When imagining Kyoto, beautiful blue sea, tiny fishing towns and Naval ports aren’t the first things that spring to mind. To most, Kyoto means Kyoto City; the heart of Japan’s cultural heritage and home to the most UNESCO World Heritage sites of almost any conurbation on the planet. To most, Kyoto doesn’t mean glorious seaside, majestic mountains and lush green forests. But, surprisingly, all of which can be found in abundance in Kyoto Prefecture.
I was born by the sea, I grew up there. I long for the soothing sounds of the tide lapping the shore if I’ve been away too long. In a city surrounded by mountains and in a country renowned for its sprawling metropolises, I thought that would be hard to find. Often one for exploring, I particularly enjoy quaint little towns tucked out of sight, off the major tourist trails.
Recently, I’d heard of a little village in the north of Kyoto Prefecture, in an area called Kyotango, or ‘Kyoto by the Sea’. Here, houses built on the water’s edge known as funaya, shun the traditional sitting space on the first floor for that of a boat garage, which the town’s fishermen glide right in, before popping on upstairs for a cup of tea.
Places like this get my heart going. A million miles away from the millions of tourists that descend on Kyoto City annually. Ine is a delight. A world where people coexist with the water – living, working, fishing – it feels untouched, unchanged, truly traditional. Of course a place as pretty as this isn’t going to be completely devoid of tourists, but exploring on a warm but windy October Saturday, the streets were quiet save for local families and a few intrepid explorers braving the gulls on the sightseeing boat.
Ine has flourished since ancient times and is still a bustling fishing town today. A row of newly refurbished funaya now house a cute café and exceptional sushi restaurant with views over the bay. The serene setting is, in my opinion, the best way to eat sushi, gazing over the seas in which it was caught, fresh, probably that very morning. Sitting there, cares melted away along with the sweet, soft flesh of the fish. Perfect.
A little further round the coast from this almost fairytale like town is Amanohashidate. Apparently the third most beautiful spot in Japan, this ‘bridge to heaven’ is a narrow sandbar running from one side of Miyazu bay to the other, flanked by Mt. Moju and Kasamatsu Park. Covered with pines and white sandy beaches and with views out to sea, this is a place to while away an afternoon, dipping your toes in the calm waters and forgetting about the chaos of city life.
It is said that ascending the nearby cable car to the summit of Mt. Moju and viewing the sandbar whilst upside down, sticking your head between your legs, the bridge appears as a dragon flying into heaven. It also brings the viewer good fortune, but even if you don’t believe the superstition, it’s a wonderful vantage point and quite amusing to watch hoardes of tourists bending over to catch a glimpse of said vista.
Kyotango is also famous for oysters, the season starting right now in fact (early November). Amanohashidate is a great place to try them, or head even further round the peninsula to Maizuru where the Tore Tore fish market is full to bursting with locally caught fish, seafood and oysters as big as your fist.
The town is also home to one of Japan’s most famous Naval ports, where wives used to wait for their husbands to return from war. Now it still clings to those melancholy moments. It’s a subdued place, quiet and calm. Filled with remnants from a long history of maritime warfare; old brick munitions warehouses, destroyers in the harbour and derelict gun turrets atop scenic mountain summits. The town is trying to redefine itself as a tourist destination, and despite a slightly sombre atmosphere at times, the harbour and old red brick warehouses (called the brick park – terrible name) was incredibly atmospheric and like nothing I’ve seen in Japan before.
My advice, hire a car to explore the Tango Peninsula. Failing that, hop on the limited express service from Kyoto City to Maizuru. Spend the morning exploring the town, hop on the bus to Amanohashidate, where you can find some lovely ryokan and onsen (I recommend Chitose). Wake early to walk the sandbar and see the view, then head on round to Ine where a few of the traditional funaya have been converted into guesthouses. Spend the evening relaxing by the sea, before waking to return to the hustle and bustle of Kyoto City.