Kathryn Calder in Beacon Hill Park, around this time last year I think? The camas are blooming now.
Maybe I was a touch hungover the day after the rooftop concert but I had decided I was going to Fukuoka and Mary, a fellow Canadian from the hostel, was coming with me. We packed up, hopped on the tram and headed to the train station, where we were soon on the shinkansen hurtling across the countryside.
Listening to the announcements for the shinkansen stops, I realised we would be stopping at Kumamoto, home to a famous castle, so I asked Mary if she would be down with making a stop there en route to Fukuoka. (If you ever go to Japan, seriously get a JR Pass. It allows a lot of flexibility to do stuff like this!)
It was easy enough to hop off the train at Kumamoto, and after we had stashed our packs in a locker (Mary has worked as a bellhop at the Banff Springs Hotel so she did a commendable job stuffing my giant bag in there) we boarded a tram to the castle.
The castle grounds were actually quite large, consisting of courtyards, turrets, a palace and the castle itself, perched on a hill overlooking the city. One of the first things we saw was an enormous tree, so huge it would have been at home with the coastal giants back in British Columbia. We poked around a reconstructed turret, that was quite nice inside but totally empty. The work had been done recently and the wood inside was smooth and gleaming.
As we walked through the grounds, some girls dressed as ninjas passed us. I thought maybe it was part of the castle experience, as we had previously seen samurais walking around. However, when we arrived in the main courtyard, it was COSPLAY CENTRAL. I was DYING. There were so many kids in super elaborate, detailed costumes, all taking photos of each other in hilarious (serious) poses with expensive looking cameras. Turns out there was some sort of convention in town (MinCos?) and it made our day amazing. I didn’t recognize any of the characters they were portraying– I asked a few and it ranged from manga to musicians to anime. For example, I learned the girls in the white suits were dressed as characters from Kukoro no Basketball (I’m pretty sure this is the same group).
After sneaking photos of the cosplayers and then just getting right in there for some posed photos, we went into the castle. Once again it was pretty emptied out inside, mostly some historic objects but nothing too exciting. There was a very pretty view from the top floor though.
After the castle we toured the “palace”, which was also pretty empty but had a huge hall of tatami mats and one room with gorgeous gold painted screens and a beautiful glimmering ceiling decorated with gold leaf and portraits of flowers.
I really came to love nail art in Japan. It was just so light hearted and could be insanely creative. This MinCos attendee’s nails caught my attention. Leopard eleganza!
Last year I hitched a ride with a few members of the Kingsgate Chorus and headed to the Campbell Bay Music Fest on beautiful Mayne Island. The initially uncooperative weather (we’re talking relentless downpour) made me too grumpy to last the whole weekend, but I did get a chance to see the Chorus rock it at the Mayne Farmers Market and snagged a few precious rays of sunshine by the ocean. I ended up walking 5km to the ferry and it was an unexpected highlight of the weekend– sunshine, glimpses of deer (including twin fawns) and the natural beauty of the island all around.
My life is hectic right now so here’s a rewind back to last summer’s June and July. Weeknights in Vancouver and weekends in Victoria, beautiful blue skies at last, biking everywhere, kids that keep getting funnier, sunsets on the Skytrain and on the ferry and on the Gulf Islands, lake swims and parties and beach hangs, and– especially!– the short but highly successful life of a free little charcoal BBQ that hosted a beautiful series of intimate beach barbeques at Island View and Witty’s Lagoon.
I was really excited to get to Kagoshima, the largest southernmost city in Kyushu, as I had timed my visit with Ohara Matsuri, a huge dance festival that went all weekend. It was a bit tricky finding my hostel– I had some issues with mixing up station names, trying to figure out what tram I needed to take (one of those mysterious perfect English-speaking business men materialized out of nowhere, “Do you need some help?” “YES PLEASE!”) and trying to find the hostel using the barebones map provided. But soon I was checked in, nice and close to the festival streets, and a short walk to the water, where the enormous profile of the active volcano Sakurajima stood.
Me and Mary, a girl I met at the hostel, went to the main road for the first night of Ohara Matsuri. It was held on a large, wide street, separated by a boulevard on which the trams ran. Dancers made their way down one side and then back down the other, dressed costumes ranging from brightly coloured happi robes to beautiful kimonos to random Halloween stuff, and they all had their own dances too. There were loud speakers set up all down the tram way and from them blasted the same four songs over and over, the dancers performing a different dance for each song. The energetic voices of commentators spoke rapid fire the whole time, crying out “O-tsukaresama desu!”
The energy was really fun and I was jealous I didn’t have my own troupe to dance in! This was a huge festival but I only saw a few foreigners, all of whom were in dance troupes. We wandered around and ate some food from food booths.
The first night ended pretty early, around 8:30, so we went back to the hostel and drank a beer. There was a friendly Japanese girl in our dorm room and she mentioned her and her friend were going to Yakushima, a small island covered in dramatic old growth forest, the next day. I had really wanted to go to Yakushima but had decided against it, as it sounded a bit complicated for a solo traveler with only a small grasp on Japanese. Her friend, it turned out, was a very pretty French guy with green gold eyes and skin the colour of a golden brown piece of toast. He came into the room and fixed me with a very serious gaze.
“Of course you can go to Yakushima. It is not complicated. Nothing is impossible. You can do it.”
I explained my concerns.
“No! Nothing is impossible. You can go!” All with a dead pan expression.
“Could I take the ferry with you?” I asked.
“Of course.” He said.
I got a little excited. The two seemed quite interesting and I was mentally doing the math on how much it would cost to go with them. In the end, however, finances won out and I decided to just stay in Kagoshima and enjoy Ohara Matsuri as planned.
The next morning I put on my headphones and walked to the nearby ferry to Sakurajima. Sakurajima, as mentioned previously, is the massive volcano that sits just across the bay from Kagoshima. I knew it was best to explore the island by car but I hoped to take a bus to a lovely looking oceanside onsen (with a consecrated shrine!), spend an hour or so there and then head back to town to watch the festival.
I stood on the top deck of the ferry, listening to music and watching the fishermen on the breakwaters and the hazy islands shimmering on the horizon. Over me loomed the enormous Sakurajima, smoke puffing from its peak. Unfortunately when we docked, I looked at the map at the information center and the onsen I had wanted to visit was closed! The very sweet woman at information offered me some other suggestions but I wasn’t in the mood to do any crazy wandering. I walked around the area near the ferry dock, bought a bag of mikans out of a roadside basket and ate some down by the water.
When I got back to the mainland, the parade area was now bumping. I stopped in a park filled with families sitting on plastic tarps eating food from the stalls lining the lawn. There was a stage on which stood three men dressed as ninjas and a bunch of little boys with plastic swords and headbands. The ninjas were teaching them how to swipe their swords in front of a large audience of children. They then had the kids line up and take turns “battling” two black-clad ninjas. Somewhere a soundboard supplied slashing sound affects and the ninjas rolled in exaggerated defeat and the little boys struck a victory pose.
After thoroughly enjoying the little ninjas, I spent the rest of the afternoon watching the dancing, shooting video and having lunch in a little ramen shop where an entire family worked at breakneck speed dishing out steaming bowls of noodles. I loved watching the grandma assemble the bowls, grandfather washing them as fast as they could fill them.
Back at the hostel that evening, I kept hearing people going up and down the stairs to the roof, so I went up to see what was going on. There was a guy setting up some speakers in the corner and another person setting up a griddle with a takoyaki pan on it. I asked what was going on and I was told there would be music later and that I was welcome to come up and listen.
Later I wandered upstairs with a chuhei and found a decent sized group of people gathered on the roof. The guy from earlier was tuning up his guitar in the corner and talking to a petite woman with lovely waist length hair. An older man was pouring batter into the takoyaki pan and he offered me a heaping plate. There was a small charcoal fire pit going and an empty seat next to a white girl who was chatting in rapid fire Japanese with the others. I sat down, gawking at the size of the takoyaki.
“Do you want to share?” She asked me in accented English.
“Yes please!” I laughed and offered her some chuhei as well.
We started chatting and I learned her name was Julia, originally from Switzerland, but currently living on Yakushima. I was so stoked at that! She lived there with her boyfriend and worked in a bar.
The man who had been making takoyaki came over and stoked the fire pit and Julia recognized him and spoke to him. I heard her say something about a Snack bar, and I am sure I have expressed my strange fascination with Snacks before, so I asked her if she had met him at a Snack bar.
Turns out she WORKS at a Snack bar on Yakushima! She said the man had been there recently and had been so drunk he had laid on the bar and the Mama-san had to drive him home. She said if I went to Yakushima with her, I could stay with her and her boyfriend and visit the Snack and she would take me for rides on her motorbike. This sounded like the greatest trip to Yakushima ever, but unfortunately she wasn’t going back for a month.
Suddenly a beautiful voice rang out and we turned to see the woman with the long hair clutching a microphone and singing. The guy with the guitar started playing repeating patterns while she sang long, lovely, aching notes. As they performed, three other people started setting up drums and a keyboard and some bongos and in the middle of the next song, they started playing too, softly drumming and then radical psychedelic organ chords on the piano.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed the evening, especially when a friendly Japanese girl asked me, “Do you like wainu?” DO I LIKE WINE? And we ended up drinking two very cheap bottles between the three of us, snuggled around the charcoal pit with blankets, listening to the beautiful music. The guitar player got really drunk and was swaying like crazy, trying to chat with me,
“I got too drunk” he laughed and started playing songs for me that turned out to be old cheesy commercials. “It’s a joke,” he said, “We call it teppan gaggu.”
You can hear Amamjaubb’s music here.
After giving up on Hokkaido faster than I had hoped, I headed south for Kyushu. There was a brief stopover in Osaka to visit Judith and Josh (Judith, the consummate hostess, made me meatballs) and then I was back on the shinkansen to Beppu.
On my first night I went to an old onsen, tempted by its description of “Meiji era classic”. It was located in a red light district, so on the walk there were stacks of signs for soap lands and pink salons and snack bars, tipsy men in suits stumbling around me. I had visited a beautiful 100-year old onsen in Tokyo, with simple tiled baths and an enormous mural of Mount Fuji on the wall, and this onsen wasn’t quite as old-interesting. It had no showers, only buckets that you filled in the hot pool and dumped over yourself before getting in. The water was very hot and my skin tingled unnervingly as I submerged myself. I only stayed for around a half hour because it was way too hot and there was just the one pool, old and a little grotty. I can’t figure out how old ladies spend so much time washing. It takes me two minutes to soap up and rinse off.
Beppu is known for its numerous hot springs and the city is dotted with unfurling plumes of white steam, vented from the earth beneath the streets. In particular, it’s famous for its Jigoku or Hells, springs of brilliant colours and strange textures.
I visited a few of these and was especially struck by Umi Jigoku, or Sea Hell, a pale robin’s egg blue that contrasted beautifully with the bright vermillion of a torii gate standing nearby. There was also a large greenhouse, heated naturally by the hot spring, and it was filled with lush plants and a pond filled with enormous lily pads, large enough to support the weight of a small child, as evidenced by photos in a nearby display.
Another amazing pool was Oniishibozu Jigoku, named after the creamy slate grey bubbles that resemble the shaven head of a monk. I was captivated by the stark black rings that formed around the boiling water, easily imagining the colours and patterns as fabric for a beautiful dress. I also saw Shiraike Jigoku, with its milky white water and swirling column of steam, and walked through a rural neighbourhood with big gardens and tiled roofed homes, along the edge of bamboo forests, to see Chinoike Jigoku, the Blood Pond Hell. It was more of a faded clay colour than the rich red I’d been hoping for, with a blanket of steam floating just above its surface.
Not content to visit just one onsen in Beppu, I took the recommendation of a very friendly employee at the visitor centre and went to a large onsen, with a small rotenburo and cascading waterfalls to stand under and little kidney-shaped pools in which to stretch out. A tour bus had dropped off a large group and I sat in the corner of the pool and watched the women chattering to themselves and wished I could understand.
While watching the many plumes of steam dance around the roofs of Beppu, I realised a video might be a better way to capture the dynamic visuals of Beppu– you can watch it here.
Happy birthday to my dear Dad!
Thank you for all the love, support and wise advice. You are thoughtful and kind and funny. You only get better with age.
I had made up my mind that I was going to Hokkaido. It was going to be a long journey from Nasu and it would be cold and vast but I was stuck on the notion that I could visit all of Japan’s major islands (Shikoku, Honshu, Kyushu and Hokkaido). I finally activated my Japan Rail Pass and with all of my train tickets in hand, hastily and helpfully assembled by a JR employee, I boarded the shinkansen for the north. It was more than 10 hours of traveling, the bullet train whipping at breakneck pace through cities like Sendai and Aomori and under the Seikan Tunnel, a chart tucked into the seat pocket in front of me indicating at what time we were deepest below the Tsugaru Strait. I arrived in Sapporo at night and was immediately struck by the chilly temperatures.
In the end, Hokkaido was way too large for me to explore on my schedule. As I had activated my Rail Pass, I now had a finite amount of time to travel before I headed south to Kyushu. As a result I only visited a few cities on Hokkaido, hampered by the fact a good deal of the island is only accessible by bus, that many hostels were closed for the shoulder season and that affordable accommodation was a great deal more difficult to come by.
In Sapporo I strolled for hours through the city streets, stopping at the Modern Art Museum and climbing to the top of Maruyama, for a panoramic but mostly misty view. I went for famous Sapporo miso ramen at the beautifully named Yukikaze (snow wind) with a sweet girl from the hostel. We ended up drinking and singing karaoke to each other until nearly 3:00am in a tiny private room in the back of an izakaya. On another day, still ravenous for ramen, I went to Ramen Alley, a narrow alley lined with ramen shops, and dug into a bowl of regional Butter Corn Ramen, a steaming bowl of noodles topped with– well, obviously– corn and a generous pat of butter.
I was really fortunate to be able to reconnect with Yang Yao, whom I met during my first week in Japan in Kobe. On a bluebird sky day, we drove to a fancy onsen hotel just outside of Sapporo, where we soaked in hot pools that looked out over a river running through a valley awash in the crimson, orange and yellow of autumn. The fall foliage seemed even more intense in Hokkaido, the mountains totally enveloped in colour.
I took a day trip to Otaru, a charming oceanside town filled with pretty stone buildings and, because apparently Otaru is the place to buy a music box, the sound of creepy tinkling chimes where ever one went. I splurged on a sushi dinner, as Otaru is also known for its fresh seafood, and carefully and slowly ate the lovely sashimi set out for me by an attentive chef in a tiny sushi bar.
After leaving Sapporo, I headed back south to Hakodate. I ended up enjoying the town, finding shades of Victoria in its close proximity to the water, and in its blustery, moody weather. The guesthouse was situated on a hill with a stunning view of the city and the thin strip of peninsula it occupied, sandwiched by the slate coloured ocean. The guesthouse itself was a former restaurant dating to the 1960s, with dark wood and enormous windows displaying the dramatic view, and I was the only guest. It was a strange and lonely place, the caretaker picking me up at the train station, handing me my room keys and then disappearing for the rest of my stay. I let myself out the next morning.
In Hakodate I hiked to the top of Hakodate Mountain, where I nearly stepped on a snake, leaping back in shock having earlier read about the Japanese pit vipers that lived there. At the top the wind was howling and the rain lashed my face like cold needles. The viewing area was all concrete and quite exposed and I was freezing and quite wet by this point. I went to the bus stop and it appeared another was not due for two hours and I became quite desperate, thinking I might hitchhike down the hill, when suddenly a bus pulled up. I was so relieved, I didn’t even mind the half hour wait before it left.
I really wish I had more time to explore Hokkaido. I would love to return in the summer and camp all around the island, preferably with someone who speaks Japanese to help me navigate the bus! In the end, however, I’m glad I made the effort to visit Japan’s northern island, and I can’t wait to go back.
(If you’re interested in life in Hokkaido, check out Sarah’s blog, The Nomad’s Land. I wish we could have met!)
i ♡ rachabees
Constantly thinking about travel, photography and what to eat next. Right now this blog is chronicling six months of backpacking across Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia. Life in the Pacific Northwest shows up sometimes too.