What is the top tourist destination in the Kansai region? Is it Kyoto’s geisha district? Is it the temples and bamboo forests of Arashiyama? Is it the town of Yoshino, with Japan’s most famous cherry blossoms? The majestic views from Mount Rokko in Kobe? Or Lake Biwa, the country’s largest freshwater lake? The list goes on and on, but it’s doubtful that Wakanoura, a small coastal town near the city of Wakayama, would come to mind.

Yet, just a century ago, this town was at the top of the list when it came to places of outstanding natural beauty. So renowned was Wakanoura that “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator,” one of the first steel elevators in Japan, had been constructed there to allow visitors to ascend a hilltop and take in the impressive vistas. Nowadays, Wakanoura is largely forgotten, and the fabled elevator is long gone.

This lost history is brought to life in the first half of Natsume Soseki’s novel “Kojin” (“The Wayfarer”), serialized from 1912 to 1913, in which a well-to-do Tokyo family makes a visit to the Kansai region and decides to escape the summer heat in Osaka by visiting Wakanoura; “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator” occupies a memorable place in the plot.

Soseki, whose novels were serialized in both the Kanto and Kansai editions of the Asahi Shimbun, had made a lecture tour of the Kansai region in 1911, during a period of convalescence a year earlier at the onsen resort of Shuzenji, Shizuoka Prefecture. After his return to Tokyo, he incorporated a Kansai setting into his novel “The Wayfarer” — perhaps a nod of recognition to his fervent Kansai readership: he had not forgotten them.

Soseki himself visited Wakanoura in August 1911, before giving a lecture, “The Enlightenment of Modern Japan,” in Wakayama City.

“Last night I stayed in Wakanoura,” he said during the lecture. “When you go to Wakanoura there are a variety of things to see like Sagarimatsu, Gongen-sama and the Kimii-dera Temple. But I also saw the elevator described as “The Orient’s First to 200 Feet Above Sea Level” constantly taking sightseers up and down from the back of my lodgings to the top of the stone hill. Actually I too, like a bear in a zoo, was put inside the metal bars of a cage and lifted to the top of the mountain.”

Soseki was the latest in a stream of famous visitors to Wakanoura that stretched back more than 1,000 years. Today, although the elevator has vanished, you can follow in the footsteps of those visitors by wandering between fascinating temples and shrines and taking in the views from the surrounding hills.

One of the earliest documented visits was taken by Emperor Shomu in 724. He visited Wakanoura and admired the string of islands collectively known as Tamatsushima, which are celebrated in the “Manyoshu,” the eighth-century collection of Japanese court poetry. Since then, the sea has retreated and only one of those islands, Imose Yama, still remains.

Chief among the sites still accessible today is Kimii-dera Temple, built on the slopes of Mount Nagusa. Founded in 770 by the Chinese monk Iko, the temple has 231 steps that lead to the main hall where you will encounter a glistening 12-meter-high golden statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, the largest gold-lacquered wooden Kannon in Japan. Another statue dating from the time of the temple’s founding is a hibutsu (hidden Buddha) revealed once every 50 years.

Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), the famous courtier poet — deified after his death as Tenman-Tenjin, the Shinto god of learning — stopped at Wakanoura on his way to exile and composed poems here. Today he is commemorated at the Wakanoura Tenmangu Shrine, where students leave votive plaques petitioning him for exam success.

In 1621, Tokugawa Yorinobu, the 10th son of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who ruled the from nearby Wakayama Castle, established Wakanoura’s brightly painted Kishu Toshu-gu Shrine (which Soseki refers to by its other name, “Gongen-sama”), adorned with artwork by painters from the Kano and Tosa schools. During the Waka Festival, held in mid-May each year, a mikoshi (portable shrine) supposedly containing the spirit of Ieyasu is noisily taken down the shrine’s narrow steps, cheered on by a huge crowd of locals in period costumes.

Wakanoura has not only been an inspiration for novelists, poets and potentates, but for artists, too. The Sandankyo bridge leading to Imose Yama — commissioned by Yorinobu — was depicted by the famous ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige.

But I was curious to learn more about the curiosity known as “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator.”

I turned back to Soseki’s “The Wayfarer.” In his novel, Wakanoura — and the elevator — is not only a scenic backdrop but it is used by Soseki’s to explore his wider ideas about human will.

From the beginning of his writing career, in 1905, Soseki had been engaged with German philosophical thought, considering how our will, intellect and emotion interact. He often used the image of a cliff as a symbol of “willfulness.” In “Gubijinso” (“The Poppy”), a wilful character is metaphorically described as throwing the weak-willed down a cliff, and at the beginning of Soseki’s 1910 novel “Mon” (“The Gate”), the timorous protagonist is described as living at the bottom of a cliff.

In “The Wayfarer,” a haughty intellectual called Ichiro has doubts concerning his estranged wife, Nao, and is determined to find out whether she is secretly in love with his brother Jiro. His over-reaching willfulness and confidence in his intellect means he simply must know what desires his wife is hiding. When the whole family spends a few days in Wakanoura, Ichiro attempts to use his brother as a detective and persuades him to make a day trip to nearby Wakayama with her and report back with observations of his sister-in-law.

In order to have a private conversation with Jiro about his scheme, Ichiro travels with him in “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator,” remarking Hamlet-like that, in a similar way to the elevator cage, the whole world is a prison. The next day, carrying on the conversation at Kimii-dera Temple, Ichiro asks his brother to investigate Nao.

When Jiro travels with her to Wakayama for the day, the greater will of Mother Nature overwhelms Ichiro’s schemes: a storm prevents them returning and they must spend the night together in Wakayama. Far from accessing the hidden secrets of Nao’s affections, Ichiro is now led to complete distraction wondering what has transpired between his brother and his wife.

In Soseki’s imaginative universe, “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator” becomes a symbol of the limits of human will when pitted against the grand will of the universe, represented by the landscape and climate of Wakanoura itself. Indeed, Soseki would surely have enjoyed the irony that the word he uses to describe the hill the elevator ascended, “Ishiyama,” can have two meanings: “stone mountain” or “mountain of will.”

If you take the 90-minute train ride from Osaka to Wakanoura, you are heading to one of the former great scenic spots of Japan, but also a site where a philosophical battle once played out in one of Japan’s literary classics.

The elevator is long gone — and is hardly remembered. After making repeated enquiries, I eventually discovered a photo of it on display in the Tamatsushima Shrine.

When I asked what had become of the contraption, I was told that it had been torn down for its metal in 1916, during World War I. It seems the elevator was built in 1910 and only existed for a mere six years. Soseki would have appreciated the irony that an object that he had deployed as a metaphor of overbearing wilfulness had enjoyed such a brief existence.

Consider what has happened to all those beautiful natural vistas that Wakanoura was once famous for. Today, those views are interrupted by urban sprawl — a chief reason why the area is not today as famous as it once was. Industry, a particularly human brand of wilfulness, has affected the traditional natural beauty of Wakanoura and imposed itself on the landscape.

How might Soseki have viewed the town’s fate? In his speech “The Philosophical Foundations of the Literary Arts,” he offers the unexpected example of a chimney belching smoke as, unexpectedly, an admirable example of human wilfulness.

Many people think that to have a profound travel experience, you should traipse to some scene of unchanging natural beauty, such as Amanohashidate in Kyoto Prefecture, a sliver of land ranked as one of one of Japan’s three scenic views, or Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture, another of the country’s three most scenic views. For centuries, poets have written about them and artists have painted them.

But Wakanoura offers a more intriguing study: It has become a sharp juxtaposition of changing and unchanging elements — of temples and shrines arguing for a renouncement of the world, and industries in the process of shaping the world.

If you wish to get to the bottom of the eternal, epic battle between human wilfulness and the will of nature, then pack a copy of Soseki’s ‘The Wayfarer’ and head to Wakanoura, still haunted by the ghost of “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator.”

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