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Japan's Inland Sea: a timeless tranquility

It is long and arduous journey for a simple earthenware bowl of morning tea: a long flight to Tokyo, then trains or a long drive south to Tomo, an out-of-the way fishing village on the inland Sea.

some aspect of the route are disconcerting -- the ferro- concrete building and thickets of telephone wire, the clustering of heavy industry that gives modern Japan its economics clut. But oases of its old, traditional beauty abound, palaces and gardens, temples and shrines by the score in many cities, each rich in centuries of complex history. And at the end of the route that led to this mornings's refreshment is a particularly warm and personable retreat.

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High on a bluff overlooking the sea here in Tomo stands a quiet Buddhist temple called Fukezen-ji, or "mansion facing the tides." It is just a short walk from the ryokan, or small traditional Japanese inn, called Keisyokan, down on the water's edge; the leisurely way takes us down the walk by the sea wall, and we watch sea birds wheeling over the nearest of the steep mountainous island jutting out of the water, less than a mile offshore. There is a pagoda there and the scene looks remarkably like an ancient Japanese print.

We feel reluctant to move on, but the innkeeper, who has offered an introduction to the chief abbot of the temple, insists that the view is better from the buff. And it is; once up the steep side street lined with immaculate cement doorsteps leadind to modest homes, we pass through an old gate. Inside the high walls of the temple grounds even the placid modernity of this small port town falls away, and the occassional growl of cars and motor scooters is almost inaudible. The stone pathway leads across an expanse of fine gravel, carefully raked into simple patterns, and the air is one of timeless tranquility.

Over the far wall the cluster of mountain-islands appears again through the morning haze, and their sense of mystery deepens; now we can see more distincly the coves and inlets on their shores, and the narrow waterways between the islands. Once again we feel the impulse to linger, but at the door of the temple, waiting to greet us, is a gentle man named Ryogan Ito, the chief abbot.

He has lived there 50 years, watching those mountains, and has centuries worth of legends to share with his Western visitors. We leave our shoes on the stone steps outside the dark-beamed wooden temple and move inside to settle down on the tatami mats in the main reception room. But we can't quite settle -- not with the morning sun pouring in and fresh springlike breezes pouring through; an assistant is removing the last of the window panels and the whole room opens out on a panoramic view of sea and mountains. We gravitate toward the edge of the mats, leaning out the windows, drinking in sun and salt air. One could very easily imagine spending half a century here. Ryogan Ito smiles and waits for us to come back to earth -- and his legends.

He point out through the open frames and explains, through an interpreter, that at certain times of the year the full moon rises just to the left of the pagoda on the smallest island, and at other times it appears exactly between the mountain peaks. They are called the Misen mountains, "great one's in Japanese. The whole island chain is called "Sensui."

Seventeen hundred years ago, he continues, the Empress Jingu stayed on that island -- he points out a large one -- and had a meal in a simple shelter there. The island has been called "Queen Island" in her honor ever since; not bad, for a single visit early two millennia old. The smaller island we'd noticed in the foreground, grace with that pagoda, is Benten-jima -- named for an ancient goddess protector of all women. A Chinese general built the pagoda there over 400 years ago, celebrating the beauty of the area.

The abbot pauses, gazing out to sea, and we relax even more, enjoying the unhurried silence, grateful for time to let all these associations sink in. Of all the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples viewed so far, some spartan, others wildly ornate, all heavy with more history than we can absorb at once, this site has brought us closest to a sense of old Japan

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Just the evening before at Keisyokan we had explored the novelty of our traditional-inn rooms, the tatami mats bare except for the kotatsu warming table (an ingenious energy- saving device -- a low table frame with heater underneath, a blanket stretched over it to keep the warmth flowing around legs and hips, then a regular tabletop placed atop) and, later at night, the futon sleeping mat and quilts. We had also sampled a classic Japanese feast, from sashimi to shrimp, crab even local sea snail, bean curd, lotus root, and mormuch the same meal, almost two thousand year ago. The Chinese general's 16th-century pagoda, lovely as it was, seemed almost parvenu.

Our host, never really having ignored us (it was more as if he included us in his brief reverie), turned back with a smile and a request to his assistant. A slender wooden box appeared, and out it Ryogan Ito drew fragile sheets of rice paper, covered with Japanese characters. The charter of this temple, and other ancient documents, he exlained, as he traced its history.

Initially built as an emperor's mansion for his princess more than one thousand years ago, it survived 16th-century battle, more upheaval in the 17 th-century TAichoro period, to become a permanent temple site. He now represents the 70th generation of abbots to preside ove the temple called Fukuzen-ji, and it still faces the same tides.

Laggards all morning in this quiet town, we are again reluctant to move on. Wanting to share a few moments more of the temple's tranquility, after tea we inspect a smaller room with its raised altar-shelf and its delicate scrolls hung on the wall -- scenes of herons in full flight and the shadowy outlines of a full moon. The next time the moon waxed, this visitor would imagine it rising, just to the left of the Chinese pagoda, above the Benten island in the sea.

Realistic note: It's usually difficult for the Westerner, however flexible and independent a traveler, to get around here unless he or she speaks and reads Japanese. The Japanese people are infallibly polite, almost always warm and helpful, but few, away from larger cities, speak English, and there are virtually no multilingual signs on roadways or even in larger train stations.

Japan Air lines offers some solid overviews of Japan, which include a decent measure of free time for personal exploration. The 15-day all Japan tour covers 4 nights in Kyoto, that exquisite old city, 3 nights in Tokyo, 2 in Hiroshima and Osaka, and 1 night each in Hakone and takamatsu, for about $1,500 total cost from the US west coast, and $1,300 from Honolulu (add $80 more during peak season, june through October).

There is also the 15-day Imperial Japan trip starting in To kyoJapan Alps in central Honshu and emphasizing authentic Japanese inns, remote castles, temples, and shrines. (About the same price.) Try to schedule any trips around the time of a full moon.

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