Monday, November 24, 2008

Innai / 院内

(Better Know a City)

And yet another town I was already very familiar with.

Innai-Machi is located right next to Ajimu, where I spent 3 years as a JET.

Actually, there were several towns that boarder Ajimu, but although they may look close on a map, in reality it meant you had to drive through 45 minutes of farmland and cross over a set of mountains to get from one town center to another. In the case of Innai, the Innai town center was located just 5 minutes drive away from the Ajimu Town center. So consequently I spent a lot of time visiting Innai back then.

The two towns were very inter-related. For example, Innai has no high school of its own, so all the kids from Innai junior high school feed into Ajimu High school.
Ajimu and Innai were considered part of the same district, so during inter-scholastic sports competition days, Innai junior high school students would join the 3 junior high schools in Ajimu for competitions.
When Innai hosted an exchange program with Australian middle school students, Ryan (the other Ajimu JET) and I were called over to help show them around.

And, of course, there is the famous Jamaican Village festival held every summer in Innai.

When I first arrived in Ajimu, the Innai JET, Aaron from Wales, had already been in the area a couple of years and did a lot to show me around and help get me established.

He left after my first year, and was replaced by a Canadian JET, also named Aaron. The similarity in names was a little bit confusing, especially since the residents of Innai had developed some sort of artificial phonetic difference to help them distinguish between the two. One was AAaron, the other was aaRON. It drove me crazy because I could never remember the difference. Whenever I was talking to a Japanese friend and I said something like, "You know Aaron over in Innai, right?"
They would respond, "You mean AA-ron, or aa-RON?"
And I could only respond, "Blast! I don't know."

I spent a lot of time with both Aarons, and both were frequent hiking companions, as well as someone to talk to over coffee at the local Joyfull.

Innai is a difficult town to do justice to in one day. In terms of population, it's tiny (even smaller than Ajimu). However the town boarders stretch far into the mountains in several directions, and there's lots of hiking and nature watching to be had.
Welsh Aaron, even after living in Innai for 3 years, would sometimes come over in the evenings talking excitedly about this new beautiful place in the mountains of Innai that he had only now just discovered.

But there's only so much hiking and tramping around in one day you can do before your legs feel like they're going to fall off (at least for me). And the sun goes down so early in Japan, making the daylight hours precious few. So, I don't claim to have seen everything the Innai mountains have to offer, but I like to think I've captured a few of the highlights here.

The main road through Innai is the 387, which I'm very familiar with because back in the day I had to drive down it every time I wanted to get out of Ajimu.
It's a through road leading directly to Usa in one direction, and Kusu in another.

For that reason, I discovered that it can get a bit backed up during morning rush hour, and I was caught in slow moving traffic until I turned off at my first stop, Koshita Dam.

Because Japan is a mountainous country, it has very few natural lakes, and so these dammed up lakes ironically often end up becoming tourist attractions for nature lovers (as I've noted in a number of other cities).

Koshita dam in Innai also follows this pattern. They built a few scenic outlooks from which to view the dam, and there's a small foot bridge across the dam which you can walk across to get a good view of the lake.

Because this was my first stop of the morning, I spent a lot of time here. I walked up and down the bridge, and even followed the roads around the dam. There was a road going off up into the mountains, and I was curious to see where it lead, so I followed it for about a half hour or so until my legs got tired, and then I suddenly decided it wasn't so important where that trail led afterall, and I walked back.

As I came back to the 387, it suddenly occurred to me that, despite having driven down this road countless times, I had never gotten out of the car and walked around this area. There was a temple at the side of the road which I had never looked at before, so I walked around and explored that. I went down some of the side streets and just walked around the smaller neighborhoods. And I went down by the river and walked around there.

All together, I probably spent a bit too much time here considering all the other stuff there was to see in Innai. But it was the first stop of the day and I just felt like getting out of the car and doing some walking around.

Near the river I also took a picture of one of the stone bridges. Innai is famous for its many old stone bridges. And there are a lot of these scattered throughout Innai, with signs pointing them out from the main road. I decided there's only so many stone bridges a man can look at in one day, so I took a picture of this one, and then ignored all the rest of the signs.

Next, it was off to Kanarase Mountain for some hiking.

This is a little trail a littles ways off the main road that can be easily missed, but Canadian Aaron introduced me to it back in my JET days, and since then we've returned several times (usual to introduce more people to the trail).

It is a long, and at times quite grueling hike. It took me over 3 hours from the time when I started the trail to when I returned to my car, and so it took up a good chunk of my afternoon. It was probably as a result of this hike that I didn't get a chance to visit some other places in Innai that were on my list.

But on the other hand, it was a beautiful hike, and I took lots of pictures and video to document the experience.

The hike starts out with a very steep ascent up the mountain. I had remembered vaguely how rough the hike was, but I had forgotten it was this tiring. I was really huffing and puffing on the climb up. It was a vivid reminder of how out of shape I am. Every few steps I would have to stop and catch my breath, and then continue on again.

I finally got to the top of the mountain, where I stopped for a lunch of bread and cold coffee. Then I continued on.
I soon realized I had only gotten to the top of the first mountain peak, and signs were directing me up towards the second one. So, I continued up to the second peak.

The view from the second mountain peak was amazing. It was a clear day, and I could see all the way to the ocean -which is pretty amazing, considering Innai doesn't even boarder the ocean. To see the ocean meant I was looking over all of Usa. I could even see Nakatsu, and some of the Kunisaki peninsula.

After this the path began to slope down steeply. The way down was a lot easier on my lungs, but a lot harder on my shins. It also proved to be a lot harder on my rear, since the path was so steep my boots would occasionally slide out from under me and I would land on my butt.

I always fall whenever I go down this path. Other people don't seem to have quite the same problem with it, so I'm not sure why I'm so uncoordinated. (I used to blame it on my shoes, but I've been hiking this path several times now with several different pairs of shoes on, so it can't be just that).

It is, however, a very steep and very slippery path. Often when I felt my boots slipping, I would grab onto a nearby tree for support, although since I was carrying my bag with me, I only had one free hand, and this didn't help my balance. (Whenever I go to a new city I always take all my stuff with me in a handbag. One of these days I really should get a back pack. It would make hiking so much easier).

The path went down sharply for quite some time, but it didn't bring me all the way to the bottom. Instead, after a while it leveled out, and took me along the mountain ridge for about an hour or so. And this really is the high point of this trail. It's not simply a long hike up and a long hike down, but you get to swing around on the ridge of the mountain, and see a great view in either direction. You walk through some heavily wooded areas, and then the trees will abruptly stop and you'll go through a section where you're scrambling over stones. And then back to the trees. The variety is what really makes this trail a lot of fun.

I was hiking alone, but as I got to certain points I would occasionally remember conversations that we had been having at these points when I had hiked this trail with friends. As you do sometimes when a certain stimulus will bring back events or fragments of conversation you didn't even realize were still stored somewhere in your memory.

In all the times I've hiked this trail, I seldom have run into any other hikers than the ones I came with. So I was a bit surprised to see an old man coming the other way. And he was just as surprised to see me.
(Actually he was probably more surprised. Let's face it, I stick out a bit in the Japanese countryside).

We had a very deep conversation.

"Oh, hello," he said. "You're coming from the other direction I see."
"Yep. That's me. Coming from the other direction."
"It must have been a very steep climb up."
"It must be very steep from this side as well."
"No, I think this way up is easier. The other direction is much steeper."
"Well, be careful on the way down. That's where the danger is."
"You too, and good luck."

And we both continued on our way.

Eventually I reached the other end of the trail. After this I had a bit of a jot along the road to get back to where I had parked my car, and make my journey full circle.

My legs were tired, and I knew I would be feeling it the next day. Every time I do this trail, I spend about a week recovering. But on the plus side, since it was November there had been no insects. (I did this trail once in rainy season, and came out not only muddy and tired but covered in insect bites as well).

Next I drove out along the 387 in the direction of Kusu.

The road gets real scenic if you follow it along into the mountains. At one particular point, the road swings around one of the mountains, and gives a spectacular view of the valley beneath.

I remember the first time I saw that view, I had been absolutely amazed. There was, however, no where I could stop the car on the narrow mountain road, so I just had to try and take it in while driving. I tried to look at the valley as much as I could while still somewhat keeping my eyes on the road.

Greg, who also used to take the 387 coming the other way from Kusu, had the same complaint. "It's an amazing valley, but there's no access points," he said. "There's no place to park your car, and there's no trails to hike down and look at it."

During my JET days, there was a huge construction project going on to build a new road going over the valley. The old road hugged the mountain side very closely, but this road was a few meters away from the mountain, and was built suspended over the valley, held up by concrete pillars.

It was a huge project that was already in progress when I arrived in Japan, and spanned pretty much all 3 years I was a JET before they finally completed it.

I never really understood what was wrong with the old road, and if I had to guess I would say this new road project was a classic example of pork barrel construction projects that go on in Japan. But then I'm no civic engineer.

The new road does not have a parking lot or scenic overlook for the Valley, but it did at least have a small shoulder I could park my car on, and a pedestrian walk way I could walk along and take some pictures.

Next I continued driving on the 387. In between the mountains of Innai and Kusu (on the Innai side of the boarder) is Taikkiri Valley. It's an old camp ground, with a small stream going over a stone bed in the mountains. There is a concrete path along the stream, which you can follow for about 20-30 minutes until you get to a waterfall.

I've been to this stream several times before, and it is pleasant all year round, but it is especially beautiful in the autumn. All the trees around were now changing colors, and I was able to get several photos.

The stream ends in a waterfall. But it ends in the tops of a waterfall, not a view from the bottom.
(This is the opposite of most waterfalls I've been to in Japan. Usually the trail leads to the base of the waterfall, and I try and figure out how to get to the top. In this case, the trail leads right to the top of the waterfall, and I have no idea how to get to the base at the bottom.)

For obvious safety reason, there is a chain stretched across the trail to warn you not to plunge over the waterfall. But being the rebel that I am, I always walk right up to the edge of the waterfall to get a good view.
(Well, really, you kind of have to. It's not like you're going to follow the trail down for 20 minutes, and then turn around and head back without at least poking your head over the edge to get a glimpse of the waterfall.)
It must be confessed, however, that my palms are always a little sweaty whenever I peer over the edge.

I didn't run into any other people on my walk down to the waterfall, so I had the trail all to myself. On the way back, however, I ran into 3 different groups of sightseers, so it appears I wasn't the only one who wanted to see the autumn leaves along the river.
All the other sightseers were traveling in groups of 4 or 5, and one of the old ladies I ran into expressed concern that I was out by myself without any friends, but I assured her I had some friends in my life, I just didn't bring them with me.

After Takkiri Valley, I headed back on the 387 towards the main part of Innai.

I followed the signs off to see Ryuganji Temple. I had never been here before, but I had been tipped off by a student that there was a nice hiking trail.

And indeed, it was a very nice walk. There was a series of stone steps leading up a mountain through a very thick and beautiful bamboo forest. At the top there were 3 giant statues of Buddha housed in a temple, but for me the point wasn't the statues at the top so much as the walk through the forest, which was thickly green with a combination of green moss and green bamboo everywhere.

Next, I went to Heisei no Mori park. This is a huge park / sports center. It is where the Jamaican village festival is held every year. It is also where the interscholastic sports tournament between Innai and the various Ajimu junior high schools used to be held. So, it's an area I'm very familiar with.

That doesn't mean I've explored it as thoroughly as I could have, however, and there were several hiking trails leading out from this park that I had yet to walk. So, I explored these.

It was now getting close to 5, and the sun was beginning to go town.

There was a lookout tower in Heiseinomori park (which I'm told is a replica of look out towers used during the Samurai era). I climbed up the steps to the top, and took some videos and pictures of the surrounding Innai town.

And then it was time dark already, and it was time to head home.

Again, I didn't come close to exploring all of Innai's nature spots during the day, but I like to think I got in a few highlights before the sun went down.

Bonus: Innai Links
Article about Innai in the Japan Times,
Ryuganji Temple,
Takkiri Valley

Link of the Day
Some Words In Defense Of My Fragile Feelings Of Relief

Bonus Link: Japanese music on Youtube. (Sort Of).

A few years ago I was in a cafe when a French song came on the loudspeakers. "Hey!" I exclaimed. "This is the cover of an old Japanese pop song."
"No it's not," replied my more sophisticated European friends. "This is a French original."
"No, I have the album at home. This is an old Japanese pop song from the 60s. The French must have covered it."
"No, the Japanese version is the cover," I was informed.

It turns out that around the mid 60s French pop songs were enourmously popular in the 1960s, and a lot of the Japanese oldies I had been enjoying were really just Japanese covers of French originals.

I mention all this, because on Youtube a lot of Japanese people have been posting old French pop songs, with the lyrics and album cover all written out in Japanese. It's an interesting phenenom, and the bi-lingual comments written by both Japanese and French fans are fun to read as well.

This song here is the song mentioned above. The French song that I thought was a Japanese original.

I also like this one. And from what I can make out from the Japanese Kanji, it's an anti-war song, that talks about changing the song of War into a song of freedom.

Also fun to listen to: This one here, and here, and here, and here.

Well, once you get started, you can follow the video links for yourself, if anyone is interested.

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