Weather: Due to travelling through quite a mountainous area, I had everything from bright sunshine to a few flakes of snow. For the main part of the day, I had a lot of clouds with a few breaks where the sun, and a beautiful blue sky, could shine through.
MP3 track of the day: Driving in my car - Madness
I got up earlier than I had on any previous day of my holiday so far; I got ready and left my accommodation at 7am. This, I thought, gave me enough time to go to my local McDonald's for breakfast before back-tracking, past my B+B, towards my car hire place. I planned to get there for 8am sharp.
As I approached my local McDonald’s, I noticed that it was quite dark inside. On further inspection I read that they didn't open until 8am. I back-tracked past my B+B and, as luck would have it, there was another McDonald’s – which was open - on my way to my car rental place.
A sausage muffin later and I was raring to go. Once again I couldn't have been more ready; I'd eaten breakfast plus I'd bought plenty of snacks. The only problem was, that I had arrived at my car hire place at 7:50am. I therefore walked past and onto a bridge where I took a couple of 'okay' photos before proceeding back to the hire shop.
The manager of 'Times Rental' looked the part however, he didn't seem to act it. I understood that the shop opened at 8am however I would have expected that, given that I'd said that I would arrive at 8am sharp, for all of my paperwork to be ready and waiting to be signed; just like at the Times Rental shop in Kobe. It wasn't. The guy lifted piles of paper here, there and everywhere. He went into the back office and finally found the paperwork to match my car. Next he had trouble using his own PC as he tried to input my details. The final act of 'professionalism' came when I got in my car, turned the ignition key and noticed that the fuel gauge wasn't showing full. A lot of apologises later, and the lady at the garage quickly took my hire car to be properly filled whereas I, negotiated another thirty minutes of free hire for the inconvenience. The car itself was lovely; it was the 'Nissan Dayz' - the car I used to drive when I taught English in Miyako. I was therefore able to set my driving position up quickly and, given all of the problems, I actually left the garage earlier than I'd left the garage in Kobe.
Being early in the morning, I found it quite easy to leave the city. I headed east along 'route 1' before transferring onto the '161' which allowed me to quickly, and effectively, head north as fast as possible leaving the busy south behind. Not only was the '161' a very effective road for getting me out of the south's traffic, it also followed the 'Biwa' lake's western coastline. At 670.4 km2, this is Japan's largest freshwater lake. The road I'd chosen was a free highway therefore, with a speed limit of 50 miles an hour it was probably not the best choice of road to be do a little 'car sightseeing' from however, the road was elevated and so actually, I got some excellent views of the water and it's coastline. Due to the weather being clear, you could just make out the lake's other mountainous coast. With nothing on the road I slowed a little and enjoyed the view.
Once I'd travelled all the way up the lakes coastline, I then took the '303' west, through some spectacular mountainous scenery where I caught my first glimpses of snow. I had wondered if the guy at 'Times Garage' had indeed fitted the car with winter types however, it was too late to worry about that now and, fortunately, there wasn't any snow on the road; just on the sides of the surrounding mountains. Once through I continued west along the '27' for quite a while. Last night, as I was planning my route, I had thought that this part of the journey would have been quite spectacular. I was heading west with Kansai's northern coastline filling my view however, due to all of the small settlements along this part of my route, I couldn't concentrate as much as I would have liked on sightseeing as I had to contemplate with other road users, traffic lights and pedestrians. On quite a few occasions, 'views' had been removed in favour of 'functionality' however, when a decent view with a car park came around, I stopped the car to take a few photos.
Finally I came to the point where the '27' left Kansai's northern coastline and headed back south. I therefore changed onto the '175' for a short while before once again heading north on the '178'. This road – once through a few more coastal towns - would lead me to my actual destination for the day; Amanohashidate Bay. By my reckoning, it was only another twenty or so minutes up the road. The time was already past 11 O'clock therefore, I couldn't wait to get there.
Amanohashidate is one of Japan's three most beautiful spots; or so the Japanese say. The other two are Miya-jima (close to Hiroshima … which I have been to) and Matsushima (which is a twenty minute train ride from my apartment). It should have been no surprise that the traffic increased as I got closer. Moving at the same speed as an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping, I watched time tick by. It was getting close to 1pm; the halfway point in my car hire. To get here, I'd gone a convoluted way in order to see Biwa lake - and Kansai's northern coast - however, I still felt as though I would have to leave by 2pm at the latest to get my car back on time. With that in mind I decided that, instead of searching for the cheapest parking, I would park wherever I could find a space as time was currently more important that money. Having said that, some places were charging £8.00 for parking! Luckily, as those parking spots were the closest to the 'wonder', they were all full. A little further down the road and an old woman signalled for me to pull into her empty piece of land. She was charging £4.00 for the day however, I wasn't sure if it was entirely legal. She had no signs of any sort; just an unused piece of land with lines drawn on to make car parking spaces. The Japanese family – who had entered the car park at the same time as I – were also a little apprehensive; for all we knew, they weren't even her car parking spaces to loan. I didn't have time to argue. I paid the amount and quickly read my guidebook.
Amanohashidate is considered one of Japan's three most beautiful spots because it has a natural ribbon of beautiful beaches – and beaches are hard to find along the main islands coastline - which act as a 'bridge' between two parts of the mainland making a small natural harbour. At either end my guidebook stated that there were shrines to see and, if you have time, a cable car which will whisk you halfway up a mountain to another shrine with good views of the area. I'd spent the last two days seeing shrines and, tomorrow I shall be heading to Nara to see even more shrines. I therefore closed my guidebook content on missing all shrines within this area and just walking up and down this natural ribbon of beach. At 2.6km long, walking up and down is probably all I had time for.
As I had to go back the way I'd come, I decided to walk along the eastern beaches, close to the water, returning through a line of trees on the opposite side. The sand, though difficult to maintain any decent speed on, was beautiful and white. It was met by some beautiful clear waters which lapped rhythmically along the coast. Once I'd walked a good kilometre from my starting point the crowds had pretty much disappeared and I was on my own to enjoy this small piece of paradise on Japan's northern coast. As for a view, mountains could be seen in the distance but, unfortunately, unsightly small towns were in between the mountains and the waterfront. Some of the buildings, which I could see across the water, were very unsightly and this is why, though Amanohashidate is very pretty – and white sand is a rarity here -I still wouldn't class it, or Matsushima, as the best beauty spots in Japan. If the Japanese government asked me where the three most beautiful places are in Japan, I'd have to say that Miya-jima (near Hiroshima), Taketomi-jima (Okinawa) and Shrietoko-go (Hokkaido) would have been my three choices. This was nice, just spoilt by the development. Once I'd finished my beach walk I proceeded back through the long line of trees which covered the western bank of this ribbon of land. Though not as impressive, the trees did make for a nice change of scenery however, I had to dodge the many tourists who had hired bikes for the day – good thing about sand; no bikes!
Once I'd finished my walk, the time was approaching 1:30pm. With nothing else taking my fancy I headed back to the car glad that I had ventured out this far however, slightly disappointed that this place had been given the recognition that so many other beautiful spots in Japan deserved. I got back in my car and left my 'dodgy car park' (which was now full). I made it back onto the '178' however, instead of going back the way I'd come, I decided to take the '176' south. This would connect to the '9' which would, pretty much, lead me all the way to the rental garage and make a nice loop of a trip. I once again headed back into Kansai's mountainous centre, through small towns and villages with their crop fields bare. At one point, I travelled along a bit of road I'd travelled along four days ago and I identified where I'd turned to head back to Kobe. Unlike my journey up, the '176' and '9' where quite heavy in terms of traffic. For most of the journey it was fine, as we all seemed to be going the same speed however, for quite a while, I stuck behind an old 'IDIOT' going 27 miles an hour. A queue of vehicles longer than the grand canyon formed up behind me and him. After only four minutes of travelling behind him did I – and everyone else stuck – unanimously agree that he should be the first candidate for my 'relocation of old peoples act'. After what seemed like an 'age', he slowly turned off allowing me to complete my journey in some sort of piece.
As I approached Kyoto, the traffic behaved in a different way as to that heading to Kobe. When I returned to Kobe, I travelled almost freely until I entered almost grid-lock. Once I'd moved only 'inches at a time' for thirty minutes or so, I was free to continue my journey unhindered. Here I never found myself in grid-lock though, I kept a steady speed of just less than 30 miles an hour for what seemed like ages. It was during this period that I tried to decide what I preferred; prolonged pain or a short period of utter agony. Neither would be my first choice.
After filling up my car with fuel I returned it in the same fashion as I'd found it. I did not see the man in the suit; this time a lady took my keys and said all was fine. I then walked back to my B+B where I dropped off my bag before going back to the tempura restaurant I'd visited two nights ago. Whilst tucking into my meal I wondered if I'd done the right thing in regards to these two car hires. On the one hand, if I'd instead hired the car on two constitutive days – and booked one less night in Kyoto and one more in Kansai's northern parts – then I would have been able to spend more time sightseeing and less time worrying about what time I had to return my car. On the other hand though, having these 'driving days' has been a nice break. I've had one day of travel, followed by two days of walking around a city followed by one day of car travel repeated. It is really nice to break up the temple viewing days with a day doing something totally different.
Once back at my B+B I looked through my photos and checked my emails. I would say that today has been a great success; I'd seen the lake, Kansai's northern coast and Amanohashidate … plus driven around a bit more. I had achieved all I'd wanted to, even if the day had been a bit of a rush. Tomorrow I will get up a little later than normal, have breakfast and then checkout of my B+B. Tomorrow I would be heading to a city which I haven't visited before … tomorrow I will be in Nara!