arriving by boat, the message was clear: Here dwell gods. Katsuragahama Shrine itself is just over the road and easily reached up steep steps past an enormous clam shell.

Anxious to cool off after the long hot drive, we take a quick dip in the limpid waters, and are treated to a pedicure perfformed by little sandy-colored fish that come and nibble our toes.

As we dry off in the cicada-loud shade of the pines, munching on the scrumptious salmon-flake onigiri rice balls Angeles prepared for the trip, the heady fragrance of the trees mingles in enchantingly soporific fashion with the soft salty sea breeze and the languid lapping of the waves. Out on the dreamy waters of the Inland Sea, endless islands appear and vanish in the haze like a flotilla of ghost galleons.

“You can see the islands of three prefectures from here,” explains one of Katsuraga- hama’s volunteer beach-cleaners who’s come to sit and share the shade with us awhile. “Left to right, there’s Ehime, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi.”

Angeles asks her about the huge stones, dotted among the pines. The lady informs us that one is inscribed with the poem from the “Manyoshu.” Another is a monument to mozuku, a kind of seaweed.

“People didn’t have much else to eat during World War II, so the inscription is a message of thanks to the mozuku for staving off their hunger,” she explains.

Forested mountains slope down to the sea at either end of Katsuragahama, corralling the beach in an intimate half-moon bay. The idyllic beauty motivated one poet to write: “I will devote my life to the pine trees on the shore of Nagato Island. How many generations it took to become such a divine entity, I wonder.”

Kurahashi may no longer build ships, but its strong links to the sea endure. Around mid-morning a jovial gent arrives with collection of paint brushes, rolls of paper and set squares. Being an artist herself, Angeles asks him what he’s doing. It turns out the three ornate canoelike craft in a nearby wooden structure on the edge of the pine grove are the three boats used in Miyajima’s Kangensai Festival staged annually on July 24. On the evening of that day they set sail for Miyajima, where they tow the Goza-bune (a brightly-lit sacred boat) carrying a mikoshi (portable shrine) to its great torii, with musicians on board playing Gagaku court music all the while. This festival with origins in the Heian Period (794-1185) is one of Miyajima’s most important celebrations. And, it turns out, our painter friend has come to paint a sign on the boathouse.

He recommends us to take a stroll down to the far end of the beach, to the Nagato Museum of Shipbuilding History. There we discover that some bright-orange pointy things we’d espied in the distance were in fact the masts on a lifesize replica of the floating-palace of a boat used to transport the Japanese envoys to China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The lady in the museum informs us that the Western-style dock where it’s moored was built between 1801-04 and is the oldest of its kind in Japan.

Meanwhile, a constant procession of fishing boats putt-putts in and out of the village harbor, while further out ferries, pleasure boats, tankers and cargo ships thread their throbbing paths through the jagged labyrinth of islands. In the late-afternoon heat, fat fish compete to see who can make the highest leap out of the sea. To paraphrase George Gershwin, fish are jumping and the rice is high.

I recall a college student who made the daily commute to the mainland once telling me: “I like it here because it’s so quiet. At night all I hear is the chirping of the crickets. And it’s very safe. We often go out without locking the door.” Meditating on this sublimely serene view, it’s easy to understand what she meant.

As the sun finally starts to slip behind the mountains, we polish off the tangy Manchego cheese Angeles brought back from Spain and decide to detour round the southern tip of the island, just to make the day last a little longer. We scarcely see another car. As we pass through one hamlet, some old folk are dragging their chairs out into the middle of the road to chat away the evening in the pleasant breeze.

We pootle across the deserted Kashima Bridge, its lights shimmering on the water like fireworks in the bat-black night, while the sweet ringing of crickets has replaced the abrasive buzz and sputter of the cicadas. They sing us back home nice and easy through winding country roads overhung with trees.

And people back home still ask me what it’s like to live in such an overcrowded country.