Turning Over An Old Leaf

(Please click on the pictures in this post to view a full sized version in another window.)

Friday the 23rd was "Labor Thanksgiving Day" in Japan and K and I decided to head up to the north end of Ibaraki - our fair prefecture - to see some fall foliage (viewing autumn tints is called "momiji gari" in Japan) at Fukuroda no Taki, Japan's third highest water falls.

The combination of a day off, autumn leaves, water falls, and beautiful clear skies was just an irresistible draw for us - and a whole lot of other people. The drive to Mito City took the usual hour just as the odometer showed we had gone 50 kilometers, but north from Mito traffic quickly increased in numbers and slowed to a crawl. The next 10 kilometers took half an hour (that's 12 miles per hour for you folks in the USA). It was another 40 km to Fukuroda. At this rate we would arrive in the mid-afternoon, and get home late in the evening, having spent all day sitting in traffic spewing out exhaust in order to reach a place where we could be closer to and appreciate "nature". Welcome to modern industrialized life, full of such bizarre contradictions.

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The lowest portion of Fukuroda Falls

We decided to try to catch a train. I had noted on a previous occasion (see "The Red Gazebo") that the trains had left us in the dust as we sat in holiday traffic. At the end of that post I wrote, "The return trip was 106 km or 66 miles and took 3 hours and 45 minutes. That works out to 28 kph (17.5 mph). Poor K. Ah, that modern marvel of personal transportation, the automobile! Next time I'll take the train."

The JR Suigun line runs close to the highway we were on in many places, so we headed for the next station, which proved none to easy to find due to a lack of signage (the turn off the main highway was clear, but after that we were seemingly on our own and finally forced to ask an elderly gentleman on a bicycle for directions). As we approached the station parking lot, so did the train, and we watched in dismay as it pulled out as we parked! The next one would not be along for 40 minutes or so. We headed for the next station, thinking of catching the next train from there, but by the time we arrived, found a place to park and were ready to buy tickets, we decided to forget the whole idea and go home. All those cars were going toward the same area, and even if we got there by train, it was bound to be a crowded scene. Tactical retreat. Fall back, regroup.

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We stopped in Mito City and had a nice lunch, then returned home, disappointed, but glad we were not still sitting in traffic. Momo was glad to us come home early too. Good girl.

On Sunday we gave it another go. This time, the plan was to drive to Mito Station and catch the train from there. We could have taken a train to Mito City from a nearby station on the Kashima-Oarai line, but car traffic to Mito is not usually a problem, and the train fare to Mito is more expensive than that on the line going north from there. Go figure. We do use that line sometimes when traveling just to Mito, as I did the following Tuesday when I got my 3 year extension on my permit to stay in Japan (YAY!).

It turned out well. We got an early start. At Mito Station we went to the first car of the train. The people waiting were not glum commuters, but rather mostly families, hikers, and others off on a Sunday jaunt. While we waited, the driver came out of the cab and posed for photos with a couple of children (who were thrilled). Lots of smiles all around. The train was made up of new rolling stock - clean, quiet, and comfortable. We each had our reasons for being there, which were personal, but we were sharing space on this train and formed a little community - very unlike the isolation of travel by automobile.

Along the way some passengers talked with each other about their destinations and reasons for going to them. I gave up my seat for a time to an elderly woman who boarded the train for part of the journey. A teenage girl spoke with her for a while, as did K who sat next to her, I don't know about what. Others - a group of middle-aged men who were off on a day of hiking - made sure that she knew when we had reached her destination.

As we rolled along, I was reminded of one of the songs my girls used to like me to sing for them when they were little, "The City of New Orleans" - about the train of that name... "along the southbound odyssey, the train pulls out near Kankakee and rolls along past houses farms and fields..." but while that song is a lament of how rail travel has deteriorated in the USA, our journey showed what a joy taking the train can be in Japan. Houses, farms and fields gradually turned to the same plus rivers, and mountain ridges covered with forests of bamboo, Japanese cedars, poplars and maples. The scenery was so much better than the endless traffic, signs, advertising and commercial buildings of the highway.

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Canyon wall at Fukuroda

An hour and change later - the same amount of time as a car would take on a "no traffic" day - we arrived at Fukuroda. Waiting at the little station were two buses. One, a public bus which charged a fare for a complete route of stops for locals. The other, a free one for weekend tourists (that would be us!) which went directly to the falls area.

We had been to Fukuroda before. It was in early 2004 I think, before I had actually moved to Japan. On that occasion, K had driven the whole way. We had learned a bit of what we wanted to do and see this time, and looked forward to fall foliage. We were not disappointed.

The first time around I had been a little put off by the long tunnel which was built in the 1960s and leads from the edge of town to the falls, perhaps 200 meters. K explained that it allows people to visit the falls in winter when there is an ice festival here, without the dangers of hiking over an icy stream bed or path. As I thought about the large number of people who visit - there were a lot here this day - I realized that by putting in such infrastructure they actually preserve a lot of the natural elements from being destroyed under foot and at the same time allow a lot people to safely see this beautiful place - a tricky balance. My oldest daughter recently visited Yellowstone National Park with her family and was a bit taken aback by the "development" there. But the thing is this: if you seal places off to preserve them and don't make them available for people to visit, there won't be the necessary political support to continue to preserve them. If you over-develop them, then you defeat the purpose. Like I said, a tricky balance, but one which in the case of Fukuroda I think is being done well.

Coincidentally, just before this trip, K and I had been reading some passages by Henry David Thoreau to each other. His words came to life and were given added meaning for us in the autumnal tints we saw.

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The slow running river made for less spectacular falls, but lovely reflections

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A restaurant prepares "ayu" or sweetfish - a fresh water fish native to Japan, Taiwan and Korea which is cooked on a skewer by a charcoal fire.

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Along the way we stopped to enjoy miso dango - miso flavored rice dumplings

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Fukuroda no Taki (water falls). Not much water this time of year. The falls come down in four tiers with a total height of 120 meters (394 feet).

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K offers a prayer at a shrine inside a side tunnel near the water fall

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Downstream from the falls, visitors cross a suspension foot bridge.

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On the other side of the river, a steel stairway leads up the mountainside and disappears into the trees. K wanted to climb it, but I wanted to know first if she remembered how to perform CPR. She didn't, but fatalist that I am I went anyway.

We started up and near what had looked like the top when we had started, it just turned and continued up, and up, and up. I lost count at around 250 steps. Eventually the steel stairs ended....and were replaced by old stone steps, continuing a relentless steep climb. Stair climbing uses different muscles than bicycling and I was really feeling it. I finally stopped at place where I could get off the steps without falling down a cliff and told K to go on ahead. After about five minutes though I felt better and continued up another hundred or so steps and paused to rest again. By then I could see I was not far from where the steps ended at a level path, and just as I reached it, K was coming back. From a vantage point along the trail we could look down at the river at a point above the falls.
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Finally, around a bend, the trail came to an end at a viewing platform and we were rewarded with smaller, but very beautiful set of falls.
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Maybe it wasn't the stairway to heaven, but it was certainly worth the hike.

On the way down my thighs (quadriceps) felt like jello, but going that direction too had its rewards such as this view of the village below.
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Back on the main path at the bottom of the stairs, we headed toward the town and lunch. Along the way an artist was sitting near the river painting the scene.
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The restaurants and tourist shops were busy. Like tourist towns everywhere, Fukuroda has its "antiques" shop.
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We finally settled on a smaller restaurant next to the river and had a delicious lunch of ayu (a bit like trout, but sweeter tasting), rice, wild mountain veggies, pickles and miso soup. After that we bought a few souvenirs and headed to the bus stop.

We had forgotten to bring a return train schedule with us, so when we got to the station we discovered that we would have an hour wait. That was OK by us. They have a nice little park at the station, with a shelter and benches. We just relaxed there and shared the coffee from our thermos until it was time to go.

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The train was more full for the trip back, and though not crowded, we had to stand, but the scenery out the window was still wonderful so we didn't mind. As we reached a section where the highway was visible a number of people on the train remarked at the traffic - backed up and crawling along. We were happy to be on our "magic carpet made of steel."

"How beautiful, when a whole tree is like one great scarlet fruit full of ripe Juices, every leaf, from lowest limb to topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look toward the sun! What more remarkable object can there be in the landscape? Visible for miles, too fair to be believed. If such a phenomenon occurred but once, it would be handed down by tradition to posterity, and get into the mythology at last. I am thrilled at the sight of it...I go half a mile out of my way to examine it. A single tree becomes thus the crowing beauty of some meadowy vale, and the expression of the whole surrounding forest is at once more spirited for it."

- Henry David Thoreau, "Autumnal Tints" 1862


ladybug said...

How nice! I do enjoy public transport for the very reason you mention; I hate sitting in traffic! Of course, here in the US, it's so much more spotty...The only good systems I've experienced have been NY, Washington DC, and San Francisco (the best!). Also, to certain degree, Portland, OR (in and around the main core of downtown)...but like most areas, once you enter suburbialand, buses are few and far between, and have inconvenient routes!

Finally, really nice to see the fall foliage, it's already gone here!

Martin J Frid said...

Wonderful narrative. Thanks for the photos. Did you ever consider publishing a book about your trips..? Print-on-demand could be a solution, as you would retain all rights to text and photos. But reading it as a blog also makes me think we have invented a new fora for expression.

Henry David Thoreau - not sure how he got his essays published, but if he had had a blog on Walden Pond, you bet it would have been almost as popular as yours!

Don Snabulus said...

It looks like a beautiful trip. Our autumn leaves are long gone, so it is nice to see that part of nature one more time.

Pandabonium said...

Ladybug - holiday traffic here is insane, and even the excellent transport systems of japan can get jammed.

The trees were beautiful though, and that was main thing.

We're planning a trip to Hiroshima and debating whether to go by Shinkansen or plane. (I'm for the former). It is an interesting case since the distance is such that door to door travel time isn't all that different between the two modes.

Martin - Thanks, and yes I have. I was thinking of calling it "Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan", but I think that's been done. ;) At some point I think I might select posts from the blog and some other writings and pictures I didn't post and put them together.

The Thoreau blog - cool, but would he have used a computer? Maybe.

Snabby - fall leaves redux for you guys.

QUASAR9 said...

Wow, I can see I've been missing some great photos. Love the colours

Will be back with more time to catch up on the last couple of posts

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

The pictures of bridges I like the best with the softness and variety of colour, and those waterfall shots with water strangely frozen in time are quite strange to me. Thanks for the story and photographs.

Lrong said...

Didn't have much time to gari the momiji this season... too bad the leaves now have almost all dropped off... pretty impreesive waterfall there...

Pandabonium said...

Quasar9 - thanks. Glad you enjoy them. I've been trying to catch up with your blog as well - orders of magnitude between the two - from fall leaves to galactic clouds.

Wendy - Those are my favorites too. The people on bridge add perspective. It is a beautiful area.

Lrong - when you keep your nose to the grindstone, you need to pause and look up sometimes. We were lucky as we caught the leaves after their prime, but before they fell.

K & S said...

beautiful photos!

Pandabonium said...

K & S - welcome and thank you. You're from Hawaii too? I'll add your Japan blog to my links - looks fun.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Last time I went to Fukuroda Falls was in 2000. I was in charge of the annual "field trip" for my grade that year. It was a senior (year 12) grade, and the kids all wanted to do what their predecessors the year before had done: go to a park with a well-known exhibition hall that had a convenient station nearby that would allow them to sneak off to Tokyo and play around there all day (i.e. shopping and game centers bankrolled by the school). I thought it was a stupid and totally meaningless idea and refused to do it. Instead, I suggested going to a couple of the most famous spots in Ibaraki and then having a barbecue party as a sort of senior "farewell" to Ibaraki, since most of the kids were heading off to college elsewhere in Japan.

The kids were furious. I took a poll asking where in Ibaraki they wanted to go, and 98% of the kids scribbled out my list and wrote in "Tokyo", quite often adding "because I'm not a grade schooler!". I finally gave up and said I wanted nothing more to do with the event. The other teachers in my grade would have none of it, though, so they went along with my original idea. The plan they settled on was mainly a visit to Fukuroda Falls and the surrounding area.

More than a third of the students in the grade didn't show up for the trip, and many of those that did griped the whole time on the way there. One boy in my class grabbed the guide's microphone on the bus and said (in a nasally voice that apparently was meant to be an imitation of me), "Good morning, boys and girls. The first stop on our tour is a waterfall. Yes, that's right, a waterfall. Yes, that's all there is. Just a waterfall. There won't be any entertainment, and you'll probably all be bored, but it's a waterfall."

I was in a pretty lousy mood when we finally got there, and it was cold and rainy besides. I kept as far away from the school group as I could. I went hiking alone through the woods, ignoring the rain and the cold in favor of the natural beauty and needed solitude, and the only soul I saw was a Buddhist priest who was sitting and chanting near a small and very empty begging bowl. I'd heard that a lot of such begging monks are actually frauds, but the guy was even more rain-soaked than I was and was wearing thinner clothing, so I gave him a 500-yen coin, perhaps doubling the amount in his bowl. Then I went in and had a look at the falls. Yep, still one of the most beautiful places in the country.

I tried to climb those stairs after that, but my legs were screaming at me. Finally, when I was almost at the top, a group of my students came running back down, and they told me that apparently a whole posse was out looking for me since everyone was worried my feelings had been hurt.

Well, they had.

We went to a nearby apple farm (a local specialty in Fukuroda) after that, U-picked some apples, and then had our barbecue party. The kids looked like they were having a great time. Afterward, they were saying they were glad they'd come, and many of the kids who had skipped said they wished they had.

I guess I was right after all. But the cold I caught wasn't fun.

Pandabonium said...

Moody - thanks for sharing that interesting story. Typical of kids to want to do the familiar and easy rather than experience something new.
Next time take them bungie jumping off Ryujinkyu Bridge.

I forgot to mention the apple orchards in my post, and the farmers who set up tables in town offering samples.

Swinebread said...

Wow, some of those shots remind me of the Columbia River Gorge but the reds are much deeper.

Olivia said...

Adding to the people who say you should publish, your photography is also a treat.

Public transport is ok, but I miss driving, having my own space. Less stressful. In NYC, the trains come and go regardless, and that's a country where it snows. My cousin says there has been only one major delay that he can remember in his 15 years there. But every day in London there are delays for all sorts of reasons - today a fire alert at Kings Cross, tomorrow maybe a leaf on the track. You're trying to get to work every day, but after a while you give up, and get there when you get there...

Pandabonium said...

Olivia - thank you so much.

I don't disagree that cars are convenient, but they are an ecological disaster. I also don't disagree that public transport can be done badly and even if done well can be overwhemled by too many people.

The problems are twofold. First, the end of the age of cheap oil, which occurring right now - too little supply too much demand - will mean the cost of traveling in our own cars will become prohibitive. Second, even if an endless supply of fuels existed, by burning them we are causing climate change as well as polluting the local atmosphere.

In the future we will be doing much less travel and commuting in general and the ways in which we do move around will, of necessity, change. I guess my main point is that this does not have to be a bad thing.