Land of the Yakisugi – Yakushima (Part 3)

Sunday was our last full day on Yakushima, and we were determined to get a long hike in. The weather gods appeared to be on our side, and when we woke up it was sunny and warm. We packed our trail snacks and water bottles and hit the road for Yakisugi Land, one of the most popular hiking spots on the island.

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Yakisugi Land

Yakisugi Land has several trails of varying lengths, all starting and ending in the same spots. It’s basically a big loop, with bridges at various points to take you back to the parking lot. Annin and I were set on a long hike, so we chose the 150 minute path (the longest one) and decided we’d do a second hike after lunch.

As we gathered our packs in the car we barely noticed a large tour bus pulling into the parking lot, and took our time getting set up and stopping by the restrooms. This was a big mistake. We went through the park entrance only to find ourselves behind a large tour group stopping for pictures every two seconds. We glared at the tour guide (clad in loafers and a suit, this was clearly not a group that cared about hiking!) but he made no move to ask his group to step aside and let us through. Luckily we found a detour which took us to the “Thousand Year Cedar” and away from the group. The tree was cool, but the silence and ability to move at a reasonable pace were better.

IMG_8803When we got back to the main trail we had thankfully lost the tour, and so we made our way through the forest. At first the trail was entirely paved, and we were worried that our hike would turn out to be more of a stroll. But as we continued on the pavement gave way to a path of roots and stones and we were relieved.

After an hour or so of hiking we reached a split in the trail. One path led back to the parking lot, our intended route, but the other led to Tachudake, a massive stone monolith we had read about in the guidebook. It took almost no time for us to decide on the more challenging trail. One thing about traveling with Annin is that we always push each other to go just a bit further than planned, always with the express acknowledgment that we can turn back if it gets tough (which we’ve never done so far). This combined can-do spirit and acceptance of our own limits is what makes traveling together so fun.

IMG_8807So we set out to find the monolith and immediately found ourselves pleasantly alone in the forest. The hike was definitely a challenge, but the solitude and scenery were well worth it. The terrain was a bit steep, especially for the final forty minutes. In several sections we had to use ropes to help us climb, but that only added to the fun.

On our way up we passed maybe five or so people, but by the time we climbed the final bit to the top, we had the peak to ourselves.

We had a nice lunch of onigiri (rice balls) packed by our lovely hostel owner, and then scrambled up onto the monolith itself to take in the view. It was absolutely stunning, and well worth the effort.

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Hiking selfie or 90s LL Bean catalog?

After an hour or so at the top we made our descent back to the main trail. It had gotten windy and we wanted to get down the mountain as quickly as possible. The return trip was easier, and after an hour and a half we were back at the main trail. We were thrilled to have made it back, except we still had two kilometers to go before we could peel off our hiking boots and eat the chocolate waiting for us in the car. That last leg was definitely the most difficult part of the whole day…

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I am definitely still afraid of heights

When we finally got back to the car we were exhausted, but very pleased with ourselves. We had worked hard and had a great time, and so we rewarded ourselves with a Yakushima specialty – yakushika, or local deer. This was only my second time eating venison, and I really like it. The gyoza were an added treat.

As always we ended our day at a hot spring, and I’m convinced there is no better way to end a day of hiking. Back at the hostel I was exhausted, and quickly climbed into bed, ready to rest up for our trip home.

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Yakushima – a magical, beautiful place

Yakushima surpassed all my expectations and turned out to be one of my favorite places in Japan. There is something really special about that island, and I hope one day I can return to experience more of what Yakushima has to offer.

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A Rainy Day in Yakushima (Part 2)

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If you ask the locals about the weather, you’ll hear that in Yakushima it rains 35 days a month. This is only partly a joke. Yakushima is one of the wettest parts of Japan, and this near constant rain is what keeps the forests so lusciously green.

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A shrine at the top of Hirauchi Onsen

Having attended college in Tacoma, Washington, Annin and I were sure we could handle the rain. We’d been outdoors in the rain plenty of times before! With such similar scenery to the Pacific Northwest, we assumed the rain in Yakushima would be just like the rain in Washington.

We were wrong.

While the near-constant state of rain is similar to the PNW, Yakushima definitely gets more rain at any given time. In fact, Seattle gets roughly 36 inches of rain a year. Yakushima gets a whopping 176 inches. Needless to say, we were a bit taken aback when we woke up to heavy rain and quickly cancelled our hiking plans.

Luckily, renting a car provided us with lots of flexibility to change our plans, and we mapped out a course to drive around the island in search of waterfalls and hot springs.

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Ohko no Taki

First up was Ohko no Taki, probably the best known, but also the furthest away. Yakushima is about 200 square miles, but the only roads are along the perimeter. The center of the island is almost entirely mountainous. You can’t quite circle the island (there’s a stretch of nature preserve on the Western coast we were told not to drive on), but if you could it would probably take about two hours. Surprisingly, many of the waterfalls on Yakushima are easily accessible from the main road, and most are clearly marked.

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We walked around Ohko no Taki a bit and then got back into the car. Our main aim for the day was to time everything out so we could visit Hirauchi Onsen, an ocean hot springs that was only accessible during low tide. We still had a bit of time to kill, so we stopped by the Tsukazaki tide pools, which would have been lovely if they hadn’t been covered in washed up garbage. The picture above was taken with the trash just out of sight, but it really was sad. Clearly all of it had washed ashore from mainland Japan, since the people on Yakushima do a really good job of keeping everything else clean. It was a reminder that all of the amazing natural beauty on the island needs constant maintenance and protection. We didn’t stick around the beach for long, and quickly made our way to the onsen.

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Hirauchi Onsen

I’ve mentioned onsen and onsen etiquette in previous posts, but what I have failed to mention is that most onsen are separated by gender. Most, but not all. Hirauchi Onsen is a mixed gender hot spring, which neither Annin nor I had much experience with. In fact, Annin had never been to a mixed onsen (or “konyoku“) before, and I had been only once, sort of by accident. The general rule at a konyoku is that women wrap themselves in a towel, and men usually have a small towel as well (though, in typically gendered  fashion, they don’t really have to). We were totally game for this onsen, but realized too late that our towels were a bit small. After a bit of frantic googling to see if full sized towels were an absolute necessity, we were relieved to read they were only a suggestion. After a long discussion and a fair amount of nerves on my part, we decided that we’d never see any of the people at the onsen again, and we were just going to go for it!

IMG_8779Once we’d reached the Onsen I had second thoughts. There were no changing areas, just a slightly lowered rock that provided a tiny bit of cover. We stood on the path debating yet again, when an older woman who was already in the water started calling us over. She was super cheerful and said the water was lovely, we should come on in. That was the push I needed, and so we made our way down to the water.

It took some awkward maneuvering, but we were able to cover ourselves enough to feel ok walking into the water. The old woman was thrilled to learn we could speak some Japanese, and spent the next half hour chatting with us. It turns out that she lived on the island and came to this onsen every day, but women coming to this onsen was pretty rare. Mostly tourists come to take a picture of the ocean, but are too nervous to get in themselves. I can understand that, especially if you’re not used to onsen culture in Japan, but I can honestly say that this was one of the best experiences on our trip. We had such a fun time chatting with the locals, and it was such a beautiful, unique experience. But next time, I’m bringing a full sized towel.

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Senpiro Falls

After our soak in the hot springs we made our way into the town of Anbo for lunch at a tea house, and then it was back to waterfall hunting. The roads became slightly more confusing on the way to Senpiro Falls, but the view was definitely worth it.

The final waterfall of the day was Touroki Falls, which is the only waterfall in Japan that falls directly into the ocean. This one took a little bit of a walk to get to, but luckily by then the rain had cleared a bit.

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Touroki Falls

With our waterfall search complete, we decided that we needed to clean up a bit. The ocean hot springs had been fun, but I can’t say as I felt particularly clean afterward. So we found yet another hot spring, Onoaida Onsen, this one separated as usual. Turns out Onoaida is known for its super hot water. I could only last about a minute and a half in the water, but after using the showers I felt much better.

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The hostel had two cats! That orange one is much friendlier than he looks.

At the end of the day we went back to the hostel for dinner with the other guests. We ate nabe (hot pot) and flying fish sashimi, a Yakushima specialty. The dinner was a bit awkward, but fun, and afterward we stayed up chatting with a few of the other guests about travel and the cultural differences between Japan and America. It really pushed my Japanese to the limit, but I had a good time.

After a while I headed to bed and slept like a log after a fun, full day.

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The friendliest hostel owner on Yakushima!

Yakushima: Mystical Forest Island (Part 1)

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Tired feet at the top of the trail

It’s finally April, which means a number of big things here in Japan. First, it’s almost cherry blossom (sakura) season, a frantically busy time where everyone does their best to spend as much time under cherry trees as possible. The buds haven’t bloomed just yet, but it’s coming, and everyone is feeling the need to get outside and embrace the warmer weather.

April also means the start of the new school year. Teachers have been transferred, new teachers and staff will arrive soon. The students are all off on spring break, which means most of them are actually at school for club activities or to keep studying… Yes, after two years it’s still hard for me to get over this particular culture shock.

But for me, April signaled the true beginning of the end. I have four months left in Japan, and this will be my last semester teaching. I’ve got a bucket list a mile long, with not nearly enough money or time to get through everything, but that won’t stop me from trying. And one of the biggest items on my list, “visit Yakushima” has just been checked.

Yakushima is part of the Osumi Islands of Kagoshima

Yakushima isn’t usually the first place people think of when planning a trip to Japan. To be honest, I’d never even heard of it before I moved here. But when I started researching places to go in Southern Japan, this little island quickly moved to the top of my list.

Located off the southern coast of Kyushu, Yakushima is technically part of Kagoshima prefecture. It takes about two hours to get there via high-speed ferry, and the island itself has a population of about 14,000. The draw of Yakushima has always been its dense cedar forests, full of “yakusugi,” trees which are estimated to be between 1,000 and 7,000 years old. In the past these forests were heavily logged, but since the 1960s there has been an extremely successful conservation program in place, and the forests have regained much of their grandeur.

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Welcome to Yakushima!

Annin and I set out for Yakushima early Friday morning, taking a 7:45am ferry and arriving with plenty of time to start exploring. We picked up our rental car and drove straight into the mountains for what I thought would be a light walk to acclimate ourselves. We went to Shiratani Unsuikyo, one of the most popular hiking spots on the island. It’s probably most well known as the inspiration for Miyazaki Hayao’s “Princess Mononoke,” and indeed when we spoke with a park employee at the entrance he pointed out the specific spot on the map that tourists have named the “Mononoke Forest.” Looking at the map, it became clear that I had confused a few different trails, and this was a bit more of a hike than we had intended. But we had full water bottles, hiking books and plenty of “genki” spirit, so we decided to go for it.

Shiratani Unsuikyo, despite being a popular destination, felt serene. The forests reminded me of the Pacific Northwest, with giant trees and deep green moss over everything. The trails we used were originally logging trails, made in the Edo Period (1600s – 1860s) with found stones and bits of wood. They’ve been maintained amazingly well, and the first hour and a half of the hike was smooth sailing. The final part of the trail is an added loop up to Taikoiwa, a massive rock peak from which we were told there might be a good view of the island, depending on the weather. After a very short discussion we decided we might as well give this last leg a shot, and took the steep path up.

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The view from the top

Taikoiwa did not disappoint. Despite gray skies and overall gloomy weather, the view from the top was lovely. The valley was completely filled with mist, and we felt on top of the world.

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Our hike back down was quiet, which was wonderful. There’s truly something magical about the forest in Yakushima that put me completely at ease. There were several moments along the trails where I felt the need to stop and just soak it all in. In Japanese, I think this is sometimes called “shinrin yoku” or “forest bathing.” It did indeed feel like a mental cleanse, and as we made our way back to the trailhead I felt refreshed and ready to take on whatever the weekend had in store for us.

After running into a friend of a friend on the way back to the car (it’s a small world!) we made our way to our hostel, Tomarigi. We were a bit apprehensive, since we’d booked one of the cheapest hostels on the island, but our worries disappeared as soon as we met the owner. I swear, I have never met a nicer woman in my life. She showed us around and we felt instantly at home. We planned out the next day with her help, then decided to wash up at a local hot spring followed by dinner at a surprisingly trendy cafe down the road.

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It was a great start to a fantastic trip.

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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How to Spend a Summer in Japan

The start of my second year in Japan marks the end of my first full Japanese summer. Summer is a fantastic time to be in Japan (despite the high temperatures and killer humidity) as it’s the height of festival season. Everywhere in Japan, from tiny towns to major cities, has its own festival, and if I had the energy I could spend every weekend watching fireworks and eating festival food. It’s a nice change from winter, which gets pretty quiet as everyone hides inside under their kotatsu.

Since I’ve only done this once, I’m no expert, but in my experience I’ve learned there are a few key aspects to having a great summer in Japan. Below I’ll walk you through my list of things to do for summer.

Matsuri

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Okage Matsuri with friends. Meagan dressed us all in yukata!

First and foremost the above-mentioned festivals, known in Japanese as “matsuri.” They’re everywhere, and most of them follow the same format of performance, street food, fireworks. But with a bit of digging you can find some really interesting matsuri, since they often celebrate a specific event, product, holiday or crop. In Miyakonojo we kicked off the matsuri season with the Okage Matsuri – giant lanterns were lit and carried in procession, taiko performances were held at a local shrine, and it was generally just good fun. Lanterns are always a good bet for a pretty night out, and you can find lots of lantern festivals, going into fall as well. There’s also the Takanabe lantern festival in October, where local kids decorate paper lanterns, and if you show up early you can help light them. The highlight of the Takanabe festival is their “river of light,” with bamboo lanterns set up to look like a flowing river down the hill. It’s gorgeous.

Wear a Yukata

If you get a chance, wearing a yukata to a summer festival is a cool way to engage in the local culture. While there has been a lot of discussion in the US about cultural appropriation when it comes to clothing, while in Japan it’s a bit of a different story. My Japanese friends and colleagues were thrilled to hear I had an interest in kimono, and whole events are organized around dressing foreigners up. Of course, you should always be respectful and try to learn about the piece of culture you are participating in.

Beer Gardens

Spending time outdoors is a summer must, and with the Japanese heat it’s usually best done at night, preferably with a cool drink in hand. Beer gardens abound in Japan, and are usually set up as “nomihoudai” or all-you-can-drink. Make a reservation, and show up with your friends or coworkers prepared to have a good time. One of my favorite summer memories this year was of a night at a beer garden with my Japanese teacher and her other students (my friends and fellow ALTs). The beer garden was on the roof of a hotel, so we had a lovely view of the sunset over town. And our teacher was super prepared – she brought silly games and punishments for losing, such as silly straw glasses and fake mustaches. It was such a fun night!

Fireworks

Japan is all about the fireworks! All festivals will have at least a small fireworks display, and it’s perfectly legal to buy your own. On a few occasions I went out and lit fireworks with friends, and it was always a good time. Plus, it’s a great way to amaze most international friends – fireworks (even sparklers) are illegal in many parts of the world!

See Some Nature

It’s summer, so you have to get outside! Japan, as always, is all about seasonal flowers, and so there are often gardens set up for viewing. Early summer is hydrangeas, and there’s a full hydrangea park in my area. Grab your camera and picnic gear and go enjoy some beautiful scenery.

Camping is also a great option. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m planning a camping trip for next month to tie in with a local fire festival. Last year the festival was rained out, so fingers crossed I get to see it this year!

Take a Roadtrip

If you have access to a car, Japan is green and gorgeous in the summer, and a roadtrip is a great way to see the countryside. Seriously, Japan has so many vivid shades of green I’d never seen before, it is stunning.

Go Swimming

A summer classic just about everywhere. Japan being an island, you can usually get to the beach if that’s what you want, but my favorite swimming hole is Sarugajo Gorge, over in Kagoshima. It takes a bit of a hike to get to the swimming area, but the water is clear and the area is gorgeous. I’ve heard from several ALTs that this is their favorite place in all of Japan, and it’s easy to see why.

And that’s about it. With so many great options and only so many weekends, the hardest part of summer is finding the time to do everything. I’ve still got a few weeks left, and I intend to do my best to get out and do as much as I can before the weather turns cold again.

Holy Sakura, Batman: It’s Cherry Blossom Season!


Hello again! Once again my post is waaaay behind schedule. I’ve had almost nothing to do at work for the past few weeks, but somehow I’ve found that it’s hardest to get work done when I have more free time. I also feel more tired and less enthusiastic about my job when there’s nothing to do, so I’m very excited for classes to start back up after exams! If you’re wondering why there’s a long break for me in the middle of spring, it’s because the Japanese school schedule is pretty different from what we use in America. The school year actually starts in April and ends in March, so my school has just started a new year, and we’re already at midterms. Actually, when I told them that my sister was graduating last week the other teachers were a bit surprised… It’s a very different system.

If you’ve ever watched Japanese TV or anime you might have noticed that there’s a particular event related to the start of a new school year, or graduation, and that’s sakura (cherry blossoms). Every year the sakura bloom in spring, and the whole country goes nuts. There’s a national sakura forecast to predict when they will bloom in each part of the country, a litany of sakura-themed/flavored items you can buy, and of course tons of “hanami” parties to go to. Hanami literally means “flower viewing,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. On weekends and in the evenings friends, family or coworkers gather in a park to sit under the sakura and eat a picnic or have a barbecue. Japan’s lack of open container/public drinking laws means alcohol is usually involved, and I’ve frequently heard the whole setup described as “getting drunk in a park season” by fellow foreigners. It’s all good fun.

At night the parks are often lit up specially for the sakura, and the atmosphere just can’t be beat. The only trick is, the sakura only bloom for a short time, a few days or a week. So everyone tries their best to get out and see them, which can lead to very crowded parks. But my friends took me to a local spot with far fewer people than the “famous” park farther away, and we managed to find a clear spot to enjoy the flowers in peace and eat my friend’s amazing homemade burritos. Not exactly traditional, but certainly delicious.

I spent almost every evening for a week hanging out in a park, and it was great. But the really fun thing about cherry blossoms is that they’re everywhere. Driving around town I noticed that all of the trees I’d previously thought might be dead were in fact sakura, and for that one week they were gorgeous. Sadly that is the downside of sakura – they’ve pretty much been bred so that they have an abundance of flowers and very few leaves, but everything falls after a week and the trees spend most of the year looking dead. But that’s also part of the Japanese aesthetic appeal. The idea of “aware” (pronounced phonetically, ah-wa-rae), translated sometimes as “fleeting beauty” is epitomized by sakura. It’s hard to describe exactly, but it sort of means that  something is more beautiful because we know it’s temporary, and it is at its most beautiful as it disappears. In the case of sakura, this means the falling petals, which look a bit like snow if you catch a nice gust of wind. I remember studying this idea in my Japanese aesthetics course in college, but I feel like I understand it much better after having embraced the Japanese sakura fever.

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I think this is the face of “Sakura Fever” (though technically those aren’t all sakura)

A more local tradition that I was lucky enough to see this Sakura season was the Miyazaki Jingu Sakura Yabusame. Yabusame is a type of event that’s popular in my part of Kyushu. It’s essentially an archery demonstration on horseback. I’d been to one before in Kagoshima, where they trained a junior high student to race his horse down a track and shoot at three targets. The poor kid fell every time.  But at the Miyazaki Yabusame nobody fell, and in fact there were probably about 10 archers of varying ages. They raced their horses down a track lined with cherry blossom trees, which in any other year would have been dropping petals as they raced down the track, but this year they were a bit sparse. Sadly I don’t think I’ll get another shot at this particular event, since it is usually held on a weekday, and this year the calendar just happened to line up so that it was on a Sunday. Seeing everyone in their Yabusame costumes was really cool, and of course the skill involved was amazing. I also loved the people watching.

But now the sakura have all fallen. The bright pink sakura flavored pepsi is gone from stores, the students are back in school, and people have stopped visiting the parks at night. I was told this year was a bit of a sad showing for sakura due to the strange weather we’ve had (an unusually mild winter), but I thought it was lovely. I’m so glad I’ll have another shot at it next year.

Lanterns, Revisited

Lanterns in Nagasaki
Lanterns in Nagasaki

[Note: I wrote this up almost a month ago, but somehow never got around to posting it. Apologies for the delay!]

It’s amazing to think that a little over a year ago I embarked on my first solo trip. It feels like ages ago. A few weeks ago it was once again the lunar new year, celebrated in Vietnam as “Tet” and other parts of Asia as “Chinese New Year.” Japan, like much of the rest of Asia, sees the New Year as one of the most important holidays, but moved the date in line with the Gregorian calendar in the 1800s. But while China, Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan use the same calendar these days as well, the lunar calendar is still used for holidays and religious celebrations (just like in Judaism, though they do disagree on when the new year is).

While Japan as a whole doesn’t celebrate the Lunar New Year anymore (though they do have holidays that still work on a lunar calendar) there is one part of the country that does: Nagasaki. The port city of Nagasaki was the country’s most prominent center of trade, and was in fact the only city that remained open to outsiders during Japan’s period of isolation. Because of its proximity to the rest of East Asia, and its status as a gateway to the outside world, it has long catered to outside influences in a way the rest of Japan still often resists. The population of foreigners and people of foreign descent is also much higher in Nagasaki than other areas. And it’s for this reason that they hold a Chinese New Year Lantern Festival every year.

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Lanterns in Nagasaki

When my friends told me about the festival I pretty much decided on the spot that I would go. I loved the feeling of Tet and Chinese New Year in other parts of the world, and missed that atmosphere living in Japan. I also heard good things about the lanterns themselves, which turned out to be really beautiful. In fact, they were very similar to those that the Missouri Botanical Gardens used during their own lantern festival.

In any case, I booked a hotel back in November (Japan is not a great place for last minute travel decisions, especially if there’s an event) and invited my neighbor. When the date of the festival got closer, my neighbor said she couldn’t go, but luckily the festival is a popular event, and it wasn’t hard to convince other friends to go.

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Lanterns in Nagasaki

So on Thursday, February 11 I drove up to Nagasaki with my friends Mei and Eddy. We had the Thursday off for a national holiday and decided to take the Friday as well and make it a long weekend. Nagasaki is around a four or five hour drive from where I live, but to hear my coworkers talk you’d think it was more like 10 or 12. I’ve learned that Americans tend to think a lot less of long car trips, since our country is massive and we can basically drive across the whole thing (and many of us do). I mean, Nagasaki is about as far from Miyakonojo as Kansas City is from St. Louis, and I’d barely consider that a road trip. But Japan, being a series of not-so-big islands, really isn’t as on board with the road trip idea in general. Also, speed limits are waaaaay lower in Japan than in the US, and highways are almost all toll roads, which all serves as a bit of a barrier for travel. Regardless, we were determined to make it work.

After a full morning of driving, with a necessary gas/ice cream stop or two along the way, we made it to our hostel in Nagasaki. If you’re a traveler of the hostel-going variety and find yourself in Nagasaki, I’d definitely recommend AKARI, which was right on the edge of Chinatown, walking distance from all of the excitement. We unloaded and chatted with the very friendly staff before setting out to see the lanterns for ourselves.

Small lanterns lined the streets and shopping arcades, and larger lantern installations sat on street corners and along the river that ran on the outskirts of Chinatown. We made our way through the crowds and happened upon a parade. There were dragon dancers and children playing instruments, and we decided to follow them. They led us to a stage, where we learned there would be Lion Dancing. We settled in and watched a really fun show.

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If you’ve never seen Chinese Lion Dancing before, it’s pretty amazing. Each “lion” is made up of two people, wearing a joined costume. One person mans the head and front legs, while the other plays the back legs and tail. This may sound like the old joke of a two-person donkey costume, but there’s really no comparison. The two dancers move together to give the illusion that the lion is one animal, and they dance, jump, and run round the stage and through the crowd. The costume has puppet components as well, and the lions bat their eyes, waggle their tails and sometimes “eat” gifts thrown in their mouths by audience members. Below is a short clip of a professional lion dance, which is definitely a step above what I saw, but you’ll get the idea.

After the dance we ate a bit of street food and continued to wander and take pictures. Somehow in our wandering we realized it was late, and most of the restaurants were closing. We couldn’t make up our minds about what to eat, so we ended up with a conbini meal. Not ideal, but also not the worst thing in the world. We decided that the next day we would plan out our meals better, and went to bed.

Day two was mostly driving around the outskirts of the city. My friend Mei had developed an interest in kimono, so we spent the day in second hand stores looking for kimonos and the various accessories that go with them. She even convinced me to buy one or two things, which I have no idea when or where I’ll ever use, but they’re really beautiful. I’ve given some thought to taking up sewing, because used kimono are so cheap, and the fabrics used are just gorgeous…. Every time I see one in a shop I can’t help but picture how it’d look as a skirt, or a dress…. but I haven’t worked up the motivation to really pursue this interest.

In any case, after a full day of shopping we found ourselves in Sasebo, a town north of Nagasaki near a US military base. While military bases are often controversial, they do have one uncontested positive point – the plethora of restaurants that pop up around them. We ate an amazing Mexican dinner, and I remembered exactly why I missed cheese so much.

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On our third day in Nagasaki we decided to walk around the city. Nagasaki has a fair amount of tourist attractions if you’re historically or religiously minded, but my friends had been there before and already done most of them. They insisted that they’d go again if I wanted, but they didn’t sound like the idea was super appealing. Instead we wandered the streets and found cool shops, snacks and art, which is pretty much my idea of a good day anyway. We also stopped outside of Dejima, the island where the Dutch were confined to during Japan’s period of isolation. It was tiny, and honestly not much to look at. The ramen shop we found down the street was much more interesting, but it’s hard to compete with a bone marrow and chicken skin broth.

In the evening we drove to the neighboring prefecture, Saga, to check out a lantern festival. Saga is known for its ceramics and massive kilns. In fact, when we showed up we realized that it was a ceramic lantern festival, and the lanterns lined a path up the hill around a very large walk-in kiln. They had set up a cafe inside the kiln just for the festival, so we went on in and drank some coffee. It was an interesting experience, but once we went back outside it had started to rain, so the festival was a bit of a bust.

On our way back to Nagasaki for the night Eddy’s friend contacted him and invited us to dinner back in Sasebo, this time for Thai. We made our way over and had yet another fantastic meal, at a restaurant I was sort of glad we went to at night, since it sat right on a cliff. I’m sure it was a gorgeous view, but I didn’t mind not seeing the drop.

The next day it was time to leave. We packed up and checked out, then made our way to our final destination for the weekend, a massive field of plum trees. February is when the plum blossoms bloom in Japan, and while they are planted in parks and gardens all over, this place was actually a plum farm. There were thousands of trees in various stages of bloom, mostly with white flowers but with a few pink and red throughout. The really lovely thing about plum blossoms, called “ume” in Japanese, is their smell. They have a lovely cinnamon scent, which a friend described to me as “exactly like big red gum.” Standing in a whole grove of them was fabulous.

After snapping some photos and breathing in the cinnamon smell, we left the farm and headed for home. Looking back, I’m glad I made the somewhat impulsive decision to go for this trip. It was a lot of fun, and a great chance to see a unique part of Japan.