The already cloudy sky darkens perceptibly as our car descends into Takachiho Gorge. This area of extreme scenic beauty — carved out of the earth by lava flow from Kyushu's volatile Mount Aso and further eroded by local rivers such as the Gokase — is already fairly hidden, in an untrampled corner of northern Miyazaki Prefecture. Yet the lower we go in elevation, the more it seems as if the rest of the world has disappeared completely. I feel like we're trapped in a geological time capsule, locked between ancient rock walls.

The forces of nature are powerful things and they've done some of their best work in Takachiho Gorge. Sheer rock cliffs reach heavenward, flat as glass in some areas and ribbed like a folding fan in others. Laid helter-skelter across the top are stacks of stony layers, calling to mind a geological sandwich.

Trapped between the cliffs, the teal-colored water of the Gokase River lends an ethereal air to the scene. Aside from the tourist shops selling ice cream and trinkets, the setting feels torn from some picture book on prehistoric eras. Each drip of water down the well-weathered walls seems to echo the refrain, "old, old, old."