Insider Asia

Commune with nature in scenic Kyushu

Commune with nature at Takachiho Gorge in Japan and walk among 800-year-old cedar trees that take one's breath away

The Takachiho Gorge is carved out of volcanic lava that erupted at least 90,000 years ago from the nearby Mount Aso. Play with your food at this teahouse (above), which requires patrons to catch noodles sliding down a bamboo strip. -- ST PHOTO: HAU B
The Takachiho Gorge is carved out of volcanic lava that erupted at least 90,000 years ago from the nearby Mount Aso. Play with your food at this teahouse (above), which requires patrons to catch noodles sliding down a bamboo strip. -- ST PHOTO: HAU BOON LAI
The Takachiho Gorge (above) is carved out of volcanic lava that erupted at least 90,000 years ago from the nearby Mount Aso. Play with your food at this teahouse, which requires patrons to catch noodles sliding down a bamboo strip. -- ST PHOTO: HAU BOON LAI

It began with a massive eruption at least 90,000 years ago at the nearby Mount Aso, Japan's largest active volcano.

Water from the Gokase River then took its time eroding the lava to carve out one of the most scenic spots in Japan - the Takachiho Gorge.

Located in the south-western island of Kyushu, the Takachiho area is ancient. As my taxi takes its time around the hairpin bends in the road to get to the Gorge and its 100m-tall red-tinted cliffs, I can see how the area has earned its name as the epicentre of Japanese mythology.

Filled with waterfalls and set amid Kyushu's atmospheric mountains, the Gorge and its surroundings are picture-perfect as a place where gods cavorted.

The Takachiho area has a population of 15,000, but attracts some 1.5 million visitors a year. Domestic travellers form the overwhelming majority of visitors. They often come on what is described in the brochures as a spiritual journey to see where the exploits of Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess from whom the Japanese royal family claims its lineage, and others from among Japan's pantheon of Shinto dieties, are supposed to have taken place according to myth.

While nature has provided a setting fit for the gods, the hands of man have helped to make it easier for mere mortals among us to make our way more easily around the Gorge. There is a 600m-long walking trail, as well as carparks near the inevitable temples along the trail.

At the starting point of the Gorge where the Manai waterfall is, rowing boats can be rented for 2,000 yen (S$24.50) per half hour. It is well worth it to get close to the waterfall, or to make your way to the quiet parts where you can commune with nature, even if it's just for a few minutes.

I do not row very far that day, for my stomach reminds me of my mundane need for nutrition.

There are only two eating places, teahouses located side by side near the boat rental kiosk. Both serve a divine dish - the nagashi soumen, or flowing noodles.

For 500 yen, customers get a dipping sauce and chopsticks to catch the clusters of noodles as they are released in water flowing down a bamboo shaft cut in half.

The noodles, which taste like a cross between soba and Hokkien mee sua, are really good - remaining al dente even after they have been dipped in the sauce for some time, which is what happens when one is preoccupied with catching one's food.

For those with bad aim, fret not, for a basket catches what has been missed and is given to customers at the end.

A first-timer, I gamely try to take photos with one hand and catch the noodles with the other. My enthusiasm seems to please the shopkeepers no end, so the noodles keep coming until they see that I have my pictures.

I then head for the walking trail, choosing a path to take me to the Takachiho Shrine about 1km away.

Halfway through, I realise it is more a climb than a walk, so I have to make frequent stops.

But that is, in fact, the way to go, for along the trail are towering Chichibu cedar trees, some said to be as old as 800 years, that will take your breath away.

After a short rest at the well-manicured grounds of the shrine, I call a taxi for the 15-minute ride (2,100 yen) to Amanoyasukawara, a cave where the gods are said to have converged to discuss how to lure Amaterasu out of her hiding place so as to bring sunlight back into the world.

Devotees leave behind little towers of rocks around the cave for good luck.

It is then time for dinner and one of the highlights of a Japan holiday is the mini kaiseki (from 3,000 yen), a multi-course meal of small dishes using fresh local produce.

The main course is a hotpot that comes with the prize-winning Miyazaki beef. Dip the slices in the pot, then the yuzu sauce, and feel them melt in your mouth.

Suitably fortified, I finish the day at a night performance of the yokagura dance (700 yen) held in a hall at the Takachiho Shrine. The one-hour show, which starts at 8pm, features four out of the 33 dances performed from dusk to dawn in the harvest months from November to February.

Dancers don masks and reenact scenes from the stories featuring the Shinto gods to music from Japanese flutes and drums, to a packed hall of about 150.

This is an art passed down through the generations, but don't just watch the dance, absorbing as it may be - remember to watch the Japanese visitors too, some of whom are obviously on a pilgrimage and look enthralled by the creation dances on stage.

Buried alive

The next day requires an early start to catch first a three-hour ride on the 8.31am bus from Takachiho to Kumamoto JR Station (2,680 yen), then a shinkansen (6,940 yen, an hour) to Kagoshima JR Station, followed by a one-hour local train ride (1,000 yen) to Ibusuki JR Station.

Ibusuki, blessed with many hot springs, is an onsen town, but one with a difference. Apart from the usual hot-spring baths, the town is also well-known for its hot sand baths, made possible by hot springs close to the surface that heat up the sand in the beaches naturally.

I get myself checked in and head for one (1,080 yen) at the seaside hotel I am staying in. I am wearing only a yukata and the shovel-wielding handlers lead me to a spot on the black sand beach, place my towel so sand does not get in my hair and proceed to bury me up to my neck.

The experience is a little surreal - the sand is dense, almost hot to the touch and much heavier than I expected - and gives new meaning to the phrases "buried alive" and "being laid to rest".

But before I can say "hot", I am already snoozing lightly, the result of a tiring journey perhaps, but more likely because it's the wellbeing derived from the comforting heat that envelops me.

Be careful not to exceed 20 minutes in the hot sand, though, which is the recommended time for an optimal sand bath. The operators usually plonk a clock nearby to help visitors keep track of the time.

It takes surprisingly little effort to get out of the sand and into a big hot spring tub for a quick wash before heading for the showers.

The next morning, I head to Cape Nagasakibana (3,420 yen by taxi), located at one end of the Satsuma Peninsula, to enjoy the scenic views of Kagoshima Bay and Mount Kaimondake, a Mount Fuji look-alike dubbed by locals as the "Satsuma Fuji".

From the deck of a lighthouse located at the cape, the view of the rocky coast is similar to a scene in Hawaii, not surprising as Kagoshima has been described as the Hawaii of Japan due to its constant volcanic activity and usually mild climate.

With gems like Takachiho and Ibusuki, the island of Kyushu deserves to figure more on foreign visitors' radar.

This is part of a series on off-the-beaten-path places to explore around Asia.

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