THE LAST SIGHT OF ‘THE COPPER BEECHES’ or TANESUHARA DANGERS
As I have tried to explain many times before, the area in the Niigata mountains which is also named as ‘Yamakoshimura’ (translated as Yamakoshi Village) does not really exist as a village. There is no such place as ‘Yamakoshi village’. Instead Yamakoshi is an isolated ‘area’ in the Niigata mountains which encompasses some seven square miles by seven square miles – not large by any standards.
Instead the entire area is mostly countryside but it is also the home of many small villages within it. There are huge areas of pampas grass and evergreen tree forests on the mountainsides together with many rice paddies and Nishikigoi mud ponds which are easy to view from our moving vehicle.
However, there are many villages just outside of the area designated as Yamakoshi which also house many other very important Nishikigoi producers. Many Nishikigoi breeders in the entire area have warned me, strongly, about the presence of small, yet dangerous, black bears in the mountains and many less dangerous wild monkeys. However, up to now, I have never witnessed seeing either of these creatures in real life. One can also see many less dangerous and timid raccoons throughout the area which are known as ‘Tanuki’.
Yamakoshimura still remains a dangerous place to travel through despite the enormous road and countryside repairs carried out after the Chuetsu earthquake in 2004. However, today it is almost identical as to what it is was back then, despite the ravages of the enormous and very frightening, earthquake that shook us all. There was panic all around and not one single mobile telephone could receive a dialling signal.
Over the passing years many roads and mountainsides have been repaired in full and the countryside has been returned to almost normal yet many large landslides have still to be cleared away. The map of the area I prepared and included in ‘Koi2Kichi’ still remains accurate with the exception of one new tunnel and a couple of well-signed diversions.
I have taken many visitors around this area who have no interests in Nishikigoi at all and they all have commented as to how beautiful and tranquil the mountainsides and villages are.
The large, modern building on the roadside as we enter Takezawa village is the Yamakoshi Village office and many staff are employed there. Here, one can see large scale maps of the area and also read some interesting details of the history of Nishikigoi throughout the years and there are some staff there who are only too happy to translate for you.
If any breeders in the area are not completely happy as to the health of their stocks in their indoor concrete ponds they can simply ring the Yamakoshi Village office. Immediately an official, employed there, will visit them with a microscope and take random mucus samples from their stocks to accurately determine which microscopic parasite exactly is causing the problem. After this he will take a note as to the volumes of water in each of the ponds in question and then return to the village office. He will then carefully weigh out the correct chemical and exact amount to add the dosages to all the ponds before returning to the breeder and help him to add it to the ponds – this is all done free of any charge.
You will also see many areas close to the roadside which have been neatly cultured to grow just about every vegetable imaginable from chillies; peppers; cabbages and a host of root vegetables, and no-one would ever think of stealing these vegetables from the owner – although I have been known to sample the odd raw chilli!
There are also many back roads and short cuts along many minor roads that my partner Dennis Wordsworth knows only too well. However, they are only safe to travel on in autumn when the roads have no snow on them so we always like to show our guests these roads and take photographs of the many incredible views of the mountainsides during our daily sorties throughout Yamakoshi in October.
Once in late April, some years ago, Dennis and I were nearing the end of an April trip and decided to do some exploring through the mountain roads and villages. There were still small areas of snow on the ground as we climbed into the mountains but nothing as deep as it was when we arrived in early April.
After trying out several new roads we had never been on before we found ourselves high in the mountains of Tanesuhara village which we had passed through many times before on our way to Toshio Sakai’s harvests near to Tashiro village. The snow here was a little deeper but we did not consider it to be a problem for our four wheel drive people carrier.
We stopped at a corner shop for two cans of hot coffee and drank them in the warm sunshine. We then discovered a road to the left which we had never taken before so I suggested we took it simply to find out where it led to. We started our drive on the road and passed some hotel complex on our left and then a very pretty fishing pond also on our left.
After that, the road narrowed considerably and we then came to two red signs in Kanji on either side of the road which we had no idea at all what they said so we just continued along the narrow road which appeared to becoming even narrower and the drop on my side below started to look very dangerous as the snow became deeper the higher we climbed up the mountain.
I suggested to Dennis that, if we could find an area to turn around and go back we should take it. As the road, which had now become a single track of pebbles, mud and snow was only barely wide enough for our vehicle and we were now only travelling at about five miles an hour! By now, the drop below on my side to the valley below had become seriously alarming and the odd slip of a wheel did nothing to boost my confidence.
There was not a single place for us to turn the vehicle around and not a hope of reversing all the way back so we just crawled higher and higher into the mountain. By then, we were both getting seriously concerned even though we tried to laugh very nervously!
By now the road was purely a mud and snow track and to make things even ‘hairier’ there were no other tyre tracks in front of us in the snow, which confirmed that no other vehicle had been along this same road before us. As we continued to climb higher and higher we finally slid our way above the tree line and eventually reached the summit of the mountain to find a large area of flat land with several wooden buildings right on top of the mountain. We parked our vehicle and opened the doors to climb out and kiss the very ground we were standing on!
The wooden buildings were totally empty and it was VERY cold on the top of the mountain and the snow was very deep. We had no idea at all as to how far we had travelled from Tanesuhara village but we now had a choice which was to turn around and head back from whence we came or to continue and make our way onwards and down the other side of the mountain. We both did not relish the horrendous journey we had just made so we carried on, slipping and sliding downwards on mud and pebble tracks deep in snow.
It must have taken another 25 minutes or so, of crawling downhill before the road, once more, became a proper concrete road and started to widen out. Very soon, we saw a village way below us and tried to guess the name of the village. By now, most of the snow had cleared and the roads were far safer to drive on.
As we finally neared the village, a red pick-up truck was approaching us in the opposite direction and I realised it was being driven by Shoji Tanaka, owner of the Marusyo Koi farm in Yomogihira village who was coming up to the lower part of the mountain to check out the condition of some of his mud ponds.
We both stopped our vehicles and climbed out. Shoji pointed to the mountain as if to say ‘Have you both come from Tanesuhara across this mountain’? We nodded our heads and Shoji insisted we return with him to his home and have a warm drink and some noodles.
His son, Makoto was at the house when we arrived and speaks a little English. We explained to him about our perilous journey. He then explained to us that the red Kanji signs by the roadside in Tanesuhara were warnings that the road was very unsafe and forbidden to travel on at this time of the year.
We also mentioned to him about the wooden buildings at the very top of the mountain and he told us that they were used only in the summer months to feed and house cattle.
Since then, we have never been anywhere near that road again. Exploring the byways Yamakoshi can be very exciting but it does not need to be THAT exciting!