On the Edges: Travels Along Japan’s Emptiest Coastline

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And so I’m back on what could be the edge of the world. The snow’s picked up in a serious way, can’t see beyond a couple feet pas the window. The train shakes precariously on the tracks, and the lady on the overcome keeps ushering a message in rapid Japanese that might just be talking about how dangerous this all is, how unsure it is that we’ll actually make it to our destinations. I probably shouldn’t have left my house at all today, and I’m not completely sure I’ll make it back in time for school tomorrow.

But I’m not getting off, I’m not going home. And beyond writing it down here, there’s not been a lot of thought as to why. I’m not sure I could get off if I tried. There’s something so captivating about all of this I have a hard time looking away enough to write this, never mind getting off the train to go home. Little family tombs and Buddha statues covered in snow pass by me, and sometimes the snow clears enough to get a glimpse of the raging sea ahead, sucking up the snow, crashing against the icy rocks.

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This is definitely one of the more striking times scenes I’ve encountered while travelling along the San-in coast, but it’s far from being the only time. There’s never been a time riding along these rails when I haven’t been glued to the window.

The San-in Coast runs from the east end of Hyogo to the western edge of Tottori. The area it covers in between is among the least populated stretches of land in Japan. Pushed up against the western side of Japan’s great spine of mountains, it tends to get more rain than anywhere else in the country (which means just about as much rain as anywhere in the world that’s, y’know, not actually a rainforest). And up until a few years ago (but not anymore, thanks to global warming), this was the part of Japan famous for waking up and finding ten feet of snow to wade through around this time of year.

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My time in Japan started with me being obsessed to get away from Tottori, get out to the places people with their big fat Lonely Planet: Japan get to. The Megacities, the golden temples, the gardens made in perfect symetry. All of those moments have been life changing, for sure. I’m a big-city guy at the end of the day—the energy, the possibility for an infinite chances, I knew I’d feel that pull, being placed here. And I’d be lying pretty fiercely if I didn’t admit the middle-of-nowhere-ness of Tottori helped me decide not to recontract for a second year.

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So it took me a while to really see how special San-in really is. It wasn’t until November when, spending the weekend in Tottori city, I thought I might still have an adventure even if I was stuck here. I’d ride the train from one end of the line to the other, write on a comfortable seat in a heated cabin, never get off, and so, never have to pay for anything more than an entrance ticket (because I’m nothing if not a cheap bastard at the end of the day). And here’s the problem: I was so blown away by the gorgeous landscape around me I barely wrote anything at all. And the towns passing me by looked so amazing I realized that I had to get off at one or two of them, frugality be damned.

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And it began. From November on, I spent less and less time trying to get away to other parts of Japan, and more and more just riding the rails of the San-in coastline. Getting to know the tiny villages nestled between two mountains, starting to understand the pace of the rails, knowing when the land would suddenly open up on the sea and the mountainous peaks guarding it. I started to get to know the place I actually lived.

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I got to know it through places like Kurayoshi. Kurayoshi is not the kind of place about to be appearing in any English guidebooks: in the dead middle of the prefecture, you’d never guess from its train station or main avenue that much is there, and it takes about an hour of walking before getting to the cultural area. But then suddenly, you’re in the 1860’s, lost in a maze of narrow avenues that haven’t really changed since the Meiji era. You can look through dusty windows to old sake factories, or have a look at all the antique collections on display in most of the is-it-a-shop-or-a-home houses, or wander into the many temple complexes with monks to listen to the monks singing their prayers at dusk.

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If you’re coming from North America  (and probably, even, other parts of Japan), you won’t hear a lot of reccomendations for this little town in the middle of Tottori. But that evening that I walked through those streets, as the sun fell between the alleys and the moon climbed up past the bamboo groves, made as much an impact on me as Kyoto has. A place I’d never see if I wasn’t already here.

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Just like that evening in Kurayoshi, there’s a tremendous loneliness to this part of the world. Empty train stations lacking even ticket booths. Stretches of mountain roads where you better kiss your cell-service goodbye. Town after town bordering on ghost-status, with entire streets empty, houses windows full of cobwebs or chock-full of various hoarder’s knick-nacks (dolls, newspapers, worthless antiques) collected over the decades. The few people still there (all of them north of seventy) give me this look of amazement that often rides the line between stupefaction (like they’ve never seen a white guy before) and a protective double-take of ‘what would a guy like you want with a town like this?’ When everyone younger than them’s escaped to the megacity, I suppose that’s a fair enough question.

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Taking those trains back on a Sunday night actually tend to recreate the most powerful scene in Spirited Away, when Sen takes the train to Zeneba’s house. Black pools beyond, except for brief islands of light and warmth, before plunging back into the bamboo. The few passengers slowly emptying out until you’re left, listening to the quiet metal coughing of the train rolling along.

There’s something surprisingly comforting about this emptiness for someone as wildly extroverted as me. I can read on a beach where the gray sky wanders out to meet the sea for hours without interruption. I can actually think on those coughing trains. I can wander through forests or climb up the rocky coast and pretend I’m the first person to see this (or first Anglophone at least). I can soak in the fact that I’m living, for a little longer, in one of the most striking places in the world, inspiring me in ways I’ll only understand after I actually leave it.

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I never thought I’d be so affected by places so empty. I guess I’m learning things about myself now, here of all places (not Kyoto, Tokyo, or the rest). And when this year runs its course, who knows how this place will have changed me?

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After getting stalled in a couple of places along the way, I made it through the snow to the famous onsen town of Kinoseki. Stationed at the far edge of the San-in line before it starts making its way down into Kyoto, it marks the proper end to the San-in coast and the start of the Kansai region. With crowds of people flocking from across this part of the country, as well as a beauty and decadence so at odds with the ghost towns to the west of it, it’s much more a part of Kansai, cultural heartland of Japan, than it is with little ol’ San-in. It adds another layer to the complexities of the landscape around here, all part of the contradictions and exceptions I continue to discover. And whatever happens, I’m looking forward to exploring and understanding those complexities in my remaining six months.

As I think and learn and am changed by all this. Living on Japan’s edges.

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