Saturday, December 27, 2008

Kakaji / 香々地

(Better Know a City)

December 24
Kakaji is the next city after Matama along the Kunisaki Peninsula. I had originally planned on going to Kakaji over a year ago, right after I did Matama, but I got distracted by other cities.

On December 23rd, the day before I set out for Kakaji, I mentioned my plans to a Japanese friend. "Kakaji, wow," she said. "I went there once in elementary school. There's absolutely nothing there. There's the ocean, and there are the mountains, and that's it."

And this assessment turned out to be more or less correct. Although I think you could ask: "What more do you really need?"

From Nakatsu, it was slightly over an hour to Kakaji. After crossing the boarder, I stopped the car at the first parking lot I saw and just walked around for a while. I walked down by the ocean, I followed a river and walked around a temple for a while, and then I finally ended up back at the car.

After that, I drove over to the Nagasakibana resort.
Nagasakibana (not to be confused with the city of Nagasaki) is the one place in Kakaji I had actually been to before. Back in my JET days, we used to go camping at the beach here occasionally and swim at the beach.
In the past I've always driven my car straight up into the Nagasakibana parking lot, but on the way there I noticed signs for a walking course. So I parked my car on a side street, and followed the path along the coast to the Nagasakibana resort.

The weather was, of course, much too cold to go swimming. But I did walk around a bit and take some pictures of the resort area and the shore.
From the Nagasakibana beach, I could clearly see Himeshima Island, which looked to be just a little off the coast.

I was at Nagasakibana during the off season, so although there were lots of cabins and lodges everywhere, the whole place was like a ghost town. Except for a few fisherman off the coast.

I went up to the main lodge and studied the map, where I was startled by the cleaning lady yelling at me. "Hey you! You you you you you!"
Her dialect was so thick and slurred I could only barely hold onto what she was saying. "This is your first time to Nagasakibana, isn't it? Well you should definitely head over there to see..... You just follow the street to the left and then....And if you go to can get a pretty girlfriend."
That last part caught my attention, but I suspect what she was saying was that if I prayed at the right shrine, the gods would someday grant all my wishes. Not being overly religious, I had my doubts about this method of getting girlfriends.

The old lady wished me luck on her travels, and continued with her work. As she was leaving, I overheard her say to a co-worker, "He was looking at the map so seriously, so I thought I should give him some advice on what to see."

I headed out in the direction she pointed, but not seeing anything I just followed the trail back to the car.

The next place in Kakaji I stopped at was a place called, "The Home for Young Boys". I decided to stop here for no other reason than I saw signs from the road pointing there, and I thought I'd check it out to see what it was.

I'm not sure what it was. The name made me think it might be some sort of orphanage, but the signs seemed to advertise it like it was some sort of resort. Maybe it was a camping ground for kids in the summer.

There was a large building and parking lot, which was almost completely deserted, indicating that once again I had come here during the off season. There was a children's playground filled with various different "exercise" equipment and obstacle course.

I walked through the park, and found a trail that led, once again, down to the sea. So I followed the path along the coast for a while once again.

Once again there were a couple fisherman along the ocean, but other than that the place was deserted. There were a serious of cabins that were probably used as a resort in the summer. Each of them looked exactly the same exact they were named after a different country. (One would be named "England" with a short description of England on the sign board. The next one over was named "France", etc.)

I got back in my car and drove back and forth along the main road for a while, but I didn't see anything interesting. So, I turned inland and followed the road into the mountains.

Here as well I had trouble finding something. I drove up and up and up, and then down and down and down, and couldn't really find any sort of hiking trails or temples or anything. By this time, my guilty liberal conscious was kicking in about all the fossil fuels I was burning on this aimless driving, so I decided to head back into the main part of town.

I was beginning to get a bit hungry anyway, and I figured even if I did find some hiking trails, I should probably eat some lunch first.
I doubled back to the main road. I didn't see any restaurants, so I stopped at the "Kakaji Supermarket" to buy some bread and coffee.

After wandering around empty streets all day, I was surprised at how busy this little supermarket was. Apparently the whole town of Kakaji had decided to desert the rest of the town and congregate in the supermarket for the day.

Because I was out in the middle of nowhere, I was expecting to be gawked and pointed at. (This is the common treatment we foreigners get out in the countryside). Instead, however, no one seemed the least bit surprised by me. In fact, to the extent they noticed me at all, it was just with annoyance as they tried to reach past me to get their food.
(It was one of those days where, despite trying to be unobtrusive, I just seemed to be in everybody's way).

I finally got my food and ate my lunch inside my car.

After lunch, I decided that sense I already had my car parked, I should explore downtown Kakaji (such as it was) and I walked up and down the streets.
I followed a side road down towards temple, walked along the coast, and then walked back along the main road.

I passed a coffee shop on the way, and I decided, since I was running out of things to see in Kakaji, getting a cup of coffee might be a good way to kill some time.

The outside of the shop threw me a little bit. Most coffee shops in Japan look like they're built to imitate a Bavarian cottage (to symbolize, I suppose, that coffee is a western drink). But this one was built just like a Japanese castle. On the other hand, the sign on the outside clearly said, "Coffee". I decided to ask, just to make sure.
"Can I get a cup of coffee here?" I asked at the counter.
"Great. I'll take one."

The clerk gave me a blank stare. For whatever reason, my Japanese wasn't getting through.
It's funny how you can live in Japan for years, study Japanese, discuss politics and debate religion all in Japanese, and then suddenly you run into difficulty with the simplest things. I rephrased myself several times until a look of understanding finally dawned on his face. "One cup please. A coffee. One coffee please. A cup of coffee please."

When at last he understood me, I settled down at a table, and read my book for a while as I drank my coffee. I was beginning to think that Kakaji was going to be one of those cities where instead of racing against the clock until sundown, I was going to have trouble stretching out my visit until 5 O'clock. So I stayed in the coffee house and read as long as I could. It was about 12:30 when I went in, and it was shortly after 2 by the time I left.

After that, I headed back towards my car, but I noticed a nice footpath along the river, so I followed that up the river for about an hour or so.

It was a nice walk, as walks along the river go. But I couldn't help but think this whole area would probably be a lot more beautiful in the spring or summer. All the greenery had withered away, and all the plants in the river and along the river just looked a dull blah.

It's unfortunate, but if I tried to do all my hiking during the two months of the year after Spring comes but before it gets too hot to move, I'd never make any progress on this little project.

When I finished the walk along the river, and got back to my car, I wasn't sure what to do next. I saw signs pointing to a hot spring bath up in the mountains, so I decided to check that out.

I'm not a huge fan of these hot spring baths. I find them a little boring by myself, to be honest. But they're a major part of Japanese culture, and sometimes when you're sight seeing in the Japanese countryside, you can't avoid them.

As I drove into the mountains, I saw a couple things that surprised me. The first was a Church.
Japan is only about one percent Christian, so seeing a church is a bit of a rare event even in the big cities. But up here in the mountains in the middle of nowhere really surprised me.
To put this in perspective somewhat: in my former town of Ajimu, which had a population almost triple that of Kakaji, there wasn't a single church. When I flirted around with Church attendence my 3rd year there, I had to drive all the way out to Bungo Takeda to find the closet Church. Therefore, to find a church anywhere in Kakaji would have surprised me, but to find one up in the mountains I thought was even more surprising.

The next thing I noticed was a trail head for what looked like a pretty cool hiking trail up the mountain. I parked my car and started looking at the map.

An old man walked by and saw me. "Are you going hike up the mountain?" he asked.
"Yes, I think I will."
"Hey, we should hike up together," he said.

I was less than enthusiastic about this. Don't get me wrong, hiking with a buddy is usually lots of fun. But there's a big difference between hiking up with another English speaking friend, and hiking with a Japanese man who I would have to struggle to understand. In that latter case, I think I would be much happier just being alone with my thoughts.

Even a Japanese person my own age might have been okay. But the old men out in the countryside speak with such a strong dialect it's almost impossible to understand. Plus, the old men always ask the same serious of questions, that after years of living in Japan, I've lost my patience for.

So, I tried to avoid answering him by changing the subject. "What's the name of this mountain?"

"The name? They call this mount Nakayamasenkyo. It's located in Ebisuyaba."

After asking him a series of other questions about the trail, I tried to slide away smoothly, but he asked again if he could accompany me. Since I couldn't think of a reason why not, I said sure. He told me to wait there while he went back and changed his clothes.

He emerged again, and ran into a couple of his buddies doing construction work on the telephone wires. "Hey, where are you going?" they asked him.

"I'm going to take this foreigner hiking," he answered. "I'm worried he'd have trouble on his own."

This was something he would repeat several times throughout the hiking trip. I don't know if it was just an excuse for him to invite himself alone, or if he was genuinely worried about my safety. If so, I hope I didn't inconvenience him too much.

He and his construction buddies debated whether there was a bridge at the top of the mountain or not. "Sure there is," he said. "Look, you can see it right there, between those two peaks." It was hard to make out, but eventually his construction buddies agreed that you could just barely see it.

Being a stereo-typical old Japanese man, the only piece of hiking equiptment he had grapped from his house appeared to be his cigarette pack. He was puffing away on his first cigarette as we climbed up the mountain, but to his credit he never seemed at all winded the whole time. In fact, I had trouble keeping up with him.

We started hiking. There were some bamboo walking sticks which somebody had set near the beginning of the trail, and I grabbed one of these initially, but the old man talked me out of it. "Don't take one of those," he said. "It's just going to get in your way when we have to start climbing up the rocks."

He talked with an noticible dialect, but I was able to understand him for the most part. "Do you know this mountain well?" I asked him.

"I've been hiking this mountain since I was a little boy," he said. "I know every corner of it."

He asked me all the usual questions of course. Did I like sushi? Where did I learn Japanese? Where was I from? Where in America? Michigan? Nope, never heard of it. But he had been to Hawaii once.

"Yeap, you Americans have got to be careful," he said. "Why, just last year someone was killed falling off this mountain?"

"An American?"

"No, a Japanese woman. But it just goes to show, you should never hike up this mountain alone. It's too dangerous."

I was skeptical that being in a group would protect me from falling. "And she was she hiking alone then?"

"Well, no, she was in a group actually, but she was lagging behind a bit."

Once we got all the usual questions out of the way, I decided to see if I could get any interesting information about Kakaji out of him. "So, that was a Chirstian church back there right?" I said. "That's pretty unusual out in the countryside, isn't it?"

No, not really, he said. Japan has all the major religions represented, just like any other country in the world.

I asked him if he'd lived in Kakaji his whole life, and he said he had, with the exception of 15 years in his youth when he travelled the world as a sailor.

I asked about the population of Kakaji, and he thought for a moment, and then he said he thought it is about 3000 people.

And what is Kakaji famous for?

Well, just the oceans and the mountains really, he answered.

So, it probably doesn't get a lot of tourists, I ventured.

Oh no, no they get plenty of tourists. In fact this year they got even more than usual. The tourists usually come in the spring to see all the Cherry blossoms, or they come in the summer to see all the wild flowers and the oceans. I had just come at the wrong time.

He pointed out various spots of interest along the trail for me. "Take special note of these trees," he said. "It's what the Japanese use for building houses and making furniture.
"And look at those stones over there. Long ago, that used to be a special enclosure for making fires when we needed to burn weeds and underbrush.
"And look at these footprints over here. These are from the deer and wild boars."

Later on, he showed me spots where wild boar had been bathing, where a wild boar had recently been rooting for mushrooms, and where a deer had eaten all the bark off of a tree.

Both deer and wild boars are supposed to be living in the Japanese mountains, but as far as I'm concerned they're mythical creatures. I hear the Japanese people talk about them all the time, but in all the years I've been in Japan, with all the hiking I do, I've only seen a deer out in the wild just once. And I've never seen a wild boar.
In Michigan, by contrast, I know there are deer because you see them everywhere you look.

Of course the deer in Michigan don't live up in the mountains. "Do deer actually climb mountains?" I aksed

"Not only can they climb up the mountains, they can leap through them. When every you see a deer, they're always bounding up and down the mountains effortlessly," he answered.

The mountain didn't have one single peak, but a series of them, and we followed the trail along the mountain ridge from peak to peak. Like a lot of hiking in Japan, occasionally we had to grap onto chains to help pull ourselves up as we climbed over rocks. I was beginning to be glad I hadn't brought the walking stick after all.

Because it was a cold day, I had several layers of clothing on, so I had no problem working up a sweat. Pretty soon I was huffing and puffing and my face was dripping with perspiration.

"Am I going to fast for you?" the old man asked.

"No,'s okay...I just sweat a lot," I answered, between gasps of breath."

We got to the famous stone bridge, which connected two mountain peaks. The old man was especially worried about this, and cautioned me several times to be careful and not look down. I wasn't sure what the big deal was, because the bridge was just one meter off the ground anyway.

At the next peak, he lit another cigarette, and we stopped for a break.

He starting talking again about how he had been climbing this mountain since he was a boy. "Has it changed at all?" I asked.

"Not one bit. The mountain hasn't changed a single bit. It's exactly the same now as it was 60 years ago. The only thing that's changed is the trees and the plants. When I was young, all the trees had been cut down for timber. So they replanted a bunch of them, and look how tall all the trees are now. It just goes to show, no matter how many times we cut down the trees, they'll always grow back for us."

"What about the town of Kakaji? Has that changed at all?"

I had been in Japan long enough, and talked to enough old people, that I pretty much knew the answer to this question before I asked it. Whenever you ask any old person in a countryside town how things have changed in the past 50 years, they always mention how all the young people have disappeared, and all the new roads that have been built.

And this was pretty much what he told me. "The population has gone down a lot," he said. "Young people are moving into the city, and they're not coming back. Do you see that elementary school over there?" (From the top of the mountain, we could see pretty well into the village below). "There are 39 students in the whole school, from 1st grade to 6th grade. When I was a student there, my class alone was 47 students. And that was just for my class. That's larger than the whole school is now. When I grew up in this town, there were tons of young people out and about. Now it's mostly old people.
"And all of these roads are new too. This road leading up to this mountain used to be just a dirt trail. You couldn't even have fit a car on it. Nobody had cars in those days. Japan was a much poorer country. People just had bicycles to get back and forth. Other than that, the place hasn't changed a bit. The mountains are all the same as when I was a boy."

We sat in silence for a while as he puffed his cigarette, and I made one last attempt to see if I could get any interesting stories out of him. "Have you ever lived anywhere else besides Kakaji?"

"No, not in Japan. Of course I travelled all over the world in my younger days when I was a sailor. I went to Hawaii, to Spain, to Africa, to Italy..."

"And which country was the best?" I asked.

"Oh, it's all the same, isn't it? Some countries are rich, and some countries are poor, but the people are the same everywhere." He inhaled on his cigarette. "I remember the ocean in Hawaii was quite beautiful, though."

The view from the top of the mountain was pretty good.
"On a clear day, you can even see the ocean from here," he said. "It's too cloudy today....No, wait, actually there it is over there."
We could indeed make out the ocean, but it looked faint and grey in the distance. "On a clear day, the ocean is all laid out there in sparkling blue," he continued. "And in the spring, all these cherry blossom trees on the mountain are in full bloom. And they're all perfectly natural. No one planted any of these trees, this is just what grows naturally on this mountain."

He glanced at his watch. "It's 20 after 4 already," he said. "The sun usually sets around 5. We'd better hurry. We don't want to be stuck on this mountain after dark. That would really be dangerous."

The day was going fast. (Unfortunately because I had spent so much time lounging around in the coffee shop, I had to rush my hiking. If I had only known about this place, I could have planned my day a lot better.)

Going down the mountain is always a lot more tricky than going up, and my feet slipped on the loose dirt several times. "Careful," the old man said to me. "Your shoes aren't very good for this, are they? See my shoes? The soles are all rubber, which can grip everything."

At one point we came across a corner, and I saw what looked to be a lake in the middle of the mountain. And then as my eyes focused, I realized it wasn't a lake, but just a bowl of air. The mountain curved around, and the sides dropped off suddenly creating a sudden blue bowl of nothingness. It was very easy to imagine someone falling to their death off of here, and sure enough, the old man told me this was where the woman had died.

"It was just last year," he said. "Or was it 2 years ago? I don't remember. She was from the nearby town of Bungo Takeda."
The old man showed me the exact spot where she had fallen. Since she had died, someone had chopped down a bunch of small trees and laid them down to make a sort of safety fence to protect future hikers, but it seemed kind of pointless to me because it had just protected a tiny spot of the trail. A person could still fall to their deaths quite easily to the right or left of it.

"Before that happened, school groups and clubs organized by the town hall used to hike this mountain all the time. But you can imagine the legal difficulties that would cause if someone was killed on a publically organized hiking trip. So now, the town hall tells people that if they want to hike this mountain, they should do so only as private individuals."

After pointing this out to me, and telling me to be careful, the old man bounded ahead, and it occured to me once again that his being on this trail together with him was absolutely no protection from falling. In fact, if anything I was in more danger since I was hurrying myself trying to keep up with him, rather than the more relaxed pace I would have used on my own. (He was getting more and more worried about the approaching sunset, and was going faster and faster).

Once we descended from the peaks, the base area of the mountains was stunning in its beauty. Even in the winter, it was still thickly green, covered with green vines, green bushes, green ferns, green bamboo, pine trees, and other plants that stayed green all year around. Because we were coming down the mountain, we were surrounded by walls of thick green on all sides.
And although the sun was still shining, the light was fading just enough to give everything a mystical look.

Unfortunately, the same factors made it hard to take decent pictures. At first the flash kept going off automatically, which meant I would only get a light bleached picutre of the tree directly in front of me. Then once I turned the automatic flash off, everything look march darker than it was in real life. As someone who doesn't do a lot of photography, I wasn't quite sure how to handle this. And the old man kept worrying about the setting sun, and didn't want to stop for a lot of pictures. So the pictures below will have to do, and you're just have to take my word for it that it was more impressive in real life.

Eventually we got back to the main road, and walked back towards my car. I chatted briefly with the old man about the upcoming holiday season. "What are you doing for New Year's?" I asked.

"Probably drink a lot of sake and get really drunk," he said. "That's what we usually do in Japan."

When we got back to my car, I tried to thank the old man appropriately. I was aware that in his mind he had done me a huge favor by acting as my trail guide, and that in Japan saying thank you with the right amount of politeness is a really big deal. You're supposed to say "thank you" over and over again and emphasize how much the other person helped you out.
I've never been very good at this, but I tried my best to appear really grateful and thanked him several times.

"Don't mention it," he said. "And before you go, make sure you check out the scenic view up the road. Just drive a little ways up there, and you should get a good look."

So, I followed his advice. There was a little pavilion up ahead, where I could get a view of the Ebisu valley below.

It was now past 5. And in addition it had started to rain, so I thought it was probably a good sign to head home. I drove up the mountain a little bit further just to see if there was anything up the road, but seeing nothing, I turned my car around and went back down. Just as I was leaving the mountain, wouldn't you know it, I saw two white tailed deer bounding away down the slopes.

Kakaji Links
Pictures of Nagasakibana,
and more pictures,
local map

Link of the Day
This is about a month old now, but here is Noam Chomsky's take on the recent election.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


(Movie Review)

I saw the preview for this movie, and I thought it looked so cool. For one thing, it's got Kevin Spacey in it, and Kevin Spacey is one of my favorite under-rated actors.

Secondly, it's about card counting, which is a concept that's intrigued me ever since I saw "Rain Man". Not the math of card-counting per se (I would have a hard time getting my head around that) but I found its fuzzy legality interesting. Can they really punish you for something you do in your head?

And finally, it just looked like a fun teen-drama movie with a dynamic cast that would play off each other well.

...Perhaps I should have read some reviews of this movie before renting it. Because you can add this to the long list of movies that look pretty cool on the previews, but disappoint when you watch them.

To start with, Kevin Spacey is really under-utilized. He had a couple good scenes, but I wanted to see a lot more of him than I did.

Actually the whole cast is under-utilized. Aside from the main character and his romantic interest, all the other characters on the team are just more or less back ground props. And for that matter, the romantic interest character was pretty boring, and never developed any personality of her own other than her relationship with the main character.

And actually, for that matter, the main character was really boring. He was just a hack screenwriters cliche; a real straight laced guy who was placed in a situation where he needed an incredible amount of cash for school and, for some reason, couldn't take out any student loans.

And you know, besides that student loan mystery, there were a whole bunch of other things that didn't make sense. Maybe I was just missing something, but why was Lawrence Fishburne able to always see them on the same screen? Why did they always go to the same Casino?

Lawrence Fishburne says he lost his old job when he was away from the Casino and Kevin Spacey cleaned them out. Wouldn't that just prove to the Casino how valuable Fishburne was to them, instead of giving them cause to fire him?

For more nit-picks, an Amazon reviewer here picks through a lot of the other flaws in this film.

This film is supposedly based on a true story, but, given all the things that make no sense, I'm guessing a few liberties were taken here and there.

Furthermore, according to wikipedia: Although the main characters upon which the film 21 is based were Asian-American, studio executives determined that "most of the film's actors would be white, with perhaps an Asian female."[1]

Link of the Day
World leaders refuse to shake Bush's hand
Not only do the world's most powerful leaders refuse to shake the POTUS' hand, they also seem to refuse to even make eye contact. Heckuva job, Bush. Heckuva job.
CNN Anchor Rick Sanchez: Bush looks like "the most unpopular kid in high school that nobody liked."
I think I speak for the entire world (well, everyone other than the 20% dead-enders) when I say January 20th can't come soon enough.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Great Upheaval by Jay Winik

(book review)

I ran into this book in the airport, of all places, at one of those small book stands next to the coffee machine.
Being a bit of a literary snob, I almost turned up my nose at this just because of that. But the more I flipped through it, the more hooked I became. I finally ended up buying the book and I can safely say, it was a great purchase.

To start with the author has chosen a fascinating subject. The book, subtitled "America and the Birth of the Modern World: 1788-1800", seeks to show how, even during the 18th Century, the world was just as internationally connected then as it is now. To demonstrate this, Winik focuses on 3 countries: Russia, France, and America, and seeks to show how what was happening in Moscow at the time had a direct impact on Paris and Washington, and vice-versa.

Of course, there has already been a great deal written on how the American Revolution impacted the French Revolutions . But what is unique about Winik's book is he starts at 1788, when the American Revolution was already finished. The book, therefore, is much more about the French Revolution, and how the French Revolution impacted American domestic politics, which is a topic much less explored than the reverse.

But where Winik really gets creative is when he also throws Russia into the picture, and attempts to tie in events in Moscow to what was happening in France and America. It's a really interesting concept.

For my money though, the really great thing about this book is the writing. For a historian, Winik writes surprisingly well, and this book was an absolute pleasure to read. Much of the book almost feels like a novel instead of an old dry and dusty history book.

For an example, read below the scene in which Danton and Camille Desmoulins (two French Revolutionaries who were instrumental in starting the French Revolution, but who were victims of a power struggle with Robespierre) are carted off to the guillotine.

"It was a cloudless spring day when the condemned men were carted off in five tumbrels to the familiar Place de la Revolution--like the monarchists before them, like the king and queen, like the nonrefractory priests, like their friends and colleagues from the Convention; even the radical leader Hebert had been cut down less than two weeks before. Danton was thirty-four and so was Desmoulins; it seemed like an eternity, and perhaps it was, since that fateful moment when Camille had risen up and exhorted Parisians to head for the Bastille. Passing through a huge and silent crowd, Danton bore up well; not so Desmoulins, who was near the cracking point. Leaning over the red-painted tumbrel he meekly appealed to the people: "I was the first apostle of Liberty; it was I that called the people to arms at the beginning." Pausing at the house where Robespierre lived, Danton, defiant as ever, rose up to his feet and shrieked once more, "I'm leaving everything in a frightful mess. Not a man of them had an idea of government. Robespierre will follow me. Ah, better be a poor fisherman than to muck about with this politics." By now, night was falling. Reaching the scaffold, Desmoulins was third in line, Danton last--thus he could hear the whistle and thud as the blade fell on all the heads before him. For a fleeting moment he faltered, then roused himself, muttering: "Courage Danton, no weakness." As he approached the blood-splattered plank, he altered the ghastly ritual, exhorting Sanson, the executioner, "Don't forget to show my head to the people. It's worth the trouble." A hush fell over the crowd. Eight days later, it would be Lucile Desmoulins, along with Hebert's widow and his Commune compatriot Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette, taking their turn at the guillotine.
The ledger was now wiped clean

Isn't that great the way Winik just hooks you in and then carries you right along? If you like history, I can guarantee you'll enjoy this book.

One can nit-pick Winik's writing style a little bit. He does have the annoying habit of, Rumsfeld-like, asking his own questions, and then immediately answering them the sentence following.
And he does occasionally slow down the narrative with pages of fluffy (and in my opinion, unnecessary) analysis.
But on the whole, it's a great read.

Winik also does a good job of following through on his thesis, and demonstrating how politics in Paris, Moscow, and Washington were all inter-related.

It is not, however, strictly an academic book in the sense that not every word in it is relevant to the main thesis. Rather, Winik uses the thesis as a jumping off point from which to explore other stories he finds of interest.

Thus, there is a lot written about Catherine the Great of Russia, and her war against the Muslim Ottoman Empire. This has minimal relevance to what was happening in Paris and Washington, but it is an interesting story, and the parallels to modern history (the story of what happens when a Western superpower gets bogged down in a war against a Muslim nation) will not be lost on the modern reader.
Winik does attempt to bring out some international connections even here. He emphasizes the role of John Paul Jones (the American naval hero famous for coining the phrase, "I have not yet begun to fight") who briefly served on Russia's side during the war. But John Paul Jones's part in the war was very small, and he served as a private individual, and not as a government representative.

However, I was willing to forgive these narrative digressions because I didn't know anything about the Russia-Ottoman war, and because it was interesting to read about.

I was a bit more frustrated by the fact that the sections on the French Revolution focused almost entirely on King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (as English speaking histories have a tendency to do sometimes). Most of the French Revolution is retold as if the most important thing was the personal hardships of the royal family, and all the other leading figures of the French Revolution are pushed off to the sides.

Once King Louis and Marie get their heads sliced off, then Robespierre and the Jacobins are allowed to take center stage. But by then the only part of the French Revolution left to tell is how it descended into more and more terror.

Winik should have focused on the French Revolutionaries earlier, to make a more dramatic contrast between the early idealism at the beginning of the Revolution, and the chaos it ended up becoming.
As it is, his analysis sections are heavy with commentary about how the French Revolution descended from idealism to despotism, but we never fully get to see the transition in his narrative.
Also key figures like Thomas Paine and Lafayette, who symbolize the international connection between America and France, are cited repeatedly in the analysis sections, but we learn very little of them from the narrative sections.

Granted, Winik has an almost impossible task before him. He needs to track not just one, but 3 countries over the course of 12 years, and deal with all the historical giants that populated this period: Washington, Jefferson, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Madison, Adams, Robespierre, Lafayette, Thomas Paine, Danton, Mirabeau, John Paul Jones, Catherine the Great, Marie Antoinette, Talleyrand, Napoleon, etc, etc,etc. I guess it's no wonder he fails to do justice to most of them.

Although the subtitle of the book is "AMERICA and the birth of the modern world", I suspect this was probably added by the publisher. It is France and the French revolution which take up the bulk of this book, both in terms of pages allotted to it and its impact on everything else. There are, however, some very interesting sections on the rivalry between Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Burr, and the 1800 election.

One final note: this is a quibble, but the index in this book is noticeably incomplete. In a book with so many names being tossed about, it would have been nice to have a more thorough index to help the reader keep track of everyone.

Link of the Day Interviewed on Local Radio Program

Monday, December 08, 2008

Yamaga / 山香

(Better Know a City)

December 1st: Yamaga
Today brings me into Yamaga, another town that shares a boarder with my old home in Ajimu.

From Nakatsu, I drove through Usa, into Ajimu, and then crossed the boarder into Yamaga at about 8 o'clock.

Right on the boarder between Ajimu and Yamaga is the Oita Agricultural Park. Because it's on the boarder, it's claimed by both towns in their promotional literature.

The Agricultural Park is a lake in the mountains which someone created years ago by damming up the river.

This by itself is not unique. As I've noted on this blog before, there are lots of other lakes created by dams in the Japanese countryside, and all of these are ironically turned into sight seeing areas for nature lovers.
In this case, however,they built a whole little park around the area, complete with a children's playground, an indoor butterfly sanctuary, a small agricultural museum, and even a restaurant.

The Agricultural Park is one of Yamaga's main sight seeing attractions, but I didn't go in. Mostly because the winter hours were inconvenient, and the park is located all the way out on the outskirts of town. According to the posted sign, the park didn't open until 10 o'clock, and when I drove through at 8, I thought this was a bit long to wait around. By the time 10 o'clock finally came, I was all the way on the other side of Yamaga. And by the time I made my way back to this side of Yamaga again, it was after 4.

So I didn't tour the Agricultural Park. Which is just as well really. The whole thing is a bit of a tourist trap. It's essentially just a lake that someone decided to build a huge wall around and charge people admission to see.
Besides, much as I hate to admit it, I've been to the Agricultural Park more times than I could count anyway. It is located right next to Ajimu, after all, and so between accompanying my students here on school excursions, being taken here by various Japanese friends, showing around visitors, and just wandering around by myself when I was bored, I had more than put in my time in this park.

The only thing I regret is not having any pictures or video for the purposes of this blog.
...But, actually, come to think of it, I do have some archival footage from 6 years ago when Brett came out to Japan to visit me. If I can be forgiven for mixing in material from my retrospections, here is us at the Agricultural Park back in 2003.

Once I came down the hill from the agricultural park, I saw two signs for sightseeing. One pointed towards the Spring Water Fountain, another pointed towards Tatuiwa River Park.
Since I was still near the Ajimu boarder, both of these signs were familiar sights to me. And truth be told, once about 5 years ago I had spent a rather frustrating afternoon trying to follow them both to their destinations.
It looks simple enough when you see a sign saying, "Spring Water, 3 kilometers this way". But then you end up weaving through a series of narrow mountain roads, and then suddenly, 2 kilometers later, you get to a fork in the road, and there's no sign to help you.
And then, after numerous wrong turns and backing up, when I finally got to the River Park and the Spring Water, they were distinctively unimpressive.

Nevertheless, following random tourist signs through winding mountain roads is what this whole "Better Know a City" Project is all about. And, let's face it, in a town like Yamaga there's not a whole lot else to do. So, I set off in search of the Spring Water Fountain.

Besides the usual weaving through narrow mountain roads, it turns out they were doing construction. At 3 different points.
These countryside roads are just barely big enough for one car, so when I drove up the construction workers had to stop everything they were doing and move all their equipment off the road. Had I known I was going to cause them so much trouble, I would have decided the Spring Water Fountain wasn't really that important. But there were no signs warning of construction until you came right up onto it, and at that point the road was too narrow to turn around and go back. So, I had to go on each time, giving an apologetic wave to the construction workers each of the three times they had to stop their work to let me through.

When I finally got to the Spring Water Fountain, it was distinctly unimpressive. As I knew it would be. It was a mountain spring in which water was collected. A small park was built around it. In Spring there are flowers here, but in December the ground was just covered with frost. The view of the surrounding countryside and rice fields, however, was pretty nice.

The water was collected in a small pool with a sign in Japanese that read (loosely translated), "This pool supplies all of the drinking water for the whole neighborhood. So keep it clean. Don't throw garbage in here. And whatever you do, don't go swimming in here."

Nearby their were spigots where you could collect some of the water here for your own drinking purposes.
There is a certain type of person (in Japan as well as in America) who is willing to drive great distances to get water from a certain spring. And sure enough, while I was standing there a man drove up in his car to fill up his various water jugs from the spring water fountain.

On the drive back, I had to go back through the same narrow mountain roads, and annoy all the construction workers again. At one point they had me stop so they could move their little mini-crane off to the side of the road, and I found I couldn't get started again. Having stopped going up a hill, my tires just spun in the mud. So 3 of them had to get behind me and push my car up. Now I really felt bad about inconveniencing them.

After all this, I had exhausted my patience for long narrow confusing roads. I made a brief attempt to get to the River Park, but once I took a couple wrong terms I just decided "nuts to it." (From what I remember from 5 years ago, it was pretty lame anyway).

I followed the road into the center of Yamaga, and stopped off at the town hall, where I asked if they had any maps or pamphlets about Yamaga town.
The lady at the reception desk seemed a little confused by the fact that I was sight-seeing in Yamaga, but she did have a couple brochures she gave to me.

I drove up to a park called, "Kaze no Sato", and decided to wander around here for a while.

Almost immediately after I got out of the car, a cat came running up to me and began meowing.
When it comes to strange cats in Japan I am, you might say, once bit and twice shy. However, this cat seemed friendly enough, and was obviously starved for attention, so I bent down and petted it for a bit.

There are certain people in your life who are so needy and so desperate for attention that if you show them a little kindness, they'll latch onto you and demand much more attention than you can possibly give them. For me, this cat was one of those people.
As soon as I stood up again, the cat began meowing in a mournful lonely way. And I felt sorry for it, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to pet it for another minute or so. But then when I tried to leave again, the same thing happened. Eventually I decided that no matter how long I stayed and petted the cat, it would never be long enough, so I might as well just leave now.
"Meow!" the cat said as I walked away.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I want to see the rest of this park."
"Meow!" the cat said. It ran alongside me as I walked away.

The cat ending up following me on my walk all around the park, and on the return trip it followed me all the way back to the car as well. It must have been close to a mile all told, with the cat underfoot the whole way. I've never had a cat do that before.

The cat would cut right in front of my path, and I was at great pains not to accidentally step on it or kick it. I was wearing my big heavy hiking boots, and so I tried to be careful not to hurt the cat. But everytime I took a step it was darting right in between my legs.
A couple times I did accidentally step on its paws, and I apologized and patted the cat on the head. But after about half a mile, the whole thing ceased to be cute anymore, and was just getting annoying. I tried to increase my speed, but the cat just increased it's speed as well.

When I got back to my car, I was worried I would have to try and explain to the cat that it couldn't come in the car with me, and that it would need to stay clear of the tires as I backed up. But oddly enough, the cat seemed to know this instinctively. When I got into the car, it stayed clear of the tires and gave me enough space to back up and drive away.

Located near the park was a small mountaintop, which had a windmill on the top of it, called Konosan Park. I'm not sure what the significance of this windmill is. (There was a sign explaining it, but I couldn't make out the Japanese). However pictures of this windmill appear all over Yamaga, so it must have some significance.
At any rate, there is a very nice view of the rest of Yamaga Town from the top of this mountain.

Continuing down the road, I saw signs for stone statues of Buddha (Kumanomagaibutsu), and so I followed these signs until they lead me into a parking lot.

There was a 200 yen admission fee, and only after I had paid it and looked at the brochure they gave me did I realize I had crossed the boarder into Bungo-Takeda. Usually the road signs are pretty good about letting you know when you leave one town and enter another. But in this case, they must have missed a section.

However, since this was right near the boarder, and since I had obviously missed this area when I was in Bungo-Takeda anyway (and since I had already stopped the car and paid my admission fee) I decided not to worry about the boarder line too much.

The lady behind the front desk insisted I take a bamboo walking stick with me (it was included in the price of admission apparently). I didn't really think I needed it, but one of my philosophies in life is to never turn down a free walking stick.

It turns out it was a bit of a steep climb up. And on the final stretch, the usual smooth stone steps were missing, and instead you had to walk up a pile of jumbled stones.
However it was, as always, a beautiful walk through a mountain side forest. And at the top, there were giant faces of Buddha carved into the side of the mountain. (They looked kind of familiar, and, come to think of it, I think I saw replicas of them at the Usa museum of history.) The faces were very impressive and pretty huge--larger than I was.

There were several other people climbing up and down the mountain, and they were all very friendly that day. (There must have been something in the air). Several of them stopped me to ask me where I was from, how I liked Japan, etc. It was the usual list of questions, but everyone seemed so friendly I didn't mind.
One older man commented, "Because you're a foreigner, you must be quite interested in Japanese Buddhist culture."
I tried to be honest. "Actually it's more the hike up the mountain and the view that appeals to me," I said. "But the Buddhist carvings were nice too."

After this, I got back in the car and headed back into Yamaga proper.
There was a waterfall on the map, Udo Waterfall, and I always like a good waterfall, so I decided to head over and check it out.

The actual waterfall itself was pretty scenic. (I always love a waterfall). And, although it was slightly grown over and in disrepair, there was a path that lead up the side of the mountain to the top of the waterfall, so you could a view from both the top and the bottom. After taking the picture, I amused myself by finding logs and dead trees, throwing them onto the river, and watching them go off the waterfall. (A bit childish maybe, but I figured I wasn't hurting anyone).

The area around the waterfall was a bit depressing, because it seemed like this had once been a popular spot that had long been neglected. The signs explaining the waterfall were rusted over and covered with mold. Their was a children's pool at the bottom of the waterfall, which looked like it might have been impressive at one time--two different waterslides going into two different swimming pools that were both filled with water from the river.

Now the whole area was just overgrown with weeds. I realize it's the off season now in December, but the area looked like it hadn't been used in several years.
All of this was yet another reminder of how the Japanese countryside is an aging population. 10, 15 or 20 years ago you can imagine this area might have been filled with kids, but the young people are now going to the city and not coming back, and there are very few young families left in a town like Yamaga.

Around this time I was feeling pretty hungry, so I got onto the main through road (route 10) to look for something to eat. I was kind of hoping for something a bit more substantive than a bowl of noodle soup, so I avoided the Udon shops in hopes of finding something else. This was a vain hope. In the end, I just settled for getting pre-made food from a convenience store. (One nice thing about Japan, even out in the country side in the middle of nowhere, you can always count on finding convenience stores).
...And wouldn't you know it, right outside the convenience store was another attention starved cat, that meowed miserably for some attention and followed me around.

I would have petted it, but I just got finally found a place to wash my hands inside the convenience store--something that had bothered me ever since the last cat--and I didn't want to pet another strange cat just before eating, so I did my best to ignore it.
But it is apparent the town of Yamaga is not paying enough attention to their cats. They seem desperate for any kind of human contact.

I ate my lunch inside my car, and then decided to check out some of the hiking trails in Yamaga.

There was a hiking trail on the map at Nokogiri Mountain so I drove out that way.
Once I got to the trail head, the sign at the parking lot indicated it would be a 3 hour hike. (I was able to make it in slightly less than 3 hours, but it ended up being pretty close to that time).

The trail was absolutely amazing. It started up through a richly green forest. (Even though this is December, there is enough bamboo and other bushes in Japan that stay green all year round to keep the mountains looking green at all times. It noticibly becomes a thicker green in the summer, but it was still very beautiful even in the winter).
After a certain height, the green began to fade away and the ground got a lot more bare. Not too long after that, I reached the top.

The view was incredible. I could see for miles in all directions. I could even see all the way to the ocean. (And again, the town of Yamaga doesn't even boarder the Ocean, so this is pretty impressive).

However, little did I realize that even after I had reached the top, I was far from finished. Nokogirisan in Japanese means "Saw Mountain" and the mountian had several small peaks jutting up like the teeth of a saw. The trail lead me up and down and up and down until I had seen the top of all of them.

It wasn't a particularly difficult climb, at least in terms of the physical power required, but the trail did take me over a lot of interesting territory. At various points I had to scale up rocks using ropes or climbing handles that had been fixed onto the cliff face to help hikers. It was a lot of fun, and I took lots of pictures and video.

By the time I got back down to the bottom, it was nearing 5 O'clock and the sun was beginning to set. There were a few hiking spots left on the map, but I was feeling a bit worn out.

I went into the town center of Yamaga, but after briefly looking around, I didn't see anything.

On my way back, I passed by the Agricultural park again. By this time it had opened, and then closed again. There was a small park underneath the bridge, which I stopped by and explored.

I used to drive this road everyday when I was attending Beppu University. (From Nakatsu, I would take a short cut through the mountains of Yamaga to Beppu). I had seen this park everyday from the bridge, but never driven down to check it out.

It turned out to be not much of anything, really. It was a park by the lake, but it was just another Yamaga park that had been let go into disrepair. Although it's right next to the agricultural park, so maybe it has just become a bit redundant now, and no-one bothers to go here anymore.

And with that, I headed home.

Yamaga Links
Yamaga Onsen Kazenosato,
Yamaga Rice,

Link of the Day
More Japanese music on youtube: akasia no ame ga yamutoki--one of my favorites

On a completely different note: The Murder of Fred Hampton