Friday, May 1, 2020

Virtual Vacation - Dakigaeri Valley, Japan

Japanese history – presented in true Japanese form – gives dates of events in terms of eras. So I was intrigued when I read that Dakikaeri Jinja, the modest shrine at the mouth of this Dakigaeri Valley, was established in the thirteenth year of the Kanbun Era (寛文13).

My knowledge of historical Japanese eras mirrors my knowledge of United States Presidents. I am familiar with the first one, the most recent few, and a handful of the more significant ones in between. The rest I may have heard of but don’t know anything about.

In other words, just like I have no idea when Millard Fillmore was president, I had no idea when the Kanbun Era fell in the annals of Japanese history. It could have been two hundred years ago, it could have been two thousand. This shrine in the sticks of Akita Prefecture may have been founded when Jesus was walking the earth or when Lincoln was getting shot. And quite frankly, I liked the idea of not knowing. The mystery adds to the allure.

So I was a tad disappointed to find out 寛文13年 was actually 1673 AD. Sure, this means Dakikaeri Jinja is a century older than the United states. But as old as Japan is, it’s hard to get excited about a shrine that didn’t even exist when Christopher Columbus started slaughtering the Indians.

Call me superficial. I’ve been called much worse.

The name Dakigaeri means, roughly, “to hold close and turn around”. Once upon a time the footpath running through this narrow valley was itself so narrow that two people walking in opposite directions would have to hold each other close and rotate in order to continue on their respective ways. Not mentioned anywhere is how many lovers were born in this manner, or how many men got slapped in the face.

The origin of Dakikaeri Shrine, like the origin of a lot of Japan, is unclear although it seems to have something to do with a lack of water. One story tells of all the crops in the area dying due to a drought. Another story says that after building a village here in this valley the people realized water was difficult to obtain. I guess they missed that big blue river down there. Either way, the people were thirsty.

They must have also been delirious because their decided remedy was to walk to Nara, about a thousand kilometers away, to enlist help from the spirits of Tangawagami Shrine.

Lucky for them their pilgrimage paid off. In the third year of the Enho Era (1675, yawn) the god Mizuhanome-no-kami was enshrined as the deity of Dakikaeri Jinja and given the title of Village Protector. A celebratory festival is held every year on the sixteenth day of the ninth month – which in mystery-land means sometime in October or maybe November since they go by the old Japanese lunar calendar.

For all the fuss I’m making over this shrine, the real draw to this place lies along the path running into the woods behind it. The Tamagawa River cutting through the Dakigaeri Valley flows an amazing blue that, while not unique to this place, is certainly at least as alluring as saying “寛文13”. A walk along this sapphire river (sapphire the gin, not the jewel) comes with a supporting cast that, in sum, puts on a beautiful show.

The shrine and the trail behind it lie on the north side of the river. After a few hundred meters the path crosses to the south side via the Kami-no-Iwahashi Bridge. Built in 1926 as part of a forest railway, the Kami-no-Iwahashi is Akita’s oldest suspension bridge. Eighty meters of bright orange against a green and blue background, the bridge offers fantastic views of the valley. For better or for worse, it is wide enough so you won’t be hugging any strangers walking the other way.

1926, by the way, was the fifteenth year of the Taisho Era. It was also the first year of the Showa Era.

Maybe this is why no one writes checks in Japan. It's impossible to know how to date them.

To someone not familiar with the ways of Japan, the swath of pavement on the far side of the Kami-no-Iwahashi comes as an odd surprise. Those familiar with Japan will likely be surprised that there are no vending machines. From the eastern edge of the long rectangular lot the trail picks up again, running along the south bank of the river for about a mile. Along the way the path remains virtually flat, with the river in view the whole way – except when you are passing through one of the short caves cut through the rocky cliffs.

The bed of the Tamagawa River is littered with boulders with odd shapes – at least we are told by one of the signs that dot the trail. One place along the gorge is known as the Wakasa no Kyuryu. Here, it is said, the water once rushed so ferociously it made a tremendous roar, like that of a lion (a “proud” lion, actually).

Over time the pounding water did a number on the rocks, perhaps not unlike what a proud and very hungry lion would do to its kill. Now, with water flow measures to prevent further erosion, the people in the area say the water flowing through these rocks sounds more like the whisper of an old tiger.

This rock is called the Goza-no-Ishi, apparently as it resembles many layers of cloth.
I only see the shape of my wife sleeping under a few layers of blankets.  
Another area along the river is known as Senganji. The name as written implies the existence of a temple, but Senganji actually refers to the view. Some say that when the river runs deep the water splashes against the rocks creating a misty spray that resembles, to the super-imaginative and the highly-suggestible, the smoky wisps of incense of a temple ritual.

Japanese-only explanation of the temple that isn't really a temple but should remind you of one.
One of the path's handful of tunnels through the rock cliffs sits at the far end of the wooden bridge.
The Tamagawa River's color comes from the mineral deposits, mainly aluminum,
that originate in Tamagawa Onsen, Japan's most acidic underground springs. 
At the end of this shady, mostly stroller-friendly path one finds the de facto highlight of this riverside jaunt: the Mikaeri-no-taki. Cascading down a thirty-meter cliff, this waterfall has been said to resemble the figure of a kimono-clad woman. One source of information I found on this spot went a bit further, saying the slender falls looked very much like a woman slipping out of her kimono. Or maybe that was just the translation of my mindset at the time.

Others have likened Mikaeri-no-taki to white threads of silk suspended from the top of the rocks. Some simply describe the falls as a solemn, elegant display of nature. Whatever one sees in it, the common denominator can be found in the waterfall’s name. Mikaeri means “to turn around and look”. The idea is that this waterfall is so beautiful that even as you walk away you can’t help but turn and take one more look.

Here's one more look.
I made my pilgrimage to Dakigaeri in mid-summer, when a shaded forest is plenty alluring even without a river of sapphire gin or a temple built way back in the good old days when the Thirteen Colonies were uniting to slaughter the Narragansett Indians. In Autumn the blazing fall colors draw the sight-seeing hordes – so I hear, and can certainly imagine. In Winter the path is at least partially closed. Akita is pretty far north after all.

Mountains cover almost three quarters of Japan. As such, river valleys are not particularly hard to come by. But some of them are quite special. A few claim a colorful history.

Dakigaeri is the only river valley I know to be named for a public display of life-preserving affection.

Final Note: It seems everyone online calls the aforementioned shrine Dakigaeri Jinja, mirroring the name of the valley. The shrine's webpage, however, writes the name as だきかえりじんじゃ, which reads Dakikaeri Jinja (a minor point that I know some wise-ass out there will try to correct me on).

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