A sightseeing surprise in Japan

Off the beaten tourist path in Japan.

Sometimes you plan to go sightseeing, and sometimes sightseeing just happens to you. That's especially true when you travel solo and keep a flexible schedule, as I did one sunny weekend in Japan.

That morning, I got up early, packed a small suitcase, a wallet full of yen, and a map. Then I took off ... north. That was my entire plan, at least in the beginning.

I started in Misawa, a town at the north of Honshu, Japan's biggest island. I had the vague idea that if I kept going north, I might find my way to Hokkaido, the next island up. Or maybe I wouldn't – it didn't really matter to me.

I always felt safe with the wonderful people I met when I lived in Japan, and I figured that anywhere I went would be interesting, and probably beautiful, too.

Remember that fork in the road that Robert Frost talked about? Well, I encountered one of those early in my trip.

Had I chosen to continue north, I would have been on a brand-new highway to Oma, where there's a ferry to Hokkaido. The trip might have taken a couple of hours.

But I took the road less traveled and went west, which leads into the far reaches of the Shimokita Peninsula. The peninsula has an axlike shape and faces the Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaido.

Although it's only an hour or so by air from Tokyo, the peninsula is a wild, almost barren place, sparsely populated around the edges.

The distance around the peninsula was more than twice what the other road would have been. And I also discovered that the highway was not yet entirely paved (in 1990). I soon left the blacktop and bumped along a pitted gravel road for many miles, with dense forest on my right and sparkling ocean water on my left.

I thought I heard something damage the car's muffler, but it didn't fall off, so I kept going. It was time for lunch, and I thought I saw a village up ahead.

What I found, after several turns, was a guy on a backhoe at a construction site. Then his boss pulled up in an SUV. They both grimaced when they heard my scant Japanese. They could give me directions for how to get back to the main road, but I couldn't understand them. So the boss gestured for me to follow him. He would lead me back to the road.

We got to the main road and bumped along, as before. Then the road suddenly became paved again. I was ecstatic.

He pulled over and honked his horn. He wanted me to stop, because he had a burning question to ask: Did I like hiking? (Or "hiking-gu" in Japanese).

I thought the least I could do was be agreeable. "Yes," I said. "Hiking, yes."

He pointed to a parking lot hidden under low-hanging branches. I nodded, and we joined the other cars parked there.

We hiked a long way down a steep trail to the beach, which was nearly deserted. But there was a soft drink and snack vendor. Everywhere you go in Japan, there's a vendor or a vending machine, even in the middle of an empty beach. It's like a surreal movie.

There was also a glass-bottomed boat, with a pilot who was glad to see us. My friend bought us soft drinks and tickets for the boat. We were the only passengers. We shoved off from land and peered down through clear aquamarine water at the fish flitting beneath us.

Then my new friend nudged me, and pointed back to land.

"Hotoke-ga-ura," he said. I tried to repeat it, and we both nodded. He meant the coastline, which was formed of cliffs 200 or 300 feet high, going almost straight up from the sea. They had been carved by winter waves into what looked like pale-gray draperies hung from giant hooks.

I've since learned that people think they resemble statues of Buddha, which is what "Hotoke" means. We leaned back, sipped our soft drinks, and took our time looking at the striated stone. It was one of the quietest moments I ever had in Japan.

Sometimes the best way to sightsee is to plan. Maybe I should do more of that. Then again, there are some things about travel that can't be planned. You just have to choose one fork of the road when you come to it.

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