Friday, August 26, 2011

Shirahama Beach: Japan's Jersey Shore

Summer in Kyoto is a little slice of hell. The humidity is oppressive, the heat is sweltering, and the sun is scorching. The temperature hovers around 35 degrees Celsius for weeks on end. The rivulets of sweat drip like a leaky faucet. The cicadas never stop screaming. The mosquitoes are omnipresent; the cockroaches even more so.

Escape, if only for a few days, is essential. Which is why four friends and I decided to leave the city behind last week. We hopped on a bus bound for Shirahama, a resort town on the Pacific Ocean about 150 km south of Kyoto. It seemed as good a destination as any. Shirahama, which means "white beach" in Japanese, is one of the country's most famous attractions ("famous" meaning "crowded"). The tourist propaganda describes it as popular destination but neglects to mention that the beach is more of a Japanese Jersey Shore than a scenic getaway.

Every Japanese beach-goer was armed with two essential accessories -- a beach umbrella and an inflatable life preserver. The umbrellas were used to create a little patch of shade. The life preservers were used by children to stay afloat and by women to keep their heads high enough above water to avoid getting their hair and makeup wet. Each one of these women could have been a Jersey Shore cast member with their teased, sprayed, dyed hair and full-face makeup -- foundation, powder, blush, lipstick, eyeliner, fake eyelashes, eye shadow all the way up to their drawn-on eyebrows, eyelid tape (if they hadn't already had eyelid surgery), and those creepy "big eye" contact lenses that create the appearance of a bigger, wider iris. There's nothing wrong with wearing that much makeup but wouldn't it be more fun to swim in the ocean without worrying about your face sliding off?

Not that there was much room to swim. The water was so crowded it felt like we were fish in a tank. We kept bumping up against other swimmers and when we weren't bumping up against other swimmers our bodies were brushing up against candy wrappers, plastic bags, newspapers, and other assorted bits of garbage. The flotsam and jetsam were a fitting accoutrement to the noise pollution. The entire beach was ringed with loudspeakers spaced a few metres apart. Every five minutes a recorded voice would remind us to be careful, "Attention everyone! Please be careful." That was about as specific as it got. Occasionally there were live announcements, usually concerning nondescript lost children, "Attention everyone! Mrs. Tanaka is looking for her six-year-old son. He is wearing a black shirt and blue shorts." And then, inevitably, the follow-up announcement, "Attention everyone! We have found Mrs. Tanaka's son. He is safe. Please be careful!" Over and over again.

This is one of the things about Japan I don't think I'll ever really understand. It's as if anything that is naturally beautiful or unique (as I imagine Shirahama Beach once was) is exploited by developers who demolish the surrounding area and build ugly hotels and line the streets with shops selling cheap junk and put down parking lots the size of shopping malls so that hundreds of buses can drop off thousands of tourists who mill around taking pictures of whatever it was that once made this place so special before everything around it was razed to the ground and encased in concrete. The worst offenders are the places marketed as the country's top three famous spots (such as the top three famous views, top three famous castles, top three famous beaches, top three famous mountains, etc.). Japanese tourists, with their limited vacation time and limited desire to get off the beaten path, descend on these famous places en masse, take some pictures, buy some souvenirs, eat some food, and then leave before the next busload of tourists arrives to take their place. It's not my idea of fun but people here seem to enjoy it.

Maybe I'm just a spoiled Canadian, unable to appreciate natural beauty if it isn't in full-screen format -- a wide vista of open spaces and wild places. I can't narrow my field of vision the way Japanese people can. They seem to be able to block out the concrete and the neon signs and focus instead only on the small beautiful thing nestled amongst the urban ugliness. I can't focus on the beauty of a cherry tree if it stands on a riverbank strewn with garbage. I will always see the whole picture, not its individual parts. That's not to say my North American way of seeing is better. Just different.

Still, there are beautiful areas to be found away from Shirahama's main tourist strip. We stayed at the Kyoto University research house, which is located in a forest a 20-minute walk away from the main beach. It was a bit out of the way but it's hard to complain when you're only paying $10 a night (being a student has its privileges). The best part is that the research house had its own private beach, which was much nicer and cleaner than the main beach. Because our beach wasn't "famous" it was completely deserted. It was so empty that we were able to go skinny dipping in the middle of the afternoon (much to the delight of the lone male researcher who showed up at the exact moment one of us was letting it all hang out on the beach).

Other highlights included a walk to the Senjojiki rocks and the Sandanbeki cliffs (sadly famous for being one of the top suicide spots in Japan).

Of course, the pictures don't tell the whole story. How do you capture the feeling of skin covered under layers of sweat, saltwater, sunblock, bugspray, mosquito bites, and melted ice cream? How do you capture the warmth between friends and the sensory experience of summer -- the long days and the even longer nights? The noisy cicadas and the burning sun? The rivulets of sweat and the freedom of the open ocean? As crowded and as tacky as Shirahama was, it was a trip that embodied the best of summer.

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