Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Caving In to Akiyoshido (Mine City, Yamaguchi Prefecture)

山口県美祢市秋芳洞 Akiyoshido Cave, Mine City, Yamaguchi Prefecture

(BGM: "The Cave" by Mumford & Sons)

Too full of childlike anticipation to sleep, I spent the entire night on the Internet, researching the wonders of Akiyoshido cave, making a Christmas list for myself of photos I wanted to take. If it was anything like the beauty above ground, we were in for a real treat! The three cups of hotel coffee sloshing around in my gut and the hot can of Royal Milk Tea warming up my hand were enough to keep any tiredness at bay. I was raring to go!

We rolled into Akiyoshido, a single intersection of streets in the middle of farm country with a hotel and a collection of shops. That was it.

Right on cue as our car clock rolled 10:00am, parking lot ticket-takers, bundled up tight in the chilly morning air, waved their arms at us frantically, trying to lure us in. Fortunately for us, the night before on our way back from Akiyoshidai Park, we spotted a very cheap alternative to the 500-yen slots they were offering! And it used the honor system to boot! Just park and put your 100-yen coin in the red can provided! How hassle-free could you get?

Cheapest parking at Akiyoshido. It pays to arrive here early!
Ignoring the disappointed scowls of the parking attendants, we strode confidently down the hill onto the main cobblestone promenade that led to the cave's entrance. 

Apparently the town has resident kappa (humanoids with turtle shells on their backs and a thing for cucumbers and sake. Think Mutant Ninja Turtles minus the swords and knee pads). The water trickling in the ditch beside me didn't look deep or clean enough to support the kind of ecosystem kappa prefer, but okay.
I think this kappa wins the staring contest.
Prayers for the indigenous lifeforms of Akiyoshido including bats, shrimp and kappa.
Half of the stores were closed for the New Year's holiday. The few that were open offered an eclectic combination of purple and brown granny fashions, marble nicknacks and prayer beads, soft ice cream and local pottery.

Items made from local (and imported) yellow marble and a nondescript blob of stalagmite.

Stone chunks, prayer beads and other trinkets for sale (next to a rice paddy, of course).
Just when we thought things couldn't get any more random, we met this gentleman:

The Best Happa Mushi Maker in Akiyoshi! "Mr. H." :-)
It was the middle of winter and here he was selling origami katydids folded out of blades of grass. (Katydids and green grass are usually summer items). None of it made any sense. None, whatsoever (which made it all irresistible to me, or perhaps it was the coffee buzz I was on).

"Happa Mushi" (leaf bugs) for sale! Handmade! :-)
As soon as he noticed me, his face burst into a wide, friendly smile and he immediately switched  languages, giving me his full attention. Half a decade ago, I used to get upset whenever Japanese people would automatically assume I spoke this language or that, just by looking at my face. But after years of banging my head painfully against this particular cultural brick wall, I learned to recognize the arrogance of my thinking. 

Now, instead of getting defensive and preachy against the evils of racial profiling, I praise the few who do try to speak English. After all, it must take them tremendous courage to go against a centuries-old monoculture by reaching out to me, a foreigner. I see this for the honest gift it is, not a display of ignorance.

"Miss, what do you call this in English?" Mr. H. asked me in a smooth American accent, laced with a smidgeon of German.

Uh, a grasshopper?

"Close! A grass grasshopper!" (HA HA HA HA HA!)

"Grass Grasshoppers!" :-D
Mr. H. was so full of these cute little jokes and one-liners that he seemed to echo the playfulness of the whimsical katydids he peddled. They were so lifelike, I did a double-take when I saw them. Slitting a hole into a blade of grass with a knife, he explained how his grass grasshoppers needed to be bought by the pair lest they get lonely, and that they live at least ten years, much longer than real ones. He didn't have to try to sell so hard, though. His genuine warmth had already sealed the deal. Without hesitation, we bought two as he suggested.

(He gave me full permission to use his name and photos on my blog, bless his heart!)
Reveling at the delicate artistry of his curious creations, we stood there with him in the street for what must have been at least twenty minutes, laughing and sharing stories of our travels. Just as we suspected, he'd visited much of the Western world (including Europe) and did all sorts of cool, fun things with his life. He spoke to us as equals, without a hint of condescension or apprehension. Right away he gave me his full name when I asked it, a rare thing in his culture! It was encouraging to be around someone so used to our mannerisms and ways of expression. I'm sure it's people like him, not the government's billion-yen effort at globalizing the nation, that are gradually steering the country away from its xenophobia. (But I digress...)

He had to remind us about the cave, we were having too much fun talking! He carefully placed one katydid in a plastic container with a lid on top and asked us to carry the other on a leaf for him, to advertise his business as we walked around town. We agreed and with a warm handshake and a friendly "farewell," we grinned and giggled our way to the end of the street with this insect bobbing up and down in time to my steps. We relished the smiles the other tourists gave us upon seeing our unseasonal new pet. Joy always begets joy.

The entrance to the Akiyoshido ticket booth.

Though the loudspeakers were blaring full-on, it was still too early for the cave to be inundated with busloads of tour groups, so we were processed quickly and easily. All paid up and with English brochures in hand, we walked on through the bright, Ueno Station-like gate and back out into...

...a fragrant cedar forest rushing with the music of flowing water?! (Could this trip get any weirder?) Had we suddenly stepped through the magic tunnel of Miyazaki Hayao's anime Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) or did we just stumble through a wormhole?

After a few deep-breathing exercises, we followed the melodious staccato of the river upstream and were halted in our tracks by a towering wall of pale gray limestone rock that made our jaws literally drop to the floor. My heart was beating so fast, I thought I was going to faint! 

We stood there utterly speechless, beholding the womb of Mother Earth, mighty and gushing afterbirth right there before our eyes. As my husband grinned ear-to-ear like a Cheshire cat, I blushed from a fleeting moment of inadequacy, feeling somewhat outdone. (Again, I digress...)

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Like a little boy at the gate to Disneyland, my husband hurried on ahead of me as I tried to digitally capture the intense phthalocyanine blue of the pool below us. Stepping up onto the platform, I could feel the force of the water vibrating the scaffolding beneath my feet. The rush was exhilarating!

Higher and higher we climbed, until stalactites hovered menacingly over our heads. We were about to be swallowed up whole!

No sooner had I turned a corner into complete darkness than a blast of warm air hit my face, heavy and chalky with the reek of ancient dried-out seashells. The acoustics of the cave amplified the roaring of the waterfall into a deafening noise that played havoc with my equilibrium. Moved nearly to tears by the overwhelming forces of nature, I stopped to catch my breath at a bodhisattva for before proceeding. Heaven help me, indeed! I was about to go in deep!

Looking back the way we came, doubts began to invade my mind. What if there was a sudden earthquake and the entrance was sealed shut? What if I fell down into a crevasse, never to be found again?

Or what if I fell helplessly in love with this place and never wanted to leave? 

Stay tuned for more adventures at Akiyoshido Cave!

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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