Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bungo-Takada/ 豊後高田

(Better Know a City)

First a quick bloggy note. After my last entry on Usa I got 3 separate e-mails all along the lines of “you should really just suck it up and buy a digital camera”.
It turns out Shoko actually has a digital camera. After repeated bugging by me, she finally remembered to get it from her parent’s house and bring it to our apartment. Then it turns out she forgot the battery. So now I’m bugging her about that. Maybe the next entry will be complete with digital pictures. In the meantime I’m going to keep going forward with more cities. I’m behind on this project already as it is.

So, Bungo-Takada…
Bungo-Takada is a city I remember driving through a lot, but never really exploring thoroughly. They have some famous festival were they shot flaming arrows into a hay tower, which I went to a couple times. There’s a bowling alley that I went to once with some JET friends. There was an Izakaya (Japanese bar) there that we frequented occasionally, mostly because the owner’s daughter was part of our social group.

And, during my last year as a JET, I started attending a Church in Bungo-Takeda. And since I went through a period where I even tried to attend every week, I at least remember the drive to the church very well.

And now, it is time to see what sights Bungo-Takeda has to offer.
Not so much, as it turns out.

The most well known sight seeing spot in Bungo-Takada is “Showa-Machi” which translates as Showa Town, Showa being the name of the Japanese Emperor from 1925-1989. The Japanese are still in the habit of counting the years by the reign of the Emperor. For example, right now is the 19th year in the reign of the Hesei Emperor. My driver’s license is stamped with an expiration date of May 21, 20th year of the Hesei Emperor. I’m not entirely sure what my driving status is if the Emperor dies prematurely. I’ve asked this question to Shoko several times, but she just rolls her eyes and tells me not to ask stupid questions.

Although we in the US tend to divide think of eras in terms of decades (the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, etc), the Japanese think of everything from 1925-1989 as the Showa era. They talk about Showa era music, Showa era fashions, Showa era lifestyles, etc. It never really made sense to me because the year 1925 and say, 1943 or 1969 or 1985 are really not the same thing at all. I suppose the American system of thinking in terms of decades is just as arbitrary, but at least it’s a smaller period of time and so the cognitive dissidence isn’t quite as great.

So you never really know what you’re going to get when you walk into a Showa themed attraction. Maybe everything will be re-created just the way it used to be in 1989, and you’ll think to yourself: wow, it’s difficult to imagine Video games were ever that primitive. Generally speaking though, common usage of Showa Era seems to me to usually refer to the immediate post war period, or about the 1950s or 60s maybe. (Although, I did see a couple of old VCRs on display at Showa Town).

I had actually been to Showa Town once before. I had gone into Bungo Takada for Church with a Japanese friend I had started car pooling with, and for some reason or another Church had been cancelled, and so we figured as long as we were in Bungo Takada anyway we might as well see Showa Town. I remember it as being a huge disappointment, but I don’t remember any details, so I decided to check it out again.

Well, it has been re-confirmed. It is a huge disappointment.

For one thing, it is a very half-assed Showa Town. It would have been really cool if they had made an effort to recreate everything like it had been in the 1950s, but this Showa Town is just a few blocks of normal looking streets. Within these blocks some of the stores have signs indicating they are participating in the Showa theme. The rest are just normal stores.

Most of the nostalgia is based around food. Restaurants claim to have Showa era home style cooking, or, for a mere $10, a recreation of a Showa style school lunch. Now that is marketing, isn’t it? Paying top dollar for that old food you used to hate at school just because it is marketed as nostalgia.

Having spent 5 years in the Japanese school system, I was in no hurry to relive the school lunches. In fact everything there seemed really redundant, because the countryside of Kyushu is about 50 years behind the rest of Japan anyway. It’s not like out here in the countryside I ever felt like I was lacking in traditional old-style food.

There were some old style cars parked around. Some old music playing from the loudspeakers, (but I had all those albums at my apartment anyway). There was a museum dedicated to Showa era sweets for $5 entry fee, which, if it had been on any other subject, or any other price, I might have considered going to.

A lot of nostalgia in Japan seems to center around the old candies. And although these are not sold at the local convenience store anymore, they’re far from rarities. Many department complexes will have at least one store dedicated to old toys and candy. So I don’t see what is so special about Showa Town selling them.

So, long story short, I spent all morning just confirming what I already knew: Showa Town is one big tourist trap. Onto the next stop. But, what is the next stop? I knew Bungo-Takada was a big area, but I wasn’t sure where a good place to go was.

When in doubt, a good place to go is either the town hall or the train station. No train station in Bungo-Takada, so I went to the Bus center. No help there, so onto the City Hall. Which was also lacking in any sort of sight seeing materials. I found this surprising since even a small town like Ajimu has a pretty organized tourist reception area, but maybe I was just going to the wrong places.

In these cases, sometimes a man just has to drive around until he finds something interesting. I did this for a while, but this can be frustrating. Plus, back in the day I spent a couple Sundays driving around Bungo-Takada after Church, and I don’t remember finding a lot interesting in my excursions.

So, after driving back and forth for a while and wasting gas, I decided to just go back to the main strip, park my car again, and walk around town. I’m the kind of person who likes walking better than driving anyway. You can’t cover as much ground as quickly, but you see more, and I figured I was just as likely to see something interesting while walking as while driving around.

Bungo-Takada, like most towns in Oita, dissolves into countryside very quickly, even on foot. I started at the city center (and walked through Showa Town again), but pretty soon I was out into the residential houses, and after that I was into the farmland.

I spent about 4 hours walking in all, two hours out and two hours back. Not a lot interesting. Some nice scenery, but, (alas) no digital camera to share it with you. Lots of little temples at the side of the road.

As I got deeper into the countryside I followed roads that went through Bamboo forests. Occasionally there would be a footpath branching out into the bamboo, and I would always take it hoping it was a nature path or a hiking trail. Even though I’ve been in Japan long enough to know better. Hiking is not big here, and the paths inevitably just lead to a rice field, or to a small clearing with some Mushroom crops and a sign in Kanji reading “Please don’t take my Mushrooms”. (At which point of course I grabbed all the mushrooms and ran away while the farmer chased me and Benny Hill music played in the background). Despite my initial disappointments, I still kept following every footpath I could find. The old hikers eternal optimism that this trail will be the one that leads to something interesting.

As usual, an unidentified Foreigner walking through the countryside can cause all sorts of consternation. Around 3, when I started heading back into town I met some of the school children going home from school, and a couple of them turned in the opposite direction and ran away from me.

A few people asked me who I was and what I was doing. Not in a rude way, they were just curious. And I turned this into an opportunity to ask if there was anything interesting in Bungo-Takada. “There are some temples in the mountains,” an old man said. “Bungo-Takada has lots of famous temples.”

Either this is the biggest lie in Japan, or I’m not translating the word “famous” very well. Every town will tell you they have lots of very famous temples, and no one outside of that town has ever heard of any of them. Given how many temples I’ve seen already over my short life, I would have been perfectly content to leave without seeing these, but I still had a couple hours left in the day, so I returned to my car and followed the signs out towards the main temples.

In the end I took in 3 before dusk. I don’t remember their names, but the names aren’t really important.
The first one I’m really glad I went to. The temple itself was very ordinary, but across the road was a mountain river that someone had made a foot path around and planted a lot of flowers. I had fun just walking by the river.

Just as I was getting ready to go, I noticed the top of the mountain had some very interesting ridges, and I could see a small foot bridge connect to of the ridges, indicating there was some kind of foot path up there. I spent some time trying to find out how to get up there, but there was no trail as far as I could see. I went up a couple of dead ends, which either ended in more mushrooms, or just seemed to just plain fade out. (Trails in Japan have the annoying habit of going for a while, gradually getting less distinct, and then fading away into the mountain. Being the persistent person I am, I always try and push my way through anyway thinking if I just go through a little more bramble the trail will start up again, but it never does).

The second temple was nothing special. The 3rd one was one the top of a mountain, so it was a bit of a drive up, and then I had to hike up some temple steps in addition. And for all that work, there wasn’t much of a view, but the surrounding forest was very beautiful. During the short time I’ve been living in Nakatsu, I’m already starting to forget what green areas look like, and perhaps this temple in the forest impressed me more than it should have.

UPDATE**** Additional Photos and Videos--To compensate for the fact that this post has no pictures or video, here's a few different pictures gleaned from other posts. For a description, go to the link provided.

From my post on Matama Town:
Upon consulting a map, I think these photos from Nishii dam Greenland park actually fall within the boarders of Bungo-Takada, so I'm reproducing them here.

From my post on Kunisaki Town: Although it is a bit hard to tell from the map, there's a possibility that Futago Shrine might be in Bungo-Takada. At the very least, it appears to be right on the boarder, so I'm reproducing these pictures and videos here.

From my post on Yamaga Town: These pictures of the stone statues of Buddha (Kumanomagaibutsu)actually occurred inside Bungo Takada's boarders, so I'm including them here.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Andrew Johnson married at a younger age (19) than any other President before or since.
Johnson was also the only President who was illiterate at the time of his marriage. His wife taught him how to read and write. As far as his approach to these skills, Johnson is credited with saying "It's a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word."[14]

Link of the Day
Senator Debbie Stabenow: A Consistent Supporter of the Iraq War


Aaron said...

If I remember correctly, the path going up to the bridge connecting the two ridges is just on the other side of the community centre/museum. As per usual, the start is not well marked and it feels like you are entering someone's yard. It is a short climb with a rusty, decrepit ladder in the middle. But, it is quite rewarding.

You'll have to go back!

Keri said...

What a fun post for me to read. I worked for the JET program in Bungo Takada about 15 years was "natsukashii" to read your description of the place. Seems like not much has changed. Thanks for the update.

Joel said...

Keri, Aaron, thanks for the comments. (And apologies for being so late in responding).

I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I've been meaning for some time to go back and supplement this post with some photos or videos. Maybe I'll get around to it someday.