Miyazaki’s only autumn colors belong to a variety of subtropical flowers which somehow manage to bloom, and to the trees and foliage which only become slightly less green even in the cold winter months. However, if you were to venture up into the mountains in the west of the prefecture, you would find vibrant patches of vermillion interspersed with swathes of gold gilding the mountainside—along with the usual vast expanse of deep forest greens.
The mountains hold more mysteries than elusive autumn colors, though. Crystal clear rivers carve their way through the rock, plunging waterfalls transform a valley’s nooks into sparkling treasure troves for the eyes and ears to discover, and everything glows even under an overcast sky.
The numerous hidden valleys are home to some of the kindest and friendliest people you will ever meet, with strong cultural roots and deep-seated traditions.
MAJET was able to experience all of this wonder during our Gokase Mountain Retreat in November!
We met at Gokaso no Sato (map), a non-profit camping complex and a hub for locally-run adventure sports and hikes. From there, we were picked up by the Gokase Nature School and driven down a perilous, cliff-hugging road to the launch site. There, our kind instructors issued us life vests and instructed us on how to paddle our kayaks.
Once everyone was situated on the water, we began our journey! We traveled upstream first. A light drizzle cast a fog on the mountains surrounding us as we paddled through calm waters. We also discovered a waterfall!
We weren’t quite done yet, though. Our guides lead us back past the starting point and a bit further downstream. We found ourselves navigating through some slightly rocky waters, but none of us had any trouble. When the water got too rocky, we all pulled in to shore for a break.
Our guides began preparing hot coffee while we explored the shore. There was a natural freshwater spring which we were encouraged to drink from. We climbed around on the mossy rocks for a while, reveling in nature.
Eventually it was time to go back. So we all got back into our boats and paddled back to the starting point. Once all the kayaks had been brought out of the water and put away, our friendly instructors brought us back to Gokase no Sato, and we finally checked into our cabins.
The cabins were small and simple, but quaint and cozy, overlooking the mountain forests, with Kumamoto’s Mt. Aso in the distance. We spent a couple hours just hanging out in the cabins, some of us going for walks to another nearby waterfall, others playing games, and still others building a massive blanket fort in their cabin’s loft.
Eventually, the rumble of stomachs reminded us of that evening’s brilliant plan: potluck nabe party! We all assembled in the main cabin and began preparations. Each guest had brought a different nabe ingredient, and once everything had been prepped, Manu oversaw the cooking process. She was very strict about the timing and placement of ingredients. 😉
What resulted was a rich, delicious, and heartwarming dish perfect for keeping the chill of the night at bay. We spent the rest of the evening making and eating nabe while playing more games. At one point, a spontaneous sing-off broke out, and the cabin was filled with song and screaming.
Eventually, it was time for bed, and we all retreated to our various blanket nests for the night.
The next morning, several of us woke up bright and early and took a little side trip to Takachiho Gorge before 8, the perfect time for seeing the power spot without its usual huge crowds. Since the boats weren’t operating yet, we watched the mist rising out of the gorge and took lots of pictures of the fall foliage.
While the others were either sleeping or adventuring, Cassie got up and began preparing that morning’s special breakfast surprise: waffles! A rare treat, everyone was quite pleased.
After stuffing our faces with sweet, waffley goodness, we all packed up our things, straightened up the cabins, checked out, and headed to our next mountain destination: Shiiba.
Shiiba Town is a small hamlet built into the mountainside along the Mimigawa River. The population is only around 3000, but every November it swells to 6 times that! This is all because of the Heike Matsuri.
Long ago, Shiiba Town was home to the Heike clan, who had fled there from the Genji clan after a crushing defeat in the battle of Dannoura in 1185. Nasu Daihachiro was sent to hunt them out. However, upon seeing the proud nobles and warriors reduced to living in thatched mountain hamlets, he took pity on them and instead chose to live with them, soon falling in love with a Heike nobleman’s daughter, Tsurutomi-hime. Eventually, Nasu was summoned back to his clan by Shogun Yoritomo, and was forced to leave Tsurutomi-hime and their soon-to-be born child behind. Their descendants continued living and thriving in Shiiba from then on (source).
The Heike Matsuri celebrates this love story. Men and boys dress in traditional Genji clan armor, while women and girls dress as Heike maidens. Traditional foods and local products are sold in stalls lining the main road of the town. A variety of performances ranging from music and dance to grain-hulling and mochi-making pop up throughout the town, and visitors are encouraged to participate!
When it was time for the parade to begin, we all gathered on a small incline, which turned out to be someone’s driveway! However, the local children were curious to see so many foreigners together, and keen to talk to us while we watched the parade together. The parade was long, but had so many different exhibitions that we were always wondering what would come next! First, “Daihachiro Nasu” and the “Genji clan” rode one way up the street, and then they returned with “Tsurutomihime” and the “Heike clan” coming back in the other direction. It was really interesting to see the traditional styles of armor and clothing!
Once the parade died down, our mountain retreat was at an end, and it was time for us to return to our own corners of Miyazaki. It was a truly great weekend, and we are looking forward to our next MAJET adventure!
Check out our Facebook album for more great photos of the event!
*Photos taken by Gokase Nature School, Cassie Conrad, and Aurian Eghbalian