The crowd at Amanohashidate is thicker than I’d anticipated, even for the start of the o-Bon holidays. I’d come here to see the Kyoto beyond Kyoto. That is, to see some of what Kyoto has to offer aside from the city itself.
I start in the north of the prefecture at Amanohashidate, one of the Nihon Sankei (three scenic views of Japan), that links the western shores of Miyazu Bay on the Sea of Japan and is the gateway to the Tango Peninsula beyond. On this sweltering day in early August, hoards of beachgoers revel on the undulating shoreline of Amanohashidate’s eastern edge. Others stroll slowly beneath the pine trees while licking ice cream cones or snapping the occasional selfie. I only make it about a third of the way along the 3.6-kilometer-long sandbar before the sound of thunder greets me from the south. Examining the dark clouds, laden with rain, I grudgingly decide to turn back.
I make it to the monorail up Mount Myoken just as the clouds let loose. My luck continues, and the storm passes minutes before I climb aboard. We glide up the slope for seven minutes before reaching the diminutive amusement park Amanohashidate View Land. From here, Amanohashidate can be seen to extend out toward the horizon like a great green blade slicing through the bay. A steady breeze follows behind the retreating storm clouds.
Back on the road, I cut northwest across the mainland edge of the Tango Peninsula through a mix of small-town strip malls, intensely green rice paddies and traditional homes. I arrive at my ryokan (Japanese inn), just north of Kotohiki Beach, as the sun starts to drop, but still have time for a seaside soak in the outdoor onsen (hot spring) before a DIY barbecue dinner of seafood so fresh that the abalone and turban shells wriggle over the coals. Sleep comes easy and early, preceded by the tranquility of lying flat on the tatami and staring out through the window, and gauzy darkness beyond, to the line of squid-fishing boats flickering like gemstones in the distance.
The next morning I climb back in the car and head east along the coast. The whole area feels plucked from folklore. Rice paddies and traditional black-slatted houses with gardens guarded by jerry-built scarecrows occupy every square meter of usable space between stretches of coastline too precipitous to build on. This severe geography is a check on development and precludes any train lines from venturing into Tango itself, though narrow roads cling to dizzying cliffs and cut improbable paths through the central mountains. Several of these are lined with signs protesting the 2014 U.S. military radar installation on Tango.
While this whole corner of the country is remarkably desolate considering its proximity to the dense urban centers of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe, it was a hub of intracontinental exchange at least as early as the Asuka Period (552-645). The oldest Chinese copper mirror with a date inscription ever to be found in Japan was discovered here in an Asuka Period burial mound. The date corresponds to 235 AD and points to the area’s historical significance.
I make my way around the peninsula’s northern extremity and arrive at Ine around midmorning. The sun is already punishing by the time I park the car and step outside. Ine is bigger than I’d originally thought. Or rather, it’s simply more spread out.
There, a community of roughly 230 funaya (boathouses) is built along the shore of Ine Bay. The houses are unique to Japan; in most parts of the country, the threat of tsunami would make this style of living unthinkable, but Ine Bay has a number of natural protections: it faces south into the Sea of Japan and is protected on its eastern side by Kame Island (actually a smaller peninsula jutting off of Tango). And, at the bay’s mouth, Ao Island serves as a natural breakwater. This fortuitous geography has allowed fisherman to build habitable boathouses directly over the water since the early 18th century. These “Ine no Funaya” wrap the 5-kilometer-long shoreline of Ine Bay, and I’ve parked smack bang in the middle.
Perplexed as to how to best see the houses, I wander into the mercifully air-conditioned visitor’s center and spot a stack of flyers for on-call boat tours. I select one with a note promising pickup from anywhere on the bay, and 10 minutes later my boat, the Marine, motors up to the landing next to the parking lot. It’s cooler out on the water, and from here I get a variety of views of the Ine boathouses. My tour is peppered with notes on the town’s history, development and recent boom in tourism, and my guide points out the boathouse featured in a 1993 NHK drama, the three oldest boathouses in town and the backside of a sake brewery, Mukai Shuzo, perched on the water’s edge.
We disembark back on the landing near the parking lot, and I realize the sake brewery is only a few hundred meters around the cove. I make my way there slowly, peering through and between the boathouses at the water, occasionally looking up to see someone smoking a cigarette or hanging laundry from a room above. After picking up a bottle of Enyobo Junmai Ginjo to enjoy after dinner at the ryokan, I head back to the car.
It’s midafternoon when I stop off at the Kyogamisaki Lighthouse on the northernmost point of Tango and broader Kinki region. From the parking lot, it’s a near-vertical climb for 140 meters and another 200 meters skirting the cliffs to the lighthouse, a squat white building housing one of five first-order Fresnel lenses in Japan. The entirety of this short hike is mercifully shaded by the dense forest ceiling, where numerous large black butterflies flutter through the shadows. I’m covered in a sheen of sweat upon reaching the lighthouse, and the view looking out over the flat, cobalt sea isn’t as intriguing as others I’d briefly spied during my morning drive, so I don’t loiter long.
I pull off a few times to take in the jagged coastline, but find the most compelling strand of the Tango seashore at Onaru Kofun, a collection of stone burial mounds from the 6th and 7th centuries. Even without the added allure of these lithic tombs, the small coastal plateau on which they sit is the most beautiful spot on the entire Tango coast; it’s an ideal place to spend eternity. Tateiwa, the peninsula’s most distinctive geological feature, juts out at the mouth of the Takano River just a few hundred meters to the west. The formation is the largest of several similar structures along Tango’s northwest littoral.
Each feature was first formed when cooling volcanic rock erupted into higher strata before eons of erosion stripped away the softer sediment to leave interlocking columns of igneous rock protruding from the ocean floor and leaning away from land. Sandy beaches broken up by these volcanic remnants extend east to Inuga Cape three kilometers away. Immediately below the burial mounds, more of these abrupt and angular formations stand like dogged sentinels, steady against the endlessly advancing waves.
Taking a deep breath and one last look at the burial mounds and view beyond, I notice a narrow path retreating through the high grass down to a wide, peaceful beach. I can hear voices carried on the wind, and peering over the plateau’s western edge see a few people splashing in the calm water. The sound of their revelry and the steady metronome of the lapping waves calls out to me through the heat, but then I remember I’ve left my swimsuit at the ryokan. “Oh well,” I reason. “There’s always tomorrow.”
Sake breweries on the Tango Peninsula
Tango is home to excellent sake, some made by rather unorthodox brewers. Kuniko Mukai is one of Japan’s few female tōji (master brewers), and the 14th-generation head brewer at the family’s sake brewery, Mukai Shuzo, founded in Ine in 1754. Mukai’s produce is brewed with women in mind and includes the innovative Ine Mankai made from an ancient strain of red rice.
Across the peninsula in Kumihamacho Koyama, The Kinoshita Brewery has been making Tamagawa sake since 1842. Head brewer Philip Harper took over in 2008, and the following year the Tamagawa Daiginjo won gold medals at home and abroad. Originally from the U.K., Harper became the first ever non-Japanese tōji in 2001, and has authored two English-language sake guides.
The Tango Peninsula is best accessed by car. No train lines exist across the peninsula and other forms of public transport are infrequent at best. To access Amanohashidate, catch the limited express train from Kyoto’s Nijo Station to Amanohashidate Station (two hours, approx. ¥4,500 one way).