Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Sunny Land of Okayama - Day 2

My second day in Okayama was all about getting back in touch with nature. I spent the day visiting two famous limestone caves: Ikura cave and Maki cave.
The waterfall beside the entrance of Ikura cave.
I love nature. In fact, when I was a child I dreamed of joining the National Geographic team so that I can travel around the world and have great adventures. As I grew up, I got busy with reality. I strayed from my dream and ended up with a job that requires me to be indoors most of the time. I forgot to appreciate nature. Heck, I don't even remember the last time I looked up to gaze at the sky until I made this trip.

The two caves were both in Niimi City, a relatively rural area in the northern part of the prefecture. From Okayama station, it took a 1.5-hour train ride to Ikura, the namesake of the first cave I visited.

Ikura is a very beautiful place surrounded by mountains, thus it is cooler than the city in the summer. A sparkling river runs parallel to the tracks although it crosses at several points, rice paddies separate the houses, and you can see local folks tending the fields.

#1 Ikura Station

Very much different from the huge and bustling Okayama Station, Ikura Station is but a small and rather deserted one-story building. I wonder if it can even be called a "station" at all. There was only one station attendant - a middle-aged lady who only mans the office until 12nn. I spent a couple of hours at this station and during that time I couldn't help but wonder what she could be doing inside, when there were barely any passengers. It must be so boring.

But, the amazing thing about the Japanese is that no matter how small or seemingly easy their work is, they do it seriously and with utmost care and diligence. The lady at the station was no exception because the whole time I was watching her, she was keeping herself busy with what I guessed were small routine tasks. And I could tell that she was doing them very carefully. It was very admirable.
You will see this sign the moment you step out of Ikura station.
From Ikura Station, you have to walk for around 8 to 10 minutes to get to the entrance of Ikura Cave. It is impossible to get lost on the way because there are a lot of signs pointing to the cave entrance.

#2 Ikura Cave

Before I reached the cave entrance, I found myself in the middle of a wide parking lot where the unobstructed view of the mountains literally made me stop and catch my breath. The mountains were magnificent, all bathed in the early morning sunlight, and the cool breeze that blew gently swayed the leaves on the trees. I was easily mesmerized. By the time I came back to my senses, I realized that I had been standing there, gawking like an idiot, for more than a couple of minutes.
An unobstructed view of the mountains from the parking lot.
The signs led me safely to the entrance of Ikura cave, and pictures and words are not enough to describe the sight that greeted me. Breathtaking. Moving. Standing there, surrounded by the beauty and abundance of nature, made me want to cry and shout "I LOVE NATURE!" at the same time.
This scene will forever be etched into my memory.
It was one breathtaking sight after another so I needed a few minutes to take in everything that I have seen so far. When I thought I recovered a little, I decided it was time for me to immerse myself deeper into nature so I started my adventure inside Ikura cave.

After you buy your ticket, you have to cross a bridge to get to the cave entrance, located on the side of the mountain across the river.

The temperature inside the cave drops to around 15℃ and it stays constant the whole year, regardless of the season. So even if you visit during the summer, I would advise to wear warm clothing or bring another layer of protection (like a thin jacket or cardigan, at least) to wear on top if you insist on wearing a sleeveless shirt or blouse.
Overhead rock formations that look like bats.
While the path shown here is quite wide, most of the cave is narrow.
The cave is 1,200 meters long and it mostly climbs so I suggest wearing comfortable shoes. The cave is also mostly narrow and wet, but well-lit. In fact, some areas, like special formations, are lit up by multicolored lights to enhance the effect and add a more dramatic feel.

A quick tip: look up from time to time because the views overhead are just as fascinating as the ones you see at eye level or on the ground. There are parts of the cave where you can literally peer up into oblivion.
          
Limestone pillars.
The "peak".
I did a lot of climbing, sideways walking, crouching, and a combination of all three until I reached the peak. From there it was an easy walk on a gentle downhill slope towards the exit, where a shrine with a sad, love story is still in place.

And before I forget, I would also like to warn you that the cave drips. A lot. Because I wasn't prepared for the dripping, I came out looking like I just played with the garden sprinkler system. But that was all part of the fun.

As I crossed the bridge back to the other side, I wore a content smile on my face. I felt so lucky that I was able to visit such a place.

Just before I headed back to the station, I stopped to take one last look at the mountain I just came out from. Who knew that inside that huge mound of earth is a place so mysterious and fascinating that you feel as if you're in an entirely different world. It felt like doing my very own "journey to the center of the earth".

#3 Maki Cave

From Ikura station, Maki Cave is 30 minutes away by bus. The bus stop is just in front of the station, however, there are less than 10 trips in a day, including trips back from the cave. Then from the Maki Cave bus stop, it is another 10-minute walk, followed by a VERY steep climb to the cave entrance.

The climb to the entrance was short, but it was steep as hell. I struggled with breathing and cursing at the same time during the tough 5-minute climb to the top. Sorry but it was just so steep that the bad words just flowed out from my mouth like a stream.

At only 450 meters, Maki cave is a lot shorter than Ikura cave but considerably wider. However, the roof is very low in most parts, so low that you have to crouch below waist level and walk at the same time. In addition to that, parts of the walking path break off into smaller paths that seem to lead to different directions and I had a difficult time deciding which paths to take because I wanted to see every nook and cranny.
A map of the cave at the cave entrance.
When I visited, there were a lot of other visitors as well so I had to move quickly. Given the low and pointed ceiling, it wasn't easy and I felt my knees were buckling under me.
To get through this part, you have to crouch really low!
With the lights and all, the cave was, without a doubt, beautiful. But I thought that it was just a little overdone. It was too beautiful that it felt "commercialized" and man-made, like an artificial set for a movie. Although, I did read somewhere that it has been used as a setting in movies in the past, particularly the huge underground lake at the end and the red Ryugu-bashi bridge.
The most famous spot in the cave, Ryugu-bashi.
The cave is probably a good place to go on dates with your special someone because, more than anything, it exudes a romantic aura. From the color of the lights to way they are positioned, I think that many couples would definitely enjoy the place and have some romantic moments with each other. And I don't mean that in an obscene way.

Anyway, I was looking forward to Maki cave at the beginning of my trip but in the end, I enjoyed Ikura cave more. Perhaps the fewer number of people at Ikura cave is one of the reasons, but aside from that, I felt that Ikura cave was more natural, despite the lighting and ladders inside. Of course, Maki cave is still worth a visit but I would recommend going during off-peak seasons to avoid the crowd. Weekdays or during the winter season might be what I would consider as "off-peak" because it is cool inside the cave so I recon that most of the visitors just wanted a fun and unique way to cool off and escape from the summer heat.

Tips Before Visiting

Each cave has an entrance fee of 1000 yen, but if you look around the internet, you will find that there are discount coupons for them. Try visiting the website of Ikura cave and you might find a 100-yen discount coupon. For Maki Cave, try looking at this site.

Luckily for me, I found out about the coupons before my trip. So even if it was just 100 yen, well, at least I was able to save 200 yen from the two caves and buy myself drinks.

Final thoughts

I really enjoyed my second day in Okayama (click here for my post about the first day). I was able to take a step back and appreciate the beauty of my surroundings, something that I seem to have forgotten to do because of work and other lame things. It is regretful that we do not realize how blessed we are to have our planet. We have become too busy catching up with the huge strides of development that we forget to just "stop and smell the roses."

Visiting these two caves, being surrounded by nothing but the sounds and sights of nature reminded me of the nostalgic lyrics of the song "What a Wonderful World."

"I see trees are green
 Red roses, too
 I see them bloom
 For me and you
 And I think to myself
 'What a wonderful world.'"

Indeed, what a wonderful world we have.

4 comments:

  1. Hello! Gusto ko lang sanang sabihin sayo na na-inspire talaga ako nung nabasa ko yung blog mo na "Life as an OFW in Japan". Nakatulong sakin talaga sakin to para makapag-sikap para magtrabaho dyan sa Japan. Tagal ko nang nag-reresearch ng mga hiring dyan sa Japan kung ano ba talaga yung babagay sakin na trabaho. Yung course ko kasi related sa computer kaso 2 year course lang sya, kaso ngayon ko lang napag-isip isip na hindi pala bagay sa akin yung mga office work talaga, sobrang sakit sa ulo. Pero nung nag-research ako ako ng mga work dyan sa Japan, halos puro related sa IT ang mga hiring saka mga construction. Kaso habang nagreresearch ako napadpad ako sa blog mo, ayun parang nabuhayan na ulit ako ng loob.

    Ayun gusto ko lang mag-comment kasi natuwa lang talaga ako sa blog mo saka sayo. Halos kasi parehas tayo ng mga trip tapos parehas din tayong pinaka-batang OFW. Nagttrabaho din kasi ako ngayon sa UAE, sa Hyundai Company. 1st time ko lang dito, pero plano ko talaga tatapusin ko lang 1 year kong contract dito tapos magttry ako mag-aral sa pinas para makapag-work sa Japan.

    Salamat ulit! Baka mahuli na ako kasi nasa trabaho pa!

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    1. Start young! :) Same here, I was 22y/o last year when I started working abroad. :)

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  2. Hi Kate(?),

    I just want to ask for tips when travelling in Japan during the winter? I will go there on end of December to early of January, in the area of Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Mt Fuji, Hakone, and Tokyo, in that order. :)

    Tips on what to wear, accommodation, and transportation. Arigatou Gozaimasu!

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    1. Winter in Western Japan is not as cold as Eastern Japan, but you will need to wear warm clothes and shoes. I would also suggest earmuffs and a scarf if you're not used to the cold because your ears may hurt. Winter in Tokyo is also not that cold even though it's in Eastern Japan. However, if you're planning on going to Mt. Fuji, you should wear a couple of layers of warm clothes underneath your coat because it gets really chilly in that part of Japan.

      For accomodation, there are lots of cheap hotels on the internet but you have to book early. I suggest choosing a hotel that's close to a train station.

      Trains are the main transportation in Japan and they can get you to practically anywhere. But there are also buses and they usually have special passes that allows visitors to ride all you want for a day or so, depending on the pass that you buy. You can ask for these at train stations or on the bus itself.

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