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!

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.

Hot Springs Weekend – Ibusuki, Kagoshima

Japan is made up of 47 prefectures. I live in Miyazaki, on the southern island of Kyushu. Much like in the US, it’s very easy to travel between prefectures, and many travelers make it their goal to visit as many as possible. Personally, I’ve visited roughly ten prefectures, mostly via road trips around Kyushu. The travel fanatic in me is very tempted to go the “gotta catch em all” route, but it does seem a bit unreasonable if I’m only living here for two years.

So instead of traveling the whole country, I’ve been enjoying the sights a little closer to home. A few weeks ago we had a national holiday on a Thursday, so I took the opportunity to make a long weekend for myself and do a bit of exploring in neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture.

Originally I had planned to go to Yakushima, a heavily forested island famous for ancient cedar trees and its role as inspiration for yet another Miyazaki film, Princess Mononoke. But as my trip approached so did Typhoon Malakas. There was so much talk of how big it would be and how much damage it could wreak that I decided to cancel my island trip in favor of one on the mainland. And as the storm came and went (without much damage to anything but my sleep schedule), I felt pretty happy with my decision.

While my Yakushima trip would have started on Thursday, I instead took the day to relax and clean my apartment. This plan would have gone really well if the building managers hadn’t scheduled an 8am lawn mowing. Seriously, 8am on a public holiday,  right after a late-night typhoon, for the teacher’s building. Sometimes I just don’t get this country…. Sleep was pretty much off the table, so I settled my plans, moved furniture, and generally felt productive. I packed up and the next day I set out for Ibusuki, Kagoshima.

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A handy map of Kyushu

Ibusuki is a town on the eastern coast of Kagoshima’s Satsuma peninsula. It’s not a super exciting place but it is well known for its hot springs, and for its thermal sand baths. I spent Friday night at 心の湯, an onsen (hot springs or spa) recommended to me by one of my favorite teachers. The hotel itself was nothing particularly exciting, but one thing I was particularly pleased with was the availability of a single room. Anyone who’s ever traveled solo knows that finding a single room is a challenge most places, and more likely than not you’ll end up paying full price for a double room. Not in Japan! I presume this is because of traveling businessmen, but basically if you’re looking to travel on your own you’ll have very little trouble finding single rooms and single-serving anything. It’s really nice and has made me a little bit spoiled – I’m not sure I’ll be able to go back to sharing hostel rooms after being able to get single hotel rooms for a comparable price!

But anyway, the onsen. Because I was staying at the hotel I was given a yukata, which was basically a slightly more formal robe. I could then walk next door to the spa spend as much time as I liked in the hot springs. I was pretty excited, but also a little nervous. This was only my second time going to an onsen, and I wasn’t totally sure of the rules. I’d say that onsen, while a staple of Japanese culture, are a bit notorious among foreign visitors. First, there’s the fact that they are almost always completely nude – no swimsuits allowed! This makes a lot of foreigners a bit nervous and uncomfortable, especially if you’re the only non-Japanese person there. Luckily, I’d visited a similar spa while back in the US, so I knew that after a few minutes of slight discomfort, I’d get over the whole no-clothes thing. The second reason onsen are a bit notorious, however, is due to a particular type of etiquette that needs to be observed. There are rules (both written and unwritten) about the order in which you are to shower (before you get in the baths), you must keep your hair out of the water, must be courteous to your fellow spa-goers, you must be careful with where you put your towel, etc. Famously, you are also not usually allowed in public baths if you have tattoos, since these are traditionally worn by yakuza (Japanese gangsters).

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A few Onsen no-no’s. You can read a longer list of rules here

So onsen can get a bit complicated. But after a few minutes of confusion and self doubt I managed to relax and enjoy myself. The spa was outdoors, the water was nice, and I even spent some time chatting with a few other women about the area. I took a break for dinner at the spa restaurant, then treated myself to a massage and a bit more time in the hot springs. It was a pretty relaxing evening.

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A mysterious space ship in Ibusuki

The next day I had a lot planned – the end goal was to meet up with some other JETs for a beach party on the far side of the peninsula, but there were plenty of things to do and see on the way. Leaving the hotel I passed by a really strange building and had to stop to take some pictures. This place looked like an abandoned spaceship, crashed in the middle of all these small traditional houses. I still have no idea what it actually was, but I walked around and watched as people cleaned up after the typhoon.

After that slight detour I visited a small art museum attached to the Hakusuikan hotel, which was gorgeous. They had tons of beautiful satsuma ceramics, historical information about the area, and a pretty thorough English audio guide.

Next up was the main event, the whole reason for visiting Ibusuki – the thermal sand baths! Because this area is heated by volcanic hot springs, the beaches are warm as well, and Ibusuki has made a name for itself by setting up sand spas where you get buried in this hot sand. They claim that since the sand is heated in hot spring water, it’s got amazing health benefits, and 10 minutes of lying in the sand can cure you of all your ills. I’m not so sure about that, but it was certainly an experience. I was given a yukata and then lead down to the beach, where I was instructed to lie down in a slight hole in the sand. The staff then buried me in extremely warm sand (very little of which touched my actual skin) and I stayed put for about ten minutes. It was not exactly a super relaxing experience, since I felt a bit claustrophobic and had to keep wiggling my toes to remind myself I could get out at any time. And that sand is hotter than you think – by the time I got out I had worked up quite a sweat. When I freed myself from the sand (it’s easy to do, after all – it’s just sand) I was directed towards the baths and washed all the sand off. In the end, I’m not sure I’d do it again, but I’m glad I tried it out.

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The sand baths in Ibusuki. Photo from Japan-tour.jp

 

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.

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.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland, with Palm Trees

Hello everyone! I’m working on a blog update about my trip to Europe over the holidays, but it’s been a busy few weeks since returning. I’ve been planning my next few trips, the Miyazaki ALTs had our mid-year conference, and I’ve otherwise been cold an unmotivated. This past weekend I thought I’d finally get it together and do some writing, but was utterly distracted by SNOW!

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Little flurries outside of my apartment

Yes, that’s right. Snow. In Miyazaki. To give you an idea of how strange that was, here’s a picture of a palm tree with a nice dusting of snow:

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I woke up and saw flurries, which was exciting, but had planned on staying in my moderately warm apartment until a friend invited me to go out and see the snow. My Australian and Arizonan friends were very excited. While the snowfall was not particularly impressive by St. Louis standards, it was downright amazing to them. We spent some time walking around a nearby (completely empty) park and taking photos.

We then met up with my friend Noriko for lunch and she said this was the only the second time in her life that she’s seen snow here in Miyakonojo, and the first was thirty years ago. What luck that I got to see it in my first year here!

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Driving around in the snow. Photo by Meagan

After lunch Noriko suggested that we go to a temple in the mountains to see more snow, and we thought this sounded great. We made a very snowy (but not particularly icy or crowded) drive to Kanoya, about an hour away, where we stopped by the White Snake Temple. As the name implies, the temple houses a sacred white snake (there’s a Buddhist legend involving a snake) but of course the snake itself was hibernating, and we were much more interested in the scenery. I’ll have to come back in the summer to see the snake, and also the surrounding mountains when they’re green again.

The temple was gorgeous, and Japan in the snow is amazing. Of course I’ve seen snow before, and way more than this, but the Japanese landscape is so different from that of St. Louis, or even Colorado, and it was pretty cool to see. I’ve definitely resolved that next year I want to se a bit of the Japanese “snow country” up north, where they get so much snow that they’ve installed heated roads.

Two days later the snow here in Miyakonojo has completely melted, and temperatures are back on the rise. Since Japanese schools and homes don’t have the most efficient heating, that’s fine by me, but I’m really glad to have gotten one lovely day of snow. Now, time to get writing!

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Phil, Eddy, Meagan, Noriko and me. Photo by Meagan