We have arrived in Japan! So much has happened over the course of our time here, it feels as though we've been here 2 weeks as opposed to 3 days. We've stayed in a different city every day which means the majority of our time has been spent in transit. It's our third time in Japan, but our first time in Kyushu and we're discovering that transit here is incredibly different than on the main island of Honshu. A year ago -- to the day, strangely -- Kumamoto suffered a huge earthquake. It devastated many of their roads, bridges, and train tracks. Trips that once would have taken two hours are now four hours or more. In some instances, it's seemingly impossible.
I don't think it would have been emotionally possible for us to navigate our way around Kyushu unless we had prior experience traveling through Japan. The first time we tried to use the subway system in Tokyo we nearly had a breakdown. Not because it's complicated -- it's brilliantly organized and thorough -- we were just overwhelmed by the amount of text and our inability to decipher anything. Now, we understand the jist of how things work, we're not afraid to press buttons or ask questions. Also Google is a travelers' best friend. I'm not sure how anyone survived before it.
Just a gloss over our transit schedule since we arrived Tuesday evening (mostly for my want of a record):
- Tues 6pm: Arrive Narita airport. Stay overnight in a room of local's house.
- Wed 7am: Leave for Narita airport. Take 2 hour hop flight to Kagoshima. Explore Kagoshima for a day.
- Thurs 7am: Leave Kagoshima for Kumamoto. Take 2 hour Shinkansen (high-speed train) to Kumamoto. Rent bikes and traverse ~15-20 miles of cityscape exploring.
- Fri 7am: Leave Kumamoto for Mt. Aso. Take tram to local train, transfer to other local train to get to Ozu station. Reserved bus is 30 minutes late (which never happens in Japan) which makes us think we've missed it. 1.5 hour bus ride to Aso.
- Sat 2pm: Leave Aso by bus back to Kumamto, wait for 2 hours to take another bus back to nearly the exact same location as Aso, just a little more South. Trip will take 5+ hours.
Kagoshima was a sleepy town, but we still managed to have a great time. It neighbors an active volcano and while we explored the city on foot, we could see tiny tendrils of smoke unfurling from the top of the mountain. Both beautiful and a little terrifying all at once!
The city has a large river which cuts through the center. Lining the river is a park where you can walk through all along the river's edge. As we strolled, we saw tons of blue tarps set out on the grass, weighed down by magnum bottles of sake and large bottles of green tea. In the center were tiny square grills with netted metal grates. A handful of groups were already congregating on the tarps, grilling meats with their shoes neatly decorating the tarp's edge. Other groups were readying their space, tying battery-fueled lanterns up in the trees. We weren't exactly sure what the event was, but the smell of grilling made us hungry and we went to seek out some BBQ of our own.
The meal we had at this place was easily one of my favorite meals of all time. Definitely makes my top 8 list. We got a collection of different cuts of pork and beef, and threw in some vegetables for good measure. The meat all had different flavors, in part because of marinade, but also because of the meat itself and the marbled fat. It was such a simple and pure meal, all the flavors carried different notes and textures. Something about grilling each cut ourselves - smelling the fat and the coals, eating with our shoes off, feet sunken into the ground below us - it was such an immersive experience. And there we were, shoulder to shoulder, cuddling through "Kampai"s and "Arigato"s. The whole night was beautiful.
The next day, we packed up early (such a trend this week) and headed for the Shinkansen (Japan's high-speed train). It was a quick and comfortable jaunt up from Kagoshima to Kumamoto.
We had the most amount of free time in Kumamoto. We rented electric-assisted bicycles to help us traverse the city. I think we saw every suggested tourist attraction recommended on TripAdvisor. We went to Kumamoto castle (which was closed due to the damage it sustained from the earthquake). We also saw 2 different nature parks on either end of the city. I absolutely adore riding bicycles around any city. Whenever we do it - it makes the time spent there more magical. We've previously rented bikes in Berlin, Kyoto, and Miyajima Island; all of those memories are so bright and jubilant in my mind. I remember so many more details of all those past trips because of the fun we had cycling around. Maybe we're tapping into a childhood feelings of freedom and adventure?
Kumamoto is much more active than Kagoshima. There's tons of shops, restaurants, bars - it reminded Tyler of Osaka. I'm not so sure -- Osaka was overwhelming for me: tons of people clicking pens and snapping paper to get your attention in hopes of getting you inside for a meal or a drink. Kumamoto was much more subdued. It was also only Thursday. I had a craving for Okonomiyaki - it's described as a Japanese pancake, but it's not on the sweet side at all. It's a crepe-like layer of batter followed by a heaping pile of cabbage (and sometimes noodles) that cooks down. Add egg, meats, seasonings - flip it over to grill it all down some more. Add a bit of sweet... I'm not sure... brown sauce, maybe even a quick ribbon of mayonnaise, and you get Okonomiyaki. It's DELIGHTFUL.
We were staying at a Mario Brothers themed Airbnb nearby and, while walking around, I saw a sign that said "Good Time Charlie's Country Music Bar". The cool thing about Japan is that their establishments aren't only on the ground floor where foot traffic will see them. They're in every room of 15 storey buildings, all the way up. You go to the 7th floor and there's a room with 4 stools and a bar tender, people are smoking so much you can hardly breathe (that part isn't fun) but the fact that these postage stamps are crowding up every inch of square footage in high-rise buildings is so exhilarating to me! Charlie's bar was HUGE in comparison to any bar we've been to in Japan. It's owned by "Charlie" who has, apparently, been on The Grand Ole Opry 3 times since the 70s. The bar is jam-packed with American memorabilia. You know in films about serial killers where they have obsessively crowded every inch of a wall with news clippings? It felt like that mixed with a saloon. The bar tender had spent 5 years in Texas so he had this confusing combination of both a Japanese-English accent and a Southern accent. If you focused on the Southern accent, he sounded Southern. If you focused on the Japanese accent, Japanese. So cool.
Charlie himself would later go on stage (there was a stage there, too) and play classic country like Hank Williams. This is the stuff I was raised on! It didn't sound exactly the same, but what a wild experience. I tried to not focus on the massive confederate flag hanging behind the band on stage. And try to ignore the racist bumper stickers everywhere. It's so saddening to know that our racist background has made an impression on people outside our country -- only they don't know it's racist, or understand all the pain it's caused our citizens -- it's just "Americana" to everyone else. The cringe!
Friday, we leave early - yet again - and take a tram to a local train. We transfer from that local to another local train. We wait in, what seems to be the middle of nowhere, for a bus to take us even deeper into the middle of nowhere: Aso. Japan is notoriously on-time for everything. If a bus or a train is meant to leave at 9:11 am, it will leave at 9:11 am. It is only you who are late. Usually though, there's another one that will leave at a convenient interval of time later. In Uzo station, where we were waiting for our bus to take us to Aso, there aren't a lot of busses. And ours was meant to be there at 9:11 am. It was rapidly approaching 9:30 and all the sirens in my brain were going off. We missed the bus, the location of the pick-up, or both. The only logical explanation was that we were wrong, not that the bus was late.
We tried asking for help to this beautiful older Japanese woman who worked there. She was soft and calm and warm to us both. She spoke quickly in Japanese as if we could understand. We were holding up our phones and showing Google Maps, I was showing the receipt for our tickets purchased in advance. The woman at the information desk didn't seem too concerned. It seemed like she was saying that the bus hadn't come yet - but she spoke no English and she was rattling off Japanese so quickly, I couldn't break anything down. Not that it would have helped much, we don't speak any Japanese anyway. I look back at what we must have looked like to someone watching us -- bumping around like pinballs inside that bus stop, phones in our hands, asking the same questions and pointing to the same places on Google Maps, trying to get into other busses and having everyone tell us 'No, it's not that bus.' What silly birds. The woman went inside and grabbed her iPad. She came back and a live human woman was on screen with a headset. She was a translator! Tyler explained we had been waiting a while and had reserved seats for the bus heading to Aso. She translates for the woman. The woman next to us remained calm, as she'd been all along, and gazed off into the mountains in the distance as she talked. The translator said, "Please sir, the bus is running late. If you can wait a little longer it would be appreciated." Tyler laughs a bit, "Thank you! So sorry, it's just that nothing in Japan is ever late so we thought we did something wrong." "I understand," she chuckles slightly. SUCH a simple episode, such a burst of unnecessary stress. Once it was all settled, a man nearby gets into a taxi. He says, "Enjoy your bus!" I love Japan so much.
Aso is home to a cluster of 5 mountains, all formed by volcanic activity. The hills had just thawed from winter and are golden brown just like the hills of California. In places it looked like they had burned everything away and only the dirt was exposed. We're told the landscape turns green and purple with all the flora that grows in May.
Because the bus was late to Aso, we were late to catch the only bus up to the mountain. It felt as though we maybe just lost a full day, but the man at the hostel front desk told us that hitchhiking here was common and safe. There's only one road through Aso and it goes by the mountain. People are going that direction anyway, and normally they'll give you a lift. Tyler and I have never hitchhiked, and we have been on strict agreement with our mothers to stay safe. Ordinarily, this would seem like something they would hate. But Japan is not a crime ridden space. People would never think to hurt you or steal from you. We took a chance. We also had to look up how to hitchhike as it seemed like thumbing it may not be universal. Turns out it is. Stick a thumb out, smile, look like you're not crazy. 30 minutes at an intersection and a car pulls over. We fumble through some broken Japanese saying we're heading to the mountain. The two octogenarians in the car look at us like "Yeah. Are you going to get in, or what?" So we get in and they drive. Fifteen minutes later we're at Aso, ready to climb a mountain.
The path up the mountain is paved, or there are stairs. over 1000 stairs. I know because I counted them. It's also at a 45% grade. In some places it feels more like a ladder. That is a super disorienting experience. I had to not look up because it would throw off my balance. But we're fit-ish, we can do it! Nothing like an hour of stairmasters to get the day going.
The view at the top was awesome. A full 360° spin of the towns around us, the active volcano with tufts of smoke making it's way out, the crater around it silver from ash, and all the specks of people milling around at the base like ants. We're KINGS! Now, how do we get down?
A workout like that is what Onsens must have been made for. We went to a natural-fed hotspring Onsen two minutes away from our hostel and soaked our bodies for an hour. Today, I can't feel a lick of pain in my muscles. I feel brand new.
When we finally made it back to the hostel, after eating another Japanese BBQ dinner, we starting the nightly routine of researching how to get to the next location. It's become a bit exhausting, and daunting. I don't mind the uncertainty, but I would like to unpack for longer than a few hours at a time.
Tyler and I desperately want to see an area called Takachiho which has a river running through a gorge with 100 meter tall cliffs on either side. It's meant to be majestic, but it's practically impossible for us to get to easily. Many of the routes are 8 hours long. I had to surrender the research over to Tyler at one point because I just couldn't sort it any longer. Tyler found a "short route" but it's taking us 5 hours today. We're essentially dedicating all of today to travel. Luckily the trade-off means we get to spend two nights in Takachiho instead of one. That's worth it to me. We're staying in another hostel and I'm wishing that the views are worth all the hours with our butts in bus seats.
Japan is, without a doubt, one of my favorite places I've ever been. In Tech, you'll constantly hear people talk about "delightful experiences". I had a conversation with a friend before we left about that phrase. "Who even uses the word delightful anymore?" she jokingly scoffed. It's just this Tech buzzword that companies use to make it seem like they're attentive to their user's needs. It's feigning responsibility. Here, in Japan, we're using things and going: OMG THAT IS DELIGHTFUL. For instance, we bought a pack of gum. Tyler goes to pull two pieces out and the top end of the wrapper pulls off so you can just go straight to putting the gum into your mouth without needing to unwrap it. Delightful. We went past a gas station and the pumps are all hanging from the ceiling. Drive in and it doesn't matter where your gas tank gets fueled. Delightful. The Japanese think of everything. It's so much fun, and it actually does delight. I have new faith in that word.
Japan is also so comfortable because it's clean, organized, and quiet. There's a system to follow everywhere so things aren't confusing. People are respectful of other's space, both physical space and the space of your experience. There's so much quiet wherever you are -- no sounds of people yelling on their phones about rashes and ointments (that happened at the Austin airport not too long ago), no one blasting music out of their phone, no one littering despite there being literally NO TRASH CANS (more on this later, Tyler is going to do a blog a post). People get onto a train, or a bus, and they're quiet. They read or they close their eyes like they're in sleep or meditation. Because it's so quiet, we're both quieter. We speak in soft tones or whispers. It's like the whole country is whispering and we're all whispering going, "why are we whispering?" But I love it. It's so calm that there's a ton of opportunity to think, and reflect, and absorb the world around you. It gives you space to appreciate -- for all the reasons why things are different, and all the reasons why things are the same. It's brought out a lot of positive, affirming feelings, about what I love in humans, and nature, and the way we humans operate in and around nature.
Even though we've been moving non-stop and haven't had a huge chance to take deep breaths when we get to where we're staying, we're taking deep breaths while we're moving. This whole country is a deep breath to me. I feel wholly cleansed.