Visions of Vanishing Japan

For more than 1,000 years, Seto Naikai, Japan’s great Inland Sea, has served as a vast commercial highway, linking the islands of Kyushu and Shikoku with southern Honshu. Its 440-km coastline is punctuated with beautiful bays, inlets, and promontories. Within the sea itself are more than 3,000 tiny islands, fewer than a third of which are inhabited—most mere volcanic islets that barely break the water’s surface. It is a harmonious blend of land and sea that has long been celebrated in Japanese art. Over the past century, however, Seto Naikai has undergone a dramatic transformation, from an inland waterway ringed by numerous small hamlets to a host of some of the nation’s largest and most heavily industrialized cities such as Osaka, Kobe, and Hiroshima. With the emergence and expansion of these metropoli and the commercial infrastructure to support them, an age-old way of life has slowly faded from the landscape. Yet, if one looks closely, glimpses of old Japan can still be found in a few isolated fishing villages, among them Tomo-no-Ura, an Edo-Period (1603–1868) port town nestled in a small cove embraced by deep green mountains.

Sited on the tip of Honshu’s Numakuma Peninsula, a mere 15 km from Fukuyama, Tomo was spared the industrialization that claimed so many villages in the wake of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when Japan began its rapid march toward modernization. At that time, the island nation also began to enhance its land-based transportation with an ambitious network of railroads and highways that soon eclipsed Seto Naikai as western Japan’s most important commercial thoroughfare. Tomo was also spared serious damage from natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes, which frequently rock Japan. As a result, time has stood still in Tomo, which retains its narrow winding streets, closely spaced houses, and serene Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples that dot the verdant landscape between sea and summit. It also boasts a wealth of Edo-Period architecture few coastal towns can match. Just how long Tomo will be able to retain its distinctive character, however, remains uncertain. For the tiny port lies at the heart of a radical redevelopment scheme that will alter its waterfront beyond recognition.

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