Monday, November 10, 2008

Hita / 日田

(Better Know A City)

Like a lot of the cities I've covered on this project so far, Hita is very familiar ground for me.

At first I went out to Hita only occasionally, for events like the Hita River Festival or JET parties. I remember the first time I went to Hita I was riding in the back seat in a car full of other JETs, and I was absolutely astonished by how beautiful the drive to Hita along the Yamakuni river was (traveling through Sanko-Mura, Honyabakei, Yabakei, and Yamakuni Town). Hita itself was pretty beautiful as well, with a wide river cutting its way through an old Japanese style town.

My relationship to Hita completely changed when my girlfriend Shoko got transferred out there. At first I was furious about this, because from Ajimu, Hita was about an hour and a half away. That, plus the fact that we didn't have any common days off, made for a real inconvenience. One or the other of us had to drive 3 hours round trip just to catch the other person for a few hours in the evening. It was a bit of a strain on the relationship.

However, I soon began to see Shoko's living in Hita as a blessing in disguise. It meant she had a place of her own (up until then she had been living with her mother). And so when I was between jobs in August of 2004, I stayed at her apartment in Hita. And again I stayed with her during Spring Break 2005. And Summer Vacation 2005. And just before heading back to America in spring 2006, I spent a couple more months at her apartment.

All together, I estimate I spent a total of about 5 months in Hita.
And for about half of that time I was without a car. (Not to mention separated by transportation barriers from my usual gang--There is a train line going through Hita, but it only goes East to West. There is unfortunately no train going from Hita North to the Nakatsu-Usa area.)

So, while Shoko was at work and I was trying to occupy myself, I spent a lot of time on foot walking around the streets of Hita.

And I developed many of the usual quirks that people who do a lot of walking get. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was the most scenic path that I could walk from my apartment. I became especially proud of certain "walks" I had discovered, and I assumed other people would be interested in hearing about it. In fact when my friends from Gifu prefecture came down to visit, I insisted that they spend the first day following me on the various walks I had discovered. Fortunately for our friendship, they not only agreed to go on the day long walk with me, but actually said they enjoyed themselves and completed me on what a beautiful area Kyushu was.

And now, in the interest of this project, I head back down to Hita to retread old paths.

Hita city is a very historical city. (I once knew a Hita JET who jokingly referred to it as "The Kyoto of Oita prefecture"). Although why it's historical no one really seems to know for sure. Apparently the Emperor (or was it the Shogun) had a summer palace in Hita. Or was that a winter palace?

I've heard a couple different versions of the story from different people, and I have yet to meet someone who really knows for sure.

But at any rate, there are lots of old temples in Hita, an historical district, and several festivals throughout the year to commemorate it's heritage.

It's a decent size city (at least by Oita prefecture standards). Probably about the same size as Nakatsu, but they've taken the trouble to preserve the beauty of the historical city, so walking around Hita is a lot more scenic than walking around Nakatsu.

I drove into Hita and decided to start the day by getting some breakfast. I ate at "Gusto", a chain restaurant very similar to "Joyfull". Like Joyfull it specializes in Japanese versions of quasi western food. So I was able to get their breakfast set which consisted of eggs, sausages, a small salad, toast with jam and a coffee. The portions were small Japanese size, but other than that it was a decent Western style breakfast to start the day.

I realized once I got into Hita that I had left my book back home. Usually I like to read a few pages as I drink my coffee during breakfast, but now I just looked around at the walls. Needless to say, I didn't stay longer than it took me to finish my meal.

I decided to take advantage of the fact that my car was already parked to take off on one of my famous walking tours of Hita. I had a pretty good idea of where I was going, but it's always fun to retrace old ground.

A couple blocks behind the Gusto there is a small park around a hill. A couple paths lead up the hill, at the top of which is a temple, and a little view from the mountain.

Carved into the rock on the side of the hill are all sorts of little caves that look like they might have been ancient tombs at one point. I couldn't understand the Japanese signs explaining them, but it was very similar to the ancient tombs in Ajimu.

I continued walking through the town. I passed the old video store (where I spent many an hour during my previous stays in Hita-- perhaps too many hours).

Across the bridge, there's a small park along the river, where I wandered around for a while.

Around the back of the park is another large hill with a temple on top. This one offers a great view of Hita City from the top.

(It's quite beautiful in the spring during Cherry blossom season. Unfortunately I was here during the off season, but it's still a nice area).

Near the temple, there's a small stream that branches off from the main river and runs through a neighborhood. There's a concrete path running alongside it, and this was always one of my favorite walks. Even though (in true Japanese style) the entire river is encased in concrete, they've managed to give it a bit of charm. There are potted plants along the river. And they're carp and various other fish. And little quaint stone bridges going across at various points. It's really quite nice.

I followed this little path along the small river all the way until it lead me into Mameda town.

Mameda town is Hita's claim to fame. It is a small district built in the style of the Edo era. I have it on authority from many Japanese friends and students that this section is not a reconstruction, but an actual town preserved as it was from the Edo days.

There are times when I'm skeptical of this, especially when I see modern banks and ATMs built right alongside of historical buildings. Plus the fact that the roads running through it seem to be built for cars rather than Edo style carts.

During my wanderings in Hita over the years, I've spent a lot of time standing in Mameda town looking around confused and wondering what exactly I was supposed to do.
Most of the time all I see is a lot of stores selling traditional Japanese vegetables. There are a few restaurants serving bowls of Japanese noodle soup. Neither of these are particularly unique. (You can see these kind of shops all over the Japanese countryside without making a special trip to Mameda town).
There are a few museums, but since I remembered being unimpressed with them on my last visit, I didn't make a separate trip in.

My biggest complaint about Mameda town is that it's not particularly pedestrian friendly. They didn't close off the road to cars,and as a result it's not so much a pleasant stroll through an Edo era town as it is constantly hugging the edge of the road to get out of the way of the cars going back and forth.

Consequently, I didn't spend a lot of time in Mameda town. I did however take a few minutes to film some communist propaganda I found nearby because, hey, why not?

This is not just Hita, it's all over the Japanese countryside. Once I learned what the Japanese Kanji for "Communism" was, I suddenly realized it was all over. The Japanese countryside was covered in posters for the Japanese Communist party.
Whether this is indicative of the way people actually vote, or whether it means the Communist party just has an aggressive poster campaign, I'm not sure. (Over the years I've read contradictory articles on it. One article claimed the Japanese countryside was a stronghold for the Communist party, another article claimed the Japanese countryside always voted conservative).
But either way, as an American it's always surprising to see that the Communist party is an accepted part of the mainstream political process, so I thought I'd just take a few videos.

After Mameda town, I went down for a walk along the river side. They've got a nice path built along the river for walking, and when I stayed in Hita I used to spend hours walking up and down this river.
It's always a beautiful walk. Even though it was now November, there were still a lot of flowers. (In fact, there are a lot of wild flowers in Japan, like Cosmos, that come into bloom specifically at this time of year).

I ran into yet another school excursion, this time pre-school kids. As I passed them going along the river, they did the usual thing of talking excitedly to each other, than eventually working up the courage to yell out greetings to me.

The river came out on a onto one of the main roads, which I walked along for a few blocks until I came to the main Hita river, which is another area that's always fun to walk along.

I followed a path along one of the smaller river branches, and got to a park built onto a small peninsula that juts into the river and splits the it in two.
There was a small children's play area with swings and slides. Behind it was a hill covered in forest, and a path going up the hill which lead to yet another temple.
The temple itself was just like every other temple you see in Japan, but the path leading up it was quite beautiful, so I figure the temple is just an excuse to go on a hike.

Coming off from the small Peninsula, I cross over a small bridge and arrive along the main Hita River (or more properly called the Mikuma river).
This main section of the river is very touristy. Traditional Japanese hotels line both sides of the river, and tourist river boats are docked all along the path.
On a Tuesday afternoon there were very few people walking along the river side, but in the spring there's a traditional river festival every year to mark the opening of the river (which I went to a couple times as a JET) when this whole area along the river is completely packed with people.

The Hita river is also home to Cormant fishing, where they catch fish at night using a special bird.

I've never riden the Cormant fishing tourist boats in Hita, although I've observed it from the river bank a few times. In Gifu, however, (which is also famous for its Cormant fishing birds) I did the Cormant fishing tourist boat thing twice, so I figure I've got the experience.

I walked up and down the main stretch of the Hita river for a while, and took a couple pictures.

There were a couple small Islands in the middle of the river (which we had a small picnic on when my Gifu friends came and visited me.)

There was very little activity going on around the river today, so after I had walked along all the sidewalks, and crossed all the bridges, I got onto one of the main roads, and started walking towards the downtown area.

I walked to the train station, where there was a small tourist information area for Hita. I picked up a couple of the brochures they had on the rack, and wanted to ask the staff if they had any English pamphlets on Hita. (It was a bit of a long shot, but you never know, sometimes they do). I was hoping an official pamphlet might give me a clearer idea of Hita's historical legacy. (Up until know, all the information I've gotten about Hita has just been word of mouth from one JET to another).

There were an older couple ahead of me at the information desk, and the staff was answering their questions. At first I just waited behind them patiently, but then another older couple arrived.
It's a common trait for old Japanese ladies to push their way to the front of any line. This is an oddity for a society that's ordinarily extremely polite, and it's something foreigners always comment on with surprise, but for some reason or another there's a special exception built into traditional Japanese politeness when it comes to elderly ladies.
And so the older lady quietly, but firmly, placed herself between me and the counter, thus removing me from my place in line.

At this point I just gave up. It was a long shot that there would be any English pamphlets anyway, so I took a few pamphlets in Japanese, and decided to see if I could make something out of them.

There was a Mister Donuts shop near the station, which is always one of my favorite hang outs. Lately I've been trying to avoid sweets (I've been accused of being fat several times this year), but since I had been walking all over town non-stop since 8 O'clock in the morning, I figured I had earned a few donuts. So I had a couple Mister donuts, and a Mister coffee as well, as I looked over the Japanese brochures.

I wandered back and forth through the shopping area around the station, but I didn't find anything interesting. The hub of activity and shops closely packed together always makes me think there's excitement around, but when you go shop by shop it's usually disappointing. There were a few cafes, but those aren't any fun when you're alone, and I had forgotten my book today. There were some woman's clothing shops and beauty salons, but nothing that interested me.

After that, I started the walk back to the car.

Once I got back on the main street, there was one more temple I wanted to check out. A small hiking trail up a hill, which leads to a temple built into the hill side, and gives a great view of Hita town. Like most things in Hita, this was retreaded ground for me, but I always enjoyed this view and the hike up, so I went up to check it out again.

Finally, I got back to the Gusto parking lot, where I had left my car all day. (I felt slightly guilty about this).

It was about 3:00, and I had more or less done my Hita rounds. I had covered all my usual stops. I looked in the brochures for other ideas, but there was very little help here. The brochures mainly just recommended restaurants and hotels.

I saw a sign for a video arcade, and I thought, "What a great idea. It's a beautiful day, I feel like spending sometime inside playing video games."

I followed the signs down the road for about 10 minutes until I got to this video game arcade complex.

It was a huge disappointment. As I kind of knew it would be all along.

One of the big disappointments about Japan is how much the video game arcades suck. I remember when I first got off the plane in Tokyo I expected to be absolutely blown away by the video game arcades here. I mean, this is Japan after all. This is where the video games come from. You would think they have video game arcades here that are years ahead of anything we could ever have in the United States.

Instead, what you find in a Japanese arcade are lots of Photo booths, cheesy slot machine games, and those stupid UFO catchers. I didn't find a single game I felt I wanted to spend my coins on.

Next I drove to Hagio park. I didn't know what Hagio park was, but I had been seeing signs for it all over, and I always enjoy a nice park.

I followed a series of signs that led me down several streets, and eventually up a winding hillside road until I got to Hagio Park. Which appeared to be more of a building than a park.
I'm not sure what the building was. Some sort of community gym? Or group home? I wandered around the outside for a while looking for something scenic. There were a few people who were doing jogging laps around the building, and they gave me strange looks like I wasn't supposed to be there.

Unsure of what to do next, I decided that since Hita was famous for its Onsens (public baths) I might as well take in one of those while I was in the town.

These naked public baths initially gave me quite a shock when I first arrived in Japan, but most people get used to them surprisingly quickly, at which point it becomes just like relaxing in a hot-tub, only without a swim suit.
It's a big part of Japanese culture, to the point where Japanese people will travel to a certain town specifically for the point of taking in the onsens. And Hita, being famous for its traditional Japanese onsens, specializes in this type of onsen tourism.

It is usually a bit boring if you go by yourself, but I had nothing better to do at this point. And besides I was feeling grubby from a day of walking around. I had that uncomfortable feeling you get when your whole body is covered with a sticky mix of sweat and sunscreen.

The fee for the Onsen was 600 yen, slightly less than 6 dollars. (Actually with the current exchange rate, I think it's become slightly more than 6 dollars). It seemed a bit steep for a soak in the water, but I think it's pretty standard, at least among the tourist areas.

Traditional Onsen ettiquette states that you're supposed to scrub yourself down and get completely clean before even entering the water, and there are a series of showers over on the side for this purpose. I always enjoy the washing part because at least you've got something to do. But once I had cleaned myself off, I went and sat in the hot water tub and immediately felt like I had wasted 6 bucks. No sooner had I entered the water and leaned back against the wall than I was already bored.

I tried to stay in a bit longer just to justify coming here. I changed pools a couple times. (This particular Onsen had several different pools of water). I tried to get into the onsen spirit by relaxing and trying to enjoy the calmness. But in the end, I just couldn't handle the boredom, and left shortly after.
At the very least, I had gotten myself cleaned up and no longer had sweaty sunscreen clinging to my face.

Since the sun sets early in Japan, at shortly after 5 0'clock the day was already drawing to a close.

If I had remembered to take my book with me, I might have enjoyed eating dinner in a restaurant, or sitting for a while in one of Hita's coffee shops. But alas, I had left my book back at my apartment , and I knew the closest place where I could buy so much as an English newspaper (much less another book) would be hours away by car.
I didn't have much patience for dining alone and just staring at the walls, so I left Hita.

A shame really, because unlike a lot of these really small towns I visited, Hita had enough shops and restaurants to have had some semblance of a night life, and I could have enjoyed myself for a few hours in some spot with a good book. I'll have to be less forgetful next time.

Link of the Day
Real Time: The Hard Core Republican Base Is Like A Stalker-Rejection Just Makes Them Crazier


DRM said...

I was really fascinated by this post and I'm now looking back at your previous posts in this "series." Fun stuff and very entertaining (for me at least). Good for a nice break when I need to "escape" from my cube at work without really leaving it.

Joel said...

Thanks for the comment. I enjoy doing these posts because they give me an excuse to spend a whole day wandering around a town, and feel (somewhat) productive at the same time.
(Although loading up pictures and video can be a bit of a pain, as I'm sure you know from your own blogging).
Again thanks for the comment.

Looking forward to more comic book reviews and comics of your youth on your blog

Yukari said...

Hi.I`m going to live in Hita from Feb.I found your blog accidentally.They were very interesting articles and photos.I`m looking forward to see next one!

Joel said...

Thanks for the comment Yukari. I hope you have a pleasant time living in Hita