Right before I moved back to Southern California, my father and I embarked upon an eight day road trip, touring our way through the Southern Japanese island of Kyushu at breakneck speed. Each day, we traveled through an average of exactly 2 prefectures.
It is impossible to enjoy more than a fraction of what Kyushu has to offer in such a short time, but with a lot of thought, flexible planning, and a desire to explore as much as possible, we visited six out of eight prefectures and covered a good chunk of the perimeter of the island. The only prefectures that we were unable to visit were Nagasaki and Okinawa. In order to visit everywhere I wanted to go and do everything I wanted to do, we would have needed at least a month! Keep in mind that much of the distance traveled was on windy, ill-maintained country roads. Add to this an average speed limit of 50 kph, which many country drivers prefer to drive under, and it takes a lot longer to get from point A to point B.
Here is a rough outline of our journey:
Assorted Omiyage (spices, chocolate, beef jerkey, and assorted snacks)
Super Cat Radar detector
Kyushu Super Mapple
Extra-large map of Kyushu
2 SD memory cards
250 GB Buffalo External Harddrive
Canon Wordtank G50
40 assorted music cds and Blink (by Malcolm Gladwell) on tape
Day 1- Osaka to Kumamoto
My father and I depart from Itami, arrive in Kumamoto, and pick up our rental car, a Mazda Familia. We wanted an RX-8, but it cost about $200 per day.
After driving into downtown Kumamoto, we had lunch at the tantanmen restaraunt on the 7th floor of Tsuruya.After this, we dropped by Kumamoto castle and enjoyed the blizzard of falling sakura petals.
We meet up with some friends, and visit the Kumamoto Traditional Arts and Crafts Center (definitely worth a visit), watching local artisans make cutlery and make gold and silver jewelry in the local style.
After this, we eat ramen at Ajisen, and I go out drinking with Luke, his new girlfriend, Jin, and Joe. My father goes separate ways with a cousin, and they sample basahi with the local varieties of shochu.
We stop by The (now closed) Sharp and drank at Jeff’s World Bar, the new Sanctuary (it’s too bright and clean now), Cowboy (did 2 hours of nomihodai), and various places along the Kamitori and Shimatori.
I finally stumble in at 4 am to the Green Hotel after going to 2 other Green Hotels and being told that I was at the wrong place! That’s what 2 consecutive rounds at a nomihodai joint will do to one’s cognitive abilities, I guess.
Day 2- Kumamoto to Saga
I wake up with a hangover and quickly depart for Saga to visit relatives and friends.
On the way, we decide to visit Miyamoto Musashi’s Grave in Musashigaoka en route to the expressway.
My father gets directions to our relatives’ church, which turn out to be bad, On top of this, a typhoon starts to roll in. We overshoot our destination, and find out that we can not go past the Saga Airport, as the directions tell us to, because to do so would mean driving into the ocean.
Getting directions to Higashimatsura, from an old man who speaks with a strong Saga dialect, tests my comprehensional abilities of Saga-ben. According to the old man, it would take another 2-3 hours of driving to get to the city of Higashimatsura. Something is obviously wrong.
We give up and call our relatives, and finally find out that HIgashimatsura is the name of the church (which moved to its present location from the city with which it shares its name) is in Saga city, only 45 minutes away. They quickly come and retrieve us from the airport.
Our cousin takes us out to eat the famous beef from Saga. It is among the best beef I have ever had in Japan, which is to say, the best beef I have ever had. A cold mug of Malt’s beer and a stomach full of wagyu eases my hangover.
We spend time going over family history, and find out just how hard our relatives had to work to get educated and earn money to save up for bringing the family over to America. Everyone had to work in order to send one child to school. Public education was non existant in those days, and education was not taken for granted. How much things have changed…
My father spends the night with our relatives, and I take the train to Tosu and stay over at the Tanaka’s house. I finally get to meet Sachika-chan, Ko-chan and Kaori’s baby, and take too many pictures of her.
We eat a homemade dinner of tonkatsu, miso soup, and daikon salad. Later we drink beer and reminisce about teaching and life in Ubuyama-mura.
I transfer the pictures of 2 SD cards onto my harddrive before passing out.
Day 3- Saga to Oita
The typhoon rages during the morning and I wait it out with Kaori and Sachika-chan. We buy breakfast from the panya in front of the Tosu eki and eat in their Subaru Forester. My father is 2 hours late showing up to the rendevous point. We depart, planning on stopping in Usa and a few other places on the way to the Oita Marine Center. We stop at Yufuin on the way, and find what is probably the only taco truck in all of Japan.
The weather starts to clear up as we continue to Usuki to visit the aincent stone Buddhas (an awesome sight) and eat some cheap and delicious bento and onigiri from A-Coop on the steps of the castle ruins.
The road to Usa is obliterated and impassable, so we regrettably don’t get to see the largest collection of haniwa and head onto the Marine Center. Along the way, we drive through some great mountain roads along the coastline. They test my father’s driving abilities, and there are a few hair-raising moments and appropriate expletives exchanged as a result. We climb an observation tower in the middle of nowhere and admire the view. The coastline is unspoilt by seawalls of tetrapods, a rare sight in this country.
As night sets, we check into our room at the Marine Center, and head to Usagi Tei, the local izakaya. The food is exceptionally good. My father especially enjoys the peanut tofu (he hates the boiled peanuts of which this tofu is made, but the alchemists in the kitchen have turned it into a culinary delight), and I enjoy the locally-caught yellowtail sashimi which is among the best I have ever eaten. This is, I reflect, the last sashimi of this quality that I will be eating for quite a while.
After another full day, we enjoy sleeping in a private room, in an almost deserted minshoku. We timed this one just right.
Day 4- Oita to Miyazaki
We eat a breakfast of salted fish, rice, nori, and an egg and bacon that we cook atop a sterno-heated ceramic pan, and spend the whole morning checking out the Marine Center/minshoku. We play with friendly sea turtles and oceanic sunfish, hand feed tropical fish in a seemingly impossible fish tank, and stroll around the sleepy fishing village.
We hit the road, and head south for Miyazaki city. Lunch is ramen at Gofu. I take many pictures along the way. Unfortunately, the weather turns bad, and we don’t get to enjoy the famous beaches of Miyazaki.
The price of admission into SeaGaia, the famous indoor beach next to the beach, is prohibatively expensive, and we arrive when it is just closing.
Instead we visit Udo Jingu, a shrine inside of a cave on the Miyazaki Coastline, and throw little tablets into a hole atop a turtle-shaped rock for good luck.
There is no sunset today, but the transition from day to night is beautiful, regardless.
We have dinner at a local izakaya with Tsuji, a friend who I hadn’t seen since high school. The jidori sashimi (raw chicken) is exceptional, and the liver turns out to be the highlight of the meal. We end the meal at a melon-panya outside of the izakaya and part ways.
My SD cards are full again, so I stop at a Cybac, pull the gaijin card, and avoid paying membership fees. It takes 20 minutes to transfer all of the files to my harddrive. It’s nice to have enough space to store all of the pictures that I have taken.
We stay at cottage Himuka, and regret that we are not able to use all 4 beds. This place would be good for a larger group vacation to Miyazaki. Maybe nextime…
Day 5- Miyazaki to Kagoshima
Breakfast at Himuka is unspectacular, a Japanese-continental spread. The bacon is limp, the sausage lacking in flavor and texture, and the eggs are over-cooked. Cereal, salad, and fresh fruit take up the slack, but we are itching to get on the road. A gaijin dad and Japanese mom scold their children in the next table over. Poor kids. The father looks like a proto-expat who has clearly overstayed his time in this country.
We hit the expressway from Miyazaki to Miyakonojo. Here we stop by a waterfall, and take a hike in the rain.
It is refreshing, and a welcome break in between.
On the way to the ferry, we get lost in the woods and ask some locals working at a small lumber mill for directions. They speak in a deep Kagoshima-ben (one of the hardest to understand dialects in Japan) and draw a map on a crosscut section of cedar. The directions, unlike their dialect, are very easy to understand and get us back on track.
We arrive at Sakura-jima, the famous volcano that sits across the bay from the city of Kagoshima, and explore the desolate landscape.
Due to continuing vocanic activity, we are unable to proceed up the volcano.The roads have been torn in two from fissures in the earth and eroded/covered by lahar after lahar.
We take the ferry from Sakurajima to Kagoshima city,
and I have a decent bowl of udon and enjoy the view. We see bullet holes in the castle walls as we drive through the city to, Iso Teien, our next stop.These spectacular gardens were built by the powerful Shimadzu clan of Kagoshima. We spend the better part of the day enjoying the museums and hiking around the massive grounds, until it almost closes.
Towards the end of the day, the sun finally peeks out through the rain clouds, and gives us a clear view of Sakurajima.
We visit the cave where Takamori Saigo hid after his defeat, and reflect on how bad of a movie “The Last Samurai” was for making Tom Cruise the protagonist. Saigo was clearly the man.
We drive up to the nearby mountains and enjoy the view of the city while eating some top-rate eclairs from the Castle Hotel.
The hotel maintains beautiful gardens, and has a small museum inside. Their workers are mostly young and attractive women. If you have a lot of money to burn, this is definitely the place to stay.
Next, we stop by the site where Saigo commited seppuku and pay our respects. After his suicide, a trusted liutenant took Saigo’s head and buried it in a secret location, to uphold Saigo’s honor and deny the enemy the trophy which they so greatly desired. To this day, no one knows where Saigo’s head is hidden. I bet it’s inside the caldera of Sakurajima.
We eat dinner at a local izakaya. The seafood, though limited, is pretty good, but no one dish stands out as exceptional. Since we have a drive ahead of us, we refrain from drinking. It feels weird not to drink in an izakaya, especially when you’re on vacation.
It takes about an hour to get to Satsuma no Sato, our secluded ryokan in the mountains of Kagoshima.
To our surprise, our names are written in the Roman alphabet on the genkan board and one of the hostesses speaks really good English. It turns out that she was born and raised in Seattle, and moved back to Kagoshima a long time ago.
This ryokan had the honor of hosting one of the Emperors. It is exactly what I picture an old school ryokan to be, complete with a Japanese garden, a full set of samurai armor, and Japanese art skillfully displayed to complement the summer season. We enjoy a piping hot radon onsen, and then have a well deserved beer before hitting the sack.
Day 6- Kagoshima to Kumamoto
There’s nothing like starting your day off in an onsen, and this proved to be no exception. After meditating, my father is ready to get on with the day.
We depart from Satsuma no Sato refreshed after a good night’s sleep.
On the way, we stumble upon a lake inside of an extinct volcano. The town next to the lake obviously has a thing for dragons. The largest waterwheel in the world had a dragon on it, as does one of the bridges, among other things designed to lure in tourists.
Next, we jumped on the expressway to Kumamoto to the 57 and rode the Milk Road back to Ubuyama-mura. I finally get to take a picture of a sign that I never got around to taking while I was living there.
I visit all of the old schools that I used to teach at, and am happy to see all of the children again. They are so much bigger than I remember, and I enjoyed talking with former co-workers and students. Life has remained unchanged up here in my little mountain village.
We eat a lunch of yakiniku at Yama no Sato, where they have several types of tsukemono.
Unfortunately, the akaushi was not as good as it used to be. Cooking the beef atop a piece of volcanic rock is pretty cool, though.
We visit the springs at Ikeyama and Yamabuki, and then head leave Ubuyama for Yamaga via the Milk.
I was fortunate enough to be able to meet up with a lot of old friends. First, we stopped by the Otsuka’s (Joe’s host family) house and talked about the Kumamoto beef industry. Unfortunately, it’s not doing as well as it was doing, but hopefully it will recover. The Otsuka family runs a cattle ranch, and produce beef that rivals that of Kobe, Saga, or just about any beef in Japan. Time is short, so we bid farewell, and head over to Aiko’s house.
Jamie, Dave (sh*tf*ck), Emi, Chie, and Aiko are all waiting for us.
We enjoy some freshly harvested takenoko and drink a lot of beer and shochu, while reminiscing about the good times on JET. Those guys are still doing the program, and having a good time down there. Aiko’s family is kind enough to let us spend the night, and we quickly fall asleep.
Day 7- Kikuchi to Kumamoto City to Aso
We eat a simple country-style breakfast of takenoko, tsukemono, and chasuke, and bid farewell to Aiko and her family.On our way to Kikuchi, we stop by Matt’s old village and take another onsen in Kikuka town. It costs only 300 yen, a bargain! Continuing on to Kikuchi gorge, we hike in the rain yet again. Kikuchi gorge is just as beautiful as I remember, though it isn’t quite the right weather to go for a swim.
After the hike, we meet Hieda-sensei, a friend of mine as well as the former art teacher in Ubuyama. He takes us to Kokutei, a famous ramenya in Kumamoto city and his favorite place to go for a bowl of noodles. The tonkotsu broth is fantastic even by Kumamoto standards
It is good to hear that he no longer has to travel 2 hours to visit his girlfriend. They now live right next to each other in the city, and have a lot more opportunities to see eachother. When he lived in Ubuyama, he could only visit 2 or 3 times a month! It seems like everyone who has worked in Ubuyama enjoyed working with the children, but they don’t really miss some of the other things that come with working in such an isolated area.
We stay the night at the Starry Pension, owned by the Nakayama family. The starry skies of Aso and gentle chirp of the local crickets make for a very peaceful setting. We meet up with Kaori, Kikuko, and Sachika-chan, and enjoy a nice meal of steak followed by a private onsen with a view of the night sky.
Day 8- Kumamoto to Osaka
Nakayama obaasan once again prepares a delicious meal, and to our great surprise, she will not accept any money for staying over at their pension! Sadly, we have little time to spare, and bid a tear filled farewell.
We had planned to visit Kurokawa for a day of onsenning, but didn’t have enough time. Instead we visit Daikanbo, and enjoy a soft-serve while looking down into the Aso caldera. The wind is strong, and cold, so we depart.
We have a traditional country style lunch of dagojiro (a miso-based soup with dumplings, pork, and vegetables), and takana meshi (takana fried rice) in a popular restaraunt filled with ornaments from all over Japan.
It is nice to have a lunch that is way too big to finish, and reminds me how country life is different from life in the city.
Even within the same country and prefecture, people have such different lifestyles from one another, and food has often been one thing that I can use to make comparisons. Farmers need a lot of energy to work in the field. I guess the same does not necessarily apply to the Calorie Mate and McDonalds fueled OLs and salarymen of the city.
Kikuko and Kaori bid us farewell, and we proceed to sample the many onsens at Aso Farmland. My favorites included the fujinohana onsen, and the inside onsen that glowed nuclear green under the blacklight. Yet another thing that I will miss about Kyushu when I get back to the States.
We drive back to the airport, return the car, and fly back to Osaka. This has been one helluva road trip!
Note: this entry is a work in progress…