Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Yakushima (屋久島)

The entirety of Kagoshima Prefecture's nature island Yakushima has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located between 2.5 and 4 hours off the coast of Kagoshima City (depending on whether you choose to take the slow or fast ferry), Yakushima is best known for an abundance of beautiful scenery and hiking paths that wind through a millennium old cedar forest.

This temperate rain forest is unique in that snow is often visible on the highest mountain peak of Miyanoura-dake, while the rest of the island remains blanketed in lush vegetation and warm 66 degree weather.

For me, my trip to Yakushima was probably the most difficult aspect of my Kyushu vacation, due largely to the fact that I didn't have a solid travel plan and failed to thoroughly research the location before I climbed on the ferry.

As I quickly learned, Yakushima Island is big! So big in fact, that a rental car becomes a near necessity. I opted to stay on the southern coast of the island near what I am calling the "onsen district." The baths looked picturesque enough in my tourist pamphlet. However, a bus ride from the northernmost port of Miyanoura to the southern tip of the island took over one hour and cost over 15 dollars.

I spent the night in a small "minshuku," quite literally in the middle of nowhere. The word "minshuku" is often translated into English as a "bed and breakfast," though, in my case, there was no food available at the establishment. My wooden, cabin-style room was actually a small portable building built out back behind the owner's house. There was a table, a futon, a sink, and a kerosene heater. The heater didn't work.

My night's sleep was less than ideal due mainly to the non-functioning heater. Also problematic was the giant family (lovers?) quarrel that erupted seemingly right outside my window. I shivered in my futon while listening to a youngish Japanese man growl curse words at a frightened sounding woman. At one point she ran off and was shrieking for her father. Somehow or another I eventually fell asleep.

Since dinner was not provided, I had to fend for myself. Because my map indicated that all the food establishments were clustered around the two ports, my bright idea was to walk the short distance from my minshuku to the nearby port of Anboh and get something to eat. I would have preferred to take the bus, but, being a sparsely populated island and all, the buses stopped running around 4 PM.

Upon setting out on foot, I quickly ran into a significant problem; I couldn't see. I tend to have pretty crummy night vision as it is, but I mean I couldn't see a thing. It was as if my eyes were closed.

There are virtually no streetlamps in Yakushima, so the only help I got was from the few stray cars that occasionally whizzed down the road. During our brief moment of overlap, the path ahead of me would become illuminated and I would do my best to ingrain any potentially hazardous obstacles before the car disappeared from sight and I was once again shrouded in complete and total darkness.

Blinded by the night, I moved forward with caution. My arms outstretched like a tightrope walker, I made sure to tap my foot against the concrete curb every eight paces or so, in order to make sure that I didn't inadvertently plunge off the end of the sidewalk and end up bleeding in the street.

I walked for what seemed like 30 minutes. In actuality, I was only walking for around 15 minutes, but the darkness plays mind games with you. Much like the thirsty traveler wading through the desert sand, who eventually collapses from exhaustion and welcomes his fate with the buzzards, I eventually gave up my search for food. With no shining food lights on the horizon and one fall to the pavement under my belt, I lost hope, turned around, and went home.

My subsequent plan was to ignore my rumbling tummy and visit an onsen to take a nice relaxing bath. Grabbing the provided hand towel, I began tromping off through the dark, this time in the opposite direction towards Yudomari Onsen. What I found was an onsen unlike any other.

Yudomari, and the other onsen like it around Yakushima, are actually small rock caves that have been dug into the shoreline. Warm ocean water literally flows directly into the rocky receptacle and creates the bathwater.

Because Yudomari is a natural onsen in the purest sense, the tidal cycle was posted on a sign near the entrance, to inform visitors exactly when they could expect water in their tub. One difference that immediately caught my attention was that the onsen was completely unmanned. A small metal box with the characters "200 Yen" printed on it was the only form of gatekeeper present.

I hesitantly shuffled down the path made of jagged ocean rocks in order to make my way to the tub. It goes without saying that there were no lights in this area of Yakushima either, so seeing was next to impossible. My new personal goal became actively avoiding impaling myself on a rock.

After stripping off my clothes and stuffing important items like my glasses and watch into my shoes for safe keeping, I plunged into the pool. There were already two Japanese men enjoying the water, and due to the tiny size of the tub, it really did seem like three bodies was pushing the comfort capacity.

We exchanged a few pleasant greetings, but, because I literally could not make out their faces in the darkness, the three of us largely sat in silence and competed to see who could create the best sighs of relaxation. It was not difficult at all to relax in the tub. While I cannot say that I was able to appreciate any scenery, the calming sound of the ocean waves and cool breeze against your exposed skin was incredibly peaceful.

Upon entering the bath, I was immediately surprised by the temperature of the water. Another sign that Yudomari was the "real deal;" the ocean water was only lukewarm. I had become accustomed to the superheated water of the modern onsen resorts in Matsuyama.

I exited the water and began toweling off. My rustling created quite the confusion. The older of the two men in the bath couldn't physically see me leave the pool, so I assume he thought I was a different person preparing to enter. He began shouting, "Hey, who is over there? I said, who is that over there? Show yourself!"

Come to think of it, he may have been a bit drunk.

I replied to him that it was me, "the same person." This seemed to quiet him down for a few minutes, until the act of me putting on my shoes and wringing out my towel led him to produce a pocket flashlight and begin furiously swinging it side-to-side in order to illuminate the thick, soupy blackness and expose the mystery bather. It was a failed endeavor.

"I said who is over there!? Whoever you are you can't come in! The water is just perfect right now and I won't let you in!"

This time I didn't bother responding to his shouting. As I began shuffling my way back up the rocks I heard him remark to the other man, "I guess there was no one over there after all!"

Walking back toward the minshuku, I happened to find a small general store nestled off the beaten path on a side street. I took the opportunity to buy a noodle bowl and a pack of pickles. It was a surprisingly delicious dinner.


This is the active volcano Sakurajima, a mere 15 minute ferry ride off the coast of Kagoshima City. Sakurajima is an iconic element in the city's skyline, and as such, many fancy pants restaurants and onsen charge super high prices in exchange for views of the billowing smoke.

It is said that Yakushima Island served as the main inspiration for the settings depicted in Miyazaki's classic film Princess Mononoke. Looking at scenery like this, it is not too difficult to see the resemblance between real life and the anime.

Perhaps we can all take a moment to stop and pray that bastions of nature like Yakushima continue to thrive throughout the world.

This was the actual bus stop I used to get around the island. Does this not look like it was ripped directly out of Totoro?

Every step you take brings you face-to-face with nature.

This is my favorite picture from Yakushima. I don't know why, but for some reason whenever I look at this picture I am reminded of photos from Iwo Jima.

Yakushima sunset taken from the entrance of one of the "onsen." As I learned, around these parts, an "onsen" is actually a small receptacle for ocean water that has been chiseled out of the indigenous rock. Bathers expecting modern conveniences such as stairs, warmth, or light should search elsewhere.

Apparently people in Yakushima like their Asahi Superdry just about as much as I do.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Kagoshima (鹿児島)

Kagoshima is the capital city of Kagoshima Prefecture, which lies on the southernmost tip of Kyushu. Below are the only pictures I took within the city itself. My main reason for heading to Kagoshima was to visit the ultra famous World Heritage island of Yakushima.

But, for pictures and stories from that trip, you'll have to wait till next time.



Look! Kagoshima has a Ferris wheel attached to the top of a department store just like Matsuyama!

This monument outside of the JR station commemorates all the famous Kagoshima-ins who traveled abroad and, upon returning, did wondrous things for Japan. Please don't ask me to name any of them or state their respective social contributions.

Somehow I remember Ernie looking less like your local drug dealer when I watched him as a child on Sesame Street.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Mount Aso (阿蘇山)

Located about one hour from Kumamoto City in the same prefecture, Mount Aso is the largest active volcano in Japan and one of the largest in the world.

Aso is actually a caldera, or an inverse-shaped cauldron-like volcano formed by the collapse of land following a gigantic eruption. Its circular shape is made up of five distinct peaks; the complete circumference is approximately 120 kilometers (75 miles).

Because Naka-dake (the active peak pictured below) constantly spews out CO2 and SO2 laden poisonous volcanic gas, tourists with lung problems are urged not to visit the edge of the crater. I threw caution to the wind and brought my weak asthmatic body face-to-face with Aso's gurgling underbelly. I took a giant whiff of death and lived to blog about it.

Actually, workers constantly monitor the sulfur levels being emitted from Aso, and will close access to the crater at a moment's notice, should the levels read too high or the wind direction change.

I ended my time in Aso with a trip to the nearby hot spring district. Many local establishments use the superheated volcanic waters of Aso as a source for their baths. I don't know if you can really call the small place I went to an "onsen." It was really just the converted basement of a sweet lady's house. In any event, her giant single occupancy wine barrel shaped wooden bathtub was wonderful. I've decided I want one of these in my future home, wherever that may be.

We chitchatted a bit about onsen as I readied to leave (after I had put clothes on that is). I was able to namedrop Dogo Onsen here in Matsuyama and mention that I had bathed there. She was impressed, just as I knew she would be.


The horse I rode in on.

Since Aso is an active volcano, it is not uncommon for ash and/or superheated rocks to spray into the air and fall on unsuspecting tourists. Since a number of people have actually died at Aso, visitors are now instructed to make use of these bunkers, should fire and brimstone begin raining from the sky.

"Please take a few moments now to locate your two nearest emergency bunkers. In some cases, your nearest emergency bunker may be behind you."

Mount Aso actually consists of five different peaks: Mt. Neko, Mt. Taka, Mt. Naka, Mt. Eboshi, and Mt. Kishima. The highest point is the summit of Mt. Taka, which rises 1592 meters above sealevel. The active peak pictured here is that of Mt. Naka.

With a circumference of approximately 120 km (75 miles), the caldera Mount Aso is not only the largest active volcano in Japan, but also one of the largest in the world!

The churning belly of Aso-san!

This is just to show how quickly your bright blue sky...

...can turn into a poisonous death cloud sky!

Walking up the road to gain a "better" view of the crater.

This was meant to show a view of the crater's rim, but the rising volcanic gas constantly obscured the shot.

On the plus side, I did manage to capture this neat shot of the gas rising in a near perfect cone formation.

I opted to walk down the mountain path instead of riding the tram. This afforded me an excellent opportunity to pretend I was a photographer for National Geographic...

...and take assorted nature shots like this...

...And this one...

...And this one here (my favorite btw).

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Views of Kumamoto Castle (熊本城)

Kumamoto Castle celebrated its 400th anniversary last year, though I guess this is technically cheating since the main castle keep is a concrete reconstruction built in 1960.

Kumamoto is one of Japan's three famous castles. Rounding out the list are Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture and Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture.

Kumamoto Castle has also been popularly nicknamed "karasu-jo" or "crow castle" due to its mostly jet black exterior.

I was told by a Japanese friend that visitors (yes, even gaijin!) can purchase a piece of Kumamoto Castle for a mere 10,000 Yen (one hundred dollars). Apparently, the prefecture started the fundraising stunt due to an inability to finance the castle's upkeep.

I was told that buying a piece means your name goes somewhere - too bad I didn't know about this when I visited. A hundred smackers to get a personalized rock or roof tile? I could have brought a Sharpie and created one for free!


"There's a storm a-brewin'!" view.

Front door view.

Peekaboo view.

Husband and wife view.

"Just what makes that little old ant..." view.

Right angle view.

"Fee fie foe fum!" view.

Postcard view.

Tourist central view.

Appropriate for ages five and up view.

"Man I wish the old Japanese guy hadn't stepped into the frame of my picture at the last moment" view.

Cityscape view.

Flatland view.

"One tin soldier rides away" view.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Suizenji Park (水前寺成趣園)

We have now moved on from Nagasaki to the central prefecture of Kumamoto and the capital city that shares its name.

Below are pictures from my visit to Suizenji Park, one of the city's famous tourist attractions. Construction on the park began in 1636. The layout of the park is meant to represent the views seen when traveling the old highway between Kyoto and Edo (modern day Tokyo).

The two large "tsukiyama" or artificially constructed mountains in the park are modeled after the famous peaks of Mount Fuji and Mount Aso. Luckily they left out the artificially modeled topiary vending machines and pachinko parlors that one would also see when traveling between the two cities these days.

Despite the fact that it was wintertime and most of the greenery was long dead, the beauty of the park still shone through.

Enjoy the pictures!


Welcome to Suizenji Park in downtown Kumamoto. Is it a park or garden...park or garden? I just can't decide!

I managed to capture every duck within the frame of this picture. Laugh if you must, but it was no easy task!

A shot showing off the impressive landscaping. It didn't occur to me until after I entered the grounds that winter might not be the best time to visit a famous Japanese garden.

These small bonsai / topiary islands seem quite popular in Japanese gardens.

The famous "tsukiyama" or constructed mountain of Suizenji Park. This is an image of Mount Fuji. Try to imagine it vibrant and green.

Look Ma', I made it to the Tottori Sand Dunes!

Inari Shrine present in the park.

Quick, how many rocks can you spot in this picture?

Daddy misses you P-2!

Kumamoto is known throughout Japan for its famous and delicious horse meat. While the meat can be cooked in a variety of ways, what you see here is "basashi," or raw horse meat prepared sashimi style. I ordered the special grade meat. There was one grade available beyond what I ordered. I can only assume that this was celebrity horse meat from the likes of Black Beauty, Mister Ed, and Trigger. The sheer number of condiments provided was amazing - ginger, onion, sea salt, cucumber, shiso, and two types of soy sauce. A truly superb version of the dish!