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In 1971, I picked up a book called "The Inland Sea" and found "the shores pressing close as though it were a large river rather than a small sea ... Grandeur is missing (but) there is a horizonal majesty of the panorama ... one island behind the other, each soft shape melting into the next ... "
An American expatriate in Japan, Donald Richie, was describing the Inland Sea - or Seto-nai-kai, the Sea Within Straits. It is 270 miles long, nine to 35 miles wide, surrounded by three of Japan's four main islands and said to be an object of Japanese reverence.
I finished the book, determined to see the Inland Sea and sail upon it. Thirty years later a friend and I did both - in the midst of a relentless heat wave.
Since this was our first, and likely only, visit to Japan, there were post-arrival preliminaries: Day tours of Tokyo and Kyoto, to Nikko and to Mount Fuji, which we never actually saw, even when halfway up its slopes, because of smog, haze and clouds.
On our fifth morning we were ready to strike out - unaided and unguided - for the sea. We marched to the Kyoto railroad station and had breakfast.
Our plan, as we boarded the first of six trains, was to pour a gallon of touring into a quart of a day. By the end of the day we had probably poured a gallon each of bottled water and green tea into ourselves.
The first stop was the Inland Sea port of Okayama, where we visited the Korakuen Garden. The Japanese, I had read in more than one guide book, like to rate things. The Korakuen was one of Japan's "top three" gardens. And, with its sculpted ponds, bamboo grove, rice paddy and miniature tea plantation, it seemed wholly deserving of its designation.
After strolling around the garden, we pushed on to Kojima and a commuter train that crossed the multi-spanned Seto-Ohashi Bridge between Honshu and Kyushu islands. It was from the train that we had our first sighting of the Inland Sea - framed by girders. We got off at the first stop, Sakaide, walked into a shopping center and had a quick lunch.
We returned to Kojima and boarded a sightseeing launch, which whipped under two of the bridges and past a parade of small freighters and tankers cruising east and west on the sea. The shore was rimmed with factories and skyline knifed by stacks. This wasn't the sea Richie had described. I was disappointed. But we had several days to go.
Our next stop was Kurashiki, a city known for artistic endeavor. In Bikan Chiku, a district of ancient rice warehouses converted to shops and restaurants, we viewed the collection of European masterworks in the Ohara Museum of Art, then looked for a place to have supper.
The next morning, we took an express to Hiroshima, one of the largest cities on the sea. It was kinetic, sprawling and seemingly unscarred from the atomic bombing.
In the afternoon, we took a ferry to Miyajima Island. After the hectic touring we had engaged in since arriving in Japan, Miyajima was a needed respite. Perhaps even Japanese came to Miyajima to escape Japan. It was place to stroll, buy treats, look at old architecture - particularly the iconic, offshore Otorii Gate - sit on a sea wall, watch the tide go out, eavesdrop on an evening concert of New Age music and have an easy dinner of okonomiyaki, a local pancake specialty.
The next morning we took a hydrofoil from Hiroshima to Matsuyama, on Shikoku. During the ride we did pass some islands that had escaped industrialization, which was encouraging.
At Matsuyama we were met by Hisashi Harada, an official of the Ehime Prefecture government. Alerted by the Japanese tourist office in New York, he had volunteered to fill in the gaps.
Harada took us up to Matsuyama castle - which, built on a peak, loomed over the city and had been rebuilt after each of the many times it had burned down - and, afterward out to Ozu, where we could see night fishing with cormorants on the Hiji-kawa River.
Harada told us that our trip to Japan would be incomplete if we didn't try the 1894 Dogo Onsen Honkan hot baths.
The baths were communal but not unisex. In the men's section silence prevailed as patrons ritualistically scrubbed themselves before sliding into the large, very hot pool, and soaking.
The rest of the day was to be spent bicycling across the recently completed Setouchi Shimanami Kaido, a 39-mile chain of 10 bridges across nine islands between Shikoku and Honshu. Getting there required taking a train to Imabari and a bus to the bike depot. Soon we pedaled away on what was to be one of the two peaks of our journey.
On the bridges we looked down at the passing ships and their white wakes. The water was sapphire and the dozens of green islands were emeralds. There was barely any car or truck traffic, so it was blessedly quiet. At 4:40 p.m. we reached the span to Hakatajima. At two minutes to five, we rolled into the depot, jettisoned the bikes and emptied two bottles each of cold green tea.
In the morning, we got bus tickets to Naruto and went to see the last attraction: powerful whirlpools stirred by currents where the Inland Sea merges with the Pacific.
It wasn't the sea that Donald Richie had seen more than three decades earlier. But enough of it was left to have made my three decades of waiting worthwhile.
If you go
Information: The Japan National Tourist Organization has an excellent Web site, www.jnto.go.jp. Another useful Web site is www.tourism- seto.jp, which, in addition to travel data, provides an online application for the Seto Inland Sea Welcome Card. It's free and provides discounts at museums, hotels, restaurants and some transit links. While in Japan, we found it useful to stop at municipal tourism bureaus (usually found in the railroad station) or offices of the private Japan Travel Bureau (look for the red "JTB" sign) and collect brochures, though only a fraction were in English.
Getting There: To Tokyo's Narita airport, you can fly nonstop from JFK in New York via American, Northwest, Japan and All-Nippon airlines. Economy fares range from about $590 (an Internet special) to about $1,400. Mid-range rates are about $750-$850, depending on travel dates. We used Japan Airlines. Seating in the economy section was painfully cramped, but the staff never pulled a disappearing act.
Getting Around: One of the best countries to travel in. People are invariably courteous and also leave you alone. But if you merely indicate distress, someone is sure to come to your aid. Railways and express buses are clean, frequent and convenient. Depots in larger cities have signs and schedules in English and ticket vending machines with instructions in English (smaller towns don't).
Language, Customs, Dining: English is not widely spoken, a genuine surprise, we noted, to most tourists. But try anyway. Your respondent may be fluent. Most restaurant menus were translated into English. When they weren't, we just pointed to what other diners were having.
Martin Hollander is a writer for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.