Spectacular sunrises in Japan once seen by warlords

FUKUYAMA, Hiroshima - After a five-minute drive from the Tomonoura port area, a scenic inlet on the Numakuma Peninsula, I arrived in the town of Numakuma, located four kilometers southwest.

The Abuto Cape at the southern tip of the peninsula is known for its magnificent sunrise views, as described in a novel by Naoya Shiga.

First I headed to the Kannondo hall of Bandaiji temple. Commonly known as the Abuto Kannon temple and a part of the Rinzai Zen sect, it stands on the top of the cape.

I veered off the main road onto a byroad heading toward the cape.

Arriving at the temple, I walked up some stone stairs at the back of the building to find the hall that I longed to see.

Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun

The hall sits at the top of a steep rock about 20 meters above sea level. It is said to have been built by the warlord Mori Terumoto in the 1570s and has been designated as a national important cultural property.

The vermilion pillars have gently faded, creating a mellow colour in harmony with the surrounding scenery.

I dared to glance downwards from the lofty balustrade and felt weak at the knees.

Below, the radiant surface of the Seto Inland Sea and the islands dotted around combined to create a spectacular view.

The gentle breeze from the ocean made me feel refreshed.

The temple's Abuto no Kannon-san statue as it is fondly called, is known as the patron of easy births and fertility.

I was amazed by the huge number of wooden plaques in the shape of women's breasts that are dedicated to the temple and cover the walls of the hall. They are all handmade and covered with written prayers, according to the temple.

"I'm relieved to know that I'm not the only one with worries," a 45-year-old woman from Hiroshima said with a smile.

She had come to the temple to pray to conceive a second baby.

There are a number of folktales associated with fleeing Heike warriors who lost the Genpei War between the Genji and Heike clans in the communities along this coast of the Seto Inland Sea.

There is an area in the town where Taira no Michimori, the nephew of Taira no Kiyomori, is said to have lived in secret.

The community is called Heikedani and located about 3.5 kilometers north of the cape. The Michimori Shrine there is dedicated to his worship, and puts up shimenawa (sacred straw rope) decorated with red paper streamers, the colour symbolizing the Heike clan.

"We have a custom of avoiding white flags, as it's the symbolic colour of Genji," said Takeshi Monden, 79.

Monden manages the Heikedani Hanashobu (iris) Park, which was built by local residents near the shrine, based on the folklore that Michimori used to ease his battle fatigue by soaking in a bathtub with iris leaves.

The park opened in 1990, and about 50,000 irises of 300 different kinds bloom each June, attracting tourists and other visitors.

In recent years, Monden has basically managed the park alone, and decided to close it last year due to the heavy burden of managing it solo.

However, he changed his mind after many people came to offer help after learning of his difficulties.

"I renewed my determination to preserve [Michimori's] legend," Monden said.

Farmers' market

Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun

Driving back to the prefectural road from Heikedani, I headed west again. The last place I visited was Road Station Aristo Numakuma.

The station is home to many popular places, such as a market selling fresh fish, seafood and vegetables shipped directly from the farm and a herb garden where about 100 different varieties are grown. The herbs are used at the restaurant next to the station.

"We opened this herb garden hoping to revitalise travellers," said a female staff member.

I ordered some herbal tea, an unusual move for me. I thought it would be a lovely way to spend the weekend.

Access

It takes about 50 minutes by car from Fukuyama-Higashi Interchange on the Sanyo Expressway to the Abuto Kannon temple.

The entrance fee for the temple is ¥100(S$1.21) (¥50 for primary school students). Heikedani Hanashobu Park is about 40 minutes by car from the temple.

For more information, call the Numakuma town tourist association at (084) 987-0677.

The market at Road Station Aristo Numakuma is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (from 7:30 a.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays). Call (084) 987-5000 in Japanese for more information.