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A sightseeing surprise in Japan

Off the beaten tourist path in Japan.

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Sometimes you plan to go sightseeing, and sometimes sightseeing just happens to you. That's especially true when you travel solo and keep a flexible schedule, as I did one sunny weekend in Japan.

That morning, I got up early, packed a small suitcase, a wallet full of yen, and a map. Then I took off ... north. That was my entire plan, at least in the beginning.

I started in Misawa, a town at the north of Honshu, Japan's biggest island. I had the vague idea that if I kept going north, I might find my way to Hokkaido, the next island up. Or maybe I wouldn't – it didn't really matter to me.

I always felt safe with the wonderful people I met when I lived in Japan, and I figured that anywhere I went would be interesting, and probably beautiful, too.

Remember that fork in the road that Robert Frost talked about? Well, I encountered one of those early in my trip.

Had I chosen to continue north, I would have been on a brand-new highway to Oma, where there's a ferry to Hokkaido. The trip might have taken a couple of hours.

But I took the road less traveled and went west, which leads into the far reaches of the Shimokita Peninsula. The peninsula has an axlike shape and faces the Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaido.

Although it's only an hour or so by air from Tokyo, the peninsula is a wild, almost barren place, sparsely populated around the edges.

The distance around the peninsula was more than twice what the other road would have been. And I also discovered that the highway was not yet entirely paved (in 1990). I soon left the blacktop and bumped along a pitted gravel road for many miles, with dense forest on my right and sparkling ocean water on my left.

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