Published: January 4th 2009December 31st 2008
Hiroshima A-bomb dome
If I choose black and white to show closest building that remained standing after the atomic bomb explosion, am I being over-dramatic? I hope I have a little leeway since the term 'ground-zero' has now been devalued. Instead, the Peace Memorial Museum uses the term "hypocentre" for the place underneath the bomb, and its exhibits talk about people being "exposed" as if they were photographic film. This is the site above which, on 6th August 1945, there was momentarily a second sun and over 200,000 people died in the initial explosion (population of Aberdeen, anyone?) though in total they estimate 260,000 as the total number including those that died years later from the after-effects. The building is now a UNESCO World Heritace Site and they floodlight it at night.
All I had was a name and a phone number given to me by Yukari in Hiroshima. I did not book the accommodation myself and I didn't give any credit card details, so the whole thing was being done on word. And I don't even know what they look like, but since I am likely to be the only Westerner with a backpack hanging around the bus station it should work out fine. I'd said I wanted to visit Kyūshū to get away from the cities and because it was a good 10 degrees warmer than the opposite end of the country, Hokkaidō, which is cold enough to have played host to the Winter Olympics twice before. So Yukari spent an hour between the internet and the telephone, and booked me 2 nights in Oguni and a third in Kurokawa.
Oguni and Kurokawa are about 20km from each other in the middle of Kyūshū, the most Southern of Japan's four main islands. Kyūshū is home to one of the largest volcanos in the world, Aso-san (we would call it 'Mount Aso' but because of its size, it gets the honorific -san
, like Japan's most famous landmark,
Hiroshimas eternal flame
A short distance away from the dome, they now have this flame that they're going to keep burning until the last nuclear weapon on Earth has been dismantled.
Fuji-san). Its biggest eruption was 300,000 years ago, collapsing to form a summit caldera up to 25km across, but 4 significant eruptions since then have formed new cones within the caldera, making it a somma
volcano (I'm learning stuff all the while out here). But I didn't get to see it. Or at least, not up close: it rained its back end-off the day I was due to visit so all I got was the view from the train the previous day. So I was left in Oguni village to have a slow day. Not that it was a big problem, since now I have new friends whom I will come back to visit, so I get tick off Aso-san next time.
So I got off the bus at Oguni and called my hosts, who's names I didn't yet know but I'd been told their English was worse than my Japanese:
"Hajimemashite ... (reading from a piece of paper) Minpaku Warabi-desu ka?"
"Hai, Minpaku Warabi-desu.
"Sugoi! Watashi-wa Martin Harley-desu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu."
"Ah! So-desu, densha-
(something too fast for me to catch) -Yosiaki-desu.
"(!?) -erm, ...Sumimasen; yukkuri kudasai - chotto-chotto Japanese. Watashi - wa - Martin - Harley - desu.
Yukari-san (left) and Mayumi-san (right)
It wasn't all gloom in Hiroshima though. Yukari and Mayumi helped me out such a lot during my stay. We had a night out to a Peruvian place and finished up in a tiny bar where we got to pick the music from a wall full
of CDs. All I can remember is its called the MAC bar, and any DJ that plays Prince's "Purple Rain" all the way to the end - including the strings - is cool with me.
-dammit, is this working? I had confused the issue by trying to be helpful. Yukari had organised that I would arrive at Aso townsite, a half-hour drive away, and call for them to pick me up by car. I felt arkward about them driving all that way and back so thought there had to be a local bus I could get to make things quicker. And there was, so I mangled my Japanese getting onboard pointing at a map, and got to Oguni village under my own steam - I am such the perfect guest... if only I could find a way to stop them diving into the car for the hour round trip to Aso looking for a guy that isn't there now. But we made it through the conversation and 10 minutes later this guy pulled up and I was heading for their minshuku
is a bed-and-breakfast and like one in the UK, you generally stay in the same house as the people that run it. Guidebooks tell you to stay in a ryokan
to get that authentic Japanese touch, but you can get it in either. Try both, if you're ever
Shimonoseki, Kammon suspension bridge
Near Shimonoseki, in 1185, the final battle of the Gempei war was fought - same war that kicked off in 1180 from my last blog, with Minamoto Yoshitsune's seppuku in the Byodo-In. Here, the battle of Dan-no-Ura was a naval battle ending in total victory for the Minamoto. It also resulted in the creation of the office of Shogun, which had not existed before this point. Of course with something to fight over, they fought, and fought, and fought, right up until another guy I have already mentioned, Tokugawa Ieyasu, put a bloody and violent stop to it all in 1600.
out here (a minshuku will be cheaper). Yuko-san and Yosiaki-san treated me as if one of the family and even invited me to eat with them and their children one evening. I was given the most empty room, and I don't mean that the house was cluttered and they had to move things aside to put me up. It was pefect for sitting still and doing nothing but watch the wind and rain outside. I set out my mp3 player & speakers and put a couple of books on the floor and it felt like home. Those portable speakers have been the buy of the trip so far: as long as you got your own music you make any room you're in feel like home.
But how do you live in a room as bare as those I stayed in at Oguni and Kurokawa? For a start, traditional Japanese rooms are multi-functional, so the bedding is kept in the cupboards out of the way and pulled out at night. But the simplest things we would do without thinking, like reaching behind you with your hand to push a door you didn't hear close properly - you can't do that
Shimonoseki; Dan-no-Ura monument
When all looked lost for the Tiara clan, the grandmother of the Tiara child emperor Antoku picked him up and jumped into the waves saying "In the depths of the ocean we have a capital". He died, but she was unfortunate enough to be yanked out the water by the Minamoto and lived her days out in shame as a nun.
here or you'll be continuously punching a hole through the paper. And if you wear the robe they give you, be careful reaching across the meal-table or you'll be dipping your kimono sleeves into the soy sauce, they're that long - and I don't think soy washes out that easily.
Kurokawa Onsen and lessons in how to bow
They drove me to Kurokawa when my stay was over. If, when I die, it turns out they were right and there is a heaven, and if I find that in life I was good enough to be allowed in, I hope it looks a little like this. An onsen
is like the public baths I described a few entries ago, but it uses water from a natural hot spring. In Kurokawa it comes out of the ground at 70°C, gets cooled then piped into an outdoor bath or rotemburo
. I stayed at Ryokan Sanga
for just the one night of luxury, and the place is surrounded with trees and leaves right up to the windows and overhanging the outdoor pools. As in the bath-houses, bathing is separate for men and women, though there are 3 lockable 'family' baths. I
How do you live in a room like this?
In Oguni, I stayed in a bed-and-breakfast, or minshuku
with Yosiaki and Yuko Kawazu. This was my room during the daytime. Sure, the Japanese don't live a monk-like existence with no posessions and homes with empty rooms; they have bookshelves, TVs and computers just like us, but in traditional homes the rooms are multifunctional and everything is in the cupboards around the outside. So this is it during the daytime. I just got my speakers, mp3 player, some books and a cushion to kneel on. Comfy.
guess if you were getting married, this would be a great place for a honeymoon - one suite has a private bath all of its own.
Yukari had also tipped off her mate Miho that I was going to be in town. We went to lunch and she explained I am bowing the wrong way. Miho-san put her hand out, palm flat as if stopping traffic and curled the tips of her fingers down as if about to roll her hand into a fist: "It is very cute when Westerners bow like this but its not correct". She then flattened her hand again and, keeping the fingers dead-straight, bent it at the top of her palm. So I should be keeping my back, shoulders and neck straight when I do it. And she's right, I realise I have seen this many times from service staff in trains, ryokans, hostels and shops. I've been thinking of it as the "top of the head" bow, because it is so deep they lose eye contact.
With Yuko and Yosiaki and also at Ryokan Sanga, I got glimpses of the Japanese way of doing things and the grace they bring to everything
(by being tidy, that's how)
...and this is it rigged up for bedtime. The futon goes on straight onto the tatami
matting floor. Anyone been recommended a hard orthopaedic mattress for their back problems? Don't bother. Save the money and just sleep on the floor and during the day, kneel on it too. It will keep your back straighter than sitting in chairs ever will.
they do. The smallest item; a face-towel or some food, was packaged and presented like a precious thing. Yuko-san slid open the door to the room where I was eating and entered with a tray of food. She took the time to kneel before placing it on the low table in front of me. There was a perfect cube of spinach offset from the centre of one of the little square saucers and she poured a perfect line of soy sauce next to it. The slope of the dish was just so
, that the surface tension kept it in a single long bead rather than it running off down the dish - the whole effect was as if she had calculated this to perfection.
And at the Ryokan Sanga: we would normally ask for a room with a view, thinking that a view consists of a foreground with some hillsides in the middle-distance and beyond that a horizon, maybe even the sea. The Japanese stick 2 trees in some raked gravel 10ft away and that's the view. What I think
is going on is they see enough to keep your interest in the details of how the branches move
Oguni christmas party: Yosiaki-san on bass guitar
So Yosiaki and Yuko Kawazu took me to the village Christmas party. No Santa-san, but there was a raffle (I won a bathroom pack of shampoo and soap!) and loads of people did a turn. It was rather like the party we had in Sitka, Alaska 6 weeks ago: small communities far from the big city have to make their own fun, so there were about 6 or 7 acts up, for a traditional Kabuki dance, or some rock and roll. Only Westerner in the room, Yuko-san got many questions about who the gaijin
was and I got a couple of dances too.
in the wind, or whether a bird lands in it. I guess anyone with a fish-tank might understand, but its only just occurred to me; I don't have fish. Well, I did have fish once for a few months but they disappeared... and I still haven't forgotten the telling-off I got from Patsy on the back deck of Revolution one night ("Martin, that is the worse case of animal husbandry I have ever heard!") so I am not qualified to interpret things correctly.
New Year back in Tokyo
My next flight was from Tokyo, so I needed to return there. It had been almost 4 weeks since I left and I hadn't expected to feel disappointed to return. I know how to get around Tokyo now without the help of my guidebook; I know how the metro works and that someone within 15 feet is going to speak passable English if I get stuck. Time away from the big cities of Tokyo and Kyoto got me into a different side of Japan and I was missing it.
I'd spent Christmas day afternoon in Beppu soaking in a hillside onsen. No changing facilities or taps, so I
Kurokawa Onsen I
Kurokawa was another little gem of a place. It's a hot spring village and there's 20-odd Ryokans each with an outdoor bath, or rotemburo
. Same procedure as I described a few entries ago for a Japanese bath, except this is something a lot more idyllic (please will somebody tell Subsea-7 I've got the photo for their next job advert?).
couldn't even wash at this one, I just had to dump my clothes on a rock and get in. The water just came out the rocks too hot to touch and someone had built a low wall for a pool to dam it, added an overflow and -presto!
- a wild outdoor bath milky-white with clay. Armed with a beer from the shop downtown I soaked for an hour, chatted and signed with some Japanese guys that had followed me up the hill. Beppu smells of sulphur everywhere and in the cold weather there are plumes of steam from chimneys all over town, so you don't need a map to show you where to get a bath. Beppu, Kurokawa and Oguni were so far removed from the Tokyo I blogged about a few entries ago that it was a touch anticlimactic to return.
New Year's day I walked just a few yards along the street to see a massive crowd being marshalled by the police - its the people praying for luck at the Senso-Ji temple (see my first Tokyo blog). There was never a crowd like this before though, so I joined it to see what would happen. It
Kurokawa Onsen II
You don't just have to use the onsen of the place you're staying in; you can sample the others in the village too. So I spent the afternoon wandering from onsen to onsen, getting snowed on from the neck up in each one.
took half-an-hour to shuffle the 400 yards to the temple where they had strung more police with megaphones allowing the people through maybe a couple of hundred at a time. Inside, those that couldn't get close enough threw coins over the heads of those in front to the trough, clapped and prayed for just a minute, then they left. I don't think they have anything like a church service like you get with Islam and Christianity. Each person probably spent just 3 minutes at most inside, before filing out the side entrance back into the sunshine for some food - there was a huge New Year's day fair going on an I had a pancake (an okonomiyaki
) which I ate, thinking I want to see the plantation that keeps this country in disposable chopsticks.
After 6 weeks here I haven't got used to one or two things. Japanese breakfast, for one. I love the food here, but after about 3 days of miso soup and rice? For BREAKFAST!? Please take this away and somebody get me a large coffee and a danish pastry, preferably a cinnamon one! And I want refills on the coffee like
you get in the States
Hanabi festival in Beppu (Christmas Eve)
23rd and 24th December every year, Beppu city has a firework festival down at the beach with market stalls, food and the longest firework display I have ever seen (40 minutes.... must have cost a fortune).
. Fortunately you can buy coffee and pastries all over the place but this may be a bad thing for the Japanese since I can remember seeing at the most a dozen overweight people in 6 weeks. Part of the reason might be they never had dairy or bread in their diet. Not that these things make you fat on their own, I am just offering you my observations to make of what you will. But walk down the main street of any town here and you'll find Starbucks and MacDonalds, and they're full.
I also can't manage the obedience thing either, so I jay-walk pedestrian crossings everywhere while the locals pretend they haven't seen me. I also cannot - and I have tried - get small children to smile. I think my face just looks 'wrong'.
I love it here and I don't want to leave, but I have to because my flight is booked. I have enjoyed every minute and it hasn't disappointed me in even one respect. Everywhere I go I see stuff I could buy, and I could blow the rest of the money on clothes, pictures and household stuff
Tokyo again, New Year's Day crowds at Senso-Ji temple
Just as I got to the top of the steps and the inside of the temple, I turned around to take this shot. The air was thick with incense and food from the stalls outside.
- I could buy one of those women's kimonos just to hang on the wall - but then I would have to come home next week. Or maybe stay here and get a job.... What happened to Martin?... well, we dunno, he went off on this round the world thing, but his blogs sort of tailed off somewhere around Japan, and- well, his mail's piling up behind the front door too, so he better come back soon and...
I am of course bored of the Porsche-count now. You can tell because I've not brought it up much the last few entries. I will resurrect it if something unusual happens....
There are more photos below