Sunday, June 14, 2009

Maetsue Village / 前津江

(Better Know a City)

Monday June 8, 2009
Even before heading out to Maetsue, I knew it would be a small little country town with not much in it. Everybody told me there was nothing there. And, they were right.

I drove down to Oyama town, and then turned off towards Maetsue by Oyama dam.

So far I've visited a lot of what I call small "mountain towns" on this project , by which I usually mean a town in a small valley surrounded by mountains. Maetsue is a mountain town in the sense that the whole town seems to be on a mountain side. Even driving through it you notice immediately that the schools, town hall, post office, and grocery store are all built on the side of the mountain along a road sloping up.

Initially I just drove past the main street area (I would return to it later) and kept driving up the hill to see what I would find.

The main attraction in Maetsue was apparently Tsubakigahana Highland Park, and all the signs pointed up to it.

I followed the signs up the mountain. When I saw a sign for Oimatsu shrine, I took a brief detour and stopped there.

I'm not exactly sure what there was to see at Oimatsu shrine. There was a temple, with a parking lot. A path lead behind the temple to another shrine (Kyuhonden, I think, was the name of it).

There were some more signs and even a bit of a map here, but I had a hard time making anything out. Apparently behind the shrine was a nature trail for something called "Yuzuriha natural forest", but I couldn't find anything. I made several false starts down what looked like they might have been natural trails at one time, but I couldn't find anything.

In the opposite direction was a sign pointing towards (hopefully I'm reading this right) Gyakushuto. What was Gyakushuto? Well, I had no idea. But I had nothing better to do than follow the signs and see where it went.

I followed the sign a short distance, and I found myself wandering into a farmer's field. This is actually pretty standard in the countryside, actually. You find yourself wandering through farmer's fields to get to the historical markers all the time.

In this case, however, two dogs shattered the morning quiet by suddenly letting forth a vicious fusillade of barking. I hadn't noticed the dogs before, and the sudden noise startled the bejeezus out of me. I jumped up about a meter.

Feeling that this path was leading nowhere, I turned and walked back to the sign to try and figure out where I had gone wrong.

I went back to the sign and the map. It was pointing in that direction all right. But there was nothing there but the field and the dogs.
I was just about to give up, when I saw a farmer staring at me intently. I nodded at him. He nodded back, and didn't move and kept standing still staring at me. "He must wonder what this strange foreigner is doing wandering around and disturbing his dogs," I thought.
I decided I should go over and ask him for directions to Gyakushuto. That way he would at least know I was a sight-seer, and not some strange guy wandering around his property.

I started walking towards him, and as I got closer to him I could see that the reason he hadn't been moving is because he was in the middle of relieving himself.

Public urination (by males at least)is perfectly acceptable in the Japanese countryside. I couldn't begin to count the number of times I've seen an old Japanese man relieving himself in public in full view of everyone when there was a restroom just 20 feet away.

The question now is do I keep walking towards him and try to ignore the fact that he was urinating, or do I do an abrupt about face and walk away.
I decided the latter would just compound the embarrassment for both of us, so I decided to keep walking and pretend I didn't notice anything.

I was reminded of a time in Fukuoka when I was with a group of friends, and Usa Chris asked one of the ramen stall vendors for directions. The man calmly pulled up his pants, and politely gave directions to Chris. Something of the Japanese equivalent of, "Well, ya' see here, what you want to do is go down that street over there and..." Only after we had left did the rest of us point out to Chris that the man had been relieving himself at the time. Chris hadn't noticed, and the man answered his question so casually and without any sense of embarrassment that it was obviously no big deal to him to be caught with his pants down. I decided to try and hope for the same result now.
(Incidentally, I know I'm getting slightly off topic here but just as a side note, after I noticed that man was relieving himself right next to his ramen stall, and after I noticed he went right back to work without washing his hands, I've never been able to eat at Fukuoka's famous outdoor ramen stalls again).

I slowed down my walk so that the farmer was able to finish all his business by the time I approached him. I showed him my notebook, in which I had written down the kanji of Gyakushuto, and asked him where it was. I didn't catch his reply perfectly, but it was something like, "Well,I don't really know. But you better go down to the end of the path, and knock at the door of the second house on the right. They'll be able to take you to it."

"Okay," I said, thinking in my head, "well, nuts to this. I didn't want to see that stupid Gyakushoto that badly anyway."

"Do you think you can find the house? I can walk down there with you if you like."

"No, no thank you very much, but I think I can find it on my own."

Very likely Gyakushuto was just some sort of special rock with an historical marker next to it. If the people living right next to it didn't know where it was in their own backyard, it obviously wasn't worth seeing. And I certainly didn't want to put anyone to any trouble.
I thanked the farmer, and then went on my way. As I left, I heard him shout back to someone in the house, "he was trying to find Gyakushuto. He's just a sight-seer."

As soon as I was out of sight from him, I left the path and gave up on tracking down Gyakushuto and any of the other sights on the sign or map.
There was a small pavilion on a hill. And at one time there had been a path leading up to it, although it was all overgrown with grass now.
I'm not sure if this was one of this historical sights or not.

As long as I had my car stopped, I took a few minutes to wander around the neighborhood, and got some pictures of this small rice farming village up in the mountains.

There were also some grave stones marked Shaka no Yurai (The origins of Shaka?). I'm not sure what there significance was, but I took some pictures anyway.

After this, I got back in the car and continued following the road up to Tsubakigahana Highland Park.

The park was up high in the mountains (hence the name) and there were actually several parts to it. The first was the top of Shaka mountain.

There was a road leading up to the top of Shaka mountain, which I drove up with my car.
It was a long, steep, winding drive. My poor engine made a strained whirring sound the whole time, and I worried about the strain this was putting on my K-car (W).

Eventually I made it to the top. There was a good view, as you would expect. You could see several mountains in the distance, and there was a map there explaining all the different mountains. Because it was slightly cloudy that day, I couldn't see the mountains furthest off in the distance, but you can't be too greedy about these kinds of things.

Also at the top of mount Shaka was a big weather radar station. A sign explained how the radar was used to detect oncoming rain storms.
According to the sign, this one weather station serviced all of Northern Kyushu and most of Southern Honshu. I'm no meteorologist though, so I don't know if that's true or not.

Driving back down the mountain, I returned to the central area of Tsubakigahana Highland Park.

There were a few windmills running up on the mountain, providing alternative energy to the people of Maetsue, which I thought was kind of neat so I took a picture. And I climbed up on one of the kids jungle gyms for a view around the park.

There was in theory a lot to do at this park. There was camping lodges, a gym, a "beef station" restaurant, a roller skating area, a miniature golf course, a slide, a playground for the kids, an Onsen, another restaurant, et cetera.

I say "in theory" because the place was completely deserted.
All the signs said, "open" on them, but the place was not open. There were no customers, there, and there were no employees. A few other cars drove through while I was wandering around there, but I didn't see anyone doing anything. One car was parked by the "woods and crafts" building, so maybe that was still active, I don't know.
The sign at the restaurant said they were open all weekdays from March to November, but it was clearly not open. I tried to get in but all the doors were locked. And a lot of the park looked like it hadn't been open for some time, because the weeds were overgrown in the roller skating area, and the buildings were looking pretty shabby.
On the other hand, the vending machines were still stocked and functioning, so I got myself a coke and a canned coffee.

After all those road signs leading up to it, "Tsubakigahana Highland Park" was a huge disappointment.
There was however some hiking in the area. There was a hiking trail up to the top of Shaka Mountain, which lead through a nationally protected forest. I walked a little bit of this path, but didn't get far on it.

On the other side of the park was another trail leading up to Togamitake mountain.

If I had come out here a month or so earlier, no doubt these trails would have kept me occupied most of the afternoon. As it was, I decided it was too hot to do a lot of hiking.
(Actually all things considered, we've had a very cool June this year, and I was probably being a bit of a wimp by using the heat as an excuse. If I had felt like sweating it out, it wouldn't have been a problem, but I was also just feeling tired and irritable from a long week, and didn't have it in me today.)

I left Tsubakigahana and drove down the Greenline road, following signs for the Kongen waterfall. Like everything else in Matsue, I had no idea what the Kongen waterfall was like, but I'm a sucker for waterfalls. If there's a waterfall somewhere in the town, I want to see it.

After driving for a while, I came to another trail head labeled "Gozendake Yusui Shioji Gensei Rin".
There was no parking here, so I just pulled my car over over on the side of the road.

Although I had previously written that I wasn't in a hiking mood, this trail went alongside a river, and it looked pretty scenic. So I decided to give it a try.

I hiked it for about a half hour or so. This trail took me back into another national protected forest (or more likely, another part of the same forest).
Eventually I began to feel like I was just seeing the same scenery over and over again (just more trees and more trees) so I turned around and headed back.
Again, I guess I wasn't in much of a hiking mood that day. If I had stayed with the trail, I think it would have lead me all the way up to the mountain top.

I got back in the car and made more attempts to find the waterfall.

As often happens in the Japanese countryside, the signs led me on a wild goose chase. The signs would point in one direction for the waterfall, and I would go that way until there was a fork in the road, and look in vain for a new sign. Then I would chose one road, and find myself driving in long circles in the middle of nowhere.

And by the way, the road conditions up in the mountains of Maetsue were absolutely appalling. There were signs warning of the dangers of falling rocks, and judging by all the rocks on the road they weren't kidding.
There were no huge boulders on the road, but the road was littered with a bunch of little rocks about the size of a brick. I did my best to maneuver around all of these.
And at some points the vegetation was so overgrown that there were long stretches when, despite driving in the middle of the road, both sides of my car were scrapped by overhanging branches and overgrown bushes.

Eventually I just gave up.
I decided to return to the center of Maetsue (the "downtown" area, if you can call it that) and start over.

I parked my car by the town hall.
Maestue has been absorbed into Hita city since the town mergers, but they still keep a branch office open.
It was operated by what looked like a skeleton crew. There were only about 10 people in the office. They all looked at me when I walked in.
"Um, do you have any maps or pamphlets or anything on Matsue?" I asked.

They conferred with each other, and then someone called over to a guy in the back. "Hey, town pamphlets, that's your department, isn't it?"

He came over and gave me a pamphlet on Maetsue. I thanked him, bowed, and walked out.

As I was leaving the town hall I unfolded the pamphlet and studied the map on it. I tried to figure out where on this map I had already been, and where I should go next.

As I stood there, one of the town hall workers, an older man, came out to talk to me.
"Hello," he said in English. "Where are you from?"

He spoke pretty decent English, and he asked me what I wanted to see in Maetsue.
"Um, I don't know. The waterfall maybe."

"Really? We don't have any big waterfalls in Maetsue," he answered.

"There's a couple on the map here," I replied.

"Well, this one here," he pointed to the one marked Hitotsuji, "isn't really a waterfall. And the other one, well, you have to drive a long way, and there's a sign, and it's, well, it's, it's a bit of a walk, and..."
I could tell he was trying to tell me as gently as possible that it wasn't worth the trouble it would take to get to it.

"What you should really check out is our Tsubakigahana Highland Park. That's what Maetsue is most famous for."

"I was just there, and there was absolutely no one there," I replied.

"Really? Well I'll call them up and have them open it up for you," he said. He got out his cell-phone.

"No, no, no, thank you, but that's okay. I don't want to put anyone to any trouble." (Besides which, I had very little interest in returning to Tsubakigahana Highland Park anyway. I felt like I had already scoped it out.)

The old man advised me to consult with the big map in front of the city hall, and to ask him again if I had any questions. I thanked him and left.

(Incidentally, while I was talking with him I noticed his smell, and realized it had a very familiar quality to it. I don't know what it is exactly, but every older man who works in a Japanese office seems to acquire this smell.
Like most sensations its difficult to accurately put into words. A vaguely sweet smell. Cigarettes and coffee are distinguishable, but possible mixed in with other elements as well.
They say the sense of smell is linked to memory, and as I talked to this man I felt like I was instantly transported back to my first few weeks in Japan, stuck inside of the board of education surrounded by Japanese men with this same smell. And I remembered the feeling I had back then, probably common to all new JETs (W) stuck in the office, of being in a brand new country on a great adventure, and simultaneously bored out of my mind.)

That trip down memory lane aside, I decided to walk up and down the streets as long as I had my car parked. I got a few pictures of the town built on a hillside, walked past the schools and the post office.

There was a small grocery store that I stopped in, although they had so little food in stock that it was probably really more of a convenience store. (I guess the people of Maetsue must drive down to Oyama when they want to stock up on groceries). I was looking for something I could eat for lunch, and ended up buying some bananas and sweet bread.

Finally, I got back in the car and made one last attempt to find the waterfall.

I drove around in circles again, but eventually I found it.

The old man wasn't kidding when he indicated it wasn't much of a tourist spot. Driving down a windy mountain road you suddenly see a sign by the side of the road indicating the trail for the waterfall. There's absolutely no place to park. I drove up a bit further until I got to a fork in the road, and there was enough of a shoulder to park the car off to one side.

Then I walked down back to the sign, and followed a little dirt trail down the hill to where the waterfall was.

It may not have been a major tourist attraction, but it was a beautiful enough waterfall.

By this time, I was feeling tired of driving all over the place. So I just left the car parked, and relaxed by the waterfall for an hour or so. I read my book, I ate the food I had bought, and I just watched the water. No one else came down near the waterfall, so I had it completely to myself.

Afterwards I walked back up to the road, and walked down the street a little bit, and took some pictures of the houses. (I think it was called the Tashiro neighborhood).

Then when 5 O'clock came around, I decided to call it a day.

Final verdict: despite all my complaining, there were plenty of good hiking trails in this town that I bypassed. If I had come in cooler weather, or been in more of a hiking mood, I'm sure I would have had no problem keeping occupied here.

Maetsue Links: Ooita Gongendaki Oita Gongen Waterfall,
Gongen Falls, Sioji-genseirin Shioji Primeval Forest, Tsubakigahana Highland Park

Link of the Day
Chomsky on WNYC

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