A quick overview:
Time spent in Japan: 5 days from Monday, September 15th — Friday the 19th. Primarily in Kyushu, Japan’s southern island.
Monday: in Fukuoka
Tuesday: On my own in Kagoshima. Highlight: the active volcano on Sakurajima.
Wednesday: Spent in Kumamoto. Highlight: visiting Greg’s workplace and meeting his students.
Thursday: In Hiroshima. Highlight: Bomb memorial park and the museum.
Friday: On Miyajima island. Highlight: the floating torii.
For a map of Japan or more information about the places I visited, use your fingers and highly evolved brain to Google them. All of them are famous enough to have multiple webpages dedicated to them if not their own official site. 😉
A month or so before my vacation started I ran into Greg, someone I knew from Emily’s church. He’d been an English teacher in Korea for a number of years before moving to Japan. Now he teaches at a Kindergarten/daycare of sorts run by his cousin. When he heard that I planned on spending part of my vacation in Japan, he invited me to visit him and crash on his couch. Within minutes he’d mapped out a rough outline of what he thought my schedule should look like. How could I refuse such a tempting offer?
I arrive in Fukuoka and meet up with Greg at Hakata station. We grab some convenience store bentos and walk to a lake park to eat. A bridge allows us to access the island in the middle. Amused, he points out the signs that remind people to pick up their shit, and at the signs marking where fishing is and isn’t allowed.
After a lunch, we decide to hop on one of those swan pedal-boats and explore the lake a little. They’re slow but there’s a nice breeze and we aren’t in any hurry.
We relax later with tea and cake, then ride the elevator up Fukuoka tower to get a panoramic view of the city.
For dinner we eat ramen.
For those who, like me, tend to associate the word “ramen” with the unhealthy, sodium-laden, instant stuff of the poor university student diet, throw away that thought now. Admittedly, I found the ramen to be a bit salty for my taste, but it was otherwise deliciously fresh and not too oily. Naturally, the taste was completely different.
We part ways on the Shinkansen – a high-speed bullet train in Japan – when Greg gets off at Kumamoto. I continue south to Kagoshima.
The next morning, following Greg’s plans, I buy a day-pass that lets me use all kinds of public transportation for free, as well as discounts for certain things. Then I go to the ferry terminal. I have time before boarding, so I explore the aquarium next door.
11:05 – I take the special 50 minute, detour/tourist ferry to Sakurajima. Normal ferry rides are just 15 minutes but this supposed “tour” ferry gives people, as far as I can guess, more time to take pictures of the same thing. I find it a little dull actually and the repetitive musical track playing on deck starts driving me crazy.
The volcano is puffing billows of clouds and the sooty evidence of its constant eruptions are everywhere. I always thought eruptions were big catastrophic events but apparently volcanos can have small eruptions, akin to burping. It’s safe enough that people still live at the base of the volcano. I’d be rather annoyed by the constant accumulation of soot on all surfaces but I guess they get used to it.
My plans get a little derailed when I can’t find the place Greg recommended for lunch. When I do find it, it’s closed and I have to settle for a convenience store bento. There are a couple of different bus routes around the island. The shorter one is a “tour route” meaning it stops at several key places and gives people a few minutes to get out and take pictures before continuing.
I soak my feet in a naturally heated outdoor foot-bath while waiting for the tour bus. A guy with a nice camera approaches me and asks if I can speak french. “Ah…Just a little” I reply.
The Frenchman is in Kagoshima for the sole purpose of taking pictures of the volcano. He’d been here since early in the morning trying to get clear shots of the eruptions and of the mountain itself. When he opens his backpack to put away his camera, I spot a second camera body along with at least 2 other lenses. Lucky.
The smoke plumes over the volcano are clearing up a little and he decides to take the ferry back and get shots of it from a different angle. “Want to join me?” he asks.
“Sure.” I was never really invested in the tour bus thing anyway.
On the way, he tells me all about his job as a photographer (mostly landscape and macro) and gives me a mind-boggling list of all the places and countries he’s been. It sounds a bit exhausting yet I can’t help but feel a little jealous, too.
Before getting back on the Shinkansen I hop on a Ferris-wheel, riding the glass car. It gives me a nice view of the sunset as well as a dizzying one of the street below.
In Kumamoto I once again meet up with Greg who takes me to a restaurant near his house. It’s a sushi bar where you pay by the plate. Special plates run by us on a conveyor belt while all the dishes we order are delivered via a tray on a motorized track. The tray is shaped like a mini Shinkansen! Greg insists I try the melon soda, unique to Japan. It comes out looking unnaturally green and the taste reminds me faintly of Bonbon Anglais (a soda from my childhood), but not in a good way. It’s entirely too sweet for me.
The next day I follow Greg to work and observe him with his classroom of 6-7 year olds. I’m impressed with how well they follow instructions (in English no less) and how responsible they are but maybe that’s just because I’m rarely around kids this age.
They go outside to prepare for Sports day. Their preparation consists entirely of running a lap around the playground (half a lap for the younger kids), coached along by an adult.
I admire the creatively decorated bento’s during lunch time: carrots cut like cartoon characters, mini sausages with cute toothpicks stuck in them, and rice balls shape like animals and decorated with seaweed. One girl proudly shows me her new Elsa chopsticks; she’d recently learned how to use them.
After lunch, it’s back outside to play then inside to cool off and listen to some songs. The kids eagerly take turns singing along with Frozen’s “Let it go.” Will that song never die? Actually, I’m amused by it. We finish at 2 – an early day for Greg – and spend the rest of the afternoon walking around Kumamoto.
We go to another garden and explore Kumamoto Castle. It’s a pretty impressive structure. On its own hill, the castle complex rises above the trees surrounding it, looking like a piece of history transplanted and stuck in the middle of a modern city.
The next day I take the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. It’s a sunny day but I spend a chunk of it inside the somber darkness of the bomb museum and memorial. The testimonials are powerful reminders of humanity’s potential for destruction. As someone who’s never lived during that part of history, the stories and drawings bring a kind of immediacy to something I’ve only read about in dry, impersonal textbooks. Walking back outside into the sunlight feels disorienting, to say the least.
My last day, I take a ferry to Miyajima island where the famed “Floating Torii” is. The island was considered sacred so when the temple and torii were built, they built them in the water next to the island. During low tide, the water recedes away from both structures, exposing the base and leaving them to dry until high tide. The torii is still surrounded shallow water when I get there.
I strike up a conversation with a Mother-daughter pair from the US, also on vacation. They’re incredibly nice and we end up exploring the island together, talking about all manner of things, until they leave.
I stay until I can walk closer to the torii and take more pictures. It’s the last thing I really do in Japan. After that, I take the Shinkansen back to the airport in Fukuoka and then back to Korea.
(Coming up next: the last installment of my vacation: the Jejudo portion!)