Okawachiyama: Pottery Village in the Mountains

Okawachiyama

Okawachiyama

We live fairly close to some of the most famous pottery cities of Japan…Arita and Imari.  The history of Imari and Nabeshima ceramics is incredibly interesting and after visiting both Karatsu and Arita, my interest in the subject has only increased.  One town in particular stood out to me, Okawachiyama.

Most tourists don’t bother to go to Okawachiyama (unless they are really interested in pottery and still have time after visiting Arita and Imari).  I read about this village in a few other blogs and it sounded like a place that would be not only be interesting, but also beautiful.  It also sounded like it would be fun just getting there.  As it turns out, it’s not particularly easy to get to, but it is certainly worth the effort.   After digging up enough information (train and bus schedules as well as maps), we decided to venture out and try to find it.

Getting to Karatsu was easy, as was transferring to the Yellow Single Man Diesel Car bound for Imari.  As I predicted the scenery alone was worth the trip.  The first train had great views of the Sea of Japan, the second one, the countryside.  This particular part of Kyushu is very appealing.  It is very quaint, quiet, and hilly with rivers and small valleys.  The locals dress in traditional work clothes, there are lots of small vegetable farms, rice fields, old men driving their tractors, and, yes, even cows.

Ceramic Tiled Bridge

After we arrived in Imari and sorted out our train payment, we took a taxi up to Okawachiyama.  The driver kept handing us different pamphlets and maps and eventually dropped us off at a cobalt blue and white tiled bridge.  He was pointing to some building and babbling something about information, but we ignored him and just started exploring (after all he already gave us a ton of information).  We noticed immediately that the village had two streams running through it and that it was literally surrounded by steep, jagged mountains all the way around (except in the direction from which we just came).  We spotted the two large wooden beams which long ago were part of the gate in which they would stop and question everyone coming in and out of the village.

This was, without a doubt, an artisans’ village.  There are pieces of pottery, tile or porcelain everywhere – on the streets, on the walls, on the bridges, in the graveyard, etc.   Everywhere we walked there were artistic compositions involving ceramics of some form.  Even the streams were specially shaped and decorated.  The main street is lined with shops selling pottery, working kilns, and cute little coffee shops.  Side streets lead off to more shops and attractions.  At the end of town is the entrance to a park which is on the other side of the stream.  We followed the trails which traversed the hillside and led to little homes/museums, excavation sites, little shrines, small gravesites, benches and various modern works of art involving ceramics.  At the very top of the park is a fantastic view of the village and surrounding mountains.  On the way back down we saw greenware and some old kilns.

Korean Potter’s Grave

Eventually, we ventured into the large graveyard on the other side of town.  Here lies the Tokumuen Grave (Tomb of the Potters).  It is a pyramid shaped structure built from the accumulated tombstones of the 880 potters who were brought here from Korea to help build the ceramic industry for Japan.  The view of the town from here is most appealing.  Not too far downstream is also a water operated clay crushing mill that duals as a waterfall into a pod filled with coy.  Some pottery wind chimes are housed at the foot of the bridge, which play a tune when you cross the bridge.  I really didn’t want to leave this town since we were enjoying it so much, but unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.

The trip back ended up being just as eventful as the trip coming.  As we boarded the bus back to Imari, we ran into a couple visiting Japan from, believe it or not, Mexico.  The husband not only spoke perfect English (and Spanish), but also Japanese – who would have guessed?  We had an interesting conversation with them about Japan as well as Mexico.  Oddly enough, the Japanese guy we met previously on the Yellow One Man Diesel Car was also on the bus.  Robert learned how to say mathematics in Japanese (sugaku) from him.  Then, to top it off, our incredibly late lunch was with the Sushi Nazi in Karatsu.  It was hilarious watching him correct (and show) Robert how to eat his lunch.  Robert was incredibly uncomfortable having someone so closely scrutinize his eating habits.  The chef had a good laugh when Robert ate the ball of minced dikon (thinking it was a piece of vegetable tempura) that was actually meant to go into my tempura sauce.  He certainly won’t do that again.

Our Beloved Trains and The Yellow One Man Diesel Car

bullet train

Bullet train

As I was writing another post, I realized this particular topic needed it’s own post.  As I’ve probably mentioned in previous posts, we love trains.  We first started liking trains/trams when we lived in Australia.  We then used them extensively when we lived in Ireland.  But I think Japan may have more trains than any other country, so we are trying to take complete advantage of that.  Everyone has heard about their Shinkansen (bullet trains), but Japan also has loads of other trains…electric trains, steam trains, diesel trains…and they come in all different colors, sizes, shapes, and ages.

When we went to  Hiroshima, we used the bullet train….cruising at 200 MPH, it’s smooth, clean, slick looking…modern day train travel at it’s best.  They get you there quick and they are between every major city.  They look and feel like airplanes.

Most of the regional trains (at least where we live) are electric trains which don’t travel more than 35 miles an hour.  They are nice and practical but not very exciting (basically commuter trains much like the L in Chicago).  The trains start getting much more interesting when you venture to resort towns or to small rural destinations.

On our recent trip to Yufuin (a popular onsen resort town), we got to ride on two different diesel trains.  These trains traveled on the same single track (a track shared by trains going in opposite  directions) passing only at train stations.  They cruise through steep, curvy, narrow and thickly forested canyons…often going through tunnels.  Both trains are known for their wood trim interiors.  The first train we were on only had 3 cars and a definite 1950’s feel.  It had blond wood floorboards, matching window sills with cup holder indentations, and very dated curtains.  Our return train had 6 cars with two tone wood flooring and a very 1970’s art deco feel to it.  One of the cars was specifically set up as just a dining car.  I’ve never seen so many people taking pictures (and movies) of a train before.  The train attendants even offered to take our picture while we were onboard the train, so we did!

Our latest trip to Okawachiyama involved riding a single car train….the Yellow One Man Diesel Car (i love that name).  A sure sign you are on the back roads (or should I say back tracks) of Japan is when there is only a single car train.  The fact that it was bright yellow only added to the charm.  I couldn’t put an era on this train, but it was quite different.  It had an old electronic board in front with stop numbers and prices (similar to the local buses), and it had a contraption that spat out tickets.  We started wondering after a few stops what the exact payment procedure was.  People getting on pulled a ticket and then dropped it off on the way out.  We didn’t pull a ticket…all we had was our electronic subway pass.   The “stations” we were stopping at along the way didn’t have buildings associated with them and there were several “station” signs that weren’t even readable due to weathering and old age.  There were no attendants collecting tickets (much less an electronic card scanner).  We were a little concerned, but we figured we would be alright.

Trains in rural Japan have the most interesting passengers.  One gentleman on the train kept consulting his small binder with handwritten times of each stop in it.  Another older gentlemen was smiling, talking to himself and writing stuff on a sheet of paper.  He later approached us several different times with his questions written in English….where are you from?  are you from the American base?  what is the purpose of our visit?  It ends up he was going to Okawachiyama and we would see him several times during our trip – including on the bus back to Imari.

Imari is a decent sized town, so we really thought there would be a card reader there.  It had a pretty big station and it was the end of the line, but unfortunately – no card reader.  The attendant took us aside and allowed us to pay the fare in cash.  He also fixed us up with a receipt which would allow us to get our card reset when we arrived back in Karatsu.  It’s not much fun to make a mistake, but it does make for a more memorable experience. 🙂   Of all the train trips we’ve been on, this particular trip is so far my favorite.  The combination of the train, the passengers and the scenery made it both priceless and unforgettable.

Karatsu Kunchi Festival

Karatsu Kunchi Festival - 12

Karatsu Kunchi Festival

Karatsu is normally a quiet, laid-back fishing town.  You don’t go there for entertainment or excitement.  The exception to that rule is their annual Kunchi Festival.  Having missed the Nagasaki Kunchi Festival in October, I didn’t want to miss this one…especially since this one has been happening for about 400 years (about 50 years longer).  The 3 day festival features 14 large floats (called hikiyama) which are pulled through the streets of the city and eventually through the sand before being put back in their resting place near the shrine.   The largest float is over 22 feet tall and weighs almost 3 tons.  The floats range in age from 120 to almost 200 years old.  All of them are made of clay and wood, layered with hundreds of sheets of washi paper and linen, then covered with lacquer and finished with gold and silver leaf.  I was particularly impressed by whatever it was they used for the ‘hair’.

Robert unfortunately had to work, so I went to the festival with a friend.  We took the morning express train (which takes about an hour to get there), and by the time we got on the train, all the seats were already taken, so we had to stand.  At least we weren’t squished in there like sardines….except for the last 3 or 4 stops.  As we approached the city we could see the floats on the other side of town, so we arrived at the perfect time.

Karatsu Kunchi Festival - 28

As we made our way through the crowded train station, we could hear the flutes, drums and chanting (Enya! Enya!)….which continued non-stop the whole time we were there (and which continued in my head for the next couple days).  I almost didn’t recognize the town.  It was crowded, but not overwhelming so.   There were street vendors everywhere….and it smelled heavenly.   We walked a few blocks into town and managed to land a front row spot on the street.  After only a few minutes, the first festival participants and float made their way around the corner.  Every team’s traditional outfits were different as were each of their floats (fish, samurai helmet, dragons, lions, etc).  The pace they moved these massive things was impressive.  Sometimes the float would come around the corner so quickly it looked like it was about to flip over.  The whole event actually reminded me a lot of the festival I saw in San Miguel (Mexico). The participants were of all ages and everyone was having a great time.  It’s wonderful to see local communities participating with such energy and passion…it’s better than watching a Vegas show (plus it’s free).  We also noticed the whole event was being televised live (aired across Japan and other parts of Asia).  The shops in town were also playing it for those who had to work.

Karatsu Kunchi Festival - 38

After we watched all the floats go through the center of town, we tried to make our way toward the beach.  There is a spot near the beach in which they pull the floats through the sand and then line them all up (which is the highlight of the festival).  It ends up this block of sand was not very large.  There was no way all the spectators were going to fit into this area.  It was enough of a challenge making our way through the crowds of people to get down there, but I must admit, the hardest part of getting there, was resisting the temptation of the food booths we passed on the way (especially since it was now lunch time).   We eventually found a “back entrance” to the sand event.   We watched about 1/2 of it all from the far end of the “arena”, and even though there wasn’t arena seating, we still had a fairly good view of the action, since we were taller than most Japanese.

Basically, as the float approached the arena, they would come speeding into the sand as fast as they could (one of the guys on top of the float actually fell off due to the resistance he meet upon entering the sand).  Then the team would pull the float into it’s position.  It was like watching a long tug-of-war match…the float against it’s team…each float took about 10 minutes to line up.  I was getting tired just watching them.

Karatsu Kunchi Festival - 40

A combination of hunger and heat (it was an extremely warm day for this time of year) eventually made us give up our spot in exchange for shade and nourishment.  We made our way back through the massive crowds to the food stalls and ended up having some BBQ chicken balls for lunch – they were divine. 🙂   After failing to find ice cream  🙁 , we eventually made our way back to the train station and found the shortest line to stand in (so as to assure we had seats on the way back – that was a smart move).  If we’re here next year, I’ll come again – maybe to watch the night parade when the floats are adorned with glowing lanterns – and hopefully Robert will be able to join me.

The Beautiful Village of Kurokawa

Kurokawa is an onsen town in the middle of our island (Kyushu).  It is about 40 kilometers north of Mt Aso (Japan’s largest volcano – which would explain why there is an abundance of hot springs).   According to the Kurokawa Spa Association website, the history of the town as a hot springs/spa/onsen destination goes back at least 300 years.  Feudal lords use to come from nearby areas to “cure their wounds” or as a rest stop on long journey.  However, it has only been about 50 years since the town started marketing the area as a resort, and only within the last 10 years that it has become really popular.  Some claim it is one of the best onsen towns in all of Japan. I have no idea if it is or not, but it certainly is a beautiful place.  There is no touristy glitz, no big ugly buildings or signs, no convince stores or fast-food chains, and even a very limited number of shops and restaurants.  It seems to have stayed true to it’s roots.

There are only about 30 ryokan in the area, each with less than 20 rooms, so they tend to book up months in advance.  Getting a room on a Saturday night is nearly impossible, so Robert actually had to take a Friday off so we could go.  Most of the places only have Japanese websites, so I had to get assistance from a co-worker to actually book the place.  The ryokan we picked, Hozantei, was recommended by several people, and each room has it’s own private rotemburo (outdoor bath).  The village is only accessible by car or bus…we took the bus.  The scenery getting there was spectacular.  The bus ride was like a roller coaster ride (but without the tracks).  The roads were incredibly narrow, curvy and built on cliffs.   Our bus driver earned every penny he made by managing to get us there safely.

We arrived in Kurokawa around noon.  After glancing at the map near the station, we proceeded down stairs to a small back street that headed into the heart of town.  I found the restaurant I had read about previously which serves curry, so we decided to have lunch since neither of us had any breakfast.  We then walked around the town and figured out where everything was.  We could have easily walked our ryokan, since it was only about 3 km from town, but we had already set up the pick-up time and didn’t want to confuse them.  Upon arrival, they immediately escorted us to our own little cottage, pointing things out and telling us something (I have no idea what).  We did manage to figure out when dinner and breakfast were and where we needed to go, the rest (I hope) was not important.  We settled in, had our tea and biscuit, and took full advantage of our private hot tubs until dinner.

Dinner was served in a special dining room.  Tonight’s menu was laid out in front of us (in Japanese) and course after course was presented to us.  They did their best to explain what each thing was, but there’s no way I could remember it all.  It was all delicious.  I ate everything, except for the whole fried fish (the bugged out eye, spine and intact stomach just didn’t appeal to me).  Robert, however, ate even that – head, tail and all…which really impressed the Japanese women.  We both had horse sashimi (the speciality of the area) – which is actually very tender and tasty.  I’m not sure what the best part was…so many flavors and textures, all so fresh and each presented as a piece of art.  I’m really sorry I didn’t have my camera with me.

When dinner is over, you can’t move.  You’re so full, you only want to sleep.  We each slept on a single futons with a buckwheat pillow.  This experience is literally one step above camping.  After sleeping like that for one night, it’s no wonder they love their onsens…you get so sore sleeping on the hard ground, you need them to recover.  These cottages (like the Japanese houses) are made very simple, so you hear every outdoor noise.  The river and the rain was wonderfully hypnotic.  But right before daybreak, Robert was sure there was some creature in our room eating the treats I brought.  He had to get up and check it out.  In fact there was plenty of animal activity going on outside that morning…it had me giggling.

Our own private hot spring bath

Amazingly we didn’t wake up still full, thus enabling us to enjoy our wonderful multi-course Japanese breakfast (mainly a variety of fish, tofu, vegetables, rice, egg) which was also fantastic.

We didn’t have to check out until 11am so we spent a leisurely morning watching the ducks and heron from our spa.  We were both so completely relaxed at this point we didn’t want to go.  We finally checked out and decided to walk to town.  We did some shopping, had some coffee and ice cream and eventually caught our bus back to the city.  The drive back was equally as beautiful on the way back, but fortunately it wasn’t nearly as frightening since we now had the inside lane. 🙂

I’m already looking for another place to stay there….maybe in the spring.

 

 

Sisters’ Visit: Takeo and Nagasaki

Japanese Dinner

Our Japanese Dinner

We arrived at our Japanese Hotel later than we probably should have for check in.  It was 6pm, but the staff was extremely gracious and they were more than happy to accommodate our request for a 7:30 dinner.  After some tea and treats in the lobby (which are usually served in the room), they showed us to our tatami room where we unpacked and relaxed while having a few drinks.  I’m sure they giggled when they saw that we brought our own pillows (sorry, we are just not fans of those buckwheat pillows).  Since it was already pretty late, we didn’t have time for the onsen, but we put our yakatas on anyway.  It wasn’t long before our dinner server was there loading up our table with TONS of food: soups, appetizers, sushi, sashimi, and all the makings for shabu, shabu.  I ate everything, it was fantastic (especially the shabu, shabu).  I really thought we were done, but then she arrived with grilled fish, fried fish, more soups and sides, and some mixture to help congeal the remaining shabu shabu broth.  As full as we all were, we tried a little bit of everything, but there was no way we could finish it all.  Finally she came by one more time with dessert – a crepe filled with cream, strawberries and kiwi.  There was no way I wasn’t going to eat that though.  YUM!  Immediately after dinner they cleaned everything up and laid out the futons.  We had internet access finally, so we Skyped our families and then went to bed to the sound of rain.

Azalea Heaven

Amazing Azalea Garden

Morning arrived in a blink.  We headed downstairs for breakfast.  It was hard to imagine eating breakfast since it literally felt like I just had dinner.  We were wondering how they can eat so much food and still stay thin.  Our Japanese breakfast consisted of lots of little bite-sized dishes, some rice, egg, nori, fruit and yogurt and a little grill to grill your own fish.   Surprisingly we were able to eat quite a bit.  This place must have the world’s smallest coffee cups…like from a child’s play tea set.

Immediately after breakfast, we headed outside for the garden next to the hotel, since the entry fee was included in the room price.  The rain had finally stopped, but we took our umbrellas with us just in case.  We walked down the hill and through the big entry gate.  I immediately knew I was going to like this place.  I’m sure this place is beautiful in full sun, but with the low clouds and everything still wet it was quite magical.  I kept thinking how beautiful this place would be in the fall too.  In the distance I could see some wisteria as we walked along the edge of the little lake.  We eventually made our way to the crown center of the garden.  At the foot of this granite mountain was something that looked like it came out of a children’s story book….there were hundreds of azalea bushes of every color everywhere – like little mounds of ice cream.  We all felt giddy, totally amazed by the sight in front of us.  We almost got lost in there and we couldn’t stop snapping pictures.  Before exiting we had to pass the wisteria and, though not in full bloom, it was so beautiful and smelled so good I didn’t want to leave.  We all love gardens, and this was one of the loveliest we’ve ever seen.

Dejima

Visiting Dejima

We headed back up to the hill and after a quick photo of all us in front of our hotel, we were on the road to Nagasaki.  It was an interesting drive, because we went through more tunnels than I ever imagined there could be in one place.  At least half the distance to Nagasaki was tunnels…huge, long tunnels.  Even our final approach into downtown was a long tunnel.  After that last tunnel, we literally only had to drive for two kilometers through the city before we reached our hotel.  It was only 11am, and we couldn’t check in until 2pm, but they held onto our bags while we went out to explore the city.  Robert met up with us at the hotel…he got there about 10 minutes before us.  We all hopped on a street car to nearly the last stop on that line and just started walking up and down (and up and down) all the streets.  Our goal was to stop at all the places highlighted on our bare bones map (it’s amazing we found anything).  All the steep hills reminded us a little of San Francisco.

Our first stop was where the first Catholic Church was built in Japan….it’s now a temple.  We ended up walking through several shrines and temples.  We eventually found the main walking street (which was pretty quiet on a Sunday).  It was around here we shopped in a few antique stores and had lunch (steamed eel) at a little local restaurant.  After visiting the Spectacles Bridge, Shianbashi street, and Chinatown, we headed for the wharf area and had some drinks to relax.  A little before 7pm, we had our free taxi ride up to Inasayama for the night view of Nagasaki.  Even though it was a little hazy, it was still an amazing view.

Dontaku Parade Performers

Dontaku Festival Parade

The next morning, Robert left to go back to Fukuoka right after breakfast, and us girls went out to find Oura Church, Glover Gardens, Holland Street, the Western Home sites and, of course, do some more shopping.  While the Japanese seemed really interested in all the ‘western’ stuff, we weren’t (we see this all the time), so we headed back down to the wharf area to check out Dejima.  This turned out to be a really interesting place – about a very important part of Japan’s history.  While just a replica of the island village that once stood in the same exact location, it is extremely well done.  The village itself used to be an island in the harbor, but with all the land reclamation projects it is now in the city along one of the canals.  Much of Japan’s modern history started on that little island, and we all found it quite fascinating.  This is a must visit for anyone interested in Japan opening it’s doors to world commerce.

It was now late afternoon, so we headed back to Fukuoka, and that is were we spent our last day together.  We had dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant, went downtown to do some shopping, ate some more food at the stalls in the park, and watched some of the Dontaku Festival.  Before we knew it, it was time to pack up and head for the airport.  🙁   I guess all good things do have to come to an end.

Sisters’ Visit: Kumamoto & Arita Pottery Festival

Spouts from Both Sides

Tsujunkyo Bridge

Friday we leisurely drove to Kumamoto by taking back roads and stopping every time something interested us.  The roads were curvy and narrow but not too bad.  It was only scary when a bus was coming from the opposite direction.  We were driving through canyons most of the time, so there were not many views around us other than whatever river we were following.  Any wide area seemed to have a town or rest stop.  We stopped one time to try and find some waterfall, but the path down nearly required climbing equipment (an elevator would have been best), so we ditched that idea.  Next we stopped in a pretty area where they sold gifts and had some food stalls.  We shopped a bit and had some coffee and french fries (sold in a popcorn cup).  We had a fairly large Japanese breakfast buffet at our Japanese Inn, so we really weren’t that hungry yet.

We continued on our way.  A last minute decision had us trying to find some bridge that spouts water from both sides.  It’s not well marked, so we were about to turn around figuring we’d never find it, when all of a sudden there it was and we pulled over.  There wasn’t any water coming out, but lots of people were hanging out looking like they were waiting for something.  It was a pretty area and the weather was perfect, so we thought we’d wait and see if it was like Old Faithful and went off every hour.  Sure enough, about 10 minutes later, water started gushing out of the holes in the center of the bridge from both sides.  We could hear it from where we were.  Though fairly far away, we really had a great viewing spot.  It was fun to watch and listening to everyone ooh and ah just added to the entertainment.

Front of Castle

Kumamoto Castle

We were back on the road in no time and the traffic started getting heavier as we approached Kumamoto.  Driving downtown proved to be quite a challenge, since in addition to cars, bikes and pedestrians there were also streetcars and one way roads.  We passed our hotel since we couldn’t make a right into the valet parking.   Our voice navigation system had stopped since she “arrived at our destination”, so we had to figure out ourselves how to get back to the hotel.  We ended up taking some one way side streets to the back entrance (service entrance) and eventually found their basement parking.  I was pretty happy my sister was driving and not me. 🙂  We couldn’t check in until 2pm, so we had a lite lunch in the lobby while we relaxed and talked for 30 minutes.  We checked-in, admired the fabulous view of the castle from our room, and then walked down to the castle to meander around the grounds.  The old turret was the most interesting to me, followed by the newly reconstructed grand hall.  A rather energetic middle age women was our private guide – I think she was excited to practice her English with us.  A “samurai” took our picture, he lived in Alabama for a while and he was very friendly too.   The castle grounds are quite extensive and it took us almost 3 hours to see everything.  We walked back through town and up and down their shopping streets.  We eventually bought some wine to share in our hotel before we had dinner.

At Arita Pottery Festival

Arita Pottery Festival

The next morning we hoped to get some breakfast at Starbucks, but they didn’t open until 8am (very typical in Japan), so we left.  On our way out of town we visited the Suizenji Garden which represents the 51 stations from Tokyo to Kyoto.  It was very artistically done, but much smaller than I had envisioned.  That ended up being a good thing, since we had a ways to go to get to Arita for the pottery festival.  Traffic was now noticeably heavier on the expressways, but we never went slower than 80 km/h.  The landscape eventually became hilly and full of trees.  Approaching Arita and having no idea where to park or where the festival actually was, we figured the train station was a good place to park…and we were right.  We only had to walk a block to get to the main street.  It was nowhere near as crowded as everyone had told me it would be.  It was an overcast, misty day, so maybe some people chose not to come that day.

I’ve never seen so much pottery in one place in all my life.  It must have gone on for two miles.  A huge range of pottery was represented from the mass produced 100 yen stuff to the expensive porcelain.   Amongst all the pottery were some food stalls, so throughout the day, we ate – okonomiyaki, fried chicken, and ice cream.  We shopped until ‘closing time’ when they opened the street to cars.  I would definitely return – maybe for their fall pottery fair.  This town seems to have lots of character and it is in a beautiful area.  Our English GPS guide was on the blitz that evening (probably from the rain).  She had us going in circles to get out of town… nearly getting us stuck on a train track in the process.  Alas, we made it out of there safely and to our Japanese Hotel.

Sisters’ Visit: Mt. Aso and Takachiho Gorge

So cool...

Mt Aso’s Crater

I’m so lucky to have sisters who like to travel.  Every year we try to go somewhere.  This year, after unsuccessfully finding frequent flyer flights to Vietnam, two of my sisters decided to come visit me and see Kyushu.  I was a bit worried about planning everything, because it’s a challenge booking things in Japan if you don’t know the language, so I was hoping everything I planned/reserved was going to work out and that we wouldn’t have too many surprises.  Since it was also the start of Golden Week, I was also nervous about large crowds and traffic.  As it turns out, everything turned out perfectly.  We had another fabulous time and made some more incredible memories.

With on-time flights and an English-GPS equipped rental car, we got off to a good start.  Our first dinner was a special treat at Ippudo for ramen and gyozas.  We all resisted the temptation to stay up late since they had had such a long trip, and we were planning an early morning departure.  We were out the door Thursday morning by 8am after some coffee and breakfast.  I immediately realized I was going to love having an ETC card thus avoiding having to stop and pay at all the toll gates.  The expressway was mostly uncrowded, and we had no problem finding our way to Mt. Aso.  The drive was beautiful once we got out of the suburbs of Kumamoto.  Lots of hills with every shade of green on them, lots of streams and deep river valleys.  It was interesting to watch the vegetation and landscape change as we approached Mt. Aso.  When we got there it was very windy and quite cool.  We took the ropeway up to the viewing area and we got to see down into the crater where it was glowing a florescent green.  We walked around, met a nice German family, and did some shopping and snacking before heading onward.

Falls from another angle

Boat Ride thru Takachiho Gorge

The winding road down lead us into a beautiful valley area which seemed to have a ‘western’ theme to it and views of “hairy” oddly shaped mountains.  We stopped here for a late lunch (udon and soba) and then drove through more canyons before we came upon the town of Takachiho.  Having ‘walked’ the roads here on Google maps, I knew where our Japanese Inn was, so we stopped there straight away and checked in.  They supplied us with some maps and information and off we went.  We walked down the gorge along a steep one lane switchback road to get to the park and boat area.  It was a beautiful area with very few people.  We boarded our rowboat and off we went.  Our fearless, never rowed before, captain managed to make this a fairly humorous boat trip not only for us but for everyone else in the area…it’s a miracle we didn’t get drenched by the waterfall.  I’m sure this was retribution for the rafting trip in Belize that she still gives Jody and me a hard time about.  Nevertheless, she did a great job and we got to see and experience this wonderful place.  The color of the water, the waterfall, the cliffs, the varied rock formations, the vegetation…all made it beautiful and it was great to be a part of it all.

Sharing the Sake

The Kagura Dance Performance

We walked back up to town and checked out Takachiho Shrine where we would watch the Kagura dance later that night.  The size of the cedar trees were simply amazing and I loved the smell of the cedar and pine.  The dance performance was very entertaining, especially the last dance about the ‘Creation of Japan’.  I’d highly recommend this to anyone.  I wish I could have understood the commentator.  He obviously loved telling the story and I could almost figure out what he was saying from his expressions and the small English handout they gave us.  The music was a bit repetitive (almost hypnotic), such that after an hour I was ready to leave (otherwise I might have clobbered someone with that drum).

In the morning, we weren’t in a big hurry to go back to the city, so we drove further up the road to the shrine associated with the dance performances – the place where they supposedly lured the goddess out of her cave so that it would no longer be dark in Japan.  I’m so glad we went there, because it really tied the whole experience together.  The actual shrine is the cave and there are literally thousands of piles of stacked rocks on the way to and in front of this place.  It has a very mystical feeling to it, and we were incredibly lucky to have it all to ourselves.

Just as we were leaving masses of people were arriving.  During this trip, I learned the key to really enjoying Japan’s treasures: do it early in the day, because the Japanese are not morning people.

Road Trips!

Hanging Squid

Hanging Squid

Robert & I decided to rent a car one weekend in April.  The purpose was to get out of the city and see some areas the train doesn’t go to and for me to practice driving on the left side of the road before my sisters arrived.  We picked up our car Friday night and had to park it in a pay lot even though we have a parking spot associated with our townhouse (we don’t have a contract for the parking space so we can’t park there, even though no one else uses it either- seems rather silly to me).  We requested an English GPS, but they didn’t have any available, so we had the Japanese version instead.  It was actually very useful (once you figured out all the buttons), because as long as you know how to use a map, you can still figure out how to get somewhere and where you are.

On Saturday we drove along the coast past Kuratsu to a little town called Yobuko.  We first stopped at their little farmers market to look around, and then further up a dirt road (it was under construction), we happened upon the town which was buzzing with activity.  It was an incredibly charming old fishing town on a cute little harbor, so we just had to stop and check it out.  In the parking lot a couple of older women were passing out maps of the city (rolled up on a pretty scroll) and they pointed out where we needed to go.  This town is known for their squid and the little buggers were hanging everywhere or spinning or being cooked or dried.  We ended up on the street behind the main road which was lined with little stalls of people selling all kinds of squid products, seafood, produce, gifts, pottery, clothes, etc.   We watched sea urchin being opened, picked out of the shell and boiled in it’s shell. I’m not sure if this was a special event or if every Saturday is like this, but it was fun.  We eventually came upon the city shrine and stepped up for the view and the cherry trees, and walked through the town one more time before deciding to leave.

Closeup of Cliff Layers

View of the Coast’s Cliff Layers

We took our time heading back and made several stops to view the beaches and coastline and check out the interesting rock formations caused by the wind and waves.  Some of the rocks along the cliffs reminded me of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland…the pentagonal shaped basalt rocks which were created by volcanic activity.  The rocks here just happened to be sideways rather than up and down.  After visiting the National Park, and the Nijomatsubara Beach, our last few stops were in Itoshima to view the ‘couple rocks’ shrine and get a bite to eat at one of the restaurants.

Dogs at Lunch

Dogs at Lunch

The most interesting thing that occurred while we were at the restaurant was watching two women touting over their three dogs.  It was if they were in their own little world, and no one else was there.  All the dogs were dressed up in ridiculous outfits (one could barely move around normally).  I personally think this falls under ‘cruelty to animals’.  Anyway, they kept propping them up in different chairs and taking pictures of them with different poses and backgrounds.  The eventually sat the dogs on cushions in their own chairs at the table and put ‘biscuits’ on their plates.  The poor boy dog (in a blue jean outfit), jumped down and tried several times to “mark his territory” only to be frustrated that it wasn’t working.  Shortly after that, we unfortunately got the opportunity to watch him get his ‘diaper’ changed.  While all of this was mildly amusing, I hope I never have to witness it again.

View of Shiraito Falls

The beautiful Shiraito Falls

On Sunday we headed up into the mountains to a farmer’s market that one of the teacher’s showed me a few weeks earlier when Robert was in Brussels.  This time, however, I was able to load up on veggies since now I had someone to help me eat the large quantities they sell.  We left there with lots of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, onions, and chives.  The roads up there were much more narrow and curvy than the day before and I’m sure Robert got a few gray hairs from my driving, but afterward, I felt pretty confident about driving around Kyushu by myself.  He eventually had enough of my driving and took over the wheel when the road narrowed to just one lane (shared by both directions).  On the way back we managed to find Shiraito Falls and take a short hike in that area.   I’ve never seen so many hydrangea bushes in one place, I’m sure it is simply gorgeous in June/July when they are blooming.

We ran a few errands before eventually dropping the car off.  It was really fun to do this and I’m glad we did it.  I still prefer train travel (it’s less stressful, and we both can enjoy the views), but cars truly are necessary to get to those places where the trains do not go.

Return to Dazaifu

Walking around Dazaifu

Temple Doors

Last time we were in Dazaifu it was brutally hot….so hot we couldn’t think straight, much less enjoy the area.  In fact, we spent most of the time in the National Museum just to stay cool and sane.  We’ve been wanting to go back for a while and since the weather was perfect and another flea market was taking place, we decided to venture out that way again.

Our first stop was Komyozenji Temple which we didn’t see last time.  It was nice and quiet.  We almost had the whole place to ourselves.  It actually looked and felt like winter had arrived at this temple…even the old floorboards were cold.  And I’m not sure when those monks are suppose to rake their gardens, but the back was covered in leaves with no gravel visible.  We took our time in there trying to soak up all the calm and quiet we could before heading into the bustling flea market.  We both admired the simple, yet beautiful woodwork throughout the building.  Eventually, we made our way back into the crowds and checked out the market merchandise.  There were plenty of choices if you wanted fabric, kimonos, obis or jewelry.  There were a couple of pottery stalls and a few with antiques, but we didn’t see anything we couldn’t live without.

Rice fields

Rice Fields

We decided during lunch to finish our day with a walkabout.  The town has lots of places to see, so we thought we’d knock a few of them out by following the recommended historical walk through town on one of the back roads.  Dazaifu is an incredibly pretty and very relaxing little town.  On our walk, we saw lots of little side roads that lead up into the hillside…beckoning us for a future visit.  We visited a couple of other temples and then spent some time hanging out at the Dazaifu government ruins (which is more of a park) enjoying the wonderful weather and watching families play.  Robert enjoyed listening to a few kids practicing on their trombones.  Amazingly there were still some very colorful fall spots along the base of the hills.  We eventually boarded the SLOW train back to Tenjin and picked up a few more macaroons.  They should last us until maybe Monday. 🙂

Road Trip to Itoshima

Raizan Sennyoji Daihyoin Temple

Raizan Sennyoji Daihyoin Temple

One of the veteran teachers at FIS offered to take a few of us on a road trip to a temple in Itoshima, and we wasted no time taking him up the offer.  It’s great when the locals offer to show you around their town.  They know the best spots – and they are usually not the tourist spots.

Itoshima is a peninsula 20-25 minutes drive south of Fukuoka.  The local train skirts the area, and there is bus service to a few key spots, but a vehicle is really the best way around. It was drizzling rain this morning and we hoped that it would help keep the crowds away.  On the way there we took the scenic drive, which included a quick stop at a smaller shrine, over a mountain range, and along many back roads until we got to Raisan Sennyoji Daihihouin temple.

The two main attractions at the temple are the 16 foot buddha with 11 faces and 1,000 hands, and the 400-year old maple tree in the front garden.  The colors on the grounds of the temple were amazing…occasionally bordering on surreal.  Pictures cannot do this place justice.  In addition to enjoying the temple grounds and buildings, we also attended our first Buddhist prayer session (Robert even thought it was cool).  The elderly Japanese in the room took it very serious…folding their hands, and chanting & singing along with the monk who pounded on a drum.

Our Barbecue with Oysters

Our Barbecue – with Oysters!

I think we were the most excited about the next part of the trip….eating at the oyster shack on the beach.  We left the temple, passed through the town of Maebaru, and made it to the coast.  We then drove along some narrow back roads and eventually made it to the local fishing docks which had 5-10 large party-style tents with colorful signs on the outside. We picked a tent and headed inside. There was a large rough timber table with two BBQ grills inset into it – perfect for our group of seven.  A lady came and took our order and before we knew it we had ten pounds of fresh oysters, two large squid, two brined fish and five scallops in the shell on our table ready to be barbecued…by us.  We also had a nice selection of beverages that we had purchased at the grocery store on the way…the makings for a perfect afternoon. The food was even better than we had imagined – and we had imagined good food.  We will go back there soon, even if it means taking a train, a bus and long walk to get there!