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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Month One – A Quick Summary

Hello everyone!

Pancake breakfast with friends before a roadtrip
Pancake breakfast with friends before a roadtrip

I’m so so sorry I’ve neglected my blog since arriving in Japan. It’s been a fantastically busy month, and every time I’ve sat down to write, something fun has popped up and I couldn’t say no. So, while I’d love to go into detail on all of my adventures thus far, I’ve decided to at least start with a quick summary and lots of photos!

Bonchi Matsuri

Ready to dance!
Ready to dance!

Before I’d even left St. Louis, I signed up to dance with the Miyakonojo International Association at Bonchi Matsuri, the city’s largest summer festival. I showed up to city hall on Saturday afternoon and was promptly helped into a yukata (a summer kimono). The process was fascinating, and there’s no way I could have done it on my own.

All dressed up in a yukata
All dressed up in a yukata

Once we were all dressed it was time to learn the dance! For the festival, lots of different groups around town each learned a different dance to the same song, and we all performed together on the city streets. In what I would learn is typical matsuri fashion, the streets were lined with food stalls, offering all sorts of food on sticks, shaved ice, ice cream, and tons of other tasty treats. These proved to be very distracting during the actual dance, when after 20 minutes we all wanted to take off the tightly-bound yukatas and gorge on yakitori (chicken on a stick) and nikumaki onigiri (fried meat rice balls. These turned out to be delicious). But somehow we made it through the dance without messing up too badly, and were able to change back into our normal clothes for the rest of the night. If you want to see us dancing, click here for the video!

Tasty treats! (Photo by Lauren)
Tasty treats! (Photo by Lauren)

The evening wrapped up with a fireworks show, because Japan loves fireworks.

Himawari Matsuri (Sunflower festival)

Look at all the sunflowers!
Look at all the sunflowers! (photo by Meagan)

The following weekend I set out with some friends to check out the Takanabe Himawari Matsuri. The entire event was essentially a giant field (usually used for farming squash, I think) was covered in thousands (possibly millions) of sunflowers, and somewhere in the middle they set up observation decks and food stalls. That’s basically all it was, but it was pretty stunning to look at. We also quickly discovered that one of the stalls sold authentic Chinese food (the owners were from Taiwan) which was amazing. While I have yet to grow tired of Japanese food, my companions were entering into their 4th and 5th years in Japan, and were overjoyed.

The whole gang - all of us are ALTs in Miyakonojo
The whole gang – all of us are ALTs in Miyakonojo (Photo by Eddy)

Continuing the foreign food trend, we joined up with another group of festival-going JETs and stopped by a Thai restaurant in Miyazaki City on the way home. It was delicious, and it was nice to learn that Miyazaki has a decent selection of foreign foods, since I know come winter I’ll be missing certain foods.

Posing with the Miyazaki Ken, and my friend Phil (photo by Meagan)
Posing with the Miyazaki Ken, and my friend Phil (photo by Meagan)

Miyazaki Orientation

Seemingly everyday things here still amaze me. For example, how did everyone fit their cars into this lot, and how on earth will they get out???
Seemingly everyday things here still amaze me. For example, how did everyone fit their cars into this lot, and how on earth will they get out???

While not quite as exciting as the previously mentioned festivals, the official orientation in Miyazaki City was a big part of my first month, and it gave me a chance to see a bit of the capital of Miyazaki. As with Tokyo Orientation it was three days of lectures and seminars, but this time much smaller, and with a bit more focus on what we will actually face here in Miyazaki. I enjoyed trying out local restaurants during lunch time and spent one night in the city with friends, which was a lot of fun. It was also my first time using trains in Japan, and the experience proved to be very easy and comfortable. Sadly, trains aren’t as convenient here on Kyushu as they are in other parts of Japan, but I’m sure I’ll use them at least a little in the coming year.

Driving back from Miyazaki with Molly, as she learns to drive on the left side of the road. (Photo by Phil)
Driving back from Miyazaki with Molly, as she learns to drive on the left side of the road. (Photo by Phil)

Kumamoto Day trip

Lots of Buddha statues in Kumamoto
Lots of Buddha statues in Kumamoto

The weekend following orientation I went to Kumamoto City with two friends who were meeting up with someone visiting from Tokyo. Kumamoto isn’t too far away, and turned out to be a much bigger city than Miyakonojo. We went to a temple with 500 Buddhas, which was apparently known as the location where a famous book was written. We didn’t really know much about that, but it was pretty.

Kumamoto Castle
Kumamoto Castle

Then it was on to Kumamoto Castle. It was hot and muggy and there were tons of people around, so we decided against going into the actual castle and instead went to the nearby shrine. Turns out that’s the best place to get photos of the castle anyway, and far less crowded.

Castle selfies w/ Maegan and Eddy, and the castle's mascot (notice how everything has a mascot here?) (Photo by Meagan)
Castle selfies w/ Maegan and Eddy, and the castle’s mascot (notice how everything has a mascot here?) (Photo by Meagan)

We wrapped up the evening by walking around the city center, and I had my first experience with “purikura” photo booths. I gotta say, I think these things are kinda scary. The idea is that they take photos and automatically make them glamour shots by whitening your skin, enlarging and brightening your eyes, and generally making you look like an alien. But it was a lot of fun, and I’m sure it won’t be my last time.

"Purikura" falls somewhere between ridiculous and a little be scary, but it's all good fun
“Purikura” falls somewhere between ridiculous and a little be scary, but it’s all good fun

Day Trip to Aya

Aya Suspension Bridge
Aya Suspension Bridge

For the last weekend of the month I had planned on going to the Cape Toi Fire Festival, but sadly the event was rained out. Instead a group of friends took the day to drive up to Aya, a mountain town nearby. It’s famous for a massive suspension bridge between two mountains, and a castle.

First up we visited the bridge, and it was amazing to look at. I’m proud to say I walked all the way across and back, and rewarded myself for the feat with mango soft serve on the way out. One thing I’ve recently discovered is that Japan has pretty fantastic soft serve ice cream, and I foresee this becoming a bit of a problem…

Aya Castle

After the bridge we went to Aya Castle, which had a small museum inside and offered a nice view of the town from the top.

Group photo at the castle
Group photo at the castle (photo by Maegan)
The view from Aya Castle
The view from Aya Castle

We ended the day with burgers back in Miyakonojo, at this adorable diner. The owner is apparently obsessed with American diner culture, and makes a mean burger. I’ll definitely be back!

Look at that beautiful American-style burger!
Look at that beautiful American-style burger!

That’s about what I did for my first month in Japan. I’ll write more about where I live, what it’s like getting around, and what the food is like in a later post. A quick word about my school though, because I have been asked about this recently. Student privacy is taken very seriously in Japan, and as such I will not be posting photos of my students, school, or anything else that could be viewed as an invasion of privacy by the school. Toto, we’re not in Vietnam anymore.

Japanese Countryside in Kumamoto
Japanese Countryside in Kumamoto