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Japan Round Up

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I feel so lucky I had so much time to see Japan. I explored all four major islands. I went to 20 out of the 47 prefectures. Of course, there are still many places I missed out on, like the rainforests of Yakushima and the sand dunes of Tottori and the tropics of Okinawa and countless beautiful but utterly unaffordable onsens and ryokans, but I recognize I saw more of Japan in a few months than many of her residents see in their lifetimes.

I traveled throughout Kansai, to Kobe and Kyoto and Osaka, feeling the excitement of being somewhere different and exotic with friends old and new, then wandered the endless streets of Tokyo feeling alone and sort of sad and totally overwhelmed. I stayed in a crumbling old onsen set in the autumn foliage of the Tochigi mountains, toured the quaint thatched homes of Shirakawago and crept up to furry Macaques relaxing in hot springs near Nagano. I traversed bridges and islands on a bicycle to Shikoku and later returned to take in the art of Naoshima. I traveled north all the way to Hokkaido, where I staved off the chill of the impending winter at ramen joints with names like “Snow Wind”, and south, down to Kagoshima, where I watched thousands of revellers dance in the shadow of an active volcano, and to Beppu, where steam venting from the earth whirls in the streets.

After the cut is my humble attempt to sum up Japan, including the places I stayed, the karaoke I sang, the onsens in which I reclined, and unedited (possibly) never before published excerpts from my journal. Also, perhaps best of all, the collection of purikura (Japanese photo booths) I did with my new friends all over Japan! Continue Reading →

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Nagawa Fish Market

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One of the last things I did in Fukuoka was visit the Nagawa fish market. This is a once a month market that the Tabicolle hostel suggested I check out. I thought it might be super touristy but everyone else seemed to be there for the fish. There’s a similar market in Tokyo called Tsukiji, which comes highly recommended, but everything I read about it lamented the presence of gawking tourists getting in the way of the actual buying and selling, so when I was in the city I took a pass.

I was told to go early, so I arrived around 7:30am, and there was already a decent sized line waiting to enter the still-closed market. I finished reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover until the place opened a few hours later (seriously, my e-reader was the best thing I brought traveling) and everyone rushed inside, presumably to get the best deals. Nagawa Market was pretty great, with lots of weird sea creatures and some gigantic fish: I saw a guy smash an enormous (like, German Shepard-sized) fish in the head with a spiked club, then kick it, heft it onto a board and just start sawing into it. It was PRIMAL. I saw silvery eels, giant tunas, clams and cockles and oysters, red rubbery octopus and slender slimy squid, jostling elbow to elbow with obaachans and ojisans alike.

Everyone was really friendly, even as I crashed through the crowd with my giant backpack. I had planned on going in and just staying out of the way, but the fishermen were posing with their fish for me and the girls were making peace signs and everyone but one shy guy said yes to having their photo taken.

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The Sumo Beya

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Mary, the girl I with whom I had traveled from Kagoshima, read there was a sumo tournament in Fukuoka but discovered it started after she left, so I suggested we look into going to a practice. I had read about visiting a sumo beya (stable) and the guy at our hostel was nice enough to call, confirm that we were able to visit and even arranged a cab for us the next morning.

The taxi picked us up at 6:30am. We had been told practice was from 5:30am to 8:00am and I was worried if we went any later we might have trouble finding the stable and get lost or show up really late. However, it was relatively easy to find, as I spotted the flag for it flying above the street right away. We walked up a small path, and on one side was an absolutely bare bones building and on the other was a shrine with a walled-in compound alongside it. There was no one else around.

I thought maybe there would be a reception area or something but there wasn’t even an obvious entry, just a sliding door and some windows on the side of the plain building. I crept up the steps and peered inside and to my surprise, saw an enormous man sprawled on the floor, stretching it out in a robe.

I ran back down to Mary.

“They’re all lying on the floor, stretching. I don’t want to interrupt. I’m not sure what to do.”

She shrugged so I went up the stairs again. A sumo inside looked me in the eye, didn’t blink and turned away. Not good. I went back down the stairs again.

“I really don’t know what to do.” I said.

Suddenly we heard someone approaching from the shrine. An extremely rotund young man with his hair in the sumo knot wearing a robe was coming from the shrine to the stable. I approached him gently, pointing at the stable and myself, and tried to ask him, “Is it okay?” in Japanese.

He laughed softly and replied in Japanese.

Gomen nasai… wakarimasen.” I said, smiling. I don’t understand!

He lifted seven fingers. “Seven!” He said and then went inside.

So, we were just a bit early was all. We wandered off to find a conbini and some snacks.

When we returned there was a man in a track suit sitting inside and another sumo outside who happily let us in and even placed my shoes in the proper spot for me. The sumos all had cute surprised looks on their faces at the sight of us. The beya was very simple inside: a rectangular area with a dirt floor, a sumo ring in the centre, and on our side of the room was a raised platform covered in tatami. We grabbed some pillows from the corner and sat down to watch. My plan for watching was to sit as quietly and motionless as possible, not really having a clue what the standard behaviour was for attending such an event.

The sumos were very close to us. Their practice was quite self run, the coach sitting on the tatami platform in his track suit, taking notes, occasionally shouting instructions, but otherwise simply observing. There was some sumos who were obviously higher ranking and when they walked into the room everyone bowed and greeted them respectfully.

They did a variety of exercises. Some of them squatted low, then charged foreward, slapping the air. Others did intense amounts of squats. One sumo stood near the platform and raised his leg to the side, as high as his head, over and over and over. Keep in mind everyone was wearing those tiny loincloths (called a mawashi) and nothing else. When this guy lifted his leg up all that separated his worldly goods from our eyes was a tiny strip of white cloth. Scandalous.

They started doing some sparring, which was interesting. I didn’t realize grabbing the mawashi was a legit move. One guy got a nasty scratch down his side during a grapple. The fights were over fast, but you could see incredible muscles straining in their legs. That was another surprising thing, the guys had girth, to be sure, but when they squatted you could see tons of muscle in their lower half. The biggest sumo there was huge, more than 6ft and with at least three sizable rolls down his front but he also had the sweetest smile and rushed over after practice to ask where we were from.

Maybe a half hour in, a mother came in with two young daughters and they watched the practice for maybe 20 minutes. The coach was very friendly to them, so I think it was more of a relaxed atmosphere after all, but I didn’t want to take any chances in being that tourist. I didn’t even take any photos, aside from a few discreet cell phone pics at the very end, as there was never an opportunity to ask if it was okay.

Near the end another mom came in with a toddler and little guy who was maybe in grade 2 or 3. The coach gave him a big smile and slid his pillow over for the kid to sit on. The sumos were winding down their practice, and were in the midst of some intense push ups. The coach started chatting with the little boy, asking him, I’m assuming, if he liked sumo and what not. The sumos got up and started doing what I can only describe as “ground pounds”, where they lift their legs to the side and then pound the ground with their feet, and the coach encouraged the little boy to try it out too. I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the cutest thing I’ve ever seen, the skinniest shrimp of a boy in his school outfit squatting down and smashing the floor as hard as he can while facing down a dozen enormous men in loincloths who can barely contain their delighted laughter at the sight of him. Probably one of my favourite moments in Japan, without a doubt.

Here’s another crazy thing: sumos can DO THE SPLITS. Completely! They are so flexible. The coach got the little boy to do the splits too, you could tell the kid was LOVING it. The mom came back in and was cracking up watching it all. It was so sweet.

The practice ended and a few sumos came over and started asking us questions, though unfortunately my comprehension ended at “Where are you from?” They were just as excited as any other Japanese person. “CANADA!” The coach tried talking to me too, but all I could manage was to tell him it was interesting. Certainly an understatement!

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Neko Love

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One of my favourite memories of Fukuoka happened on a walk through the downtown one evening. I passed an izakaya where a smiling woman and a relaxed looking businessman, cigarette tucked comfortably in his fingers, gathered in the open doorway and lovingly stroked a fat tomcat. Seems like a pretty decent way to unwind after a long day of work.

 

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Fukuoka

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Fukuoka was my final destination in Japan. I didn’t necessarily mean to end my journey there, but I was fixated on the idea of taking the ferry to Busan in Korea, and I was also keen on seeing the city where my longtime friend Erin had spent her 10th grade year. She mailed me photographs of herself in a dark blue uniform posing outside Mister Donut, and in a kimono, a shy smile on her face. There was a double CD of her favourite Japanese pop songs, igniting my love for Shiina Ringo, a feisty female singer who played her own guitar licks and wrote songs about Kurt Cobain. More than 15 years later, “Gibbs” became my go to karaoke song when I wanted to sing in bad Japanese. Also included was a small paper charm for good luck in studying. That year I tucked it into my pocket for my final exams (I passed).

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I have been in love with the idea of Japan for so long that it was rather surreal arriving in Fukuoka, realizing it was the last stop. Those initial months were a long time from home, and I was seized with a restless homesickness. I decided to take it easy in Fukuoka: wander the city, eat its ramen, explore its temples and slip into a last purikura booth. My hostel was a short walk from busy Hakata Station, set above a small restaurant in a semi-residential area. I took a futon in the mixed dorm, a tatami room attempting some semblance of privacy with rattan blinds that unfurled from the ceiling. It was, however, still off-putting rolling over in the morning to stare a strange man in the face through the thin slates of the blinds.

I felt a bit weary of tackling cities head on as a tourist, so I reached out on a busy message board I occasionally read to see if any locals wanted to show me the town. An expat named Ned replied almost immediately, proclaiming himself an ambassador of Fukuoka and offering to show me around. It was a nice change to hang out with someone who knew the whereabouts of the good Happy Hours, and over the course of the night we were joined by Ned’s roommate, and ended up in an izakaya, an English-style pub and a tiny third-floor bar called Cream, talking life in Japan, eating greasy food and, inexplicably, watching “Coming to America”.

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Yatais are unique to Fukuoka, compact mobile food carts usually containing seating, a small kitchen and curtains that enclose the entire space. Sitting in a yatai is sort of like being elbow to elbow with all of your friends in a very tiny kitchen. Ned took us to Mami-chan’s, where the namesake and her family served up spicy yakisoba, mabudofu and perfectly fried chicken wings. I slid in next to a couple of businessmen drinking shochu. I loved Mami-chan’s son’s sweet smile when she told him I was sneaking photos of him while he cooked. The business men insisted I try all of their food too and soon they were asking me about my trip and showing me photos of their grandkids and pets.

Another evening found me joining Ned and a group of mostly expats at another yatai, this one specializing in skewers. People gathered around a long table set next to the cart, drinking beer and chatting amicably. A friendly fellow Canadian (from Victoria, actually!) was going the same way as my hostel and we walked with along the river, past the warm glow from behind yatai curtains and through the red light district, the usual bright lights and glossy stares of women from backlit posters and business men stumbling everywhere, examining menus of smiling girls. A sumo wrestler on his night off brushed past us, oblivious to my delighted stare.

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Ned ended up taking me to several interesting eating establishments, including a busy kaitenzushi, where slices of raw fish draped on neatly shaped rice sailed by on a tiny conveyer belt. Additional dishes and beverages could be ordered via a personal touchscreen, which flashed a warning screen upon arrival of said items.

Now well versed in ramen, I visited Ippudo, where I ate tiny gyoza and slurped chewy noodles out of broth made black by a heaping dollop of umami. Out of the eight different ramen shops in Ramen Stadium, located in a massive shopping mall, I chose Hidechan, recommended to me for its traditional Fukuoka-style tonkatsu ramen. The pork bone broth was intensely rich, almost as thick as gravy.

Someone pointed out Ichiran, an imposing ramen restaurant with multiple stories lit by red lanterns, and on an evening stroll I came across it and decided to try it out. I bought a ticket at a vending machine and then sat in a small cubicle, where I filled out a menu selecting the strength of broth flavour, noodle chewiness, etc. Once completed, I handed my ticket and menu to a set of hands that emerged from behind a bamboo blind. Soon the blind lifted and a steaming bowl of ramen slid before me, which I devoured from the private comfort of my tiny table.

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I went to a little market street, with small shops selling fruits, vegetables and tsukemono (pickles). I took a photo of one woman standing behind her beautiful homemade pickles, carefully arranged vibrant greens and deep purples and stark whites.  She became flustered and took off her hat and gave me the most beautiful smile. Another woman at a fish store happily showed me all the fish they sold and explained their names in Japanese.

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The Sumiyoshi shrine grounds were dotted with enormous Camphor trees, with long bowing branches heavy with green ferns. Inside the main shrine a woman in an exquisite kimono sat with her mother and grandmother as a priest and priestess performed a ceremony for her.

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Ohori Park had a large lake in the centre with a little island connected by stone bridges. A man stood on one of the bridges holding food in the air and white gulls hovered and flew and plucked it from his hands. The light was beautiful, the eerie glow that comes with too much air pollution casting everything in a warm haze. I went around the whole lake, checking out funny dogs (and one man walking a rabbit wearing a dress) and found the Kusama pumpkin.

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The Kusama pumpkin was a smaller version of the yellow one on Naoshima. It reminded me of the incredible weekend I had spent there with some of the most amazing people I had met in Japan. So much of my experience here had been shaped by their kindness and camaraderie. It was strange to know I was leaving so soon and that while my return seemed inevitable, it would probably be sometime before I returned to Japan.

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Kumamoto

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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!

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Kagoshima and Ohara Matsuri

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Matsumoto

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Beppu

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hokkaido

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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!)
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