Friday, November 9, 2012

Kyushu Road Trip, Day 1: Winding Roads and Waterfalls

Nana and I did something strange last month: we rented a car, gathered a posse, and took a two-day drive through the rugged Kyushu hinterlands - then a week later, we packed Dan and Kath in the car and did the same thing again.

Each time, we followed roughly the same route: expressway to Oita prefecture, windy little roads from Kokonoe into the mountains of the Kuju Plateau, and an overnight in a quiet onsen town. Then, across the fields of wild barely into the Aso caldera, up to the very much active crater of Nakadake, down to the expressway at Kumamoto and straight on till morning. In essence, a drive straight through the heart of Aso-Kuju National Park. Beautiful, and well worth the repeat voyage.

On our first day, not counting expressway driving, we covered a stretch of mountains from Kokonoe to the southern edge of the Kuju plateau. Along with Aso, Kuju is one of the most volcanically active areas in Japan. As such, it's a strange and abrupt landscape, scored with deep wooded canyons, laced with waterfalls, and dotted with hot springs.

Our first photo spot, however, looked almost Pennsylvanian . . .

But the similarities stopped there. Shortly upriver from there, the road turns into this:
Basically, the road gets to the head of a canyon, then instead of giving up and turning back like a good, God-fearing road should, it proceeds climb directly up the canyon wall in a series of hairpin switchbacks. (Still, not nearly as harrowing as those Australian switchbacks Nana had to navigate in the dark.)

At the top of the hill is an apparently famous Japanese roadside attraction: a rest-stop-restaurant-waterfall-shrine-spa run by people made up to look like tanuki (that's Nana's scholarly treatise on the tanuki, which is possibly NSFW).

A free footbath for weary travelers.

The view back down to the road below.

From there, it was a short way uphill to the Kokonoe Dream Bridge, a huge suspended footbridge built as a viewing platform for two of Kyushu's biggest waterfalls.

The Kuju Mountains. Look closely and you can see some smoke from one of the active craters.

The middle-aged Korean man spontaneously breaking into "Gangnam Style" was, I am told, not part of the standard visitor experience.

Watch as my graduated filter struggles mightily to handle this light!

A tiny hint of rainbow down there.
According to this sign, Godzilla cannot get you on this bridge. (I hope.)
For the record, that bridge sways like a mofo.

Down below the bridge is a trail to a little wooded viewing area, where you can get a closer view of the larger of the two falls. A very pretty spot.

As you can see, we were there much earlier in the day the second time around.
After the Dream Bridge, we came down the south side of the Kuju Plateau, passing hundreds of hikers' parked cars along the way.
Then, with Dan and Kath, we spent the night just outside the famous onsen town of Kurokawa - listed as one of the most beautiful villages in Japan, and one of the country's most highly regarded hot spring towns.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


Time: the Friday before Justin and I are scheduled to take his parents to the hot spring (onsen) hotel near Kurokawa called Fujimoto (owner's name) Ryokan (traditional inn). It is a fabulous weekend spa-style retreat in rhe mountains with natural geothermal baths, and something his mom had been looking forward to since booking her trip here. All errors of Japanese are probably authentic.

My phone rings.
Me: Hello?
Person: indecipherable Japanese.
Me: すみません, えいごを話まづか?(Sorry, do you speak English?)
Person: いいえ(no). More indecipherable Japanese.
Justin: Hey, is that the hotel calling about our reservation?
Me: Um... 藤本ですか? (Fujimoto?)
Person:はい!(yes!). More Japanese.
Me: Ah... ちょっとまってください. One moment please, followed by a disastrous sentence which aspired to convey that I would hand the phone to Justin, whose Japanese is better, but which, based on homophones I just looked up in the dictionary, probably said something more like "The fur seal is melodious.
Person: puzzled sound.

Justin manfully took over, and asked the man if he could confirm our reservation for 3 pm Sunday. The man objected. Justin said we would be driving to Kurokawa and could change the reservation time if necessary. The man said something about Monday. Justin said that we had booked for Sunday months ago. The man said no to Sunday again. The conversation went around for a few more minutes before Justin decided to call in the big guns and ask our Japanese friend Toshi, who helped us find Fujimoto in the first place, to call the man for us and find out what the heck was going on.

A few minutes later, Toshi calls back.

It turns out the man was not Fujimoto Ryokan in Kurokawa, but rather a wrong number looking for a man named Fujimoto in Kurokawa. "Reservation" and "appointment" are the same in Japanese (予約/yoyaku) and rather than calling to confirm our Fujimoto yoyaku, he was calling to make a yoyaku with Fujimoto to foreclose on him, I believe for nonpayment of rent, and he didn't want to do this on the weekend. Every step of the way, coincidences lined up to make for an utterly bewildering string of statistically implausible misunderstandings. I mean, what are the odds that he'd misdial my phone to make a yoyaku with Fujimoto in Kurokawa the exact same weeked that we had a yoyaku at Fujimoto in Kurokawa?

Fujimoto Ryokan called the next day. 3 pm on Sunday was fine.