Monday, April 27, 2009
Before I get started on Usuki, a quick bloggy note: The past couple weeks I've not gone out because heavy rain was forecast. And, in spite of the forecast, we had moderate weather only mixed with showers. I totally could have gone out, and I ended up losing 2 more weeks on this project.
As I am now making plans to leave Japan, I'm worried I will not be able to finish this little project if I keep up my current pace.
Therefore: new rule. No more excuses. Instead of waiting around for perfect weather, from this point on I will be setting out no matter the weather is like. If it rains, I'll bring an umbrella.
Heavy rain will of course mean I won't be able to take as many pictures, but so be it. Something is better than nothing.
And if I ever manage to finish this project before I leave Japan, I'll then try and make return trips to any city I didn't to justice to because of the rain
All this is to explain why I headed out to Usuki despite the fact that it was raining all morning.
Now, actually in this case, the rain ended up stopping by about 10 or 11, and it turned into a beautiful day. So it ended up not mattering all that much. But keep this new rule in mind, because I'll probably be invoking it again in the near future as rainy season approaches.
Now as to the city of Usuki: I've never spent time in Usuki before, but I had a couple associations with it.
Five years ago, Shoko and I went down to Nagasaki for the weekend. We took the express bus, and on the way back they showed a movie called, "Nagori Yuki" (IMDB). Shoko and I had been ignoring all the other movies, but when this movie was announced Shoko suddenly said, "Oh, I want to see this. I've heard about this movie. It was filmed down in Usuki, in Oita Prefecture."
Oita Prefecture is pretty out in the boon docks, and you don't hear about many movies being filmed in these parts. So a movie coming from Oita seemed like a big deal. I plugged in my ear-phones, and listened along to the movie.
The movie is based off a Japanese pop- folk song of the same name from the 1970s, which is one of those really popular songs that keeps getting recorded and re-recorded by different artists, until someone decided the song was popular enough to make a whole movie out of it. And although movies based on pop songs are usually pretty cheesy , I actually enjoyed it.
For one thing, all of the dialogue was in clear, slow spoken, easy to understand Japanese. Which is always a plus for me.
I also found myself getting absorbed in the story.
The basic premise is that a tragic car accident brings some high school friends back to the small town in which they grew up. The main character recalls in flashbacks his high school love, a young innocent girl who had been totally devoted to him, but who he had let slip away when he went off to college.
I was later to find out that all of these elements were cliches in Japanese cinema. The Japanese film industry cranks out tons of sappy movies about a tragic young love story told in flashbacks from the prospective of people who are now middle aged. But at the time, I was moved by it (perhaps because it was my first exposure to the formula). I was touched by the idea of all these people reflecting on their lost youth and what might have been.
I've since asked many other Japanese people about this movie, and almost none of them have heard of it, so it must not be that famous in absolute terms, but I'm told the people of Usuki are very proud of it.
My second association with Usuki: this is where William Adams first set foot in Japan. William Adams was the first Englishman in Japan and his story was immortalized in James Clavell's novel "Shogun". After having read "Shogun" last year, I thought it would be neat to see some of the areas where the story was based.
So, I started out from Nakatsu. I drove through Usa, through Ajimu, Yamaga, Hiji, and Beppu. I drove into Oita city and followed the signs for Usuki, taking route 21. This was a fairly major road, and I expected it would stay that way, but to my surprise it turned off abruptly into the mountains. After driving through the mountain for a while, I began seeing signs letting me know I was in an Oita Prefecture nature preserve.
Somewhere up in the nature preserve, I crossed the boarder over into Usuki.
The nature preserve was very beautiful, especially since it was spring and all the green was in full force. But as there was no place to park the car, I simply admired it from the car without stopping to take any pictures.
Once I got back down the mountain, the first stop I made was at a pagoda along the side of the road. I'm not sure what the significance of it was (and in fact it looked so polished and shiny that I suspect it was newly built and not of any historical significance), but it's bright red colors caught my eye will driving, so I pulled over to take some pictures.
From there, I followed the signs onto central Usuki, and kept driving until I got to the ferry port.
I'm not sure where this particular ferry was going, but I got out of the car long enough to take some video of the port.
Next, I followed the signs to the city hall, where I loaded up on sight seeing pamphlets for Usuki city.
I decided to leave my car in the city hall parking lot, and went out on foot out to explore central Usuki. And in fact since I did not return to my car until several hours later, I ended up being on foot for most of the afternoon.
The rain was still drizzling down when I left my car, so I took my umbrella with me. However within 10 minutes of setting off, the rain let up. This meant that throughout all of my wanderings through downtown Usuki I was now carrying along a useless umbrella. And as it hung uselessly by my side, I did all the things you normally do when holding an umbrella you don't know what to do with. I used it like a walking cane, I tossed it from one hand to another, I threw it up in the air and caught it again, and I swung it through the air in pointless flourishes as if illustrating speaking points, and I used it as a sword on invisible enemies. It was a slight annoyance most of the afternoon, but that's the risk you take whenever you carry an umbrella with you.
My first stop was the ruins of Usuki castle (w). It was just a couple blocks from the city hall.
Without a Japanese friend to explain to me the significance, I didn't know much about the history of Usuki castle. But I certainly did appreciate the fact that it was a beautiful spring day, and enjoyed the walk around the castle park. Also from the elevated castle plateau I got a great view of downtown Usuki.
The hanging wisteria flowers (w) (called fuji in Japanese) are very popular in Japan, and they were in full bloom in this park.
After the castle ruins, I made my way over to the Gekkeji temple. Again, I didn't understand the significance of it, but it was a beautiful temple on a green hillside.
I continued down the road. I was intending to turn down into the historical district, but while fooling around with the map I got distracted by this beautiful little river.
It seemed to me to envelope all of the charms of small town Japan. Like all rivers in Japan, it's banks had been concreted over, but the actual river bed itself was still natural and filled with small islands of green grass and wildflowers. It was lined closely on both sides by old Japanese country style houses, and looking upstream you could see the river winding through the valley and then disappearing up into the mountains.
I was so enamoured with this little idyllic scene that I forgot about the tourist areas and followed the river for a while instead.
Along the way I spotted a small sign pointing up the hill to some sort of unseen attraction. The sign was in Kanji (I think it was pronounced ooiwa), so I wasn't sure what it was. I suspected it was some sort of temple, or maybe a historic statue, or a special rock, or something. Since it was right along my path, I decided to take a minute to check it out.
I followed the sign up the path. And kept following it up the path. And kept going. And pretty soon I realized I was being lead on a hike up the mountain through a bamboo forest.
As I'm a bit out of shape these days, I was really huffing and puffing up this mountain, bitterly regretting all the chocolate donuts I've eaten the past couple weeks. And because it had started out as a chilly morning, I had on several layers of clothes which I was now sweating through. I stopped half way up the trail to swap clothes for the shorts and T-shirt I had in my backpack. (The trail seemed deserted enough that I figured I could get away with a mid-trail clothing change). When I took off my long sleeve shirt it was completely drenched with sweat.
At one point a Tanuki (W) ran across my path. Or rather he leisurely walked across it, not seeming to be bothered by me at all. He disappeared into his hole before I could get my camera out, but it still represented the second time I had seen an actual Tanuki since Taketa.
Eventually I got to the the top of the mountain, where there was a large rock jutting out the side of the mountain, and from which you really got a great bird's eye view of all of Usuki below.
After this I returned down the mountain. I returned to following the stream for a while, but eventually I got bored with this and returned back to the center of town.
I followed the map to the historical areas of Usuki, and walked up and down places like the Nioza historical road.
Along this were supposed to be many famous historical buildings, such as the houses of the Inaba-clan (w). And there were various other (supposedly) famous temples such as the Shinkouji Temple.
I neither saw entrances to any of these buildings, nor, to be honest, did I really look too hard. Instead I just wandered up and down the roads and enjoyed the beauty of the old historical city in the spring time.
I followed signs down to the Ryugenji Temple 3 story pagoda (built in 1858) and took a picture of that.
Then I circled around back to Haccho Oji--the "shopping street".
This street had a lot of traditional Japanese shops selling various traditional foods and other knick knacks. There wasn't a lot I was interested in here, although I did see a couple posters up for the movie "Nagori Yuki", and at least one sign trying to use the movie to see local food. Clearly the shop-keepers of Usuki are still trying to milk this 2002 film.
On this street there was also a visitor center called, "Sala-de-Usuki". The name means "living room" in Portuguese, and was chosen to emphasize the Portuguese historical connection. Back in the 16th century Usuki was a center of Portuguese trading and missionary activity.
[And in fact if you've read "Shogun", you'll remember that when Blackthorne (the character based off of William Adams) first lands in Japan he is horrified to discover that his arch enemies the Portuguese are already well established there.]
The outside of Sala-de-Usuki was designed to look like an old Catholic mission, and the inside of it there were displays teaching about Nanban (w) culture in Usuki.
I've got to say though that this visitor center was the only evidence of Portuguese culture I saw in Usuki. Maybe I wasn't looking hard enough.
An old man sitting behind the desk gave me some more maps, and answered some of my questions about Usuki. "I understand William Adams landed here in Usuki," I said.
"Yes," the old man answered. "His ship came into Kuroshima island over here, just off the coast of Usuki, where the Japanese people came and helped him."
"Is there any sort of statue or monument?" I asked.
"On Kuroshima Island, there's a placard," the old man answered.
And this was apparently the extent of William Adam's fame here in Usuki.
(Although William Adams has become famous in the West thanks to the novel "Shogun" and the TV miniseries, his fame has not caught on in Japan. Although the novel was apparently translated in Japanese at one point, no Japanese person I've talked to has ever heard of it. Nor do any of them know who William Adams was. This old man was first Japanese person I'd met who even knew what I was talking about, and that was probably just because he ran the tourist center.)
There was, however, in the visitor center a small replica of Liefde, the Dutch boat William Adams and his crew mates arrived on.
"Also," I continued, "I understand the movie 'Nagori Yuki' was filmed here. I don't suppose you could tell me where the scenes were shot?"
I considered this a bit of a long shot on my part. I didn't really expect him to know, but he reached under the desk and gave me a "Nagori Yuki" sight seeing flier, which had pictures of different scenes from the movie corresponding to different numbers marked out on a town map.
Looking at the map, it turns out I had already walked through several of the places where scenes had been filmed, although they hadn't rung any bells when I was walking through them. (Then again, it was 5 years ago since I saw the movie, so it's probably not as fresh in my mind as it could be).
After this, I felt like I had seen most of what I wanted to see in central Usuki, and began walking back towards my car so I could drive out to some of the outer parts.
Once I got back in my car, I started driving out to see the Usuki stone Buddhas.
The stone Buddhas (w) are Usuki's main claim to fame. Many times in the past, Japanese teachers or other cultural coordinators have organized group tours of foreigners to go out and see Usuki stone Buddhas, but I've always passed on these before. But, now I was finally going to see what all the fuss was about.
As with any big tourist trap, there was a lot of development outside of the stone Buddhas. There was a big parking lot with several buildings including a restaurant, a visitor's center, and a few small shops.
I was a bit parched from hiking around all day, so my first instinct was to head for the visitor's center and buy a drink.
One of the lady's from the ticket booth saw me walking in the other direction, and apparently thought I was trying to escape buying a ticket. She ran out to flag me down, and told me I needed to buy a ticket to go in. And, she added, I could also get a combination ticket that included the museum as well.
"The museum's all in Japanese, isn't it?" I said.
"Mostly in Japanese," she admitted.
"I think I'll just get the normal ticket then."
"But the normal ticket is 530 yen. The combination ticket is only 700 yen."
Well, for an extra 170 yen, why not? So I got the combination ticket.
I went over to the vending machines and bought an Aquarius sports drink (w). As I sipped on the drink, an old man and a woman walked past me. The old man did a double take, stopped, and then shouted out, "Hey, where are you from?"
"America," I answered, doing my best to be friendly despite the fact I've had this conversation a million times before.
"Where in America?"
"I've been there."
"You have? Hey, no kidding. Where in Michigan."
"You know, Chicago, all around that area."
I decided to let this go without correcting it.
"And she's from China," the old man said, indicating the woman next to him.
Because her face had been hidden by her sun-hat, I had assumed the woman next to him was the same age he was. But now as she looked over at me and smiled, I saw she was actually a very beautiful lady, probably 30 or 40 years his junior.
My entire attitude towards this conversation immediately changed. Instead of simply just putting up with the old man, I suddenly made an effort to be much more charming and friendly.
"She's from Hunan," the old man continued. "Do you know Hunan?"
"No, I'm afriad I don't."
"Hunan. Chairman Mao," the girl said.
This jogged my memory a bit. "Oh, right, Hunan. Actually I do know where that is. That's in Southern China, right?"
The girl just gave me a blank look instead, so I switched languages and repeated myself in Japanese.
She replied with a series of words that I couldn't fully put together. "Hunan. Hotel. Work. TV. Study. Japan."
"She works in the hospitality industry in Hunan," the old man told me. "She's in Beppu now to study the spa industry."
"Oh, right. At Beppu University. Hey I know some people there."
"No, not Beppu University," the old man said. "A smaller private school. I'm a teacher at that school, so I thought I would help take here sight seeing."
The girl smiled at me, and I wanted to continue the conversation with her, but as usually happens to me in these situations I suddenly found my mind blanking on anything to say. "So, is this your first time to Usuki?"
"I'm a native of Beppu. I've been down here tons of times," the old man said. "It's the first time for her of course."
When the old man walked away to take some pictures , I tried to strike up a conversation with the girl again. "So, um, have you been in Japan long?" I asked first in English, then in Japanese. She didn't understand me either time, and finally she called the old man over to translate for her.
I repeated my question to him. "No, she's only been here for one month, and she's only staying for one more. It's difficult to talk to her because she hasn't learned much Japanese yet, and she can't speak English."
"Do you speak Chinese then?" I asked him.
"No," he laughed. "The whole time we've been out today we've had such a hard time communicating."
The girl said something to me in a language that sounded vaguely like Japanese, but was so heavily accented I couldn't make it out.
"She asked if you can speak Chinese," the old man said to me.
"No, no I can't," I answered.
"Welcome," she said in English. And when I didn't respond, she repeated the word again, "welcome."
"I think she means you're welcome to come to China anytime," the old man said, again helping me out.
"Oh, right, well thank you very much," I answered.
After that, we kind of went our separate ways. I got the sense that the girl would have liked to talk to me more, but the conversation seemed to have run its course, and I wasn't sure what else I could say to her. And, although I am always reluctant to leave a pretty face, I sensed it would be increasingly awkward if I intentionally hung around them, even though they were both very friendly. They were observing the stone Buddha's at a slower pace than I was, so I eventually just left them behind.
The stone Buddhas themselves were, in my opinion, nothing special and seeing them was a bit anti-climatic after everything I've heard about them.
I'm probably just a bit numb to this kind of thing after living in Japan for so long. One sees statues of Buddha all over the Japanese countryside, and I'm not sure what was so special about these ones. I mean they were nice for what they were, but it's nothing I would organize a group to go down and see.
The pamphlet indicated that these statues were from the Heian (w) and Kamakura (w) period. And so in that sense, being in the presence of statues that are a 1000 years old is kind of cool I guess.
I followed signs up the path to see the Gorinto (Holy Tower), which was also a bit underwhelming, but apparently had some history behind it.
On my way back down the path, I saw 4 caucasian faces coming up the other way.
Oita Prefecture is far enough off the beaten path that it doesn't get any foreign tourists. No one goes sight seeing in Oita who doesn't live in Oita. So I suspected this was a group of English teachers from somewhere nearby, and it would be a good idea to introduce myself and make their acquatance.
"Hello gang!" I called out in what I thought was my friendliest voice.
In response I got back a couple mumbled grudging hellos, and what I interpreted as the "we don't know you, so why are you talking to us" look. I didn't puruse the conversation after that.
Once I got back to the bottom I went and used my ticket to the museum. Again, I was slightly underwhelmed by it.
I got back in the car and looked at the various maps I had acquired to try and plan my next step. The Hakubei valley sounded like it might be pretty scenic, so I drove in that direction.
The Hakubei valley turned out to be another hike up the side of a mountain, but instead of being simply a dirt trail it was interspersed with, small temples, wooden pavilions and stone bridges. Someone had obviously taken care to integrate parts of a temple into the beauty of the mountainside, and it was a very pleasant walk.
There was a small river trickling down the valley, which the stone bridges would criss cross over at different points. And, at the top of the trail was a small pond which was the source of the river.
It was now after 5 o'clock, and I hadn't stopped to eat all day. Despite having had a pretty big breakfast, I was beginning to feel pretty hungry.
I went back in my car and drove towards central Usuki. I stopped at Joyfull (my favorite chain restaurant in Oita) to get some food and enjoy the coffee and soda drink bar.
By the time I left Joyful, it was after 6 and fastly approaching the twilight hour.
I took a different road out of Usuki than the one I came in on, leaving by route 217. This road went by Kuroshima Island, so I stopped the car briefly to take a look.
Kuroshima Island was just barely off-shore. I could easily have swum over if I felt like getting wet, but short of that I didn't see any way over. There was no bridge, and, despite seeing tons of boats in the vicinity, I didn't see any passenger ships.
At 7 o'clock in the evening, they would probably have stopped running the shuttle boat anyway. But the way the port and car park looked so run down, it made me wonder if they still ferried people over to the island at all these days.
There was a small sign at the car park indicating that four hundred years earlier William Adams had come to that Island, and there was a park there in his honor. You could also go camping there.
With that, I bid farewell to Usuki and headed back home.
For more information on the film "Nagori Yuki" see here.
And the song Nagori Yuki on youtube. (Actually there are more versions of this song on-line then you can shake a stick at, so if this one ever disappears due to copyright claims just do another search.)
Portuguese Culture in Usuki: This guy obviously did a much better job of ferreting out Portuguese connections in Usuki than I did.
Usuki web page
Link of the Day
and What we talk about when we talk about torture