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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Trip to Kyūshū, Day 4 - Gorging myself on gods 九州の旅5月25日

Getting ready to leave the Minshuku Aso-no-Fumoto 民宿阿蘇のふもと. From this point on, the weather would be fine for the rest of my travels:

The morning of the fourth day of my trip was spent in motion. First, I caught an 8:49 JR Hōhi Main Line 豊肥本線 train from Aso 阿蘇 to Tateno 立野, arriving at 9:18. From there, I changed to the Minamiaso Railway Takamori Line 南阿蘇鉄道高森線, and rode the 9:44 local to the terminus, Takamori 高森. On the train, I talked with a man about a wide range of topics, from the Okinawa base problem 普天間飛行場 and Japanese baseball players in the Major Leagues, to the depopulation crisis facing rural areas in Japan. Or at least, he talked while I tried my best to keep up. Upon alighting at Takamori, I walked a few minutes to the Takamori Chūō bus stop 隆盛中央バス停 for the final leg of the morning journey, a bus ride into Takachiho 高千穂 that deposited me at the town's bus center in time for lunch at a restaurant located just across the street.

The sightseeing began in earnest following the ミックスチキン定食 and 瓶ビール. I got on a local bus for the short ride to Amano Iwato-jinja 天岩戸神社. Takachiho is home to a number of Japanese legends, but the most important one concerns the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu 天照大神. Driven into a cave by the terrible behavior of her brother Susanoo スサノオ, the Storm God, the world was plunged into darkness. The other gods tried to persuade her to come out, but to no avail, until one goddess performed a lewd dance. Hearing all the laughter, Amaterasu peeked out of her cave to have a look, whereupon one of the stronger gods, Ameno-Tajikarao 天手力男命, removed the stone door, bringing light back into the world. The cave where Amaterasu hid is supposedly on the opposite bank of the Iwato-gawa River 岩戸川, behind the main building at the shrine, but it was impossible to make out amid the foliage. However, a 15-minute walk away lay Amano Yasugawara 天安河原, the accessible cave where the gods plotted what to do about the Sun Goddess:

Back at the bus stop waiting for the ride back to the Takachiho Bus Center 高千穂バスセンター, this おばさん wanted to see just how tall I was, or more precisely, exactly how small she was. Her head was barely above my waist, a fact that she found hilarious, and for which I received a hug. Back at the bus station, it was time to retrieve my bag and check in to my lodgings, but not before enjoying a can of Skal スコール, my favorite Japanese yogurt soda (and not all that easy to find in Japan):

My room at the Folkcraft Ryokan Kaminoya 民芸旅館かみの家:

A splurge at ¥12,600 ($140/NT4480) for one night, but well worth it for the excellent service, great food (more on that later) and relaxing bath.

With my bag safely ensconced in unaccustomed elegance, I set off for Takachiho-jinja 高千穂神社, a Shintō shrine 神社 set among a grove of cryptomeria スギ trees. This shrine is noted for being the venue for the nightly Yogakura 夜神楽 dances (see below), and this wooden carving of a guardian deity subduing a demon:

From Takachiho-jinja, it was a long walk down a winding road to reach Takachiho's primary attraction, the Takachiho Gorge 高千穂峡. As the Rough Guide to Japan describes it:

"At its narrowest point the gorge is just 3 meters (9.8 feet) wide and plunges 100 meters (328 feet) between cliffs of basalt columns, which in one place fan out like a giant cockleshell".

If you ask me, I'd say the plunging waterfalls and emerald-green Gokase-gawa 五ヶ瀬川 make Takachiho-kyō one of the most beautiful natural attractions in Japan. I walked the 600-meter (0.37-mile) long path to the other end and back again, taking the following photos and videos:

It was getting close to dinner time, so back up the corkscrewing road I went, and returned to the central part of town and my ryokan. Dinner was unbelievable - river trout アジ, sashimi 刺身, Miyazaki beef 宮崎牛 (who's afraid of hoof-and-mouth disease?), soba 蕎麦 and mountain vegetables 山菜 were just some of the delights, which I washed down with a draft beer 生ビール, and capped things off with a glass of shōchū 焼酎, the drink of choice among the natives of Kyūshū 九州:

Following dinner, the ryokan staff drove some of the guests to Takachiho-jinja to watch Yokagura. These are dances illustrating many of the various legends connected with the Takachiho area (including that of Amaterasu) that are performed throughout the night at farmhouses during the Yokagura Festival 夜神楽まつり from November to February. During the rest of the year, nightly samplers are performed for the tourists at the Kagura-den 神楽殿 located next to the main building at Takachiho-jinja. I saw four dances: 1.) the Dance of Tajikarao (pictured below), in which the god is listening for any sound that Amaterasu is in her cave; 2.) the Dance of Ameno-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto アメノウズメ, the performance which made Amaterasu curious; 3.) the Totori Dance, where Tajikarao removes the stone door from the cave; and 4.) the Goshintai ご神体 Dance. This last one depicted the gods Izanagi イザナギ and Izanami イザナミ making and drinking sake 日本酒, and was the most popular one of the evening, as the dancers engaged with members of the audience:

At the end of a long but interesting day, the hot bath at the ryokan felt nothing short of heavenly.

I wrote in a Facebook entry while in Japan that I could spend the rest of my life in Takachiho, and that wasn't an exaggeration. This small but well-ordered town with a population of just 14,000 has experienced a boom in popularity recently (as has the Ise Grand Shrine 伊勢神宮) due to a belief among many Japanese that the area holds a special kind of "power". While I would avoid discussing Takachiho in such New Agey terms, there is a special connection with the myths and legends of ancient Japan (bilingual descriptions of many of these can be found at points around town). I bought a book on the shrines of Takachiho 高千穂の神社, and I wish I could have the opportunity to explore every one of them. Combine all this "power" with the gorge, and the beauty of the mountain and village scenery that can be seen on the bus rides both going into and out of town, and it isn't difficult to see what makes Takachiho so special.

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