Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

May 13, 2012

The Nunobiki Falls, Kobe

One of the weirdest Shinkansen stations is without a doubt Shinkobe. The station building hangs on the side of Mt Rokko, above the city, with only a green mountain at the back. The trains arrive and depart via long tunnels bored in that same mountain. Right under the station a river comes cascading down the slope, the Ikuta, which flows towards Kobe Bay.

But Shinkobe also demonstrates the maxim that you can't be closer to nature in any other big city in Japan than here in Kobe. From the center of Kobe, Sannomiya or Motomachi, it is only a fifteen min walk to the entrance of one of the many trails that lead up Mt Rokko. Once you are on the mountain, the city falls away and you are enveloped in green.

Nunobiki Falls, Kobe
[Path to the Nunobiki Falls behind Shinkobe Station]

One of the best places to experience this is behind Shinkobe station. The trail starts here with a road leading under the station to its back (on the right hand side of the station when you stand in front of it), but after a few houses and a bridge the mountain path starts in earnest. The path leads all the way up the mountain, but many people only go halfway to see the splendor of the famous Nunobiki Falls.

There are two falls, the Medaki, or Female Falls, near Nunobiki Park just under the main path before it gets steep (you get there via a branch path that actually leads down), and the Odaki or larger and more impressive Male Falls higher up the mountain. The Odaki roars and tumbles down a sheer wall of rock for 43 metres and splashes into a rocky basin. And that only half an hour from a major city center!

Nunobiki Falls, Kobe (Otaki)
[Odaki Falls, Nunobiki, Kobe]

The Nunobiki Falls used to be counted among the three most famous falls in Japan, with the Kegon Falls in Nikko and the Nachi Falls in southern Wakayama. Certainly in the premodern period they were the subject of legends and tales (they were considered as a male and female deity with all the ensuing romance), as well as poetry.

In fact, throughout the ages, Nunobiki figured in a great number of waka poems, 36 of which were inscribed on monuments along the path at the initiative of a group of literature-minded citizens. That was already in 1872, but those stones withered and decayed, and were replaced in 1934 by 18 new ones. Recent additions have brought the total number to 31.

Nunobiki Falls, Kobe
[Poetry stone near the Odaki Falls, Nunobiki, Kobe]

This information about the kahi or "waka stones" stems from a nice booklet called The Poems of the Nunobiki Falls, written by (Kobe resident) David Farrah with Michio Nakano (2003). The author translates all Nunobiki poems (he finds 43 in all) and even adds two of his own, one in Japanese and one in English.

Reading the poems one after another is a nice exercise in poetical conventions, especially thematically. "Nunobiki" means "cloth-pulling" and not surprisingly the white stripe of water reminds the poets of cloth being stretched to bleach, cloth that of course is the dress of the mountain goddess. This is the major association, upon which many small variations are played out - for example: how can the cloth be bleached in rainy weather? Another poet comes in autumn and to him the scarlet of the maple trees forms Nunobiki's dress, rather than the white cloth of the Falls.

Nunobiki Falls, Kobe (Metaki)
[Medaki Falls, Nunobiki, Kobe]

Other poets write they saw a cloud on the mountain slope which on closer inspection proved to be the thundering waterfall. In fog the falls cannot be seen, but their roaring sound all the more fills the ears. Again other poets compare the falls to a necklace of pearls, or, more sentimentally, see an association between the countless waterdrops and their own tears.

The Nunobiki Falls also figure in the Tales of Ise (Ise Monogatari) where a famous poem by the 9th c. legendary poet Ariwara no Narihira is quoted - the monument of this poem stands near the Odaki Falls. In my own free translation:
the white gems
scatter down
as from a broken necklace
I want to catch them
but find my sleeves too narrow

[nuki midaru / hito koso aru rashi / shiratama no / ma naku mo chiru ka / sode no semaki ni]
My favorite poem is written on a stone halfway up the 160 rocksteps with which the ascent starts. It is by the 12th c. priest-poet Jakuren and thundering in its Zenlike stillness - here is my own (rather free) translation:
the roar of the Falls
encased
in mute ice
now you hear
the wind in the pine trees

[iwabashiru / oto wa kori ni / tozasarete / matsukaze otsuru / Nunobiki no Taki]
In other words, thanks to the fact that the famous big roaring sound has been stopped because the Falls are frozen - a cold stilness like that of meditation -, can the much subtler sound of the wind in the pine trees be heard - an experience that is close to satori.
Access: 15 min walk from Shinkobe Station.