We begin in the trees. There is no better way, and in the end, it is where we’ll end up. So what’s the use of all that stuff in the middle, anyway?
But these are not any trees. They lie within the boundaries of Tsukikuma Koen (koen = park) (月隈公園) in the town of Hita, which is a very special place.
Hita is located in the center of northen Kyushu officially part of Oita Prefecture, but borders Fukuoka and Kumamoto Prefectures as well.
It’s a little over an hour south of Nakatsu on a beautiful road that runs through Yabakei and Yamakuni. Hita is also where the big highway connects to other parts of Kyushu like Kumamoto, Saga, Nagasaki, and Kagoshima, making it a big intersection of sorts on the northern part of Kyushu. From Nakatsu, unless you’re headed to Kitakyushu City to the north, or Oita City to the southeast, or Miyazaki further southeast if you have that kind of time and gas, you’ll most likely be heading through Hita if you’re trying to get out and see the island.
Perhaps it is this bisecting location that Hita owns which made it a formidable town of importance back in the Edo Period. It is a town famous for holding on to the atmosphere cultivated back since such towns, and so it’s famous for old pretty things, two qualities that seem to guarantee survival in an ever-changing Japan. And I mean that in the best of ways. Hita is mostly famous for crafts, atmosphere, gold mining, and sake, though there is surely much more beyond that surface. Hita was known as “little-Kyoto” back in the Edo Period. In this way it reminds me a lot of Takayama located in northern Gifu Prefecture just next to my old home of Toyama. Takayama is also a mountain town located inland famous for all the same things as Hita. In fact, I can’t think of much different, and nothing more similar than they are both worth a lengthy visit or two.
So enough with all that. Time for real live action things that started for me and my wife in the northern part of Hita City at the aforementioned Tsukikuma Park. It was a surprise that hid right next to the very convenient free North Mameda Parking Lot. In addition to history, such towns are also well known for very expensive parking, so I mention the parking lot here for anybody who wants to sidestep such hindrances at the cost of a ten minute walk to the center of everything.
So this park was very cool, and wound upwards to a great hill that overlooked the small city. Along the path that wrapped to the top there were small caves. In fact, each group of two were tunnels that connected to each other. It was very mysterious. I walked through one (tossing a rock along the ground in case of snakes), and backed out of the second with spider webs wrapped around my head. Satomi read a sign which says that maybe the holes were made to excavate old graves … but she’s not really sure.
The park has amazing trees. Gargantuan trees I have not seen the likes of in Chubu (central Japan). The foliage is certainly different here in Kyushu. In fact, it’s one of the first things my wife noticed about the island. “The trees are so much bigger here aren’t they?“. To be honest, I didn’t really notice at first. A lot of Toyama is cedar trees, large in their own respect, but largely uniform, and none commonly too big. But here there seem to be quite a few nails sticking above the rest, and here in this park in Hita I found some truly impressive stalks. They reminded me of Douglas Firs from back home in Washington, but had pine needles, yet definitely not the common characteristic Japanese pine. I wondered what they might be, and found a giant sign hanging from one that deemed it the Momi tree, a kind of pine tree. (Love Japan for labeling their trees right when one might be wondering what they are.) Little did I know what kind of tree designating battle I was getting into.
So they reminded me of Douglas Firs back home, but had pine needles, and were labeled in Japanese as pine. I asked my wife what she thought it was and she said “a christmas tree”. I thought that was cute and very vague, but when I came home and researched what the Momi tree was in English, it said, “Christmas Tree”. I looked up what a “Christmas tree” was in English to find out it was a fir tree, which is in fact a kind of pine tree. However, the Douglas Fir that the tree initially reminded me of is in fact not actually designated as a fir tree.
If that little bit doesn’t blow your mind, I don’t know what will, cause that’s that craziest thing I’ve heard in a while.
On top of that it all reminds me that the sugi tree is called a cedar tree, but isn’t really a cedar tree and is really a cryptomeria.
Can we all get our tree stories together?
Oh yes, back to Hita.
So the view from the top of the park of the town was great, and a reminder that all of the historic stuff the town is famous for is kept in a small part of the town called Mameda, while the rest is a modern small-medium sized city with all the normal stuff you’ll find in Japan, with bars and gambling and shopping centers and apartments and drugstores and schools and hospitals etc
Anyway, we headed down to the town and crossed a river.
The ocean maybe be a ways away, but such mountain towns in Japan will always have large beautiful rivers. This isn’t the most beautiful one, but one on the other side of town hosts a huge fireworks display at the end of the month which I definitely want to see.
And here’s one of the two main streets that makes up Mameda, the old part of town.
I’d say this is a rare picture because it’s not packed with tourists. On this strange Wednesday just before the Golden Week holiday, it’s like we had the town to ourselves, which is preferable to the alternative for sure.
I’m partly jealous of the houses nestled in this old neighborhood, with old architecture, blooming gardens, and small concrete creeks, a world away from the bustling street not centimeters away.
So there’s lots of cool little shops with goods and wares. Today I bought a small handmade coffee cup. But I’ve been through these towns before, and appreciate the ambiance of it all over the actual products, and then happily found a rare window to the history of Hita during the Edo Period.
This is the Kusanoke, a preserved building of Hita which apparently only opens it’s treasures to the public a few times a year. We wandered in and found a lot of different things.
Apparently it was a kind of bank of sorts, where papers were stored of monetary interactions. It was also a place were people made wax and sake (alcohol). It was also the house of the Kusa family.
If it sounds confusing that’s cause it is.
We went there, received elaborate information of the various rooms it had, and I’m now looking over the brochure with my wife, and we’re still not sure exactly what it is, probably becuase it was all those many things.
It is all of those many things, and each of which was shown to us by various guides and tapes inside, and I was really happy to stumble upon this treasure of the past today. Part way through I asked if it was possible to take pictures and they unfortunately said no. This is especially unfortunate because it was especially … provocative. The inner rooms and gardens were more beautiful in their design and authenticity than more common and easily accessible recreations. (Is the real Japan falling into the past with only but a few bastions holding on through the 21st century?)
I recommend anybody to drop by if the doors are open, or any such place that fits the description. It also had lots of cool samurai clothes and goods and dolls.
So on we wandered.
It was a casual early afternoon with no big goals other than being in the exact position we were … except one hidden agenda, which loomed huge behind all of the buildings and lay at a few inevitable moments ahead: the “Alasakan Cafe”.
In researching cafes in the town before going on our first time a few months ago, this spot appeared and we showed up only to be turned away due to customers at full capacity. We came back this time determined to get in, yet somehow I felt like the odds were against us, and for some reason a second chance would be barred.
Well, we showed up at a convenient time after the lunch rush on a normal Wednesday and were granted entrance.
And BOOM! We had AMAZING pizza and coffee. Finding such places has become a habit of ours, and after the cool name and logo and ratings and atmosphere … THIS PLACE IS FOR REAL.
I may be biased though, because of the shear awesomeness of the master.
So we went in and found this map of my home … Orcas Island, the San Juan Islands … the Puget Sound, and southern Alaska…
So this very cool looking place called the Alaskan Cafe exists, among many others with such names and logos which have absolutley nothing to do with where they claim and anything beyond a cool image … which is perfectly fine. (Hell, I lived next door and I’ve rarely been in B.C. Canada and never Alaska.) But this cafe had legit maps I’ve drooled over for years in my homeland, and then pictures of a funny looking Japanese dude with a mustache in a kayak in what looked exactly like my home in the northwest U.S.
A young girl took our order and whatnot, and I found magazine clippings and a photo album of this strange guy kayaking in my old home. I decided I was going to have to ask about this guy, when all of a sudden the man himself appeared offering to pour us more water.
“Wow, is that you?”
Yes, he said, and so we chatted for a small moment as I told him he was my idol for kayaking from Seattle to the end of the string of islands heading up through Alaska which took him a little over 60 days with his buddy. He’s planning on going back again one day to go through the Queen Charlotte Islands, a longtime hidden dream of my own.
Amazing coffee and pizza, following the image and atmosphere, backed by this mysterious kayaking Japanese dude. He was super friendly, and I will quickly find him on facebook, and go back to his restaurant to inquire further.
I highly recommend you get there as well.
This place was a small explosion for me. After so much time searching to create my own space in the things I love in this world, I found this guy who is doing something small and remarkably amazing. I felt like I found a kindred spirit, someone linked to my island home through kayaking and funny facial hair and northwest coast indian art, and yet here in this adopted home of Japan.
Perhaps our dreams can come true.
It is a funny world with treasures hiding in the strangest places. I feel best to keep my eyes open.
We continued on, in the direction of our car, and our last destination, the old sake (but still operating) sake factory.
Like much of the town, it preserves it’s old Edo Period museum charm while also perservering into the modern economy. It was very cool, and I hovered around the free sake sampling place just long enough apparently not to take the fancy of the server, and thought the better of it since I was about to escort us back home by car.
And so we returned, back to the park from which we began.
And all those trees. Just one tree.
In the end, I would at least like to see a tree one more time.
Hita is super cool and worth the time.