Friday, October 24, 2008

Kusu / 玖珠

(Better Know a City)

Like a lot of other cities on this project, Kusu is a city I knew well before I even set off. My familiarity with Kusu was largely due to my good buddy Greg, who lived there during our JET years. Although Kusu was a good hour’s drive away from my home in Ajimu, I made the drive several times over the years to visit Greg, and together we would go swimming in the Kusu waterfalls, or go hiking up the Kusu mountains.

In fact I spent my first Christmas in Japan in Kusu at a JET party in Greg’s apartment. And when Greg and I set off for our hitch-hiking trip, we left from Kusu. (The first segment of our video takes place mostly in Kusu, inside Greg’s apartment, and then at the Kusu highway rest stop).

Like Honyabakei, I decided to do Kusu in two separate days. My reason was simple. I wanted to swim in the waterfall during the heat of summer, but I wanted to do my hiking around during the cool of fall.

Let’s start with August.

Day 1, August Ryumon Waterfall
Swimming in the waterfall is always more fun if you bring along a couple of friends, so I set off with Stewart and Yousuke. We planned to get an early start and leave at about 9:15, but one of us (it was me) got off to a bit of a late start leaving his apartment, and it about quarter to ten before we were on the road.

It took us almost an hour and a half to get to Kusu. From Nakatsu, we had to drive through Sanko-Mura, Honyabakei and Yabakei before arriving in Kusu. And even then we had to drive through the town and follow a series of winding side streets before getting to the Ryumon Waterfall.

It had been about 3 years since I was last at this waterfall. As far as I can remember, the last time I was here was when I was in August 2005 when I was showing Chris (the new JET in Ajimu at the time) the sights of Oita prefecture back in the summer of 2005. (In fact you can see Chris's Photos from that trip here).

Unlike the Yabakei waterfall, Ryumon is not very secluded. In fact it can get quite crowded sometimes. I was hoping to avoid most of the crowds by going on a Wednesday, but no luck. It may have been a Wednesday afternoon, but it was still in summer vacation, right during the middle of Obon holidays. The Waterfall was packed with people.

Fortunately the parking lot was crowded, but not full. (I’ve been to this waterfall on days when you couldn’t even get a parking spot, and had to park down the road and walk in). The man in charge of parking waved me into the parking lot, and then continued to wave me on to a small little side street. He indicated a very small spot between a tree and another car, just large enough for a car to squeeze in sideways.

“You know, in America, I never had to learn how to parallel park to pass my driver’s license test,” I remarked to the boys as I tried to squeeze into the small opening. I had to do a little bit of back and forth, but eventually I got the car in.

A little boy was in charge of collecting the parking fee, and ran up to the car. “500 yen,” he said.

I started to unbuckle my seatbelt and open the door. The boy seemed to be worried that I wasn’t planning on giving him the money. “500 yen, 500 yen,” he repeated.

“Yeah, hold on, just let me get out of the car first,” I muttered in English.
“500 yen,” the boy said.

I hit my head on the car door as I got up, which I blame the boy for, since I was trying to take out my wallet and get out of the car at the same time. “Okay, here’s your 500 yen,” I said, handing the parking fee to the boy.

“Look at all the cars here,” Stewart commented. “The whole population of Kusu must be out today.”

“Actually in my experience, most of the people you meet at this waterfall have traveled from outside of Kusu,” I said.

And sure enough, the license plates on the cars were from literally all over Japan. There was Kyoto, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Yokohama, Kagoshima, Nagasaki, et cetera. I even saw a couple cars from my old stomping grounds in Gifu Prefecture.
Now, granted it was the middle of the Obon Holiday. If we had come during another time of year, we might not have seen quite so many far away license plates. But it still shows the waterfalls ability to attract people from far away.

And it’s no wonder. Ryumon Waterfall is absolutely breathtaking in its beauty. The Waterfall consists of four parts. Up at the very top, the water from the river falls straight down off a cliff face, in one of the many vertical waterfalls in Japan made by shifting plates. It then collects in a pool underneath, which is, like many of these mountain streams, pristinely clean and crystal blue.
The water then overflows out of the first pool, and cascades down the sloping rock face for several more meters, until it collects in the bottom pool, where most of the children swim.

Video 1

Video 2

I don’t know how well my video or pictures capture it, but it’s absolutely beautiful in person.

The weather, it should be added, was surprisingly cool for an August day. Never fails, huh? We spent the entire week baking in the Kyushu sun, and then the one day we actually set out to go to the waterfall, the skies were overcast and the air was even a bit cool. But it was still more than warm enough to justify a swim.

Yosuke went off to change his clothes. Stewart and I, who were already wearing our swimsuits, proceeded to climb up to the top of the waterfall.

No matter how busy the bottom of the waterfall gets, the top pool is always empty. There are no little kids, and few adults. In part because it’s a bit of a climb to get up there. You have to walk up the left side of the sloping rock face, and then at the very end climb almost vertically up the last big rock.

Up at the top, Stewart and I removed our sandals and shirts, and got ready to jump in. There was a crowd of Japanese teenage boys next to us, trying to work up the courage to jump off the rock down into the pool.

From the top of the rock, it can look pretty far down, but I had been to this waterfall several times before, and I knew that the worst thing you can do was to think about it too much. So I gently moved myself to the front of the boys, and jumped in. Stewart followed shortly after.

“That was quite a jump though,” Stewart said afterward. “Looking up at that rock from here it must be several meters, and when you’re at the top of it looking down it looks even higher than it actually is.”

“The last time I was here,” I said, “a couple guys jumped off from the very top there,” I said, pointing to the top of the cliff where the water first flowed over.

Stewart looked around. “How did they get up there? I don’t see any path to the top.”

“There isn’t. They must have just climbed up the side of the mountain and bushwhacked their way through all the trees until they got to the top of the river. I’m not sure which why they went, but it must have been a bit of a climb.”

We swam around back and forth in the waterfall. I got out of the pool once to help Yosuke find where we were, and then we jumped back in.

During the week before hand, it had been sweltering in the Kyushu summer, and I had promised myself that once I got to this waterfall, I would spent the whole afternoon swimming around in it.
But once I was actually in the water, I felt that after 10 minutes I was sufficiently cooled off, and Stewart, Yousuke and I spent more time sitting around on the edge of the waterfall than we did actually swimming in it.

It is possible to slide down the cascading rock face part of the waterfall. In fact the signs for Ryumon waterfall proudly proclaim it, “The best sliding waterfall in Japan”.

However, unlike the Yabakei waterfall, the rocks are not quite so smooth to be able to slide down comfortably on your rear end. You do get bounced around a bit as the water lifts you up from one rock ledge and pushes you down on the other.

For that reason, almost everyone brings some sort of device to use as a cushion on the way down. Rubber inter-tubes seem to be the most popular. Some people also bring foam mats. I’ve even seen people slide down on plastic bags, although I’m not sure how much cushioning those plastic bags actually give.

Greg and I never remembered to bring anything during our many trips to Ryumon waterfall, and for that reason we would just slide down on our butts. It is possible to do this. (In fact, somewhere at home I have a great picture someone took of Greg and me both sliding down this waterfall at the same time, doing a kind of race to the bottom). However, you do pay for it. Your rear end gets a little bit bruised, and you might have trouble sitting down for the next couple days.

I tried to get Stewart and Yosuke to slide down the waterfall, but after my description of the risks involved, they decided they were happier just looking. As for myself, after contemplating the pros and cons, I decided that the thrill of sliding down the waterfall was probably not worth a sore butt. Besides, since I had already done it before, there probably was no need to do it again anyway.

Instead, we sat on the edge of the upper most pool, and watched other people slide down. And, even greater entertainment, we watched other people try to climb up.

Greg and I had learned the hard way that it doesn’t pay to try and walk up the rock face where the water is actually flowing. It may look tempting enough. The water is shallow, and the rock face appears to slope up gently. But it’s a mistake. The whole thing is as slippery as a banana peel.

Being a veteran of this waterfall, I had specifically steered Stewart and Yousuke to the thin strip of dry rock on the left hand side. But not many other people seemed to have learned this lesson, and almost everyone was trying to climb up the middle of rockface where the water flowed. And they were falling down left and right.

I joked to Stewart that I should get out my video camera and just film people trying to climb up. Later, I could edit all the falls together into one long sequence, and add some “Benny Hill” chase music to it or something. I didn’t end up doing this, but I think I easily could have. There was no shortage of people falling that afternoon.

I stood up to jump back in the waterfall, and Stewart did me the favor of observing that my swimsuit was torn in the back. I had noticed there was a small tear when I put it on in the morning, but I figured it was small enough I could still get away with wearing the suit. As Stewart point out to me, the tear had grown larger (I suppose as a result of swimming around and jumping in and out of the waterfall). Now it was torn from the top all the way to the bottom, exposing my left butt cheek to the public at large.
If this had been down at the bottom pool, it might have been a cause for more embarrassment. However since we were at the top pool, where very few people made it up to anyway, I just shrugged it off and said I supposed this meant it was my last day of wearing this suit.

Round about this time, a Japanese man with a yellow loudspeaker in his hand started yelling something. He was standing down way at the bottom of the waterfall, so it was difficult to make out what he was saying, but he was obviously yelling in our direction. He was also carrying with him a big yellow sign that said, “Public Safety”.

Because Stewart’s Japanese is better than mine, I asked him to translate. “Is he talking to us? What’s he saying?” But Stewart also had a hard time making out what the man was yelling about. So we asked Yousuke, our Japanese friend. But even Yousuke couldn’t hear it clearly. The man was too far away, and the megaphone had a way of garbling his speech even as it increased the volume. Besides, we were so close to the waterfall that it was difficult to hear much above the sound of the rushing water.

The old man yelled some more, appeared to give up and walk away, then abruptly came back and yelled off another flurry of comments, and then walked away again. “Is he talking to us?” I asked. “Do you suppose he noticed the tear in my swimsuit?”

The whole thing remained a mystery for about two more minutes, and then we realized what the man had been yelling about. Several teenage boys had climbed up to the very top of the waterfall cliff face, and were now working up the courage to jump down from it. Because we were at the top pool, we had been too close to see over the cliff, but from the bottom the old man in charge of safety must have seen them. His efforts to yell them away not withstanding, they were getting ready to jump down.

The first one did a run and jump and landed spectacularly in the pool to the applause of everyone. The second one hesitated for a long time, and appeared to be unsure of what he wanted to do. “I don’t blame him for being scared,” I said to Stewart. “Look at how high that is. It looks high from down here, can you imagine how high it has got to look when you’re actually at the top of it?

“Of course,” I added, “He’s got to do it now. After having gone through all the trouble and bushwhacking they did to find their way up to the top, you can’t just turn around and go back down. Not to mention all the people watching him now.”
And he did eventually jump it. It took him another five minutes to work up the courage, and he was white faced with terror when he made the jump, but he did it.

Several other jumpers came as well. It turned out there was quite a group of them there. Every time we thought they were finished, another face would tentatively peer over the cliff face and prepare to jump. I didn’t keep track, but there must have been about 12 of them by the time they all finished jumping.

We left not long after that. As beautiful as the Ryumon Waterfall is, you can only stay in one place and swim for so long before it begins to get boring. I observed that the afternoon was still young, and that the Yabakei waterfall was on our way back home anyway, so why don’t we go swimming in another waterfall for a while. Stewart and Yousuke agreed with me, and we left Kusu for the afternoon.

Day 2 October

In the cool of the fall, I returned to Kusu for another day.

Being by myself this time, I took the liberty of making a bunch of little stops at anything that looked interesting. For example, shortly after crossing the boarder from Yabakei, I noticed there was a small walkway alongside the main road. There wasn’t a parking lot to stop the car, but I pulled over to the side of the road and walked back and forth along the walkway for a while, taking pictures of some of the rock formations along the Kusu / Yabakei boarder.

By the time I got down into downtown Kusu, it was getting close to 9 and, between the driving and the walking around, I had been on the road for about 2 hours and was beginning to regret not having eaten a bigger breakfast in my apartment. So, I pulled into a Joyfull, the big chain restaurant in Oita prefecture.

In retrospect, maybe I should have tried to find a more uniquely Kusu restaurant, but it was early in the morning and I was hungry and I didn’t feel like being overly creative.

After breakfast, I drove down the road to the boarder between Kusu and Hita, where there is a small, but beautiful waterfall right on the side of the main road.

It’s a pity they had to build a main road (and a train track) going right up next to this waterfall, because it kind of ruins the atmosphere. But it is a really beautiful waterfall. Like the Ryumon waterfall, this one consists of two stages. There’s the lower waterfall which you can walk right up to (and even follow the path underneath it). And up above, you just make out glimpses of another waterfall which fills the pool right above it. Because of this structure, one waterfall you can clearly see, and another one in the back you can vaguely see, the visual effect of it is difficult to capture on film. Which is part of the reason why I took so many pictures, and in the end was not really satisfied with any of them.

Because it was a public holiday, there were many other sightseers around and some public employees were handing out maps describing all the sights around the river. One of them flagged me down so enthusiastically I thought I had done something wrong. “Hey, you, stop!” he yelled out at me.

“Me?” I was trying to think of what the Japanese equivalent of “What seems to be the problem, officer?” would be, when he handed me a tourist map.

“Yes, don’t forget to take one of these maps with you.”
He gave me a wide smile, which conveyed at the same time both the impression of great friendliness, and the expression of someone who might not be all there.

“Oh, right, thank you.” I looked at the map. “What is this exactly?”

“All the sights you can see along the Yamaura river,” he answered.

Of course, I wanted to be consistent with the rules of my project. “Is this all in Kusu?” I asked.

“The river is the boarder between Kusu and Hita,” he said. “Everything on this side of the river is in Kusu, everything on that side is Hita.”

I figured this was close enough, and decided to check some of the sights on the map later. First though I wanted to walk up to the top of the waterfall and get a look from the second pool (see video).

On my way back down from the waterfall, the same public employee flagged me down enthusiastically. “You! Come over here, come over here.” I followed his excitedly gesturing hand, and he pointed to a moss covered rock. “Look at that insect. What is it?”

It looked to me like a cross between a grasshopper and a Praying Mantis. “Uh...”

“Can it fly? Do you think it can fly?”

Whatever it was, it looked like it had long wings, so I answered yes, probably.

“Take a closer look. Do you think it can fly?”

I looked closely, and realized the whole thing was just a green leaf, which the old man had folded up and twisted to make into an origami insect. It was skillfully done, and because the life was shiny and bright green, it did look remarkably like a living insect.

“I made it,” he said proudly. “Come over here, I’ll give you one as a present.” He had, over by his stack of maps, several off these leaf-orgami insects already made. (Apparently it was not a very busy day for him). He picked one up and gave it to me. He even went through the trouble of tearing off a leafy stem from a tree, and setting the insect on one of the leaves. I did my best to appear sincere as I thanked him. As he handed it over, he asked, “Where are you from?”

I realized I was seconds away from getting dragged into all the usual questions: Do you like Japan? How long have you been in Japan? Can you use chopsticks? Do you like Japanese food? Your Japanese is very good, isn’t it?
I decided to make my escape. I answered his question briefly by saying I was from America, smiled, gave a half bow, and then turned to leave.

“That way’s dangerous!” he called out.

I abruptly stopped and looked around for another way to go. “No, I mean you can go that way,” he added. “Just be careful, it’s dangerous. The rocks are a little bit slippery.”

I thanked him again, made another awkward half bow, and left.

The map he had given me of Yamaura river had a car pictured driving along the road, so I assumed this was a driving route. But since it was a nice day, I decided to first see how far I could get by walking.

I didn’t make it too far. In fact I only got as far as the first stop. There was a small stream that fed into the main river, and there was a small mountain village alongside this stream.

I’m not entirely sure why this was marked off as a point of interest. There was an old fashioned wooden waterwheel here that added a bit of romance to the area, but it didn’t look like it had been used in years (if it ever had been put to practical use). Other than that, the whole place simply resembled any other Japanese mountain village.

Which is not to say it wasn’t beautiful. These small mountain villages in the Japanese countryside are always worth taking a walk through. A small narrow road, almost more like a path than a road, winds itself up between the houses. A stream trickles down alongside the road. Small flower gardens adorn the front of each house, and wildflowers are between the road and the stream. And a series of small rice fields are carved like steps going up the hillside.

After exploring this little village, I went back to my car and decided to set out on the Yamaura sight seeing course as marked out by the map.

There were several small stops along the way. On the video, I put all of these stops together into one segment, but the combined video represents several different points along the road.

Despite the fact that the city government had been pushing this river as a sight seeing destination, few of the stops along the way were clearly marked. And even when they were clearly marked, it was difficult to find a spot to park the car. The road was a narrow winding mountain road, barely big enough for one car at a time, and with almost no places where you could pull over and stop without obstructing traffic. Occasionally I would see a sign for a waterfall, and then have to drive on for several more minutes before I found a place where I could conceivably stop the car.

All that being said though, there were several nice waterfalls along the way, and I’m glad I made the trip, even if it was a bit difficult to navigate at times.

After that, I headed back into the main part of Kusu. There was one more waterfall I wanted to see.

During the spring of 2004, Greg had been in charge of coordinating the JET bike trip, and he had arranged lodgings for everyone at a campground in Kusu. I remembered there had been a particularly impressive waterfall adjoining the campground, and I wanted to see if I could find it again.

The waterfall was actually very easy to see from the main road. Getting down to it was a bit tricky, since it involved going through a maze of side roads. But after a few wrong turns and a little bit of driving in circles, I got there eventually. The Kanji on the signs gave the waterfall something like the name of “3 Day Moon” and it was, just like I remembered it- very impressive to look at.

After taking a couple pictures of the waterfall, I walked around the camp ground for a while. Since it was a public holiday, there were a lot of families at the camp ground, and a few children playing in the river. (Despite the fact that it was still mid-October, down here in Kyushu it was still more than warm enough to go for a swim. I was beginning to wish I had brought a swimming suit myself).

My next stop was Kirikabu Mountain.

Kusu is surrounded by a ring of mountains, but Kirikabu is probably the highest. The top of the mountain ends in a plateau, and for that reason it’s popular with both picnickers and hang gliders (and today being a public holiday, both of them were out in force).

There are some hiking trails leading up to the top of Kirikabu Mountain, and in the past Greg and I had spent a couple of afternoons hiking up these trails. On this particular occasion, however, I opted to drive up the mountain instead.

This was a bit of a moral dilemma for me, since I’m one of those snobs who normally looks down my nose at people who drive up a mountain instead of hiking it. However I remembered the hike as being, while scenic, long and pretty grueling. And I was already feeling a bit tired out from all my walking around earlier in the morning. Plus I knew the hike would take up most of my afternoon, and there were other places I wanted to explore in Kusu.

...So, I sacrificed my principles a bit, and drove up the mountain. From the top of the mountain, you get a really good bird’s eye view of Kusu, and I took a picture and did some video taping of the view.

After Mount Kirikabu, I wasn’t exactly sure where to go next. So I decided to just follow some of the road signs leading to points of interest.

One of the signs marked a water park, and that sounded kind of interesting to me so I followed it for a couple kilometers until I got to a small parking lot.

I had been sightseeing in the Japanese countryside for long enough to have grown cynical about these local road signs. You follow them for miles, and more often than not they turn out to be something small and unimpressive by the time you actually get there.

I fully expected this waterpark to be a disappointment, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

It turned out to be a trail through the woods, following a stream up the mountain until you get to a series of small waterfalls. The whole thing was very nice. The river was beautiful. The trail was clearly marked, and criss-crossed over the river several times on a series of small wooden bridges. And the final waterfalls, although small, flowed beautifully through the thick green foliage of the forest.

Next stop was the road leading out of Kusu, the 387.

Now that I live in Nakatsu, I had come into Kusu through Yabakei. But when I used to live in Ajimu, I would always drive into Kusu through Innai on route 387. It’s a long drive because you have to go up and down several mountains, but it’s very scenic, and from the road you can see a lot of valleys below, and sometimes there are a lot of interesting rock formations on the other side.

Shortly after crossing into the Kusu side of the boarder, there is a rest stop along the 387, where you can go up on a wooden look out point and get a good view of the opposite mountain peaks. Remembering this spot from my Ajimu days, I drove towards the Kusu / Innai boarder to take some pictures.

By this time, it was about 5 o’clock, and I was beginning to get pretty hungry again. (I hadn’t eaten anything since my Joyful breakfast at 9). I drove back into the main part of Kusu (and got caught up in rush hour traffic in doing so). I stopped at “Freshness Burger” (another chain restaurant) to get a bite to eat.

After eating my burgers, I discovered I was still feeling a bit tired from all the walking around I had been doing, so I ordered a large cup of coffee and just sat in the restaurant reading my book for another hour or so.

When I emerged from the restaurant, it was already dark outside. (It gets dark early in Japan). I walked through the streets of down town Kusu.

Kusu is what might be called a medium sized town, at least by Oita prefecture standards. It’s not exactly an urban center, and yet it’s not completely out in the boondocks like Yabakei is. There are lots of store fronts lining the main street. There was a large bridge crossing the river, and I walked across as I listened to the sound of the water flowing below. The sound of cars driving past mingled with the sound of the evening crickets chirping. There was a bright full moon shining down on the street, and I was suddenly overcome with a sense of “small town romance”.

Kusu has one of those down town areas that is just big enough to make it interesting, and just small enough to make it feel charming. I felt certain that around the corner there must be a small coffee shop; someplace overlooking the river where locals warmed their feet by a fire as they sipped hot cocoa.

Maybe somewhere that place exists, I don’t know. I never found it. To me, all indications showed that this town had gone to bed very early. It was only just after 7, but already most of the shops were closed, and there was nobody out in the street. Perhaps 50 years ago this street might have been a bit more lively, before the birth of the media age with TVs, DVD players, and internet that keep us all in our own houses at night.

I walked up and down the empty street. There was a small bakery that was open, and it did look kind of cozy, but it didn’t look like the kind of place I could hang out in for long periods of time. Besides the cars that drove by, the only other creature I encountered was an un-leashed dog. The dog was obviously unnerved to find me walking on its street, and followed me for a couple blocks growling and barking. (It didn’t seem like the kind of dog that would actual attack, but I began looking around the street and noting where the closets rocks and sticks were just in case).

Sensing that the main streets were dead, I headed into the night district. Every Japanese town of any size has a night district where you can find Hostess bars, Karaoke, and Ramen shops.

The majority of these places are set up for old Japanese business men. Usually a small, narrow claustrophobic smoke filled karaoke bar containing a group of old men who speak such slurred regional dialects that it’s impossible to understand a thing they say. In the case of a hostess bar, there can be young woman there as well, but you have to pay money for the privilege of talking to them.

It’s hard for Westerners to find a place more to their taste, but Greg had found a little bar called “D-styles” which he quite liked. Lots of young Japanese people gathered there, and the bar staff was also very friendly. Every time the gang ended up spending the night in Kusu, we would always end up at “D-styles”. In fact I’ve mentioned it several times before on this blog.

I had no intention of going by myself. It’s never much fun going to these places by yourself, and on a Monday night odds are it would be pretty dead anyway. Besides, as well as I could remember, it was a 3000 yen cover charge to get in. This included all you could drink for the night (the popular Japanese tradition of Nomihodai) which was one of the reasons it was so popular with Greg and the gang, but since I didn’t drink it was never all that good of a deal for me.

For old times sake, I did at least retrace my steps and walk up to the door. It didn’t appear open, and I didn’t even see a sign for it. (Either the sign has been taken down, or maybe the bar has closed down. It has been a good 4 years since I was last there, and a lot can happen in that time).

After that, convinced that there was nothing left for me to see in Kusu, I bid good-bye to the place, and headed back home.

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Whisky Prajer said...

In a country that once prided itself on its public baths -- and Sumo wrestling! -- I can't imagine your half-arsed suit would have been noteworthy. But there are always oddities in social norms

Joel Swagman said...

Well, in fact now that you mention it, I have to admit no one around me (with the exception of my fellow foreign friend Stewart) seemed the least bit bothered by it.