Friday, April 17, 2009

Taketa / 竹田

(Better Know a City)

Monday, April 6th, 2009
Because I had been busy the last couple weeks, I didn't have a chance to go out exploring, and thus missed the short two week interval in which the cherry blossom trees are in bloom.
This might not seem like a big deal, but the entire country of Japan is designed around cherry blossoms. Every temple, shrine, school ground, and walkway is covered with cherry blossom trees which bloom into beautiful flowers for two weeks, and then go back to being just boring brown trees for the rest of the year.

This year, because we had an unusually warm winter and an early spring, the cherry blossoms came into bloom a few weeks early (throwing off everyone's scheduled "cherry blossom viewing parties" (W)). Every year the cherry blossoms seem to be blooming early. I really hope this is not a sign of an eminent global warming apocalypse. (Everybody knock on wood just in case, and go turn off a couple electrical appliances.)

A Japanese friend suggested that if I wanted to see what was left of the cherry blossoms, I could go down south to Taketa City. "There are ruins of an old castle there, and there are lots of cherry blossom trees around it," she said. She even volunteered to go with me.

Since I've started this project at my home city in Nakatsu and have been gradually working my way out, up until now the farthest town I've been to has been about an hour and a half away. Taketa is much further away, down south near the boarder with Miyazaki. "Even if we take the expressway," my Japanese friend said, "it will take about 3 hours to get there."

However, one of the rules I made for myself on this project is to only take local roads so I can see more of the scenery. I was reluctant to take the highway, and we agreed to try and take the local road down.

I woke up early the next morning at 6:20 AM. This might not seem very early to those of you with normal jobs, but when you usually start work at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, let me tell you 6:20 is the crack of dawn.

I showered, breakfasted, collected my things, and met my friend outside the station at 7:30. We headed down south towards Taketa.
We took the road through Usa, then into Ajimu, and into Yufuin. We stopped at Yufuin to study the map and see which road to take next.

As a tourist city, parking in Yufuin is notoriously difficult to find, but after driving back and forth a couple times we found a supermarket with a large parking lot. We parked the car, and snuck away. "If someone yells at us like the last time, this time I'm just going to pretend I'm a foreigner too," my Japanese friend said.

The cherry blossoms in Yufuin were still in bloom a little bit, and my friend wanted to go to eat breakfast by the river and look at the cherry trees. I, as usual, wanted to spend as much of the day as possible in my designated city, so I argued to drive on straight through to Taketa, but I ended up compromising on this. We sat by the river in Yufuin, and ate a breakfast of french toast and coffee which my friend had prepared.
I took a couple pictures of the river in Yufuin, because I've always thought that my photos never really captured the town's beauty in my previous Yufuin post. Hopefully this does it a bit more justice.





There were several other people out and about enjoying the nice day and the cherry blossoms. There were some mothers and children playing by the river, and my Japanese friend was asked to take a photo of 3 older women standing beneath the cherry trees.

We got back in the car, and followed the Yamanami highway (not really a highway) winding up and down the mountains. Along the way we passed the Kuju Flower park (where I had gone last year as a school excursion with Beppu University).

In fact, it was not until 11:30 that we finally rolled into Taketa. ("I told you we should have taken the expressway," my friend chided me.)
So, unfortunately, I only had about half a day in this city, and I can't say I explored it thoroughly. But we did what we could.

Our first stop was one of the rest stations along the road where we picked up some maps, and I took a picture of the mountains in the background.




We then drove through the town of Taketa on the way to the castle ruins.
We took a series of narrow side streets, in which Japanese houses and gardens were pressed up between steep mountain cliffs and a small river below. I was stunned by the beauty of the city, and would have loved to stop the car just to take in the small valley if there had been a place to park. I don't get down to Southern Oita prefecture often, but whenever I do I'm always amazed by the beauty of it. I'll have to get down there more in the future.

As we put the car into the parking lot, my Japanese friend tried to explain the history of Oka castle. "In the old times this was a very big and famous castle," she said. "But they lost a battle, and it was burned down by the enemy."
I mentioned that all the Japanese castles I had seen so far had always been looking out over the ocean, and I thought it was unusual in Japan to have a castle so far inland. "No, that's not true at all," my friend said. "The idea is to have a high point on a mountain to build a castle. It doesn't matter so much about the ocean."

We went and bought tickets for admission to the castle grounds, and the lady at the ticket booth gave me an English pamphlet explaning the castle. (It appears my Japanese friend had been wrong about the fate of this castle. According to the pamphlet it wasn't burned down after losing a battle, but was voted to be torn down during the Meiji Era).
As we walked up the road to the castle, a song came on over the loud speakers. "This song, 'Kojo no Tsuki', was written about this very castle," my friend said. "It's very famous."

Over my years in Japan, I've learned to be skeptical whenever someone tells me something local is famous. "You mean, really famous, or just famous around here?" I asked.
"Really famous. This song is well known all over Japan. They even print it in the school textbooks."
(And in fact it turns out that this song is at least famous enough to have a wikipedia article dedicated to it. And according to wikipedia, the song was even covered by Thelonious Monk. Which I guess counts as being legitimately famous).

The cherry blossoms were already past their peak, and beginning to fall down from the trees. Whenever the breeze would blow, the blossom petals would start falling down like snow. (I tried to get a picture of this, but the tiny petals didn't show up very well on my camera.) The ground underneath the trees was blanketed in petals, and occasionally the wind would blow through and pick up all the petals, twirl them high in the air briefly, and then drop them down.
It was the very sort of picturesque day to view cherry blossoms on top of the castle ruins. And in fact my friend commented, "You could take a picture of this scene and put it into a Japanese tourist brochure."







In addition to being further inland then I was used to, the castle grounds were much wider than I was used to. I was used to Japanese castles occupying a small space, but the grounds of this castle were very large, and in total it took us an hour and a half to walk through the ruins.
At the risk of repeating myself, it was very picturesque. From the mountain plateau I could look down below to see rivers and green rice fields, and out in the distance there were more green hills rising up. The spring sun was shining bright enough to bring out all the colors.

We walked around a bit haphazardly. At one point my friend pointed to a sign showing the recommended path to take around the castle grounds, and told me we were heading in the opposite directions. "This is the first one of those signs I've seen," I grumbled. "How were we supposed to know where the right path was?"
My friend insisted the signs had been there from the beginning, I just hadn't seen them.

However, although we did everything in the wrong order, we managed to walk back and forth over all of the castle grounds.











At one point, a furry animal about the size of a dog ran across our path and ducked into a whole in the castle. It was a Tanuki (W), my friend told me, the famous raccoon type dog so popular in Japanese fairy tales and children's stories.
"You know," I remarked, "I've heard a lot about Tanukis since I came to Japan, but I think this is the first time I've actually seen one of them."

"In the old days, when people lived in farming villages, they used to interact more with people," my friend said. "But they stay away from modern cities."

Further on, there was a plateau where you could stand on and look down the steep sides of what had been the castle foundations. As we peered over the edge, I made stupid jokes like saying, "Would you be angry if I suddenly pushed you over?"

There were many people out enjoying the cherry blossoms and having picnics beneath the trees. As we walked past one group, an old man yelled out to me in English. "Hey! Hello! Where are you from?"
This type of man, crazy old man with slightly wild eyes who wants to practice his English on a foreigner, is a bit of an archetype. I seem to encounter at least one in every city I visit.
And I knew his type well enough to know that he was going to say something to create awkwardness between me and my female friend.
"Is this your wife?" he asked.
"No, no, just friends," we quickly answered.
"She's very lovely," he said.
"Yes she is," I agreed.
"You should make her your wife."
"Yes, well, you know," I said, trying in vain to think of a witty response.
"Do you like beer?" he asked. "I love beer. Have some beer with me."
"Sorry, I'm driving today," I answered.
"That's no problem. Just get your friend to drive instead."
My Japanese friend came to my rescue. "No, he's a gentleman. He wouldn't do that."
The old man changed the subject. "Wow, you're tall," he said to me. "You'd better watch out for lightening." He turned to my friend, who was significantly shorter than me. "You don't need to worry about lightening," he said to her.

We politely said our good-byes and back away, and continued on our tour of the castle grounds. "He was right, you know," I said to my friend after a while. "You don't need to worry about lightening at all."

After all the walking around the castle grounds we did, my Japanese friend was complaining about being tired, and wanted to get something to eat. I too was feeling a bit hungry, as it was now close to 2 in the afternoon. We drove down into the city. She had an errand she had to run at the bank, so I amused myself briefly by looking around the downtown area.



There was a history museum nearby. It was closed, unfortunately, since Monday is its day off. But there were steps leading up a hill nearby which lead to a Japanese garden, and a view of the city from the top of it.







I descended down from the hill, and my friend and I began discussing where to get some lunch. We decided to just walk around the streets and see what we could find.
At one point, we stopped to consult a map just as an election car was going by, and the noise was painfully loud.
Taketa was gearing up for a mayoral election, and they had election cars going back and forth through the city all day long that day.

To fully describe how much I hate these election cars would probably be another post in itself. It is a mild annoyance, maybe even slightly amusing when it is in a city you are only visiting. When there is an election in your home city though, it is extremely irritating.
They go non-stop from 8AM to 8 PM. They blast their message with such volume that in my own apartment I can't hear my TV or talk on the phone. It's extremely irritating if you're sleeping in/ taking a nap/ trying to talk to someone/ or watching TV. And if they just stuck to the main street that would be one thing, but they weave in and out of residential areas (like where I live). In any other country these election cars would not be tolerated for an instant, but the Japanese have become resigned to them, and whenever us foreigners complain they just shrug and say these things can't be helped.
(And then on top of all this, I'm told to turn my stereo down because, "Japanese people are very sensitive to loud noises.")
And 90% of the time, all they do is repeat the candidates name over and over again. It would be like in the US if a car just went down the street blasting out, "Obama. Obama. Obama. Obama. Obama. Please be kind to him. Obama. Obama. Obama. Obama. " Et cetera.

However, love them or hate them, they are part of Japanese culture. So I decided to try and capture one on video the next time one went by. I didn't have to wait long. Five minutes later another car drove past, and I fumbled through my bag to get out my video camera. I started video taping, much to the bewilderment of an older Japanese couple behind me. "Why in the world is he bothering to video tape that?" the old woman remarked to her husband.



We went into a Japanese restaurant, where I got the chicken nan ban set (which filled me up nicely) and we planned out our next move as we ate.

Not far from the restaurant, there was a long stairway leading up a hill to a shrine on top. I wanted to check this out, mainly just because I'm always kind of intrigued by a long stairway. Part of me doesn't feel satisfied until I've climbed it and seen what is at the top. My friend graciously agreed to go along with me and check it out.

At the base of the stairs there was a short sign explaining the shrine. My Japanese friend did here best to translate it for me in her limited English. "His name was Hirose Takeo (W). He was a soldier. And he had a, um, a bad boss. This boss was very strong. He was always forcing other people to do what he wanted them to do. And one day, Hirose Takeo said to his boss that he shouldn't act in such a way. Later, he asked forgiveness from his boss. He said, 'I'll earn my forgiveness by cleaning up the dirtiest area' and he started by cleaning up the toilet. Later he died in the war with Russia, and because he was from Taketa, the people of Taketa built this shrine for him."
Also on the shrine was a cartoon picture of a Japanese boy (who bore a striking resemble to Nobita (W)) presumably on the sign to act as a narrator. And another cartoon figure of Hirose Takeo in military uniform standing underneath a statue.
There was nearby a bust of Hirose Takeo's head in full military uniform.




We ascended the stairs.
From the top of the shrine, we did get a pretty good view of the city down below.



We didn't spend a lot of time at the actual shrine itself, although walking through it I remarked that many of the Shrines in Japan were much older than this, going back several hundreds of years. And yet, even though this Shrine was relatively new, my eyes couldn't tell the difference. It seemed just as old and worn down as the shrines several hundred years older.
"Yes, but this shrine is already over 100 years old," my friend said. "That's more than enough time for it to look a bit beat down."
"I suppose," I answered.

Suddenly, the whole idea of this shrine seemed ridiculous to me. A whole shrine built in honor a guy who had an argument with his superior? We've all had disagreements with our bosses before. It struck me that if you could build a shrine about this, you could build a shrine about anything.
I chuckled to myself at the idea, and my friend asked what was so funny. I did my best to try and explain why I thought this shrine was so ridiculous.
"...For example," I said, "Remember when you parked in that parking lot in Kunisaki, and the old lady got so mad at you, and you apologized to her over and over again? Why, that's a shrine right there."

My friend corrected my memory. "I didn't park there. You were the one driving the car. I had to apologize to the old lady on your behalf."

"Oh yeah....Well, hey, that's even better. You didn't even do it, and you still apologized to the old lady. That's definitely worth a shrine."

"Alright, then what would your shrine be about."

I had to think on the spot a bit, and so naturally went with the first story that came into my head. (If I had more time to think about it, I probably could have come up with a better example.)
"Okay, well once a co-worker and me were arguing about when the war ended. He said the war ended in 1948. I said it ended in 1945."
"It ended in 1945."
"I know. But he wouldn't believe me. So we had this long argument about it."
"Why didn't you just look it up?"
"We weren't near a computer at the time."
"But you could have still accessed the internet with your cell-phone."
"I don't know why, we just didn't look it up at the time. So, anyway, you could build a shrine to the fact that I was right and he was wrong. You could have a sign down below with the little Nobita kid retelling the story of our argument, and a cartoon picture of the two of us arguing, with word balloons saying '1945!' and '1948!'. Finally there would be a stone bust of my head, and I would have a smug little, 'I was right' smile on my face."

We discussed our next move. My friend wanted to go see the former house of Rentaro Taki (W), which had now been turned into a museum in his honor. We set out in the direction of Rentaro Taki's house, but we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere because we ended up at another hill with a temple on top of it. This, it turned out, was the Jurokurakan leading to the entrance of Kan'non-ji Temple.

My friend was at this point getting a little tired of climbing up temple stairs, but I wanted to see what was at the top, so she agreed to follow me up. I could tell she was getting tired by way her feet plodded down heavily on each of the temple steps, and I commented how it was interesting how much you could tell just from the sound of a footstep.



The temple was, like everywhere else, covered with cherry blossom trees. And the petals were falling off now, completely covering the stairs in a blanket of blossoms.


The top of the hill lead to a look out point. My friend didn't want to go all the way to the top, so she sat on a bench and waited for me as I ran up to have a look all by myself.
From the top of the hill I got a good view of the city, and the river below.
I also surprised a junior high school couple, who had presumably come up to the top of the temple in an effort to find a little bit of privacy.
And, there was some graffiti on the pavilion wall which said in Japanese "maitsuki nanoka wa unko no hi", which I believe translates as "The 7th of every month is poop day," something I had been previously unaware of.




I came back down the mountain, met up with my Japanese friend, and we proceeded to the Rentaro Taki museum.

This time we followed the signs a bit more carefully, and were able to get to the correct location. Although we weren't even sure it would be open. We had already discovered that the Takeda history museum was closed on Mondays, and in my travels around Oita I often found that Monday was usually a day for places to be closed.

"I think it will probably be open," my friend said.
"Hmmm, I think it's about fifty-fifty myself," I said, "but just to make things more interesting, I'll take the proposition that it will be closed. We'll see who is right."
"And what do I get if I'm right?" she asked.
"I'll pay for your admission," I answered.

The museum was indeed open, and so I paid for her admission as we had agreed. Although I did grumble a little bit that, now that I thought about it, it hadn't really been a fair bet, because if the museum had been closed there would have been nothing for her to treat me to.

We went into the house, and the lady behind the desk gave us a couple of pamphlets and told us that the tour became with a 15 minute movie. "Other people might come in half-way through," she warned, "so please sit near the front so that they can come in."
I started walking towards the front row, and then thought better of it and said, "Actually I'm pretty tall. I'd better sit near the back."
"Oh, yes, good idea," the lady admitted.

The movie was all in Japanese. There were no subtitles, but the museum lady had a couple sheets of paper with the English translation of the movie written out. She lent it to me on the condition that I give it back to her when the movie was over. (Apparently there was only one copy).
It was nice that they had been thoughtful enough to make an English translation for foreign guests (which is a lot more than most places in the Japanese countryside). But the idiomatic English used on it indicated to me that they hadn't run it by a native speaker for proofreading.

The pamphlet begins:
"A hundred and a few years ago, there was an artist who heartily loved the nature of Taketa. Speaking of Taketa, Rentaro Taki is well known. Perhaps this scenery has not changed so that he looked, has it?"
And it goes on like that for about 3 pages.

The video played several songs by Rentaro Taki, and I was surprised that I even recognized a few of them that I had often heard in Japanese schools.
It turns out that Rentaro Taki had only lived in Takeda for a few short years from the age of 12 to 15, but the ruins of Oka castle had obviously made enough of an impression on him that he wrote a song about it.
As the museum caretaker had predicted, some people did come in halfway through the film. They all took seats at the back as well (probably due to my influence, and probably to the distress of the caretaker).

After the movie finished we looked around the house at the various exhibits. This included the garden outside, and a secondary storage room also filled with Rentaro Taki memorabilia .



After we left the house, we came to "The Rentaro Taki Tunnel", a short pedestrian tunnel in which the music of Rentaro Taki was played over loudspeakers. (There was even a sign with diagrams that was, I think, was explaining how the tunnel and the angle of the loudspeakers had been designed for maximum acoustic effect, but I didn't look too closely at it.)



On the other side of the tunnel was a small shop selling Rentaro Taki music boxes and other memorabilia.

A little bit further down the street there was a shop specializing in soft serve "Soy Sauce" ice cream.

One often sees bizarre flavors of ice cream in Japan. It's like a game to them. They try and take the things which you would least imagine as an ice cream flavor, and make ice cream out of it. And then you end up buying it just out of sheer curiosity. "This can't possibly taste good, can it?"
Since I've come to Japan, I've eaten green tea ice cream, sea-weed ice cream, wasabi ice cream, crab ice cream, et cetera. Surprisingly, they were all pretty good once I tried them.

So we had the soy sauce ice cream. And, surprisingly, it wasn't bad at all, although my friend commented that the soy sauce flavor was so slight as to be almost unnoticeable.

Next we went to see an old Samurai house (presumably similar to the ones I had seen in Kitsuki). But it was closed on Mondays, so I just got a shot of the outside.




Next, we went along to see Kirshitan tokutsu reihaido, which I was told translates as "Christian Cave Praying Place".
My friend translated the sign for me. "Long ago there were many Christians in Takeda. Francis Xavier (W) came to Takeda to set up a church here."
"Really? Francis Xavier came here to Takeda in person?" I doubted this slightly, because I figured if Francis Xavier had physically been in Takeda, we would have seen a statue or monument or some sort of historical marker to him.
"I think so, we. Anyway, at first the Daimyo allowed them to be Christians, because the Daimyo of this area was himself a Christian. But, as you know, during the edo period Christianity became outlawed. And after that the Christians in Takeda would come to this secret cave to hold their prayer services."



(I had already seen two different churches in Takeda, unusual in the Japanese country side, so perhaps this area did have a strong Christian history).

On the way back towards the car, we also went up to the house of Tanomura Chikuden (W), a famous painter from the area. But his house was also closed on Mondays, so we didn't get to see it.

My friend wanted to eat Kojo-no-tsuki manju, a speciality manju (W) of Takeda. We went into one of the shops and my friend ordered Kojo-no-tsuki manju, but they were fresh out. Although they did have a couple manju's laid out as free samples, which they said we could snack on. So we did, as we planned our next move.

It was getting onto 5 O'clock, and my friend needed to get back before 8 to take care of some errands. We had time for one more stop.
Up until now we had stayed within the downtown area, but there were a number of rivers and waterfalls just outside of Takeda. We wouldn't have time to go to all of them obviously, but we did head out to Nakashima Park water pool.

At the parking lot there was a fresh water spring where the water was supposed to be especially tasty. Many Japanese people had come here just to fill up there bottles with this spring water.

Up stream a bit was a fishery, with all sorts of fish in small ponds. Like a lot of small town areas in Japan, it had a bit of beauty just because it blended in with the trees and the garden around it.



Down by the river there was a huge waterslide which emptied out right into the main river itself. I'm sure the kids must have a blast with this in the summer.
We walked up and down the river for a while, skipping stones off of it. Then we decided to call it a day.




We decided to take the highway on the way back. The highway itself doesn't link up with Taketa, but we took the main road into Oita city, and then took the expressway back from Oita. We ended up making it back to Nakatsu in just over two hours.

Taketa Links
Taketa castle ruins sunset, - photos
On youtube: Kojo No Tsuki cover by Scorpions and by Alcatrazz and the Thelonius Monk version. (Actually many more versions of this song on-line for anyone who wants to search around by themselves).
Oka Castle,
Japan National Tourism Page on Taketa

Link of the Day
Democracy Now: Noam Chomsky on Everything

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