Calderas, Shrines & Mythology

A rugged volcanic peak rising above farmland in Aso, Kyushu.

It is now less than two months until the start of the Tokyo Olympics. There are still lingering doubts over whether they will actually go ahead but they are slated to begin on July the 23rd. As the event gets ever closer, Escape & Adventure wanted to introduce readers to some less frequented parts of Japan and to a few adventurous experiences that can’t be found in the world’s largest city. Tokyo has its merits but the Japanese countryside possesses a different kind of richness that can be more endearing. Following on from last month’s article on the northern mountain temples and mysterious snow monsters of Yamagata prefecture, we now head to warmer climes in spring—the southern island of Kyushu.

In a nation of thousands of islands Kyushu ranks third in size. The landmass consists of seven prefectures, two of which are featured here. In the middle of the island, rising up from the farmland of eastern Kumamoto prefecture is Mount Aso, the country’s largest active volcano. Its violent history has shaped the geological landscape and contributed to the area’s pristine natural environment. It has helped birth and foster life, but also serves as an ever-present reminder of the destructive power of our planet’s most primitive forces.

A group of colourful koi fish swimming in crystal clear water.

Far away from the seething masses of Tokyo and Osaka, and seemingly even further removed in terms of pace of life, Kyushu’s countryside exudes a certain organised purity. Public transport is still reliable and even the smallest of villages has a post office but the air smells more wholesome, the water is cleaner, and the food tastier. The colour green dominates, forcing grey concrete to take a distant second to nature in more ways than one. There is an idyllic existence to be found in these parts, but like many other places in Japan it comes hand in hand with the sense of impermanence that results from living with the unpredictability of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and typhoons. Like the Koi, a fish with symbolic importance to the Japanese, the people here are stoic. Much as the former species swims energetically against the current in spite of danger and disaster, local human communities carry out their day-to-day tasks with earnestness and vigour, never quite knowing when they may be faced with setbacks and adversity.

The remains of a concrete bridge destroyed during the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake hanging over the side of a tree-covered ravine.

In April 2016 two tremendous earthquakes hit the area killing between two and three hundred people and causing large-scale damage to highways, bridges, and many other structures. Five years later, traversing the roads that crisscross the Aso region presents the traveller with firsthand evidence of the fury that nature unleashed. A giant fractured slab of concrete that once made up part of a modern bridge rests vertically where it fell after being destroyed in the disaster. Despite the severity of those earthquakes is Mount Aso that has caused more long-standing concern over the decades. It forms one of the biggest calderas in the world and even though it is still very much active, is a popular sightseeing spot. Access is surprisingly easy with routes leading up to its summit from several directions along roads of good quality that are generally only closed during periods of increased seismic activity or snowfall.

A roadside convenience store sign set against blue sky along a verdant country road leading to Aso, Kyushu.

Periodically bursting to life with sudden ejections of smoke, gas and ash, Mount Aso has an interesting history, which is explained in detail at a museum that overlooks the grassy plains and ponds of the Kusasenri Plateau situated a short distance away from the roiling crater. Beginning approximately 300,000 years ago the area experienced a series of enormous eruptions, culminating in one that was so gigantic the matter it spewed out blanketed Kyushu in its entirety. The caldera, which has a circumference of over 100 kilometres, was created during that tumultuous epoch as the remaining land sank into the void left behind. Over the centuries people built settlements and towns around and within the imposing caldera walls and life has thrived. These days the active crater of Mount Aso can be found near the summit of Naka-dake, one of several peaks that emerged over the millennia at the caldera’s centre.

A large pond and the smoking crater of Aso volcano on a cloudy day in Kyushu, Japan.

If luck is on your side and the visibility is reasonably clear, the surreal scenery on display at the plateau is magnificent. The volcano cycles through various stages of volatility and at the time of visiting was emitting a substantial amount of smoke and gas from its core. The rising vapour was carried by the wind into the thick layer of clouds that hung over the smoking maw like a pall. In the grass-covered foreground water ran into the basin of another old crater providing a dramatic contrast to the barren, almost lunar landscape along the horizon. While watching tiny human figures walk over the silent plains, one can’t help but feel humbled by the scale of the setting, and by the knowledge of the latent power contained below the surface. The immense forces at work beneath Aso have left indelible marks on the geological record of parts of Kyushu so far away it seems hard to believe.

Two couples in rowing boats enjoying the waterfalls and scenery of Takachiho Gorge in Miyazaki, Japan.

After travelling over the border into Miyazaki prefecture one soon arrives at the quaint town of Takachiho. Despite its diminutive size Takachiho punches well above its weight in terms of cultural attractions and mythological significance. Perhaps the biggest draw to visitors is the stunningly beautiful Takachiho Gorge, where couples rent rowboats to get up close to its strange rock formations and waterfalls. Contrary to its romantic atmosphere, the history of the gorge is somewhat darker. It was formed by a particularly monstrous eruption from Mount Aso that released a pyroclastic flow of such size that it carved a swathe through this valley fifty kilometres distant. The elemental processes involved in the lava’s subsequent cooling sculpted the unusual columns visible in the photo above. If that doesn’t provide enough food for thought one might also consider the fact that Takachiho is a town of deep and mysterious legend.

The interior of Takachiho Shrine containing Shinto religious objects and decoration.

Local inhabitants assert that a sacred cave on the outskirts of the town was the refuge of Amaterasu, the mythological sun goddess of the Japanese Shinto religion. It is believed that the country’s first emperor was a descendant of Amaterasu and the story of her emergence from the cave, which was crucial to the founding of the nation, is retold nightly in hour-long Yokagura folk dance performances at Takachiho’s main shrine. The eye-opening renditions are very popular with tourists but the legend itself is taken more seriously by Takachiho’s residents. In the winter months festivities are held in private throughout the town where a fuller version of mythical events are reenacted on a grand scale with dancing going on throughout the night. Sometimes the sounds of the accompanying drumming can still be heard pounding out over the hills and valleys well into the daylight hours of the following morning.

The green hills and valleys of Kyushu, Japan beneath a bright blue and partially cloudy sky.

It isn’t just mythology and ancient history that can be can be discovered in this portion of Miyazaki. Following a meandering single-lane country road prone to rockfalls that seems to lead nowhere rewards the tenacious adventurer with a more recent historical surprise. Somewhere hidden within the dense mountainous forests is an unexpected bastion of early twentieth century international cooperation. The Eikokukan is a museum that commemorates the ambitious activities of Englishman Hans Hunter, its original builder and owner of a tin mine in the Mitate Valley. It was once a clubhouse for engineers from overseas. Such establishments were not uncommon in colonised lands during the time of the British Empire but Japan was never a British colony. Rather, it has a long-standing history of managing to keep foreigners and their influence outside its borders. The fact that such an industrial collaboration existed with local workers a hundred or so years ago in the depths of an almost inaccessible part of southern Japan is quite remarkable.

The national flags of Great Britain and Japan in front of the entrance to the Eikokukan clubhouse in Hinokage, Japan.

The clubhouse was meticulously restored with high quality workmanship sometime after the mine’s closure in 1969 and a wonderful job was done of returning it to a condition its original owner would have been proud of. These days several rooms contain displays of vintage mining equipment and there are also explanations of the history of the mine. Photographs of Hunter take pride of place along with some of the British Royal Family and historical correspondence between local mayors and foreign diplomats can also be viewed. The highlight is the lounge area, a cosy home away from home for the foreign engineers that still contains a fireplace. Its not too difficult to imagine them gathered together during the evening over cups of tea (or perhaps something stronger) reviewing the day’s work or discussing the latest hearsay from other far-flung corners of the globe in their remote forest hideaway.

The lounge of the Eikokukan clubhouse in Hinokage, Japan decorated with flower-patterned chairs, wooden benches and a traditional fireplace.

The Eikokukan is located in a beautiful stretch of verdant greenery next to a crystal-clear stream. The administrating town of Hinokage has put this lush and peaceful paradise to good use by constructing several wooden cabins that can be rented for a very reasonable price. Deceptively spacious and containing conveniences such as a refrigerator, shower, and air conditioner, they are great places to kick back and relax, especially if you have had too much of Japan’s hyperactive big-city life. The cabins’ water supply is routed straight from the stream and barbeques can be used free of charge. Cooking outdoors with only the trickling of water and singing of birds to break the silence is nature therapy at its finest and spending a few days here makes one realise that Hans Hunter and his compatriots might have actually had things pretty good.

Wooden rental cabins in the Mitate Valley, Kyushu set against a blue sky and verdant woodland.

The truth is that the whole of Miyazaki prefecture is a nature lover’s dream. Situated in the south-eastern corner of Kyushu, it is one of Japan’s bigger provinces but is sparsely populated. As it is well off the international tourist trail and somewhat isolated by its geography it feels like a private playground for the adventure seeker. Bordered by mountains to the west and with the vast emptiness of Pacific Ocean to its east, Miyazaki has had the good fortune not to have suffered from overdevelopment or rampant commercialism. Its economy is largely sustained through agriculture and fishing and the area is known to produce some of the best beef, chicken, fruit, and seafood in the country. It offers an amazing amount of natural variety ranging from dramatic volcanic scenery and evergreen forests to picture-perfect beaches. In the summer its subtropical climate and palm trees can trick one into thinking they are in southeast Asia and it seems that the visiting hikers and surfers are the only outsiders that have been let in on the secret.

A tranquil stream in a rocky valley filled with bright green trees on a fine day in Kyushu, Japan.

Such an abundance of nature lends itself well to Shinto worship. It is estimated that the indigenous religion is the most widely practised in Japan, with Buddhism following a close second. Shinto is intertwined with nature, as devotees believe that the kami, which in English may be translated as ‘gods’, ‘spirits’, or ‘natural phenomena’, inhabit all manner of things, ranging from trees and boulders to earthquakes and volcanoes. Shrines, like those in Takachiho, are often found in places where such manifestations are apparent. They are however not exclusive to the mountainous interior and one of the best examples can be found by leaving it behind and travelling south along Miyazaki’s picturesque Nichinan coastline. Udo Shrine is located about fifty minutes from Miyazaki City by car and is one of the most revered religious sites in Kyushu.

A bright red torii gate set against blue sky at the entrance of Udo Shrine in Miyazaki, Japan.

The approach to the inner sanctum is a little tiring but worth the effort. From the main parking lot a series of steps leads visitors up a hill, past a couple of well-worn souvenir shops, through a tunnel, and then down again. At this point one is greeted by a set of impressive gates constructed on the edge of a cliff. Although stately and refined in its architectural design, Udo Shrine’s bright and bold vermilion colour scheme gives it a more lighthearted atmosphere than most, and further along the path the view opens up to a panorama of the Pacific where people seem to be involved in some kind of game. Standing by a railing, overlooking the rocks below, small groups can be seen throwing something out to sea and a second later reacting to the results of their efforts with congratulatory applause or dejected utterances of disappointment. Moving towards them for a closer look soon reveals the cause of this excitement.

Two small groups of tourists looking out over the rocky headland and ocean at Udo Shrine in Miyazaki, Japan.

Below sits a large boulder said to resemble a turtle that has a water-filled hole on its shell. There is a thick braided rope around the hole, which is used to designate a Shinto sacred place or the abode of kami. It is into this hole that the eager visitors are attempting to throw small red balls of hardened clay. Upon first glance there seems to be a fairly low success rate, although the women appear to be doing better than the men. Those up for a challenge can purchase some of the clay balls from a nearby counter but upon doing so may notice that there is a strict rule in place; in order to ensure the successful delivery of any good luck that may be generated by hitting the target, men must throw with their non-dominant hand. Women can use whichever hand they prefer. In our current age of gender equality this feels slightly bewildering, but as the activity still provides an entertaining distraction I continue unfazed with my left hand—and miss every single shot.

Ocean-side cliffs and a giant boulder at Udo Shrine, Miyazaki decorated with a large circle of rope that designates a sacred place in Japan's Shinto religion.

The most important structure at Udo Shrine is hidden in a cave facing out to sea, just around the corner from the throwing platform. Venturing inside provides welcome relief from the afternoon heat. The temperature is significantly cooler here as only a small amount of sunlight penetrates its recesses. With its dark corners and damp walls the cave has a more sombre atmosphere than the rest of the site. This shrine is connected to the same divine family and mythology celebrated at Takachiho, but the main deity venerated is Ugayafukiaezu—father of Japan’s first emperor. According to local legend, Ugayafukiaezu was born here and because of that a common reason to visit Udo Shrine is to seek the bestowal of good luck in procreation and childbirth. Learning this makes clear the symbolic act of the couples outside desperately trying to land their projectiles in the watery hole. Suddenly, the image of the boulder as a turtle involuntarily morphs into something decidedly more human in the mind’s eye.

A woman gazing at the front of Udo Shrine's bright red main sanctum in Miyazaki, Japan.

Leaving Udo Shrine behind with that rather graphic picture imbedded in my consciousness, and despite feeling more educated about Japanese mythology and cultural practices, I fail to make any progress with my comprehension of the ‘throw with your non-dominant hand’ rule. After spending the drive back to Miyazaki City trying to figure it out, I finally accept that it might not actually have a logical reason and give up on the topic. As the sun drops lower in the sky, I start to consider how I should enjoy my final evening in Kyushu instead. Miyazaki’s city centre is built along the banks of the languid Oyodo River, which in the early evening becomes a popular exercise spot for local joggers and power walkers. Following a short amount of deliberation and a quick trip to one of Japan’s ever-present convenience stores to acquire suitable refreshments, I find an empty table on the promenade to view one last Pacific sunset.

A bottle of whisky and packet of cigars on a wooden table in front of green grass at sunset.

As twilight approaches and yellow and orange give way to pastel shades of pink and purple, I lament the probability that when the millions of TV viewers around the world tune in to watch the spectacle of the Tokyo Olympics, they won’t see much of the real Japan—the secret corners full of colourful mythology and forgotten history where nature is king. In Tokyo the senses are overwhelmed and compromised by the bright neon lights of Akihabara, the tempting facades of Ginza’s designer boutiques, and the roar of Shibuya’s hustle and bustle, but from here—by this peaceful provincial riverside—the scale of the natural order seems easy to grasp.

Palm trees, a river, and a bridge beneath a pink, orange, and blue sky at sunset in Miyazaki, Japan.

Even the power of the megacorporations, many acting as Olympic sponsors from their intimidating urban headquarter fortresses, is no match for the might of nature. Reminders of that abound in Kyushu and it is here that one can find the source of Japan’s mythic creation, from the goddess who emerged from her sacred cave to bring light to the world, to the god who fathered the country’s first emperor. The roots of the legends and folk tales spread far and wide and can be traced from the volcanic highlands all the way down to the Pacific coast. To the seekers of curiosities and novel experiences, when the Olympic hype has passed and international travel returns to normal after the pandemic, a visit might just be worth your time.

Disclaimer – A Note on Ownership and Copyright:

The photographs featured in this post were all taken by the creator of Escape & Adventure during his continuing wanderings. Consent is required from the creator and founder of Escape & Adventure before any of the images for which he owns copyright can be reproduced in any form. All the literary work contained in this post is the intellectual property of the creator of Escape & Adventure. Consent is required before any of the literary work can be reproduced in any form.

Additional Disclaimer – COVID-19 Pandemic:

While the world continues to be impacted by the highly contagious COVID-19 virus travel is not advised. Despite our love of escapism and adventure, health and safety must come first. None of the content in this post is intended to contradict the rules and advice put in place by the relevant authorities to protect citizens from contracting and/or spreading COVID-19 or other diseases. Escape & Adventure accepts no liability for sickness, injury, or death resulting from anyone failing to take necessary precautions to protect themselves and others.

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