On the Far Side of Disaster:
Travels in Southern Japan A Week after the Great Tōhoku Earthquake
Late March 2011
(Last Updated: January, 2012)
A week before our spring 2011 trip to southern Japan, a 9.0 earthquake shook Tōhoku (northern Honshū), followed by a tsunami that devastated coastal communities. The wave also cut power to the cooling systems at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, which exploded due to a build up of hydrogen gas, and began leaking radiation.
We had to decide whether or not to cancel our trip. The Hysterical News Network aired non-stop coverage about the dire straits Japan was in, including the possibility of a meltdown at the nuclear plant. HNN's reporters didn't seem to know what a meltdown was or how it might affect the population center around Tōkyō or the rest of the country. HNN was committed to boosting hysteria to keep viewers hooked on its coverage, rather than to providing information.
The US State Department contributed to the hysteria by advising Americans against "non-essential" travel not just to the Pacific Coast of Tōhoku, the most heavily damaged area, but to the entire country. I wouldn't have flown into Tōkyō in the week after the disaster: Narita and Haneda were hectic for a couple of days with an estimated 160,000 foreign residents fleeing the country. And although the capital was unaffected by the tsunami and radiation, rolling blackouts to protect the Kantō power supply could make travel inconvenient.
Not surprisingly, our families were concerned about our travel; I was concerned. But I knew enough about the geography of Japan to know that the areas of western and southern Japan where we planned to travel (see the map below) were far from, and not affected by, the earthquake and tsunami.
And because NHK (Japan) and the BBC (London) provided useful information, I was able to figure out that even if there were a meltdown at the Fukushima plant, Tōkyō would be safe. (The BBC streamed a reassuring interview with Britain's Chief Nuclear Scientist, who explained what a meltdown was and the size of the area that would be affected.)
The Japanese government evacuated residents from a 12-mile (20 km) zone, then a 19-mile (30 km) zone, around the plant. (The US nuclear agency recommended 50 miles.) Tōkyō was 140 miles to the SW, well beyond the danger zone.
The nearest point on our itinerary to the damaged plant was Mt. Miwa, in Nara prefecture, 230 miles west of Tōkyō and 370 miles from the damaged Fukushima plant. With the prevailing winds blowing eastward out to sea and the Kuroshio flowing north along the Tōhoku coastline, there was little chance that significant amounts of radiation would reach the areas in which we would be traveling, in the time frame in which we would be traveling.
While HNN reporters and some of the English-speaking foreigners listening to their reports looked panicky on TV, NHK reporters expressed concern, but remained calm.
Localized food and water shortages occured in Tōkyō and Tōhoku, but the shortages were mainly due to distribution problems, not to a lack of food or water; Japan had more than enough food and water.
In Tōkyō, the problem was getting supplies on the shelves of local convenience stores fast enough for residents stocking up on toilet paper, bottled water, instant ramen, and batteries (the top four shortage items, none of which we needed); and along the Tōhoku coast, distribution was a nightmare because the airports, railroads, expressways, and ports were damaged or clogged with debris, electricity was out, and gasoline supplies were limited. Clean-up would take months or years, rebuilding years and decades.
I considered the issue of traveling in a country after an earthquake and tsunami, with the death toll likely to go well above 10,000. It was hard to watch the scenes of utter devastation on TV.
My sense was that people in the unaffected areas in Japan, while watchful and caring about the dire situation up north, were going about (had to go about) their daily lives in a normal way. Japan travel websites posted notices that southern and western Japan was unaffected by the disasters in the north. In other words, they were open for business. If I were traveling for pleasure, I might not have gone; but my travel was for research, so we decided to go.
Where We Planned to Go
On this trip we planned to search for the hometown of my mother's parents (Kuwahara and Kiyokawa), where my mother took us in 1970. On recent trips through the area (2006 and 2009), I couldn't find the town, which my mother referred to as Mukaiharamachi. In 2010, I discovered from immigration records that her parent's hometown was actually Gōnomura, which was northwest of Mukaiharamachi, in another river valley, near Aki-Takata.
We also planned to research Karen's father's father (Ōno) at the Museum of Hawaii Emigration on Suo-Ōshima Island, southwest of Hiroshima.
In southern Kyūshū, I wanted to see Mt. Takachiho and Cape Kasasa, two sites associated with the descent of Amaterasu's grandson Ninigi, grandfather of the first emperor of Japan. There were also a number of sites we had missed on our earlier trips to western and southern Japan: on Kyūshū, the shrines of Hetsugū-Munakata, Dazaifu Tenmangū, Usa Hachiman, and Hikosan; and the stone buddhas of Usuki, near Oita; on Shikoku, Konpira shrine, which has a branch in Honolulu; and Zentsū temple, the birthplace of Kōbō Daishi; in Kansai, Mt. Miwa and Kashihara shrine.
To get to Shikoku we would drive over the Seto Grand Bridge, between Kurashiki and Sakaide, the last great bridge of Japan that we had yet to cross.
And we wanted to continue our research on saké. After the governor of Tōkyō called for "self-restraint" after the earthquake, hanami or flower-viewing celebrations, which feature generous amounts of saké, were canceled. Tōhoku saké brewers counterattacked on YouTube with a plea for people to continue drinking saké and celebrating sakura: "Supporting saké in these hard times is the right thing to do," Etsuko Nakamura declared in a Japan Times interview. "Stopping (the spring festivities) would take away the little signs of recovery that we're starting to see in Tokyo."
Click on the Image for a Google Map.
When we arrived at the Kansai International Airport (KIX), its terminal was eerily uncrowded, like a small town airport at night. There were only three people in front of us in the foreign arrivals line and four or five came in behind us. Gone were the long, snaking lines of Chinese, Korean, Russian, and American visitors.( In April, The Japan Times reported that the foreign arrivals were down 75% in Tōkyō for the post-earthquake month of March; and down 50% in Kansai for the week we were there. Tourism, both domestic and international, were hurting (though for different reasons), and so were retailers that depend on tourism.)
We checked into a hotel overlooking the Akashi Strait Bridge, my favorite bridge in Japan, with the longest suspension span of its time, completed in 1998, a marvel of late 20th century engineering. Its simple, elegant form represents for me what was great about modern Japan.
High school soccer teams were hanging out in the lobby, and the hotel was crowded. We found out later that hotels in Kansai were packed because many had fled temporarily to Kansai from Tōkyō for safety during the days following the quake.
The next morning, we watched from our balcony as fishing boats crowded under the bridge; apparently fish were running with the tide.
After photographing the bridge, we headed west to Yubara hot springs, in Okayama prefecture, where we planned to spend a night at Hakkei, a ryokan that owns Hakkei restaurant in Honolulu. Masao, the Hawai‘i restaurant manager, had introduced us to the ryokan owner, Hiroko, when she was in Honolulu with her sons.
On the way to Yubara, we stopped at the castle town of Tsuyama city, which was established as the capital of Mimasaka province in 713. In 1603 after Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country, he awarded Mimasaka to Tadamasa Mori (reigned 1603-1634), who built the castle. It was considered one of the most magnificent castle in Japan, rivaling Himeji castle.
On a hilltop overlooking the city and the Yoshii river, only its massive walls and a small turret (rebuilt in 2004 on the castle's 400th anniversary) remain.
There's also a small, depressing zoo with a few animals – white peacocks, a boar, rabbits, and a tanuki. The boar was butting his head into a metal door at the back of his tiny enclosure.
The castle grounds are planted with over 5,000 sakura trees; it's considered the best place in the Chūgoku region for hanami, or flower viewing. I was hoping some trees would be in bloom, but the weather was still chilly, and the trees were still in bud. Some elderly workers were building temporary stalls along the walkways for the hanami celebration, to be held April 1-15.
Small Town Japan
Before reaching Yubara we stopped at Katsuyama, just south of the onsen, noted for a street of over ninety Edo-style samurai houses and merchant shops. Many of shops are decorated with noren (door hangings) in front of their entrances, with artful modern designs. Yoko Kano started making noren there in 1995.
The street houses Gozenshū, where the Tsuji family brews saké in a building established 200 years ago, using the water from beneath the Asahi River, which flows through the town. We enjoyed its daiginjō, Kei, at a hotel in Maniwa in 2009 and picked up a brochure for Katsuyama; since we were headed away from Katsuyama at the time, I made a mental note to find it on a later trip.
North of Katsuyama is Kanba-no-taki Nature Park, which features a waterfall (361 feet/110 meters high and 66 feet/20m wide) that thunders over a steep cliff and flows down a narrow valley. The park is also a nature preserve, inhabited by some 200 wild monkeys.
Yubara Onsen, north of the park, is famous for its open-air mixed bathing area open 24-hours a day, noted for its healing waters with baths named Kodakara-no-yu ("blessed with children bath"), Bijin-no-yu ("beautiful woman's bath") and Choju-no-yu ("longevity bath").
The giant salamander is the symbol of Yubara, and the town hosts a Salamander Festival in August. A local legend tells of how this river-dwelling animal came to be worshiped in the town:
Some four hundred years ago at a spot in the Asahi river called Ryuto-ga-fuchi ("Dragon's Head Abyss") lived a giant hanzaki that measured nearly 11 meters in length, with a body some 5.5 meters around.
All in the village avoided Ryuto-ga-fuchi, for when disturbed, the giant hanzaki would flail its tail wildly and swallow the offender, whether man or beast. One day, a young man named Hikoshiro Mitsui decided to defeat the creature. He dove into the abyss with a tanto blade gripped between his teeth. Before long, the surface of the river roiled with blood, and the dead hanzaki floated up. After it had swallowed Mitsui, the hero had used his blade to cut his way out of its stomach, from chin to bowels.
But his triumph was short-lived. Mitsui's home was beset night after night by howls and pounding; before long, the entire family had died. To appease the angry hanzaki spirit, the villagers decided to erect Hanzaki Daimyōjin, a shrine to the enormous salamander-god, near the spot where the hanzaki was killed; and to this day, every year on the Eighth of August, a celebration is held to venerate and placate its powerful spirit. (Translated from the Hanzaki Center website; posted on the blog of Matt Alt)
The salamander's nickname, Hanzaki ("split in half"), is perhaps an allusion to the giant creature being cut open by Hikoshiro.
The giant salamander lives in streams from Oita in Kyūshū to Gifu on Honshu. Its eyesight is poor, so it uses its sense of movement in the water around it to hunt trout, frogs and insects. When threatened, the slow-moving reptile protects itself by excreting a milky substance that smells like Japanese pepper, hence its other name, "Sansho-uo" (mountain-pepper fish).
We walked to the Hanzaki Center to see the two hanzaki festival floats (a dark gray male and a reddish female), stored in a shed outside the center. The center features live salamander in tanks. One over 130 centimeters (4 feet) died recently, so the largest on display was 100 cm (a little over 3 feet).
After a relaxing stay and an excellent dinner and breakfast at Hakkei, Hiroko saw us off the next morning with a bag of rice crackers freshly roasted over a fire near the ryokan entrance and two eggs cooked in hot spring water.
We headed west to see two more local sites of Maniwa. The first was Daigo Sakura, a 1000-year-old cherry tree, in Iwaiune. I found it on a Google map before we came, but we got lost in the back country roads. We almost gave up the search, until I noticed an elementary school on the GPS map that matched the location of a school on the Google map I had printed out. We backtracked a couple of miles and found a one-lane road into the mountains, with a sign pointing the way to the tree. As we drove up a slope, the sakura appeared at the hilltop above us: stark and still in bud, but magnificent.
The next stop was Maid, a 1476 feet/450 meter deep limestone cave. Smaller than the nearby Ikura Cave, which we had visited in 2009, Maki Cave features a narrow opening and illuminated underground ponds with small red-lacquered bridges at its far end.
The disaster in northern Japan put my thoughts on small town Japan in a different context. There was no looking back with nostalgia to a time of innocence: in ancient times and now, there have been disasters, if not earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear reactors spewing radiation, famine and wars. In 2011, small coastal towns were reduced to rubble by the gigantic tsunami, and many of the residents were missing, swept out to sea or buried in the mud and debris. I thought of the people and the volunteers who were rebuilding lives and eventually would rebuild the towns, and the men fighting to bring the damaged nuclear reactor spewing radiation under control. These men were willing to risk their health for what they are willing to die for: just these small towns and their local traditions and special places that they love.
Hometowns: Hiroshima and Yamaguchi
From Maniwa, we took the expressway to Aki-Takata to find my grandmother's hometown. When we arrived there, I recognized the valley and the river, the Gōnokawa, which is the longest river in the Chūgoku region at 120 miles (194 km). From its headwaters in the Chūgoku Mountains of Hiroshima, it flows north and then west, entering the Sea of Japan at Gōtsu, in Shimane.
On a hilltop above the river, we visited the Shintō shrine I had visited forty years earlier. I identified the shrine and its location by looking at photographs of shrines on a Google map to find a match with a photo I had taken of the shrine in 1970.
We drove around looking for the town where we had spent that winter night so long ago, but couldn't find it.
That night we stayed at a hotel across the river from Hiroshima station. The next morning, I was planning to visit Shukkeien, a well known garden near the hotel. I had visited the garden in 1970, so thought it might be interesting to see what I remembered of it, but it opened at nine, and we had to meet Karen's cousins in Ōshima at 10:30 am, so after peering into the front gate and over a back fence, we drove up to Hijiyama Park, which offers views over the city and the Inland Sea (not particularly spectacular, since the lookout is only 230 feet above sea level). Over a thousand cherry trees make this park a popular spot for hanami parties, but the sakura was still in bud.
We arrived at 10 am on Sūo-Ōshima (Yashiro Island), 80 miles away, and drove up Mt. Iyino, just above the bridge from Honshū. The road up was narrow and winding, and the weather was rainy and windy. The tower at the summit offered a view of the bridge across Obatake strait, where boats fish for tai (sea bream).
To the west is the Museum of Japanese Emigration to Hawaii, which opened in the town of Nishiyashiro on February 8, 1999, to coincide with the arrival date (February 8, 1885) in Hawai‘i of the first boat load of Japanese workers who were contracted to work on sugar plantations. The emigration continued until 1894, many of the migrants from the impoverished small towns of Ōshima. The museum is in a house donated by the family of the late Mr. Choemon Fukumoto, who lived in the U.S.A. during the Meiji and Taishō eras. He built the house in his hometown in 1928 after returning to Japan.
In the museum data base, with the help of the museum guide, Karen found out her father's father was from Heigun, an island south of Ōshima, and emigrated to Hawai'i in the last group of government-sponsored contract laborers in 1894. We met a distant cousin of Karen's at the museum, along with her husband and her daughter and had lunch at a ramen restaurant overlooking Obatake strait.
After lunch, we drove to the east end of the island to visit the Mutsu Memorial Museum.
The battle ship sank off Suo-Ōshima after a mysterious explosion in 1943. It must have been a bad omen for the Japanese fighting in World War II. A salvage operation after the war brought up parts of the ship, some of them on display, along with photographs and belongings of the thousand crew members who were lost. The museum, which was more interesting and moving than I thought it would be, was created to honor the dead and to commit to world peace.
That night we stayed at a hotel on a beach nearby. Suo-Ōshima styles itself "Big Island of Hawai'i in the Inland Sea" and holds hula performances in the summer and plays Hawaiian music in its restaurant. It has a photo display of the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hōkūle'a, which visited Suo-Ōshima in 2007.
The next morning, we drove down the east coast of Suo-Ōshima to check out the local scenery: the coastal road is noted for cherry trees that form a tunnel called "the 1000 cherry blossoms of Gojyo" when they are in full bloom (which they weren't). Farther along, right next to the road is Tateiwa or standing rock, about 132 ft. high; and Ganmon, a rocky arch, which requires a short hike over a small hill down to a sandy beach.
From the southern coast, we could see Heigun island offshore.
On to Fukuoka
In the afternoon, we drove over the Shimonoseki Bridge to Kyūshū. Our first stop was Hetsugū-Munakata, dedicated to Ichikishima-himekami, one of three daughters of Amaterasu, all three worshiped as kami of navigation, seafaring, and fishing.
The shrine in Munakata is joined by two shrines on offshore islands dedicated to the other two daughters of Amaterasu:
- Tagorino-himekami, enshrined in Okitsu-Miya shrine on Oki Island
- Tagitsu-himekami, enshrined in Nakatsu-Miya shrine on Chikuzen Island
Fishermen and sea merchants pray at the three shrines to for safety at sea. There are 8,500 branch shrines in Japan today.
Just south of Hetsugū-Munakata, on a conic hill overlooking the Genkai Sea, is Miyajidake shrine, dedicated to Empress Jingū, Katsumura Ōkami and Katsuyori Ōkami; like Hetsugū-Munakata, Miyajidake is associated with seafaring and trade. People come to pray for business success, transportation safety and family safety.
The shrine is said to have the largest shimenawa (rice straw rope) in Japan, though the one at Izumo Taisha on Honshū looks larger to me. When we got to Miyajidake shrine, the sakura in the courtyard were in bloom, and some seniors on a field trip came to sit under the trees to enjoy the flowers.
Miyajidake also features a giant bell and a giant Japanese drum, and at Oku-no-miya Fudo Shrine, at the very rear of the site, a large ancient tomb, a 75 feet (23 meter) long cavity lined with large stones, where 300 pieces of horse-related apparatus, swords, ornaments, and jewelry have been excavated.
In Fukuoka, we checked into a hotel in Canal City (a downtown complex with two hotels, 50 shops and restaurants and movie theaters) and went walking and shopping at night in the district of Tenjin. Along the Naka river, the streets were lined with food stalls. A group at a major intersection was collecting money for the Tōhoku relief effort.
The next morning we went to two of Fukuoka's famous parks. Ohori Koen is at the center of Fukuoka, built around a lake.
Nishi Koen is on the hill overlooking Hakata Bay. Three thousand sakura trees are planted in the park, and it's considered the best place for hanami in Fukuoka City. We drove around the road that loops through the park: one tree had started to bloom, the rest still in bud.
South to Kagoshima
We headed south for Kagoshima via Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine, dedicated to Michizane Sugawara, a poet with a pure heart who served the emperor and was wrongfully exiled to Kyūshū from Kyotō. His miserable life away from his family is legendary. After his death his angry ghost was thought to be causing disasters in the capital, so he was deified and worshiped to placate him. He later became identified with Tenjin, the kami of scholars, and is prayed to for success on entrance examinations and job applications.
As we walked up the shop-lined street to the shrine, a group of pre-school kids on an excursion passed by.
Today there are over 10,000 branch shrines in Japan. Dazaifu Tenmangū, built over Sugawara's grave site, is the headquarters of these shrines and one of the most popular visitor's site in Fukuoka Prefecture. During the New Year season (1-7 January), the shrine is especially crowded because many visit as part of their New Year’s tradition and also the period is right before school entrance exams are given.
The shrine is also known for its 6,000 ume (plum) trees. One tree, known as Tobiume, stands to the right of the main hall.
Legend has it that after Michizane left Kyoto in exile, he yearned so much for this tree that it was uprooted and brought to Dazaifu Tenman-gū.
Kōmyō-zenji, next to Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, is a Zen temple founded in 1273 by the pries, Tetsugyu Enshin, a former nobleman of Sugawara clan. The temple is known for its rock garden, said to be the only one in Kyūshū.
Driving down the inland expressway toward Kagoshima, we exited at Yatsushiro and drove down the west coast of Kyūshū, to see what we might discover along the way.
The coastal highway went through the town of Minamata, the site of an environmental disaster: one of the most advanced chemical factories in Japan was allowed to dump mercury in its wastewater into the bay from 1932 to 1968. The mercury accumulated in fish and shellfish, poisoning the town's seafood supply, resulting in a condition called Minamata disease: muscle weakness; impaired vision, hearing, and speech; and in extreme cases, paralysis, insanity, coma, and death. It also affected fetuses and led to infants born with deformities.
South of Minamata, in Izumi, is the world's largest wintering grounds for cranes: an estimated 10,000 migrate from Siberia in the middle of October and stay there until the end of March every year. One website describes the the scenery as "spectacular" when the cranes storm up in search of food early in the morning." We followed the signs to a crane rest area, in an estuary near the sea. It was still March, but the estuary was deserted, except for a lone heron and a few ducks.
(A few days later, on our way up to Hikosan in northern Kyūshū, I saw a young crane flying along the Yamakuni river perhaps on its way to the Asian continent for the summer; it was the first crane I've seen in the wild.)
Farther south, past the town of Afune, we pulled over at a scenic lookout. An old resident began telling us the story of the area, which we couldn't completely understand, although he seemed to be saying something about sea turtles nesting on the beach nearby and that we should walk along the beach, which we did. We discovered Ningyō Iwa (Doll Rocks), which is probably what our earnest guide was telling us to go and see:
We drove past the nuclear power plant on the coast at Satsuma-Sendai, then turned eastward at Ichiki to catch the expressway to Kagoshima. (A month after the Great Tōhoku Earthquake and tsunami, which damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant, The Japan Times reported that the governor of Kagoshima requested that Kyūshū Electric put on hold its plan to build a third reactor at the Satsuma-Sendai plant, scheduled to start generating power in 2019; in the same article, Prime Minister Kan expressed a willingness to review the national plan to build fourteen new reactors by 2030, citing safety concerns.)
After arriving in sunny but chilly Kagoshima, we had a good meal at Shana, an izakaya that we went to on our last trip south in 2006. The shōchū, Kiccho Hozan, came a large bowl (soup-size) from which we poured the tasty alcoholic brew into ceramic cups.
The next day, we drove to the southern end of the Satsuma Peninsula, to Cape Nagasaki-bana, then west to Cape Kasasa. At Nagasaki-bana are Mt. Kaimon, known as the Satsuma Fuji, and Flower Park Kagoshima, where 400 kinds of plants are displayed in their natural environment.
We were considering a hike to the top of Mt. Kaimon (3031 feet/924 meters), which offers a panoramic view that includes Cape Sata to the east, on the other side of Kinko Bay, at the southern end of Ōsumi Peninsula (Kyūshū southernmost point); and islands to the south (Tane-ga-shima, Yaku-shima, and the volcanic Io-jima). But the hike up and down takes four hours, so we skipped it and continued on to Lake Ikeda, the largest lake on Kyūshū (not particularly impressive) and to Cape Kasasa.
On the way to Cape Kasasa is the port town of Makurazaki. As we had only a light breakfast, we were looking for a place to eat, but didn't pass any restaurants that looked interesting along the highway; we were thinking of picking up some food at a supermarket and having a picnic, when we saw a sign for a fish products store. We found it at the dock of Makurazaki and had a delicious meal of katsuo (bonito, in season) and ebi-fry.
By early afternoon, we were at Cape Kasasa, famous as a reference point in the legend of Amaterasu's grandson Ninigi's arrival to rule the Eight-Islands of Japan:
This place [Mt. Takahicho; see below] is opposite to the land of Kara [Korea]. One comes straight across to the august Cape of Kasasa; and it is a land whereon the morning sun shines straight, a land which the evening sun's sunlight illumines. So this place is an exceedingly good place. Having thus spoken, he made stout the temple-pillars on the nethermost rock-bottom, and made high the cross-beams to the Plain of High Heaven, and dwelt there. (Kojiki 135-136)
Here at the cape, Ninigi also met his wife, Konohana Sakuyahime no Mikoto, the famous “Princess who blossoms like the flowers of the trees,” daughter of Ōyama-tsu-mi-no-kami (“Great Mountain Possessor”), child of the creation couple Izanagi and Izanami. (Kojiki 138-139; Nihongi 70-71).
South of the cape, in a protected bay, is the port of Bōnotsu, which prospered through trade with Korea, China and countries to the south. The Chinese monk Ganjin landed here when he brought the monastic Ritsu Buddhism to Japan in the 8th century. Ganjin was prevented from crossing the ocean from China five times due to typhoons and shipwrecks, but finally succeeded after twelve years. During his attempts at crossing, he lost many disciples and was blinded. After landing, he and his disciples traveled to Nara, where Ganjin presided over Tōdaiji, and his disciples introduced Chinese scriptures to Japan.
On the Way to Kumamoto: Road Closed Due to Recent Volcanic Eruptions
The next morning at dawn, we caught the ferry from Kagoshima to Sakurajima and drove up to the Yunohira lookout to see the volcano up close: its craggy face is much more dramatic up close than seeing it from across the bay.
We drove around backside of the volcano and saw the crater that was the source of a smoke and ash plume we saw from Kagoshima the day before.
Beneath the crater was a torii buried in a 1914 eruption and across the street an ashen graveyard. That eruption caused the island to shift up against the Ōsumi Peninsula, so that Sakurajima is no longer an island.
We drove north to visit Mt. Takachiho, about a mile high, on the southern end of the Kirishima mountain range. Here Ninigi-no-Mikoto, grandson of the sun-goddess Amaterasu, descended from heaven:
So then Amaterasu and Takami-musubi commanded Ninigi-no-Mikoto; and he, leaving the Heavenly Rock-Seat, pushing asunder the eight-fold heavenly spreading clouds, and dividing a road with a mighty road-dividing, set off floating shut up in the Floating Bridge of Heaven, and descended from Heaven onto the peak of Kuzhifuru which is Takachiho in Tsu-kushi [Kyūshū]. (Kojiki 133-134)
When we visited Kirishima in Fall 2006, Mt. Takachiho was cloud-capped; and the morning we were going to hike to its summit, it was pouring rain, so we skipped the hike. When we arrived in 2011, the road to the trail head was closed because Mt. Kirishima to the north had erupted violently in late January:
So hiking to the Takachiho summit was out. it was chilly anyway, with wind gusting to 20-25 mph and traces of snow on the slopes. We stopped at a roadside restaurant and gift shop near the mountain, had lunch, and waited for clouds to lift to photograph it.
We detoured west around Mt. Kirishima and the Ebino Highlands to our next stop, Kumamoto, where we visited Suizenji park, which is laid out to represent the fifty-three post stations of the Tokaidō, with a grass-covered replica of Mt. Fuji. A wedding was going on:
After checking in at the hotel, we walked across the street to Kumamoto Castle, where a sakura tree was in bloom. Since the last time we were at the castle in 2006, an impressive new building has opened, with art work from the castle on display.
From Kumamoto to Beppu Bay
The next morning, we drove into the hills north of Aso Crater to see Nabegataki, a waterfall with a cave behind it. We had seen the falls on NHK's "Journeys in Japan" and pinpointed it on a Google map.
The road down to Oka-Taketa castle, our next stop, went through the rolling hills of Aso-Kujū National Park, between Aso Crater in the distance to the south and the Kujū mountains to the north.
The extensive ruins of Oka castle, built in 1185 on a hilltop surrounded by cliffs and ravines, are impressive. Fifteen hundred sakura are planted around the castle, a weeping sakura just beginning to bloom. Along the trail down is a shallow cave with a freshwater spring.
After lunch at the restaurant below the castle, we headed west to Usuki to the stone buddhas carved into volcanic tuft during 12th-14th centuries.
In Beppu, we caught the ropeway up to Mt. Tsurumi for its views of the surrounding valleys, mountains, and bay. The temperature at the top was below zero.
We stay overnight at a hotel on Beppu Bay and ordered the local specialty, tempura chicken, at the hotel's izakaya – very tender and tasty.
The Way to Hikosan
Before driving into the mountains of northern Kyūshū the next morning to visit the shrine on Mount Hiko, west of Beppu, we went to Usa Hachiman, the headquarters of the 25,000 Hachiman shrines in Japan. These shrines are dedicated to Emperor Ōjin (thought to reign in the 4th century), who was deified as Hachiman, the kami of military power. Hachiman appeared at this place around the beginning of the 8th century. Subsequently, he was recognized as a guardian of Buddhism and his bunrei (divided spirit) was transported to Nara in order to protect the giant Buddha at Tōdaiji and the Imperial Capital. Since then, Hachiman shrines have enjoyed the close protection of the Imperial family, and the grounds and buildings were in splendid condition.
From Usa, we drove up the Yamakuni River to Hikosan, through Yabakei Gorge with its rocky cliffs.
Along with Kumano Sanzan on the southern end of the Kii Peninsula and Dewa Sanzan in Tōhoku, near Tsuruoka, Hikosan was considered one of the three main centers for training in shugendō (mountain asceticsim). Formerly, 3,800 yamabushi (mountain monks) lived here. The mountains around Hikosan are noted for their medicinal herbs, which the yamabushi gathered and sold around Kyūshū. Women were not allowed at the shrine until 1800.
From the shrine's famous copper torii, a stone pathway leads to steep stairs up to the main shrine. Temples and shrines on either side of the steps contain ancient Japanese gardens dating back to the early Muromachi Period (1392-1573). From the shrine, through a torii to the right of it, the trail continues up to another shrine at the top of Hikosan (3,937 feet/1,200meters high). A slope car (a car on a track) takes visitors up to and/or down from the main shrine, for those not wanting to walk.
From Hikosan we drove down to the Shimonoseki bridge, crossed back to Honshū, and headed back to Hiroshima. On the way, we stopped at Yanai Station, near the hometown of Karen's mother's family (Yanehiro). The ferry leaves from Yanai for Heigun, from where her father's father emigrated to Hawai'i in 1894.
That night we walked to Hondori arcade from our hotel to dine on Hiroshima oysters, raw, fried, and baked with miso.
Crossing the Seto Ōhashi (Grand Bridge)
The next day we drive eight miles (13 km) across the Seto Ōhashi (Seto Grand Bridge) between Honshū and Shikoku for the first time. The Grand Bridge is actually six bridges (three suspension, two oblique suspension, and one truss) spanning five islands in the Seto Inland Sea (Hitsuishi-jima, Iwaguro-jima, Wasa-jima, Yo-shima, and Mitsugo-jima).
Before crossing the bridge we stopped at the park at Mt. Washu, at the tip of the Kojima Peninsula, from the summit of which you can see the six bridges and the city of Sakaide on Shikoku.
In Sakaide, we went to Marugame Castle. The current castle was built in 1641, on an ancient site, by Yamazaki Ieharu, who was granted the small fief of Western Sanuki. The castle is noted for its stone walls and its view of Mt. Iino, known as Sanuki Fuji.
Four miles south of the castle is Zentsūji, temple 75 of the 88-temple pilgrimage around Shikoku. Kūkai (Kōbō Daishi), the founder of Shingon Buddhism and the pilgrimage, was born in the temple precinct in 774.
Three miles south of Zentsūji is Kotohira-gū, established during the first century. Located halfway up Mt. Zōzu, up a stairway with 785 steps to the main shrine and 583 more to the inner shrine, Kotohira-gū was dedicated to a local kami of seafaring, navigation, fishing, and water for agriculture.
During the age of Shintō-Buddhist syncretism, the local kami was identified with Kubira, one of the twelve guardians of Yakushi, the medicine Buddha. Kubira's name is Konpira in Japanese, and Kotohira-gū is also known as Konpira shrine. In 1165, the spirit of Emperor Sutoku (1119-1164), who visited the shrine in 1163, was identified with Konpira. During the Edo period, visiting Konpira became very popular, a lifelong dream for some, like visiting Ise Shrine. A Shintō scholar of the Edo period identified Konpira as a manifestation of Ōmononushi, the kami worshiped at Mt. Miwa. (See below.)
Having walked up two hills that morning (Mt. Washu and Marugame Castle), the stairway up to the shrine looked daunting. Before heading up, we had hearty bowls of famous Sanuki udon, topped with a shrimp tempura and beef.
We climbed as far as the main shrine, which overlooks Marugame, with Mt. Iino in the distance.
A pavilion near the shrine is hung with photos and illustrations of ships and features the solar-powered 31-foot "Malt's Mermaid," made from 22,000 recycled aluminum cans. Sailor / environmentalist Kenichi Horie used this boat to travel across the Pacific, from Ecuador to Tōkyō, in 138 days in 1996.
We stayed in Tokushima for the night, a city known for its canals and a fascination with King Kong.
Mounains in Kansai: Miwa, Unebi, and Katsuragi
We left early so we could get to places south of Nara (we had missed on previous visits: in Sakurai, Ōmiwa Shrine, an early shrine, whose worshipers includes saké brewers; Kashihara Shrine, dedicated to the first emperor of Japan, Jimmu, the grandson of Ningi and descendant of Amaterasu; and the Katsuragi Mountains, the home of the legendary founder of shugendō, En-no-Gyōja.
Mt. Miwa (1532 feet, 467 meters) is not physically impressive, but located near the original capital of established by Emperor Jimmu, it's recognized as one of the first shrines established by the Yamato state.
Ōmiwa Jinja is dedicated to Ōmononushi, the sun kami who entered the mountain in ancient times. The mountain is said to be his sacred body; he also takes the form of a white snake which lives at the shrine.
As we missed climbs to the summits of Mt. Kaimon and Mt. Takachiho earlier on the trip, I wanted to make it to the top of Miwa. This seemed doable, as the trail is a little less than a mile long. According to a travel article I read before the trip, "The trail starts steep, but flattens quickly, so the more short-breathed among us needn’t worry much." This turned out to be inaccurate. The trail starts steep and while it flattens out for short stretches, it has five more steep slopes after the first one, the last one being just before reaching the top. (One wonders if the travel writer actually made the hike.)
After paying the ¥300 yen entry fee and donning our white neck sashes, we set out like pilgrims. Along a relatively flat stretch, next to a small stream flowing down a narrow ravine, the only sounds were the flow of the water and the tinkling of the bell attached to my neck sash. Once we reach a ridge, we could hear the sounds of cars and trains rising from the town below. Along the trail are sacred rocks and trees marked by shimenawa. At the very top is Okitsu-Iwakura, a jumble of stones, where Ōmononushi is said to have entered the mountain.
Photos are not allowed, but I found two on the web, one of the trail along the stream and one of the shrine at the top of the mountain.
Ōmononushi is the kami of cultivation and the guardian deity of human life and marriage. In the age of the gods, cooperating with Sukunahikona-no-mikoto, he cultivated the land, developed industry, including saké brewing and medicine manufacturing, and cured diseases. So today he is prayed to for help in industry, medicine, prosperity of fortune, and longevity. The shrine sells Yakuyoke (talisman against evils) and Hoyoke (talisman against directional curses).
On the way back to Kansai International Airport, we stopped at Kashihara shrine, dedicated to Jimmu, four miles west of Ōmiwa, at the base of Mt. Unebi.
Then we headed for Gose, six miles to the west of Kashihara, to ride the ropeway up to Mt. Katsuragi, famous as the birthplace of the mystic En-no-Gyōja, founder of the syncretic sect of mountain asceticism known as shugendō. The ride up is short—just five minutes.
On a clear day, which it was, the mountaintop offers views of the Yamato (Nara) plain to the west. From the ropeway station, we could see Mt. Miwa and Mt. Unebi in the distance.
To see the Kawachi plains and Osaka requires a hike to the summit; as we were running out of time, we skipped it, went back down and headed for the airport.
When we got back to Hawai‘i, the US and its allies were bombing Libya, so HNN was obsessing on that story (including the story of a female lawyer alleging rape by Colonel Kaddhafi's soldiers), leaving NHK and BBC to cover the less dramatic recovery efforts in Tōhoku.
In a letter published to the world, Prime Minister Kan said it was his top priority to bring the damaged nuclear plant under control, and added "I have not a single doubt that Japan will overcome this crisis, recover from the aftermath of the disaster, emerge stronger than ever, and establish a more vibrant and better Japan for future generations."
The nation has endured for 2000 years with faith in its kami, through numerous calamities: earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, famines, wars. Certainly, if Japan was able to rebuild after the catastrophic devastation of the fire-bombings and atomic bombings of World War II, it wouldn't be done in by the current crises.
A survivor of the Hiroshima atomic blast once said, “… they told us no plants or trees would grow in Hiroshima for ten to fifteen years. … But the next year the grass grew just the same and the trees bore leaves again.”
Sacred sites, along with lives and homes, have disappeared, swept away by the giant wave. Bashō noted over 300 years ago: “mountains collapse, rivers flow, roads change, stones are buried and hidden beneath the earth ... and the traces of what once was are now uncertain ...” Still, an ancient spirit lives on. It was late March when we left Kansai: the sakura were starting to bloom.