Friday, May 01, 2009

Oyama / 大山

(Better Know a City)

Thursday, April 30, 2009
Once- again-it's- Golden -Week here in Japan, the week where the whole country is on Spring Break at once.

I have some bad memories of being stuck in endless traffic jams during Golden Week in years past. So, this year I decided to try and avoid the crowds as much as possible by going to out of the way deserted country towns.

Enter Oyama, population 2,000.

Oyama is one of the towns bordering Hita (and in fact during the town mergers it was officially incorporated into part of Hita.) And, during -the times- I stayed in Hita, I would often drive through Oyama when I was out sight seeing.

But, I never spent a whole day there exploring it top to bottom. So here we go.

Starting from Nakatsu, it was shortly after 9 by the time I arrived in Oyama.

The first stop was the rest area alongside the road, called Mizube no Sato Oyama. It was a typical countryside roadside rest area. There were countryside food and vegetables for sale, a map of the local attractions, and a restaurant.

It was also right alongside the river, and there was a nice walking path along the river, and a small bridge leading to a small island in between two streams of the river.
The road stop was moderately busy. Technically it was not a public holiday, although many private companies will give their employees the whole week off for Golden Week. Seeing how busy the rest area was at this early hour in the morning, I was slightly worried I wasn't going to escape the crowds after all. But this turned out not to be a problem. Aside from the rest area on the main road, nowhere else in Oyama was remotely crowded.

After wandering back and forth for a while along the river, I got back in my car and followed signs up the mountain to "Okubodai Bairin Park" and "Hibikinosato".
I had no idea what either of these places were, I was just following road signs.

Bairin Park turned out to be just a walk through plum tree orchards. It was a very pleasant scene, as much for the plum trees as for the views of the surrounding mountains in all directions.

I was kind of expecting Hibikinosato would be a nature park or a hiking trail after seeing the signs for it. To my disappointment, it was more of a resort area, with a liquor store, a restaurant, and a Japanese hot spring. I wasn't really in the mood for any of those things. Although I have to admit, if I were going to build a resort like that, I couldn't think of a more beautiful location up on a green mountain surrounded by other mountain cliffs and overlooking a plum tree orchard.

There was a small park around Hibikinosato, so I walked around that for a while. There were steps leading down the mountain, so I followed those just to see where they would lead.

It lead me down the mountain side to a small neighborhood of houses. I walked through the neighborhood, and accidentally frightened a small child out front sweeping the walkway. He took one look at me, dropped the broom, and ran to his mother.

I climbed back up the stairs and back to the Hibikinosato park. There was another set of stairs leading up to a small plateau on the top of the mountain. There a small park had been created with green grass, and even a wooden pavilion. And I could get a great view of Oyama town below.

There was a small plaque there saying that Oyama town had renewed it's friendship with an Israeli town in 2000. There was also a stone that (if I read the Japanese correctly) indicated that some of the trees in this garden had been a gift from the Cecilienhof Palace (W), and had been in the presence of Truman, Churchill, and Stalin at the Potsdam conference in 1945.
Wow, sometimes you never know what you might find out in the middle nowhere in the Japanese countryside.

I returned to my car, and continued down the main road (212) alongside the river.

The drive along the river through the countryside of Oyama was very beautiful, although it didn't give me a lot of places to stop and take pictures. At one point there was a small shoulder by the river next to a small bridge, and I pulled over here to read my book a bit and eat some of the food I had packed with me.

I'm sorry to say that once I got back in my car and continued to follow this road, I came to a beautiful mountain which was being carved up to provide stones for concrete. One sees this in the Japanese countryside with depressing frequency.

The river was dammed up at a couple different points. The first small dam I stopped by didn't have any signs by it, but a sign along the road nearby read "Oyama dam" so I assumed that was its name. (This would later cause me brief confusion when I encountered the real Oyama dam--still under construction).

Next, and far more impressive, was the Matsubara dam. This had a parking lot next to it and lots of opportunities to take photographs. I spent a good 45 minutes here walking around the dam.

After this, having driven the entire length of Oyama (at least as far as the main through road was concerned) I wasn't quite sure what to do next. So, I decided to do some old fashioned walking around. I drove back towards the city center, parked my car in an empty lot, and just decided to walk the streets a bit.
As with most small towns in Japan, Oyama has very little downtown to speak of. There is a elementary school, a post office, a town hall, a convenience store, and a couple stop lights.

If you get out of your car and walk around a little bit you will discover something you can't see from the road: there is also a very nice footpath going along the river. The path is lined with leafy trees. On the right side you walk past rice fields, on the left side you can see the natural beauty of a mountain river winding its way through Oyama valley.

As I walked through the town, I made a brief stop at the town hall to see if I could pick up any sight-seeing pamphlets on Oyama.
The town hall itself was open, but just barely. There were a few people there, but most of the lights were off and it seemed like a ghost town. And I didn't find any pamphlets.
Of all the town halls I've been to so far, this one was the most dead. Perhaps this was because it was Golden Week. (Although the 30th was technically a working day within Golden Week.) Or perhaps as a result of the town mergers a few years back Oyama town hall has begun gradually shutting down. I don't know.

Other highlights: I past the cultural center, which outside had a statue of a boy in some sort of military uniform, and a girl naked. And I thought: "hey, that sums up culture right there."
Near the cultural center where several old style Japanese houses with straw roofs. There was a sign indicating this was some sort of historical museum, but the whole area looked closed up and run down.

The walk along the river led me all the way back to mizube no sato rest area, where I had started out the morning. I stopped shortly before I got all the way back to the rest area, and found a shady place under a tree to read my book by the river.

After having walked the lengthy of the Oyama town center there and back, I followed sum of the side streets up the mountain side for a little while to see if there was anything of interest there. I found a few good views and got a couple pictures.

I also came across a sign which read, "Stop Oyama Dam". One doesn't see a lot of protest signs in Japan, so this caught my attention. At the time I thought this referred to one of the dams I had seen earlier in the day, but I was shortly to discover it referred to a dam still under construction.

I got back in my car and headed up some of the same side streets.

I followed one road high into the mountains above some beautiful valleys. As always on these high mountain roads, one has to resist the temptation to spend too much time looking down in the valley whilst driving. But fortunately there was a scenic lookout parking area alongside the road I could stop at.

I parked the car and looked down at the valley.
The entire valley, and even the mountains surrounding it, all appeared to be part of one big construction project. Trucks were carrying off stones from the mountain, conveyor belts were taking rocks to concrete mixers, and workman were busy running this way and that. This, I deduced, must be the Oyama dam construction sight.

On my way back down the mountain, I passed a sign for "The Oyama Dam Information Center". I thought I would poke my head in there and see if I could find out what this Oyama dam was for, and why some people were opposed to it.

The sign above the center advertised it as "an independent political group" (again, assuming my Japanese is okay), so I wasn't even sure if they were pro-dam or anti-dam. Looking at the signs out front though it became clear this informational center was designed to promote the dam.
As I was looking at outside of the building, I could already hear the excited talking of the employees inside. They had probably seen me through the windows and were no doubt saying to each other something like, "Oh no, a foreigner. I don't speak English, do you speak English? How are we going to communicate with him?"

I was still checking out the outside of the building when one of them stepped out and waved me inside. There were two women running the center, and once they figured out I spoke a little Japanese, they tried to explain the dam to me using the simplest Japanese.
I've got to say I was completely won over by their kindness and simple small town friendliness. They not only explained all about the dam to me, but took an active interest in my life and asked me all sorts of questions about where I was from, what I did in Japan, and what my hometown was like.
In typically Japanese fashion, they also showered me with compliments. Isn't it great that you came here to Japan? Isn't it great that you can speak a bit of Japanese? Isn't it great that you're sight seeing here in Oyama? Isn't it great that you teach English, but that you also take an active interest in dam construction?

I only felt bad that my slow halting Japanese and my limited social skills did not always allow me to fully keep up my end of the conversation, but I enjoyed talking to them.

"The purpose of the dam is to create a reservoir of drinking water from the Akaishigawa river. Once the dam fills up with water, it will supply water all along this area and even to the people of Fukuoka prefecture."

"I was looking at that river earlier," I said. "It seems like a pretty small river to build a whole dam around."

"Yes, but once the dams in place, in two years the whole area will fill up to a huge lake."

"And how long has the dam been under construction?" I asked.

"You mean how long have they been planning the dam, or how long have they been building it?"

"Um, either I guess."

"Well, they first began talking about the Dam in Showa 54. What would that be in the Western Calender? Oh, we've got a chart right over here. Let's see, 1979. Now they didn't actually begin construction until just a couple years ago in 2007."

"I did see a sign on the drive over here which said, 'Stop Oyama Dam'. What is that about?"

"Oh, the sign doesn't actually mean to literally stop construction of the dam. It just means that some of the towns people want us to build the dam in an enviromentally friendly way. For example, once construction of the dam is done, they would like to see us put in a couple parks alongside it to help beautify the area."

After having read "Dogs and Demons" by Alexander Kerr (A), I've grown to treat any Japanese construction project with a lot of cynicism. But it must be admitted I don't know anything about this particular case. Drinking water is a necessity for everyone, and although one always hates to see a beautiful mountain valley destroyed, this may well be a necessary construction project. I don't know. So I'm just going to keep my mouth shut.

The women even invited me up to see the construction in action. I was given a hard hat, which they told me I had to wear, and then one of them led me up the hill, past the concrete mixers, to a look out where I could see the construction going on.

It occured to me that I seemed to be their only customer for that afternoon, so I asked her if they usually kept busy at the informational center.
"Very busy, yes," she answered. "Bus tours will often come by."

From where we were standing, the entire construction operation was pretty impressive to behold. Rocks were coming in on conveyer belts, getting mixed into cement, getting dumped into huge containers on pulleys which would then fly on ropes across the valley. Down below a team of men, who looked like ants, were hard at work placing the cement.

"This dam must employ a lot of people," I said.
"About 200," the woman answered.
"And all they all from Oyama?"
"No, they come from the construction company. They're from all over Japan, and they just travel from one job to another."
"How long is this dam going to take to build."
"It will be finished in another 2 years. And then it will take two more years for it to fill up with water from the river. Already you can see the valley has changed a lot. That whole road going through the mountains and all those bridges were built just for the construction of this dam. None of that used to be there before."
"What used to be here before then?"
"Well, there was an old countryside road going through the valley. You can see the remnants of it there. And there was a small group of houses right where the dam is being built now. Only about 10 houses."
"Just 10 houses?"
"Yes, well, this is the countryside. There aren't many people here."

In order to be polite, I tried to seem as interested in the dam as possible and asked as many questions as I could think of. When I ran out of questions we went back down to the dam informational center.

They woman gave me several more pamphlets, and suggested I should tell my students about the dam and show them the pamphlets as well. I agreed that I would do that, which I suppose wasn't completely honest of me. They also gave me a card with a picture of the dam on it. "This is very special," they said. "People can only get this card by coming here to the informational center."

"Ah, a collectors item. Okay, I'll be sure to take good care of this."

They encouraged me to come back, and bring my friends next time, and even gave me a phone number to call. "You should come back to see how the dam's progress keeps up," they said. I said I probably would stop by again, which probably also wasn't completely honest.

After this, I drove back through Oyama to "Konohanagarten" a restaurant/ food store.

There is a delicious organic buffet restaurant here, which I have eaten at in the past when I was staying in Hita. But it was a fancy place so it seemed a bit odd to eat there when I was all by myself.
I briefly considered getting a cup of coffee at the cafe, but their coffee set was priced at 1050 yen ($10). I've had a lot of overpriced coffee in my time, but $10 was pushing the limit.

So, I left my car in the Konohanagarten parking lot, while I walked up and down the road by the river.

Once 5 o'clock came around, I figured I had explored everything there was to explore in Oyama, and I called it a day.

Oyama links
Konohana Garten
Community Development in Oyama-mach,
Article on Hibikinosato,
Umeboshi that Emanates Oyama's Specialness (The gentleman who wrote this article is very highly regarded by the Oyama people. While in Oyama, I heard many complimentary things about him).

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Propaganda and Control of The Public Mind
and The anarchist origins of May Day

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