(BGM: "Africa" by Toto)
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.|
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!|
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.|
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).|
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)|
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.