Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Explore the Natural World—Without Leaving Kochi City!

By Clare Marks

   In 2005, the mountain villages of Kagami and Tosayama became part of Kochi City, which means that you can enjoy nature without ever leaving the city.

   On our trip into the wilderness of Kochi City, we drove to Kagami with Seki Sugimoto, an amateur photographer who happens to be from the Kagami area. While soaking up the sunshine and exploring
the beautiful natural world of Kagami, we learned some information from her about the history and culture of the area, as well as picking up some helpful tips about photography. When you go to visit the countryside, try to find someone familiar with the area to go with you—perhaps a neighbor, co-worker, or friend of a friend. Of course, it’s not a requirement, but you will understand much more about what you are seeing, and probably enjoy yourself more, if you have a guide.
 
   In theory, Kagami is about 30 minutes from downtown Kochi by car, north on Route 6. But once you reach the mountains, the roads become extremely narrow and winding. We had to stop short several times as we came around sharp curves and met cars coming from the other direction. Slow down, use caution, and be sure to check the roadside convex mirrors so that you can see around the curves before you make any turns. It is a very beautiful drive with some spectacular views, so you won’t be bored!
Kagami Dam after heavy rains

   Once we reached Kagami, our first stop was the Kagami Dam. It is an impressive sight. On the side where the water is stopped, the view of the mountains across the reservoir is lovely, and on the side where the river continues to flow, the water rushes by fast. Though our guide Seki-san informed us that it is in fact a relatively small dam, it looked very large to me. When we went, in late August, the summer rains had washed a great deal of debris into the reservoir, making the river below look muddy, but cleanup projects will hopefully begin soon, and it was still pretty despite the mess. Kagami Dam is well worth a stop. Parking is available with good views.
 
   Our next visit was the Heike no Taki, or “Heike Waterfall.” Many people with an interest in Japanese history or literature will have read Heike Monogatari, or “The Tales of the Heike.” (If you haven’t, you should—there are several English translations available, and a few editions that translate the classical Japanese from the medieval period into modern standard Japanese. It is a difficult but rewarding read.) This classic work of literature tells the tragic true story of the decline and fall of the once-powerful Taira Clan, also known as the Heike. At the end of the tale, the Minamoto Clan defeats the Taira Clan, and the Taira who survive the battle commit suicide. However, here in Kagami there is an epilogue to the story. According to tradition, 48 of the surviving Taira managed to escape to Shikoku and settled in Kagami near the waterfall. They lived every day in terror of being found by the Minamoto. One night, they mistook the glinting of dew on leaves in the moonlight for the flashing of swords. Panicking and assuming that they had been caught by a Minamoto ambush party, all 48 people threw themselves over the waterfall to their deaths. Our guide told us that when she was a child her mother warned her never to go near the waterfall alone, because the restless spirits of the drowned Taira still haunt the place.
 
   We did not encounter any ghosts on our visit to the Heike no Taki, but we did get close enough to the falls to feel the spray of water on our faces. It is a beautiful spot. Like many waterfalls, it is actually two smaller falls stacked on top of each other. From the nearest parking spot, below the lower waterfall, it is about a ten minute walk uphill to reach the shrine at the upper waterfall. If you’re daring, try walking past the shrine and down the steps to the very edge of the water. The water that collects beneath the falls is a lovely pale blue color, and if you approach close enough, you can see straight down to the bottom. It is very slippery, so take care, and expect to get a bit damp from the spray of the falls. In summer this was very refreshing, but in autumn you might catch cold, so be careful. At the lower waterfall there is a spot with a table and chairs, for resting and eating, but remember to bring your trash home with you.
 
Sakaguchi Area
 
   The Heike no Taki is about 15 minutes’ drive west on Route 33 from the Kagami Dam. Again, on the way you should stop to take pictures. There are several places where the views are absolutely breathtaking. We stopped the car at one spot halfway up a hill, where the whole valley opened up around and below us, a rolling blanket of bright green grass and trees spotted with farms and divided down the middle by the winding blue river. (See image of Sakaguchi Area.) If you have a panorama function on your camera, this would be a great place to try it out!
 
   After the Heike no Taki, we took the last leg of our trip up to Yakeno Forest Park, a mountain forest with some beautiful views. There are parking spots, with restrooms nearby, and several different trails leading in various directions across the mountains, although due to time constraints we did not explore them very much. Some of the tallest mountains in Shikoku can be seen from Yakeno Forest Park, making it another great place to try taking panorama photographs.
 
   Although we visited in late summer, our guide Seki-san tells us that Kagami’s fall foliage is lovely. An autumn visit also has the advantage of cooler temperatures—though we had bright sunshine, which made the trip more cheerful, it was very hot and humid, and we got tired quickly. Of course, whenever you go on a hike you should be sure to bring enough water to stay hydrated, but this should be less of a problem in autumn, or in early spring during cherry blossom season, which Seki-san says is also very beautiful. Apparently there are parts of Kagami where the banks of the river are lined with cherry trees, which bloom into clouds of pink when spring comes. I know I’ll be planning a return visit in springtime!
 
Seki Sugimoto, an amateur photographer from Kagami
  Our whole trip to Kagami and back only took up the first half of the day. However, you could definitely make it a day trip if you explored further than we did. Throughout the morning we kept seeing signposts pointing to other possible points of interest, but in order to keep to our schedule we had to skip them. If you are looking for a good activity in Kochi City for a whole day or a half day, please explore Kagami—and let us know what you discover!

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