Monday, December 08, 2008

Yamaga / 山香

(Better Know a City)

December 1st: Yamaga
Today brings me into Yamaga, another town that shares a boarder with my old home in Ajimu.

From Nakatsu, I drove through Usa, into Ajimu, and then crossed the boarder into Yamaga at about 8 o'clock.

Right on the boarder between Ajimu and Yamaga is the Oita Agricultural Park. Because it's on the boarder, it's claimed by both towns in their promotional literature.

The Agricultural Park is a lake in the mountains which someone created years ago by damming up the river.

This by itself is not unique. As I've noted on this blog before, there are lots of other lakes created by dams in the Japanese countryside, and all of these are ironically turned into sight seeing areas for nature lovers.
In this case, however,they built a whole little park around the area, complete with a children's playground, an indoor butterfly sanctuary, a small agricultural museum, and even a restaurant.

The Agricultural Park is one of Yamaga's main sight seeing attractions, but I didn't go in. Mostly because the winter hours were inconvenient, and the park is located all the way out on the outskirts of town. According to the posted sign, the park didn't open until 10 o'clock, and when I drove through at 8, I thought this was a bit long to wait around. By the time 10 o'clock finally came, I was all the way on the other side of Yamaga. And by the time I made my way back to this side of Yamaga again, it was after 4.

So I didn't tour the Agricultural Park. Which is just as well really. The whole thing is a bit of a tourist trap. It's essentially just a lake that someone decided to build a huge wall around and charge people admission to see.
Besides, much as I hate to admit it, I've been to the Agricultural Park more times than I could count anyway. It is located right next to Ajimu, after all, and so between accompanying my students here on school excursions, being taken here by various Japanese friends, showing around visitors, and just wandering around by myself when I was bored, I had more than put in my time in this park.

The only thing I regret is not having any pictures or video for the purposes of this blog.
...But, actually, come to think of it, I do have some archival footage from 6 years ago when Brett came out to Japan to visit me. If I can be forgiven for mixing in material from my retrospections, here is us at the Agricultural Park back in 2003.

Once I came down the hill from the agricultural park, I saw two signs for sightseeing. One pointed towards the Spring Water Fountain, another pointed towards Tatuiwa River Park.
Since I was still near the Ajimu boarder, both of these signs were familiar sights to me. And truth be told, once about 5 years ago I had spent a rather frustrating afternoon trying to follow them both to their destinations.
It looks simple enough when you see a sign saying, "Spring Water, 3 kilometers this way". But then you end up weaving through a series of narrow mountain roads, and then suddenly, 2 kilometers later, you get to a fork in the road, and there's no sign to help you.
And then, after numerous wrong turns and backing up, when I finally got to the River Park and the Spring Water, they were distinctively unimpressive.

Nevertheless, following random tourist signs through winding mountain roads is what this whole "Better Know a City" Project is all about. And, let's face it, in a town like Yamaga there's not a whole lot else to do. So, I set off in search of the Spring Water Fountain.

Besides the usual weaving through narrow mountain roads, it turns out they were doing construction. At 3 different points.
These countryside roads are just barely big enough for one car, so when I drove up the construction workers had to stop everything they were doing and move all their equipment off the road. Had I known I was going to cause them so much trouble, I would have decided the Spring Water Fountain wasn't really that important. But there were no signs warning of construction until you came right up onto it, and at that point the road was too narrow to turn around and go back. So, I had to go on each time, giving an apologetic wave to the construction workers each of the three times they had to stop their work to let me through.

When I finally got to the Spring Water Fountain, it was distinctly unimpressive. As I knew it would be. It was a mountain spring in which water was collected. A small park was built around it. In Spring there are flowers here, but in December the ground was just covered with frost. The view of the surrounding countryside and rice fields, however, was pretty nice.

The water was collected in a small pool with a sign in Japanese that read (loosely translated), "This pool supplies all of the drinking water for the whole neighborhood. So keep it clean. Don't throw garbage in here. And whatever you do, don't go swimming in here."

Nearby their were spigots where you could collect some of the water here for your own drinking purposes.
There is a certain type of person (in Japan as well as in America) who is willing to drive great distances to get water from a certain spring. And sure enough, while I was standing there a man drove up in his car to fill up his various water jugs from the spring water fountain.

On the drive back, I had to go back through the same narrow mountain roads, and annoy all the construction workers again. At one point they had me stop so they could move their little mini-crane off to the side of the road, and I found I couldn't get started again. Having stopped going up a hill, my tires just spun in the mud. So 3 of them had to get behind me and push my car up. Now I really felt bad about inconveniencing them.

After all this, I had exhausted my patience for long narrow confusing roads. I made a brief attempt to get to the River Park, but once I took a couple wrong terms I just decided "nuts to it." (From what I remember from 5 years ago, it was pretty lame anyway).

I followed the road into the center of Yamaga, and stopped off at the town hall, where I asked if they had any maps or pamphlets about Yamaga town.
The lady at the reception desk seemed a little confused by the fact that I was sight-seeing in Yamaga, but she did have a couple brochures she gave to me.

I drove up to a park called, "Kaze no Sato", and decided to wander around here for a while.

Almost immediately after I got out of the car, a cat came running up to me and began meowing.
When it comes to strange cats in Japan I am, you might say, once bit and twice shy. However, this cat seemed friendly enough, and was obviously starved for attention, so I bent down and petted it for a bit.

There are certain people in your life who are so needy and so desperate for attention that if you show them a little kindness, they'll latch onto you and demand much more attention than you can possibly give them. For me, this cat was one of those people.
As soon as I stood up again, the cat began meowing in a mournful lonely way. And I felt sorry for it, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to pet it for another minute or so. But then when I tried to leave again, the same thing happened. Eventually I decided that no matter how long I stayed and petted the cat, it would never be long enough, so I might as well just leave now.
"Meow!" the cat said as I walked away.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I want to see the rest of this park."
"Meow!" the cat said. It ran alongside me as I walked away.

The cat ending up following me on my walk all around the park, and on the return trip it followed me all the way back to the car as well. It must have been close to a mile all told, with the cat underfoot the whole way. I've never had a cat do that before.

The cat would cut right in front of my path, and I was at great pains not to accidentally step on it or kick it. I was wearing my big heavy hiking boots, and so I tried to be careful not to hurt the cat. But everytime I took a step it was darting right in between my legs.
A couple times I did accidentally step on its paws, and I apologized and patted the cat on the head. But after about half a mile, the whole thing ceased to be cute anymore, and was just getting annoying. I tried to increase my speed, but the cat just increased it's speed as well.

When I got back to my car, I was worried I would have to try and explain to the cat that it couldn't come in the car with me, and that it would need to stay clear of the tires as I backed up. But oddly enough, the cat seemed to know this instinctively. When I got into the car, it stayed clear of the tires and gave me enough space to back up and drive away.

Located near the park was a small mountaintop, which had a windmill on the top of it, called Konosan Park. I'm not sure what the significance of this windmill is. (There was a sign explaining it, but I couldn't make out the Japanese). However pictures of this windmill appear all over Yamaga, so it must have some significance.
At any rate, there is a very nice view of the rest of Yamaga Town from the top of this mountain.

Continuing down the road, I saw signs for stone statues of Buddha (Kumanomagaibutsu), and so I followed these signs until they lead me into a parking lot.

There was a 200 yen admission fee, and only after I had paid it and looked at the brochure they gave me did I realize I had crossed the boarder into Bungo-Takeda. Usually the road signs are pretty good about letting you know when you leave one town and enter another. But in this case, they must have missed a section.

However, since this was right near the boarder, and since I had obviously missed this area when I was in Bungo-Takeda anyway (and since I had already stopped the car and paid my admission fee) I decided not to worry about the boarder line too much.

The lady behind the front desk insisted I take a bamboo walking stick with me (it was included in the price of admission apparently). I didn't really think I needed it, but one of my philosophies in life is to never turn down a free walking stick.

It turns out it was a bit of a steep climb up. And on the final stretch, the usual smooth stone steps were missing, and instead you had to walk up a pile of jumbled stones.
However it was, as always, a beautiful walk through a mountain side forest. And at the top, there were giant faces of Buddha carved into the side of the mountain. (They looked kind of familiar, and, come to think of it, I think I saw replicas of them at the Usa museum of history.) The faces were very impressive and pretty huge--larger than I was.

There were several other people climbing up and down the mountain, and they were all very friendly that day. (There must have been something in the air). Several of them stopped me to ask me where I was from, how I liked Japan, etc. It was the usual list of questions, but everyone seemed so friendly I didn't mind.
One older man commented, "Because you're a foreigner, you must be quite interested in Japanese Buddhist culture."
I tried to be honest. "Actually it's more the hike up the mountain and the view that appeals to me," I said. "But the Buddhist carvings were nice too."

After this, I got back in the car and headed back into Yamaga proper.
There was a waterfall on the map, Udo Waterfall, and I always like a good waterfall, so I decided to head over and check it out.

The actual waterfall itself was pretty scenic. (I always love a waterfall). And, although it was slightly grown over and in disrepair, there was a path that lead up the side of the mountain to the top of the waterfall, so you could a view from both the top and the bottom. After taking the picture, I amused myself by finding logs and dead trees, throwing them onto the river, and watching them go off the waterfall. (A bit childish maybe, but I figured I wasn't hurting anyone).

The area around the waterfall was a bit depressing, because it seemed like this had once been a popular spot that had long been neglected. The signs explaining the waterfall were rusted over and covered with mold. Their was a children's pool at the bottom of the waterfall, which looked like it might have been impressive at one time--two different waterslides going into two different swimming pools that were both filled with water from the river.

Now the whole area was just overgrown with weeds. I realize it's the off season now in December, but the area looked like it hadn't been used in several years.
All of this was yet another reminder of how the Japanese countryside is an aging population. 10, 15 or 20 years ago you can imagine this area might have been filled with kids, but the young people are now going to the city and not coming back, and there are very few young families left in a town like Yamaga.

Around this time I was feeling pretty hungry, so I got onto the main through road (route 10) to look for something to eat. I was kind of hoping for something a bit more substantive than a bowl of noodle soup, so I avoided the Udon shops in hopes of finding something else. This was a vain hope. In the end, I just settled for getting pre-made food from a convenience store. (One nice thing about Japan, even out in the country side in the middle of nowhere, you can always count on finding convenience stores).
...And wouldn't you know it, right outside the convenience store was another attention starved cat, that meowed miserably for some attention and followed me around.

I would have petted it, but I just got finally found a place to wash my hands inside the convenience store--something that had bothered me ever since the last cat--and I didn't want to pet another strange cat just before eating, so I did my best to ignore it.
But it is apparent the town of Yamaga is not paying enough attention to their cats. They seem desperate for any kind of human contact.

I ate my lunch inside my car, and then decided to check out some of the hiking trails in Yamaga.

There was a hiking trail on the map at Nokogiri Mountain so I drove out that way.
Once I got to the trail head, the sign at the parking lot indicated it would be a 3 hour hike. (I was able to make it in slightly less than 3 hours, but it ended up being pretty close to that time).

The trail was absolutely amazing. It started up through a richly green forest. (Even though this is December, there is enough bamboo and other bushes in Japan that stay green all year round to keep the mountains looking green at all times. It noticibly becomes a thicker green in the summer, but it was still very beautiful even in the winter).
After a certain height, the green began to fade away and the ground got a lot more bare. Not too long after that, I reached the top.

The view was incredible. I could see for miles in all directions. I could even see all the way to the ocean. (And again, the town of Yamaga doesn't even boarder the Ocean, so this is pretty impressive).

However, little did I realize that even after I had reached the top, I was far from finished. Nokogirisan in Japanese means "Saw Mountain" and the mountian had several small peaks jutting up like the teeth of a saw. The trail lead me up and down and up and down until I had seen the top of all of them.

It wasn't a particularly difficult climb, at least in terms of the physical power required, but the trail did take me over a lot of interesting territory. At various points I had to scale up rocks using ropes or climbing handles that had been fixed onto the cliff face to help hikers. It was a lot of fun, and I took lots of pictures and video.

By the time I got back down to the bottom, it was nearing 5 O'clock and the sun was beginning to set. There were a few hiking spots left on the map, but I was feeling a bit worn out.

I went into the town center of Yamaga, but after briefly looking around, I didn't see anything.

On my way back, I passed by the Agricultural park again. By this time it had opened, and then closed again. There was a small park underneath the bridge, which I stopped by and explored.

I used to drive this road everyday when I was attending Beppu University. (From Nakatsu, I would take a short cut through the mountains of Yamaga to Beppu). I had seen this park everyday from the bridge, but never driven down to check it out.

It turned out to be not much of anything, really. It was a park by the lake, but it was just another Yamaga park that had been let go into disrepair. Although it's right next to the agricultural park, so maybe it has just become a bit redundant now, and no-one bothers to go here anymore.

And with that, I headed home.

Yamaga Links
Yamaga Onsen Kazenosato,
Yamaga Rice,

Link of the Day
More Japanese music on youtube: akasia no ame ga yamutoki--one of my favorites

On a completely different note: The Murder of Fred Hampton

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