Headed West: Rural Travel in Japan’s Noto Peninsula
It’s easy to get caught up in the industrial/entertainment juggernaut that is the East Coast of Japan. The mind-bending neon and manga inspired mayhem are all consuming and distract from the fact that Japan has a West Coast, too. So it comes as a surprise to find ourselves in the city of Kanazawa, understated transport hub of the West Coast scene, and gateway to Japan’s Noto Peninsular.
Japan’s largest protrusion pokes out into the Sea of Japan like a craggy old grandma’s index – wrinkled, crusty, and tough-as-old-boots after years of toiling rice paddies and surviving too many brutal winters. Scraping by on agriculture and with barely a shopping mall in sight, it is about as isolated as you can get on an island populated by 100,000,000 shopping enthusiasts.
We’ve been told that public transport on the peninsular is about as up to date as its villages which have never heard of Wi-Fi, so we rent a car in Kanazawa for a day assault of the East Coast. Our motor looks like a pink dodgem car but it has a CD player, air-con (it’s brutally hot outside) and it goes. And so too do we, headed for our first stop, Chirihama Beach.
30 km out of Kanazawa, on the Southwest base of the peninsular, Chirihama is a long drag of sand that looks like it’s seen more than its share of post-party bonfires and saliva-swapping hormonal teens. The reason most people stop here though is, precisely, not to stop. It’s to drive their holiday motors up and down the sands. Now, one way to spoil a perfectly fine stretch of beach is to drive cars up and down it. Here’s how it works. You pull up onto the beach. Dive a couple of hundred meters, pull up close to the water’s edge, try to take the kind of photo that makes your rental look like something you’d want to buy, drive on a bit further, turn around and do it again. Slipping into your swim wear and breaking out the beach towel isn’t a good idea here as there’s every chance of getting hit by an overexcited grandpa who wants to see how much power he’s got in his hybrid. It’s insanely dull, not to say irresponsible. I came away feeling like the sand – flat and dirty.
A visit to a temple will soon cleanse the spirits, and a few kilometers north of Chirihama we pull up at Keita Taishi. This Shinto shrine has a history dating back 2000 years, during which time it has collected the usual temple accoutrements; moss covered stonework and a large wooden mon (gate), turned gray after baking in centuries of sun. What sets this temple apart from others though is its residing deity, Okuninushi. Apparently (I don’t know who gets to decide), Okuninushi is the God of Finding True Love. A spiritual match-maker. Single women from all over Japan come here with hopes of setting their love lives in the right direction (although a lack of grizzled farm hands with stylish city partners suggests visitors don’t linger). Sitting on the edge of a forest, just aside from the main temple building, a small room displays messages and photos from women who made the pilgrimage and shortly after met the man of their dreams. Speeding away in the pink dodgem I wonder why there hadn’t been any predatory men loitering outside the temple. I’m sure there would have been in Tokyo.
We zip along pleasantly, enjoying the empty roads. The Noto is beginning to take on a better form now. In a broad valley carpeted with rice fields and flanked by forested mountains, the breeze-block grays of the occasional convenience look clumsy in comparison. Yet these are the beacons of entertainment in an area that is yet to see a nightclub.
We’re headed for the Noto Kongo, a 14 km stretch of coast whose jagged cliffs, after having been bullied for time immemorial by the Sea of Japan, have apparently taken on a vindictive menace, ready to snap at the first sign of threat. Their brooding reputation has spread to the city and they are often the center piece in Japanese dramas where a disgraced anti-hero considers throwing themself over the ledge (perhaps at the thought of having to read more hammy lines of dialogue).
Approaching the coast we drive through the village of Shike. Old homes that look like they’re made of cardboard desperately cling to the cliffs; a strong gust of wind could send this place tumbling into the sea. The rental huffs and puffs its way up and down vertiginous streets which are so narrow I can almost reach into living rooms and turn on TVs. On the cliff’s edge, overlooking a languid fishing port, stands Fukuura Todai, the oldest wooden lighthouse in Japan. It still works (although there doesn’t seem to be much for it to do). From here we get our first taste of the Kongo. It actually looks rather splendid in the beaming sun.
The centerpiece of the Kongo’s gloat is Ganmon (Gate Rock). As the name would suggest, it’s an outcrop of rock with a gaping hole worn through it. Despite a gargantuan visitor’s center that resembles an international ferry port, the rock and its surrounds are stunning. We access via some perilous steps down into a murky cave and out into the dazzling light beside the rock. The water splashes at our feet and Japanese senior citizens risk bringing an early end to a long overdue retirement as they strain for the perfect photo.
Back in the rental, we head up the peninsula. The nooks and crannies of the weathered coast reveal fishing communities that are as far removed from Tokyo as one could possibly imagine. Simple homes huddle together against the onslaught of the region’s brutal winters, hiding behind ten foot high wind breakers made of bamboo. They don’t look like much of a defense compared to the East Coast’s concrete river banks and gigantic tetra pods.
Things start to open up and the extra space brings more modernity along Masuhoura Beach where we park-up next to one of the Noto’s more quirky furnishings, the longest bench in Japan. Cursory Internet searches will list this as the longest bench in the world, although further research points to one in Switzerland. Either way, at 460 m in length and barely enough people in the region to fill it, we have it to ourselves for a while.
We could stretch out for longer (there’s plenty of room) and enjoy the open ocean view, but the day is drawing in and we’ve one more sight to see. So it’s back in the pink dodgem and full speed ahead as we zip into the town of Wajima.
Wajima, famous for its 1000 year old morning market and lacquer-ware that reflects the toughness of life on the peninsular, is positively comatose in the late afternoon. The market has been packed away, and with it the area’s populace. We pop into the now retired train station to pick up some tourist info. The tracks are still there, as is a jovial platform sign declaring, ‘Next stop, Russia.’.
The coastal road out of town climbs briefly inland into a landscape that looks more Austrian Tyrol than ‘land of the rising sun’, and after some 6 km brings peninsular travelers to Noto’s marquee attraction, Shiroyome Senmaida; a collection of nearly 2000 thousand tiny rice paddies, tumbling down the hillside, stopping perilously short of the Sea of Japan. This far away from Tokyo, even the peak summer season brings comparatively few visitors and we’re free to wander steep paths through the paddies, stopping to check out rustic signs that mark the ‘sponsors’ of each paddy; schools and business from around Japan.
Senmaida literally means ‘1000 rice paddies’, and there are a number of senmaida throughout the nation. They’re dwindling though, fading reminders of lifestyle that most of Japan simply doesn’t have time for. Luckily, Shiroyome Senmaida is a protected area and even made the Guinness Book of Records in 2011 when it was lit-up with 20,000 pink LEDs, a, quite frankly, mad sight in this most rural of areas (the pink dodgem would have been proud, though!).
Carving out these paddies must have been a Sisyphean task. The result is a glorious testament to the raw nature, the raw life, and the (relatively) raw state of tourism on the Noto.