Monday, May 18, 2009

Kokonoe / 九重

(Better Know a City)

Monday, May 11th, 2009
Not all Cities on this project are created equal. The previous city, Musashi I felt like I was really struggling to spin out the clock and make it to the end of the day. Kokonoe, by contrast, was one of those cities that was overflowing with things to see, and I felt like I had just gotten started when the day finished. I probably could have used another whole day in the Kokonoe to feel like I did the place justice, but for now this entry will have to do.

This was not my first encounter with Kokonoe. I had spent a few afternoons there back in my JET (W) days.

On afternoon in particular sticks out in my mind. Way back in spring 2003 I was doing an Earth Day clean up at mount Kuju with the Oita Earthman club.
The mountainside was absolutely beautiful in the spring. In fact, as we drove through the winding mountain roads of Kokonoe it was all green mountains covered with grass and wild flowers, interspersed with rivers and occasional waterfalls. I remember thinking it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been to.

On a less laudatory note, Kokonoe is also home to Shinrin Ski park, where I went with a group to go skiing back in winter 2003.
Kyushu is far enough south that it isn't famous for it's snow, and the skiing here is limited. Shinrin Ski Park is the only ski area in Oita prefecture, and one of only 3 ski areas in all of Kyushu. So, on one hand you do have to give them credit for trying. But it was the worst day of skiing I ever paid money for.
After paying about $50 for a half day (4 hour ticket), we discovered that the place was so crowded it took an hour just wait through the lines for the chairlift to get to the top of the mountain. And once we were at the top, it took us only about 30 seconds to ski down. By the end we discovered we could make better time hiking up the mountain.

Both of those trips were (how time flies) over 6 years ago now.
Since my last trip to Kokonoe, they've built a new suspension bridge there, which has become the talk of the prefecture. A couple years ago many of my students began telling me excited stories about how they had gone to Kokonoe to see the bridge. I didn't understand why this was such a big deal, but apparently it was.

So, this past Monday I set off to re-visit the beautiful mountains of Kokonoe, and to try and see if I could find out why this bridge was such a big deal.

From Nakatsu, it took me about 2 hours to drive down to Kokonoe, so it was shortly after 9 by the time I arrived.
My first stop was the town hall, where I picked up some maps and pamphlets.

Even though I thought that this new bridge was probably just a glorified tourist trap, I decided to make it my first stop and get it out of the way.

20 minutes and a few wrong turns later, I was headed to the bridge. (There were several signs pointing the way to the bridge, but they tended to be mostly on the side of the road and easy to miss. The bridge is apparently still recent enough that they haven't incorporated it into the official overhead road signs, which is what I usually rely on.)

The road wound back and forth as it led me through a valley (what is known as Kyusuikei Gorge) and then up the side of the mountain.
On the way up the side of the mountain, there was a tea house with a big waterwheel next to it, and a large parking lot for a scenic overview. It looked familiar, and I recognized it as a place I had stopped before 6 years ago with the Earthmen club, so I decided to stop here again.

The view from the scenic overview was absolutely astounding. As always my pictures don't do it justice.
Behind the waterwheel was a waterfall called (I hope I'm reading the Kanji right here) "Tengu waterfall". And it was also beautiful. There was so much mist shooting up from the waterfall I had trouble getting a decent picture, but hopefully this gives you an idea. (There were also two giant sandals next to the waterfall that people could pose next to. I have no idea why).

Inside the tea house was a balcony where you could get another view.

After walking around this area and trying to soak in the view, I continued on to the bridge: the famous Konokonoe "Yume" Otsurihashi.

You could tell this was a main tourist attraction. The whole area was run like an amusement park. As soon as you turned into the parking lot a series of uniformed parking attendants in white gloves directed you to exactly the parking space they wanted you to take. There was a big booth selling tickets, and a several restaurants and shops nearby.
And the entrance to the bridge was walled off by a huge fence and guards outside to make sure no one could get in without a ticket. (I don't know if fence hopping is a problem at a suspension bridge.)

I thought I would avoid the crowds by coming on a weekday, but there were still plenty of people there. I can only imagine what this place must be like on a weekend or holiday. (Thank goodness I avoided this place during Golden - Week).

I bought my ticket for 500 yen ($5) and went across.
Before coming to this bridge, I had heard stories from my students like, "It was so scary. It was so high up and you could see down through the grating, which made you feel like you could fall down through it. And the bridge swayed back and forth in the wind."
Reports like these had made me imagine a sort of open jungle bridge like you might see in the "Temple of Doom" movie. But reports of this bridge's scariness were greatly exaggerated.

There was a small metal grating in the middle, but on both sides of this was a concrete walkway. The bridge did sway a bit when you walked on it (I thought it was more from people's steps than the wind, but it probably sways with the wind too on blustery days) but it was nothing at all scary. And as bridges go, it wasn't even exceptionally high up. I've walked over a lot higher in my time. I'm usually very sensitive to heights, but this bridge didn't bother me in the least. I can only conclude that all my students were wimps.

There were enough people crossing the bridge in both directions that you walked through at a snail's pace. From the bridge, you had a great view of the Kyusui Ravine down below, as well as the two Shindo waterfalls (what are called the O-daki and Me-daki, which means man and woman waterfalls respectively).

Before getting on the bridge there were a couple scenic overlooks to take pictures of the bridge. And, on the other side of the bridge, there were signs for several different scenic overlooks. I walked up to all of these, and got various pictures of the bridge from different angles.

Of course, to get back to my car I had to cross the bridge in the other direction. (There were signs warning you to hang onto your ticket so you could get back across).

And then I got back into the crowd and plodded back very slowly across the bridge again.

There was an information office by the ticket booth. Before going across the bridge, I had ducked in there to see if I could find some more English pamphlets and some advice about sight-seeing in Kokonoe. To my surprise, when I walked in the door I saw a young Japanese woman and a Caucasian man behind the desk. Both of them were busy at the moment, so I had left. But now that I was back across the bridge, I thought I would pop in a second time and take advantage of the fact that they had a foreigner working there to get some sight seeing hints in English.

The gentlemen turned out to be a fellow American, and he was very friendly and helpful. I asked him what else there was to see in Kokonoe, and he showed me the map. "There are a lot of really beautiful hot springs up near Kuju mountain," he said. He pointed several of them out to me, and we also chatted briefly about what we were each doing in Japan.
Then he said, "Hey, I get off for lunch in 5 minutes if you want to stick around and catch lunch."

"Sure," I said. "Although I didn't bring anything with me."

"It's okay, they make really good burgers at the place next door. I'll met you over there."

The hamburger was quite good. (I think it was a Kokonoe speciality). Although, and this is unusual in Japan, it was one of those burgers that was so big you couldn't possibly get your mouth around it. So you just had to cram it in your face as best you could and bit off some of it, and then wipe off the barbecue sauce that was dripping down your chin. Not a very dignified burger, but a tasty one.

My new friend joined me shortly, and I quizzed him about the bridge.
"Now be honest," I said. "This place is pretty much just a tourist trap."

"Oh yeah," he said. "It's totally a tourist trap. But you know how the Japanese are, they love tourist traps.
"It's funny," he continued, "when foreigners come here they always ask, 'But what is this bridge for?' And I tell them, 'just for tourism'. But it's been enormously successful. The city took out a 20 year loan to build the bridge, and they were able to repay it back in just 2 years."

The conversation went onto other topics. We talked about our respective life stories, and what we were doing in Japan. He told me the series of events that had led to him having the rather unusual job of being the only foreigner working at the Otsurihashi bridge information center. I recounted my experiences working through various - jobs - in Japan over the years. Eventually we even began talking about our faith in God and our respective religious journeys.

One of the nice things about Japan is that you make friends quick. Sure, I've been snubbed a few times, but on the whole most other expatriates you met are really friendly people.
If we were both back in America, I would have walked past this guy without thinking twice. But since we were both expatriates here in Japan, we immediately have something in common and end up eating lunch together. And I'll probably never see this guy again in my life, but it was a good conversation for the hour it lasted and I was happy to have met him.

He had an hour off for lunch, and it went fast. We talked all the way through it, and before I knew it he was saying he had to return to work.

He gave me one final piece of advice to turn left on the road leaving the parking lot, and continue on to the Handa plateau where he said there was lots of beautiful scenery. So I did.

And he was absolutely right.
Although as I drove down the road, several of the mountains looked familiar and I realized I had been here before in the past, but I had forgotten about it.

What can I say? The Handa plateau is absolutely amazing. Green fields surrounded on all sides by a rolling green mountain range, including Mount Kuju, the highest mountain in all of Kyushu (I think).

The view is so amazing that I stopped the car several times to try and capture it on film, but I'm afraid I couldn't do it justice.

There was a small park I stopped to by the side of the road that had a shrine built there. The sign indicated this park was somehow related to famous Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata (W), but unfortunately my limited Japanese prohibited me from reading much further. Even if I didn't understand the significance of the shrine it was, nonetheless, an amazing view from all four sides.

I continued down the Handa plateau to the foot of Mount Kuju.
Near the base of Mount Kuju there were several parking areas, visitor centers, and restaurants.

There were also a couple of grassy fields on which you can walk through on a raised wooden platform: the Chojabaru and Tadewara marshland. (They're called marshlands, but they seemed just like green grassy fields to me. Maybe if I had been there during rainy season it would have been different).

But, I always enjoy a good walk over some wooden planks, so I walked the loop over both marshlands.

The hiking entrance to Mount Kuju was also in this area.

It was tempting, but it was already getting close to 3. I knew if I started the hike now, that would be the rest of my day right there. And I had the sense that there was so much in Kokonoe left to explore.

(I had already done the Kuju hike before anyway, way back during my JET days. It had been so foggy that day that the higher up we got, the less we could see. One friend and I ended up coming down the wrong side of the mountain and ending up in a different town than everyone else. Fortunately we all had cell phones so we called them and had them pick us up.
The sky was crystal clear today and it would have been the perfect day to do the hike if I had had the time. Alas. Since Mount Kuju actually boarders several towns, maybe I'll catch it on another day.)

In order to scratch my hiking itch I decided to take some smaller trails instead. I started out on the Amagaikegoe trail, which after a while changed over to the Bougatsuru trail.
The trail was 4 kilometers and was supposed to take one hour. I wasn't sure I wanted to spend a whole hour on it, so I just walked it for a ways until I got sick of it (about 2 kilometers in) and then I turned around and headed back.

I headed back in my car and went down the Yamanami highway--not really a highway in the American sense, but a beautiful road that has some great views driving down it.

As my American friend had indicated, this area was filled with Onsens--Japanese hot springs for public baths. There were tons of signs for Onsens everywhere, and more than once I followed signs down a road thinking it was leading to a sight seeing area only to end up at a onsen.
I'm sure most of these outdoor onsens had very scenic views. (The Kokonoe pamphlets made sure to emphasize as much). But again I didn't to waste time spending an hour soaking in the tub when there was so much yet to be seen.

Instead I began stopping at all the little tourists spots along the way. For instance I stopped at Yamanami tourism farm, a little touristy area where you could walk around and see the various farm animals and feed them.
As you would expect, there were a lot of families there. It also appeared to be a bit of a couples spot as well. It was a little boring by myself, but since it was free I did a walk around once through the path. I went around the little pond they have there, past their blueberry hill (a blueberry orchard on a hill), and I said hello to all the sheep, rabbits, dogs, goats, ducks, and horses.

A little further up the road was the Kuju Natural Zoo.
Unlike the farm, this unfortunately was not free. As I drove up to the gate I was asked to pay 1,000 yen ($10), which I thought was a bit of a rip-off, but what can you do.

I parked my car and went through the gate.
At this zoo many of the animals are allowed to roam freely, and I was immediately surrounded by about 4 llamas who looked at me expectantly.
I wasn't sure if I was supposed to pet them, feed them, talk to them, or ignore them.
It turned out that there was animal feed you could buy at the front gate. The animals know this, and so they cluster around every new visitor expectantly.
I, in my usual oblivion, had somehow managed to walk past right past the animal feed without even noticing it.

Not to worry though. There were various vending machines throughout the park at which you could buy more animal food.
The animals in the zoo were for the most part extremely ordinary animals and not that different from the farm I had just come from: horses, sheep, goats, pigs, et cetera.
There were a few non-farm animals mixed in, such as the aforementioned llamas, deer, Emus, American Buffalo, and others.

Most of these animals were in their cages, but some of them were roaming the park free. (I'm guessing they must be on some sort of rotation).

The zoo was pretty deserted. I was the only customer there at the time. (Granted it was a weekday afternoon).

As always happens when you get to see real animals up close, you discover they're not quite as cute as they are on TV. In fact if I had to choose one word to describe most of these animals, it would be "mangy". Their fur was spotchy and missing in patches, and they also had dirt and straw matted into their fur coats. Many of them were surrounded by a small swarm of insects, and after touching one of them my first thought was that I couldn't wait for an opportunity to wash my hands. (I know, I'm a spoiled suburbanite who doesn't have a lot of experience with farm animals).

After the zoo, got back in my car and drove down the road until I got to Asahidai, another scenic overlook.

It was after 5 by this time, but there was still daylight so I decided to see what else I could see. I drove back and forth on the roads some more. I stopped at Lavender Park.
It didn't look very Lavender to me, but I probably hit it in the off season.
Nonetheless I went up on top to get a view of the park below, and, as with every place in Kokonoe, the mountain ranges surrounding it really made the spot.

Although there was no sign posted about a closing time, it was clear Lavender park was gearing down. I was the only one walking through the flower garden, and besides mine there was only one other car in the parking lot.
Alongside the garden was a small restaurant. A little old lady walked out of the restaurant, glanced at me up on the hill, looked at my car, and then drove out and closed the chain fence behind her.

There was a moment of panic, when I thought I'd been locked in for the night. (More so than in the US, Japanese parking lots are notorious for locking up the entrance after closing time. I had the unpleasant experience once of having my car locked up in a city that wasn't my home, and was only able to get back because a friend generously loaned me his car. After that I've always tried to be careful).
Fortunately, however, in this case the chain fence was closed only by a hook, and not a lock. I was able to let myself out, and then, because I'm such a responsible person, I even stopped my car and came back to re-close the chain.

When I sat back down in the car, I heard a ripping sound. I had managed to split my shorts.
This is either a sign that I've been eating too many chocolate donuts lately, or that my shorts were getting too old. Either way it was a bit of a blow as these were the shorts I always wear when I'm out hiking, and the only pair I have with enough pockets to accomodate all my stuff. Ah...such is life.

The splitting of my pants was probably a good sign that I should call it quits, but I wanted to get in one more stop.
Unfortunately I never found it. I got lost on the roads for a while. I followed signs towards what I thought was a waterfall, but never found it. I drove North, I drove South, I ended up in Yufuin, and then drove back across Kokonoe back into Kusu. By now it was dark.
It was a bit of an anti-climatic ending, but all in all a great day of sight seeing.

Addendum: After consulting several maps, it turns out that Ryumon Waterfall is in fact inside the boundaries of Kokonoe. I had mistakenly included it in my entry on Kusu. In fact I had thought it was part of Kusu for years now. My mistake.
In case anyone forgot, below are the photos and video I took of Ryumon Waterfall last summer. For the entry from which these pictures were taken, and a description of the waterfall see my entry on Kusu here.

Video 1

Video 2

Kokonoe Links
Again, by comparison with Musashi city, in which I couldn't find a single link, I'm a bit spoiled for material on Kokonoe. I can't link to everything, but for starters:
Pictures of Kokonoe of Wikicommons--includes a view of what you see driving down Yamanami highway, something I wasn't able to capture on film because I was driving at the time, but this picture reproduces it pretty well
Kokonoe Town: A Chilling Experience,
Hosenji Hot Spring,
and Kyusui Ravine

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Obama recycles George W. Bushs plans,
and House Approves War Funding Bill

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