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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The restaurants and tourist shops were busy. Like tourist towns everywhere, Fukuroda has its "antiques" shop.
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.
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