Awaji Island: The Birthplace Of Japan
Awaji Island is a small island off the coast of Kobe, home to about 150,000 people. It’s so off the beaten path that they usually only get Japanese visitors. Therefore they have no use for English on this island (not even on the signs). That’s why I was a bit nervous going there by myself. Ended up, it was no trouble at all, and for anyone looking to immerse themselves in nature and traditional Japan, this is a wonderful place to do it.
If you are coming from Kobe there are only two ways to get there. Renting your own car, or taking a bus. Buses to and from Awaji Island are limited but near Okura Kaigan Station there is a huge bus center. From here you can catch a bus straight to Sumoto on Awaji Island. I recommend leaving from Okura Station. The worker manning the bus area to Sumoto spoke some English and looked excited to help me, as he said foreigners hardly ever travel to Awaji. He gave me a couple of maps, and pamphlets of the island, and made sure that I got on the right bus.
On the way to Awaji Island you will cross the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, the world’s longest suspension bridge at 3.5 km. From this bridge you can see some beautiful views. The buses usually charge ￥600 (about $6) to cross the bridge, and ￥1,800 (about $18) one way to Sumoto.
The bus drops you off at the main bus terminal on Awaji Island. Here, you can buy tickets for the local bus, and talk to the people at the information center. They will help you figure out which bus numbers you need, and which stops to get off at. I spoke to them in Japanese, but if you tell them the name of the sites, they will be able to help you even without you speaking any Japanese. They gave me a bus time table, circled all of the stops I would need to get off at, and even wrote down the most convenient order for me to go in. They were very helpful, and very friendly.
What to Visit
My first stop was Izanagi Shrine. If you know any Japanese history you probably remember that this shrine is very important! Izanagi and Izanami are the two responsible for creating Japan and its gods. When Izanagi and Izanami were born, drops of water from a spear fell into the ocean creating the first island of Japan, Onogoro. The two of them got married, and had 8 children who then became the islands of Japan.
The shrine itself is huge. There is the main building, and then many other smaller sections to walk around in. This shrine is popular for holding weddings at because of the meaning behind it. If you are interested in visiting shrines, and seeing ‘the birthplace of Japan’ then this is for you. On your way out, stop in their gift shop, where you can get some snacks made from their local, and famous, sweet Awaji Island onions.
I walked back to the bus stop (which is right in front of the post office, across the street from where the bus dropped you off), and saw that I had half an hour before the bus came. The buses on the island only come every hour or hour and a half so plan your time wisely. A man and woman who were on the original bus with me lined up behind me. I turned around and began talking to them. It ended up the man was from Kobe and had come to Awaji Island a few times. He wanted to take his wife to the shrine. He said he was surprised to see a foreigner there because not many people knew about Awaji Island. He asked me how I had heard of it. I told him about my goal to see every castle in Japan, and how I was on my way to see Sumoto Castle. He seemed rather impressed, and told me that it was a nice hike to get to Sumoto Castle. We got on the bus together, and they made sure that I got off at the right stop.
This bus will drop you off at Awaji Island’s other big bus station. From here is where you will later take your bus back to Kobe. When you get off, go inside and get a map to Sumoto Castle. There is a little pathway that you must take up Mt. Mikuma, and without the map you will probably miss it.
To get to Mt. Mikuma you will walk for 15 minutes through a small town, near the ocean. Along the way there will be many interesting statues so please stop and take some pictures. Also, if you are hungry, stop and get the local food. Awaji Island is famous for its sweet onions. On the island you can get a rice bowl, topped with beef and loaded with its sweet onions. The onions were a bit too sweet for me, but you will only be able to try these on Awaji Island so I say go for it.
The hike up Mt. Mikuma is rather short, but steep. I’ve hiked many mountains since coming to Japan so it only took me about 15 or 20 minutes. If you’re not used to it, it could take a half hour or more. The hike itself wasn’t so interesting. It was just through the woods, no special flowers or plants nearby, but the view at the top is worth it! I went during the fall, so the leaves were many different colors, making it even more breathtaking!
Sumoto Castle is not a full castle. It’s just ruins of the wall, and the keep, but its architecture is interesting and intricate enough to make it a notable site. Take some pictures with the keep, and enjoy the view from the top of the mountain. Not many have seen Awaji Island from above!
Finally hike back down to the bus stop, buy a ticket back to Kobe, and this time enjoy the night view from Akashi Bridge.
One More Sight
As I stated earlier, the buses only come once every hour or so. I didn’t plan my time wisely so I was only able to see two of the three sites that I had wanted. The final site I would recommend is Awaji Ningyo-Joruri Hall. Here you can learn about Awaji Ningyo-Joruri, an over 500-year-old form of puppet-theatre. I hear that they put on several shows of traditional dramas depicting their religious rituals throughout the day, and have some English support and guidance.
Near the theatre, Tadao Ando, a famous architect, designed several structures for the island, most notably Hompuku-ji water temple. If you like art and architecture I recommend both of these, and I hope to return to Awaji Island someday and see them. If you happen to have time to do so please let me know what you think!
Once You’re Back in Kobe
If you’re still hungry, or you didn’t eat lunch on the island (I didn’t as I had a big breakfast), but still want to try Awaji Island onions, I recommend Awajishima Burger. Awajishima Burger is a small burger shop, that was voted one of the best local burger shops in Japan. There’s only one thing on their menu, the burger! You can get a large size or a medium size. I ordered the large size because I was hungry and it was definitely large (think American portions). It comes with their special sauce, and for some extra charge I got cheese and egg on mine. As a side order I ordered their onion rings, which are made from Awaji Island onions. I put some of these on my burger to give it extra flair. It’s a small hole-in-the-wall shop, so it’s a bit hard to find but it’s definitely worth it. If you have time, and aren’t tired out from exploring the island, Awajishima Burger is only a 5 minute walk from Nishinomiya Station.
Where to Stay
I stayed at a hostel called Geragera. It’s about a 15-20 minute walk from Okura Kaigan Station, and is nestled right on the beach. All you have to do is step down from the back of their building, and you’re standing in the sand. From here you can see a beautiful view of Kobe Bridge all lit up at night. The rooms were all very clean, and the workers very friendly. They were the ones who helped me figure out where I could catch a bus to Awaji Island, what time I could catch a bus, and the names of all the sites I wanted to visit. Since most of the websites for these sights are in Japanese, their assistance was very helpful. Also, since it’s outside of the main city, prices are cheaper, it’s a lot less crowded, and the hostel surroundings are very serene. Perfect for a relaxing stay in Kobe. Not to mention, very convenient for you to catch the bus to Awaji, as it’s at the same station.
I hope you can read these tips, and enjoy visiting the not-so-traveled paths of Awaji Island. Please enjoy your stay!