Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Yufuin/ 湯布院

(better know a city)

Well, it's been almost half a year since my last "Better know a city" entry. My excuses are numerous, and I've detailed them all on a recent post.

But, since we've all suddenly got some free time on our hands, it seemed perfect to knock another city off my list.

I was having coffee with Kingsley and Amy, a couple of my co-workers, and I mentioned I was going off exploring the next day. "I was thinking about going to Kakaji," I said.

"What's in Kakaji?" they asked.

"Nothing as far as I know," I replied. "But it's the next city down the Kunisaki Peninsula after Matama. I was just going to drive around and see what I could find."

They shrugged and agreed to go along. (No one had anything better to do). Having the night to think about it, I decided this was a disaster waiting to happen. Going out and exploring these small rice field towns by myself was one thing, dragging other people along with me was needlessly cruel. We'd end up tired and cranky in the car following windy mountain roads which may or may not lead anywhere. No one would understand my anal retentive desire to spend the whole day within the boarders of one small town, and it would lead to arguments.

So, when I picked them up the next morning, I said, "You know, I've been thinking about it, and you guys don't want to go to Kakaji do you? Let's go to Yufuin instead."

Yufuin was a town I had been to several times, so I could play tour guide a lot better and direct them to the interesting parts. Plus it was a tourist town, so it was a lot better set up for sight seeing.

Yufuin has recently been emerging as the top tourist spot in Oita prefecture. It used to be Beppu, but Beppu has been slowly dying recently, and Yufuin is the new hot spot. It's a small town in the middle of a bunch of mountains, and has been marketed as a isolated mountain town get away. As with a lot of these types of countryside retreats, the flood of tourists ironically undermines the very thing the tourists are coming to see (an isolated mountain town), but it still manages to retain a lot of its charm.

All sorts of countryside style home cooking restaurants have sprung up, as well as a lot of arts and crafts type stores, coffee shops, folk villages, museums, etc. (For instance I wrote on this blog four years ago about my experience in a phonograph museum in Yufuin.)

Our first stop, however, was Mount Yufu itself. The big mountain overlooking the town of Yufuin. Our plan was to spend the morning hiking, and the afternoon site seeing around the town of Yufuin.

I've climbed up Mount Yufu several times before. My memory gets a little foggy over time, but I think I've gone up 4 times before now, twice on solo hikes, and twice with some friends. (Like during Spring break in 2004). So I think this was my 5th time up.

The weather around here has been cooling off lately, although it's still pretty warm during the middle of the afternoon. I had forgotten how the temperature at Mount Yufu drops rapidly as you climb higher and higher up, so we all arrived under dressed and noticed all the Japanese climbers with their coats, hats and gloves. We decided to give it a try anyway:

Amy took a couple of pictures of the mountain near the base (once again stolen from her webshots page)
(her version of events here)

Shortly after this, she decided she wasn't feeling that great and returned to wait for us at the car. She told us we should take our time and spend as long as we wanted climbing the mountain, and she would wait for us at the car.

Somewhat selfishly perhaps, we took her up on this offer. Kingsley and I climbed all the way up to the very top of the mountain, and back down again. Amy was an incredibly good sport about waiting down by the car for 3 hours plus.

Below is a video collage of the hike up and down the mountain (taken at several various points).

The top of the mountain was completely covered in clouds, meaning we had absolutely no view once we got to the peak. Which is a pity because I've climbed this mountain on a clear day before and I can attest that from the very top there is an excellent view and you can see all the way to the ocean. But no one can garuantee nice whether. In fact the very first time I climbed up this mountain (some 6 years ago now) it was also a cloudy day and I couldn't see a thing from the top.

Other highlights of the climb: despite the bad whether, there were a number of other hikers going up and down the mountain (probably due to the fact that we decided to tackle this mountain on a Saturday), including a number of senior citizens and little kids. I'm always put to shame in Japan when I'm huffing and puffing up a mountain and see several old ladies already on their way back down. The trail narrowed as we got closer to the top, so there were many points were we had to stop to let someone by us, or someone had to stop and step over to the side to let us by.

We ran into a couple British guys at the top. I asked them where they were stationed and what company they were teaching with. They answered that they were tourists just doing Japan on a holiday.

"Wow, good for you," I answered. "Not many tourists make it down to Oita Prefecture. This is really off the beaten path."

They replied they had been researching the best hikes in Japan, and this mountain had popped up in one guide book or another.

On the way down we passed a group of young women on their way up. As they walked passed us, I overheard them comment in Japanese, "Wow, that guy looked really cool." I'm not sure if they were talking about me or Kingsley though.

Once we got down to the bottom we met up with Amy again. (Who, let me repeat, was a saint for waiting so patiently for 3 hours). And we went down to the actual town of Yufuin itself.

Yufuin doesn't quite compare to Kyoto, but it is a tourist town and like all tourist towns you can drop a lot of money fast if you're not careful. Since our employment status is currently in limbo, we tried to avoid anything with an entrance fee.

We walked around Yufuin pond and I took a number of pictures:

As well as some video tape footage here. (At one point there's a small gate I have to duck under to get through. I made it all right when I was filming, but when I went back through later (not on camera) I whacked my head pretty good on it. Ouch!)

The people of Yufuin were really friendly. (Actually most of the people we ran into along the main touristy strips probably didn't live in the town, but they were friendly nonetheless). A few older Japanese woman passed us, and they asked where we were from. We each gave our country of origin, and then they asked if we were working inside Japan.
"Yes, er, no. Maybe." We all answered. Then we said, "We're Nova teachers."

There was a collective gasp of excitement. "You're Nova teachers?" The company has been all over the Japanese media the past couple days, and it was our moment of fame as Nova employees.

"Keep your chin up," one of the women said to us. "Not all Japanese people are bad like your company management was."

We stopped at one of Yufuin's famous coffee shops for some coffee by the lake.

Later we stopped at one of Yufuin's over priced restaurants for lunch. The food was pretty tasty, even if the price was a bit more than I felt comfortable spending.

We walked back and forth down the main tourist strip a little bit and stopped in some of the shops. I tried a couple pictures of the hustle and bustle down the main street, but I don't think either of these pictures quite do it.

After we had made our rounds down the main street, Kingsley and Amy started getting restless to call it a day. If left to myself I might have spent a few more hours geekishly exploring the nooks and crannys so I could say I thoroughly explored the city, but it was closing in on 5 o'clock now, so it was fair to say that we put in our time. (Besides I had been to this town several times before.)

I convinced them to walk down the main road to the central train station. We cut over at one point following signs, but when we didn't find anything interesting, we decided to head back following the river.

We saw some great views along the way. Yufuin, as a small valley town with Mountains all around it, is one of those places where any direction you look you're bound to get a great view.

Then we climbed back in the car, and headed back towards Nakatsu.

One the way back going through the back streets behind Yufuin mountain, a deer walked out in the road and I had to break for it. This was, as far as I can remember, the first time I've ever seen a deer out in the wild in Japan. (I was beginning to think they didn't exist here, despite the reassurances of my Japanese friends).

Additional Yufuin Photos:

Link of the Day
Via Phil
Reporters Without Borders ranks us at #48 worldwide in their annual survey of world press freedoms.YEAH AMERICA!!! WOOOOOO!!! Our press is the 48th freest in the world! Bite us, Togo and Mauritania (#s 49-50)!The best part is that we're getting beat by Nicaragua (#47). ...(The Rest here).

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