Richard Halliburton has left me a thin trail to follow in Asia, and piecing together his breadcrumbs feels like a treasure hunt.
Regarding Beijing, in his letters home Richard talks about the Temple of Heaven, whereas in The Royal Road to Romance he sticks to the Forbidden City, and in his Book of Marvels he gives a whole chapter to the Great Wall. In Japan both his letters and books deal almost exclusively with Mount Fuji, while the rest of the country he summed up with, “I’ve not written much about Japan. I’ll save it to tell. It’s bright and charming, but I’m flying too fast for deep impressions.”
His lack of “deep impressions” makes it a bit hard for me to connect with him in this part of the world, but it also gives me a free pass to go where I like and do what I please. So it’s kind of funny that I went to the Great Wall of China with no agenda whatsoever, and ended up with as memorable a day as one could ask for.
Ryan and I found a tour to the Jinshanling section of the wall that essentially provided food and transportation then left us to our own devices for upwards of three hours. In an effort to ditch the other people in the group, we took a right fork when everyone else went left, and we ended up on an isolated stretch of wall with scarcely another soul in sight. Ryan set up the camera for a photo, and instead of “say cheese!” he asked me to marry him.
It couldn’t have been more perfect, and of course I said yes!
We only had a few days together before I jetted off to Japan. I was sad to say goodbye to my fiancée (!!!) but so very happy to get the hell outta Beijing. A mere 16 hours of travel later (thank you, typhoon in Shanghai) I arrived one time zone away in Japan. And ever since my first morning here I’ve been nothing but smiles.
My first destination was Amanohashidate, a sandbar in Miyazu, a town of 20,000 people on the west coast of Kyoto prefecture. I have to thank Richard for leading me here, because with a description like that I never would have come. But the sandbar is really very special, a unique landform that connects the northern and southern shores of a placid bay. The spit of sand has been anchored by Japanese Pines, transforming it from a featureless, transient line of sand into the Bridge to Heaven.
Within minutes of arriving, Amanohashidate made me cry. The sob that snuck out of me was one of happiness and a deep, permeating sense of relief. Arriving in this beautiful place, surrounded by ocean and trees and birds and smiling people, was like coming to shore after being lost at sea. I felt like I had been holding my breath for the past three weeks, and at last I could breathe again.
I explored Amanohashidate like an exuberant child. Get lost in the alleys! Walk on the beach! Stare at the birds! Spend an hour in the grocery store! (Okay, so that last one is a bit weird, but checking out the grocery store in a new country is one of my favorite things in the world to do.)
The next morning I continued my explorations by dragging myself out of bed at six o’clock to go for a run along the sandbar. Then the sky became heavy with clouds, but I didn’t care: I opened my umbrella and climbed several kilometers up the hills so I could stand with my head upside down, peering between my legs at Amanohashidate, a millennia-old ritual that makes the sandbar look like it’s climbing into heaven. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Onward I climbed, up a one-lane road that snaked through dense forest. I meandered through Shinto shrines with their mysterious energies and carved stones. I tiptoed barefoot through a silent temple, gazing up at imperturbable Buddhas and skirting around statues of writhing devils, white eyes rolling above slavering jaws. I soaked it all in like a dry sponge.
Late at night I went to the sandbar one last time and sat on the beach with the breeze in my hair. The stars were obscured by clouds but the wind was warm. I twisted the ring on my finger and smiled into the darkness.
From the Great Stone Serpent to the Bridge to Heaven, it had been a heck of a week.