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The Lonely Traveller

In the Octopus’ Garden

JAPAN | Monday, 21 July 2014 | Views [269]

Away from the scintillating neon lights of Tokyo’s futuristic mega structures and the well trodden, history-seeped lanes of Kyoto, lies a small town on the Pacific coast: Minamisanriku, a haven for both family holidayers and backpackers. Facing the seemingly-infinite expanse of azure of the Pacific with a landscape dotted with tiny Shinto shrines on little hillocks lies this quaint town lost in its own natural beauty, moving at its own serene pace. Come here for a taste of Japanese culture and traditions, authentic and pristine, untouched by hordes of tourists.

The day starts early in Japan, at around 6AM with a trip to the communal bath (onsen). There are many variations of the onsen, the best among which is the open-roof bath. A cup of hot Japanese tea in hand, plunge into the welcoming hot water of the pool and feel the heat penetrate into every vein of every limb. Be careful to follow the etiquette of the onsen (the Japanese love following their rules!). Look over to the east to see the sun rise in a blazing ball of crimson over the endless stretch of the blue ocean. There is a reason why Japan is the Land of the Rising Sun and why the sunrise is so important to these people. On 11th March 2011, everything in sight had been washed away by the tsunami that struck this place and the horizon appeared bleak and rent with human suffering. The first ray of hope for the people was the beautiful sun rising over the clouds and dispelling the gloom that hung over the town in a blaze of crimson. Despite the horror strewn all around, the sun had retained its beauty, giving comfort to the people in the same way it had done before the disaster. It was as if nothing had changed and normalcy had been restored, even if it was just for those few moments. This simple yet strikingly beautiful sunrise became a source of solace and a beacon of hope for the residents.

A leisurely activity (and favorite pastime) in this part of the world is a boat ride on the Pacific. The slowly-swaying boat and the ripples of the Pacific almost make one feel that the entire day was building up to this. For the best experience, hop on one of the fishing boats and see the locals catch all kinds of sea creatures from octopus and squids to seaweed of myriad hues and colors even as you are stretched out and dozing off in the soothing sea breeze. Minamisanriku has a bustling fishing business that was gravely threatened (almost to the point of extinction) by the tsunami, but thanks to the tenacity of the locals, it is bustling again and striving to reach its pre-tsunami levels. The clear blue waters are also a perfect laboratory for marine biologists, both professionals and amateurs. 

The community center in the town offers a lot of opportunities for tourists to engage in and enjoy traditional Japanese activities. Hanetsuki, a form of badminton played with a wooden racquet (hagoita) and a tiny colorful shuttlecock (to ward off the devil, as the legend goes), where the winner gets to paint the face of the loser with ink is a very enjoyable sport. Other activities like calligraphy in the Kanji script (taught by a learned bespectacled ‘sensei’ (master)), samurai inspired origami (which has a long and rich history here) and doll making using cocoons are not only a wonderful opportunity to learn Japanese traditions and the stories behind them but also interact with the wonderfully warm and ever-smiling locals of Minamisanriku. This is where you actually get to feel the underlying pulse of this place.

A haunting memory that every visitor takes back home from the town center is the skeletal remains of the Disaster Mitigation Building that stands alone in its broken and dilapidated beauty. On the day of the tsunami, the woman behind the mike in this building kept shouting out to the residents to run out of their homes and onto higher ground. Even as the behemoth waves surged towards her, she did not abandon her post, hoping that with every cry, at least one or two more people could be alerted and saved. The last the people heard was the fervent cry of ‘Hashire, Hashire’ (Run, Run) reach to a frantic crescendo before the waves came and swept her away in their deadly embrace. To this day, the people who heeded her cry fondly remember this martyr who sacrificed her life so that they could live theirs.

Once in the main town area, make a beeline for the Sun Sun Shopping Village, at the heart of the town. Most of this town including all of its marketplaces was completely wiped out by the tsunami. This shopping complex is a venture by the locals to get back up on their feet again. A labyrinth of shops made of temporary shelters; they have everything from electronics and handicrafts to indigenous eateries and souvenir shops, all at a bargain. Hop on from one shop to another, as one shopkeeper after another welcomes you with a disarming smile and a greeting of ‘irasshaimase’ (Welcome to my shop).  One thing you will discover during this is how infectious Japanese smiles are. Seeing a petite lady bowing in front of you armed with that smile, you can’t help but break out into a jolly little song and smile yourself.

By sunset, the sun is peeking and hiding tantalizingly from behind the veil of clouds like a demure damsel, a pale shadow of that fiery ball of scarlet you saw at sunrise. The time just leading up to sunset is the best time to visit the Shinto shrines of this area. There is one particular shrine, a little away from the main town area that is guarded by the Octopus Kun, the mascot of the resurrection of this town after the tsunami (a tribute to how much creatures of the sea like the octopus influence this area and its economy). Sit there and allow the tranquility of the environment to permeate every pore of your body. Post dinner activities though few, are also thoroughly enjoyable. For one, the pine covered forests make for very good (and sometimes scary) treks for travelers. Be sure to carry a flashlight if you venture into the woods after sunset! The chief night time entertainment of this area are the karaoke bars where you will find groups of Japanese belting out various local and international numbers over some alcohol. In groups varying from small sub groups of four-five to boisterous groups of nearly thirty, this activity is quite the rage in these parts of the world.

Now, the night has deepened and the body aches for some place to rest after a tiring day. Here, the sleeping style is also Japanese; no four-poster beds with thick mattresses. You get to sleep on a traditional futon, in a kimono with a karate-like belt tied over the gown. Drift off to sleep with the background music of the waves hitting against the rocks on the shore, a strangely serene lullaby that puts you right to sleep. This is the best way to experience Japan as it was meant to be, away from the big cities and bright lights, in the garden of Octopus Kun. As the Beatles once said-

“We would be warm below the storm,

In the little hideaway beneath the waves

Resting our head on the sea bed

In an octopus’ (Kun’s) garden near a cave”.

Because, all said and done, one thing is for sure. The Gods of Japan will surely be looking down on this quaint little town of the rising sun and its lovely people and smiling with contentment. They did a good job.    

Tags: beaches, sunrise, sunset


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