Samurai, Ninja, the 48 Waterfalls of Akame, and a long-voweled monster

A brief preview of what’s to come…

Waterfall with sunlight, Akame 48 Waterfalls

What’s more scary than double consonants in Japanese?  Long vowels.  Shorten a long vowel accidentally and you’re calling someone “devil” and not “older brother”, or worse.  Sometimes I feel like the samurai Hanagami Danjo no jo Arakage fighting off a gigantic salamander when it comes to wrestling Japanese vowels.

The samurai Hanagami Danjo no jo Arakage in Izumo stabbing a giant salamander with his short sword, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Last Friday morning, I said goodbye to Tatsuya’s family, thanked him for the fantastic tour of Kanagawa, and wielding my JR rail pass, I boarded a Shinkansen toward Shiga Prefecture, where I was picked up at Kawake Station by Ira, Yuka, and Nakajima-san. This part of Shiga is proud of its samurai heritage and does not allow ordinary humans in the restroom: you must either be a samurai princess, or a samurai, to enter. (NHK, the national TV station, broadcasts a historical fiction drama about three samurai princesses from the nearby village.)

Restrooms for samurai princesses and samurai

Ira was moving out of Tane on Sunday, but he and Yuka graciously offered to host me in the abandoned house they were renting. Yuka had prepared a beautiful meal, including another herbal soup, bacon-wrapped okra, and local Tane-grown rice. The black eggs of Owakudani survived the train ride from Kanagawa, and made an appearance at dinner as a rather unique omiyage from Kanagawa Prefecture.

Dinner

My roommate for the weekend was a praying mantis, trained to ride around on Ira’s shoulder.

Ira's pet

The next morning I woke up to the smell of Yuka’s cooking as she prepared a bento lunch of rice grown just down the road with beans, tomatoes, and peppers from the garden.

Tane "eki" obento

I borrowed a bicycle and peddled for a half hour down to the train station in the early morning light, watching clouds gather over Lake Biwa.

Biwako and rice fields at 6:30 am

Trainside buddha

Switching trains twice I arrived in Iga, a city at the center of Mie-ken, famous for being home to one of Japan’s two schools of ninjutsu, the art of being a ninja.

Iga capitalizes on its ninja history: every spring there’s a ninja festival held in the city, and you can get a free train ride during that time if you’re dressed as a ninja. The city council even holds a meeting while wearing full ninja costume, known as the Ninja Congress (忍者議会). Even the trains are painted with ninja murals created by a famous manga artist; you can pose with a smaller version at some stations.

Pose here for photos with the ninja train

The train stations are also infested with ninja warriors, ready to swoop down and pounce upon unsuspecting travelers.

Ninja at the train station

Some ninja in the rafters, however, were off duty and taking it easy.

Relaxing ninja

While you could see the ninja castle of Iga Uneo from the train, visiting the ninja capital of Mie wasn’t the main item on the day’s agenda.

Iga Ueno ninja castle

I met up with Stefan, a friend visiting Iga on business, and we continued south from Iga to an area called Akame 48 Waterfalls, or Akame Shijuhachi Taki.  The name “Akame”, or “Red Eye”, comes from a legend of a fire Buddha astride a red-eyed ox (or horse) appearing a man performing ritual washings in the cold river.

Akame had the usual cartoon map, with figures wearing ninja costumes.  (How many memes can you possibly cram into one map?)

Akameguchi map, with Ōsanshōuo dressed as ninja

What are those creatures? Japan is home to a species of giant salamander, オオサンショウウオ, which is written in romaji as ōsanshōuo, with two long vowels plus an extra “oooo-OH!” at the end for good measure. I’ve never seen so many instances of o and u in a Japanese word. Trying to wrangle the long vowels of the ōsanshōuo’s name is probably just as hard as picking of these creatures up: they can grown to almost a meter and a half in length, and are known as the “giant pepper fish” because of the peppery odor they emit when threatened.

The entrance to Akame 48 Waterfalls had a collection of captive salamanders from around the world, including one of the local ōsanshōuo, about a meter in length. (Some folks in Tane reported seeing one of the newts in the nearby mountain streams, but I didn’t hear how big it was.)

Ōsanshōuo (オオサンショウウオ or 大山椒魚)

Another large newt

Akame is known for a stretch of creek with waterfall after waterfall dropping down though a valley made of what looks like columnar basalt.  According to geologist Andy Wickert, it’s hard to tell in situ whether the rocks are columnar or not:

The reason for the confusion is that while the valley walls are definitely columnar, the valley floor has a different fracture pattern. That could be because of topography when the flow came down from the volcano, or because of fracturing due to what the river was doing to the bed (or riparian vegetation)… [T]he walls are definitely columnar, which shows the orientation in which the basalt free surface was when it cooled.

The rocks surrounding the waterfalls came from an erupting volcano, which spewed lava into a valley. As the lava cooled, it contracted, forming vertical cracks that started at the outside of the flow and eventually giant hexagonal columns. The columns are in what appears to be their original vertical orientation, so it’s likely that this valley hasn’t been shifted by earthquakes or fault movements since it formed. Over the eons, rushing water eroded the columns of volcanic rock, carving the valley and giving form to Akame 48 Waterfalls. For more on columnar basalt joints, there’s an article from Hohonu and great collection of columnar basalt photos (Led Zeppelin, anyone?).

Columnar joints

Basalt

Enough with the geology talk; let’s look at some waterfall photos. Akame doesn’t discriminate when it comes to waterfalls: there’s short, squat, tall, narrow, wide… enough variety to suit any waterfall connoisseur.

Waterfall with sunlight, Akame 48 Waterfalls

Narrow stream

Sunlit gorge

Reflected stream

Deep pool at the base of the falls

Intense greens of Akame 48 Waterfalls

Long exposure falls

The trail moved away from the creek, and we entered a dense wood of thin cedar trees, canopies dark in the afternoon light.

Into the woods

The trail ended at a little shop at a forest road, but the map indicated another road or trail might continue on past the terminus, so we wandered along the road until we came to something that looked like a logging trail, just big enough to accommodate a Kei truck. At this point, the trail became more of a suggestion than an actual path, with rotting logs laid along the route, which coincided with a tiny creek.

Cedar and stream

Slipping in mud holes, we came to the base of a cliff covered in cedar trees and tiny bamboo plants. Some of the cedars were leaning away from the hill.

Bent trees

Bending into the bamboo

Scrambling up the cliff, we came to a slightly marked trail at the crest of a little ridge.

We climbed up that

We continued on the trail for a bit, finding the forest black from the thick trees extending off into the gathering gloom.

Forest so thick it's black

Eventually, we made it back to the road proper, but the entrance to the trail wasn’t marked—I don’t think we would have found the trail had we gone up the official route.

Back at the entrance to the falls, a cluster of omiyage shops marked the trail entrance. I picked up a cell phone charm complete with a tiny ninja, ōsanshōuo, and two happy maple leaves (momiji), as well as a shirt, but alas, it was too small, so I gave it to my host family’s granddaughter in Tane.

Fall in love, Akame 48

Stefan’s photos (he actually had a tripod for the waterfall shots!) are here, and more waterfall pictures are in a slideshow here. Count me as fallen in love with the 48 waterfalls of Akame.

One thought on “Samurai, Ninja, the 48 Waterfalls of Akame, and a long-voweled monster

  1. Thank you for your commentary and wonderful pictures. It might interest you to know that the waterfalls are known among ninja enthusiasts as an ancient training area for ninja. They all trained there, as well as the Iga castle grounds; the castle itself being a former ninja recruitment center.

    For more interesting places to visit in Iga check out

    http://iganinja.jp/en/place/index.html

    Enjoy!

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