Sunday, November 16, 2008

Kunisaki Town / 国東町

(Better Know a City)

Within my circle of friends, I've been developing a reputation for my random weekly hiking trips, and a Japanese friend asked if she could tag along on my next adventure.

I told her my rules. She could pick any city she wanted to, but we had to stay in that city for a full day. She wanted to see some of the Autumn colors, and so she picked Kunisaki city.
(Kunisaki is famous for its Autumn leaves. Unfortunately for her, we are having a late autumn around here, and most of the trees have yet to change colors. There weren't very many fall leaves to see in Kunisaki, but I think we still had a good time).

I suppose I should say a word or two about the name, because Kunisaki can refer to a lot of different things. In it's broadest term, it refers to the Kunisaki Peninsula, the Peninsula jutting out of North-Eastern Oita Prefecture. (Among the towns I've already done on this project, Matama and part of Bungo-Takeda are part of this larger peninsula, and Himeshima Island is located just off the Northern tip).

Next Kunisaki can refer to Kunisaki city, which was made from a combination of 4 different towns during the town mergers 3 years ago. However, for the purposes of this project I'm trying to go by the pre-merger boundaries. So, we decided to go visit the boarders of the original Kunisaki town.

My friend swung by my house at 7:30 in the morning, and we set out for Kunisaki.

It's nice to have another person around because it makes these outings a bit more social. (Sometimes I worry that I'm turning into a bit of a loner by going out on these expeditions by myself every week). On the other hand, it does mean I sometimes have to tone down my anal retentiveness a bit, and compromise on a few things.

For example, on the way to Kunisaki, my friend wanted to make a stop at Futago Shrine, which I think might be technically outside the boundaries of Kunisaki Town.

Although it's right on the boarder, so it's probably close enough.
And besides, if the road signs are anything to go by, Futago Shrine is the main attraction of the Peninsula, so it was probably something I should see at some point

And I'm glad we made the stop. Futago Shrine was absolutely beautiful.

When you live in Asia, you do get a little sick of visiting temples and shrines non stop. But the point of most of these places isn't the actual building, but the surrounding nature. It's an excuse to take a short hike up the mountain, if you will.

In the case of Futago Shrine, there are several different levels to it, and as you walk up the mountain you get to see more of the shrine and the garden.

It's absolutely beautiful, because it's built right into the side of the mountain.
...Well, actually that by itself may not be saying too much. A lot of these temples and shrines are built onto mountains. But in the case of Futago, you get the sense of relatively untouched wilderness surrounding the temple gardens. Unlike a lot of Japanese mountains which have been cut down by the logging companies and then replanted, it really feels like an ancient forest growing all around.

These old Japanese forests are so thick with greenery, that to my mid-western eyes, they've always reminded me a bit of a jungle. This sense is amplified by the non-stop sounds of various birds calling out from every direction.

Once we arrived, my Japanese friend confessed to me that she had been to Futago temple once or twice before. In fact, it turns out she had more of a connection to this place than she had initially let on.
"Before I was born, my parents prayed at this temple for a child," she said. "And after I was born,they took me to the temple master, and he gave me my name."

"Wow," I said. "So you've got a real connection to this place. We should go see if the temple master is in. I bet he'll be real happy to see you again."

"No, it's not like that," she said. "He wouldn't even know who I was. Lots of people take their babies to this temple to get names.
"This place has changed a lot since I was a child," she added.

"How could it have changed?" I asked. "Isn't this shrine hundreds of years old?"

"The shrine itself is the same," she said, "but all the roads leading up to it and the big car parking lot have been added since my childhood days."

The road itself went about halfway up the mountain, so once we had parked our car, it was necessary to back track a little and walk down the mountain a ways to see the opening gate.
The fact that we had to walk down the mountain to even get to the base indicated to me how much the roads and parking lot had changed this area. In the not so distant past anyone who wanted to see this temple had to hike up the mountain. Now you can drive right to the center of the shrine, and not even realize you had just by-passed a whole flight of stone steps leading up.

My Japanese friend pointed out to me that Futago was unique because it contained both a Buddhist temple and a Shinto Shrine. "That was common in the old days," she told me. "Now they are more careful about keeping Buddhism and Shintoism separated."
(The Hiyoshi Shrine in Godo was the same way).

The Temple/ Shrine had several levels. We walked up moss covered stone rocks until we got to a general court yard area. Behind the courtyard was a path leading further up the mountain, going past a river and a Japanese garden. At the top was another temple overhanging the side of the mountain.

I took quite a few pictures and some video, so hopefully this will give you a bit of a feel for the place.

Also, the advantage of going with a friend is that she can take a few pictures with me actually standing in them. Just in case any of you suspected I wasn't really going to any of these cities, but just stealing pictures from other people.

There was a hiking trail that looked really interesting. It started out as just a series of steps carved into a vertical rock, and then disappeared over the edge of the rock. If that doesn't look like an exciting start to a trail, I don't know what is! A map next to the start of the trail promised a beautiful hike through the mountains past all sorts of interesting rock formations.

I was torn about whether to follow the trail or not. On one hand, it would delay even further getting into the main part of Kunisaki town. On the other hand, it was hard to resist a trail like this.

The decision was made for me, when my Japanese friend announced she was not interested in hiking it. She offered to wait for me if I wanted to do it, but really, you can't just take off on a long hike and leave your friend waiting for you for two hours.
(Although come to think of it, I guess that's exactly what Mr. K and I did to Amy when we went to climb Mount Yufu. I still feel bad about that sometimes).

Before moving on, we had a small breakfast. We tried to find a park bench, but finding none simply sat down on a log near the parking lot.
My friend had brought coffee and pancakes, and I had brought some bananas. "Ah, I see your on the banana diet," she said, referring to the new diet craze which is sweeping Japan. (I had been wondering for a while why the bananas were always out of stock in my local store, until I read, in Time magazine of all places, about how popular the new banana diet is in Japan).

I tried to explain that I was on no such thing. Rather, I viewed the banana as the bachelor's best friend. It is healthy, relatively filling, requires absolutely no cooking or preparation, is easy to peel, doesn't need to be cut. For the guy who's trying to eat healthy but is too lazy to do his own cooking, what could be better?

After this, we got back into our car and (within less than one minute) had driven across the boarder to Kunisaki town.

Driving into Kunisaki, the first thing of interest we saw from the road was Gyonyu dam. We stopped and took a picture and walked around it a bit.

When we continued driving down the road, there were signs for temples and shrines beginning to pop up left and right. It was almost a bit overwhelming actually. I mean, I couldn't possibly stop at all of them. Which ones were worth stopping at, and which ones weren't?

Here my Japanese friend explained that Kunisaki was known as "the hometown of the Buddha".
"What?" I said. "That can't be right. Wasn't Buddha from India."

Yes of course he was, my friend patiently explained. It's just an expression people use because there are so many temples in Kunisaki.

My friend pointed out the Senpukuji shrine as a point of interest. I was glad she did this, because left to myself I wouldn't have had a clue which temple to go to.

"This temple is famous because the stone steps are really old," she explained to me.

"Really?" I said. "But it looks like there's some concrete here holding some of them together."

"Hmmm, yes it does kind of look like that. Maybe the concrete was added later. The stones here should all be original."

The temple was in two levels. We climbed up the stairs to the top room, but it was closed and the temple master was no where in sight. (I didn't really care anyway, but my friend wanted to see the inside of the temple).
On the way back down, we ran into two older woman who were touring the temple. When my friend explained the door to the top room was locked, one of the woman commented, "Well, we'll just have to get the temple master to open it for us. Do you know who the temple master is here? Muchaku Seikyo."

I had no idea who Muchaku Seikyo was, but the name definitely struck a chord with my Japanese friend. "Really? Muchaku Seikyo? At this temple? You know I heard he was living somewhere in Kunisaki these days, but I didn't know it was at this temple."

When I asked who in the world this guy was, they told me he was an author.
"Would he have written anything I might have read?" I asked.
No, he was a former elementary school teacher who wrote mainly about educational theory. He isn't very famous abroad, but he is quite well known inside Japan.

One of the older ladies abruptly switched into (nearly) fluent English. "I used to teach with him up in Tokyo," she said.
She added, "You're quite lucky to come out here and see this."

Although exactly why I was lucky I never did figure out. The famous Muchaku Seikyo was not in, and we did not get a chance to see the inside of the temple. (Although truth be told neither really mattered to me all that much.

After having a bit of a walk around the temple grounds, we got back in our car and headed down the road. We were still confused about where to go, but I said I thought a good starting point might be to see the Ocean.

The ocean was rather easy to find as we just drove straight ahead. It was not at first glance very scenic. (There was no beach, only a wall of tetrapods, like in Beppu). And there was another shrine next to the beach, so we wandered around that.

But my Japanese friend said that she was pretty sure down the road there was a much nicer beach for the tourists.

We drove down along the coast and followed signs for the rest stop (or "Road Station" as they call it in Japan).

There was a parking lot and tourist center there, and also a cycling path. After just having walked along the cycling path in Yamakuni, the cycling path sounded like fun to me.

We went in to ask questions at the information desk.

The public officer working behind the information desk didn't have any maps with him. Instead all of his information was on a computer screen. Actually it was a duel computer screen. He would type in his information on his computer, and then it would show up on the computer screen facing us. It was pretty hi-tech.

Unfortunately, the poor guy couldn't get the thing to work right. We asked a question, and he tried to load up a map onto the computer, and the whole thing crashed on him. He got a bit flustered and looked embarrassed and said something like, "Um, just look around the room for 5 minutes while I get this working again." And then it crashed on him a second time.

Finally he got his equipment up and running, and he showed us a map of two different cycling paths that followed the coast. One was a 10 kilometer course, the other one was 2 kilometers.
"Was this an old abandoned railway like in Yamakuni?" I asked. "Or was it created new just for the cyclists?"

It turns out it is a new creation.

"I don't really feel like doing the 10 Km course," my friend said. "But the 2 Km course sounds good. It's okay if we walk on it, right?"

Of course it was, the official answered. And of course it's totally free to do so.

In fact, on the course we encountered only other pedestrians. I didn't see a single biker.
Nor did it strike me as a course that would be particularly cyclist friendly come to that. Instead of long open stretches where you could build up some speed, the whole course seemed to weave in and out of palm trees and make sharp turns.

It was absolutely beautiful. The pictures don't do it justice, but the ocean was a beautiful bright blue. The sand looked white reflecting the sun. And the palm trees made me feel like I was in the tropics.

Northern Kyushu isn't quite down in the tropics. (If I remember right, I think the latitude is about the same as Tennessee). But for a sheltered Michigander like me, the palm trees and blue ocean water are enough to sometimes trick me into thinking it's tropical.

There was a school excursion, and a bunch of elementary school children were playing on the beach. (I've been running into a lot of school excursions lately. It must be that time of year). As usual, many of them tried out their English greetings on me. And I did my best to be friendly and answer back.
The weather was just about warm enough in the afternoon sun that they might still have been able to go swimming, and some of the kids were obviously thinking about it, as they waded halfway into the ocean.

We followed the path to the end. There was a small children's park at the end of it, and we goofed off on the swings a bit, and then started walking back towards the car.

"Are you getting hungry?" I asked.

"A little bit," she answered. "What time is it?"

"It's about 1."

"Well, it's lunch time alright. Did you have anywhere you wanted to eat?"

"Nowhere in particular," I answered. "Only we just passed that World Buffet restaurant over there. That looks pretty interesting."

We entered the buffet (or, as it is known in Japanese: Viking--apparently because the Japanese have trouble pronouncing "smorgasboard".)

The sign at the front informed us that there were two different prices: one for women, and then a higher price for men.
"Looks like you lose out on this one," my friend said to me. "How do you feel about that?"

I shrugged. "Well, it's only fair I guess. We men do eat more. We have bigger bodies and bigger stomachs. Not only that our attitude is different. Men tend to look at a buffet as a challenge, where as woman look at it as a place to be cautious."

"I don't know," she said. "I think woman want to get their money's worth just as much as men."

"Yeah, maybe, but I don't think they get as competitive about it as men. A man takes pride in the amount of food he can eat. He compares himself to those around him.
"Of course," I added. "In the interest of a fair and equal society, perhaps even these small divisions don't help. So I guess in an ideal world, I'd be opposed to seperate prices for men and women at the buffet. What do you think? What would you do if you were the owner of this restaurant?"

She answered she would keep the prices the same, because women can eat just as much as men.

The food at the buffet was good. And true to its name, it did have dishes from all around the world (although they were all cooked for Japanese tastes, but it wasn't bad).
I ate too much, as I always end up doing when I go to a buffet. (And especially after that discussion, how could I not eat a lot? I had to maintain that I as a male always ate more.)

Afterwards I felt slightly bloated as we walked the final stretch back to the car.

Once back at the car, we looked over our brochures to see what else there was to see in Kunisaki. There was a Yayoi Village park, so we decided to check that out.

There was a mueseum building attatched to the park, but it was closed, so we just walked around on the outside. The park consisted of several houses built and store rooms reconstructed to look like they were from the Yayoi period.

Since these houses were built out of straw and sticks, it probably goes without saying that no authentic ruins have survived the ravages of time, but Yayoi Village had recreated what historians imagine these houses must have looked like 1800 years ago.

This was moderately interesting, although it wasn't a particularly new experience for me. During my years in Japan I've seen several of these reconstructed historical houses. (In Usa, for example, they have a group of houses similar to this at Kanpo no Sato park).

However, it was nice to be there with a Japanese friend, because she could explain it a bit. "The Yayoi period is the historical period after the Jomon period," she said. "The Yayoi period is when Japanese people started to eat rice for the first time. Before then, we had just been a hunter-gatherer civilization, but we started argiculture during the Yayoi period. You can see many of these houses are raised on stilts. That's because they needed to protect the rice from dampness and mold."

We walked around the village. And there was a river next to it, which we also walked around for a while.

"Where to next?" my friend asked.

"You know, I whenever I visit a new town, I always like to spend some time walking around the down town area. Just to try and get a feel for it," I answered. "We drove through the downtown area earlier, but it might be nice to go on foot and stop and look at the shops."

My friend agreed. I mentioned I had seen an open parking lot by a temple, right near the town center, and we headed there.

I pulled into an empty dirt parking lot next to the temple, we got out of the car, and started walking towards the town center.

An angry voice called out from the windows of one of the neighboring houses. "No! No you can't park there! Move the car!"

This kind of thing might have been unremarkabe back home, but because Japanese culture is normally so excessively polite, it can be slightly jarring when someone suddenly forgoes the usual politenesses and yells at you in blunt language. (This is perhaps especially true for foreigners, who, most of the time, are used to being treated like honored guests in the countryside).

I didn't really understand what the big deal was. The sign had clearly indicated this was a public parking area. It was a huge, virtually empty parking lot in a rural area, so I couldn't imagine space was a problem.

My Japanese friend apologized and said we would move the car. But it turns out the middle aged woman who guarded the temple parking lot wasn't done with us yet. As we walked back to our car, she came out of her house to scold us some more.

"Didn't you see the sign?" she asked. "The sign said this area was for temple parking only. It was as clear as day. What do you think you're doing parking here?"

I had not noticed this. With my limited Japanese, my eyes had only taken in the part of the sign that advertised parking. My Japanese friend had, of course, understood the sign more fully, but explained to the old woman that we were planning on visiting the temple, but also taking a quick walk around the town.

"What kind of excuse is that?" the old woman whined. "The sign said it was for temple parking, and you were clearly headed towards the town area."
Clearly, such blatant depravity was beyond the old woman's comprehension. "How could you do such a thing? I'm in charge of the temple parking. It's my responsibility. And you were clearly trying to take advantage of me."

We were both about to get into the car now. I was on the driver's side, and the old woman was closer to me. But although I could follow most of what she was saying, I decided to stay out of the conversation. If you've got a Japanese friend right next to you, why bother to try and defend yourself in Japanese? So, after each whine the old woman made, I simply turned and looked over at my Japanese friend to deflect the question over to her.

Several times we were on the point of getting into our car, when the old woman, sensing that we had not fully grasped the enormity of our crime, would cry out another complaint or another accusation. I wasn't sure if our continued presence there was just goading her on, and if the best thing to do would be to just get in the car and drive away, or if the polite thing to do would be to just stay there and hear her out until she had said all she wanted to say.
I was also somewhat curious to see how long she was actually capable of complaining if we allowed her to just continue, and so I made no move to get back into the car as long as she was talking.

My Japanese friend made apology after apology. Her face was showing slight signs of irritation, and I kept imagining she would suddenly say something like, "Oh, just stuff it you old hag! Come on, we're leaving!"
But in true Japanese fashion, she never did. Just one apology after another until the old woman had finally tired herself off, and stopped talking. Then we got in the car and drove away.

"Wow," my friend said. "I've never seen someone so upset about a parking spot. And what's more, I'm 99% sure that if you had just been there by yourself the woman wouldn't have said anything at all. It was only because I understood Japanese that she felt like she could go off on us. The next time something like that happens, I'm just going to pretend I'm Chinese."

We drove around for a little bit looking for a parking spot that wouldn't get anyone upset. Eventually we parked in a supermarket parking lot, and then went in to buy a couple drinks so it looked like we were customers. Then we set off to explore the downtown area a bit.

We walked first down the main street for car traffic (there was a nice sidewalk for pedestrians). We passed Kunisaki High school, and my friend pointed out to me all the accomplishments the school had listed on its walls. (Apparently it had won a number of championships recently).

We then cut over, and went through some neighborhoods were we weaved our way through several residential streets.

"I hope this isn't getting too boring for you," I apologized to my friend. "I guess since you're Japanese, the idea of walking around in a Japanese neighborhood isn't all that interesting."

She gave me a look that told me I had guessed all too accurately. "Why is this still interesting for you?" she said. "You've been in Japan a long time now."

"Oh, I don't know. The way these streets are so narrow, and the houses packed so close together makes me feel like I'm in a maze I guess. And I like seeing the small Japanese gardens in front of the house. I like the way there are so many wild flowers along the road.
"But I guess more than anything else, I just like walking around. Even when I'm back in America, I like to wander around an area I've never been to before. You never know what's around the next corner, or what's over the next hill."

We eventually followed a path alongside a river, which lead us onto the longer cycling trail. We didn't walk all 10 kilometers of this, but we walked it for a ways. Then we got off the cycling trail and explored the center of Kunisaki town.

...Such as it was. All of these small rural towns have a very tiny down town area, but that's what gives them their charm after all.

Although, perhaps I'm still approaching this from an American perspective. Even after so many years in Japan, when I walk into a small downtown area something in my subconcious still expects to find a small coffee and diner restaurant where I can get a nice Western style Hamburger and watch the locals go about their business.
Needless to say, I usually never find this place.

This time, we just passed a lot of old decrepit looking snack bars. None of which were open in the afternoon.

And so we walked on. By this time we had been on foot for over an hour, and I was beginning to worry about my friend's patience. I was also belatedly realizing she wasn't in very good walking shoes.
"How are you holding up?" I asked.

She gave me a look that said she was never doing this again, but she said she would manage.

When we finally got back to the car, I tried to make up for the long walk around town by letting my friend pick our next activity. "I think we've got maybe one hour before the sun goes down," I said. "That's time to go and see one more thing on the map. What do you want to do?"

"I want to go get a cup of tea," she said.

So we had tea.
Despite there being no diners or coffee houses downtown, we drove down near to the tourist center we had been at previously, and found several little shops, including a little tea house where we sat down and drank a cup of tea.
It was very nice, and when we left, the sun was already going down. So we called it a day and headed back home to Nakatsu.

Bonus:--Kunisaki Links
A brief write up and photos of Kunisaki by Kim, who was a JET in Kunisaki when I was a JET in Ajimu.
I never made it over to visit Kunisaki when Kim was living there, but I saw a fair amount of Kim in Ajimu back in the day as she was dating Mike, the other Ajimu JET.

Link of the Day
Thoughts on an Election

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