One of the man-made objects that was constantly on view was the poor old Takachiho Railway. Almost from the beginning of the journey, the single track can be seen taking a straightish line through the hills and valleys while the bus route snakes under, over and beside it, often testing the springs of the bus, and consequently, my arse. I would much rather have taken the railway route, but unfortunately it was closed in 2005 after a typhoon swept through the place, damaging the track and it's foundations in several places. It wasn't the first time, and the private company that ran the service over the route decided to shut up shop, going into liquidation a few years afterwards, depriving us of what has been called one of the most picturesque routes in the country.
The room opened up to the tracks and station beyond. Station etiquette naturally dictates you can't just walk out there without showing someone a ticket, and because this was such an ingrained aspect of my travel, I wasn't sure of the protocol. As I hesitated on the edge of making a break for it, there was rustling from behind the ticket booth. There was someone there.
A middle-aged woman was sat with a rather bored expression on her face, seemingly there since they closed the railway but due to some clerical error, was still paid and expected to come in each day. Despite the hopelessness of the place she was in, she produced a cheery smile and seemed genuinely pleased that some tourist had tracked the place down. I chatted with the usual hand signals for a short while, acknowledging the tourist trinkets and the posters, and trying to express dismay at the closure of the line without making it look overacted and patronising.
Entering out into the light, a second woman was knelt at the railside, digging out some weeds. She looked up and gave a cheery wave. I waved, rather sheepishly, but secretly I was a little bothered and ashamed that my plan of trespassing down the tracks in front of her would be overstepping the rules of politeness. I restricted my movements to the station platform.
See, I had my directions all screwed up, unlike back in the comfort of my own home with the advantages of Google maps to point out the obvious. It also seemed that the tunnel at the other side went beyond to a still operational section of track, and the bit of track behind the sheds went back to Nobeoka. So sure of my sense of direction that the next thing I did was go out of the station, and try to find a road or path where I could follow the tracks for a short while. Looking back, I have no idea what end I was trying to serve by this.
The woman digging the weeds had gone, but the booth attendant was still around. I shrugged in defeat and tried to communicate my sadness about the closing of the rail. The lady thought for a moment, and produced from a pile a set of postcards. These were a souvenir pack, rarely used for their intended purpose of sending to people and often (like I do) used for memories of a place. You can get them in just about every town or attraction in Japan.
I checked the envelope for a price but there was none, so I stuck my hand in my pocket and fished out some coinage, but the lady waved me away. 'Free', she said, and I thanked her kindly before heading out.
And I hadn't even gone to the places on the map yet. Back at the bus station, I looked at my Japan By Rail book, and true to form had some things to say about the place. The most popular place was Takachiho Gorge, a huge gash in the ground several hundred feet in depth, carved out by the Gokase river through the porous volcanic Aso rock. It promised some fantastic views. There was a bus service there, but it would be a while yet, or so the circling taxi cabbies told me, and so not wanting to waste any more time, I got in one of them and set off.
On the way, the cabbie gestured to Takachiho Shrine, which from the road was invisible in a thick woodland of large trees. I made a mental note to head there on the way back if time permitted, as the temples in forests (as opposed to those in more urban areas) were often the most beautiful and mysterious.
The taxi swerved round some pretty tight curves in the road, and it wasn't long before it was pointing downwards at a pretty acute angle as we headed into the gorge. A narrow and slightly alarming road (especially when meeting oncoming traffic) offered a perfect introduction to the massive gaping depths below, which seemed to drop away into nothingness. Not long after, we made it to the bottom, and after paying my 720yen, I hopped out into a lush green oasis.
'Onokara Island was the first island to be created by the Cods..' went the sign as I returned, much to my amusement. A passer by looked at me with puzzlement and faint derision. I try to point out the amusing bit but he didn't smile so we both moved on.
I was going to hire a boat but a building caught my attention. Not content with a few pools worth of manipulative Koi, the Takachiho tourist board had decided to include a mini freshwater aquarium as well. Unusually, it was about the only place not teaming with people, so I took a look. Through the doors, a poky room was being used as the reception area, but without a soul to receptionize me. I rang the bell and someone came through from the adjoining room - what looked to be some sort of research area out of bounds to the likes of me, and with a slightly surprised face, took my coins and gave me a ticket. She pointed to a small door, the entrance to the aquarium.
I let friendlyfish and psychofish battle it out for my attention for a little while and then left for the boats. Not only had my camera almost run out of juice, it was 3pm and I was still a long way from my final stop of the day. I gave my 1000yen to the ticket attendant at the booth and descended the steep wooden steps with a square of paper and a little blue plastic token. At the bottom was a covered area with several rows of seats. A half dozen groups of prospective sailors sat patiently waiting for the boats to come in so they could have a go. A man who looked like he had been at it all day shouted the numbers out of the next ticketholder who could get in for a row.
The boating area had a frugal perimeter, meaning you could go 200 yards or so upstream until you were at the waterfall and no further, whereupon you had to turn back. Naturally, this meant that there was a gaggle of boats, each travelling slowly as they negotiated a 3 or 4 point turn in the water, trying not to hit their neighbour with a slimy oar. Clattering my oars into the outlying boats as I tried in vain to back-pedal, I slammed right into the middle of them. It's fair to say some people were not happy, especially those who were now either wet or bruised, or both.
Sinking the oars down into the depths, and suffering from a paranoid case of anatidaephobia, I sheepishly worked my way out of the wreckage and turned back. My camera had died, so I couldn't take a picture of the man at the jetty with his hands on his hips. I don't think he would have smiled for it anyway.
540yen later, I got out at Takachiho-jinja, the shrine I had passed on the way to the gorge. Past the car park in the warm afternoon light, the path to the shrine disappeared into the trees. Beautiful, old trees with flaking, smooth bark that rose out of the ground like a massive tent peg and filtered the light high above our heads. As I got further in, the trees became larger, and this is where the ancestors of the Takachiho residents had placed their sacred temple. A small film crew had cordoned off part of the area and were setting up cameras to look into the temple from it's entrance, to do a TV spot or something. I sat down on one of the provided seats in a beautiful, quiet gravelled area and daydreamed for a short while. Just in front of me were a pair of giants of the forest, who had grown up right next to each other from seed, and had been joined together with a decorative rope. The sign said that couples who wandered around the tree were blessed with good fortune and would stay together forever, and a couple were crunching gently round together testing the theory. I was just happy to sit there and take in the calmness of it all, and would have loved to get just a couple of snaps.
I eventually pulled myself out of the place and began the 10 or so minute walk back to the station. I raided a 7-eleven for drinks and a bite to eat, which I ate on the chair outside. At 3.30, I arrived back at the station, an hour to kill before the bus came. Eyeing a power outlet near the door of the station building, I cheekily asked the woman at the desk if I could plug in the charger, fully expecting to be given my marching orders, but she gave a smile and a nod, not even taking the coins I had fished out for the trouble.
During the hour I contemplated rushing back to the temple with a couple of snaps worth of juice in the batteries, but thought better of it. I sat patiently and read my travel books as the little camera glugged at the electricity until the bus came.
Now, I had taken a little bit of a guess when I planned the trip. I assumed that the Takamori bus station would be near the Takamori train station. However, when the bus stopped and the driver motioned to me that it was my stop, there was no such thing in sight, and it was getting quite dark.
Heaving off my bags, I stood looking left and right as most of the other passengers disembarked. Rather than getting clues from a stream of them heading in one direction, they fanned out randomly. I glanced pleadingly up at the driver, who gave me a weary smile. 'Takamori-eki, Doko des' ka?', I managed, to which he pointed down one of the roads, then put the bus in gear.
But souvenirs they had. As I entered, a small group of schoolchildren, who perhaps had stayed late and were just making their way home were gathered just inside the entrance. They were milling about impatiently waiting for their train or sat on the floor exchanging trading cards. The room opened up into a central circular area, filled almost completely with closed or closing trinket shops. Only the light from the ticket booth in the corner showed signs of life. An elderly man sat behind the counter and looked up at me with a warm smile.
I landed in Tateno sometime after six in the evening. The connecting train was at the platform across from me when I arrived, and hurrying over to the nearest open door, I nearly fell over the largest bike I had ever seen. At least I presumed it was a bike. It was in a large fabric bag, and was bike shaped. Stood next to it, was an incredibly beautiful woman. Slim and tall with shoulder length blonde hair, and noticably not of eastern descent, she smiled a smile that stopped me in my tracks.
'Hi', she said.
After a pause, I said, 'That's a bike...'.
'Yes..', she said.
I hate my brain. It ceases to function at the most important times, and reverts to the intellect of a domesticated rabbit. I made some excuse about needing to sit down, which I did need to do, but I also wanted to hide my shame at sounding such a prat. I excused myself and passed by without trying to get eye contact, and collapsed in a seat purposely some rows from the front. A little while later once the train had set off, the woman came and sat down near the carriage door.
The half hour journey to Aso was largely event-free, aside from me trying to look knowledgeable by asking the passing conductor in my best Japanese whether this was the correct train for Aso. For the rest of it my mind was tussling whether to go over to the mysterious woman and try to stoke up a conversation of sorts, now that the shock of her existence on the planet had soaked in. In the end I chickened out, but fate had other plans in store. As the train slowed for Aso station and I got up to disembark, so did she.
As the woman gathered her things, I asked if she was going to Aso too, and she said she was, but had nowhere to stay for the night. I told her of the Aso hostel I was staying at and she sounded interested. The train stopped and we got off. The large bike-shaped package and a couple of bags were heaved off commendably, and she began taking the bike (which was partially in bits) out of the bag and put it together on the platform, deserted but for the two of us.
Understandably turning down the offer of help with her bike from a complete stranger who talked like a stupidy-stupid-head at her, she said she would meet me at the hostel. At least my brain kicked in enough for us to swap names. Hers was Elizabeth. Mine at that moment, was Smitten. I showed her my map of the area, and using my watch compass, pointed her in the approximate direction.
Yoshi, the owner came out from the closed reception desk and said hello. I showed him my paperwork and he gave me a tour of the place. Set over two floors there are several individual rooms for families or groups, plus some generously sized beds in groups of four for those on a tighter budget, like myself. I put my things up onto the bed and then went back downstairs to consider the washing machine facilities (300yen for a wash and dry combo). The communal area consisted of the washers in the corner, a large bookshelf full of manga and donated books from all over the world, and a kitchen/dining room area where several people were seeing to snacks and drinks, many of them looked to be from my half of the world. I introduced myself to Dave and his partner Susan, who had come over from York and were passing through on the way to Beppu, Luke who hailed from Shropshire but was on holiday from his job in Tokyo, and Julien from france, who had just come back from a days' gruelling trip up the mountain and was heading to a nearby onsen to recover. A rather jolly Japanese guy with a loud voice sat in the corner singing to himself and all who would listen, while a middle aged man named Toshio sat quietly with a motorbike helmet on his lap, regarding everyone. It was all very welcoming and pleasant, though slightly odd as suddenly out of nowhere, everyone was speaking English.
Elizabeth had made it and was arranging a bed for the night. I said hello before heading back upstairs. I got myself a shower and changed, and then went back downstairs to throw my well-worn clothes into the washer. Elizabeth had disappeared for the moment so I scanned the shelves and read the first chapter of Hokkaido Highway Blues, a book recommended to me several times, which I need to get around to, since the author was doing something much like me.
By the time I had returned from the local 7-eleven with whatever I could find that was edible, Elizabeth was sat in the dining area sipping green tea. We sat and chatted for a while, my nervousness drifting away when I realised that not only was she gorgeous, but also very easy to talk to as well. Elizabeth was from Amsterdam on a cycling trip across Japan, camping out in the wilderness by night, no mean feat in itself and putting what I considered to be a pretty epic journey of my own into the shade. After a huge kerfuffle with the train staff trying to persuade them to allow her bike on board, plus a knee that was giving out, she found herself having to abandon the hilly parts around Aso and let the train take the strain. To my immense good fortune I had bumped into her just as she was running out of ideas where to stay, and on seeing the postcards and flyers of the Aso caldera, which she was now flipping through, had decided to stay a day or so to visit them.
I held my breath. Was this fate? Did God exist after all? Probably not, but I was willing to chance my arm. Mentioning my intention of going up to the mountain myself the next day, I asked if she would like to hook up and go together, to which she agreed. She accepted a spare lukewarm spring roll and we tried to decipher the bus routes and approximate distance from the maps on the wall and the diagrams on the flyers as my clothes spun-dried, and then we parted company for the night. I climbed into my bunk and sorted out my washing, and chatted a while to Luke, who had the bunk below.
It's fair to say I could hardly sleep that night.