Thursday, February 22, 2007

Usa/ 宇佐

(Better Know A City)

“What are you going to do tomorrow?” Shoko asked me.

“I think I’ll visit Usa as part of my “Better Know A City” project,” I said.

“But you’ve been to Usa hundreds of times,” Shoko said.

“Not as part of this project I haven’t.”

“I thought the purpose of this project was to go to towns you haven’t been to yet,” Shoko said. “But so far all the towns you’ve done have been towns you’re already familiar with.”

“I’m starting with the towns close by,” I said. “I’m working my way out to the towns I haven’t been to yet.”

“This whole project seems like a waste of time,” said Shoko. “Isn’t there some better way you could spend your days off? Like studying Japanese for example?”

During my 3 years in Ajimu, I went into Usa a lot. Actually that’s an understatement. I think I drove into Usa for some reason or another almost every day.

As it was the closest town of any significant size, I would go into Usa every time I wanted to rent a video, catch a train, go to a bar, or buy anything more complicated than my daily food. Aside from my own town of Ajimu, there’s no place in Japan I know better than Usa. And after 3 years to explore, I’m more than familiar with all of the main tourist spots already. I’ve been several times to Usa Shrine, Usa historical museum, the old World War II era hidden airplane hangers, the 100 stone statues of Buddha, etc. In fact I’ve even acted as an unofficial tourist guide to Usa on several occasions, such as when the new ALT arrived, or when Brett visited, or when the Australians were here. (I’ve also been subjected to many bad jokes about the town’s name).

So I tried to go to some of the out of the way places this time around. For example, Usa, like many Japanese towns, is surrounded on its sides by mountains which most Japanese, being spoiled for mountains, view more as transportation obstacles than natural beauty, and so they don’t get a lot of attention.

Because of a glutted, government subsidized construction business, many of these mountains are carved up with dodgy narrow winding roads going nowhere in particular. But hiking access is a bit harder to find. I vaguely remembered some hiking trials I had seen, but not explored, in the mountains between Usa and Ajimu. I drove my car up through the winding roads until I found a trailhead, and started off.

After wandering through the mountains for a little while, I came upon a Japanese man in a white robe sweeping the trail with a straw broom. And I saw that the trail opened up to a clearing where a small shrine was.

“Is this a temple?” I asked.

“No, it’s a shrine,” he answered. (Actually I knew it was a shrine, but Japanese people derive a lot of pleasure from correction foreigners on this kind of thing, and who am I to deny them this joy?)

“Which shrine is it?”

“Do you know Usa shrine?” he said.


“This is the original shrine. This is where the god first came down to Usa.”

Now that he mentioned it, I did remember seeing something about this in the Usa historical museum. There was the big famous Usa shrine down below, and then there was the little shrine up in the mountains that had started it all. I guess I had stumbled upon the original.

And apparently it was cleaning day, because there were about 5 other people in white robes wandering around and sweeping various things. (I’m not exactly sure what good it does to sweep a dirt trail, but I’m sure they had a reason for doing what they were doing.) I asked if it was all right if I looked around, and they said yes, so I wandered around the shrine for a while.

The shrine itself wasn’t particularly impressive, but there were all sorts of trails branching off from the shrine that I wanted to explore. Apparently on this mountain all roads lead to the Shrine. And not only that, but many of them lead right back to the Shrine also. I kept going in circles, branching off on one trail, and ending up coming back to the Shrine after walking a while. I saw some sort of old tomb of someone who must have been famous. Even though I didn’t know who he was I enjoyed the view from his spot.

Another trail led down to a series of stone steps that had fallen into disrepair. And sections of an old stone wall, indicating that this little shrine was part of a much larger set-up at one point, but all of it was now covered by bamboo and moss now. In fact, the trail itself got smaller and smaller until it too was covered up by the bamboo, and I had to turn around and go back the way I came.

So, after satisfying myself that all the trailheads branching off from the shrine were dead ends, I went back on the original trail and returned to my car.

Somewhere around this mountain was a small ridge that leveled out into a plateau, which my crazy Canadian friend David had showed me a few years ago. “I spent all day exploring this mountain,” he had said. “And this is the most beautiful spot I found.”

There wasn’t an established trail leading out to it, but David had discovered a path relatively free of thorns and underbrush. Either I lacked his intuitive orienteering instincts, or the underbrush has sprung up in the last 3 years, because once I remembered where this outlook was I had a hard time getting out to it. At one point I was using old tree roots for a foothold, when they gave way beneath me and I got my foot caught in the vegetation and all sorts of dirt down into my sock. I was able to free myself with a bit of effort.

The plateau outlook was just as beautiful as I remembered it though. Right in the middle of the mountain, in every direction you looked from it you could see the mountain ridges rising. There is a steep drop off from the edges of the plateau, and it has occurred to me more than once that a miss-step here would be disastrous, but I’ve never been particularly worried about it as long as I walk slowly.

Back to my car again, I decided to follow the road I was on and see exactly where it ended up. I figured it would either take me up the mountain, or back down, but it just seemed content to go along the mountainside. One of these infamous Japanese mountain roads that go on forever without really going anywhere. After a couple kilometers, I saw an opportunity to turn around, and just went back. I hate to waste the time and gas, but dead ends are just a part of exploring new territory.

Back down from the mountain, I drove in the direction of Usa Shrine. I had been there often enough that I didn’t feel the need to go again, so I just followed the signs to see some of the historical markers along the side streets. Most of what I saw I didn’t understand the significance of, like 3 holes dug in the ground, or a bunch of stones stacked on top of each other, but it was a nice day and their were wildflowers along the path, so I considered it time well spent.

I drove over in the direction of the ocean. Japan in general, and Oita prefecture in particular, has a lot of land bordering the Ocean, but very little of it scenic beaches. Most of it is rocks or concrete barriers. I followed signs for a little park by the Ocean. The sign said it was closed for the winter, but I decided to pretend I couldn’t understand Kanji and wandered along the beach for a little bit. Because I grew up in the Midwest, I’m still unused to the strong odor of the sea, and I felt the whole place stank like dead fish.

There was a pier I tried to walk out on, but 2 old woman gathering sea weed nearby yelled at me that it was dangerous. They said the pier was slippery because of all the algae. I would have been more than willing to take my chances, but I didn’t feel like arguing with them, so I didn’t go out. (Japan has got to be the most paranoid country in the world. Whenever you try and do anything, someone is always yelling at you that it’s dangerous).

My last stop was the historical museum, although I didn’t go inside, but just wandered around the grounds. There are several large mounds of earth where the ancient chieftains of Usa are buried. And according to the Usa people, possible the legendary Princess Himiko is buried in these mounds as well, although the rest of Japan disputes this belief.

I have been here several times before, but it was nice because the plum blossom trees are already in bloom (due to the warm winter this year). These aren’t quite as famous as the Japanese cherry blossoms (which bloom later in the spring), but to my eye they look just as beautiful. After wandering around this park for a while, I decided to call it a day and headed back.

Additional photos:

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"Hey Joe" is an American popular song from the 1960s that has become a rock standard, and as such has been performed in a multitude of musical styles. Diverse credits and claims have led to confusion as to its authorship and genesis. It tells the story of a man on the run after shooting his wife. It is most widely known for the version recorded by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The song title is sometimes given as "Hey Joe, Where You Gonna Go?" or similar variations

Link of the Day
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AP) -- A U.S. soldier was sentenced to 100 years in prison Thursday for the gang rape and murder of an Iraqi girl and the killing of her family last year

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