A Spontaneous Trip to Oita

I have less than two months until I say goodbye to life in Japan and touch back down on US soil, if not for good than certainly for a while. As with most endings this one has left me conflicted. While I’m eager to return home to friends, family and a fridge stocked with all varieties of cheese and reasonably priced fruit, I’ve already begun to miss the home I’ve built for myself here. It’s a strange feeling, missing a place you still inhabit. Every place I go I wonder if it’s for the last time. I catch myself falling back in love with little aspects of Japanese life that had previously faded into the background. I’m both grateful for this hyper-awareness and saddened by it, because of course I’m just that much more aware of what I will miss and how fast the time is going. Continue reading

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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.

Continue reading

Gazing at the Cosmos

A gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Miyazaki
A gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Miyazaki

Summer and Autumn are the seasons for festivals in Japan, so I’ve been trying to attend as many as possible before the winter cold sets in. According to my friends who’ve been here for a while, once December hits there’s suddenly no events to be found, so it’s best to soak it all up now before it’s too late.

Cosmos fields at the Ikoma Plateau
Cosmos fields at the Ikoma Plateau

This past weekend I went out with a few friends for a day of cosmos viewing – cosmos being a type of flower.

Yellow cosmos
Yellow cosmos

We drove about an hour to the Ikoma Plateau, where a field had been planted with cosmos flowers. This is pretty common in Japan – seasonal plants are a major draw, and seasons in general are a big deal here. The best example of this is cherry blossoms, which mark the beginning of spring (or end of winter, depending on which part of Japan you’re in). People often go out and “hanami” or look at flowers, and maybe have a picnic or a drink under the trees. The same sort of goes for other seasonal plants, such as the sunflowers I saw a while back, and the momiji (Japanese maples) which will soon be changing colors, and thus drawing massive crowds.

Cosmos fields and walking paths
Cosmos fields and walking paths

For this particular event, a field was covered in cosmos of varying colors, and for a small fee you could walk through the fields and take photos or just enjoy the scenery. There was also a small stage where musicians played background music and a few tents with food and drinks.

Awesome photo by Megan!
Awesome photo by Megan!

There weren’t too many people, which was really nice, especially since my friends went there specifically to take photos.

Goofing around with Amber, my neighbor. Photo by Megan
Goofing around with Amber, my neighbor. Photo by Megan

After strolling through the fields we stopped by the food tents for a snack, then drove another hour to Kokubu, a beach town in neighboring Kagoshima prefecture. The draw for the evening was a festival advertising 6,000 fireworks, which we could watch from the beach.

Goodbye cosmos! On to the fireworks
Goodbye cosmos! On to the fireworks

One thing about Japan – people here love fireworks. I mean really love them. In the summer you can’t go anywhere on a weekend night and not find at least a few of them, usually as part of a festival. I’m not usually a big fan of fireworks, but this show in particular was pretty amazing. There were just so many of them! And on top of the fireworks, there were also lasers, and the whole show was set to music. The show went on for an hour and the finale lit the sky up with hundreds of gold sparkles. My standards for fireworks have just gone way up!

All and all, it was a pretty good day.

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