Travel

Above and below the Yamaguchi plains

by Mandy Bartok

Special To The Japan Times

Three meters above my head, the rectangular offering box of Motonosumi Inari Shrine seems impossibly out of my reach. For the 23rd time, I wind back my arm and attempt to lob my chosen donation between the narrow slats. For the 23rd time, the coin takes on a trajectory I’m certain I didn’t intend … and soars over the torii gate where the box balances and into the road.

“There’s probably a time limit to the luck, you know,” my husband mumbles from somewhere behind me. He, of course, launched his lucky coin into the offering box on the third or fourth try.

Despite his calm countenance, I can almost hear the tapping of his toes. My daughter, perched on a rock next to him, gives me a glassy-eyed stare of boredom. Even the stone fox statue beside her, an homage to the animal that allegedly convinced a local fisherman to construct this shrine back in 1956, bears a look that feels slightly condemning. Silently, I once again fling both flimsy coin and a string of unkind words at the offering box. This time, the money lands on top of the torii’s main support beam, a slight improvement in my opinion but not close enough.

Until early 2015, Motonosumi Shrine’s main claim to fame was this offering box, one of the most unusually placed of any shrine in the country. Then a CNN Travel article in late March listed this out-of-the-way location in the Nagato region of northern Yamaguchi Prefecture as one of the most beautiful sights in Japan, showcasing photos of its snake-like torii gate tunnel. The once sleepy byways that lead to the seaside shrine have certainly seen an uptick in traffic (though not yet an increase in useful directional signs), but on this late spring morning, the crowds are light enough to allow me innumerable attempts at my donation.

Around the 45th try, I finally hear the coin rattle into the depths of the offering box and pump my fist in victory. Only the unblinking gaze of the stone fox witnesses my accomplishment. My family has apparently long given up hope, already halfway along the twisting path of torii gates.

For a shrine that is only in its 6oth year, the 123 torii that lead to the ocean are clearly showing signs of severe weathering. A stack of new gates, with a fresh coat of vermilion coloring, sits halfway down the 100-meter-long path, primed to be inserted in the tunnel’s numerous gaps. The initial gates were placed here over the course of a decade. However, with the recent media attention, it seems the upgrades will be finished in much less time.

At the end of the torii tunnel, we pick our way carefully across the rocks to view the water. Pockets of what appear to be pink krill swirl around in the slightly rough seas, their lingering path pierced only by the occasional fisherman’s trawler. In a small cove, a diver makes repeated trips down to the ocean floor. We’re a fair distance away but judging from her long-handled knife and the size of the objects she continuously tosses in her floating basket, I’m willing to bet that she’s harvesting sea urchin. Northern Yamaguchi is known for the creamy delicacy and my stomach gives me a pointed reminder that lunch should be the next stop on the itinerary.

To our dismay, meal options are few and far between on the hour-long drive from Nagato’s coast to the Mine region in Yamaguchi’s interior. We eventually settle for a quick lunch at one of the massive gift shops lining the approach to Akiyoshi Cave. The room is packed with tour groups and harried servers but our kawara soba, a local specialty consisting of green-tea flavored noodles topped with shredded beef, egg and green onions served on a hot roof tile, cures our food cravings.

If Yamaguchi’s scenery is captivating above the crust of the Earth, it’s equally impressive below it. A narrow cut in the mountainous landscape, reached by a short covered bridge, is the unassuming entrance to what experts credit as the largest limestone cavern in East Asia. While the entire cave system stretches at least 10 km, only a short section of it is open to the public.

We pause just inside the gaping entrance to let our eyes adjust to the dim light. To our left, a handful of sure-footed visitors opts for the “high road,” a trail that runs near the roof of the cavern. With chains and iron studs embedded in the rock, it’s not the route for a family with a preschooler. Instead, we stick to the main path along the subterranean river, spotlights glinting off the glassy surface.

While Akiyoshi Cave boasts the typical stalactites and stalagmites of other subterranean chambers, the pattern of erosion here has created some highly irregular formations. Water gathers in massive indentations in the Hyakumaizara (Hundred Dinner Plates), a set of saucer-like pools. A large open area of terraced puddles resembles the above-ground hillside rice paddies for which it is named. Near the cave’s far entrance, the 15-meter-tall koganebashira (gold pillar), formed over the course of a millennia, towers over us mere mortals below.

Back on the surface, we bypass the kiosks selling rock jewelry and cave-related tchotchkes and drive the short distance up the road to the Akiyoshi Plateau. From the observation tower on the edge of the plateau, we’re treated to an otherworldly landscape of rocky outcrops and scrubby bush. Three hundred million years ago, this entire region sat under the sea, part of a vast coral reef. Water still plays a significant role here, incrementally weathering away the soft limestone rocks over the centuries. Only two or three trees dot the rolling landscape, lonely sentinels of an ostensibly barren land.

Sandy hiking trails crisscross the plateau and, armed with a map proffered by an enthusiastic volunteer guide, we set out into the brush. What appeared from a distance to be a rather uniform environment hides a surprising amount of wildflowers and insects. In winter, visitors are treated to a palette of earth tones, but spring has brought the exuberant emergence of green and with it, signs of animal life as well. There’s no shade from the strong afternoon sun on the paths, but we’re determined to put a little distance between us and the weekend crowds so we press on to a high point a few kilometers from the parking lot.

Twenty minutes further along the trail, we pause at a junction. From the hillock, I pivot a slow 360 degrees. The plateau stretches out before my gaze. Its rocky terrain undulates into the distance as far as my vision can track, a stony kingdom just begging to be explored.

The Nagato coastline is best reached by car. Signage for Motonosumi Shrine is limited, so a GPS is highly advisable. Parking is available on site. The Akiyoshi Cave is open year-round from 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. in winter); admission or adults is ¥1,200. The neighboring Akiyoshi Plateau can be reached via shuttle bus from any of the cave’s three entrances. Hiking maps (in Japanese only but easy to understand) are available at the plateau’s observation tower.