Last week me and Lune took a week’s holiday around the Southern Japanese island of Kyushu., We deviated from our itinerary numerous times (making this my most spontaneous holiday ever), and met enough weird and wonderful Japanese people to populate a number of post-modern novels. Our route was convoluted and recursive, so I’ll organize geographically rather than chronologically (just so you know).
Aso: The largest caldera in the world. Formed 300,000 years ago by the collapse of an enormous, erupting volcano, the crator is 20km wide, with an almost perfectly flat bottom and extremely steep walls. It’s as if someone has pressed the cap from an enormous beer bottle into the earth. Rather ruining this comparison are the remnants of the volcano, 5 volcanically active mountains which lie in the middle of the crater. The fertile soil of the basin floor is covered in rice farms and pasture, and small towns look delicately up at their potential destruction. We stayed in a lovely hostel with kotatsu, futons, sliding doors, and a dim common room filled with low tables. There we met a motley crew of Japanese guys, about half and half staff and holiday makers. My Japanese is poor, and feels even more so next to Lune, but I could understand a surprising amount of conversation, albeit without contributing much beyond agreements and simple statements. The owner folded 12 small coloured paper squares into small basket shapes, then painstakingly arranged them into a 3D cube with cut vertices. He then told Lune to hit it, which produced an explosion of paper, which then floated gently down the ground. Who knew origami could be both gangster and fun? The owner then played a youtube video (the universal language) of some enormous scrub fires in the Aso caldera, and said excitedly, ashita (tomorrow)!
The plan to visit the pretty gorge of Takachiho conflicted with this, and we were wondering what would be the best thing to do, leaning towards the one-off experience of watching people who live beneath volcanos setting them on fire. Payback perhaps. Our funniest new friend was a short ultramarathon runner with turn up jeans and a brilliant grin, who was pulling a sickie (unheard of in Japan) to watch the burning, and translated his name as ‘the iron prime minister’. Hearing our dilemma, he asked how long we were in Japan:
About one year
What is your one year, compared to 1300 years of history? *smiling gleefully* Sooooooo… catch a cold shimasu
That settled it. At 6 15 we piled sleepily into a jeep and chatted about musical taste whilst driving to a viewpoint to watch the sunrise. Earnest Japanese guy, as we called him, looked earnestly out at the landscape in a brown corduroy suit. We took photos and were extremely grateful to the guy driving, who had brought tea. The view was from the edge of the basin, looking inwards at the lumpy volcanic ridge, which looks just like a man lying down. If you’re lucky the crater holds mist from the night before, so you can see mountains jutting out of a bowl of porridge. We weren’t lucky, but the view was impressive nonetheless. PA systems are very popular in Japan, but it was a surreal experience to hear good morning piped across the crater from megaphones at 6 30 am. Driving back cords boy told us that he was a North Korean scholar, and travelled to many soviet bloc countries searching for documents about their relationship with North Korea. We were interested to hear that North Korea was the advanced, modern half of Korea 30 or so years ago. The movement of missiles to the North Korean coast is a little worrying, hopefully they lack advanced ballistic missiles, as I think Japan comes a close second to South Korea in terms of animosity. Fingers crossed.
A konbini breakfast, then we got in another van with the hostel owner’s mate, and set out towards the edge of the crater. Suddenly, everyone excitedly began pointing out plumes of smoke, ahead, behind, everywhere. Soon it was like driving through hell, infernos on distant hillsides and the never-ending smell of smoke. The overcast sky was smudged and dirty. We stopped on a hillock beside some serious photographers or rich people with serious cameras, and jogged towards the flames. Over the road there was the roar of flame, and motorcyclists chugged past looking as cool as its possible to do with a wall of flame behind you.
Kumamoto: Castles and karashi renkon were the things which took most of our time here. Kumamoto-jo, the castle, is enormous and sprawling and looks utterly impregnable. The Satsuma rebellion effectively broke against its walls, like waves on a beach, and rolled back South. The walls are Japanese style, made of irregular rocks fitted together perfectly into a sheer curving wall, which just passes vertical at the tops. There are about 3 layers of tall walls, studded with guardtowers, gates, and murder holes. Cherry trees and paths fill the space between walls. You can feel the history when walking up towards the keep on giant stone steps with the walls looming above on all sides. The keep is reconstructed because it was burnt in the rebellion. At night we go to take photos and see kids shooting complex long exposures in front of it (glowstick trails, flash lighting the foreground, and the castle in the back).
Karashi renkon is a speciality food of the region, and consists of a lotus root in which the holes have been filled with a mix of miso and mustard, deep fried in a spiced batter. When I was 12 or so I dragged my family around Barcalona in search of (inexplicably difficult to find) churros for about two days, and my search for karashi renkon was similarly fervent (sorry Lune). Cords boy made a chance appearance during our lengthy search. In my opinion, it was worth it. We sat in a restaurant with beautifully carved dark wood panels, beside two businessmen who were drinking their cigarettes and sipping their whiskey, and I entered gastronomic paradise. The umami of the batter, followed by the soft crunch of lotus, the sweet flash of miso, and the gently burning mustard aftertaste. It was worth trailing around half the city for, in my opinion at least…
Kagoshima: Immediately on leaving the bus, I saw a stall selling deep fried renkon and bought some for lunch. My first bite informed me that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore: it was filled with fish. The Southern port city of Kagoshima is warm, wet, and the streets are paved with ash. Ever-present on the skyline is the looming outline of sakurajima, a huge and extremely active volcano that erupts around thrice daily. It used to be an island on the other side of the bay, but in 1914 it had the largest eruption in 20th century Japan, and the lava flows formed an isthmus to the mainland. We took a bus to a town nearby, Ibusuki, planning to have a sand onsen – you are buried in hot sand, caused by geothermally heated water flowing to the sea through the beach. The bus took longer than expected and I ended up grumpily stomping down the main street, sweating profusely, and muttering about how much I wanted to be buried in hot sand. There was a queue, which meant we didn’t have time to use the commercial sand onsen, but Lune dug in the sand nearby and we had a street onsen to heat our feet.
Returning to Kagoshima we were distressed to find that our ferry to Yakushima had been cancelled. I went to ask ferry staff if their boats were headed to Yakushima, whilst Lune rang the tourist information centre. Rather worried about where we would sleep, I returned to find that Lune had booked us into a hostel at the base of Sakurajima in a hostel owned by a hippie and an Okinawan musician. Hero. We took the £1.50 ferry to Sakurajima and had a relaxing onsen, which was far too hot, leading to me sitting for extended periods of time in the cool pool to recover. An old man with crinkled skin floated face up in the hot pool for a very long time, with his toes hooked onto the side to keep him in place. Top class bathing. Moon Garam Masala (our hostel) faced onto a carpark, had a portaloo, and was filled with posters of hippie gatherings and driftwood. The TV played home video of gatherings in the past. Two topless Japanese men drummed intensely in the hills. The female hippy had a weathered face and was very friendly. Kindly, she had offered to cook a vegetarian meal for us, and so we enjoyed locally picked seaweed tempura, seaweed salad, and carrots. It was delicious, and it was interesting to chat with her and the slightly gruff musician, who told stories with excellent impressions. Lune baulked (understandably) at the small fish floating in her miso soup; I had thankfully downed mine without looking at it. We went to sleep in a bunk bed with an aloof Korean sleeping on the floor. At dawn we woke and took the ferry back to Kagoshima, with the sun rising above the volcano, to head to Yakushima. Sadly we didn’t get to see it erupt, but for a great photo of it, try http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap130311.html.