It was one of the old wild places. The Shibaki River hurtled down cliffs and over rocks unobserved, through the gorge it had created over millions of years. A few solitary travellers must have reached Sandandaki from time to time, and seen first-hand the white waters cascading over the ledge. Nonetheless, the gorge was remote enough that the Geihantsushi*, a pre-modern agricultural journal, recorded: ‘there is no access to the site to view the grandeur’.
In 1910, photographer Nanpo Kuma arrived in Sandankyo gorge, and fell in love. His efforts and photographs convinced adventurous tourists to visit, and in 1925 the gorge was designated a national scenic spot. I tried to find out more about Nanpo Kuma, but all I discovered online was the same brief summary, and a suggestion to visit the library at Sandankyo Hotel. Anyway, Nanpo, whoever you are, thank you.
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I caught the train from Itsukaichi to Yokogawa in the morning, and paced through the city in the gentle rain listening to Bon Iver. Big Mood. At the bus station, I caught up with Larch, usually the sole teacher at Higashi-Hiroshima branch, and her husband Jack.
We boarded a half-full bus that slouched through the endless suburbs to Kabe, and then upped its pace as it slipped the bonds of Hiroshima into the deep valleys. Finally we alighted at Sandankyo, in the inhospitable heart of the Chugoku mountains.
The mountains were capped with mist when we arrived; we picked a good day. Then again, I think Sandankyo has a lot of good days. We followed a narrow trail to the Shimai (sisters) waterfall, where the number of separate torrents is supposed to change depending on the volume of water. In these early stages, certain spots were QR-coded, which seemed on the cute side of dystopian to me. We will not rest till the very forests are barcoded, etc. I was expecting a small data-gathering robot to leap from a tree branch at any moment. The QR-codes led to tourist information webpages. Google translate made light work of the Japanese text, offering up some pearls of wisdom: ‘you will forget the time with the sound of the horse’, ‘find the eleven maple maples’, and my favourite (annotating an invisible pothole), ‘I guess the time of eternity’.
After a couple of kilometres, the QR-codes disappeared, and the towering peaks started. Wraithlike deep green and grey trees disappeared behind banks of fog. In the foreground the autumn colours were brilliant, goldenrod and tangerine and russet and maroon and even pale, ghostly pink, but in the background the colours were all dimmed by the mist. I got my first glimpse of the world beloved by medieval landscape painters.
Some of the colours were actually difficult to understand. One of the minor waterfalls, akadaki flowed over red rocks, an effect apparently caused by microorganisms. But we never got an explanation for the emerald-green water. The water is at its deepest at Kurobuchi (black abyss), where a sheer cliff edge looms over it. People sometimes take boats out on the water here, although clearly not in late November, in the rain. Nonetheless, we could hardly have picked a better day. The speckled autumn leaves, the golden horizontal trees dropping their leaves into the river, the bending red maples- it was perfect.
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The path forked after about six kilometres, and that Robert Frost poem came to mind. ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both, and be one traveller…’. It was always one of my favourite poems, and I still know it by heart. I love it because it’s all about indecision, and how we can never truly know if we’ve made the right choices. We inevitably make choices based on impulse, and rationalize them after the fact. In fact, perhaps the more reasoning and thoughtful we are, the better we are at creating stories to justify our irrational choices. Anyway, I chose to interpret the poem literally for a moment. We followed the right path, towards Sandankaki. I made a mental note to return one day and turn left for Nidandaki, but I doubt I will**.
Philosophical and poetic reveries aside, the last section of the path was intensely quiet; we were later than we should have been, and we couldn’t hear much except the sound of the river. Finally we turned a corner, and stood in front of the crashing waters. To our left, another narrow path snaked further up the valley.
Part of me wanted to press on, but it was ten past three, and we hadn’t left ourselves much daytime for the return journey. After dark, the narrow paths can be perilous, especially with the rain making the fallen leaves slippery. We returned the same way we came, by a winding path along the river, crossing some disarmingly bouncy bridges and passing through cave tunnels.
As we got closer to our destination, the light levels diminished. The reds and oranges remained a brilliant as ever, but the whole place felt somehow more primeval in the half light. We definitely started to flag. By the time we arrived back at the gorge entrance, dusk had fallen. In the town, we ate Pocky and watched an impenetrable slideshow advert which demanded we ‘Bodylize This Planet, Earth’. It’s a rare Engrish slogan so magnificently odd that I can’t imagine what it was ever trying to say.
Back in Hiroshima, we went for a post-hike pint in a bar*** near Yokogawa station. Fortunately, the bar’s owner was a big fan of all things British, and also and friendly. He gave us refills of free sake and wasabi peanuts and Japanese cheese, and some rather odd dried fish. We listened to Marvin Gaye and talked about our experiences so far in Japan.
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Fundamentally, I’m a city boy. Always am, always have been. I remember a story a history professor told me at university, about a group of Sydney intellectuals who used to go out for day trips into the outback, to paint, write poetry and get inspiration. At the end of each trip, they would return to the city, and bemoan the inferiority of city life, and talk about how much more authentic, how much more noble the country life must be. And they would go to sleep in their comfortable beds in the city, a good day’s work done.
I make no pretence not to be one of those people. I couldn’t live in the wild places. But I need them, anyway. They revitalise me. They fill me with fever visions of a life beyond this one. And, of course, they give me something to write about.
* The journal dates from the Tokugawa Era (1603-1868). For most of this time, the bakufu (military government) closed Japan to the outside world, allowing only limited communications with Dutch and Chinese merchants. I need to get my hands on a copy of the Geihantsushi, although maybe it hasn’t been translated?
** I have since learnt that Nidandaki is only accessible by boat, and that given the weather, the boats might not have been running. Draw what conclusions you will about the illusion of free choice.
*** Called Cheers, if you’re looking.