KURE, HIROSHIMA PREF. – Seen from the top of Mount Noro, near the city of Kure in Hiroshima Prefecture, the islands of the Seto Inland Sea cram together as a winding labyrinth. Through the mist, a suspension bridge, linking one of the islands to the mainland, beckons the inquisitive traveler to the island realm.
It’s the Akinada Bridge, the starting point for the Akinada Tobishima Kaido expressway, a network of seven bridges that spans seven islands. The 96-kilometer round trip can be followed by car, bike or on foot, from the Akinada Bridge down to Okamura Island, just to the north of Shikoku.
Although less well-known than the nearby Shimanami Kaido, the Tobishima route is gaining in popularity. “It is becoming famous as a cycling course,” says Kenichi Yamamoto of Kure City’s Tourism Promotion Division. “Guest houses and cafes are also increasing.”
Japan’s sea-spanning bridges never fail to excite. With no traffic behind us as we drive across the Akinada Bridge, high above the sea, we slow down and savor the salt-scented wind gushing in through the windows. On both sides the islands stretch away as far as the eye can see. More exhilarating than any amusement park ride, it’s well worth the ¥720 toll.
We cruise off the bridge onto Shimokamagari Island, also known as the “Garden Island.” Appropriately, the first thing you come to is a pretty hillside garden area with splendid views of the bridge and sea.
Even with the bridge connecting them to the mainland, these islands still conserve an otherworldly quality. The absence of traffic or crowds, the pristine air and overall stillness make you feel like you’ve reached another place and time. In part, that feeling is due to the islands’ illustrious history.
In the Edo Period (1603-1868) Shimokamagari was an important port on the sea route connecting Japan with the rest of Asia. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Korean envoys would stop here on their way to Edo (now Tokyo), their lavish convoys involving scores of ships and hundreds of people. Their visits to Shimokamagari were greeted with sumptuous feasts and great ceremony.
The Korean Envoys Parade, which is held on the third Sunday of October (this year on Oct. 21) in the small town of Sannose, commemorates these historic occasions. The envoys arrive by boat and are carried through the streets in sedan chairs. The participants in the parade, many of whom attend from South Korea, dress in samurai and Korean period costumes and perform traditional dances and folk music as they walk through the island’s streets.
Another reminder of the island’s history awaits in Shotoen garden, also in Sannose — four seafront museums built in Edo Period style, set in lovely gardens of pine trees, stone statues and raked gravel.
The museums showcase the island’s history and culture, focusing on the Korean envoys’ visits. One of the documents on display — a scroll depicting a large fleet of Korean delegates sailing through the Seto Inland Sea — has been registered as a UNESCO Memory of the World and attracts visitors aplenty.
Today, however, Shotoen is deserted. It’s no longer the Japanese holiday period and few foreign tourists make it this far.
As Paul Theroux said, “Out of season, a place is at its emptiest, and most exposed, but also it is most itself.” True enough, with no camera-clicking crowds around, we are blessed with the time, space and freedom to enjoy Shotoen at its naked best.
Moving on to the larger island of Kamikamagari, we discover that the bridges from here on are toll-free. If you come here during October through December, you’ll see countless roadside stalls selling all manner of citrus fruits, the local specialty. The stalls are unmanned — just leave your money in the tin; a touching example of Japanese honesty.
Kamikamagari is home to Kenmin no Hama beach (also known as Hiroshima Prefectural Beach ), which is on the government list of Japan’s top 100 beaches. The beach complex offers tennis courts, a gym, pool, restaurant, marine sports facilities and even an observatory, housing one of Japan’s biggest Maksutov telescopes. For that perfect beach picnic, rent a tatami-floored booth with overhead canopy to keep the sun off.
Like Shotoen, the beach is deserted except, as Bob Dylan might say, for some kelp. It’s like a ghost town, as a thousand cicadas roar in the late afternoon heat and ships glide between the islands.
By the time we reach the small town of Mitarai, on the eastern side of Osakishimojima island, the sun is already setting. Mitarai was a prosperous port in its Edo Period heyday, when ships would shelter here from storms, or wait for the tide to change. Its narrow streets and heritage buildings with white walls, lattice doors and black roofs preserve the charm of an old port town.
Now, darkness spreads like a vast curtain across the sky. Time to turn back. Little Okamura Island, the last of the seven islands, will have to wait for another day.
By car, the Akinada Tobishima route supposedly takes 60 minutes if you don’t keep stopping to admire the views, take photos or detour off to explore every nook and cranny that grabs your interest. By doing that, a one-hour route can easily take all day.
For us, that’s the only way to travel. After all, why come to these islands if not to leave the mainland hurry behind and savor a slice of life in the slow lane?
By car, the Akinada Bridge is about 40 minutes from Kure. By public transport, catch a bus bound for Toyama/Yukata from the Hiroshima Bus Center, which stops at Shotoen, Kenmin no Hama and other places of interest along the route.
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