Well, the promised beauty has arrived--Fukui is in full fall color, and I have found a perfect place to enjoy it. Those of you who've driven with me will remember my love for suddenly swerving off the main road to force my car up some remote and forgotten trail. I still do that (I try to keep the swerving to a minimum). Fukui offers a broad choice of remote mountain roads, both leftovers that haven't seen much maintenance since they were essentially replaced by tunnels and expensively protected roads leading to forgotten villages of thirty or forty souls. My visiting school is just before the last mountain range between me and the Sea of Japan, so I often explore these roads after work (I leave at 1:00 on Fridays).
Today I found one of the latter, a narrow twisting road on the ocean side of the last mountain range before the sea, with often elaborate earthenworks and concrete structures looming over it to keep the mountain itself off of it. It offered frequent views through the fall leaves of the sea--indeed, occasionally I could look as far down as I could manage and still through breaks in the trees I would see the flash of sun on water. I parked a few times where the road was wide enough and hiked along it to the best views, or to find a path heading up or down from the road. In that way, I walked into a very old, very forgotten village. The houses, most still occupied, were of the traditional construction--wood frame with lattices of bamboo suspended in it, boards on both sides of the frame, and then mud mixed with straw packed between the boards and around the bamboo, which acts, I guess, like rebar in concrete. The construction methods were especially evident in the houses and kura (storage outbuildings) in various stages of deconstruction. As I walked, I passed an old woman pulling tools out of her shed to work in her garden--of course, she was dressed in completely traditional style, but for the substitution of rubber boots for the rice-straw boots once worn around here. The path from the road to the houses was quite narrow, and as I had a bit of a feeling of being an intruder (though it was a public path), I asked the woman if it were OK. She seemed absolutely delighted that I spoke to her. Apparently, they don't get many friendly foreigners up there. In the village, there was one house larger and in better repair than the other dozen or so, and an old man carrying things between it and a shed across the path. I said hello to him, and he replied, but warily. On my way out, I said goodbye to the woman, who then asked me if I had driven (clearly she would have thought me mad if I had walked all the way up there); I replied that I had left my car about a kilometer back where there was a nice view. She smiled hugely while we were talking, so I added that her village was very pretty. She will have something to tell the family over dinner tonight. This was a few hundred meters from the Takefu border, so it's unlikely that any of the kids from that village go to my visiting school.
At an overlook past the village, I saw a much smaller road fifty meters or so lower than the one I was on, and I soon found the entrance to it. It was just about one small car wide (which meant that it was a two-way road, although a second car would have meant one of use going in reverse along the edge for some distance). I found a spot to stop where I saw a path leading down off from the road. It very quickly lead to something very rare in the lush forests of Japan: a clearing. Trees had been removed from an irregular slope in a shape odd enough to have been a natural clearing to grow spring onions (scallions). For a farm, even here, it is amazingly difficult terrain, rough and very steep, mostly too steep to stand upright on. It must be worked entirely by hand, and I would guess by very elderly hands. However, the vertical clearing creates an open space through which to view the sea and trees at the bottom and sides to frame the view. This is along a ridgeline stretching down into the water, and in an open space to the right of the clearing (it was steep enough that the tops of the trees there were well below the line of sight to the sea) the next ridge, in stunning color, plunges into the dark blue of the sea. At this time, late afternoon in late November, the water itself shimmered brightly with the low sun. The coast of Japan turns west just south of here, so beyond the bay on one side coastal mountains receded to the horizon, but most of the view was open sea. In some ways, the view reminded me of a fall meadow in New England--and indeed there was some nostalgia in its appeal to me--but on a crazy tilt, and the combination of mountains and sea beyond the meadow is more dramatic than anywhere in New England. It was the most beautiful place I've seen in Japan, and possibly the most beautiful place I've seen since Viet Nam. A trail ran through the onion field, leading to a string of onion-filled clearings, each with a different but equally affecting view. As much as location, the timing was perfect--the leaves at the peak of color, brought out perfectly by the pale late afternoon late November sun. I'll have to go back with a camera, but I'll be lucky to find the light like that again. The trail goes off into the woods below the last clearing, and I would guess it leads all the way to the village below.
From the sublime to the ridiculous. Following the road, I came to a village perched on the steep mountainside, entirely dependent on the road, explaining why such a tiny road (it would be too narrow for a driveway in America) was so expensively shored up and protected from landslides. Farther down, halfway between this village and the sea, I came to an even steeper part that had been shored up with concrete. The Japanese use a kind of spray concrete in thick undulating layers to cover rock that might come loose, and where the mountainside needs more fundamental support this is overlaid with a grid of reinforced concrete. Here, they had laid this bed of concrete over the entire hillside but they had not removed the trees, merely pouring the stuff around them. In a couple of less steep sections, open areas allowed small stands of bamboo to shoot up, and in the grids in the steeper sections, leaves had collected and turned to dirt, allowing small plants to grow. With the light filtered green by the tree and bamboo cover falling on the curvy concrete, the effect was exactly reminiscent of the kind of artificial habitat created in better zoos, but on a monumental scale--indeed, it was the big brother of the Asian rainforest section of the fancy hothouse at Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago. It was so overgrown that it wasn't even ugly anymore, as most of these reinforced mountainsides are (the worse use green-tinted concrete to "look natural").
Around Takefu, too, the color is peaking, and it is much prettier than I'd expected even a week ago. I'm lucky to find myself in such a beautiful place.
O Genki De,
Note added eleven and a half years later: On subsequent visits, I realized that the nearly vertical clearing was not artificially cleared to grow scallions, as I'd written above, but cleared naturally by a dense matt of daffodils. The leaves look like those of scallions until the flowers bloom through the last of the winter snow in late February. Something about the plants chokes out trees and other growths, and they've cleared themselves a number of areas up and down the seaward sides of the mountains along the coast of Fukui. When the flowers first poke up through the snow (I think they actually generate a bit of heat and melt their way through) and a bit later when the yellow flowers cover entire clearings, with the sea visible through and above the bare trees below, these hidden places are even more beautiful. There's a daffodil park a bit north along the coast with nearly flat fields and old-lady-from-Osaka friendly trails, but these perilously steep clearings hanging over the sea are far more beautiful.
The roads to this spot, and even to the villages nearby, are no longer shown on Google Maps. Don't know if the whole area has slid into the sea or if Google's just dropped the ball. If you want to find this spot for yourself, though, here's how I used to get there. There's an equally beautiful spot, at least for Charles Addams fans, not too far from here; I used to go there every winter to try to get the perfect shot of a persimmon tree, leafless but still fruited, silhoutted against twilight storm clouds. I'm not giving away that secret, at least not until I get that perfect photo.