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Wednesday, Nov. 3, 1999

Autumn leaves and legends of Kyushu's farthest mountains


By STEPHANIE GARTELMANN

GOKANOSHO, Kumamoto Pref. -- The tiny community of Gokanosho (made up of five hamlets, hence its name) is virtually in the center of Kyushu. Draw an imaginary semicircle arching inland from the Kumamoto-Hitoyoshi expressway, and Gokanosho will be in the middle.

The area is known for its deep forests, steep mountain ravines, splendid autumn foliage, all making for good hiking on its mountain trails. Admire the long, tumbling Sendan-Todoro Waterfall, the historic houses Zozake and Ogatake, and the museum Gokanosho Heike-no-Sato. Camp or stay the night at a local ryokan and feast on mountain trout, mushrooms, and soba noodles. Continue to historic Yabe town, or another hike, the next day.

It's possible to visit Gokanosho in one day from Kyushu's main cities, but only with an early start and a late return. You'll have to drive. Part of the reason for the area's unspoiled beauty is that there are few roads leading here, only a handful of tourist facilities, and no public transport.

Brilliant autumn leaves should peak in color from now until late November. The forests surrounding Umenoki Todoro Park and Sendan-Todoro Waterfall are particularly beautiful. Taut suspension bridges cross the steep ravines at each park to provide expansive views -- and give you the feeling that each bouncy step could fling you into the tumbling rivers below.

The twin suspension bridges at Momigi also provide stunning views. Descend the mossy stone stairs at each end of the ravine, down through the chill of the mountains to the wide, rocky river that slices the landscape in fast twists and turns. It is filled with plump river trout, and calm enough in some places, such as Tatekami, to swim in during summer.

Nearby at Momigi is the extremely well-presented Gokanosho Heike-no-Sato museum and attached garden, where illustrated displays of historical scenes, using beautiful paper cutouts in elaborate layers, tell you a little of Gokanosho's history.

Like most pockets of countryside in Japan, Gokanosho has its own old tales to tell. The area was once, the mountain hideaway of the sons of 9th-century scholar and statesman Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), who was falsely accused of treason by his rivals, the powerful Fujiwara family, and exiled from Kyoto to Dazaifu, the government administrative center for Kyushu (a short distance outside present-day Fukuoka), where he died. Subsequently, to placate his vengeful spirit, the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine was built, and remains today one of Japan's most important patron shrines for academic success.

Michiizane's sons, hearing that their own arrest had been ordered, changed their names and fled to the mountains of Gokanosho, arriving in 923. The brothers had enough allies here to maintain some upper-class privileges, but they never returned to Kyoto. Their descendants still live in the area, and have reached over 40 generations in some branches of the family. Zozake, the family home, has been beautifully reconstructed and is definitely worth visiting.

Close by, another historic home, Ogatake, was built when a handful of Taira family survivors took refuge here, after their final defeat by the Minamoto forces at the battle of Dannoura in 1185. Ogatake was destroyed by a fire in 1878 and has been completely rebuilt. Both houses seem ageless: framed in forested perfection, they have thatched roofs and spacious interiors with irori hearths and latticed wooden partitions.

Every year, an autumn festival pays tribute to Gokanosho's history, with performances of biwa music and noh. The highlight is the ancient Kureko dance on Nov. 3; originally a mournful lament of the Taira's downfall, it used drums, flutes, cymbals, and dark costumes for a somber effect. Today, the music's minor tones remain, but female dancers and flowers have been added for a more festive feel. This weekend (Nov. 6-7), a komori-uta (lullaby) festival at nearby Itsuki will show another face of the Heike nobles.

Gokanosho is also fused with its own, older culture: that of the mountains of Kyushu, and their gods. Upcoming festivals include New Year's Onibitaki ("demon's bonfire") festival, and the kagura dances of autumn.

On the world map, Japan is tiny, but it will take longer than you think to hike the hills around Gokanosho. It's a fact that 80 percent of Japan's population lives in cities, even though most of the island is made up of mountains. It stands to reason that peace can be found in the mountains.

Take Kyushu Exp. to Matsubashi IC, then Rte. 218 and turn right at Sanwa to Rte. 445. Sundays during the autumn leaf-viewing season are so congested that parts of the narrow mountain road become one-way only. For maps and information about camping, hiking and accommodation, call Fureai Center Izumi (0965) 67-3500.



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