Kumamoto

We awoke bright and early again to make a short hop on the train to Oita city from where we would get another coach across the whole width of Kyushu to Kumamoto. We didn’t have a ticket for the coach sorted before we arrived, so it required a little running around from the station car park which supposedly doubled up as the bus stop to a department store 5 minutes away which for some reason contained a bus ticket office.

The route from Oita to Kumamoto passes by the largest active volcano in Japan, Mt Aso, bang in the middle of Kyushu. It is supposedly a nice place for hiking, as you can get right up close to the crater if it’s not too dangerous and spewing toxic gases, but on our whistle-stop tour we couldn’t really afford the time to do that so we had to make do with a glance from afar from the bus window. The journey took about 4 hours in total.

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Kumamoto is famous for two things: Kumamoto castle, and basashi. The castle is considered one of the three best castles of Japan, along with Matsumoto and Himeji, but sadly it was severely damaged in an earthquake in April 2016. When we went in early January 2017, access was still heavily restricted, so we couldn’t enter the grounds, but again only look on from afar. Although we knew in advance that it was unlikely we would get in, it was still a little disappointing as you never know just how bad the damage was going to be. As you can see from the pictures though, the damage was considerable and we can only imagine how bad it must be inside., and as ever o rht and ass ever for Japan beautifully coiffeured gardens

The Japanese absolutely love their food, and whenever I mentioned I was going to Kumamoto I was always told that I must try their local delicacy, basashi. Helen wasn’t really too keen on even trying it, as basashi is raw horse meat. We went to an izakaya for dinner as we thought that they must have it on the menu, but by some quirk of fate we must have picked the only restaurant in Kumamoto that didn’t have it! Or at the very least we couldn’t find it on the menu. [As an addendum, however, it’s quite easily found all over the country so I tried it when we got back to Tokyo, and it was delicious. A little chewy though.]

Also worth a mention in Kumamoto was the beautiful Suizenji park, an idyllic little haven in the centre of town.With typically Japanese stunningly coiffured gardens, it was a perfect place to rest and have a cup of matcha next to the picturesque lake.

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Beppu

We were up bright and early on New Year’s Day and had a brisk walk on a fresh winter morning to the bus station. Tenjin bus station was a strange one; located on the third floor of a department store-like building, the buses have to descend a long ramp down to ground level before continuing on their way. The three hour journey took us east to another new prefecture, and another new city called Beppu.

Beppu is famous for the “Beppu Hells”, a series of fantastic hot springs dotted around the mountains. The area was opened up for tourism by the scary guy in the statue by the station, and now is probably one of the most famous spots on Kyushu.

We arrived around lunchtime, and after dropping off our bags at the hostel jumped on a bus to the springs. The bus takes about 15 minutes to the first five springs, which are all within walking distance of each other; you need to take a second bus another 5 minutes to see the final two springs. Although you can get individual entry to each spring, most people bought a combo ticket for 2000yen allowing you entry to all seven. Each Hell has different characteristics, so it’s definitely worth getting the combo ticket.

First was the Sea Hell, which was bright blue and steaming hot. Probably one of the more visually appealing springs, it was so hot that steam was constantly streaming off of it.

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Just up the road from the Sea Hell was the Mud Hell, through which hot water bubbled creating little mushroom-shapes (the Japanese name describes these as monks’ heads).

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Next came the kamado Hell, which seemed to be a greatest hits of all the others, with some brightly coloured water.

The Crocodile Hell, whose waters supposedly provide the perfect breeding conditions for crocodiles. Although perfect for breeding, the conditions weren’t ideal as there were a huge number of crocs squashed together into pools which looked less than comfortable.

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The White Water Hell was probably the easiest on the eye; a milky-white pool was surrounded by a well-sculpted garden.

A short bus-ride down the hill from the first five springs took us to the final two. The Blood Hell is probably the most-famous spring there, as it appears on all the posters and advertising. The big selling point is that due to the iron content of the water, they are bright red; by the time we got there, however, it was a little late in the day and the waters didn’t appear as vivid as I expected.



Finally the Tornado Hell; a natural geyser that is renowned for the frequency of its spurts. The geyser spurts (spouts?) roughly every 40 minutes for a duration of about 8 minutes; we arrived just as it was finishing, so due to that drop of bad luck had to sit around waiting for another 4o minutes for it to start again.  The force of the spurt has been restricted by a stone roof which blocks the water’s passage; it’s said that if that hadn’t been placed there, the water would reach a height of over 30m.

We were only in Beppu for one day as on our whistlestop tour had to keep moving. New Year’s Day seems to be the one day in Japan where things actually close, so the only place we could find to eat was a random pasta place by a main road! After dinner we headed back to the hostel and had a good rest, ready to continue our journey the following day.

Fukuoka

A short 40 minute hop on the train from Saga took us to the largest city in Kyushu, Fukuoka. In the news recently as the place where the massive sinkhole appeared, Fukuoka was a lot more built-up than Nagasaki and around the central Hakata station was very reminiscent of Tokyo, being surrounded by huge 10-floor department stores and electric shops.

We were only there for a short time; the first evening we strolled around and had dinner in a yatai. On the riverfront, these are a collection of small temporary restaurants with space for only about 10 customers, serving ramen or yakitori. We had ramen, which though basic was delicious

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The next day we left Fukuoka to go to Yanagawa, a very small town built on a canal system. Nowadays, the town primarily seems to function on offering punt tours around the canal, allowing tourists like us to see such sights as the old house of a famous Japanese poet and a statue commemorating where Yoko Ono’s grandfather used to live.

The punts themselves were typically Japanese; everybody had to take off their shoes before getting in, and there was a kotatsu running down the length of the boat. Kotatsu are effectively tables on a blanket, with a heater underneath the blanket to keep everyone warm; mainstays of a Japanese house in winter but not something I expected to see on a small boat.

 

We had a 70 minute punt through the canals, visiting the different schools and famous old houses of Yanagawa, occasionally being serenaded by the driver who burst into song when he was out of things to say. Luckily the weather was fantastic, a very clear and sunny day, and with the heat from the kotatsu and gentle breeze provided a very relaxing jaunt.

We got back to Fukuoka in time for dinner, before having a little snooze. For it was New Year’s Eve, a night to see out the old year, welcome in the new one and party like it was 2017 already. Or not. We were both knackered, and had to get a bus at half 8 the next day, so we woke from our nap and headed out of the hostel at about 11 towards the harbourside where we’d googled that there might be some fireworks. Picking up a beer on the way, we arrived at what looked like a shopping resort, but it was bustling with people and a live band on stage. Flittering back and forth to try and get the best view of any possible fireworks was a little challenging, due both to the number of people blocking the way and the lack of knowledge of where the fireworks would actually be. Finally at 11.57 we settled on a spot which turned out to be perfect and saw in 2017.

Saga

Moving on from Nagasaki, we took a train towards Fukuoka. Although there is a limited express which can take you to Fukuoka directly in about 2 hours, we opted to make a stop in the city of Saga to  try and find a geocache in Saga prefecture.

Thankfully it was only a short stop, as Saga seemed like a city devoid of anything. With very few restaurants or coffee shops, we finally stumbled on a Hotto Motto for lunch which we could eat in the park.

In the park, there was a bush suggesting a hot air balloon festival was held in the city; that bush, however, was the most interesting thing we saw in our short time there. Thankfully we could pick up 2 caches near the station and so we could be on our way again.

Nagasaki

For the New Year holiday, we decided on a trip to the island of Kyushu, in the southwest of Japan. Kyushu is the third-biggest of the Japanese islands, and one that we’d never been to before.

We started our trip in the northwest city of Nagasaki, probably best known as the city on which the second atomic bomb was dropped. Just like in Hiroshima, a wide area of the city was completely destroyed, and now the city has been rebuilt into a thriving area.

We visited the Peace Park and Museum on our first day and, much like in Hiroshima, it was very powerful. Nagasaki was the secondary target, and was only hit due to bad visibility in Kokura to the north.

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The unassuming entrance to the Atomic Bomb museum

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The Peace statue through the fountain of the Peace Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the south of the hypocenter was the island of Dejima in Nagasaki Bay, which for hundreds of years was the only land permitted to be used by foreign traders (first the Portuguese and secondly the Dutch) during Japan’s years of isolation. By restricting foreigners to this small island, the Shogun could constrain and control both trade and the spread of Christianity which the European missionaries were keen to promote.

Now, the island has become absorbed into the city as part of land reclamation, but in the past 20 years the city has been reconstructing buildings in their previous state. It’s a very interesting museum.

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A scale model of Dejima, though I couldn’t get it all in one photo!

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Just how small the island was

Round the corner from Dejima is Glover Garden. Built on a hill overlooking the Bay, this is a collection of western-style houses built by prominent British entrepreneurs at the end of the 19th century. With unmistakably western interiors, they provided a strange fusion of the two cultures.

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The Nagasaki skyscape

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The gardens around Glover House

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Alt House

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Glover House

 

 

 

Tokyo Olympic Stadium – 4 years to go

Last week, as I was already in the general vicinity, I went to check out what will become the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Stadium. With only four years to go I thought construction might have got under way, or at the very least expected a little activity, but nope. I guess the Japanese can build a stadium faster than the Brazilians!

Mito and Kairaku-en

One of the most famous times of year in Japan is the cherry blossom season, which starts around the end of March and the beginning of April each year. Signalling the start of spring, cherry trees all over the country fleetingly bloom in beautiful pink blossom; the blossom tends to only last for a week or two before the wind or rain drives it away, so it’s important to take advantage and go and have a look while you have the opportunity.

Less well-known is the plum blossom, which blooms a week or two earlier in mid-March. A famous place to look at the plum blossom is Kairaku-en park in the town of Mito, Ibaraki, about an hour northwest of Toyko. Kairaku-en is considered one of the three Great Gardens of Japan (along with Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, which we visited last May, and Koraku-en in Okayama, which he haven’t been to), and hosts a plum blossom festival throughout March.

Due to the ephemeral nature of nature, it’s always difficult to judge exactly  when the best time to visit might be. We went to Mito towards the end of March, hoping to catch either the end of the plum blossom or the beginning of the cherry blossom. Unfortunately, we ended up missing them both!

In the end, we still had a wander around the garden but couldn’t help noticing how bare all the trees were; with a little imagination we could imagine how it must have looked either the week before or a week after, but alas we couldn’t appreciate what it had to offer.

It must look great with blossom on all the trees!

The locals taking pictures of the one tree with any blossom on it

Back in Ueno Park in Tokyo, we actually saw some cherry blossom the week after!