Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Valley of waterfalls: Ontake's Kurozawa route

time slipping by; writing and preparations for this and that. . .behind on work. . .so it goes.
My friend, T-san, had been offering for some time to take me out and show me some of the sights around Otaki. Originally, the plan had been to go fishing, but the good season passed without us ever getting a date set. So, last week we finally forced each other to schedule a time when we could take a walk together to enjoy Ontake's fall colors.

On the scheduled day T-san arrived at my house at 8:00 on the morning. A thick haze that had been sitting in the Otaki Valley when I awoke that morning, had all burned off by the surprisingly penetrating rays of the fall sun; now we had blue skies. Chizuko accompanied T-san and I as we all crawled into his van and took off down the valley, skirting the south side of Ontake reservoir. The water was smooth and glassy, offering a parallel set of hillsides alight with autumn's palette and topped with a sky of deep azure. We descended from the reservoir paralleling Makio Dam and then swung through a series of S-curves. Right at the Hino-seiyaku gift shop and then further on down the valley we zoomed, the Otaki River tumbling alongside us.

At Mitake--a former village, now part of Kiso Town--we turned north, heading across Ontake's eastern slope. At a major shrine of Ontake-kyo (the religious sect associated with Ontake) we turned left, west, up the mountain's eastern slope. Farm houses gave way to forest, which then gave way to several series of ireihi 慰霊碑--what we might call "spirit stones" or "death monuments". The road here was lined with hundreds of these stone monuments; some of which, according to T-san, have stood here since around the 18th century.

We continued up and across by climbing one ridge along Ontake's broad base, turning back onto that ridge, following it back to it's u-shaped apex, and then turning once again away from the mountain along the top of another. Back and forth, back and forth; T-san commented about how decieving the smooth shape of a mountain like Ontake can be when viewed from afar--it's only when you get up close that you begin to understand its true shape.

We stopped at a pasture that sits atop a low hill above the Mitake section of Kiso Town. Ontake's eastern slope opened up in front of us, yawning in the blue sky. Open fields like this one were once prevalent on the slopes of Ontake, T-san informs me, villagers used to burn the areas and use them to gather feed for cows and horses kept near houses below. "I like these open spaces," he laments.
"Me too".
Back into the van. We circle back a bit and then head straight up a ridgeline, as if to simply drive straight up to the summit. But, the road eventually levels a bit and then breaks to the south. We switch back our way up a few hundred meters; we're in the middle of Ontake Ropeway Ski Hill's gerund now. A few more twists and we arrive at a parking lot; end of the road.

T-san, Chizuko, and I shoulder our packs and start off across Ontake's broad slope. Walls of bamboo grass line the trail, threatening our hands with their paper thin leaves--we all put on gloves. We go down first into a small ravine. At the bottom runs a small stream flowing over rust-colored rocks. Tanaka tells me that the stream carries heavy loads of iron, which accounts for the rocks. I run my hand through the water, expecting the warmth of a hot spring, but it's icy cold.

We cross the river and climb the other side of the ravine. We're in a mixed forest that appears to have remained largely untouched. Two to three hundred year old hinoki cypresses tower above the more modestly sized broadleafed varieties: oak, beech, birch, and other varieties.
At one point T-san bends down, plucks a couple of mushrooms and hands them to me, "these are pretty good." I take the mushrooms, pause and watch colored leaves spin through the columns of soft autumn light that pours in through the canopy above. The air is crisp and cool; it nips at my exposed skin where beads of sweat are beginning to form.

We top another ridge and turn east, away from the mountain. There we encounter the remains of a mountain hut. The hut had been used in the past by worshipers on their ascents of the sacred mountain, but roads and lifts have long since made it obsolete--even the worshipers use buses. The hut simply sits now. It will whisper its stories of the past until the forest takes it back and the stories are forgotten.

The valley we've come to see is visible now to our right. I see one waterfall and my eyes light up. T-san must notice because at that moment he tells me, "you can see much better just up ahead." I follow eagerly behind until we reach a flat area that looks out over the valley. As I gaze out I have to catch my breath. Below me the earth arcs downward into a great basin of space that curves up to the Ta-no-hara plateau on the far side. The valley is steep and sudden, giving me the sense that it wasn't carved gradually, but rather fell, like a failed souffle. I spot one waterfall and then another, and another, and another--there's four or five in the valley. Again I sense the violence and ferosity with which this landscape must have been shaped so many years ago.
Yet now all is silent. The hillsides are alight with the autumn's blaze and the scene draws me away from myself , down and into the valley itself. As I look down upon them I explore each of the valley's waterfalls. I imagine myself a river of water flowing down and over each precipice. I feel my being flung into myriad pieces as I fall, glimmering in the sun for a moment, then smack into earth, flowing back into something new and different than I had been before.

We move to a nearby clearing for lunch. Chizuko and I have brought bentos. T-san pulls out onigiri wrapped in houba leaves and also small cups of ramen and a stove for water. He offers Chizuko and I one of the onigiri; it's slathered with miso on one side and looks irresistable. I hestitate before taking the precious gift--I remove beers from my pack and hand one to T-san as compensation, knowing it's too little; still, he gladly accepts.

The water boils and T-san prepares ramen. We sit, and eat, and let the time slip away from us. "I'm really glad you got to see this place," says T-san.
"Me too."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Building on the past: restorations in Otaki

Walking through the village the other day I had a chance to see a couple of renovations that are underway in Otaki.

The first are two small homes that were purchased recently (for change) by I-san. The homes were built in the post-war period using local wood. This, for I-san, was crucial. Structures built with local wood, he suggests, will outlast their more contemporary counterparts that consist of foreign timber. Looking at the shape of the two homes, while considering their long neglect, I tend to agree with I-san.
In the past these homes where belonged to the forestry agency and were used to house employees. About a dozen more of these homes sit in the Nakagoshi section of the village, where the largest forestry agency office in the Kiso Valley was once located. There's been talk of the village buying those homes, but economically it might not be feasible. I would like to suggest that the national government just give the homes to the village, rather than simply letting them slowly rot away.

The second rennovation project I had a chance to peak in on is being undertaken by my good friend T-san. The structure is a ryokan 旅館 or minshuku 民宿 (there is a difference between these terms, but with this particular structure the distinction is a bit ambiguous) that sits in the eastern part of the village. I'll refer to this particular structure as a minshuku.
The minshuku was owned and operated by the family of T-san's wife, but fell into disuse as tourist numbers began to drop. In the past, the majority of customers to Otaki's minshuku were members of the Ontake-kyo 御嶽教 religious sect, who make pilgrimages to Ontake-san, which they view as being a sacred mountain. Otaki itself was, and is, seen as the first stage of the mountains ten physical and spiritual stages. Because of this past, minshukus like T-san's are somewhat lack-luster, as most guests were content with just a place to lay their head before making their ascent of Ontake-san. At the same time, this gives the buildings an open and communal feeling, as individual rooms are usually few in number.
I'm not exactly sure what T-san has in mind for his renovation, but he's working independently with a team of builders and carpenters, which should allow him the freedom to be creative. Also, he plans on using all local materials. Unfortunately, in one of those quirks of our modern globalized world, foreign timber is must cheaper then domestic, with local Kiso timber being among the most expensive. Still, I think the investing in local materials will pay off in more ways than one. T-san agrees.
T-san plans on finishing the renovation of his minshuku by the end of next summer. It promises to be a beautiful place. He's hoping to use local onsen water for the baths and the location offers great views of the entire Otaki River Valley. Perhaps the most attractive feature is that T-san's wife will be preparing the food for the minshuku. Her meals are hands down some of the best I've eaten in Japan, and she's a master at using local ingredients. Also, T-san is a hell of a fisherman, which means fresh river fish. . .good god!

T-san is friendly and extremely knowledgeable about Otaki and the surrounding environment; plus, he speaks English! So, start making your travel plans today. Feel free to contact me at with any inquiries.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Otaki in color: variations on fall

I've been busy of late with preparations for the American Anthropological Association meeting in San Francisco next month, and a series of discussions about "resilience" here in the village this month. However, a visit by friends from Miyako-jima in Okinawa gave me a good excuse to get out and enjoy fall in Otaki.

Days here in Otaki are warm--hot, when the sun is hitting directly--but the mornings and evenings are accompanied by a stern cold that nips at one's bare parts.

Our Okinawa friends brought with them blue skies; heavy morning rain clouds cleared as we drove from Kiso-Fukushima station to Takigoshi, Otaki's smallest and most isolated hamlet.

We started with a walk in the forest where we stopped to gather kuri (chestnuts).
At midori-no-buchi we took time to warm ourselves in the sun and to marvel at the strokes of red and orange painted on the trees above us.
I-san, who runs the soba restaurant in Takigoshi, is in the middle of harvesting soba for the first time. The eldest member of the hamlet, M-san, was there to check on his progress. The black soba lay out on large tarpaulin, drying in the low slung rays of the sun.
As we waited for lunch to be prepared the warmth of the sun drew us out to play.
After feasting on soba, fresh grilled veggies, and tender Shinshu pork, I-san suggested we take his kayak out on the lake that sits next to the restaurant. It was easy not to refuse.
The lake was calm, with only a light wind lapping at the water's surface, just strong enough to carry away with it any cares we had been burdened with. Small flocks of birds swooped and climbed all around us, ducks flew in pairs or trios, and a solitary hawk soared directly overhead.
From a nearby mountain pass that sits on Nagano's border with Gifu more fall colors and a sweeping view of Ontake-san.
The next day we drove to Ta-no-hara for a closer look.
The clear fall air also blessed us with views of the surrounding mountains: Japan's north, central, and south Alps (I prefer their original names: Hida, Kiso, and Akaishi).
Finally, a stop at Shintaki, one of the two main sacred waterfalls in Otaki.
Drunk on the wonders of a beautiful fall day.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The changing resource landscape: rising energy costs and community resilience

An article on the Daily Yonder website suggests that in the U.S. rising energy prices will have a disproportionate impact on rural communities. The article's author, Penn State geographer Amy Glasmeier, states that:

. . .for rural residents, high energy prices unleash a cascade of bad news that ripples through everyday life. Compared with urban areas, residents of rural areas are more dependent on oil for everything, from transportation to heating to making a living.

Rural residents tend to drive longer distances to access basic goods and services – including health care – and they have fewer transportation alternatives such as public transportation.
Though I agree with Glasmeier's argument, I wonder if the intensity of these problems is not unique to the structure of the U.S. socio-natural landscape.

Obviously, rural areas in Japan are being impacted in similar ways by the rising cost of energy--some places more than others (particularly fishing communities)--but as I look out at the Otaki landscape, I wonder if rising fuel costs really pose such a serious threat.

Oil is a post-war phenomenon here in Otaki, and most older residents recall the days when wood was cut for fuel and walking was the main mode of transport. People enjoy the convenience of automobiles, but also recall with fondness the free forest railway system that once provided transportation to the nearest sizable town.

So, if all the cars stopped, how would Otaki fair? Many homes here still use wood-burning stoves--no problem. There is an ample amount of food being produced locally; so much, in fact, that most people don't know what to do with it all. Various game animals roam the hills. Anyway, I don't want to belabor the point: I think the residents of Otaki would be fine. The one resource that is in short supply: environmental knowledge. A vast amount of detailed information about the natural environment here in Otaki is being lost as older residents pass away, while younger people flee to urban areas.

This knowledge is Otaki's most valuable resource. Oil, I think, can come an go.

I'd like to hear other people's opinions concerning the resilience or robustness of their own communities in the face of a changing energy economy.

Friday, October 3, 2008

A birth day: blessed by Grace

Although I am already blessed to have four wonderful nieces and nephews here in Japan, the other day my little sister gave birth to a baby girl, Grace. This is the first baby in my natal family, so we are all thrilled.

Grace came a little earlier than expected, and there were a few minor complications, but she seems to be coming along just fine and hopefully will be going home this Sunday.

Congratulations to my little sister and her husband. And, welcome to the world, Grace.