Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Stone in Love With Akiyoshido Cave

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

(BGM: "Caverna Magica" by Andreas Vollenweider) 

(If you haven't already, please read Caving In To Akiyoshido before this. Thanks!)

With one arm bathed in sunlight and the other covered in a shawl of darkness, I paused by the calming Migawari Kannon statue to pick up my jaw from off the floor. I knew from the sinister, pointy stalactite hanging over my head that everything I would see for the next few hours was going to kick my proverbial butt with inspiration. My heart raced as fast as the water gushing loudly beneath my feet, knowing I would have to leave a part of it behind. (Caves and I go way back; I could always be found in our high school art room painting them. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would actually get the chance to walk inside a real one!) This was definitely going to be the journey of a lifetime!

The Official Bit About Where We Are:
Special Natural Monument Akiyoshido, located 100 meters beneath Akiyoshidai Quasi-National Park, is Japan's largest limestone cave at an impressive 10km long (only 0.9km is open to the public) and up to 100 meters wide. This archaeologically significant cave system has produced both Pleistocene age fossils and Paleolithic artifacts. It's also home to some unique lifeforms found only in the region, such as horseshoe bats, a neon pink bug with a really long name and Shikokuyokoebi shrimp. (More about the scientific wonders of Akiyoshido can be found here on Karusuto.com's Japanese site).

The biggest attractions are no doubt the countless ancient, alien speleothems in a wide variety of bizarre shapes and colors dotting the entire course, the bigger ones dating tens of thousands of years. There are 26 main points of interest, conveniently grouped into 13 stations, each one offering a recorded English description at the push of a button.

Disclaimer: I promised myself this time around that I would enjoy this cave more with my naked eyes than through the restrictive lens of a camera. For this reason, some of the 26 points are missing. Since photos never do a place justice, I'm hoping Readers will simply come visit Akiyoshido to fill in the blanks. But just in case that's not possible, 12 of the 13 stations are shown here in this blog.

So with no further ado, let's dive in!

Point 1: 秋芳洞入り口 (Akiyoshido Iriguchi, Cave Entrance)

Goodbye, fresh air and sunshine!

Once the pupils adjust to the darkness, faint colors become visible again with the help of white LED lights. The flowstone oozing out of the cave walls here closely resembles creamy peanut butter. I reached out to touch it, but my hand came back dry! No fair!

My favorite environments have always been free-form and symbiotic, flowing and sporadic. Nature moves this way, in a harmonious relationship philosopher Alan Watts might call "prickles and goo." What better examples of "prickles and goo" than prickly stalactites and gooey flowstone formations!

A fine, "gooey" example of flowstone.
At my left stood a ticket machine. For an extra 300 yen, wanna-be "spelunkers" could climb and crawl around a separate, slippery course to see the actual mechanism of the cave more closely. (The course looked too tough to attempt in heavy winter gear, so we decided to save it for next time).

Point 2: 青天井 (Aotenjou, Blue Ceiling)

The name comes from the effect of light streaming in from the cave's mouth, causing the water below to reflect that light onto the white ceiling above. Apparently the minerals here lend the said bluish hue. This trick is now accomplished with the help of more white lighting. I thought I could detect splotches of pale glacier-blue light here and there, but other tourists will probably tell you it still looks white to them. Either way, I was very glad to see natural lighting. While other photos I found online showed Akiyoshido awash in gaudy, garish colors, the lighting here allowed me to appreciate the natural beauty of the minerals, which were lovely enough without artificial enhancement.

That bright white spot on the ceiling is really blue.

Point 3: 長淵 (Nagafuchi, Long Abyss)

The water is as still as glass, here. Reflections go undisturbed.

Once past the falls, the torrent quiets down, allowing for the enjoyment of more delicate sounds. Echos grow deeper with such exaggerated reverb that footsteps and children's giggles become one indistinguishable noise. Suddenly the ceiling lifts and spreads out into an upside-down lunar landscape while the water flattens into a wide, reflective mirror below. A burnt orange band of rust creates an unexpected warmth in contrast to the cool greys of the limestone. The spaciousness of this expansive natural hallway took away any claustrophobic feelings I was experiencing. This was the perfect place for a brief repose.

Point 4: 百枚皿 (Hyakumaizara, Hundred Saucers)

This formation is perhaps the most famous speleothem associated with Akiyoshido Cave. As the name suggests, this massive sinter terrace, softly spilling over with a continuous flow of water, gives the impression of a hundred (more like five hundred) plates stacked up high. The rainbow-like bands of natural mineral color reflecting in each pool create an illusion of continuity when viewed from certain angles. I did as the guide suggested and squinted my eyes in the hopes of finding tiny crystalline, blind shrimp darting around inside the pools. Occasionally, the water's surface would indeed ripple for me. But I couldn't tell if the source of movement came from within, or from the stalactites dripping overhead. I could really feel my creative juices flowing as I stood and reveled next to this fantastic display of natural art. 

Point 5: 広庭「洞内富士」 (Hironiwa, "Donai Fuji," Expansive Yard, "Mt. Fuji of the Caverns")

Across from Hyakumaizara looms this vibrantly colored, towering pile of chalky white limestone that strangely resembles Roy's mashed potato rendition of Devil's Tower (from Close Encounters of the Third Kind), but with gravy (flowstone) poured on one side. Water dripping from the ceiling caused this mountain to form from the ground up (technically making it a gargantuan stalagmite). This single speleothem really drove home for me the ability of water to transport dissolved minerals. 

すぼ柿 (Subogaki, Straw-Wrapped Persimmon)

Though it looks more like fecal matter, the red-striped oval blob of flowstone in the middle of this photograph is said to resemble the dried fruit of its namesake. (Can you spot it?) Other "produce" found growing within the flowstone at the foot of this "Mt. Fuji" include pumpkins and pine mushrooms. 

Point 6: 千町田 (Chimachida, Thousand Rice Fields)

Which way is up, again?

The lights that normally shine on this feature must have been turned off for some reason, for this elegant collection of rimstone pools was too hard to see by naked eye or camera flash. But the comforting dark more than made up for it. Though this particular speleothem takes up less space than Hyakumaizara, the individual pools are wider and shallower, giving a more spacious appearance. The undisturbed water perfectly mirrored the thousands of stalactites dangling from above, disorienting like a house of mirrors at a summer carnival.

Point 7: 傘づくし (Kasazukushi, Hanging Umbrellas)

I personally think they resemble icicles more than the handles of folded-up bamboo parasols as the name suggests. Nonetheless, I found this stalactite garden both mesmerizing and frightening! But thanks to the strategic placing of the walking trails, we could enjoy the cave without any fear of being impaled to death by a falling limestone javelin. The concave shape of the ceiling made me wonder if I was standing directly underneath one of the 500 sinkholes of the Akiyoshidai Karst Plateau above me.

Point 8: 大黒柱 (Daikokubashira, King Pillar)

A romantic example of a stalagnat (column), this is what happens when stalactites and stalagmites fall in love and hook up. This particular pillar took around 15,000 years to form (considering it takes 200 years for stalactites to grow 3cm and twice as many years for stalagmites to grow the same amount).

 Point 9: 千畳敷 (Senjoujiki, Thousand Tatami Mats)

In Japanese culture, the floorspace of an enclosed room is often measured by how many tatami mats can fit inside it. This area is 120 meters wide and the eye is supposed to be able to see as far as 200 meters forward at this spot. But in the pitch black of the cave, vision soon disappears into utter darkness while the imagination takes over. Without a map, though, it's hard to tell which ends are dead ends. A huge pile of rock stands in the middle of this space, where part of the cave collapsed in a geological event aeons ago.

Shifting my focus to the aluminum lake-blue water crashing over the rocks below, I found myself in awe of the original spelunkers who first came out here to survey this magnificent subterranean garden. Equipped with only hard hats, climbing gear and flashlights, they must have slipped and tripped their way in the dark, making note of each misstep and wowing at every spectacle.

Walking up a flight of steps, I noticed a long cue of people waiting for an elevator that took them up through the ground to the Akiyoshidai Karst Observation Deck. We debated it only for a second, however. A treasure trove of eerie formations still awaited our discovery. Putting them off was not an option!

空滝 (Karataki, Dry Fall)

I could just imagine this gorgeous flowstone above ground edged with pansies and ferns!

Point 10: 黄金柱 (Koganebashira, Golden Pillar)

Saint Peter? Where are you?

Yet another brief hike of steep limestone stairs and the cave narrows into a majestic, bronzed corridor with this glittering golden pillar as the undeniable centerpiece. The other natural wonder associated with Akiyoshido Cave, Koganebashira stands like a giant candle at a regal 15 meters (49 feet) tall and 4 meters (13 feet) across, dwarfing all who come walking past it. I nearly hyperventilated here, the impact of this piece was just too great! Had we just arrived at the gates of Heaven? 

Point 11: 巌窟王 (Gankutsuou, The Count of Monte Cristo or "King of the Cave")

Akiyoshido Cave keeps an average year-round temperature of 17C (62.6F). I was bundled up in turtlenecks and wool for outside temps of zero degrees. But by this point in the 1km-high hike, I was ready to rip everything off. Here where the walls feel particularly close, I wiped the sweat off my eyes with my scarf only to behold this terrifying stone monster, cloaked in a shadow of evil. Mustering the courage to inspect it, from one side it looked like a fearsome demon king from the depths of Hades. But walking around it only 45 degrees, out popped this square-headed character with a disproportionate nose and a few protrusions unaccounted for! Never once did the classic novel by Alexandre Dumas come across my mind as I saw this. But I was filled with reverent awe over the fact that this stalagmite took over 100,000 years to form! The age of it, alone suddenly turned this grotesque, nondescript chunk of rock into a thing of beauty in my mind. I felt humbled.

At this point in the journey, the sound of the rushing river had long gone, leaving each footstep to echo and finally dissolve into delicious infinity. Safe in this ancient cathedral of rusty reds and chocolate browns, I felt the spontaneous urge to test the acoustics of the cave, enraptured in what I could only define as a "holy moment." Each note of "Amazing Grace" I uttered ricocheted countless times off the rocks and quickly escaped into unknown crevasses like frightened fish. If it weren't for the tour group shuffling in ahead of me, I would've kept on singing. The rich reverberation sounded incredible!

くらげの滝のぼり (Kuragenotakinobori, Jelly Fish Climbing Upwards)

石灰華の滝 (Sekkaika no Taki, Limestone Flower Falls)

This is my absolute favorite stretch of Akiyoshido Cave, where the walls look like they've been splashed with buckets of plaster, gesso and paint, all scratched and raked with forks and knives. I could've spent hours in this section alone, trying to figure out how the flowstone spilled over each protrusion in the rock beneath.

Point 12: 五月雨御殿 (Samidaregoten, Rain Palace)

黒谷入り口 (Kurotani iriguchi, Black Valley Entrance)

This stalactite and stalagmite couple used to be joined, but were separated when the ground shifted downward in a geological event long ago. Separated by a mere 4 centimeters, they are expected to rejoin in another 400-500 years, providing the ground stays quiet for that long. (The wait must be unbearable for them).

Point 13: マリア観音 (Maria Kannon, The Goddess of Mercy)

Too blinded by sweat at this point to see well, the totem pole stalagmite "Maria Kannon," which somewhat resembles a human figure, didn't catch my attention. Rather, my mind only registered the steel "cage" built around it for protection. In my exhaustion, I must've thought it was an electric power generator. (For the curious, a photo of Maria Kannon can be found here).

Just when I least expected it, the path abruptly smoothed out and we were back into the square walled Rubic's Cube world of human "civilization." We ascended an upward sloping straightaway tunnel twinkling with dreamy New-Age music and brightly painted murals on both walls. The scenes depicted the cave's journey through time, starting with the formation of the earth and the emergence of dinosaurs to the discovery of Akiyoshido and the fossils within. Had we not been completely famished, I would have taken more photos of it.

But already, I was missing the organically flowing genius that previously surrounded me. I felt a pain inside my soul, like I'd just been in the presence of a great love I knew I would have to leave. The sudden switch from the random fluidity of blobs, spikes and curves to the predictable world of squares and lines reminded me of something Alan Watts once said:  

"Nature is wiggly, everything wiggles...You know wherever human beings have been around and done their thing, you'll find rectangles; we live in boxes."  

It made me desire a modern culture that celebrates the supple curves of nature instead of one that always tries to "straighten her out." Akiyoshido felt both comfortable and stimulating to me, setting me ablaze with a passion to learn more about the earth's subterranean secrets.

And just like that, we unceremoniously popped back out into the brightness of day, panting from our exhaustive 1km upward climb. Cold, refreshing spruce and cedar air stung our grateful lungs as we breathed in deep, desperate gulps. Squinting and blinking, it was all my husband and I could do but to laugh together, amazed by the surreal paradise we had just emerged from.

A great part of me is still inside the cave, lost and poking around in wonderment. I'm quite happy to have left a piece of my heart at Akiyoshido. It means that someday, I have to return there to pick it up.

Akiyoshido Cave Access Information:
Open Hours: 8:30am to 4:30pm
Closed/Holidays: None. Open 365 days/year
Transportation Access: 
(By Bus): Take the Bocho Bus from Shin Yamaguchi Station to Akiyoshido (45 minutes one-way, 1140 yen), or the JR Bus from Yamaguchi Station (55 minutes, 1180 yen).
(By Car): 15 minutes from Mine I.C. (Interchange) or 12 minutes from Jyumonji I.C.
Admission Fee (Group rate discounts are available):
Adult & High School Students: 1,200 yen
Junior High School Students: 950 yen
Elementary School Students: 600 yen
Approximate Touring Time of Akiyoshido Cave: 40 minutes to 1 hour
Available Facilities Inside Akiyoshido: Electronic tour guide in both English and Japanese, hand rails for stairs, wheelchair access (for part of the cave), all-LED eco-lighting, staff inside the cave available for assistance, elevator access
Available Facilities Outside Akiyoshido: restrooms, taxi services, gift shops, drink vending machines
Other Caves in the Area:  Taishodo Cave and Kagekiyodo 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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