by Jaclyn DeMarzo, Youth & Outreach Coordinator
You may have seen some of my other blogs featured in the “Morikami Makes” series where I have introduced okonomiyaki and hanami dango. I hope you enjoyed the recipes as much as I have and if you haven’t tried them yet, give them a whirl!
I have spent many years of my life studying the Japanese language and culture as well as four years total living in Japan—one year as a student in the Kanto region not far from Tokyo and three years as a teacher in the Kansai region. Living in both places has exposed me to multiple perspectives of Japanese culture, cuisine and travel.
In this edition of Travel Tuesday I would like to introduce to you Awaji Island. I spent three years living and working on the southern part of the island but also traveled extensively throughout the island. It has a lot to offer to its visitors and residents and is a central location to other major cities and attractions.
Most journeys start by crossing into an unknown land and the journey to Awaji today starts the same way. Unless traveling by a private boat, most people need to drive across the suspension bridge, Akashi Kaikyō Ō-hashi. Since its completion in 1998, it upholds the world record for the longest central span of a suspension bridge. The total distance of the bridge is almost two and a half miles long making it longer than any bridge I have ever crossed in New York. The mountains greet you at the end of the bridge, welcoming you into the open arms of this mysterious gem of an island.
Spread throughout the island are quaint fishing and farming villages. The main roads follow the coastline making for some breathtaking views of the Seto Inland Sea. Beaches on the island include both palm trees and pine trees on their shores. The mountain roads take you through many twists and turns, offering gorgeous views of both the natural landscape, man-made farm fields, and layered rice paddies. Last but not least, if you are a fan of onions, you have come to the right place, as Awaji is famous for them! (Still the most delicious onions I have ever tasted to this day!) (*^_^*)
After crossing over to the island, the northern-most part is filled with hotels and hot springs for visitors coming from the bustling cities to enjoy a quiet and relaxing time to spend in the natural surroundings. Not too far from the hotels you will find a personal favorite of mine, Awaji Hanasajiki, Awaji Flower Garden. It is a flower park on the side of the mountains showcasing rolling hills of different layers of seasonal flowers in a multitude of patterns and designs. You can walk the whole length of the park and soak in the different flowers, shrubbery, and garden designs with the Seto Inland Sea, Kobe and Osaka in the far distance! There are even occasional horseback riders trotting through the flower field paths. Inside the gift shop, there are a variety of souvenirs but my favorite treat is biwa ice cream. Biwa (loquat) is a kind of Japanese fruit with a soft orange colored skin and sweet inside. The taste is very refreshing. Mix that with soft serve ice cream and you have yourself a winner!
Make your way down the coast through the local villages and you will end up in the small city of Sumoto. In Sumoto, you will find a delightful arrangement of local restaurants, department stores, shopping arcades, as well as the main bus terminal. Many people like to ride a bicycle throughout the whole island too! I would often see them cycling up and down the coastal roads. Speaking of exercise, Sumoto is home to a great gym I would go to for the amazing price of 2000 yen (about $20 bucks) a month. Workout classes were in Japanese so it was a great way to practice my language skills and stay fit! Don’t forget to go into the AEON supermarket to get your local onion treats (onion candy, onion cookies, onion chips, etc.) and other paraphernalia. As for the rest of Sumoto, the local beaches are scattered with docks, rocky cliffs and the palm and pine tree mix along the shore. It is a great place for a BBQ and relaxing with friends. The Sumoto castle along the cliffs completes a beautiful backdrop to the small city. If you drive up the mountainside, you can continue on foot to the mini-castle itself to see a fantastic view of Sumoto city from up above.
KONBINI, OH HOW I MISS THEE!
Winding down the local roads to my home location in the south of the island, you will pass many shops and stores as well as my favorite konbini, Lawson. Konbini, or convenience stores, are located all over Japan from the busiest of cities to the quietest countryside. They offer a little bit of everything in a small “corner store” feel. The prices are “right”: onigiri (rice balls) averaging at 150 yen ($1.50) apiece, nikuman (pork steamed dumplings) at 120 yen ($1.20), drinks around 100 yen ($1.00), and so much more. You can even pay your utility bills and buy concert tickets all in the same store. Konbinis truly put the meaning of convenience in the phrase “convenience store,” if you know what I mean!
Along the road there are mini local farmers markets that I would swear by as some of the freshest island-grown vegetables in the land. I had a great opportunity while living in the countryside of Japan to visit these “mini-markets” in the middle of a farm field. The one I would frequently visit by my home looked like a weathered bookshelf with 3-5 tiers of vegetables in plastic bags with a sign in Japanese of their names and prices. On one of the shelves was a wooden box with a small slit to insert your money. No one was around, just the good faith of an honest person taking the vegetables, adding up the total cost to themselves and putting the money in the box. It was a wonderful concept and one that I was not used to coming from the United States. I was all too happy to oblige, place the money in the box and take home some fresh local produce. Not only was it healthy and delicious but it also gave me a sense of pride for supporting my local community and local farmers. Even if you are just visiting, feel free to stop by the unmanned local farmer’s mini-market (or shelf as I call it) to purchase some local delights. (^_^)/
SO MUCH MORE TO DO AND SEE
Specific to Awaji Island are the dolls of the puppet theater known as Awaji Ningyou Joruri. There is a small museum as well as occasional festival performances throughout the year. The puppet theater performance dates back over 500 years and it’s a local cultural performing art. Worth a look!
Many folks know about the famous Kobe beef, but did you know Awaji beef is almost as good? There are many farms that are for either Awaji beef or Awaji milk. Some allow you to even milk a cow, try local dairy products, or buy the tasty beef for sale. In my experience, being that Awaji is famous for onions first and beef second, I would recommend a dish that would include the local onions and beef, perhaps an Awaji beef sukiyaki? Mmmmmm!
Other stops on the journey could include visiting the Hokudan Earthquake Memorial Park. On January 17th 1995 a devastating 6.9-earthquake known as the Great Hanshin Earthquake occurred with it’s epicenter in northern Awaji and Kobe. Sadly many lives were lost and much had to be rebuilt. The memorial museum on Awaji Island was built to educate people and school children about earthquakes and what precautions to take to secure items in their homes. (There are many examples of equipment and preparation strategies.) The museum is a wealth of knowledge and there is even a room that simulates a 7-magnitude earthquake and another room that contains a 140-meter section of the actual fault preserved after the earthquake.
Continuing down the local roads brings us to the final part of the journey, the southern-most part of Awaji Island, Minamiawaji (my second home). The local plum forest blooms in March while there is still a nip to the air but the most beautiful colors of pink and magenta blossoms grace your senses as a warm-up to the cherry blossoms to come in the months to follow. The forest winds up and down the hills of the mountainside surrounding a pond. Not far away are some local temples where you can take a moment to reflect or soak in the sights of nature. Here, I spent an entire day with my students drawing the forest, temple and surround areas. During my time working in the Japanese school district, there was a day out of the year that the entire school went on a field trip to a local area to visit and draw. Each student found the place they liked the most, sat down and simply drew all day long. My place was in the shade of the forest on the steps down to the temple looking up towards a beautiful tree. The year before the school children and teachers went to a southern fishing village to draw the sea, beaches, and docks.
OFF ISLAND OUTTING
The southern parts of the island lead you to another bridge, the Ōnaruto-kyō. If you cross this bridge you will end up in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. I was fortunate to live close enough to Shikoku to be able to visit often. In the city of Tokushima in mid August, I attended the largest dance festival in all of Japan called the Awaodori every year. I wasn’t dancing in the parade but I was dancing on the side-lines with friends both Japanese and foreign alike who came to Awaodori. Besides the wonderful ongoing parade of dancers, it is by far the largest street festival that I have ever been to with what seemed like miles of food stalls, shopping and games dotting the sidewalk to accommodate the 1.3 million attendees. Since it happened in the heat of summer, many people including myself dressed up in summer kimono, known as yukata. I loved wearing my yukata and even wore it to other summer festivals that happened throughout Awaji Island too!
Apart from the great sights of the close island of Shikoku, Minamiawaji also offers various boat rides around the naturally occurring naruto, sea whirlpools. I personally have never ventured on one of these boats that sail so close to the naruto whirlpools (as it struck me as a little too close for comfort) but many people come to the southern part of the island to see them whether from up close or from afar. I chose afar and walked up around the edge of the cliffs towards the bottom of the Ōnaruto-kyō bridge to catch a glimpse of the local whirlpool phenomenon. I still snatched some gorgeous photos!
AN ISLAND TO START IT ALL
Whether you’re traveling around Japan to soak in the city lights or off the beaten path delights, Awaji has a little bit of everything for you to enjoy. Pure nature whether you enjoy the forest or the coast, there is much to see, do and try on Awaji Island. It is a true gem I highly recommend, at least for a day trip to explore all that Awaji has to offer while you’re in the Kansai region or Shikoku Island.
If you made it to the end of the Awaji journey blog, you deserve some dessert and I’ve got the icing on the cake. In the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), Awaji Island has the historical and cultural distinction of being the first island created by the gods. It is home to many places of Japan’s creation myth and best known for its abundance of nature. The appreciation of nature is seen in the local inhabitants to this day in their festivals and land. So, please come to Awaji and see for yourself~! (^_-)