Noto Peninsula: More armchair travel and memories

“A fancy took me to go to Noto. …[I]t was a case of love at first sight.” These are the first words in Percival Lowell’s 1891 travelogue “Noto: An Unexplained Corner of Japan”. Like Lowell, I’ve always been intrigued by Noto, on the map a little crooking finger jutting north off the coast of Honshu into the Sea of Japan.

A few years ago I, too, found myself on the way to Noto during Golden Week, roughly the same time of year as Lowell made his trip (although there was no such think as Golden Week in those days).

Although I did not travel by train, rickshaw and foot as Lowell had done, I still managed to find a few of the features Lowell described and came away both satisfied and wanting more.

Lowell described traveling toward the peninsula along the coast of Toyama Bay, the body of water that sits between the “mainland” of Honshu and the crooking finger of Noto.  Although he had hoped to spot the shores of the peninsula in the distance, the skies were not clear enough for him.  I had the good fortune to see my objective across the water on sunset, over the rooftops of modern houses where Lowell probably saw only rice paddies.

Another sight Lowell relates as he approached the peninsula was the view to the east, the mountains: “as we drew out into…[the] expanse [of the Etchiu plain], the giant peaks of the Tateyama range came into view from behind their foothills, draped still in their winter ermine.” The peaks are indeed “giant”, and were still visible looking east from the peninsula’s shores. Lowell, too, enjoyed this view: “The haze of distance, on this soft May day, hid their lower slopes and left the peaks to tower alone into the void.”

Lowell also wrote of how his final approach to the peninsula required “a tramp of twelve miles along the beach through a series of sand dunes.” He adds “I would not willingly take it again. The sand had far too hospitable a trick of holding on to you at every step to be of my liking.”

While Lowell’s account is full of descriptions of the habitats of locals, he says very little about the historic structures associated with wars or religion.  Yet it is often these that I find more interesting.  Near Himi, one of the towns Lowell passed through on his way to Nanao, Noto’s capital, we found a castle ruin overlooking the sea and a venerable shrine with massive trees covered in wisteria in full bloom!

One aspect of Noto that particularly intrigued Lowell was the fact that it was so unknown among Europeans.  He must have fancied that he might be the first to visit, and was disappointed to reach Wakura, one of Noto’s onsen hot spring villages, only to learn that “Two Europeans had, in a quite uncalled-for way, descended upon the place the summer before, up to which time, indeed the spot had been virgin to Caucasians.”

From Wakura Lowell caught a steam ferry across Nakai Bay, which he characterized as Noto’s “Inland Sea”, bound for Anamizu, one of many fishing villages on Noto’s shores, then and now.

Lowell noted that the Japanese have many different methods of fishing that are unfamiliar to westerners.  One, in particular, caught his fancy.  “Just as the steamer people were preparing for their first landing, there detached itself from the background of trees along the shore the most singular aquatic structure I think I have ever seen. It looked like the skeleton of some antediluvian wigwam which a prehistoric roc had subsequently chosen for a nest. Four poles planted in the water inclined to one another at such an angle that they crossed three-quarters of the way up. The projecting quarters held in clutch a large wicker basket like the car of a balloon. Peering above the car was a man’s head.”

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Fortunately, Lowell not only described what he saw, he explained its purpose: “the man was fishing.”  “The wigwam was connected by strings to the entrance of a sort of weir, and the man who crouched in the basked was on the lookout for large fish, of a kind called bora. As soon as one of them strayed into the mouth of the net, the man pulled the string which closed the opening. The height of his observatory above the level of the water enabled him to see through it to the necessary depth.” Several of these fishing apparatus could be seen along the shore. Was this fishing method still in use, or were these just erected to recall a curious aspect of this area’s fishing history? Hard to say, but an explanatory board at one lookout point actually included a quote from Lowell’s book (translated into Japanese).

Curiously, in light of Lowell’s determination to see Noto, after reaching Anamizu, Lowell decided to turn back: “I began to feel creeping over me that strange touch of sadness that attends the supreme moment of success, though fulfillment be so trifling a thing as a journey’s bourne.” He goes on “I doubt not the country beyond is all very commonplace… I was told the hills were not high, and that eighteen miles on foot would land the traveler at Wakamatsu on the sea of Japan, fronting Korea, but seeing only the sea, and I feel tolerably sure there is nothing there to repay the tramp.”

Perhaps he stopped there in ignorance, not realizing he had only covered half the peninsula’s distance. Whatever his reason, I have to disagree with his decision. I continued right ’round the peninsula and felt amply rewarded for doing so.

We overnighted in another onsen area a bit closer to the tip of the peninsula. We chose the relatively modest accommodation of a Kokuminshukusha or People’s Inn, called Yanagida-so. Many Kokuminshukusha were built in the 1960s, when most Japanese were unable to travel overseas and therefore travelled widely in their own country.  I often stay in them. While the facilities tend to be rather basic (eg, shared toilets down the hall), they are often very well located.  And the meals, featuring local ingredients and dishes, are always sumptuous.

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We continued the following day and soon reached the peninsula’s tip.  The landscape was lush, but the shoreline was largely black stone cliffs.  Gone were the sand dunes that had so troubled Lowell.

The power of the winds in this unprotected area must be strong and unrelenting, if the shapes of some of the trees are anything to go by.

The far north-eastern tip of the peninsula is known as Rokkosaki, home of a lighthouse that guides ships safely through the area.  Thanks to its position on a high cliff, the lighthouse itself doesn’t need to be particularly tall.

Although Lowell didn’t come this far, among the sights to be seen along the northern and western shores of the peninsula are some that he would recognize, in particular the patchwork of rice paddies in late spring. “The ricefields, already flooded for their first working, mirrored the glow overhead so glassily that their dykes seemed to float…”

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One last geological formation that Lowell missed by abbreviating his visit was the Godzilla rock, standing just offshore.  Of course, even if he’d seen it, he would not have recognized it as we did.  After all, Lowell was travelling fully 60 years before Godzilla was even conceived.

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Although I think my exploration of Noto was more thorough than Lowell’s, I freely admit that I haven’t seen all the peninsula has to offer.  Hopefully someday I can make another visit.

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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