Sunday, November 02, 2008

Yamakuni / 山国

(Better Know a City)

And so I've worked my way down to Yamakuni Town.

Yamakuni Town is the fifth city along the river of the same name. Following the Yamakuni River down from Nakatsu, one drives through Sanko-Mura, Honyabakei, Yabakei, and finally into Yamakuni town.

Over the years, I've not spent a lot of time hanging out in Yamakuni Town, but I've driven through it more times than I could possibly count on my way to and from Hita.

And it’s a beautiful place to drive through. Yamakuni (sometimes pronounced Yamaguni) means “Mountain Country” in Japanese, and the main road is lined with beautiful green mountains on both sides. The first time I traveled through Yamakuni, I remember being astounded at how beautiful the drive was.

Aside from being a beautiful place to drive through, however, I wasn't really sure what else there was to do in Yamakuni. Shortly after crossing the town boarder, I pulled in to a rest stop, and looked at the map to try and figure out what there was to do.

Yamakuni is the last leg of the Cycling Road that runs from Nakatsu, through Sanko, Honyabakei, and Yabakei, and dead ends in Yamakuni. The cycling road is an old railway track that used to run along the Yamakuni river, but was decommissioned years ago.

There was a time when the railway lines used to reach almost everywhere in Japan, even deep into the countryside. Towns where you now have to drive 30 minutes to get to the nearest train station (like my old home in Ajimu) used to have their own local train stations. However, in the past 50 years the rural areas in Japan have been depopulating rapidly as young people flock to the big cities. Plus private automobiles have become a lot more common. So many of these old railway lines have been decommissioned. In the case of Yamakuni-Nakatsu line, at least someone had the good sense to put the old track to good use and turn it into a cycling road.

Since the road following the Yamakuni river is absolutely beautiful, I've always wanted to do it as a bicycle ride. But not having a bicycle, I've never been able to.

However, since I already had my car parked today, I decided to do the second best option, and walk the some of the path.

The bicycle path, like the old railway path that inspired it, follows the a course roughly parallel to the road. Sometimes it runs right alongside the road. Sometimes it criss-crosses over the road. And sometimes it will break off from the road for stretches to dash to the other side of the river, or briefly duck out of site through a wooded passage.

From where I was now, to get to the cycling road, I had to cross the street and go across the bridge to the other side of the river, and then follow a set of steps down to the where the cycling road ran. At the point I joined, there was a sign saying it was 2 kilometers to downtown Yamakuni and the end of the cycling road.

So, I walked the last 2 kilometers into downtown Yamakuni on foot. It was a pleasant walk, at times hugging the side of the river closely, at times going through rice fields, and at times going through shaded wooded areas. Sometimes there would be side trails going off into the mountains. I followed a couple of these on a whim, but they never seemed to go anywhere. They would get halfway up the mountain, and then just gradually fade away into nothingness or get taken over by the underbrush.

I met a few other pedestrians ambling along this road but curiously enough, not a single biker. (Although granted it was 8:30 on a Tuesday morning).

After 2 kilometers, I reached “downtown” Yamakuni.
I say “downtown” in quotes because, like a lot of these small countryside towns, the downtown area consists of little more than a town hall, a post office, a school, and a couple of mom and pop grocery stores.

The big attraction in central Yamakuni is the Core-yamakuni—A big shiny new building that looks strangely out of place out here surrounded by old farmer’s houses. If I had to guess I would say the whole thing was the result of pork barrel spending and backroom politics a few years ago. It would be hard for me to see how this huge building is justified out here in the middle of nowhere.

I had never actually been inside Core-yamakuni before (although I had seen it many times from the road) so I let myself in and looked around.
Core-yamakuni appeared to be several buildings rolled into one. Inside was the townhall, and the library. There was a theater, which wasn't open at the time. There were signs for a “museum”, but when I went over to take a look, it turned out to be only a small picture gallery.
The main part of Core-yamakuni is a skating rink, which represents Yamakuni’s claim to fame. (Skating rinks being very rare in Kyushu). The signs said the skating rink wouldn't open until November 22nd, but that was just as well as I had no intention of spending the afternoon skating anyway.
I also noticed that you could rent bicycles here, which would be nice if I ever decide to do the cycling road.

There was a café, and several tables. And although the sign said the café opened at 10 (and it was now shortly after 10) there wasn't a soul in the café. Indeed, the whole building was very empty. There were a few public employees typing away at computers over in the town hall section, but the only people in the main part of the building were me and the cleaning lady.
The cleaning lady had apparently developed the habit of talking to herself (perhaps as a result of no one ever visiting Core-yamakuni). And surprisingly, she didn't mumble or murmer (the way most people do), but talked in a clear loud voice the whole time, which threw me off at first until I realized nothing she was saying was directed at anyone in particular.

Downtown Yamakuni is right along the Yamakuni river, and there was a foot bridge crossing the river where I was able to take a picture and take a quick video of the surrounding town.

A long line of school children were walking along the main road. Their yellow hats, and the teachers chaperoning them, meant they were out on a school field trip.
They were quite excited to see me. “Look, it’s an American! An American!” They yelled to each other. And then they yelled to me, “Hel-rro! Hel-rro!”
It’s a commonly held belief in Japan that all foreigners are Americans. It must be very frustrating for the British and Australians, but in my case it happens to be conveniently true, so I just smiled and waved back at the kids.

Behind Core yamakuni there was an historic Japanese house, which I went to check out because, hey, why not? As I was taking a picture of the outside, an old woman came out of the neighboring house. “Did you want to take a tour of the house?” she asked.

“Uh....” I hesitated, because I wasn't sure I wanted to get dragged in to a long tour. (Although in retrospect, I've got to confess I’m not sure why I was worried about this. I certainly didn't have anything else to do that afternoon).

“Foreigners always want to see historic Japanese houses,” the old woman continued. “And it’s good for them to. You can go around the side and open up the door. Don’t go in, but you can open the door and look inside.”

This, it turned out, was the extent of the tour. And it was just as well because I’m not sure I wanted to spend a long time looking at this historic house anyway. (Over my time in Japan, I've seen enough of these things to last me for a while.) So I just poked my head in and had a look. It was unimpressive. Just a bunch of bare rooms filled with tatami mats.

Also in the downtown area were several scarecrows dressed up in various poses. Actually not only the downtown area, but all throw Yamakuni town you could see little scenes of daily life recreated using scarecrows.
This is apparently one of the specialties of Yamakuni town. In fact the previous day, a student had told me about it when I mentioned I was going to Yamakuni. “They’re having a big scarecrow festival in Yamakuni right now. It was even on the news yesterday,” she said. (I’m assuming this was the local Oita prefectural news).
There were signs everywhere, advertising the scarecrow festival. (The signs were written in a combination of English and Japanese, “Kakashi World”). Despite all the signs everywhere, as far as I could tell the effort to draw in tourists had been a total failure. I didn't see a single person besides myself who had come to look at the scarecrows, but maybe more people would come on the weekend.

I took a couple pictures of rice fields filled with scarecrow scenes. I could have taken many more pictures, but I think this gives you the idea.

Other than that, there didn't seem to be too much to the downtown Yamakuni area. I saw not one, but several retirement homes and day clinics for the aged within the small downtown area. And this probably tells you all you need to know about the demographics of Yamakuni. With the exception of the school children, I ran into very few people who looked under 70.
I walked through the downtown area, followed the river for a little while, took a couple pictures of the river and the Yamakuni valley, and then decided to head back.

The disadvantage of parking your car somewhere and taking a long walk is that when it’s all over, you have to retrace all the same ground in reverse. And so I walked back along the river, back through the downtown area, back along the 2 kilometers of the cycling trail, and finally arrived back at the car rest stop along the road. It was about 12:00, and I was starving.

I ate lunch at the roadside rest stop. They had a restaurant set up there, where you could buy tickets for various lunches out of a vending machine, and then redeem them at the counter for food.

As is often the case at these Japanese roadside rest stops in the countryside, it was hard to find a dish that wasn't some sort of noodle soup (much as I might have wanted something a bit more substantial.) So I got the beef and noodle soup, and a drink bar ticket, and sat down to eat while I read my book.

After I finished my soup, I stayed to finish a second cup of coffee and read a few more pages in my book.
When I had entered the restaurant, there had been almost no one there. But I must have preceded the lunch rush by only a few minutes, because the place was filling up quickly now. (And as with the town of Yamakuni itself, the restaurant clientele was almost exclusively senior citizens.) The waitresses were having a hard time seating everyone, and they began throwing glances in my direction. I took the hint, finished off my coffee, and left my table.

Next, I drove off to “Monkey Jumping Point”.

I had been to “Monkey Jumping Point” once before in the Summer of 2002. (Which, I guess makes it 6 years ago now. Wow, where does time go?). Me and a Canadian friend and a Japanese girl had been spending the afternoon swimming around the Yabakei Waterfall. After we had been there for several hours, we began to wish for a change of scenery and we asked the girl if there was any other good places to swim around here. She drove us to Monkey Jumping Point.

We spent the afternoon swimming around there. There were a group of old men drinking in the pavilion nearby, and they were excited to see foreigners in their town. They waved us over, gave us food and drink, and insisted we come back a few weeks later and participate in the omikoshi (shrine carrying festival) for Yamakuni town. (Which we did.)

The next day after Monkey Jumping Point, I called up the same Japanese girl and asked her out on a date. And thereafter began a 6 month relationship, so the area has a bit of sentimental value to me as well.

About a year after that, I was driving with another American friend, and I was trying to show her where Monkey Jumping Point was, and I couldn't find it for the life of me. We drove back and forth through Yabakei and Yamakuni endless times, before I finally had to give up and admit I couldn't find it again, and apologized for wasting her time. (She told me not to worry about it, and said she had enjoyed the drive through the Japanese countryside, but it was still a bit embarrassing.)

My mistake? I had wrongly remembered Monkey Jumping Point as being along the Yamakuni river, whereas it was actually in one of the tributaries to the Yamakuni. This time I took care to consult a map before I left, and was able to return to Monkey Jumping Point with no problem.

Monkey Jumping Point is a spot where the river goes over a brief waterfall, and then goes through a little ravine area where huge rocks rise up on either side of it. I've never seen any actually Monkeys there (in fact I've seen very few wild Monkeys during my time in Japan) but it is easy to imagine them jumping back and forth from rock to rock.

As I got out of my car and walked around, I ran into a few other sightseers. One of them decided to try his English out on me. “1000 years ago, this area was all under the sea,” he said. “But these rock cliffs emerged as a result of a volcano.”
Is that true? Who knows? I have a feeling that, if nothing else, the 1,000 years part was probably a mistranslation. 10,000 years ago maybe? 100,000 years?

After wandering around and taking a few pictures, I began to contemplate going for a swim.
It was now late October, which isn't usually considered swimming weather. But this is Kyushu, and the weather here is a lot warmer than my hometown in Michigan. And this year especially we've been having an unusually warm fall, even by Kyushu standards. The temperature was still in the 70s.

But of course, these mountain rivers are so cold that we usually don't go swimming in them unless the air around is scorching hot enough to make up for the river's frigidness.

In the end I decided to try it. It was just warm enough where I was sweating a little, and the water did look nice and refreshing. I had brought a swim suit with me, and I knew that this would probably be my last chance to get a swim in this year.

The initial jump in was quite a shock to my system. My heart rate zoomed up, I started breathing rapidly, and my hypochondriac side immediately had visions of myself in the hospital with pneumonia.

But I soon got used to the temperature. The river has a strong current here, and there's nothing like swimming against the current to start burning up energy cells. By the time I got near the waterfall, I was so tired I didn't even notice the temperature of the water.

The last time we were here, my Canadian friend and I had tried to swim up to the waterfall, but got pushed back by the current every time and had to be content with sitting on the rocks a few feet back. So it was this time. Although it was a small waterfall, the water was moving very fast and I couldn't quite swim up to it. Eventually I just pulled myself up on a nearby rock. (By this time I was so exhausted, I could sit on a rock in the middle of the river and not even notice how cold the water was).

I swam back to the starting point, and then decided that since I had gone through all the trouble of getting used to the water, I might as well swim it again. And then after I returned, I thought I could probably use the exercise, so I did it a 3rd time. By the fourth time my arms were so tired I had trouble completing my strokes, and I figured that was probably a good sign I should call it quits.

I returned to my car where I dried off and changed back into my regular clothes.

There was a bridge crossing the river, and on the other side of the bridge was a wooden pathway through the forest.

I followed this, curious to see where it would lead, and came out into a park where an elementary school was having a picnic.

This was a different group than I had seen this morning, but the reaction was much the same. Once they saw me, they began shouting back and forth to each other, “Gaijin da! Gaijin da! Mite, Gaijin da!” (A foreigner! A foreigner! Look, it’s a foreigner!) And then once they overcame their initial shock, I was surrounded by choruses of “Hel—rro! Hel—rro! Naisu tu meechu!” from all sides.

During my days as ALT, I had been on many of these school picnics, and have fond memories of spending the afternoon playing games with my students outside. I was, however, a bit self-conscious about intruding into this school picnic, where I had not been invited and where the teachers and students didn't know me.

I did my best to be friendly and say hello to all the students who were trying to talk to me, while at the same time keep walking forward so as to indicate to the teachers I had no intention of intruding on their school picnic, and was just passing through the territory.

Perhaps I was more self-conscious about this than I needed to be. Who knows? Maybe it wouldn't have been the end of the world if I had stopped and interacted with the children a while longer.
Some of the Japanese school teachers I've known over the years (not all, but some) can get extremely bent out of shape if things don’t go exactly according to plan or if outside influences intrude. (For example, when I was up in Gifu, and we were hosting an exchange with the American students, there was a great effort made to keep the American students separate from the Japanese student body at large, so the Japanese students wouldn't get distracted from their studies.) With that in mind, I tried to pass through the school picnic as quickly as possible.

I got to the edge of the park, and discovered that trail ended with the park. I looked for another way back, but there was none. So, I had to walk back through the school picnic a second time.

After that, I got back in my car, and drove back along the road. There were a couple more spots along the river that I stopped at, such as an historic stone bridge, and a scenic outlook from which to view it.

I then got back on the main road, and then followed signs towards a place called Tanada village. After following the road up the mountain for a while, I finally stopped to get out and take a few pictures and look around.

As I was taking the video, an old man from the neighboring house came out on his porch and began calling out to me.
I came over, and he started telling me about the village. Like a lot of old men in the countryside, he spoke with a thick dialect, and with my lower-intermediate Japanese skills I had trouble hanging onto what he was saying. That, plus he seemed to be missing most of his teeth, which made him even harder to understand.

It turned out his little run down house acted as a tourist center for the village. He gave me a pamphlet, and showed me pictures of people working out in the rice fields. “What is this place exactly?” I asked.

“See that rock on the top of the mountain?” he said. “It looks like a face, doesn't it? And you can see how the rice fields are carved into the side of the mountain. That’s very beautiful, isn't it?” He showed me pictures of people working out in the rice fields, and said, “People come in from the big city to have the experience of working out in the mountain village rice fields. If you come in the spring, you can see lots of them here.”

I noticed on the pamphlet there were pictures of a hiking trail. “Is this very far from here?” I asked.

“No, it’s just right up the road,” he said. “And it’s only a 20 minute hike. You should do it. You came all the way up to the village here, you might as well do the hike.”
He didn't need to convince me.

The entrance to the hiking trail was just right up the road, like the old man said it would be. And there was even a small car park (which he had also told me about).

Like a lot of the hiking trails in the Japanese countryside, this one had a bi-polar personality. It started off very clearly marked, with concrete path, and a wooden rail alongside it. The concrete path soon disappeared, but there was still a clear trail marked through the grass, and the wooden fence stayed on for a while.

And then, the trail abruptly disappeared altogether. There were signs indicating that I was supposed to continue up the mountain, but I couldn't make out any sort of trail. At first I tried following the signs, which caused me to slip and slide on the mud trying to climb up the mountain, and falling into various thorn bushes.
Slightly bloodied, I decided to just walk up the river bed. The river was at a low point, so I could just step on the rocks and avoid getting wet for the most part.

All in all, it was one of the sketchiest hiking trials I've ever been on. But I was still able to follow it up to the rock arch at the end, which I think was worth seeing.

I went back in my car,and started heading down the mountain. On the way down, I saw signs for some sort of garden (Seshuten, Yoshimineteien--or something like that) so I pulled the car over and decided to have a look).

Like a lot of these little sight seeing markers, there wasn't really a place to park my car, so I just pulled over as best I could on the mountain road.
It appeared to be just an old couple's home. They were seeing off a friend, and everyone stopped and looked at me as I approached. I indicated I was just following the tourist signs, and they told me the garden was in the back of the house.

The old woman came back a few minutes later to explain everything to me. "This garden is really old," she said. "It dates back to the Muromachi period, which was 500 years ago. Some of these trees were imported directly from China, and are 500 years old as well. Like that tree over there. You can see how big it's grown. It's really unusual for that tree to grow that big, even in its native country of China.
"The garden was built so that people could have a scenic place from which to view the rock face." She pointed over to the rocks on the top of the mountian (the same ones the old man had pointed out to me earlier). "The rock face is even older, much older than the garden. Now most of the trees on this mountain have been cut down by logging companies, and then replaced with newly planted trees. But 500 years ago this whole mountain was completely naturally and covered with ancient forests. You can imagine what it must have looked like. And eagles used to live on this mountain as well."
She pointed to a painting of an eagle on the house.

"Are you an English teacher?" she asked. I answered that I was. "I thought so. We've had a few other foreigners come over to see this place, and they've all been English teachers."

She invited me to stay for a cup of tea. And maybe I should have taken it and listened to some more of her stories, but I was worried that I might be imposing, so I just thanked her for the offer, asked permission to take a couple pictures of the area, and left.

After this, I was beginning to run out of things to see. I drove back and forth on a few Yamakuni roads looking for some tourist signs, but saw nothing.

It was about 4:30 in the afternoon now,and I had another hour until the sun was going to set (the sun sets early in Japan), so I just parked the car and started walking around a small little mountain village.

I walked for about an hour or so until the sun finally went down, and then went back to my car.

I thought about getting some dinner in Yamakuni. There were 3 small diners along the main road, but, wouldn't you know it, they were all either closed for the day, or had permanently gone out of business. I didn't really feel in the mood for another bowl of Japanese noodle soup, so I just called it a day and headed home.

Link of the Day
Once again, it's time to ask: Are you a real American?


DRM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DRM said...

Wow. Sounds like fun and great pics! I have this dream of taking a trip to Japan - love the culture and the language (even though I don't really know much past the very basics). Someday maybe...

Joel said...

Well, If you did make it over, I'd be more than happy to put you up for a week or show and do some hiking trips

Settys said...

Wow, I used to live in Yamakuni-machi, 12 years back. I was the 2nd JET to live there. And yes I spent many hours at CORE Yamakuni ice skating to pass the winter away. We are making a return trip to Japan this April so I googled Yamakuni to see what came up. Thanks for your post, I am excited to see the little town again.