It’s the bridge that stands out the most, an iconic symbol that can be seen from the plane as you land in the city. Odaiba was an optional visit on a cold February – it has an osen, the hot spring public bath – but since the sun came out, we went for a stroll by the land-filled seaside park.
The kawazu-zakura was in bloom, a variety of the famous cherry blossom that isn’t supposed to come out until late March or early April. Japanese white-eye birds were fleeting from nectar to nectar. Sunday park strollers stopped to take pictures.
Odaiba is a strange attempt at surrealism; it has a “Palette Town” in which a shopping mall reminded me so much of Las Vegas, and that’s not exactly what I wanted to see in Japan. We rushed to a ferry taking us back to the city, in Asakusa to be precise, a tourist frenzy of souvenir shops and restaurants, but where we lined up to throw coins for a prayer at the Buddhist temple. The boat ride was worth it even at the last hour, from where one could see futuristic designs of the Tokyo skyline.
There were more of the cherry blossoms on the island of Enoshima, which can be leisurely reached on a slow train to Kamakura, again just outside Tokyo. It was the view of Mt. Fuji I was hoping to see. My friend who goes there to write in cafes in the low season was trying to pull my leg about a goddess that would let me through a cave connecting to Fuji if my heart was pure.
The cave was closed. Whatever goddess it was, the clouds covered the mountain. Everything was opaque. I’ve not had much luck with Mt. Fuji in the few times I’d been to Japan, unlike my affinity with the Mayon Volcano back home, which did not hesitate to show its perfect shape in full glory before it erupted in January.
Enoshima is an island for lovers, apparently; at the top of the hill there’s a small park where couples walk holding hands. I don’t know if that was just their imagination. My eyes were on the Tombis, the raptors swirling above us. The chill of winter hasn’t quite dissipated and it was too bad that my friend’s favorite café was closed at this time for renovation in preparation for the Olympics in 2020.
The nearest I could go for a photo op was on the island of Miyajima off Hiroshima; even then the giant torii gate in the water was under repair. We had to wait for the tide to rise and we could only shoot half of it, because the other half had a silver tarp covering the scaffolding. We waited for the blazing yellow and orange of the sun setting behind the mountains, subduing the color of the Shinto torii.
In Miyajima it was another round of souvenir shops and also a hike on the hill, which was scratched out of my tour due to my obsession to see the torii submerged in water. That was as best as it could get.
The island I was truly obsessing on – and it was worth it – was Naoshima. It could be easily reached from Hiroshima too, but my chance to go came only on my next trip to Kyoto in the sweltering summer: an opportunity for me to give myself a gift on my birthday. From Kyoto, I took the shinkansen fast train to the Okayama prefecture, an hour further south. I noticed that signs were translated into French, already reminding me that I was on my way to a place the Japanese consider their French Mediterranean. I transferred to a normal rail taking me to the port town of Uno, where I caught a ferry to the port of Naoshima.
It was almost an entire day of traveling, and I relished the quiet fun of it, discovering that I could go anywhere in this country even if I couldn’t speak the language. There was no barrier to foreigners, most of whom were European tourists going to the same island.
I had two days all to myself, staying in a yurt by the beach, a short distance from the chic Benesse House that is the selling point of Naoshima. The island has two large pumpkin sculptures: a red one by the port and a yellow one right by the sea, an object set within sight of our little bathing colony. On my first day, I behaved as if I were in the Riviera: taking a dip, reading a book, napping by the shade.
The next day (and my last), I strolled all the way up to the Chichu Art Museum, skipping two others – Benesse and Lee Ufan – on the way. The idea of seeing an underground museum enticed me, and right away by the entrance there was magic in the way it was landscaped to copy Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny.
If one could stay in a bunker for days on end, it would have to be right here. The Osaka-born architect Tadao Ando built geometric shapes using concrete, steel, glass, and wood. Picture-taking was not allowed, and so one would have to remember the feel and sight of the sunlight coming through the roof, hitting the walls, shining upon the art object, especially on the black granite ball in a room called ‘Timeless.”
Monet’s water lily painting collection was in one of only three galleries. Once you enter, you wouldn’t want to leave. In fact, I stayed for as long as possible, until you know you have to leave because there were others waiting to be there inside. I had my fill, and before the day was over, I took the train to Osaka for my flight out, still in my mini dress and flip-flops, carrying with me the smell of the sun in Naoshima.
Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.
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