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20 March 2019.
The houses are lined along the shore like soldiers, creating an organic seam that joins the sea with the forest-covered hills immediately behind them. They sit on stilts above the water, each two stories high with living quarters above and workspace and a boat garage at water level. They are Funaya, the traditional wooden boathouses of the village of Ine, tucked into well-protected Ine Bay on the north-eastern corner of Tango Peninsula. There are 230 Funayas, some having existed since the 1700’s.

But first we had to get there.

When I went to Japan in 2018, travelling solo, I’d hoped to make the trip to Ine from Kyoto, but I lost a day to rain, and another to exhaustion so with a tight schedule I ran out of time. Truth be told I was intimidated by the journey. Although details are available online it sounded long and complicated.

In the end it was all so simple.

Come with me on a journey from Kyoto to the unique fishing village of Ine and the boathouses of Ine Bay.

On a mild sunny day we set out from our Airbnb machiya in the Gion neighbourhood and make our way to Kyoto Station where we board a train to Amanohashidate. We make sure to get the “limited express” so we won’t have to change trains. Scenes of rural Japan flow by as I gaze out the window on this two-hour journey. There’s a valley completely submerged by cloud, a long low cloud that goes on and on so that all that is visible are the fields and villages in front of it and the mountains behind. The cloud has descended to earth not as mist or rain, but as cloud itself kissing the land. And then as we head further north towards the coast and the day warms up we see villages and mountains.

Finally we arrive at Amanohashidate and head into the tourist office. It is Japan. Of course there is a tourist information office at the station. And of course there are kind helpful people there who can tell you all you need to know. Having previously researched the activities available in Amanohashidate we decide on walking the sandbar. We choose not to take the chair lift or cable car to the viewing point, considered one of the three most famous views in Japan,

The sandbar from above. Photo credit: Japan Reference

as our hearts are set on getting to Ine Bay and there’s not time for both.

Everything from our research is confirmed at the tourist office: walk the sandbar, at the far end take a bus to Ine, get off at the cruise dock, after the cruise walk into the village and take the bus all the way back to Amanohashidate Station. I always worry about finding bus stops, and knowing when to get off the bus, and how will I know when I get there? But it is all so obvious and easy. It is Japan after all. The Japanese are nothing if not organised. And helpful. They shepherd us every step of the way.

Walking the sandbar, which is said to have appeared like a floating bridge from heaven, a gift from the gods that gave Amanohashidate its name, is a dream: a gentle 4 kilometre stroll of about an hour. There are others around us either walking or cycling, families out for the day, and fellow tourists, but it is never crowded.

We are surrounded by a luminous beauty. There are eight thousand pine trees on the sand bar.

On one side is Asokai Lagoon,

and on the other Miyazu Bay, edged by curve after curve of creamy sand beaches carpeted with pine needles.

Feel the soft gravelly dirt crunching underfoot, see the play of light and shadow as the sun dances with the trees. Duck under the low branches to see the beaches on one side

and the lagoon on the other.

On we stroll past a fresh water spring known as Isoshimizu and dressed as a temple, the occasional concession stand, a small shrine, picnic benches, and ancient trees lovingly propped up with tall poles,

until we are almost at the end and sit for a rest and a snack while facing the tranquil waters of the lagoon.

From here we soon reach the road and take a quick look at Motoise Kono Shrine

but only a quick look because we don’t want to miss the bus.

It is a one-hour bus ride along by the water north of Miyazu Bay

and through a village

to the cruise boat dock at the edge of Ine Bay. The bus driver wears a uniform with a peaked hat and white gloves.

All the bus drivers we see in Japan are dressed like this. The routine there is to use the rear door to get on the bus and the front door to get off. As you get off the bus driver thanks every passenger. Every one. Arigatō gozaimashita he will say, over and over like a chant, a ritual of courtesy.

We have no trouble knowing when to get off the bus. No doubt the bus driver knows that almost everyone wants to get off at the cruise boat dock, and as soon as we arrive there are others to guide us to the boats.

And now we are out in Ine Bay

standing on the open deck of the boat, and people with birdseed are holding their hands high and the eagle hawks come diving in, so close I can almost touch them.

Soon too the seagulls join in and the boat is surrounded by birds that accompany us for much of the nearly one-hour voyage around the bay.

Ine Bay, on the north-eastern edge of Tango Peninsula, hooks around and faces south, and is almost completely enclosed, protecting it from storms, tidal movement, and sea swells. People have gathered here for the rich fishing grounds and the safety of the harbour for 1400 years. In this perfect location for fishing the people devised houses perfectly suited to the location. With little flat land available, and not wanting to disturb the forest, which for centuries was believed to sing to the fish with the gentle rustling of leaves, they built their houses on stilts over the water at the foot of the mountains, with space for boat mooring underneath. With their backs to the revered fish-serenading forests the homes of the people face the water that brings their livelihood.

And so it is still today. The people of Ine have faithfully guarded their way of life. The village, of about 2000, exists in a symbiotic relationship with the sea, and there is a conscious effort by the community to preserve their unique way of life. Fishing is considered a community activity, and the day’s catch is offered first to the people of the village.

After cruising around the bay from one side to the other, hugging close the edge where possible, moving slowly past the Funaya, we eventually return to the dock in plenty of time to explore the village from the landside.

We are nosy. Well I am nosy. I want to see everything. I try to do it without being obnoxious. We come across a huge paved shelf, a dock of sorts where a group of fishermen are hunkered down on the ground mending their nets. So many nets! Those that notice us wave. They are engaged in their work, all involved together as one entity. There is an air of purpose and contentment. There is no hint of competition or ownership here. Each contributes for the good of all, for the community.

Wandering on down the curved road

we peer down mysterious alleys running between the Funaya.

Each gives hints of ordinary life: a bicycle, mops and buckets, a watering can, brooms, dish rags, plastic tubs, hoses and ropes curled like snakes. And we get glimpses into the boat garages that tell tales of a life spent in symbiosis with the sea.

All is neat and orderly. A feeling of calm serenity pervades even these spaces.

We peer in the window of the bottling plant of the Mukai Shuzo Sake Brewery, which has been distilling sake here since 1754

On the landside of the street there are houses and storage spaces built since the 1930’s when a road was put in, all of them devotedly adhering to the same style as the original Funaya.

In an open space where we wait for the bus we get a closer look at the fronts of the houses, hung with laundry and seaweed drying in the sun,

and one last look out to Ine Bay,

the idyllic land and sea combination that first attracted people to make their homes here 1400 years ago and still holds the community in thrall today. So much has changed over those centuries, but still this little village and the infinite sea have endured in all that really matters.

Next post: perhaps something about our trip to Malaysian Borneo. Or a beautiful prayer ritual to the Ganges.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.