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  transper_1pic.gif LOCAL VOICE
    EXPO 2005 AICHI
no15_flash_arrow_orange.gif   DISCOVERING AICHI

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transper_1pic.gif A Bicycle Adventure
on the Atsumi Peninsula

Text and photos by Everett Kennedy Brown

Inspired by the bicycle journey of a nineteenth-century
American adventurer, photographer Everett K.
Brown toured the coastline of the Atsumi Peninsula by bicycle and discovered that some of the best things in Japan never change.
The aozora farmers’ market, held every Wednesday and Saturday morning in Akabane, is an excellent place to find freshly picked flowers, fruits, and vegetables at remarkably low prices.

Nearly 120 years ago an avid American cyclist by the name of Thomas Stevens became the first person to travel around the world on two wheels. It was a courageous event, considering that he did the journey on a cumbersome old penny-farthing bicycle over terrain that was often wild and inhospitable.

In the chronicles of his odyssey that I found in a used bookstore in San Francisco some years back, Stevens’ impressions of Japan were particularly memorable. He wrote: “The Japanese seem to be the happiest people going, always smiling and good-natured, always polite and gentle.”

I think about those words as I gaze out over the Pacific Ocean from the balcony of the Cape Irago Lighthouse at the tip of the Atsumi Peninsula. As the sun sets slowly over Ise Bay and the distant mountains to the west, I begin to consider how Stevens’ observations of Japan in 1886 are still, in some ways, true today.

That has been my experience during my own (short) bicycle journey along the Atsumi Bicycling Road, a 14-kilometer course that circles Irago Cape. Traveling past exquisite coastline and fields of seasonal flowers, I find the scenery along the bicycle path warrants its selection as one of the 100 most scenic routes in Japan. The distinctions do not stop there. Along the path there is also one of Japan’s 100 scenic beaches, as well as one of the nation’s top 100 beautiful soundscapes, both found near the lighthouse at Koijigahama beach. While stopping to listen to the scenery—the sound of thundering waves accompanied by a chorus of cicadas—the memory of the people I met during the day’s bike trip came back to me, especially their kindness and hospitality.

Morning began at the aozora (blue-sky) market in Akabane Town, a place where local farmers gather to sell their flowers, fruits, and vegetables every Wednesday and Saturday morning. A grandmother selling melons at one of the stalls noticed that I looked thirsty and graciously offered me a slice of the sweet fruit. It brought respite from the mid-morning heat.

Because of the warm climate on the Atsumi Peninsula the land is ideally suited for growing flowers and fruit, especially the delicious musk melons that the peninsula is famous for. Here at the aozora market they cost only a fraction of what one normally pays in big-city fruit shops. Flowers in the market are also a real bargain. The Atsumi Peninsula is known as flower country. In fact, the area is particularly famous for the chrysanthemum, the traditional Japanese flower of autumn. (It is considered a noble flower, and the crest of the Japanese imperial household is a stylized representation of it.) According to Sadako Kimpara, one of the organizers of the market, an astounding 377 million blossoms are grown in the local greenhouses each year.

Kimpara-san, who teaches flower arrangement and also writes tanka poetry, was very informative about the local culture and wildlife. (Her son oversees a conservation group that monitors the giant sea turtles that lay their eggs every summer along the coast.) It was Kimpara-san who suggested I visit the painter Kotaro Irie, who owns the Irago Misaki Art Museum. He is a wealth of information on the area’s history and legends, she told me, and he shares his knowledge with a poet’s passion.

Irie-san and his wife, who is also a painter, have undertaken an ambitious project to create 1,000 paintings of the local landscape. They are now well over the halfway mark, and many of their brilliantly colored paintings are on display in their art museum.

After the market, Kimpara-san invited me to visit her garden, where she grows a variety of vegetables and fruit trees, as well as exotic flowers that she uses in her flower arrangement classes. Before continuing on my journey she filled my backpack with a sack of citrus fruit. That fruit was a welcome treat when I stopped in the heat of the afternoon at the mysterious rock outcroppings called Hiino Sekimon (sunrise rock gates). The painter Irie-san tells the story of an ancient Japanese emperor who came to pray and imbibe power from the rising sun shining through the enormous rocks’ cavity.

The Atsumi Peninsula is rich with such interesting legends and literary history. The great haiku poet Matsuo Basho came here to write haiku. Yukio Mishima, the novelist, used Kamishima (God Island), which can be seen from the Atsumi Peninsula, as the setting for his classic novel Shiosai (The Sound of Waves). The story of Urashima Taro—a popular children’s tale similar to Rip Van Winkle—is celebrated every August at a beach in Tahara Town, where a local youth rides out to sea upon the replica of a giant sea turtle.

Perhaps the most well known story, however, is that of a coconut that the early twentieth-century folklorist Kunio Yanagita found washed up on a local beach. He told his friend, the writer Toson Shimazaki, about discovering the coconut, and inspired by the tale, Shimazaki wrote a poem about its long voyage from the southern seas. The poem has become a classic of modern literature and is read by many Japanese people even today.

On a high cliff above the Hiino Sekimon rocks, there is a commemorative plaque to the coconut and other coconuts that have followed. The local city government releases many hundreds of coconuts into the sea every year from Japan’s southernmost island of Ishigakijima in hope that some of them will find their way to the Atsumi coastline. Last year, the fourteenth year of the event, one of the coconuts finally did arrive.

The coconut commemorative plaque is located at the highest point of the cycling route, where the scenery is breathtaking. To the east the view stretches over a broad expanse of white sandy beach that extends 70 kilometers along the coast and as far as the eye can see.

Along the beach is the Irago Flower Park where over 200 varieties of flowers are on display year round in the outdoor gardens and greenhouses. In the gift shop I found a remarkable selection of herbal products, essential oils, and home-made ice cream with exotic flavors. Being of an adventurous nature I tried the mugwort flavor. Despite its name and green color, the taste was so delicious I had to resist the desire to order a second helping. The saleswoman explained that the ice cream flavors, like the flowers at the flower park, change with the seasons. She suggested coming back in early spring and trying the orange calendula ice cream.

As is true of the flowers, the Atsumi Peninsula is beautiful in any season. Watching the last rays of sunlight in the western sky from the lighthouse steps I think again about Thomas Stevens. If he had passed this way on his round-the-world journey I imagine he would agree that the local people here are some of the friendliest and most thoughtful people going.

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