The road has thankfully just widened — and by that I mean it’s more than 2 meters across — when we meet our first oncoming car.
I’ve been dreading this moment since we turned onto Route 445, a twisting “highway” that leads up into the mountains of Gokanosho in southern Kumamoto Prefecture. On an island not particularly known for its autumn colors, the Gokanosho region serves up some stunning foliage to Kyushu denizens. So impressive are the leaves that thousands flock here over a few weekends in late October and November, making the treacherous mountain lanes a serious test of one’s driving skills. On a few select days in November, a brigade of citizen volunteers turns out to enforce a route of one-way roads, easing the congestion on the narrow byways. Unfortunately, we’re here the day before the rules are enforced, and it’s time to test my vehicular capabilities.
My traveling companion and I simultaneously draw in our breaths (my toddler is blessedly oblivious to our situation), as we ease our car as close to the road’s edge as possible. On one side there is sheer rock face; on the other, a rusty guardrail is all that stands between us and a precipitous drop into the forested valley. I want to turn my head and admire the fiery maples on the next ridge over but not until I know the passing Toyota won’t take off my side mirror as it slides by.
There might be roads now — albeit tiny ones — but the Gokanosho region still feels as impenetrable as it must have been at the end of the 12th century, when remnants of the Heike clan (also called the Taira) straggled into the mountain passes in search of a safe haven. Having been on the losing end of the Battle of Dan-no-ura in 1185 with their rivals, the Genji clan (also known as the Minamoto), the option for the few family members that remained was extinction at the hands of their enemies or flight. Those that could do so chose to run, spreading to the far corners of Honshu, Kyushu and even crossing the Inland Sea to Shikoku. Today, a few of Japan’s more rural pockets still lay claim to old Heike villages.
It’s a long, white-knuckled 15 km to the top of the mountain pass, and we catch our breath with a posse of motorcyclists at a farm stand selling freshly gathered shiitake mushrooms. From under all the produce, a vendor unearths a long-sought-after map of the region, and we weigh our options against the remaining hours of daylight. Swayed by the possibility of two lane roads, we head south and let the mountains swallow us up again.
A brief stretch of easy driving brings us to the Umenoki Todoro suspension bridge, a mostly solid-under-the-feet construction that spans a gorge peppered with autumn hues. I keep my toddler’s hand firmly entrenched in mine as I attempt shot after digital shot to capture the beauty of the scene but my camera screen shows only a pale imitation of the palette my eyes can see.
On the far side of the bridge, a sign urges us to trek just a bit further to see the Umenoki Todoro waterfall. We plod along — my 2-year-old fancies herself quite the hiker lately — but it’s a pace that suits us all. The promised waterfall is a treat to be savored and we welcome the cool air and occasional spray of mist that rolls over us as we climb the slicks stairs to the pool below the cascade. Here, too, the scene is enhanced by maples boasting leaves at the peak of their colorful death. I begin to wonder if my camera’s memory card will have enough space to last the day.
From the bridge, we join a line of cars snaking its way carefully to the few actual villages of the area. Gokanosho technically refers to the five “main” communities of the region, though in reality the total number of residents barely tops 400. While it’s possible to see more of the individual hamlets themselves on an overnight stay in a traditional minshuku (guesthouse), day trippers will probably be satisfied with a stop at the beautifully-situated Heike no Sato museum.
It’s well past noon by the time we lay claim to our space in the museum parking lot and trudge up the hill in search of food. There is nary a convenience store on these winding back roads and aside from tables and tables of mushrooms, the lunch offerings to this point have been incredibly slim. Which is why we’re more than willing to wait an extra five or ten minutes at Sansai restaurant, the museum’s one and only eatery.
“Have a seat on the engawa (the wooden veranda),” the hurried waitress says and we settle in, our eyes boggling at the vibrancy of the foliage directly across the path. It’s not long until a table frees up and only a short wait more until we’re happily slurping bowls of hand-cut soba noodles in a broth thick with — you guessed it — mushrooms. The accompanying plate of tempura gives new understanding to the restaurant’s name — which means “edible wild plants” — piled as it is with battered mountain vegetables.
Had we made this journey a week before, we may have caught part of the kagura dances performed every year on the first weekend in November at the museum’s shrine. Today, the shrine and its surroundings are silent, a mere backdrop upstaged by the stunning foliage. The neighboring museum building offers insights into the history of Gokanosho, though explanations are only provided in Japanese. From what I can glean, these mountains not only sheltered the Heike, but they also provided refuge a few centuries prior to the sons of scholar Sugiwara no Michizane, who had been banished from the royal court in Kyoto at the dawn of the 10th century. While Michizane’s remaining short life was spent as a minor official in the city of Dazaifu (Fukuoka Prefecture), his sons sought to avoid their own arrest orders and forced deportation by fleeing to this corner of central Kyushu.
From Heike no Sato, it’s a short jaunt down the road to the twin Momigi suspension bridges, where we’re greeted by even more views of ravines, rivers and perfectly primed foliage. With fewer safety measures in place — and considerably more sway — I pop my daughter into her carrier and we venture out onto the bridge. The gorge here is cut by a sizable river and while paths do actually lead to the water’s edge, we prefer the vistas from high above. I keep thinking I’ll tire of pulling out my camera but the moment has yet to come.
A few kilometers on, I pull over once more as questions of navigation force us to give the map some considerable study. The drawings are crude and we can’t quite locate our position. Our phones have no service, so GPS is equally useless. We’re in the middle of nowhere, cut off from the world, and I finally begin to see why the Heike chose this as their ultimate sanctuary. For ourselves, we know we’ll be back in civilization by nightfall. But for a just a few minutes, we shut off the car, stare at the crimson leaves and relish being in a part of Japan so utterly lost to the rest of the world.
Getting there: Gokanosho is best accessed by car from the Matsubase exit of the Kyushu Expressway, though driving on days when the roads are not enforced as one way is not for the faint of heart. All of the area’s suspension bridges are free to cross. The Heike no Sato museum is ¥400.