Northern Dragons

Hidden in the hills of Hitachiota is a massive sleeping dragon and its many earth-bound children. Famous as one of the longest suspension bridges in Japan, the Ryujin Gorge Suspension Bridge offers a local cultural highlight and breathtaking views of the region from atop its 375 meter span, and is definitely worth the trip for its seasonal events. Ryujin mural

The Ryujin (dragon-god) Gorge gets its name from the legends written about a dragon living within it, but as an interesting counterpoint the river dividing it is so twisted and undulating that it appears from the air as a giant coiled dragon itself. From these two intersecting threads came the dragon theme that was used to design and advertise the giant suspension bridge that has become the area’s largest attraction.

Originally built in 1994 as a tourist destination, the bridge itself features two tall stylized supports in a vivid blue, whose shape and aspect resemble the angular, spiky body of a reptilian creature. From afar the twin peaks of the structure could also be seen as the hips and shoulders of an elongated dragon stretched across the gap between the hills.

Ryujin suspension bridgeThough the bridge is capable of handling the weight of a car in an emergency situation, it is solely for pedestrian use and can accommodate up to 3500 people at one time. The main attraction, however, is the view of the green hills fading into the distance and the intricately woven river below. From the main entrance one can cross over to reach hiking trails leading either down into the gorge below or off to the other side of the hills, making for a full day excursion for the outdoor type.

There are also many decorative murals and statues featuring dragons, as well as food and drink amenities at the entrance end. Delicious raspberry ice cream or salted roast fish are some of the highlights available for those who want to eat outside. The opposite end of the bridge also features a small gazebo with a carillon inside; if you pay 100 yen you can choose whether to hear the ‘bell of hope’ or ‘bell of dreams’ theme, and receive a small commemorative picture card. For romantics there is the option to elect for the ‘bell of love’, but for this to work both of you have to press the button at the same time on opposite ends of the bridge!

Like most tourist destinations in Japan this bridge has an event for each season to give even more incentive to visit. Late April and May feature the koi nobori festival, a Japanese tradition where carp-shaped streamers are hung to celebrate the male children in a household. The Ryujin bridge takes this concept to new heights (literally!) by stringing two long cables of these streamers along both sides, framing the bridge with the colorful flapping fish. Originally these cables were set up by having two people climb down opposite sides of the gorge and tie their ropes in the middle, then pulling the cables across; more recently they pass the cables outside the support struts of the bridge to make it less arduous. This tradition has been celebrated here long before the bridge was even built; in fact, the cables were originally strung across to announce the bridge’s proposed construction, and someone has the idea of adding the carp-streamers, leading to the custom we see today.

Summer brings a different set of thrills, with hundreds of candle lanterns adorning the bridge and the sound of wind chimes filling the air during the third week of August, while autumn is renowned for the gorgeous fall colors of the leaves on the hills surrounding the bridge. Winter features the Suifu Soba Festival, a chance to enjoy the freshly harvested local delicacy, and once or twice a year one can see the bridge covered in delicate snow or frost.

Ryujin suspension bridgeThe approach to the bridge is dotted with little soba shops and parking lots, and children will love the plexiglass viewing windows in the floor of the bridge that allow you to see straight down the 100 meter drop to the river below. Public transportation is not quite as convenient as one could wish for, but there are buses roughly once an hour from Hitachiota Station on the Suigun Line and it is a relatively easy twenty minute walk up the hill from the Ryujin Suspension Bridge stop. The site is closed during heavy winds or thunderstorms, but is otherwise open all year round, so there is always a good time to visit Ibaraki’s northern dragons.

Advertisements

Everything Under the Sun

Would you believe that Ibaraki was once considered a paradise on earth? That there was a scary giant who lived on shellfish, lovers who turned into trees, and parental visits from the gods? It seems hard to reconcile with the office workers and exhaust fumes we see today, but according to the Hitachinokuni Regional Cartograph (or Fudoki in Japanese) this was how Ibaraki was viewed back in the day. As 2013 marks the 1300th year since the Hitachinokuni Fudoki was commissioned it is now possible to see parts of it on display and learn more about the fascinating world of yesteryear.

Yamato no Takeru

The origins of the Fudoki lie in the early Nara period of Japanese history, when the Minister of the Right (the second-ranking minister at the Imperial Court) commissioned five of them for each outlying region of interest. Hitachinokuni, currently Ibaraki, was one such region, and the minister’s son, Fujiwara no Umakai, was selected as both the regional administrator and the author of this epic undertaking. The court was interested in how much tax they could collect, the populations, customs, geographic features, origins of place-names, and local folklore, among other things, and Umakai is said to have conducted many personal interviews to research his work.

Fudoki

Part of the reason Umakai was chosen was due to his excellent writing skills, as well as his parentage; he is the most prolific poet of the Kaifuso poetry collection, and was proficient in the four- and six-character expressions that the Fudoki would need to be written in. Unfortunately, the originals of the Fudoki no longer exist, as each time they began to age they were copied by a new author who chose which parts to include or remove. What remains today are the prints of metal plates made in the early 1800s and a hand-copied text from a similar time, but both are extremely well-preserved and historical treasures in their own right.

CIMG4891

Currently parts of the Fudoki are on display at the Joyo Shiryokan in Mito’s Bizen-cho, along with explanations (as no modern-day Japanese speakers can read the original language) and displays to illustrate the lifestyle of the period. This exhibit focuses on the foods, dwellings, and garments of the Ibaraki of 1300 years ago, with recreations and relics to spur the imagination, but also delves into the colorful folk history. Legends about folk hero Yamato no Takeru, stories about the Daidara giant who lived near Oarai (where a large statue of him can still be seen) and lived on shellfish, a pair of lovers who turned into intertwined pine branches when caught embracing, there is much to enjoy for those who delight in myth.

Daidara

Of particular interest are the origins of place-names, in particular those of Hitachinokuni and Ibaraki. at the time Ibaraki’s coast was the easternmost part of the region governed by the Imperial court, and therefore seemed to be the place the sun rose first in the morning. This is why Ibaraki became known as the ‘place of the sun’s departure’, or Hi-Tachi (sun-departure). It was also thought to be a paradise on earth because of its abundant arable land and produce, balance of mountains, plains, and ocean, and cooler climate, which is why it came to be called Joyo, or ‘the enduring world’, after a concept of paradise or the afterlife popular at the time.

CIMG4902

Meanwhile, the name Ibaraki comes from a tale about a bandit and his downfall. A vicious marauder had been terrorizing the countryside, and an official was dispatched to remove the threat. This lord built a keep surrounded by thorn bushes and sealed off all the exits, trapping the bandit inside and ending his dominion, and Ibara-Ki (thorn-castle) was born.

All in all, the Fudoki is an excellent glimpse at the origins of the Ibaraki we know today, and filled with interesting legends and details that flesh out a history not so well known. The display at the Shiryokan is just the beginning, so don’t worry if you can’t make it out before it ends on May 19th; a listing of other regional events is already posted, so take a look for something near you. You may be surprised at the kinds of things you learn about your everyday scenery.