Sea of Japan

With the limited weekend time I have, Saturday night to Monday afternoon, I decided to make a run for the border and see how far I could get, and if I could get back in time for class! Well, the short of it is I did, and had an excellent trip to boot.

To be honest, I was pretty slack in getting up Sunday morning, finally rolling out of bed about 10am. But this was all actually part of the great plan. I figured with a 4pm class on Monday, if I left late enough, the over night location would be my turn around point. Instead of pushing so far and having to figure out what time to turn around because I have more time Sunday than Monday. Anyway, it works in my brain, so there.

I pretty much live right on the border of Mie-Ken and Shiga-Ken. The border is basically the mountain range running north-south right out my door. Shiga-Ken is the home of Biwa-ko, the biggest lake in Japan. Shaped like a kidney bean, it’s about 60km North to South and maybe 15km at it’s widest point. It’s about 235 km around. Biwa-ko holds about 27.5 billion meters cubed. It takes 15 years to change out all of the water. I don’t really know how to compare that for you, but I figure it’s a heck of a lot of water. The deepest point in Biwa-ko is 104 meters deep. Incidentally, the deepest lake in Japan is Lake Tazawa in Akita-Ken at 424 meters. Biwa-ko is the 8th deepest lake in Japan.

The drive through the mountains was of course amazing. As I emerged from the mountains back to the plains, and hit the flat it was a straight shot to Biwa-ko. Just before I got to the lake though, I saw the bullet train for the first time! It was up on this amazing trestle hovering above the ubiquitous rice patties. That train was really moving. It took me a moment to realize what it was. My eye just caught this white streak, and then it chimed in. Very cool.

I took a toll bridge over a narrow straight at the southern end of the lake and had really just planned to drive around the lake, thinking it would take me a day and a half to do so. But as I drove along the lake, with jet skis, water skiers, and all that fun aquatic sport stuff going on next to me, I started to realize I was almost at the north end of the lake and had stacks of time left. By the way, I passed by some ski lifts. Yes, snow ski lifts. Not the posh setup like Vail, more of the Mt. Lemon, AZ or Powder Ridge, CT variety. Too bad I don’t plan on being here over the winter, but who knows.

So, after I stopped and picked up a road map, I figured I could just keep on going north and hit the Sea of Japan! A nearly coast to coast road trip in less than a day! I thought it ironic actually, because since landing in Nagoya when I arrived, and working in the town of Kuwana a few days a week, which is right on the East coast of Japan, I haven’t seen the Pacific Ocean from the Japan side yet. The first ocean I saw from Japan was the Sea of Japan on the West coast! It reminds me of my brother who went to boot camp for the Navy near Chicago, and the base he was at was right on Lake Michigan, but they had him so busy, he never saw it. So, what I’m saying here, is that my life is like boot camp… no, not really. I’ve just got to make an effort to get to the water and waive to California.

So, as I approach the North end of Biwa-ko I’ll just add that the mountain ridges come right down to the northern end of the lake, and make for an amazing view.

Immediately north of the lake is another prefecture (state, “-ken”), Fukui-ken, and I didn’t have a map of it. The Shiga-ken map I had showed just a small blip of the Sea of Japan. The drive through the mountains from the lake valley to the shore, you guessed it, was brilliant.

The Sea of Japan, also amazing. This trip was just chalked with good stuff. I got to drive right along the coast for a stretch and the road I was on left the map, then left the water. I figured it’d pop back over, just going around something… wrong. I finally stopped again and got another map. I was way off! Not going the wrong way, just paralleling the coast heading north. So I took the next left and made a bee-line back to the water. The sun was starting to get lower in the sky and the shadows longer. My photo-opp red flag triggered and I stared keeping my eye out for a great shot. You be the judge.

I got to the coast, and tried to figure out what to do. Go North, sleep and then come back down the same way? Or had I gone far enough? I left Komono about noon today (Sunday, 20 May) and it was about 5 or 6pm so I had been moving about 6 hours, so to get back in time for a 4pm class on Monday, plus some buffer time, I’d have to leave around 10 am from here. And here wasn’t so bad. It was a nice sea side town with plenty to explore after I found a place to stay. But it’s not that easy.

I drove along, looking for any sort of accommodation, hoping to find a youth hostel to meet some folks and to minimize the expense. After being distracted by the way these people have squeezed a town in the intimate space where mountains meet sea, I pull over in a small supermarket to ask where the closest youth hostel is. “Yuss-hosteru wa doko des ka?” I ask. I’m given directions to a place about 10 min down the road.

This is not a youth hostel. It’s not even a cheap place to stay. But it was very much in the traditional Japanese style. So, with the sun nearly set, I figure I’d take the room they have and suck it up.

I dropped my bags off, the sun was mostly gone… the haze was pretty thick along the horizon, the sun set about half an hour earlier than expected, but I did get a shot of some fishermen from the road before I stopped.

By now I had driven out of the cute town I wanted to explore, it was getting dark, and I hadn’t really had dinner. All part of being spontaneous I guess. I headed back to my room to wind down.

Like I said, traditional Japanese style. So that means Tatami style mats, ankle high table and pillows to sit on. Sleeping accommodations was a futon on currently folded up in a cupboard which you had to move to the floor and set up yourself. There was a small closet which had the traditional Japanese evening robe. I had seen people walking around in these things earlier, but didn’t know if they brought them or if the hotel supplied them. So I slapped the thing on. There was also some sort of smoking jacket in the closet. I didn’t see anyone in those walking around. More investigation required.

The hosts provided me with a thermos of hot water, to be added to the tea kit on the ankle high table. So, robe adorned, tea made, and settled in, I turned on the TV to some Japanese comedy show… Saturday Night Live – esque. Little skits with laugh tracks, I’m guessing. I’d listen, laugh and react to the expressions and gestures, and I’d look up words in my dictionary as I could pull them from the dialogue.

I couldn’t quite figure out the Futon situation. There were sheets, mats with a cover, mats with out a cover, large flat pillows w/o pillow cases and short bead filled pillows with covers. The sheets I understood and the bead filled pillows I figured were for my head. I guessed the futon with the cover was what I slept on and then I put a sheet on the futon with out the cover. But I didn’t figure that out right away. I had already laid down a futon w/o a cover put a sheet on that and put another sheet on, between which I’d put myself. It was pretty warm so I didn’t think I’d need more than a sheet as I set the bed up. But to be safe, I put a futon with a cover by my feet. Backwards as intended, now that I think about it, but I slept soundly.

Breakfast was at 07.30h. Again, traditional. A friend told me that he had worn his robe down to breakfast as he and others had done for dinner the night before. The room was silent in awe when he walked in. To be accommodating, his Japanese host/friends hastened upstairs to put their robe on to distract from the mistake my friend had made. So, I didn’t wear my robe to breakfast. But as I was eating, some Japanese folks walked in wearing their evening robes. Go figure. Besides, I had packed up, and loaded the car for an immediate departure after eating.

What was breakfast you ask? Well, rice, of course. Salmon, a small salad of iceberg lettuce, tomato, and ham, seaweed soup with bread in it (i think), a hard boiled egg, a cube of white stuff with a dab of green stuff on it, boiled kelp (again a guess), 2 small pickled apricots or plums (so I’m told after explaining this situation to my Japanese friends), which I thought were cherries (I only had one), some yellow pickled radish, and green tea. I ate the egg, the salad, the rice, the salmon, the soup and one apricot (or whatever). I tried the radish, not really to my liking. Tried the kelp, ok, but not killer. Tried the white stuff, which looked like it could have been tofu, but I’m sure it wasn’t, very strong and not pleasant, to me (I didn’t bother with the green stuff, suspected it was Wasabi but didn’t want that flavor in my mouth in the morning). And I had a few sips of the tea. It tasted different than the tea I had in my room. Some green tea I like, some I don’t.

So, mostly filled I was back on the road along the coast. The southern part of this stretch was a toll road of 650 Yen ($6.50). Totally worth it. The morning sun was cresting over the tops of the hills on my left, or East side, and the warm rays would filter through between the peaks, and mix with the sea to my right. It created a wonderful sparkling blue, and highlighted the green of the trees in the hills above.

Not knowing how the timeline would work out, I opted for the more direct Route 8 instead of meandering down the East side of Biwa-ko as I returned. Besides, the glimpse I had gotten of it this morning at the North end, showed it as being pretty misted over.

I decided to take a different road back over the Mountains to Mie-ken. Route 421. Now, on the map, it’s shown with the same magnitude as 477, which was what I came over on yesterday. A nicely paved 2 lane road. Route 421 was this until a place called Nakahata, where the road remained paved, but squeezed down to 1.5 unmarked lanes. The view was still amazing, and I just went slow enough to enjoy the view as well as have time to react to oncoming traffic, of which there was little.

When I got to the top of the pass to make my last border crossing, there were two huge concrete blocks spaced about 1.5m apart. Just enough for my small car to squeeze through. I guess they really don’t want huge trucks going this way. But what if you didn’t know this? Wouldn’t it be nice for them to tell you that at the bottom? Like the warnings of how low a bridge is on the freeway?

From here it was an easy skip down to Komono, home sweet home. The smog was really bad today. I was only a few Kilometers from the mountains, but could hardly see them, and the sun was completely obscured.

I covered 470km this trip, and every one worth it.

About the author

Adventure Correspondent Cameron L. Martindell is a freelance adventure travel and expedition writer, photographer and filmmaker who founded in 2000. He has contributed to Elevation Outdoors Magazine, The Gear Junkie, National Geographic, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Outside, Backpacker, Wired, Australian Geographic, and others. He has been to all seven continents and lived on five of them, including a four-month stint at the South Pole. Cameron has more than 10 years of mountain search and rescue experience, is an Eagle Scout, has been an Australian bush firefighter, competes in sailing regattas, plans national and international youth programs, guides Oregon rafting trips and Australian bush backpacking trips.

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