Trev and Signe's Day Trip to Akiyoshidai
Akiyoshidai, located in the heart of Yamaguchi prefecture a short 20 minute drive from the eponymous capital, is a huge rolling plains area covered in small jagged rocks, light grass, and a spattering of trees. It's contrast with the surrounding deep forests of Yamaguchi is astounding. When driving into the plains, one goes over a small hill and is suddenly thrown into what seems like another world. It is hard to describe the place in mere words (http://flickr.com/photos/ginshari-san/142862389/in/set-72057594129458296/).
The jagged rocks are dead coral indicating that this area used to be a huge coral bed at one time in the distant past. One of the interesting things about coral is that it emits calcium carbonate, or lime, just like those shells at Tatamigaura, when it is put in contact with the elements in rain water. At Tatamigaura, the lime interacted with the sea sands to created a concrete, but in this huge coral bed the effect was entirely different. The breathtaking result of lime here is the same reason that very few trees can grow on the plains: Shuhodo, the third largest limestone cavern in the world.
Underneath the plains lies a massive cave structure called Shuhodo to locals, or Akiyoshido to the rest of Japan. The part of the cave that people are allowed to walk around in is about 10 km in length, but it is estimated that there are over 420,000 meters of caves underneath the plains. There are other caves in the area to explore, but Shuhodo is by far the most popular.
Its popularity is, in my opinion, its main problem. The inside is so covered in lights, concrete walkways, and crowds in the thousands per day that it highly resembles the waiting line at a Disneyland ride like The Pirates of the Caribbean. It is amazing to see, but perhaps seeing the hoards of people shuffling through the cave is an even more fascinating site. The other, much smaller, caves around the Akiyoshidai area are much more interesting. Alas, we did not head to those other caves this time, due to lack of time, but Signe and I have vowed to return to take our friends exploring in the more adventurous caverns of the area come summer.
Our three hour trip from Hamada to Akiyoshidai started at around 9 AM at the train station, where we met up with our friends that stayed overnight in Hamada and one other ALT friend who had just retuned from a week in Hong Kong visiting relatives. After a light breakfast at a local coffee shop we headed south on Route 9 towards Yamaguchi. Route 9 is a two lane road that runs along the Japan Sea coast. It is one of the more populous roads in the area, and that day in particular it was extremely busy. This is in part because the 4th of May, in the middle of Golden Week, is perhaps the busiest travel day of the year. There are many popular tourist destinations in the route, like the Nima Sand Museum hosting the largest hourglass (more precisely a yearglass) in the world. Whenever we got into the general vicinity of one of these attractions the traffic slowed to a crawl, but the worst, by far, was at the very end of our journey.
You see, although the third largest limestone cave in the world is quite the attraction, what really draws families en mass to the region is Safari Land, a wild animal park where you can drive your car through the park and have animals that rightly belong in Africa or the Australian outback. Signe and I went there once when it was less crowded and it was fun, but expensive. About one mile from the turn into Safari Land the cars just stopped moving. At one point in the immovable queue, Signe, who was driving, left to go to the restroom and my companion and I did a Chinese fire drill, running around the car a few times to the eternal confusion of the Japanese drivers around us. After about a half an hour of waiting we passed Safari Land and headed on.
Our first stop was a nice Indian (the subcontinent, not the disenfranchised American masses) / Mexican restaurant that we had gone to the last time we were at Akiyoshidai. Their big thing for foreigners is that they sell tacos, but since they were busy, we ended up having the Indian daily lunch which was quite good in and of itself. Our next stop was also of a gastronomical variety. Right in the middle of Akiyoshidai there is a parking area, for hikers and sightseers, and the last time Signe and I were there, in high summer, there was a Turkish man selling homemade Turkish ice cream. Fortunately for us, he was there again today peddling his wares. I had a double cone with rosehip and pistachio, it was fantastic! One of my friends got a dark Turkish lager from the man and we shared the smooth foreign beer. It was nice to drink something different from the three standard Japanese beers: Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo.
After pleasing our palates we headed to the cavern itself. Signe opted to stay outside and do some gift shopping in the extremely large tourist shopping area outside the main cavern, which consists of shops of varying quality spanning two sides of a narrow and winding kilometer stretch before the entrance to the cave. After checking out the cave we met up with her and looked around ourselves, noting in one upscale shop, a half-life-sized sculpture of a half-naked woman carved in white marble for what would come to a half-a-year's pay. That, in itself, was not surprising. What was is that under closer inspection one of the arms of the statue had been broken and then a replacement, of a slightly different color off-white marble, had been grafted on to it. Once recognized, you cannot help but spot it, even from a distance. I would hate to have spent so much money on such a thing only to obsess over such a poor flaw. It would have been better to leave it off.
Most of the gifts, like our flawed marble friend, were stone-related. The most interesting stone we saw was titled a TV Stone, the technical name being Ulexite. This remarkable stone, when put up against something, anything, will perform the optical illusion of displaying what is behind the stone on its surface, making the background look as if it was on a television. Some of us bought some rocks, and other picked some off the ground for free, then we went on our way.
We split paths at this point, since the next day in Signe's and my Golden Week Extravaganza was to take us to Matsue, but the others were heading back early. We would meet up again with them on Friday evening for our final event of the trip, but for now we bid them, and Akiyoshidai, adieu.
Until next time, take care!