Sunday, 13 November 2011

This is Japan I wanted to see

Autumn in Japan, 12th - 13th November 2011

 Autumn in Japan 

If Japan is the country of the rising sun, then it is also the country of the falling leaf. Autumn in Japan is spectacular, is beautiful and, like the cherry blossom caress that sweeps north in spring, is fleeting.
I have just returned from the most gorgeous trip into central Kyushu, to the area around Mt Aso, the world’s largest caldera basin where, though the mountain did not glow red and burn brightly, the leaves did.

The plan
This trip was organised by Eiko-san, one of the ladies I work for as an English teacher. Her English school is becoming more and more like a social club, and I’m sure that most of the students sign up for lessons just so they can be involved in the fun trips she organises.
For the last week Eiko has been going on about how nice and how cheap (“ne!”) the trip was going to be and she was completely correct.
The plan was to book and drive to a traditional Japanese Ryoukan, a rustic lodge with paper walls, coal fires, and dragon shaped fountains. More on that later.
Here are some photos from the start of the journey:

Are they chan enough? Mashu-chan and Henry-chan

The ever-radiant Eiko-san

Smackers pukkers up

The drive
Eiko and three of her students picked us up at 9:30 on Saturday morning. The ‘us’ I refer to was me, Henry-chan, Mashu-chan and Smackers (or Ina-chan, if you prefer): the founding chans. Excited, we jumped in and broke out the chocolate and sweeties.
Before long we were zipping through Japan’s ugly suburbia and then hit the countryside.
The first time I ever visited London I must have been 8 or 9. My parents and I took the Piccalilli line from Cockfosters and got off at Piccadilly Circus. Coming up those Metro-Cammell steps, I beheld the advertisements that illuminate Piccadilly and one is still engrained on my retina: L’oréal had an advert with the first woman I ever fell in love with: Virginie McNab, a model I’ve not seen or heard of since, but whose name I still remember and whose face I still see every time I think of London.
So too, then, the sight of red, patch-worked trees creeping up the sheer sides of Kyushu’s mountains, leaves falling into its rivers, will be the picture ever associated in this head with Kyushu. The scenery comes alive outside of the cities; the dirty streams become rivers, the distant mountains depixellate and the flatness of the island gives way to a playground of altitudes and living things that make you forgive the unattractiveness of the human habitations.
Here are some pictures from the drive:

Kumamo, the Kumamoto prefecture mascot!

Thomas the Tank Engine

Ice cream
“Famous ne”, “homemade ne” was how Eiko announced our ice-cream stop. Though I doubt the homemadeness of the stuff, it was certainly delicious and came in lots of flavourlicious flavours. I got sakura, or cherry:

Mmm, November ice-cream!

Black River Lanchi
We sat by a river to have a picnic lanchi that Eiko-san had prepared. Eiko reminds me of my dear friend Jackie in so far as she’s a gorgeous and intelligent woman who is a food obsessive and takes pleasure in feeding me up. I, of course, happily oblige in both cases. In Kurokawa (black river), we had pita bread that Eiko had made, with spicy mince and creamy bean curry. Mmmmmm.
Next, we wandered round the town: it was hugely quaint and the cuteness of rural Japan began to hit home:
Shashin o toremashita:

Smackers advertises for a dating agency

Riverside chans

Aso is the world’s largest caldera basin. From the top of one of the mountains that form its rim you get an impression of Kyushu’s weird geography: flat, then mountain, then flat. And the flat bits are squared with rice paddies.
Every time we go out with Eiko we see a group of paragliders and this time was no exception. Paragliding must be very popular here. On the blustering heights we beheld the distance, saw a lot of Harley Davidsons and looked forward to seeing more of this new, beautiful Japan.
Shashin o toremashita:

Onsen No°1
In the early evening we stopped at an onsen called, I think, ‘ushimaki’. It was a small place near a  pâtisserie full of wonderful Nipponçais that one of Eiko’s students used to work in. Roll cake in hand, we proceeded to the onsen.
For those who don’t know, the Japanese have an extremely civilised tradition that takes advantage of the abundant volcanic water on their archipelago of bathing and soaking in very hot, minerally, water. They have these baths all over Japan: even my dorm has one.
The boys’ onsen had three pools, two on the inside and one outside. The outside one was gorgeous, open to the sky and warm but not too hot. We soaked there for a while and spoke a mixture of Japanese and English though, I’m proud to say, mostly the former. Next, the big men among us went in the inferno of a super hot pool which we managed for a matter of minutes before getting out and nearly feinting. Had to be done though, and it felt great afterwards. Getting a bucket of cold water over the head helped too.

The place
We arrived at the Ryoukan after dark. Japan has pretty set gender roles and so while the women prepared the food, we went to hunt and gather (beer) from a convenience store.
The place itself was so quaint and what-you-would-imagine that I wouldn’t think it real if I hadn’t slept there. Paper walls everywhere, trickling water everywhere, coal smoke everywhere. Totally unlockable, but hell, who cares? : it’s Japan.
Shashin o toremashita:

Eiko brought tons and tons of MEAT to satiate our ravenous appetites which we cooked, along with some cabbage, sweet corn and onions, on an open flame. I stank of smoke afterwards, but my belly was not complaining.
Shashin o toremashita:

Smackers makes onigiri

The Evening
Under a kotatsu (a table fitted with blanket and heater) the night really began and there were times when I was overcome with the warmth and generosity of the Japanese people we had befriended. They can be frustrating (the day before, Eiko and I had almost had a falling out over the fact that I wrote in pencil in a report card I had to fill in for her school) but they know how to welcome, certainly they do.
We had bought some beer at the convenience store earlier in the evening: I bought a can of Yebitsu, which is an almost acceptable malt beer which I like mainly because it causes the archaic hiragana “ye” in its name! The stuff that can legally be called beer here is super expensive, so I only bought one can and opted for two cans of beer imitation stuff. I know. I know, I‘m sorry but I’m doing my best.
G-Dawg and Smackers

Eminently Drinkable Flavor Extravagance

Japanter and Chananter
The other chans bought some umeshu. It was, thus, appropriate that G-Dawg, our Korean friend who teaches Korean to Eiko, pointed out some aspects of our Japanese that made us seem a little girly: (i) the fact that we annunciate too much and say hai for yes, rather than just grunting; (ii) the fact that we say watashi for I/me instead of ‘boku’; (iii) that we say oishii for delicious rather than ‘umai’. There were some other words he taught us, but quickly retracted when the Japanese people told him they were too offensive!
We ate cake and coffee, sitting cross legged in the paper walled room, still enjoying the under-table warmth. Eiko suggested that we sing some English songs. This happens often in Japan and yet we never know any songs that all of us can sing. Out default is “Yellow Submarine” but we couldn’t even get that together. Then Eiko whacked out the hymn sheets and we got down to business: singing two Japanese songs she had prepared for us to learn. The first was the only Japanese single ever to be a hit abroad. It’s called 上を向いて歩こうor “ue o muite arukou”, though for the song’s US release, they changed it “Sukiyaki”. Here’s a link to it: I think it’s pretty, but that’s because I like slush. It’s a song that, in Japan, everyone knows the words to, no matter their age. I found the evening charming and slept happy and warm.

Aso no Asa
The next morning we went for a wee tour of Aso including a large temple. It is tradition in Japan that thanksgivings are made for a child’s 3rd birthday, so we went along to see lots of little ‘uns in kimonos looking cute but inconvenienced.
It was interesting to note that our Japanese companions found the whole site just as fascinating as us and were behaving in a more touristy manner than we were, having their photos with be-kimonoed staff. When we asked about the religious significance of various aspects of the place they had no idea!

Onsen No°2
We visited a waterfall and went “to see the leaves” and then hit another onsen. This place was entirely outdoor, snuggled onto a river bank. Sunday was colder than Saturday, so it was really rather magical to slip, bollock-naked, from cold where you could see your breath into water so hot it tingled. This onsen thing is so civilised. My guide book has pictures of red-faced monkeys enjoying a dip so I’m still holding out hope of seeing some soon. There were a couple of little boys in there behaving like monkeys though; very sweet to see three generations of a family relaxing together.
Due to the quite exposed nature of this onsen, Ina-chan reported that much excitement passed through our female contingent when it was reported that they could quite easily catch a glimpse into the male section, and G-Dawg had a little giggle when, naked as the day he was born, he realised that, if she looked the right way, aforementioned –chan could see him.

Udon and Ending
I napped at several points on the drive back north to Chikushino. After passing out favourite Engrish or the trip – a sign for “Lube Now” - we stopped for some noodles in hot soup, or ‘Udon’. Eiko geared us up with all of the correct vocabulary to thank her with when we parted which, an hour or so later, we duly and dutifully did.
It was a truly gorgeous weekend, sometimes really hot, sometimes really cold and always really jovial. I’m thrilled to realise that Japan is not the ugly wasteland its urban spaces threaten that it might be, and that you can have fun in nature and not break the buta-bank. 

Oysaumi Nasai!!

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