The perfect island life with mountains and the sea

Legend has it that back when the Japanese Shinto gods Izanaginomikoto and Izanaminomikoto were in the process of creating Japan, they first created the island now known as Awajishima before creating the rest of Japan. The country's first island is roughly around the size of Guam or the 23 wards of Tokyo, and it is tucked between Kobe and Shikoku and connected by a bridge on either side. In more recent years, Awajishima was the epicenter of the Great Hanshin Awaji Disaster - the Kobe earthquake - that struck in 1995.

I visited Awajishima to check out what there was to do on Japan's first island, and I am pleased to report that there is lots to do even in late winter. My two day one night trip in Awajishima started from Shin Kobe Station on the Sanyo Shinkansen and ended at Tokushima Awaodori Airport in Tokushima. I travelled from the north to the south of the island and found that there were more things to do than I could handle on my short trip. This only means that I'd be coming back to complete my list!

Day 1

I picked up my rental car from Shin Kobe Station and got on the highway headed for Awajishima. The drive to the start of the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge took only 30 minutes, and I spent most of the short drive across the bridge ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the view. The first place I stopped at on the island was the Awaji SA (service area) to get a view of the bridge and Kobe. The tallest skyscraper in Japan, Abeno Harukas, can even be seen when the weather is good!

View of the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge from the service area

From the service area, I went to the Awaji Yumebutai, a large complex designed by famous architect Ando Tadao along the northeastern coast of Awajishima. The expansive grounds include Akashi Kaikyo National Government Park, a park that reminded me of Tokyo's Showa Memorial Park, a hotel, The Westin Awaji Island, outdoor gardens, restaurants and shops, as well as the Kiseki no Hoshi Botanical Museum.

Some flowers in bloom at the Akashi Kaikyo Park
The terrace by the sea never disappoints
A floral peacock
Sloping hills and long walks in the park

The Akashi Kaikyo Park was very pleasant to walk through, and I also visited the Kiseki no Hoshi Botanical Museum which ended up being my favourite place in Awaji Yumebutai. The indoor botanical museum is a three-story glass house-like building that holds different floral exhibitions throughout the year. The delightful orchid exhibition that I visited is scheduled to continue till March 10, 2019 and a cherry blossom one is expected to take its place from mid March to mid April. It was a lot of ground to cover, and a leisurely stroll through the Awaji Yumebutai would take at least a couple of hours. I can imagine this place to be even more inviting in the warmer months with more flowers in bloom and the balmy sea breeze.

Don't you think this orchid has facial features?
I've never seen such a dark purple orchid before
Main flower exhibition stage
So long Yumebutai and national park. I'll come back again

Following the coast and after a short drive, I arrived at the Kakuya Oishi Museum of Art-yama, a small private museum on a hill. Built from scratch by husband and wife artists Oishi Kakuya and Shoko, the museum felt more like an atelier and a personal living space combined. From the stone buildings, to the art works, to the walking paths, everything was a labour of love together with the help of volunteers. Today, volunteers run the museum and visitors can explore the different buildings as well as walk around the museum grounds.

Artist studio tool
Oishi Kakuya's artworks on the second floor and a massive redwood table made from a single tree
Self portrait in Oishi Shoko's atelier
The small art museum overlooking the coast
Grab a drink from the cafe and enjoy the view

Next on my list to go was yet another Ando Tadao designed architectural feature, the Honpukuji Temple Mizu-mido. There were a lot of smoothed concrete cut at sharp angles at the entrance to the Mizu-mido, which wasn't out of the ordinary for an Ando design, and a lotus pond at the entrance. However, the real surprise lay underground, and I was wowed by the interior of the hall as I wasn't quite expecting what I saw. Pillars of vermillion lined the inside, and the enshrined Buddha that was laid in gold sparkled whenever light fell on it.

Entrance to Honpukuji Temple, but not where the Mizu-mido is
Walk past the temple along these steps, but don't forget to turn back every now and then to see the sea
The lotus pond in the shape of a lotus leaf and stairs that lead down to the hall
A little teaser of the interior decked in vermillion
Blinking in the bright sunshine as I headed back out

From there, I cut across Awajishima to the northwestern side to check out the Hokudan Earthquake Memorial Park. As I mentioned before, Awajishima was the epicenter of the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake that struck in 1995, and Kobe suffered the greatest damage and loss of lives. The Hokudan Earthquake Memorial Park was constructed atop the Nojima fault line after the disaster, and preserves the ground and surroundings as they were displaced after the quake.

In addition to the fault line preservation area, there is also a memorial house which lies right on the fault line and has exhibits about fault lines and earthquakes on the inside. But perhaps, the most sobering experience for me was to try the earthquake simulator, which simulates two earthquakes: the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake and the Great East Japan Earthquake which struck in 2011. It was interesting to compare the two earthquakes, but it also brought back memories of experiencing the one in 2011.

Where the fault line displaced the earth, in some parts almost up to a meter
The long memorial hall and a wall from Kobe serves as a reminder of the devastating effect of the quake
Inside the earthquake simulator
Back out on the road

I left the memorial park quite subdued and decided that I had time for one more spot, Izanagi Shrine before heading to my accommodation. The shrine is dedicated to Izanaginomikoto, one of the two Japanese gods who were said to have created the country as mentioned earlier. There are a number of smaller shrines dedicated to various gods on the large and spacious grounds and many of the structures date back to the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912).

At the entrance of Izanagi Shrine
Crysanthemum designs on the lanterns leading to the shrine
Large worship hall
The main hall at the back

Finally, I drove along the local road known as Sunset Line as it follows the sunset, from the shrine all the way to my hot spring accomodation, Keino Matsubaraso, along the western coast. I managed to catch the last glimmer of sunset at the beach before dinner at a nearby local seafood restaurant, Satomi.

Listening to the waves crash and watching the sun set at the beach
Dinner of seasonal fish. This was a kawahagi (filefish) nigiri with some of its liver on top
Fugu (pufferfish) tataki. Awajishima is known for its 3-year-torafugu, which is bred for three years before consumption
Couldn't help but sample the local craft beers too

Day 2

The next day, I woke up bright and early for a stroll through the pine tree grove that was beside my accommodation. The walk combined with some fresh seabreeze got me ready to take on the second day, which I kicked off with a visit to the Hirota Plum Blossom Park. The park is a well-known plum blossom viewing spot in the area and has hundreds of plum trees along the hillside. The flowers were at about 20 percent open when I was there, and expect the best viewing to be around the end of February and into early March.

Not quite a walk in the woods, but a stroll through a pine grove to begin the day
Hirota Plum Blossom Park wasn't quite at full bloom when I was there
I reckon the season would be in full swing from late February to early March

From there I made my way southwards to Uzu no Oka, a rest stop on a hill overlooking the Onaruto Bridge. It was one of the most-fun-in-one place stop for me as not only was there a huge onion sculpture, there were also great vantage points, delicious local food and best of all, an onion claw machine, or an onion ufo catcher. Onions are one of the major exports out of Awajishima, and it is an industry that puts the small island alongside Hokkaido and Saga prefectures to make up the top three in terms of onion production. Interestingly, Awaji beef is also a local delicacy here with the Awaji breed being the original breeds that were cultivated to become the more famous Kobe and Matsusaka beef.

Unassuming Uzu no Oka. Normal looking on the outside, party on the inside
Took in my first view of the Onaruto Bridge
Onion sculpture to celebrate Awajishima's local produce
Best part of my day, the onion ufo catcher
Inside Uzu no Oka where you can find a museum, a retail shop and restaurants
Two of Awajishima's best products in one meal. Onion rings and Awaji beef in a burger

Greedy for more views from high, I went to Wakodo no Hirobakoen, a memorial park designed by yet another celebrated architect, Tange Kenzo. The park sits at the top of a small mountain and overlooks the Seto Inland Sea and the Onaruto Bridge, and I enjoyed walking around the memorial park, taking in the panoramic views from all sides. Dedicated to the young students who were dispatched to serve the country and consequently lost their lives in the war, the memorial park functions as part monument and part museum displaying personal artefacts of those students. There is also an eternal flame that burns for the students as well as for those who died in the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake.

Wakodo no Hirobakoen
The triangle part is where the eternal flame burns
The small museum at Wakodo no Hirobakoen
Port town of Fukura
Farmland on the eastern side. The white parts are plastic sheets covering lettuce

From the top, I made the short 15 minute drive back down into port town of Fukura not far from Onaruto Bridge. First, I visited Fukura Marche, a market carrying all sorts of local produce and products, to check out what was in season. Of course, there were onions on sale, and there I also learnt that lettuce was also a major industry on the island. Looking at all the produce made me hungry and I stopped by the chiffon cake shop, Fortune, next door for some cake and coffee.

Delightful market, Fukura Marche
Not surprised to see these bags of onions for sale
This chiffon cake break hit the spot

My last stop in Fukura was the Awaji Puppet Theater where I had the opportunity to watch a traditional puppet show. Awaji Puppetry has a history of about 500 years, starting in the late Edo Period (1603 - 1868). The faces of the puppets are carved of wood, and it takes about three people to manipulate a puppet skillfully. Inside the theater, the backdrops are detailed and elaborate, and musicians and voice actors perform their roles at the side of the stage. It was all quite engaging, and I even forgot at times that it was a puppet show. I was impressed and would highly recommend this experience for those who are into Japanese art and culture. Multi-lingual audio guides are also available at the ticket counter. However, it is best to listen to the guides before the performance to get a better understanding.

An unusual building in a small port town catches a lot of attention
Puppet head display inside the puppet theater
Not long before curtains up
Puppeteer and his puppet greet the audience after the show. Each puppet is about 120 - 130 centimeters tall!

Before I knew it, it was time to end my whirlwind trip to Awajishima. I got back into my rental car, crossed the Onaruto Bridge and made for Tokushima Awaodori Airport. The next time I come back to Awajishima, I'll be sure to come back in the warmer seasons so that I can check out the beaches as well as some of the other outdoor activities.

Onaruto Bridge and Tokushima across the water

Getting There and Around

Awajishima is best explored by rental car as there are no train lines on the island. There are local buses on the island, but frequencies may be irregular and bus stops may be far from most of the attractions.

Far Flung is a project that aims to delve deeper into untouched territories and bring you closer to places where time seems to pass at a much slower rate, and to experience a lifestyle that may be long gone in the bigger cities. Very often, these remote and hard-to-reach places have an abundance of nature, making them ideal destinations for those who wish to escape the city.

By Raina Ong, japan-guide.com

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