Friday, February 14, 2014

The Cliffs of Tojinbo (Sakai City, Fukui Prefecture)

福井県坂井市三国町:東尋坊 Tojinbo, Mikuni Town,  Sakai City, Fukui Prefecture

(BGM: "You, Me, Aur Hum" by Shreya Ghoshal)

We were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Not a very romantic start for Valentine's Day.

Fresh out of dough and stranded in a foreign country with no way out, we needed to think up a plan to stay legally in Japan and fast. Fortunately for us, the Hubby and I are the same in that forward motion helps us both chill and think.

Without a destination in mind, we drove north along Highway 305, just for a breath of fresh mountain and sea air. At a road stop in Yogo (northern Shiga), he asked me if there was "anything interesting" along the Echizen Coast that we hadn't seen yet. There was only one place that I could think of:

Oshima Island viewed from Tojinbo.

Tojinbo, (also written Tojimbo), a 1km collection of jagged rocky cliffs, flares out into the Sea of Japan like oil splatter. Roughly chiseled by wave erosion, Tojinbo is the inarguable geological jewel of Echizen Kaga Quasi-National Park. Its pentagonal and hexagonal pyroxene andesite pillars are shining examples of columnal joints, some towering as high as a dizzying 25 meters (80 feet) above sea level. 

A National Treasure Surrounded in Controversy
Official literature (obviously written in the days before the Internet), touts Tojimbo as a "rare phenomenon (which) can only be seen in three places around the world", with Mt. Kumgang in inaccessible North Korea and the rather vague "west coast of Norway" being the other two. Travel writers and blogging tourists continue to quote this claim without further research. However, all of my searches about Norway's elusive pyroxene andesite columns kept leading me back to this article from JNTO about Tojinbo. So what gives?!

Thanks to thousands of uploads from the online global community, we now know that columnar jointing of igneous rock occurs worldwide, from the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland to the Devil's Postpile in California. (Here's an enticing article featuring some of the world's most notable columnar basalt formations). The claim that Tojinbo's particular mineral composition is unique to the said three locations deserves some further investigation. It would be nice to get an exact location for that mysterious Norwegian reference, at the very least.

A beautifully honeycombed cross-section of columnar jointed rocks.
As if the confusion wasn't delicious enough, the cliffs of Tojinbo are also steeped in conflicting legend!

Scenario One: An evil monk from nearby Heisen-ji Temple was so hated (??) that his fellow monks rounded him up and pushed him off the cliffs to his death (of course we have zero idea of what made him so evil).
Scenario Two: A monk named Tojinbo fell in love with a beautiful princess named Aya. He must have also been very stupid, because he allowed another suitor of Aya's to "trick" him into being pushed off the cliff.
Scenario Three:  The same said monk was so "disliked by everyone" that his fellow monks got him wasted and hurled his drunk butt into the sea (but I always thought monks refrained from alcohol).

In all three stories, the ghost of Tojinbo rages like a tempest until his angry spirit is finally soothed by the prayers of a master monk. Too bad the same can't be said for the poor souls of the very real people who choose Tojinbo every year as their gateway to the Next Realm.

Had my husband known about this place being popular for suicides, it would've, understandably, been tough to get him on board with my plan of seeing Tojinbo. A wee bit deceptive of me, I know. But I also knew that the scenery alone would impress him so much that he wouldn't regret seeing it. Fortunately for me, my man enjoys surprises, so the odds of us getting there were in my favor. I knew I'd be wise to save the tale for the end of the journey.

A whiff of sea air near Echizen City.
The drive up the coast was spectacular as always. We stopped for a butt break at our favorite place, Kochomon Park, where we watched the sea gently nudging ancient volcanic rocks below. The waves were strangely calm for the Nihonkai (Sea of Japan) on such a cold, late winter's day. Usually the waters out here are much more violent.

Dark, moody lava cliffs near Kochomon.
Along the vibrant green hillsides that hug the coast bloomed intensely fragrant Echizen suisen flowers (越前水仙, Narcissus tazetta var. chinensis), filling the air with their sweet perfume. Cute grannies bundled up in smocks and bonnets could be seen snipping their long stems and placing them gingerly into woven baskets to sell along the roadside for 300 yen a bundle.

Echizen suisen narcissus.
This species of narcissus is at its peak just around Valentine's Day, when warm air currents blowing in from the sea prevent this part of the coast from piling up with snow, creating a perpetual pocket of spring. The instant shift from the surrounding snow-covered mountains to this pastoral Shangri La is always mind-blowing!

Not in the mood for seafood, we were pretty much out of luck for cheap dining options along the Echizen coastline. Stocked up on rice balls and coffee from the only 7-11 along the highway, we pressed on to Sakai City. By the time we rolled into Mikuni Town, it was yet another race against time as the sun started to turn towards its watery bed for the night. We had to boogie if we didn't want all of our photos to turn out grainy!

Hungry cats meowed and rubbed against our ankles as we walked down the lonely shuttered-up shopping lane that led downhill.

The shops sold crab, seafood, soba noodles, ice cream... Too bad none of them were open! We'd just missed them all by thirty minutes!.

All of a sudden, the street suddenly dropped off into the sea! It felt as if we we were standing on the deck of a ferry.

We walked to the end of the world, faced with the eternal expanse of the sea. The sun blazed in countless shades of pink and orange. Standing there in awe, we both agreed this sunset alone was worth the 5-hour drive.

"So, can we go?" my Hubby asked.

We haven't seen what I came here for! We need to look around a bit.

The unfenced trail edging the cliffs had a dangerous feel about it. But the jagged rock underfoot was solid and stuck to my hiking boots like glue, reassuring me of my safety. I knew I had to try really hard to make a wrong move out here. The wind was on our side today as well, docile and subdued.

We set out southward towards some windblown pine trees and followed the rocky ledge about five minutes, occasionally stopping to marvel at the immense monoliths that stuck out of the water like giant log hitching posts.

We turned a corner and there they were, tall and stately like a Welsh castle. Defiant and proud against the cowering sea stood the trademark columns of Tojinbo. Now the average person would probably see this and think that something this naturally impressive wouldn't need sketchy geological claims or conflicting legends to make it more appealing, right? At least that's what I thought. I was overwhelmed into reverent silence at the mere sight of it! I didn't need to be impressed by any more than what my senses took in.

The look of wonder on my husband's face was all the Valentine's Day gift that I needed. He wanted to climb down lower but I begged him not to get too close to the edge. There was no way to save him should the ground suddenly give way. He heeded my pleas and squished himself in among the rocks where some climber had already marked with metal rings. Though I was recovering from a severe hip injury, the trail was easy with plenty of hand rails to grab onto, so getting around was no problem. Perched on a rock beside my sandwiched husband, our perpetual game of dueling cameras resumed. The seawater far below us lapped in gentle, sensuous waves, as if it were massaging the tired, overworked feet of the mighty stone. It was a soothing sight full of calm, comforting rhythms and colors. We could feel the strength of the rock formations lending us a much-needed sense of stability, something we'd been completely lacking in our lives for the past several months.

Three tiny tourists show just how massive the Tojinbo pillars really are!
Looking north towards Oshima Island as the sky began to darken, we noticed an elderly man in a black suit poking around the edges of the cliffs. He kept looking in our direction, always keeping us within his line of sight. The further south we walked, the more he followed us, stopping on occasion whenever we stared back at him in unison. Far from inconspicuous, he seemed strange standing out there alone, looking at us. But I had some idea of who he might be, knowing what went on at Tojimbo once the sun went down. Despite my husband's alertness increasing, something in my heart told me we were being monitored by a local hero (or one of his volunteers). Was it the famous ex-cop Mr. Shige on suicide patrol?

Mr. Shige? Is that you?
It was getting dark and the pixel power of our iPhone cameras was starting to peter out. My husband, still wary of the guy in the suit, suggested that we return quickly to the car. Once he saw us leaving, however, Mr. Suit also backed away from the cliffs and made his way up the shopping street. Hubby heaved a sigh of relief and then asked me if I wanted to hike in the other direction towards the bridge. But the cold, biting wind picking up strength made our minds up for us.

Huddled for warmth in our cold little car, I finally let him in on Tojinbo's sorrowful secret. He thanked me for not telling him earlier, but also said that people too tired of life couldn't pick a more gorgeous spot to end it. We both shared a similar realization while walking along the cliffs; although things were still pretty tough for us and threatening to get tougher, the world would keep on spinning, despite us. Life keeps going. Those rocks are solid in the turbulent sea. The sun still gives a glorious show every time it sets. They have nothing to prove. They just are.  Sensitive to the beauty all around us every day, we must be just as persistent.

Only five minutes after we jumped into the car, my phone rang with a job offer! We were going to be okay! A happy Valentine's Day, indeed! 

Tojinbo Access Information:
Open Hours: The shops in the area are open from 9am to 5pm.
Closed/Holidays: None. Open 365 days/year
Transportation Access: 
(By Bus): 15 minutes from Mikuni Station (take the bus bound for Tojinbo)
(By Car): 30 min. from Kanazu I.C. along the Hokuriku Nat'l Expressway. You can also follow National Highway 305 up the coastline through Mikuni Town, turn left on Route 7 and follow the signs to Tojinbo. Signs are marked in both English and Japanese.
Admission Fee:
No fee required.
Available Facilities: toilets, koban police box, telephone booth with suicide hotline access, drink vending machines, a marked repelling course (rock climbing), restaurants, gift shops, boat cruises around the cliffs
Other Points of Interest: Oshima Island, Cape Echizen-Misaki, the Noto-Hanto Peninsula, Tojinbo Tower Observatory, Awara Hot Springs

Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

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