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 Japans
100 scenic beaches, as well as one of the nations top 100
beautiful soundscapes, both found near the lighthouse at Koijigahama
beach. While stopping to listen to the scenerythe sound of
thundering waves accompanied by a chorus of cicadasthe memory
of the people I met during the days 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
areas history and legends, she told me, and he shares his
knowledge with a poets 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 Taroa
popular childrens tale similar to Rip Van Winkleis 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 Japans 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
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.