Sunday, November 24, 2013

Aira City View

(The full photo album can be found here.)

Back in September, when I was at the last kiri-e event, the organizer asked if I'd be interested in joining on a bus tour to Aira City, about 20 miles northeast of Kagoshima, at the north end of Kinko Bay. Since the total price would be 500 yen ($5 USD), I said "sure". Taking the train to Aira would cost at least that much, one way. As we got closer to the trip date of Nov. 17, I got an email apologizing and saying that the tour company was tacking on an additional 500 yen as an "insurance fee". It was a little too late to back out, and since I didn't want to alienate anyone that I'd be seeing again at some point, I quietly accepted the increase. It still wasn't that expensive, anyway.

(First stop - tea.)

The tour is called Aira View, which in Japanese sounds a lot like "I Love You", so the bus is pink and covered in little hearts. The stop is on the west side of the main train station, near Bic Camera. The bus was nearly packed, and the only empty seat was next to mine. Many of the people on the ride were English teachers (ALTs) with several that had just come to Japan in August as part of the JET program. I'd met 3-4 of the people previously, mainly at the kiri-e events.

(Part of the tea ceremony.)

The bus set out at 9 AM, passing by Terukuni Shrine, the International Volunteer Center, and then down to Inari river before going through the tunnel in the hill to come out next to Senganen. From this point, we hug the coast up to Aira train station. Unfortunately, the weather was poor all day, with a little scattered drizzling, and the volcano on Sakura-jima was completely hidden in the clouds, so the scenic views weren't that scenic. Along the way, our tour guide kept up a continuous stream of chatter, talking about nearby landmarks, making local jokes, and occasionally singing folk or children's songs. At the Aira station, we picked up one more rider, who sat next to me. She had come from Aira originally, but had been away for a while and was taking the tour to see how the city had changed while she was gone. We talked about a matsuri at a shrine that we'd be visiting, and she recommended watching the taiko players if possible.

(Shrine grounds for the Okutsu festival. The performance stage can be seen in the background.)

(The place was crowded, making it hard to get good photos.)

(The first show I saw was this traditional narrative pantomime. The woman to the right played drums and read out the narration. The guy acted out the story, which was kind of a comedy about a hapless villager.)

After an hour, we got to the shrine, and were allowed out for a little over an hour. The shrine has one of Japan's oldest and biggest camphor trees, and the festival that weekend - Okutsu Donto Matsuri was dedicated to it. Aira also has an active Korean population, and there were Japanese and Korean flags lining the streets through the city.

(A group of Korean high school students. You can see the video for them at the bottom of the page. Be warned, the music is VERY slow.)

We were herded to a small open area near the shrine, where we were treated to a tea ceremony demonstration. All of us received a bowl of very bitter Japanese green tea, and a small snack candy. When we were done, we were all given packages wrapped up in a nice piece of cloth. Inside were chopsticks, two really good rice balls, and a bottle of water. Basically, a free lunch, which may have been a part of the "insurance fee". After this, I ran over to the shrine to watch a traditional folk play, where the drummer also did the narration and the dancer acted out the story. It was really funny to watch. The camphor tree was to the right of the stage, so I took a photo of that as well.

(The giant camphor (okutsu) the festival is dedicated to.)

There's a nearby elementary school that hosted other events, including a duck race that people could bet on (the ducks were busy eating lettuce while I was there), a tree kids could rope up, and three bamboo poles that kids could climb to grab hats placed at the top.

(Bamboo pole climbing.)

(Ducks readying for their next race.)

(The betting table is to the right of the race field.)

(One of the main symbols for this festival. Note the Japanese and Korean flags.)

(The roping tree.)

(Making pine cone Christmas trees.)

(Korean dancers.)

(The music this time was quite a bit faster.)

(The main Taiko group. While most of the performers entered and exited from the back of the stage, this group started at the entrance to the shrine, which was only a few feet from where I was standing at the time.)

(These guys are good. You can see the video at the bottom of the page.)

And, lots of food stalls. The rest of our group wanted to go into the school to get lunch but I hung back to see the drum group at 11:30 AM. So, several of the others stuck around with me. The taiko was really good, and everyone watching cheered at the end. There was also a high school group that played very slow traditional Korean music, dancers and a Korean duet. At 12 PM, we got back on the bus.

(Elementary school grounds. Food stalls to the left, duck race betting table to the right.)

Our other stops included a small shrine at the top of an overlook, an exercise park, a log cabin camping site, a pottery shop, a city museum and Ryoumon Falls. The primary attraction of the scenic stops is the view of Sakurajima, but since we couldn't see it through the clouds, we spent most of our time talking to each other.

(Gate entrance to the next shrine. This one was just a small white building that was locked up for the off-season. The only thing worth mentioning about it is that it's at the top of a hill that has two flights of stairs to reach. Several of us were panting pretty hard at the end.)

(Unlike the hills around Kagoshima, in Aira several of the tunnels are still unblocked. We weren't sure if this one is just an irrigation pipe, or one of the air raid bomb shelters left over from WW II. I was told that the Kagoshima tunnels were walled-off some time ago after a couple children wandered inside one and died there.)

Behind the pottery shop is a 300-year old kiln that's not in use anymore. The design is interesting, in that it's built on the side of the hill, and consisted of at least 10 chambers. As each chamber aged and the roof caved in, the pottery workers would just build another chamber farther down the hill and keep working. After the owner talked about the kilns, we went into the shop, where little bowls of pickled radish and veggies were waiting for us, along with cups of tea. A number of the group bought ceramic tea cups and chopstick holders.

(Sign showing the layout of the kilns.)

(The chain of kilns used to be longer. I think that it was shortened when a road was built cutting through the hill to reach to the houses on the other side.)

(Inside of one of the kilns.)

(Exercise park. The original plan was for anyone who wanted to, to visit an onsen and everyone else to come to this park. But, because of the Okutsu Matsuri visit, the onsen portion was cut. I'm assuming that during the summer, the water to the falls is turned on and the area in front becomes a small lake.)

(On a clear day, you can see the volcano in the middle of the bay. On a less cloudy day, you can see the bay.)

(Face in the hills. The area around Aira has a number of very interesting "Asian-style" hill shapes. Unfortunately, I could only see some of the best hills from inside the bus while we were on the road, and I couldn't get photos of them.)

Ryoumon Falls was used as a location for the filming of three NHK period dramas, and the Japanese members in the group really wanted to see it.

(The sign on the right lists the three dramas filmed here. I think the most famous is Atsu Hime (Princess Atsu), 2008.)

(Walking sticks, if you need them.)

(Ryoumon Falls.)


The bus dropped us off at the top of a hill. At the entrance of a rock-paved road, slippery with moss and dew, is a box of bamboo walking sticks (you leave them in the box at the bottom of the hill). It's a long hill, and there's a walking path at the bottom that's another 300 meters (about a 1/6th of a mile). I thought that we'd have to return to the top of the hill to get to the bus again, and I wanted enough time to take photos of the falls, so I hopped down the paving blocks as fast as I safely felt I could go, then when I got to the bottom, I jogged to the falls and took a bunch of pictures. As I was jogging back, I saw the bus pulling into a parking lot a block away. This would make things a lot easier, so I walked to the bottom of the hill, where the leaders of the group where just starting to catch up. Then, I walked back to the falls with them, and took a hidden staircase down to the river. The water is pretty cold now, but one of the children knelt down and washed his head off a couple of times. Then it was back to the bus again.

(City museum.)

The final stop was at a small one-room museum that seemed to be next to the Aira city hall. Next door was a small wooden 1-room classroom, with two school kids inside doing homework or something. I didn't see a teacher there at the time. In the museum, the curator talked about Sakurajima, and the 100th anniversary of the last big eruption. The museum has a couple nice katana on display, some military uniforms from WW II, and examples of old rifles. There's also a small scale model of an Edo-era town.

(This might be the original Aira village layout.)

(The curator can be seen at the right, to the back.)

Initially, the tour was to include a stop at an onsen (hot spa) for those that wanted to take a bath, but because of the matsuri that morning, we skipped the onsen part. This meant that we got back to Kagoshima-chuo station 30 minutes ahead of the scheduled arrival time of 5 PM. Overall, it was a fun trip. The guide talked about another matsuri coming up next year, for the annual spider-fighting contest. (All the info I can find so far is for last year's event. Looks like it might be held at the beginning of June for this year, maybe.)

Youtube video of a Korean Music Performance

Youtube Video of a taiko performance

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