Slow food and fast water in a rural corner of Kumamoto

by Mandy Bartok

Special To The Japan Times

It starts off as a dull roar, prompting those of us sitting in the rice paddies to look skyward in anticipation. Then it builds, in the same way an orchestra tunes its instruments: first discordantly out of key before reaching a crescendo of perfect pitch. At noon exactly, the water pours forth and the old Tsujunkyo aqueduct is alive once more.

To the untrained eye, it seems an odd place for a bridge. The large stone structure, built in the mid-19th century, spans a considerable valley, though the river that cuts through the area beneath the bridge is only 3 or 4 meters wide. But spanning the divide was not Tsujunkyo’s true purpose.

Located in a rural corner of Kumamoto Prefecture, the Shiraito Plain suffered for years from crippling droughts and numerous failures of its rice crops, and in 1854, local village chief Yasunosuke Futa spearheaded the building of an aqueduct as a way to divert water to the area from the Sasahara River, a little more than 9 km away. The work took nearly two years to complete and involved more than 30,000 laborers and masons. Even today, more than 100 hectares of land on the Shiraito Plain benefit from the water that runs through the aqueduct system.

On weekends from late spring to late fall, a daily demonstration of the bridge’s impressive water distribution system takes place at midday and lasts for nearly 30 minutes. From our initial vantage point on the riverbank below the bridge, we marvel over the thundering cascade before winding our way up the steep hillside path. Although the top of the bridge is wide and flat, we inch our way carefully to the midway point, carefully gripping the hand of our toddler whose enthusiasm for the view supplants any sense of danger. Uncovered portions of the piping system allow visitors to witness the aqueduct in action.

Due to major discrepancies in elevation between the land supplying the water and the land being served, a reverse siphon system raises the low-lying water up to the pipes. The powerful display of water flowing back over the sides of the bridge actually has no benefit for the surrounding fields; it merely serves as a way to dislodge any sand and gravel that builds up in the pipes. I’m no engineer but the process is fascinating.

As the display finishes, and the water reduces from a constant stream to a trickle, we cross the bridge and go in search of a more permanent chute. Most visitors stop at the cabin on the far side of the bridge, but we continue on into the nearby bamboo grove.

The path down through the forest is muddy but clearly marked and we end up toting our toddler on our hips for the last 10 minutes before the path leads us up to picnic tables and an enviable vista. Across the narrow valley, the Gorogataki Waterfall thunders down into a churning pool. Against a backdrop of rock — molded by lava from the volcanic activity of the nearby Mount Aso — a hazy rainbow cuts through the mist. Shockingly, we are the only ones here, while mere meters away, crowds swarm the area around the aqueduct. A nearby signboard indicates that we’re not the only witnesses to have enjoyed the scene, however. Lords from the Mount Aso domain once brought envoys from the Imperial Court here. Their descriptions of the natural wonder, using the old honorific phrasing gorani natta that means “we saw,” influenced the waterfall’s eventual name.

The path leads across a suspension bridge and up the opposite hill through rice paddies. The fields are golden with harvest-ready rice and we see several farmers out cutting the sheaves. In a few paddies, wooden drying racks sport bundles of rice stalks that have been set out to dry in the sun. Both the exercise and the sight of food give my stomach cause to remind me of the late hour.

With impeccable timing, we stumble across a local farmer as we head back to the parking lot. With leaflets in hand, he regales us with descriptions of the local produce and shares pictures of beautifully prepared bentos (prepared lunch boxes).

“It’s not a restaurant,” he keeps insisting. “You’ll eat in a house.”

A bit unsure as to what that actually entails, we let our stomachs make the decision and join the line of other vehicles making their way down the 15 km of road to the Kan Alishan restaurant and cafe. We wait outside the main building as our lunches are picked up, before following an employee down the road to a stand-alone farmhouse and left on the doorstep.

An elderly woman leads us into what must double as her living room and serves us tea, with cold towels to wipe our hands. Within minutes, she has finished putting the finishing touches on our meal and we’re served a lunch box of local specialties. Besides staples such as rice with black sesame seeds, tofu and the Kumamoto delicacy of karashi renkon (lotus root stuffed with spicy mustard), we’re treated to a parade of little bites ranging from simmered shitake mushrooms to dried persimmons. Menus change based on the season. Summer, for example, is prime time for bitter gourd and butterbur, while spring menus are loaded with bamboo and young greens. A colorful artist’s rendering of our bento is served with the meal, both informative in its accompanying descriptions and an attractive souvenir of what we ate.

Despite the occasional language barrier, we engage our host in conversation. We learn this is merely one of nearly a dozen farms that opens their doors to diners. The idea is to make a connection between the land and the people, she explains, while gesturing to the rice paddies outside the door that, no doubt, have played a role in supplying our bentos. Most food in the 21st century is served so anonymously, in restaurants that are far from the farms where the majority of the ingredients were sourced. Here, at Kan Alishan, nearly everything on the plate has come from this corner of the prefecture.

When I ask our host if her family will continue in the restaurant co-op, operated by the local farms in the area, she smiles wistfully. “Our sons left to live in the city,” she explains, mentioning one has gone as far as Tokyo. “The farm will likely end with us.” I can empathize with her offspring for escaping to the excitement of a metropolis but there is a palpable sense of loss that this worthwhile venture might not continue.

As she leaves us with our dessert of freshly roasted kuri (chestnuts), we stare out at the rolling countryside. The solid stones of Tsujunkyo up the road give the illusion of permanence in an ever-changing world. But here, in a farm that may not last another decade, the sense of the fleeting makes our homegrown meal taste that much sweeter.

Getting there: Tsujunkyo is near Yabe, a town in the southeastern corner of Kumamoto Prefecture. A free parking lot is available on site and there is no cost to view the midday water display (from March to November only). Kan Alishan is a 10-minute drive from the Tsujunkyo bridge and their current menu can be viewed at www.satoyama-suge.com.

  • Norikazu Wada

    Heartwarming story filled with humorous rendition.