Road Trippin' in Kyushu, Japan (Part I)
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published: October 14, 2018
I would have never considered disappearing into the countryside for four days by myself. Growing up in a city where danger is perceived to be lurking around every corner, having backup was always essential for when it inevitably hits the fan. But in Japan, I feel safer, and while I still lock my doors and check them at least once before bedtime, being alone doesn’t really make me jump any more.
So, recently, I decided to do something I’ve never done: road trip solo.
One consequence of having spent the last seven years living in small towns, however, is that I, ironically perhaps, no longer have the tolerance for large crowds of people.
1. Kuju Flower Park
Where could I go to enjoy my vacation, avoid the rush, and not break the bank? After much research and deliberation, it was decided: another small town.
Taketa, in the neighboring prefecture of Oita, is actually technically a city, but you would never think so. The result of a merge of several towns and villages, it sprawls between the Kuju Mountain Range, alongside the headwaters of the Ono River. It couldn’t be more small-town country if it tried, and only an hour away from the famed Beppu, it certainly seemed worth making a trip out of.
On the drive up, I mentally high-fived myself for going ahead and booking a two-night stay on a whim – the countryside of Oita is possibly even more beautiful than dear old Miyazaki.
My first stop was Kuju Flower Park about a 20-minute drive from the original castle town area of Taketa where I would be staying.
The park sits atop the Kuju Plateau and covers 49 acres of land, boasting 3 million individual flowers of 500 different varieties.
But nothing in my flower travels has come close to topping Hitachi Seaside Park thus far, and Kuju was no exception. Sure, seasonal gardens are never going to be in peak at the same time, but for the 1, 300 yen entrance fee, I wasn’t all that impressed with what was in bloom. Pretty, yes. Spectacular? Not in my opinion.
The view of the Kuju mountains, however, is worth the drive (located 30 minutes away from the closest station, it’s pretty much impossible to reach the park via public transportation, unless you cough up 5, 500 yen for a taxi).
In true Japanese fashion, the park has more shops and restaurants than it does actual attractions, but said shops and restaurants are pretty classy from what I saw. Pascolo’s Bakery sells delicious treats, and there are several gift and perfume shops offering aromatic and therapeutic goods. There’s also a green house, a tea shop gallery, a gelato shop and a buffet restaurant that serves wild grasses and fresh vegetables from the region.
There’s also a ton of tables and benches for people watching, which has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. If you hang around for long enough you might even catch the couple who run the little hippy shop in the center of the park perform some of their music.
After a few hours of soaking up the sun, I decided to head back into Taketa proper and check out some ancient castle ruins. I had survived the morning of my first day without any hiccups, and I was excited to see what the rest of it had in store.
2. The Oka Castle Ruins
As I walked up the giant steps to the site of the old Oka Castle, a haunting melody, blasting out from hidden speakers, followed me. The song, called Kojo no Tsuki (or, Moon over the Castle’s Scattered Ruins), was composed by one of Japan’s most renowned pianists. Rentaro Taki spent many of his childhood years in Taketa, and the castle is said to have inspired his famed composition.
When I reached the mountaintop, where a statue of Rentaro looks down onto the valley, I understood how the ruins could have made such an impression on a young man.
With the Numberize River on its south side and the Inaba River on its north, the site is a natural fortress. Perched 100 m (328 ft) above its valley floor, and 325 m (1,066 ft) above sea level, it offers an unrivaled view of Taketa’s towns and villages and the surrounding countryside, including Mt Aso, Mt Sobo and the Kuju Mountain Range.
But Okajo is more than just aesthetics, its ruins steeped in a deep history that can still be felt emanating from the stone walls.
The general Ogata Koreyoshi is believed to have built the castle in 1185. It became a way station for warriors, and in 1332, it was taken over and enlarged by the Shiga household who were retainers to the Otomo family.
In 1586, the castle became a battleground in the war between the Otomo and Shimazu families. The head of the Shiga clan managed to defend the castle, but in 1593 the Otomo were forced to surrender their territories due to their Christian faith.
The following February, the castle was taken over by the Nakagawa clan, who ruled it and the surrounding area for 14 generations. During the Meiji Restoration in 1868, however, the building were demolished, leaving only the stone walls that remain today.
Although the grounds are maintained by gardeners, the walls are barely visible in the expansive summer undergrowth, and at almost 10 times its height in length, the site seems overwhelming at first to navigate. I was glad for having put on walking shoes that morning.
The 300 yen entrance fee includes a beautiful, full-colour scroll that opens to reveal a map and diagram of the castle site. Even if you can’t read the kanji, you can match it with what’s on the different signs at points of interest along the way.
It took me about 2 hours to see all of the ruins, and it was a sweltering hike in the afternoon heat. The closest vending machine was in the parking lot all the way at the bottom, and I cursed at myself for not bringing something to drink with me.
But on the path back to the parking, a shopkeeper from one of two souvenir stalls hurried towards me with a cup of miso soup. It was not the ice-cold drink I had dreamed about on the walk down, but it was mightily delicious.
We had a bit of a chat inside the store, and then I bought my first road trip souvenir: a bottle of kabosu juice. A hybrid of Yuzu and Bitter Orange, the citrus fruit is a rarity in Japan and is grown almost exclusively in Oita. Kabosu juice, like lemon, is supposed to be really good on fish.
I finally reached the vending machines, and after chugging down an entire bottle of apple iced tea, I hopped in the car and played hot potatoes with the steering wheel off in search of my hotel.
3. Taketa Castle Town
Afternoons would be my favourite time of day, I thought as I weaved in and out of the streets of Taketa town, if they weren’t so melancholic. The roads had been painted gold by the last of the day’s sun, and the afterglow was just enough to lose my mind in. Then suddenly – BUM! BADUM-BUM-BUM! – the sound of drumming yanked me sharply out of my daydream. What on earth could be causing such a commotion this late in the day? Curiosity piqued, I decided to follow it.
My ears led me to a small courtyard, where a crowd of people had gathered to watch the kagura dance being performed. It was a lovely little surprise that took me back to a moment when I was just a photography intern at one of Johannesburg’s newspapers.
My mentor had been leading a more sheltered me around the back streets of the city center. “Aren’t you worried you’ll get mugged?” I asked, motioning towards his lens. His SLR was a cannon next to the small compact I was shooting with, and ripe for the stealing. “Ag, people don’t care about it as much as you would think,” he replied. “Come, let’s check this out!”
He led me down a dark alleyway that opened out into the courtyard of an apartment building. All along the stairwells, giant sheets of corrugated iron, painted with all kinds of bright colors, had been used to add entire rooms to the original building. It looked like something off the set of a theater production, and I stared up in awe.
“See? There’s all kinds of stuff like this hiding in the city. If you never walk it, you’ll never know.” I understood then what a handicap fear can be for a photographer.
And now here I was, leading my own way down alleyways, and still stumbling across secret courtyards. Thank you, Thys.
The dance performance was the end to an afternoon stroll that had taken me around to the many sights in and around the old castle town.
Back in the day, Taketa was a waypoint for missionaries travelling from their primordial post in Nagasaki to the ancient capital Kyoto. Christianity was flourishing in Japan at the time and the town, which had developed into a trading center, became home to some 30 000 Catholics.
But during the Tokugawa Shogunate’s campaign to eradicate Christianity from Japan in the 17th century, followers had to renounce their faith or face persecution. Many people took to the surrounding forests to worship in secret.
To date, eight catacombs have been found in Taketa’s forests, and one of them was just a three-minute walk from my hotel.
While cave chapels have existed since the beginning of the church, the Christian Cave Chapel, as it is known, is particularly special because it was hand-carved out of the volcanic rock of the mountain side. It sits beside a natural cave, where the followers would have gathered, and there is a water source nearby, which would have been used for the sacraments.
There wasn’t much else to see around the hillside, and so after snapping a few photos, I headed back to the road. I came across a large staircase, leading up to Hirose Shrine. At the top, I found an impressive view of the town.
The Shinto shrine is dedicated to the ‘military god’, Takeo Hirose. Although very much a mortal, the naval officer, Russian scholar, and Taketa native is remembered for his heroism during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. He was posthumously promoted to commander and became a deified war hero.
I had read about 16 Buddha statues that guard the entrance to Kannonji temple, so I nosed my way there next. But when I arrived I was disappointed to find a giant communications tower looming over them. It kind of ruined the atmosphere a bit.
I wandered through the grounds anyway and found another row of Buddha statues and a cave in a small hillside, and mused about it being another chapel. I followed a path into the forest that led me down the other side of the hill and onto the road across from the Inaba River.
And that’s when I heard the drumming that led me to the dance. I stayed until it got dark, and then went off in search of food.
4. The Underwater Cave
Nature in Japan seems to manifest itself completely at odds with the order and structure of its society; vegetation swallows everything that stands still for too long, bugs and insects grow into caricatures of themselves, and the earth erupts and quakes at its will. But of all the islands’ natural wonders, it is the forests that fascinate me the most.
It is where the Gods are believed to have lived, where priests sought refuge from persecution, where people stillgo for spiritual guidance (and, rumour has it, where they grow spiritual guidance), where they abandon their belongings, and sometimes their lives. The forests are full of secrets, and in the mountains of Bunganoo, they keep one more: the Inazumi Underwater Cave.
At the end of a narrow, winding, mountain road, it’s a little off the beaten path. Getting there takes a car and some patience, especially in the rain. I found myself squinting into safety mirrors and swerving away from gaijin traps. When I reached the parking lot, only a few other people had braved the drive.
The limestone cave formed over 200 million years ago and was later submerged during the eruption of Mt. Aso. Exploration began in 1976 and its believed that the system contains about 1,000 m (3,280 ft) of water channels. The cave is still being mapped today, however, with a new cavern having been discovered just last year.
Many of its stalactites and helictites can be seen through the cave’s crystal-clear water. Visitors are allowed access to two passageways that extend out from the cave’s opening as far as 300 m (984 ft) each. At the end of one of these is a 40 m-deep (131 ft) abyss that glows emerald green.
Inside the cave, it remains 16°C all year round, and the negative ions are said to relax visitors and send them on their way feeling fresh and renewed.Perhaps it was all that calming energy that prevented me from freaking out at the snake shrine, one of the many arbitrary add-on attractions at the caves. Visitors can admire the albino from a glass box, or cringe from afar, like I did.
There is also a Showa-era toy museum, and art gallery, a duck pond, a restaurant, an onsen and a giant Buddha statue that towers 30 m (98 ft) over the grounds. I could have done with just the cave, but I certainly got my money’s worth.