Kushimoto: southern Wakayama paradise
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It’s an often-repeated cliché that Japan’s history and culture have been shaped by its island geography, but in Kushimoto more than anywhere else I’ve visited that cliché feels like its true.
The town hugs the southern curve of Wakayama prefecture between Tanabe and Shingu, a thin slip of civilization between deep mountains and wind-swept sea. Jutting from its middle is an isthmus crowded with old houses and narrow lanes, as if the ocean has squeezed the town on both sides into a pinched waist which bulges out again at its bottom end. To this isthmus the town owes its fame as the southernmost point on Honshu.
Even when one is not gazing out at it or trying to escape its winds, the ocean seems to be everywhere in Kushimoto. The town is full of fishing shops and fish shops. Rubber boots dry upside-down on the ends of sticks besides fishing nets and glass floats. Kushimoto’s history, too, is packed with boats, sailors, and shipwrecks. And these days, it is the sea-as-tourist-attraction that brings most visitors to the town.
Long before residents ever dreamed of luring tourists with scuba-diving classes and whale-watching cruises, however, a boatload of Americans spent a month in Kushimoto. The year was 1791. The chance visit of two ships called the Lady Washington and the Grace is said to have been the first friendly contact between Japan and the United States (the Lady Washington has been recreated in Aberdeen, USA, where she now services the tourist trade).
The ships, from Boston and New York respectively, had apparently intended to trade furs in China, but having been unsuccessful, were blown into the area around Kushimoto. They waited there for favourable winds, and departed without incident. It is left to the imagination to picture 100 American sailors wandering the streets of Kushimoto 217 years ago.
Exactly a century later a second foreign ship unintentionally washed up at Kushimoto, this time with much more tragic results. The Ertugrul had been dispatched to Japan from the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) on a diplomatic mission in 1891. After a successful visit to Yokohama the frigate and its 500-plus crew set sail for home. Unfortunately, it was September, and a massive typhoon soon overtook the ship. It crashed to bits against the rocky reefs off Kushimoto’s Oshima Island on the night of September 16, taking all but 69 of its crewmembers with it to the bottom of the sea.
Interestingly, the tragic wreck became the symbolic base for a long-lasting friendship between Turkey and Japan. The 69 survivors were cared for by islanders and eventually escorted back home on a Japanese ship, something the Turkish people have never forgotten. Today, a banner reading “The Town of Turkish-Japanese Friendship” greets visitors exiting the train station. And since 2007, a team of Turkish and Japanese divers have been excavating what remains of the shipwreck as part of a Turkish archaeological project. In 1946, the ocean claimed yet more lives and seriously damaged some neighborhoods when an earthquake-triggered tsunami measuring more than six meters swept over the town.
The most recent ship to meet its fate in Kushimoto was the 127-meter Norweigan cruise liner Stella Polaris. The boat, which was almost 80 years old, had been anchored in Kushimoto when it began to take on water. It was towed a few miles out to sea and left to sink. Though this time thankfully no lives were lost, the sea off Kushimoto once again proved its power over those who venture onto it.
Kushimoto is a five-hour drive from Nagoya on Route 42. Or take JR’s scenic Nanki Line – the trip is 2 hours 40 minutes by limited express and unbelievably long by local. Coming the other way, from Osaka it is a 3 hour train ride from Shin Osaka to Kushimoto.
Visitors with a soft spot for quiet towns populated by sleepy cats and old ladies on bicycles might enjoy a stroll around the older section of Kushimoto. On the grounds of Muryo Temple (near the train station) is the small Rosetsu Art Museum, which features some classical painted screens along with more contemporary work
Those who’d like to connect with the area’s nautical history will find a trip out to Oshima Island worthwhile. A striking arched bridge connects the island to the mainland, but busses only run five times a day, so plan accordingly. Take the bus to the last stop for the Turkish Museum, from whose windows you can gaze at the very rocks where the Ertugrul sank over a hundred years ago. A stroll down to the lighthouse takes you past a memorial to the lost sailors as well as several Turkish-themed shops. Climb the lighthouse for a magnificent view of the coast and ocean.
The Japan-U.S. Memorial Museum, which commemorates the visit of the Lady Washington and Grace, is nearby. Since the island is covered in forest and dotted with fishing villages, exploring on foot is pleasant. There are a number of ryokan and minshoku, as well as an auto-camp site, on the island for visitors who’d like to stay overnight. Don’t let this abundance of inns and museums mislead you, however: you’re unlikely to meet more than a handful of other tourists.
By far the most popular attractions in the area are to be found underwater. The very reefs which make Kushimoto so treacherous for boats also make it an ideal home for technicolor fish, serene sea turtles, and other sea creatures. This area probably has some of the best warm water diving and snorkelling in Honshu; trips a bit further offshore usually get to see giant manta rays, and whale watching is also popular over the summer months. Those who’d rather not get their feet or anything else wet can stop by the Kushimoto Marine Park and choose between an aquarium, a glass-bottom boat, and a whale-watching cruise. And for truly budget-conscious visitors, head down to one of the town docks and dangle your feet over the glassy water – who knows what you’ll see float by below!
For more information on the Kushimoto area there is an English language website at: http://www.kankou-kushimoto.jp/english/index.html
The Kushimoto marine park has an underwater viewing tower, glass bottom boats and aquarium. http://www.kushimoto.co.jp/ (Japanese only)
The Kushimoto Festival is held in late July/early August. The main events are the beach festival held on the 27th July and on the 2nd of August is the Kushimoto Oodori festival (traditional street dance) and in the evening a fireworks display.
For information on the wider Wakayama prefecture area you can visit