Ladies’ Weekend at Kurokawa Onsen Village

From the moment I returned to Japan from my winter trip home to the states, I pretty much hit the ground running. I had to work two weekends in a row, co-led a workshop for the annual Miyazaki JET Skills Development Conference, and spent the dreaded inauguration weekend answering questions and playing American-themed games at a the local “World Festa” event, where I was meant to engage families in internationalization. If I had 100yen (roughly a dollar) for every old man who came up and made a joke about Trump over the course of those 5 hours, I’d be able to buy enough alcohol to make the whole thing slightly more bearable. But alas… In a small act of defiance, I wore my “The Future is Female” shirt, and all Americans in charge of decorating our booth refused to use any pictures of the Cheetoh in Chief. All complaining aside, I did manage to have a few thoughtful conversations about the state of the US, and overwhelmingly the Japanese people I spoke with were concerned about the relationship between our countries. It was a long, interesting day.

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Walking down the street in Kurokawa

Needless to say, after two weeks of non-stop work and a bit of jet lag, I was absolutely ready for a weekend of relaxing in an onsen village. A friend of mine had organized the trip, apparently a semi-annual tradition among the foreign ladies of Miyazaki, and we were all very excited. Kurokawa Onsen Village is about four hours north of me, up in Kumamoto. It’s pretty close to Mt. Aso, the volcano that caused the massive Kumamoto earthquake last year, so I was surprised that everything was open and functional.

I had volunteered to drive and so early in the afternoon I set off with my friends Amber and Dasha. Dasha, who is from Siberia, spent a lot of the ride telling us about what life is like in Russia, and what she thinks of working as a TV personality in Japan (she’s the co-host of a local show about travel and food). The whole thing made me want to book a ticket to Siberia immediately, and I think Amber felt the same. It was also nice to talk with someone who wasn’t a teacher, which is a rarity these days. Anyway, we were having a lovely time when we entered the Mt. Aso Geopark. It was stunningly beautiful – the mountains were covered in yellow grass, and the clear weather meant we could see the whole mountain range. It felt a bit like being on another planet, like a set they could use for Star Wars or something. Dasha said it reminded her of home.

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There are worse places for your car to break down

As we were appreciating the scenery my car made a rather ominous sound and came to a stop, much to my surprise. We were a bit confused, and since none of us knew much about cars we fussed around a bit before managing to get the hood up, all on the side of a two-lane mountain road. After much googling we decided that my car had probably overheated after I pushed it a bit too hard up some serious hills. Remember, my car has a pretty tiny engine, and I had not paid close enough attention in my haste to get to our destination. We let the engine cool a bit, took some pictures, and then slowly made our way out of the park. Luckily everything was fine after that, and we made it to the village with no further problems.

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My weekend companions

When we arrived in Kurokawa we bought a pass for three onsens (hot springs) each, which was about $12. The village has tons of options to choose from, and after driving I sort of left the decisions up to the others. They decided on an outdoor bath and we walked through the town to find our first stop. The town was really cute, full of tiny shops, a pretty river, and lots of charm. The onsen was equally lovely, and to our delight we were the only ones there! Normally you’re not allowed to take your camera anywhere near the baths, since everyone wanders around nude, but we took the opportunity to snap a few shots of our surroundings.

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A lovely rotenburo all to ourselves

Kurokawa is pretty high up in the mountains, and at the end of January it was pretty cold. Most onsen require that you rinse yourself off before getting in, and they usually provide a special area to do so. This particular onsen had the rinsing area on the opposite side of the pool from the changing rooms, so we had to run to the other side in the freezing cold, to douse ourselves in scalding water, before getting in the super hot pool. It was quite the experience. After the initial shock it was lovely, and we spent a nice long time lazing in the water before we decided it was time to move on.

We dried off, put our clothes back on, and set out to meet up with the others at an onsen a bit further away. The lovely thing about hot springs in the winter is that they leave you feeling warm from the inside out, so when we walked around town this time we felt nice and cozy. We stopped by the river, now lit up, and took in our surroundings before getting back into the car.

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Onsen number two was a bit fancier, and involved a decent walk from the hotel to the water. We met up with most of our friends, about 12 of us in total, and practically took over the place. There were only a few people there when we arrived, but by the time we left (nearly 2 hours later) we were the only ones left. I’ve been told that large groups of foreigners speaking English sometimes make Japanese onsen-goers uncomfortable, so this wasn’t entirely a surprise. We tried our best to keep our voices quiet and respectful, but the sheer numbers were a bit much, I think. In any event  this led to us once again having the place to ourselves, and I had a great time chatting with everyone. This particular onsen had a nice view of the stars, and a second pool overlooked a small waterfall. Not too shabby.

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After a while we realized we had stayed way longer than we had intended, and the place was about to close. We quickly packed up and made our way to the cabin we had rented for the night. The rest of our group had already arrived and started preparing a nabe (hot pot) dinner. I’m convinced there’s nothing nicer on a winter evening than a Japanese nabe, especially when surrounded by friends. There are versions of this type of communal hot pot dinner in many Asian countries, and I always enjoy the process (even though I will say that I like the flavor of the Japanese version more than the Vietnamese lau). As we cooked dinner Dasha made spiced wine, and we had a lovely, silly, slightly drunken time.

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Nabe party! Photo by Lindsay

In the morning one of the ladies had thoughtfully brought a waffle iron, so we had a leisurely waffle breakfast, followed by one last onsen. This time we chose a spot overlooking the infamous Mt. Aso. This particular volcano is one of the easiest mountains to recognize – it has a trademark jagged rim, which is both really cool to look at and a bit terrifying to think of, given how recently it went off. But we were far enough away to enjoy the view without too much fear, and so we had a lovely morning soak. By the end of our time in the onsen we were, surprise, alone again. Cameras came out, and we decided to take a few photos. The whole thing was such a strange combination of super Japanese and not at all culturally appropriate, but extremely fun and pretty memorable.

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Onsen #3 – the mountain in the distance is Mt. Aso

Finally it was time to go home. We took a commemorative group photo, hugged goodbye, and hit the road again. My car held up just fine, and we made it back without incident. I was happy to be home and ready to not drive again for a while, but I could easily have spent another day or two soaking in the onsen town. It’s been a few weeks now and I can definitely say I’m ready to go again!

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Kagoshima Road Trip – Camping, Hot Springs and Archery

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Selfie at Cape Nagasakibana, in front of Mt. Kaimondake (the “Fuji of Satsuma”)

On the road again after my stop at the Ibusuki sand baths, I took several detours – I visited Cape Nagasakibana, the southernmost tip of the Satsuma peninsula, and Lake Ikeda, the largest lake in Kyushu. Both were gorgeous, offering stunning views (despite the crazy heat) and interesting history. A highlight for me was the statue of Lake Ikeda’s resident monster, Issie (pronounced ee-shee), which is absolutely the Japanese version of Nessie. The lake is actually home to giant eels, so as far as I’m concerned the lake does in fact have monsters.

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The infamous Isshie

Monster hunting out of the way, I drove the last hour to Makurazaki, where I was decidedly late to the JET party. I arrived at a small port and was playfully scolded by the ferrymen who had taken the others over to the beach three hours earlier. Basically, the beach we went to was part of the mainland, but separated by seriously rocky terrain that makes in inaccessible by anything other than small boats. I hopped on the boat and I knew it was going to be great – the sun was out, the weather was hot but perfect for swimming, and the scenery was absolutely stunning. It reminded me a bit of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, but with almost nobody around and no garbage in the water.

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A gorgeous beach all to ourselves

Once at the beach it exceeded my expectations. The water was clear, the sun was shining, and I had a blast swimming and chatting with friends.

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The view from our campsite

Eventually it was time to head back to the mainland, so we packed up and dried off. The whole event was a camping trip, so we drove out to our campsite, which turned out to be a gorgeous park overlooking the ocean. And much to my surprise, the camping was both legal, encouraged, and completely free. It was amazing! We pitched the tents and a group of us decided we still felt a bit salty after the swim, so we took advantage of a nearby onsen to clean off. This was my third onsen in two days, and although it wasn’t particularly fancy, it was definitely my favorite. We arrived just as the sun was setting, and the outdoor hot springs offered an amazing view of the sunset over the ocean and the cape. It was one of those moments where everything felt at peace, and I remembered how lucky I was to be there, to have these experiences.

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Group photo at the campsite

We dried off and ate some ramen, then spent a good few hours playing games and drinking maybe a bit too much at the campsite. In the morning the sun was strong and the heat drove us out of our tents early in the morning. We packed up, took a group photo, and set off on our separate ways. My friend Jean and I decided to go through Kagoshima City on our way back home and check out an archery event. I enjoyed having company for this leg of the trip, and we arrived in time to have lunch at one of my favorite bakeries before braving the crowds at Sengan-en Gardens.

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Sengan-en Gardens has a pretty amazing view of Sakurajima on a clear day

We got off to a bit of a rough start with crazy traffic and some seriously incompetent parking attendants who seemed to think the only way to communicate with me was through stern looks and gestures. After being accidentally hit in the face during one of these gestures (and then getting no acknowledgment that I’d just been hit in the face) it was eventually made clear that the attendant wanted me to back up through the parking spot he had directed me to, not into it. But eventually it all worked out. I tried to channel my sister’s signature death glare his way, but sadly I don’t think he cared. I eventually let it go and we went into the gardens.

The event, called yabusame, is a type of very traditional horseback archery. I’ve written about it before. The event was free with admission to the garden, but took a while to start, so we wandered the grounds, admired the horses, and watched the archers warm up. We also ran into a large group of Kagoshima JETs, and almost everyone from our camping trip.

When the main event finally started, it was just as cool as we’d hoped. Archers, dressed to the nines in the most fantastic traditional gear, rode their horses at top speed past two targets. The goal was obviously to hit both, and it was no easy feat! There were a number of archers of varying skill levels, which you could determine based on their clothes. The best archers had deerskin over their hakama pants, and were decked out in all kinds of accessories. The lower level archers still looked cool, but had a bit less flare. All of them looked like Japanese cowboys, due in large part to the hats. It’s safe to say I enjoyed the clothes and the archery in equal parts.

Once the event wound down we had to brave the crowds yet again. Even though this all took place in September, it was ridiculously hot, and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. We were all probably a bit dehydrated, and just looking at the archers in their full gear made me sweat. But eventually we made it to my air conditioned car, and then back home. I was exhausted, but in the best way. All in all, it was a fantastic weekend.

Dalat, Day 2

On the second day of our trip to Dalat we had decided to ride a cable car into the mountains, see some waterfalls, and then take a tour of local farms in the afternoon. But before all of that, we started our day with breakfast at the homestay.

Breakfast at the hostel was a do-it-yourself type deal, with omelet supplies readily available, and plenty of bread and Dalat strawberry jam. We came down a bit late so most of the guests had already left. This meant we got to spend the morning with one of the house residents, an older woman who spoke no English and had no intention of letting that stop her from having full conversations with the guests. She would speak to us in Vietnamese with plenty of gestures and expressions, and we would do the same in English. She was by far our favorite person at the homestay, with a huge personality and a lot to say.

Coffee beans laid out to dry
Coffee beans laid out to dry

After breakfast we took a taxi to the base of the cable car, where we took in a lovely view of the city, and came across sheets of coffee beans, drying in the sun. After snapping a few pictures and wondering who the beans belonged to, we made our way to the cable car and rode up with an Israeli guy who told us all about his travels. The views were lovely, and I was really enjoying being in the mountains after months of life in the delta.

The city of Da Lat
The city of Da Lat

At the top of the cable car we found our way to the monastery, which was nice enough. Mostly we wandered through the gardens, watched other tourists (mostly Russians), and enjoyed a nice, sunny day.

Taking time to smell the roses at the monastery
Taking time to smell the roses at the monastery

After walking through the monastery we decided to walk to the waterfall, which we were told was about 2 kilometers (roughly 1.2 miles) away, and definitely within walking distance.

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Now, I should say that in Vietnam, if you ask for walking directions almost anywhere, even just a few blocks away, people think it’s weird. People pretty much take their bikes or motos everywhere. So, when the woman at the monastery assured us the walk was short, we believed her. Turns out we shouldn’t have, since the walk was way longer than we had anticipated. But after about an hour of walking, with a few pit stops for dried fruit and fresh persimmons, we found the waterfall.

Walking by a lake on our way to the waterfall
Walking by a lake on our way to the waterfall

The first thing we noticed is that we had to pay to see the waterfall, which was a bit strange, but we accepted it and went in. Once inside the gate, at the top of a hill, we saw a sign for a “roller coaster” that could take us down the hill to the waterfall. Lisa and Annin were really excited about it, so I set aside my fear of roller coasters and decided to give it a try – it was more of a toboggan slide than a roller coaster, and I was put in charge of the break. The ride was a bit scary, but a lot of fun. Annin and I were screaming the whole way, but I used the break every time we passed a “break!” sign, which was probably a good idea – some of the turns really made me think we might fly off the rails (though that probably would never happen…. right?).

Toboggan on the way back up - no screaming this time.
Toboggan on the way back up – no screaming this time.

But anyway, we all made it safely to the bottom, where we admired a very nice waterfall. Before we went up to the waterfall, we saw that there was yet another cable car, and since we had bought tickets for every other type of transport that day, we figured it was probably best to ride this as well. The ride was super short, and it took us to a smaller waterfall. There was nowhere to go, but there was a glass elevator built into the rock, and for another fee we could ride the elevator down. We all decided this sounded a bit absurd, and we rode back to the main waterfall.

Pretty!
Pretty!

As we were looking at the big waterfall, we noticed a man dressed as a monkey wandering around. We weren’t sure exactly why he was there, but Annin went to go take a picture with him. He promptly turned around when she walked up to him for a picture, which we assumed meant he wanted us to pay for the photo (though he never said anything, or did anything to suggest we pay). We went ahead and took pictures with his back turned, and right after the photo below was taken, he angrily shoved Annin away. While we were standing next to the drop off for the waterfall on slippery rocks. She was totally fine, but we were a bit shocked.

Evil monkey man and a very happy Annin
Evil monkey man and a very happy Annin

Since everyone was alright we laughed it off and took the “roller coaster” back up the hill, since it had a suspension deal that pulled us back up. We headed back to town and had lunch by the lake.

IMG_2611 In the afternoon we went back to the homestay and the owner lead us on a walk through the neighboring farms. The terrain was a bit treacherous, and another guest who was walking with us slipped and fell down a hill leading to the strawberry plants. He was alright, but after that we were all very cautious.

Strawberry fields forever
Strawberry fields forever
Lisa and Annin showing off their musical grass skills
Lisa and Annin showing off their musical grass skills

We walked through fields of flowers, stawberries, broccoli, and countless other plants that I have since forgotten. We walked around for over an hour and the scenery was lovely. At the end of the tour we watched the sun set over the farms and went back to the homestay to cook dinner.

Dinner at the homestay
Dinner at the homestay

Welcome to Da Lat!

After departing from Ho Chi Minh City by plane, Annin, Lisa, Pase and I made our way to Da Lat – a city in the central highlands known for strawberries, flowers, and cool weather. It’s also more of a destination for domestic tourists, and is often skipped by foreigners, which is a big mistake in my opinion.

Cloudy sky over pagoda #2
Cloudy sky over pagoda #2

Flying in it was very clear that the area was going to be beautiful – we could see mountains and lakes from the air. The drive from the airport was also beautiful, even if the cab driver made a mysterious call in the middle of the drive, handed us the phone and a voice informed us we would have to pay d30,000 ($1.50) more than the taxi voucher said. Despite our protests, when we arrived at our homestay, the taxi driver was adamant, and eventually we had to give in. This is a pretty common occurrence in Vietnam – many times you can get a taxi voucher from the airport with a flat rate for taxis, but they will try anything and everything to get more than you paid for, since they can pocket any extra money, rather than going through the airport service.

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In any event, we arrived safe and sound at our homestay, and were immediately given a delicious lunch of homemade noodles, and the owner of the business, Hoang, told us all about his decision to turn his family’s house into a homestay, his tour offerings, and a bunch of other information. It was all a bit overwhelming, so we retreated to our rooms and decided to just walk into town by ourselves, rather than take him up on a tour.

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The homestay was a bit out of the way, but it was a nice walk into town. On the way we passed three different pagodas, all of which were very interesting. The first was very pretty, and we saw monks walking across the grounds and praying in a nearby building. Walking around, a man informed me that the bonsai trees cost several thousand dollars, which was very impressive, but unfortunately he couldn’t explain t to me why there were two topiaries in the shape of teapots… I suppose this will remain a mystery.

No clue why this was in a monastery...
No clue why this was in a monastery…

Pagoda number two was attached to the first one, but was rundown and seemingly abandoned for the most part. It was clear that people maintained the altars, which held fresh flowers and offerings, but the rest of the facilities were in disrepair. It was a bit eerie, wandering around, but also very beautiful.

A sly looking elephant at the abandoned temple
A sly looking elephant at the abandoned temple

The final pagoda was probably the strangest. We were drawn in by a giant sculpture of a dragon, which we could easily see over the gate and down the street. This thing was massive! It circled half the grounds, and was quite a sight. And it wasn’t the only spectacle – the entire pagoda was littered with sculptures and paintings of various Buddhist stories. Honestly, we thought they had something for every single Buddhist story, from the life of the Buddha to the Journey to the West. It was fascinating, and we all wandered around testing our memory of each story depicted.

A bit of scale - this dragon was HUGE and wound all around one half of the grounds. I'm standing next to only one portion - it was too bit to fully photograph
A bit of scale – this dragon was HUGE and wound all around one half of the grounds. I’m standing next to only one portion – it was too big to fully photograph

After taking a plethora of photos at the monasteries, we walked into town in search of the lake. We never actually got there, but we did wander into an awesome bakery where we purchased everything with an interesting name, and a few things that just looked great. We kept wandering around, but eventually had to call it quits in order to return in time for dinner at the homestay. We found a taxi and set out, but after a few blocks it became clear that the meter was rigged. We debated what to do for a minute, and decided to call him out on it. We told him to pull over and hopped out of the cab. The price was double what it should have been, and we refused to pay. We started walking away and the taxi driver, angry at our decision, started following us, and tried to cut us off by driving up onto the sidewalk. We continued walking around him, even when he tried this at least three more times. When we got to an intersection, he took a right, headed in what he knew was the direction of our homestay. We promptly took a left, and walked on until we realized he had given up and driven away. The whole experience was a bit scary, but everything was fine in the end. Most of the areas were well lit and crowded, and when we got out we realized where we were, and walked the remaining distance to our homestay without incident.

An interesting statue and a very expensive bonsai
An interesting statue and a very expensive bonsai

Dinner that night was a group affair – we helped cook curry and a few other dishes, then sat outside with the other homestay guests, plus people from the hotel down the street. There must have been 15-20 people total, and it was a bit awkward, but the food was tasty. That night we played cards and proceeded to eat all of the baked goods, some of which were better than others. One particularly memorable item was a “coconut cake” that tasted like mashed potatoes… not what I was expecting. After Annin crushed us in the card game, we decided on our plans for the next day and went to bed.

It's all about the details - a porcelain mosaic dragon with wire whiskers
It’s all about the details – a porcelain mosaic dragon with wire whiskers