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May 05, 2005

TravelBlog: Kyushu, mountainous and beautiful

My last missive was written about my time in historic Kyoto, hopping among the innumerable shrines and temples that put modern tourists in touch with Japan's historic roots. From there, I spent almost a full day traveling to the south eastern corner of Kyushu, Japan's large southern-most island that is situated the closest to Korea. Two shinkansen and three long local trains later, I arrived in Miyakonojo, where my friend from Haverford Jenn Louie has been stationed for the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching, run by the Japanese government to bring foreigners into the country to teach English to Japanese students) program over the past three years.

Unlike my time in Tokyo and Kyoto, I walked significantly less on this leg of my journey, as Miyakonojo is a suburb of the slightly larger town of Miyazaki (not to be confused with the director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) who was born in Tokyo), and driving was a much more convenient way to get around the Japanese countryside. It was in Miyakonojo that I finally got to experience the true sushi restaurant/bar, complete with boisterous sushi chefs, the little conveyor belt, endless green tea, and the entire-wait-staff shouts of welcome and goodbye when customers enter and leave. My mission for sushi places was to try at least one new kind each stop. Here, I tried uni, which is sea urchin, eggplant with a miso-based sauce on it, some fish I can't name, a roll with little mushrooms and some kind of mountain potato paste, and a gently grilled tuna. Some were better than others, but none as bad as some hardened fish eggs I tried in Kyoto. The eggplant was especially delicious and I have yet to find a place in the U.S. that serves it.

That evening, we drove to the famous hot spring bath resort hotel in nearby Kagoshima. These communal baths are called "onsen" (also used as a verb), and are extremely popular among the Japanese. The one in Kagoshima is co-ed, so guests are required to wear a medium-weight white robe for modesty; what made this onsen unusual is that a) it's outdoor portion is literally a few feet from the high tide mark of the Pacific ocean, and b) there's a huge, gnarled tree that grows around the hot spring itself. The tree is considered lucky, perhaps on account of its age and putting up with hot mineral water, so a small Buddhist shrine has been built under its roots.

After lunch the next day with some of Jenn's friends from the JET program, we took a drive along the Kyushu coast line. On account of it having a high density of volcanoes, the island is extremely mountainous, even by the ocean. The little road we took to visit two shrines hugged and undulated with the coastline itself: deep blue a few dozen meters on one side, and tree covered mountains rising up from the other - these are the roads you imagine James Bond zipping around in his tricked-out convertible. The views were stunning and reminded me of the Cinque Terra coastline in Italy, except with more greenery. Our first stop was the shrine on a small island just off the coastal area called Nichinan Kaigan near Aoshima. Between it and the mainland is what's called the Devil's Washboard, on account that it really looks like a gigantic washboard. Basically, volcanic activity created hundreds of layers of hard rock, which was then tilted and covered with water. So, the rough edges of the layers stick out just above the surface all along the coastline, giving the appearance of a washboard. The island is a ecological treasure trove, but the best thing is the crazy traditions surrounding it. In the dead of winter there is a festival where Japanese strip naked and run into the water carrying mini-shrines strapped to their backs. A little further south along the highway is another coastal shrine. In addition to the regular buildings, there's a walkway that snakes down the cliff face toward the somewhat dangerous looking breakers. Tucked into a good sized cave is a medium-sized temple. Below, on the rocks, there's a natural depression that's typically filled with water. Legend has it that if you can toss a small clay pellet into the depression, you will be blessed with healthy children. The rock itself is perhaps 30 feet from the landing where you stand, and the depression only a couple of feet in diameter, but ringed by a braided rope so it's easy to see. The small pellets litter the rocks below it, and a significantly smaller number sit inside the pool. Fortunately, I'll have at least one healthy child - I made it on my first try, although failed on my other four.

That night, I experienced the most pure of Japanese traditions: karaoke. Jenn and her fellow JETs had organized a surprise party for one of their number, and after a nice meal, we hit the Shidax karaoke building. It's difficult to express just how overwhelming karaoke in Japan is... imagine a five story building decorated inside in bright colors, faux marble, and packed with well-decorated soundproof rooms. Each room is decked out with a sound system, big screen tv and karaoke machine (which has a remote control and a remote LCD interface). We got the all-you-can-drink karaoke package, and started around midnight. Normally, I don't like singing in front of people. But eventually, the atmosphere of carefree off key singing and drunken revelry persuaded me to add my voice to the festivities. And happily so. Japanese karaoke is a unique and amazing experience, and I'm a bit sad that we Americans don't have anything quite so indulgently musical for recreation. Come 4:30am, most of the group was still at it when a few of us retired. From what I understand, it's not uncommon for karaoke to last so late into the night, and with several thousand songs in the database, the hardcore among us could probably have gone on through the entire next day.

The next day, Jenn and I traveled again to Miyazaki, this time to witness a traditional festival involving horseback archery. This festival was small and was more like a historic competition using tradition methods, garb and formalities. Riders would race down a narrow dirt track and fire arrows (from Japanese longbows which are somewhat larger and more unwieldy than the British equivalent) at each of three wooden targets. Between each run was a series of signals up and down the raceway using brightly colored fans in order to communicate the readiness of each team who replaced used targets and signaled the rider to begin. A few of the older men were extremely good, and would routinely hit two of the three targets, but the crowd (of almost all Japanese - this part of the country doesn't see too many foreigners) would clap enthusiastically at the rare times a rider hit all three. There were some very young boys who also participated - their horses trotted much more slowly, but the boys were not much worse than the adults at hitting the targets. All of this was preceded and followed by the whole group of people (in traditional Japanese grab) processing from one end of the track to the other.

Our original plan for the rest of the day had been to visit the island Koshimajust where native macaque monkeys live. These monkeys discovered (in the 1950s) how to wash dirty sweet potatoes in the stream before eating them. Unfortunately, we dawdled a bit too long in the sunny weather at the park near where the archery contest had been held. When we finally arrived at the beach across from Koshimajust, it was close to dusk and the boatman was not to be found. The view was beautiful, and a stroll down the concrete wharf brought us only a few hundred feet from the island. Spoiling to see the monkeys, and realizing that it probably wasn't going to happen, we hemmed and hawed and talked ourselves into a bit of craziness. Leaving most of our clothes (and our sanity) on the beach, we boldly plunged into the cold water and swam across the strait. The water itself was pleasant once the initial shock wore off, and with no current, we felt very safe (all things considered...). Upon attempting to beach on the island, I discovered that the rocks in the shallows there are home to prickly sea urchins and sharp-shelled barnacles. Being pleased with the success of our crazy adventure and now thinking better of going completely ashore, we plunged back into the cold water for the return trip to the beach. Irresponsible, yes, but, a little bit of insanity is good for the soul - keeps the heart young and provides a great story for recounting later. Being now soaked and salty, we drove us to the nearest onsen while I delicately began extracting sea urchin spines from my injured hand. This onsen was indoor and gender-segregated. So that you have an idea of how these things work, here's the routine: first, you shower (traditional Japanese style, where you sit naked on a small plastic stool with the movable shower head in front of you); then, you hop from hot bath to hot bath, perhaps sampling the "electric bath" (where a small electric current emanates from the walls and produces a tingle and twitch in your muscles), the jet-massage chairs, the tea tub, the sauna, the massage stream (a twelve foot tall column of falling water you can use to massage your shoulders), or the regular jacuzzi-style bath.

The next day was my last full day in Japan, and we drove north toward Fukuoka, where my flight left for Tokyo and then back to the States. On the way, Jenn and I chatted extensively about the quirks of Japanese culture, particularly in how it compares to American culture. I'll say more about that shortly - first I want to describe some of the things we saw as we drove north. In addition to more gorgeous views of tree covered mountains, valleys, waterfalls, rice paddies, cherry blossoms (which were in full bloom by this day) and the ocean, we stopped in the onsen resort town of Kurokawa. This tiny town is nestled in a wedge valley where the hot springs abound. The price of the onsen is regulated by the government so that it's accessible to everyone (500 yen, or about $5); the real money made by the onsens is in overnight guests (which starts at about 10000 yen, or $100/night). The decorum is exquisite traditional Japanese, with dark dark stained wood, tatamai mats, brass dragons and sliding doors. Several of the more famous onsen are off from the main town, but I liked the town itself the best. Here, flanking every available square foot of the valley's small river (Black River) are onsen buildings. Guests who purchase a three-onsen pass can hop from one to the next, and we saw many groups of bath robed Japanese doing exactly this. Once you finish with your pass (a large wooden disc), you're supposed to hang it in the local shrine for good luck (good luck for what? Just good luck. Luck, apparently, it a bit like money, and it's commonly believed that one can never have too much). We stopped for a brief snack, so that I could sample another kind of traditional Japanese food. I forget what the rice balls were called, but it was a red bean soup with six of these balls. Instead of simply packing rice together, the rice is powdered and packed tightly into a gooey substance that's a bit like bubble gum.

With it getting late, we sped on to Fukuoka, where we checked into a business hotel. These hotels have extremely small rooms (think: dorm rooms), and come with all the basics that a traveling businessman would need - tooth brush, night gown, soap/shampoo, etc. Before retiring for the night, we toured the nightlife area of Fukuoka, and in particular the area called Canal City. An island in the middle of the river, Canal City is a dense, bright, thumping spot of commercial activity. The mall is home of Ramen Kingdom, where you can sample gourmet ramen from different parts of Japan (not the stuff you can get in the grocery store in the U.S. at all).

I'll now say a few words about my impressions of Japanese culture. Jenn pointed out to me that because the island of Japan is constantly changing (earthquakes and volcanoes, mostly), their buildings reflect a sense of temporary existence. Tokyo and Kyoto are largely made of concrete (albeit, from combinations of the seven kinds of concrete the Japanese have). Cheap to build, since they get knocked down periodically. So, since they cannot rely on their physical surroundings to preserve their sense of history (as the western europeans do (think: the palace of Versailles)), they instead rely upon a strong social rigidity. Thus, Japanese schooling typically involves mastering the ability to reproduce the works of previous masters, rather than encouraging individuality as we westerners are wont to do. This is probably why somewhat bizarre traditions like running naked into freezing water continue - this is what makes them Japanese. The grade school system is much more like the British one than the American one. In the States, we teach each child that they can grow up to be anything or do anything if they work hard enough at it. Toward that end, we basically teach them a lot of theory and fewer skills than may be ideal. In Japan, the children begin focusing their future careers at an early age and may learn trade skills in grade school. Also, the schooling system is every bit as intense as you're heard - high school students routinely stay at school until the late evening participating in clubs and sports. There are no school districts in Japan (and thus no school busses), as students apply to attend a school and must complete an on-site interview and grueling entrance examination. There's a hierarchy of schools, so eventually, everyone finds a place. In contrast to the States, it's the public schools that are best in Japan. I've heard it mentioned that Japan is a centralized-capitalist nation, while the U.S. is a decentralized-capitalist nation. Given the amount of top-down regulation from the government in a wide variety of spheres of life, this sounds like an appropriate distinction. The Japanese expect a large amount of government involvement, and in fact, the government feels somewhat obligated to give everyone a job if they can't find one elsewhere (so, in the current recession, there is a lot of road work being done as public works projects). Anyway, the teenagers who are learning their trade skill are taught to take pride in their work; in the service industry, which I interacted with the most, this translated to an amazingly high level of customer service. On the United flight back to the States, the flight attendants were all American, and I immediately missed the helpfulness and happiness that is exuded by the Japanese. Whether this behavior feigned or not, I don't know. Also, the social accountability system in Japan extends not only to having you give a reference when you check into a hotel (as we did in Fukuoka), but also to the teachers being obligated to certain parental duties (like accompanying an injured student to the hospital, etc.). Basically, the traditional system is much more village-like (in that they really do spread the responsibility of raising children around) than in the States. Naturally, this has both good and bad elements to it. What's interesting now, however, is that the younger generation has absorbed a lot of the western ideals that the Japanese so easily adopted (as they so frequently do), and are significantly more individualistic than I think their elders would like. So, it will be extremely interesting to see how, in the coming years, Japan deals with a) an aging population and b) the erosion of the traditional societal/hierarchical bonds. Still, while freely adopting bits and pieces of other cultures that they like (e.g., pop music), they remake much of it into a Japanese style. The country may seem extremely modern (and it is), but the trappings of modern life will seem a little unfamiliar to we foreigners because they've done it their own way.

posted May 5, 2005 02:02 AM in Travel | permalink


Hi! I live in Miyakonojo and really enjoyed reading about your trip to this area.

Posted by: Miklos at May 14, 2005 10:50 PM