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.

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