Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pampas Grass and Pinnacles: Akiyoshidai Quasi-National Park

山口県美祢市秋吉台国定公園 Akiyoshidai Quasi-National Park, Mine City, Yamaguchi Pref.

(BGM: "Africa" by Toto)

Akiyoshidai Quasi-National Park (秋吉台国定公園, Akiyoshidai Kokutei Kouen), on the outskirts of Mine City in Yamaguchi Prefecture, is Japan's most well-known example of karst topography. (Karst is landscape formed when underlying limestone is eroded by dissolution). Though karst can be found elsewhere in Japan and throughout the world, Akiyoshidai Park features some real geological gems, such as Japan's largest limestone cave Akiyoshido (秋芳洞), an endless supply of limestone pinnacles, and as the official pamphlet suggests, "the most concentration of doline (sinkholes) in the world." To fully comprehend and appreciate the natural wizardry behind the making of this park, an entire day is recommended to explore Akiyoshidai inside and out.

My husband and I were planning on doing just that, but couldn't due to our tight itinerary. (We started our journey three hours later than we'd hoped). We arrived just minutes before sundown at the parking lot next to the Karst Observatory, which was just getting ready to close. We had hoped to tour the park by our portable bikes, but masses of rock jutted out of the trail like outcrops of mushrooms and the intense, hilly terrain made leisurely cruising an impossibility. Neither of us were in the mood for an obstacle course, so we left the bikes folded up in the car and set out on foot. 

The dusk slowly covered us in pink light as we hiked away from the crowds into the chilly wind, out towards a seemingly endless space that led absolutely nowhere (45.02 square kilometers of nowhere, to be exact).

Um...this doesn't look like Japan, anymore.
I just couldn't believe my eyes. The sudden impact of all this open countryside left me absolutely speechless. It dawned on me just how accustomed I'd become to both the mental and physical confinement of island life, all these years.

Setting our smart phone cameras to panorama, we savored the 360-degree view as the land scrolled out before us, limited only by our imaginations. An occasional scraggly tree broke the void, each standing lost and lonely, like friends separated by their teacher for goofing off in class. A memory of the treeless tundra near the Arctic Circle flashed through my mind, and for awhile there, I was transported home, again. My husband, on the other hand, was reminded of safari videos of the Serengeti Plains he'd seen on YouTube.

"I bless the rains down in..." Wait a minute!
Faced with a choice of routes, we chose a trail that led us head-on into a polije (enclosed depression). Standing in the middle of it looking up at this gigantic, curving wall of earth surrounding me, I felt like a tiny crumb in an empty cereal bowl. The sensation of smallness was delightfully addictive!

We continued down the switchback path, intrigued by the plethora of alien, bluish-grey limestone pinnacles everywhere that seemed so out of place. Some reached up to our knees while others towered high overhead. Many of them were streaked with finger-width vertical grooves from top to base. Still others had scorch marks which gave them an almost igneous appearance. Had the rocks been deliberately defaced by tourists?

A limestone pinnacle carved by water and time.
A quick Internet search revealed that the entire terrain of Akiyoshidai, like the miles of caves beneath our feet, was once a giant underwater mass of limestone reef. As time and cataclysm pushed it all up above sea level, millenniums' worth of rain eroded the exposed limestone, carving unique patterns onto the pinnacles. 

This rain, combined with groundwater activity, also dissolved the limestone beneath the topsoil, causing it to collapse in places. This is how Akiyoshidai's many sinkholes (doline or uvale) were formed. (An impressive photo gallery of doline, pinnacles and displays of karst around the world are beautifully depicted here on Dusky Wondersite). As awe-inspiring as they can be, doline are actually quite notorious, especially in parts of Florida, for swallowing up entire houses and destroying expensive infrastructure. Perhaps for this reason, only a fraction of Akiyoshidai is open to the public, possibly to avoid dangerous situations like this.

Though the idea of falling through the ground and disappearing forever is somewhat unnerving, these particular doline were structurally sound enough to serve as garden beds for the locals as far back as the Jomon period (12,000-300 BC), according to artifacts found around the largest doline in the area, Nagashakuri Uvale (ナガシャクリ・ウバーレ).

Trails winding around and plunging deep into Nagashakuri Uvale (ナガシャクリ・ウバーレ).
Which begs the question: if this area was used for agriculture, why is the land out here so barren, now? Why do we only see this unforgiving expanse of grass and low shrubbery? 

The cedar forests surrounding the park hold the key to this mystery. Littered with more pinnacles than trees, these forests provide a picture of how Akiyoshidai used to look before humans tamed it. Decades of controlled burning and the porous nature of the soil assured that the trees here once cut would never grow back. The crusty topsoil proved better suited to pampas grass cultivation, which provided grazing for cattle and thatch for roofs. In a way, the landscape we see here now could be labeled "man-made," but the clear-cutting does allow for the land to take on a soothing, undulating rhythm, making it possible for the pinnacles to receive their due attention, each one a monument to the artistic forces of nature.

Pinnacles with Pampas Grass (Miscanthus sinensis)
Akiyoshidai changes her attire to correspond with the seasons. Fires set intentionally to the grass in late winter add nutrients to the soil, allowing for spring wildflowers to bloom. Summer brings a cooling contrast of greens, grays and blues, while winter blankets the landscape in sparkling snow. I was grateful to see Akiyoshidai in the off-season, while the warmth of autumn tones still lent their richness to the scenery despite the January chill. 

As darkness softly crept over the land, we wandered around listlessly in the deafening silence, relishing every fleeting second of it. The only sound we could hear was the wind pushing gently through the long, feathery pampas grass, rustling like a horsehair brush on a cymbal. The sharper the temperature dropped, the louder the grass rattled, signaling that it was time for us to go.

We regretted not having enough time to learn more about this amazing place at the nearby Akiyoshidai Science Museum (秋吉台科学博物館, Akiyoshidai Kagaku Hakubutsukan). But we vowed to come back here again during operating hours to fully explore all that this park has to offer. Meanwhile, untold wonders of indescribable beauty and strangeness silently awaited our discovery, hundreds of meters beneath our feet. Like the rain that dissolves the stone, we had only, quite literally, scratched the surface of Akiyoshidai Quasi-National Park.

Akiyoshidai Quasi-National Park Information

Open Hours: Akiyoshidai Park is open all hours. The museum and observatory are open from 8:30am to 4:30pm.
Holidays: The park is open 365 days a year. 
Access By Car: 15 minutes via Mine I.C. or 12 minutes from Jyumonji I.C.
Access By Bus: 1 hr from Yamaguchi Station. 40 minutes from Shinkansen Shinyamaguchi Station. 25 minutes from Mine Station. 
Facilities Available:  Drink vending machines, public restrooms, a small restaurant/gift shop are located near the Karst Observatory. Picnic tables and benches dot the hiking trails.
Parking: Free parking at designated sites around the park. 

  Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author. 

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