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Hau Boon Lai
Tuesday, Jul 15, 2014

Travel

Ancient marvels

The Straits Times | Hau Boon Lai | Tuesday, Jul 15, 2014

It began with a massive eruption at least 90,000 years ago at the nearby Mount Aso, Japan's largest active volcano. Water from the Gokase River then took its time eroding the lava to carve out one of the most scenic spots in Japan - the Takachiho Gorge. Located in the south-western island of Kyushu, the Takachiho area is ancient. As my taxi takes its time around the hairpin bends in the road to get to the Gorge and its 100m-tall red-tinted cliffs, I can see how the area has earned its name as the epicentre of Japanese mythology.

Filled with waterfalls and set amid Kyushu's atmospheric mountains, the Gorge and its surroundings are picture-perfect as a place where gods cavorted.

The Takachiho area has a population of 15,000, but attracts some 1.5 million visitors a year. Domestic travellers form the overwhelming majority of visitors. They often come on what is described in the brochures as a spiritual journey to see where the exploits of Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess from whom the Japanese royal family claims its lineage, and others from among Japan's pantheon of Shinto dieties, are supposed to have taken place according to myth.

While nature has provided a setting fit for the gods, the hands of man have helped to make it easier for mere mortals among us to make our way more easily around the Gorge. There is a 600m-long walking trail, as well as carparks near the inevitable temples along the trail.

At the starting point of the Gorge where the Manai waterfall is, rowing boats can be rented for 2,000 yen (S$24.50) per half hour. It is well worth it to get close to the waterfall, or to make your way to the quiet parts where you can commune with nature, even if it's just for a few minutes.

I do not row very far that day, for my stomach reminds me of my mundane need for nutrition.

There are only two eating places, teahouses located side by side near the boat rental kiosk. Both serve a divine dish - the nagashi soumen, or flowing noodles.

For 500 yen (S$6.13), customers get a dipping sauce and chopsticks to catch the clusters of noodles as they are released in water flowing down a bamboo shaft cut in half.

The noodles, which taste like a cross between soba and Hokkien mee sua, are really good - remaining al dente even after they have been dipped in the sauce for some time, which is what happens when one is preoccupied with catching one's food.

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