Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nihon Hyakumeizan: in search of ground truth (12)

Travelogue continued: a distant view vindicates Kujū-san as the pre-eminent mountain of Bungo Province

November 20: After visiting two of its summits and a troublesome gully, I'm still bemused as to why Fukada Kyuya elevated this massif to the ranks of his one hundred notable mountains. The Hyakumeizan author seems to have had doubts too; his Kujū chapter begins half-apologetically: "Overshadowed perhaps by the lofty reputations of Kirishima, Aso, and Unzen, Kyūshū's highest mountain is often overlooked. For it is, in fact, Kujū-san."

Height alone, though, does not make a mountain 'famous'. In the manifesto attached to his book, Fukada insists that a mountain must have a special character or significance to qualify as a Meizan. Yet, by his own admission, Kujū's scenery lacks distinctiveness: "Rather than lording it over his fellows, Kujū presides over an oligarchy. Moreover, all these peaks are tholoid-type volcanoes, making them even harder to tell apart."


The troublesome gully has ejected me in front of a huddle of mountain huts. Steam wisps into the air behind them. This is the Hokke-in, a hot spring once patronised by mountain mystics. Austerities may not have been all they practised: a signboard by the path records that the hermitage was shut down for being too "lively" (nigiyaka).

So what is this mountain about? Without vouchsafing an answer, the path leads me across a grassy plain, over a low col, and down to the road-head.

2.30pm: resplendent in a uniform that wouldn't disgrace a naval commodore, the venerable driver is guiding his bus down the switchback roads towards Bungo Nakamura. Still high on the mountain, we grind in low gear through a tilted landscape of woods and small fields. Nature and people seem to get on well together here.

The bus stops at a school. A teacher looks on as five children climb into the bus. The boys head for the back, where they open a window to yell out to their friends. The bus driver says two words in a tone of naval asperity and the window is smartly closed. Two small girls sit very straight in a front seat, their toes hardly brushing the floor.


At the next stop and the one after, the mothers are waiting for their children by the roadside. Few people seem to be around in these villages and even fewer children. Probably the inhabitants have been leaving for decades. Some of these children will leave too, sucked into the big cities by the jobs and the bright lights. But, wherever they go, they'll carry this tilted landscape with them. Kujū is their mountain: "We spend our childhood in the shadow of our mountain and we carry it with us in memory when we grow up and leave the village,” Fukada wrote: “And however much our lives may change, the mountain will always be there, just as it always has been, to welcome us back to our home village.”

We're still only half-way down the mountain. The driver makes his bus back and turn through hairpin bends with minuet-like grace. Then he pilots us into a gorge where fan-vaulted basalt shows through the last red and gold leaves of autumn.

4.30pm: I consult the station-master at Bungo Nakamura. His must be the only station in Japan where the sheds for steam locomotives are still standing, complete with a rusting turntable. There's still an hour to wait for Yufuin-no-Mori express back to the big city. Time runs slowly here. The usual denizens of a Japanese high street - the Dennys, the Starbucks, the Seven-Elevens - have yet to reach this town. There’s no call for these merchants of haste in Bungo province.


If you want to buy a bento or a can of coffee, then you buy it from a grocery shop that a family has owned and run for generations. Down the street, the pachinko parlour is named for Hawaii in faded silver letters. In those days – how along ago was that? - Hawaii was still an exotic place. People emigrated there for good; they couldn’t flit across for a four-day Jalpak tour. A poster touts the town as 'the Japan you grew up in'.

Just before the light goes, Kujū-san manifests itself as a distant silhouette beyond those crumbling engine sheds. Now I start to understand. That gently undulating skyline of long-dormant lava domes - what could be more appropriate as a backdrop for the meandering and unhurried pace of life in Bungo? Kirishima is for fans of brash young volcanoes; Kujū for folk of a more mature and considered taste. The view from this station platform makes everything clear: sometimes you just need to step back from a Meizan to appreciate its full stature.

Now I regret not stopping for the night here. You don't often get to stay in a town that has arrested time – and what other insights might such a place confer? – but the express is sliding up to the platform and the station-master, who has kindly reserved me a seat, is standing nearby with his white-gloved hand raised in salute. Too late to change my mind ...

7 comments:

wes said...

phew. I'm glad Kuju finally showed you her majestic face. The first few posts were beginning to worry me.

The upside to your trip was that you had the entire mountain to yourself. During azalea season the mountain is overrun with tourists. I opted for the fair weather of October and wasn't disappointed

hanameizan said...

I was captivated more by the account of the left-behind town than the mountain itself. But for whatever reason Mr F chose Kuju, thanks to him there should always be a steady stream of hikers and perhaps the town will never die.

Kittie Howard said...

Ahh, Kuju finally tugged at the heart. From the first work to the last, your post held my rapt attention. I remember small towns in Japan like you described -- before fast food joints killed a certain look found only in Japan (hard to explain this) that soothed the soul. And a homemade bento...life's good. Too bad you had to get on that train.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Kittie - you've hit the nail on the head here. It was the town that was the discovery here, rather than the mountain. Or rather the mountain made sense as the right "Meizan" for that town. Visiting Bungo was like slipping back to the early 1980s - in a way, it was right to pass through. If you spent too long there, the spell might break and you would find yourself back in November 2009 ....

prashant said...

nice photos you have in your blog

Peter said...

Though I haven't been there, the photos I saw in a book were very nice. I can't find the book on the Net but I saw this new one on Amazon Japan.
阿蘇・くじゅう連山の四季―岩崎秀夫写真集
Plug that into Amazon's search and see what comes up.
I couldn't read everything in this post tonight but I'll be back again later.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Peter - many thanks for the book reference. For reasons discussed - maybe at too great length - in the blog posting, Kuju has probably not had as much attention from photographers as the more obviously scenic mountains to the south. Well, I guess that means that all the more photographic potential is lurking there .... !