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Historic Kansai : Shirahama:History's footsteps heard even on sand

By Junzo Tanaka
The white beach of Shirahama in Kishu (an old name of Wakayama Prefecture) is known for its glistening sand. Shirahama also boasts hot-water spas blessed with abundant water sources and is a popular resort spot both in winter and summer. However, if one checks it out a little, one finds the place is home to an interesting history dating back to ancient times.
Whether or not one enjoys Japan depends on this act of 'looking up a little.' In Japan, a single tree or a single stalk of grass in nature contains joys and sorrows of our forefathers. When I spoke like this in a gathering which included visitors from abroad, talk appeared to shift into a discussion of religion, as someone commented, 'This is a world of polytheism.' He had it all wrong. It was a simple statement of how we perceive nature.
A few hours' ride to the south, either by train or expressway, from Osaka brings you to Shirahama Town in Wakayama Prefecture. Shirarahama, a beach of quartz sand, lies at its center. You can dismiss it simply by saying, 'What a beautiful beach!' but I hope you will stop and note the name of a place nearby, which reads 'Tsuna-shirazu.' 'Tsuna' means a 'rope' and 'shirazu' means 'don't know' or 'have nothing to do with.' Before the railway reached this place for the first time in 1933, it was a gateway to this area. Ships from Osaka or Kobe all came here. Because its waters were calm, poles and ropes to moor ships were unnecessary here, hence the name, 'Tsuna-shirazu.'
During the Nara period (710-784), when Nara was the nation's capital, Shirahama was a playground for emperors and noblemen, perhaps equivalent to pleasure spots along the Mediterranean in Europe. It was a place not only for pleasure but also for power struggle. There is a record that an imperial prince who had lost in a succession fight was tried here.
In the 16th century, a lead mine was discovered nearby. In order to encourage the mining of lead, the powers that be of the time forgave tax payment in rice. In the modern times, because of its calm seas, a floating airport was built here and served as a base for pleasure flights and private-sector air routes. Later, an airport was built on land.
Shirahama is simple but has great depth. It is a living example of the land and climate of Japan, which is characterized by 'the more one knows about it, the more attractive it becomes.'