Unexpected respite on the road less traveled

In our travels, we often find particular pleasure in getting off the beaten track and exploring the road less traveled.  This is true whether we’re walking or driving.

On a recent car trip in Kyushu’s Oita Prefecture, while driving from Yufuin to Nakatsu, we had the opportunity to take smaller side roads that led us through some beautiful late autumn scenery, and we found much more than we expected.

I should note that the topography of that part of Oita–mountains carved from ancient volcanic lava flow–limits the routes between those two cities anyway.  There simply is no straight line connecting those two points (unless you are a bird).  So it was inevitable that we would have the chance to meander and take in the sights.

A local map I picked up at a tourist information center showed an intriguing “seven lucky gods” at Higashi Okuyama that seemed like it would be visible from Highway 387 heading north-northeast out of Kusu, so that was the first thing we watched for.

The traditional seven lucky gods of Japan are Jurojin, the god of longevity; Fukurokuju, the god of wisdom; Daikoku, the god of wealth, farms and the kitchen; Ebisu, the god of commerce and fishermen; Bishimonten, the god of war and warriors; Benten, the goddess of music and art; and Hotei, the god of happiness and contentment.  They can be depicted together or separately, and making a pilgrimage to a set course of temples and shrines affiliated with each to pay one’s respects are a common part of the new year’s “luck” rituals (I have written on this elsewhere and will write even more before the end of the year–stay tuned).

In the case of the seven lucky gods of Higashi Okuyama, the map showed the gods as massive stones.  And this is exactly what they turned out to be:  seven monoliths standing in a row on a mountainside evoking the images of the lucky seven.

We stopped for photos and to pay our respects.  There may have been a way to hike up to the stones, but we felt they were better viewed from a distance.  A helpful signboard told us which was which.

Setting out again, I continued to study the map and noticed a side road that actually looked like a more direct route to Nakatsu and also contained a notation of a gorge.  We found the road and plunged into mountain remoteness, with ups and downs, twists and turns, stunning autumn colors and even birdsong.  Eventually the road led us into a deep valley at the bottom of which was a small stream and an old, abandoned-looking tea house.

We parked the car and set out downstream on foot in search of Takkiri Gorge.

We were surprised in this seemingly remote location to find a well established track alongside the stream, beside the layered boulders that formed the flanks of the gorge.

The stream itself was also a surprise: swift, shallow and clear.

As we pushed deeper into the gorge, its walls closed in, blocking the late afternoon sun to create mysterious shadows that accentuated the shapes and colors in the gorge.

And, of course, the water combined with the autumn leaves to also entertain us.

We followed the stream for nearly an hour, with the well-established, though steadily narrowing, trail making our walk a very easy one.  We passed a campground with wooden cabins (all closed for the season, of course) and could picture fathers barbecuing while children splashed in the stream during the summer months.  It almost made us wish we lived within regular driving distance of this spot.

Although we didn’t reach the end of the gorge and the narrowing trail continued, we realized that the sun was going down, so we decided to turn back and return to our car before we lost the light completely.

Other than a few workmen on the road near where we had parked our car and our imaginings of what the campground must be like in summer, we hadn’t seen another human during our entire walk. It truly was a less traveled road, at least this time of year.

Our time in Takkiri Gorge was an autumn idyll we won’t soon forget!

© 2017 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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