Flaming Volcanoes and Corduroy

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)!

Origami Explosion!

Origami Explosion!

The Iron Prime-Minister

The Iron Prime-Minister

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

Volcanoes at Sunrise

Volcanoes at Sunrise

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.

The Road

The Road

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.

Cooooooooool

Cooooooooool

Tall Walls

Tall Walls

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).

Joy

Joy

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…

Kumamoto-Jo

Kumamoto-Jo

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.

Cheap Onsen!

Cheap Onsen!

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.

Life in the Shadow of Death

Life in the Shadow of Death

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Earthquakes and Turbulence

Earthquakes are Difficult to Photograph. Here’s a Hibiscus.

This week, after a whirlwind relationship and a few beers, Japan took my earthquake virginity. I was peacefully lying in the hazy limbo between wakefulness and sleep when suddenly it became apparent that my bed was shaking. In the gentle insanity of such tiredness my first instinct was to look over to my bedside and tell whoever happened to be shaking my bed to stop it. Seeing no-one, my brain finally twigged that this was an earthquake. The shaking was slow, soft (but forceful), and metronomic, and wrapped up warm under the covers it seemed a rather pleasant disaster. The sensation was similar to being in hammock, swinging back and forth from a fixed point in the heavens, and almost as comforting. Then I remembered that air conditioning units can fall off walls, and drew my legs up tight to my chest, out of harm’s way, and waited for it to get worse or stop. The wait is filled with the uncomfortable sensation of true powerlessness. No one can make it stop. After an uneasy sleep, I was sitting in a lunchtime seminar about ChIP-chip (and seq) on the seventh floor of RIKEN, when the shaking resumed. There was nervous silence sprinkled with nervous laughter, and Tetsuo opened the door (if frames shift in a quake doors can be jammed shut). Height amplifies the movement through resonance. We sat with wide eyes, seeing no evidence of movement, but feeling it in our guts. Seven floors suddenly seemed a lot higher, and I was contemplating getting under my table, when the quake began to fade, and the seminar resumed as normal. A friendly plump Canadian woman at my company orientation had said with a black smile:

“They’re terrible, but you’ll get used to them”

Earthquakes (jishin) are a fact of life in Japan.  Around 40 of magnitude seven have struck in the last century, most killing a surprisingly small number of people, one killing 140,000. Many businesses express their condolences for those lost in the big one last year, and those who were here talk about it with reverence. My little brother told me a story about our old geography teacher before I left home. Our teacher is tall, a keen fellrunner, and wears very short shorts. He pointed out that if you were to plan large settlements you would avoid faultiness, floodplains, and volcanoes, then grinned and pulled down a map of Tokyo.

Sleeping Beauties

Public transport in Japan is a singularly somnambulant affair. I am typing on board an AirAsia flight to Fukouka, where I will see Lune for the first time in a month. The windows show glimpses of a cobalt blue sky striated with wisps of cirrus. These clouds are so fine that you’re obliged by literary tradition to liken them to gossamer. There are dark conifer forests on the mountains and beige settlements crowded along the arching coast. Everyone is asleep. The moment the flight began, every person on board closed their eyes and bowed their heads and have moved very little since. A few were roused by takeoff. Perhaps more (initially) unnerving is the morning commute, which is filled with sharply dressed urbanites dozing like babies, heads rolling in unison with the sway of the train. It feels almost perverse to see so many strangers so vulnerable.

Go Ahead Madeline, Drop Your Hat, You’re in Tokyo

In my first week, Bundesliga told me over lunch that train enthusiasts in Japan are even more extreme than those in Europe. Not content with merely spotting trains, many can be seen with expensive directional microphones, recording the tone, timbre, and cadence of approaching locomotives. In addition, they record the station jingles, which are played every time a train arrives or leaves at a station. You can buy compilations of jingles for different regions in CD shops. Each station on the major lines has its own unique jingle, and after hearing this I begin paying attention to those on my commute. Oomori (my home station) has a short light hearted tune, which already feels comforting and homely. Kamata has an eerie refrain in a minor key which reminds me of abandoned fairgrounds and horror films. Commuters tune in to the jingles relevant to them, so when we stop in Kawasaki, by the jingle’s third note half of the carriage has roused, blinked heavily, and started for the door. The stations too are infused with a relaxed sleepiness; huge queues build up, but only for the stationary side of the escalator. Almost no-one takes the stairs. It feels as if everyone is trying desperately to recharge their batteries just a little more before the long day at work. It also imparts a strange feeling of community, especially when you follow suit, through the sharing with everyone what we normally reserve for friends and lovers. I can see the dark mountain ridges of Shikoku to my right, slicing up through the soft white of mist and the harsh black of my neighbours hanging fringe.

Pokemon Trainers

The Japanese work ethic is that of the paddy field (to paraphrase Lune). Many do not take their allocated paid holidays, and there are announcements to encourage employees to leave work on time. Despite, or maybe because of this, there is a panoply of national holidays in aid of a diversity of causes. On Monday it was sports day, designed to promote exercise and well-being, through the somewhat counterintuitive strategy of closing most clubs and gyms. There are however large organised events, often put on by schools, which you can watch and sometimes take part in. Lune’s school practiced for weeks, with a dress rehearsal before the big day. The kids wore cute boxy white hats and jogged on the spot in blue polo tops, while Lune and co kept an eye out for dropped caps. Sports day was created after the Tokyo Olympics, so I’m hopeful that London 2012 may have the same effect. Not knowing the events in my area, I go for a run around the Kawsai Steel Circuit in my local park, consisting of a number of exercise stations dotted around a short run. A gang of kids playing Pokemon cards at a picnic table talk excitedly about their little war. As ever, there is a baseball game, and in honour of sports day I stop to watch and take photos. The kids are as thin and fast as whippets, or stocky power hitters.

I run onward, past a car park with lifts to save space, similar to those that can be seen beside many private residences. Multistorey car parks near stations are human free: you leave your car on a circular pad, take a ticket, and leave. The car is then mechanically filed into a  tall compact tower, only to be retreived when you return your ticket. Welcome to the future. There is a flea market under the second level of another carpark; the harsh midday light is cut into grids by the metal above. Everything from pokemon cards to ‘antique’ pottery is on sale, but lacking a wallet I jog on. The next park was built to serve the community by the neighbouring racecourse, as gambling establishments must give something back to the community. When I heard this from May a few weeks ago I asked what all the Pachinko places did. These are slot and games arcades which invariably have very loud flashing lights and music. She said with a little laugh

Pachinko isn’t gambling”

Then smiled and added

“well, not really…”

No, Really

The park borders a river, and many people are perching on the boulders along the shore, fishing under an odd golden sculpture of a woman riding a goose through a hoop. I get a strange fear whenever walking near fishermen that a hook will catch my cheek when they cast. There are sonorous plops every second or so, and assume that it is the floats of lines hitting the water. Actually, the carp in the river are jumping gracefully out of the water like dolphins,promptly remembering that they are carp, and re-entering like bricks. I fail to think of a reason why the whole river is filled with jumping fish,  shake my head, and move on. There is a nature trail in the park, and a bird hide beside a kidney shaped lagoon lined with tall reeds, where egrets, bitterns, and a heron are fishing. It is an oasis filled with birdsong and the low-frequency hum of heavy traffic.

Gone Fishin’

The plane is now in a steep descent and banking left, which is very unsettling. People are even waking up. The wings tug at the fuselage as they flex up and down in the strain. It is the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced. The plane finally levels out, and the clouds below are ruffled and lit so brightly that their edges look dark. Their outlines look like the cover of Unknown Pleasures. We slip below the clouds and there is the grey sea, and a curtain of lancing sunlight between us and more sharp mountains in the distance. We are soon in a clear patch, and there is the unusual sensation of seeing a cloud layer at eye level and the earth far below. An airport in a perfect rectangle of reclaimed land is linked by bridge to terra firma.

Fukuoka airport is a naked rectangle shaved into the city’s tower blocks, and bordered with a three-storey turquoise highway. It reminds me of the partially shorn heads of teenagers at house parties. In arrivals Lune is bent over her homework, and I almost feel guilty for disturbing her. There is an enormous feeling of relief when reuniting with someone you have missed so sorely. We chat and giggle and take trains back to her suburb. One of the trains has switchable backrests so you can arrange seats to face forwards or backwards. The most striking thing about Fukuoka is how spacious it feels. The sky is clear with a scraping of high cloud that makes it look far higher than when clear. Pavements are noticeable emptier. Stations aren’t fused into department stores. We take the strangely upright bikes from Lune’s scholarship (she’s learning Japanese) along a narrow meandering road through a series of small paddy fields. People beneath traditional conical straw hats chug along on top of strange modern cubic harvesters.

Rice and Lune

The scholars hail from Oxbridge, and are housed in Cambridge House (a minor PR coup, I’m sure). It looks like a typical university accommodation building. Atypically it has an airy atrium and a central court where a large number of European style statues stand in a dull brown pond. There is a Yakult factory over the road. Cambridge House’s corridors are three metres  wide, and the scholar’s floor is enormous (by Japanese and university standards), but half empty. In fact, the whole building feels eerie and deserted. Around half of it is uninhabited. We eat in the canteen, which is decorated like a diner and packed with empty tables. The food is passable, and there is always a vegetarian option. The scholars seem friendly, and later we head to their local Izakaya. It has low tables, cushions to kneel briefly and then sit on, and your first drink for 100¥. We pass around our Japanese drinks, and I sample both the earthy shochu and the deliciously sickly umeshu (plum liquor). My Highball (whiskey and soda), the self-proclaimed drink of the moment in Tokyo, is an abject disappointment. Me and Lune decline an invitation to an all you can drink event in favour of a bad action film and too many snacks.

The return flight was much gloomier than the flight out, and I sat reading the sordid USADA report on LA, surrounded by the sleeping masses, wishing that I didn’t have to leave.

A View from Cambridge House

Imported word of the week: mineraru wohtah

Word of the week: Wakarimasen (I don’t understand)

Kanji of the week: A double, because together they’re neat and poetic

Tsuji, meaning moon, or gatsu, meaning month

Taiyou, for sun, or nichi, for day

Product of the week: ANTI CAT MATS

Don’t Cat, Just Don’t