In other words, the story about my spring vacation trip to Kyushu in southern Japan and South Korea, with perfect timing for cherry blossoms.
On Saturday, March 22 I took again advantage of the Japanese special "seishun18kippu" (青春１８きっぷ) train ticket: five (non-consecutive) days of unlimited travel in non-express trains for a bargain price of 11500 yen (about 90 euros). My destination was Kyushu (九州), the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan. The distance to the closest point of Kyushu from Kanazawa by air is about 600 kilometers, and by train probably close to one thousand. Many of my friends had already started their vacations earlier so this time I was traveling alone.
The first five and half hours went in getting to Kyoto, including changing the train two times. The last two legs I spent together with a very friendly Japanese group, who was using the same ticket going back home near Osaka. While talking about Japan, Finland and life in general, they insisted on treating me to sushi, drinks, and all the other food they had brought with them, at the same time politely refusing my offers to share my snacks: "Oh, you will need those on your long trip to Kyushu". I even got invited to stay at their house if I'd ever happen to travel nearby.
That's one fine example of the Japanese hospitality which seems to be always present here. It's an interesting feeling. On one hand, anybody coming from Europe clearly sticks out of the crowd as an outsider. On the other hand, if you have even basic Japanese skills and, as a bonus, come from such an exotic country as Finland, you're never alone unless you really want to. Some people say that they've had trouble finding Japanese people to talk with but I've never felt that way. Actually most of the time it's the Japanese who initiate the discussion: "Where do you come from" is usually the first line. Of course, this mainly happens when alone - if you spend all your time with a group of foreigners you might never encounter it.
In Kyoto, I had some dinner and then boarded the 21:33 special night train called "Moonlight Kyushu". Most of the night trains are limited expresses which cannot be used with the "seishun18kippu" ticket, but this was one of the few non-express lines. As the trip goes over midnight it uses two days from the ticket, but it's still cheap and thus popular. I was happy having paid 500 yen extra for a reserved seat, there didn't seem to be any free ones left. The seats were much better than in an average local train, I would guess that the car was normally used for in long range express trains.
On Sunday morning I arrived after six o'clock to Kokura (小倉), and continued by two more trains reaching Beppu (別府) around nine. Beppu is a legendary site of hot springs - onsen (温泉) in Japanese - perhaps a bit too legendary as I would soon find out.
The most famous attraction of Beppu is a series of "jikoku" (boiling pools of water and mud) a bit outside the center. That turned out to be a perfect example of how to completely ruin an area in the name of tourism. The pools themselves would actually be an interesting phenomena, but they were limited to tiny areas surrounded by fences and obviously "rebuilt", leaving very little of any real nature behind. Combined with an arrangement of being forced to walk through souvenir shops and a zoo of suffering animals in small cages "warmed by the thermal energy" made me feel sick.
After the jikoku tour I wanted to try at least one of the onsens myself. At the seashore there's a place to take a sand bath - which means being buried in hot sand. It looked nice (there was no fence to block the sight) but I would have had to wait for two hours for my turn. That was a bit too long so I continued to the center to Takegawara (竹瓦) bath house, another well known place to try sand bath. I would have actually expected the sand to be hotter, but it was still a relaxing experience - especially after having spent almost 20 hours in trains and then walked around the city.
For the night, I still continued to Yufuin (由布院), a smaller town about one hour by train from Beppu. If the jikoku in Beppu were a disappointment then the Yufuin youth hostel scored right at the other end of the scale. The hostel personnel came to pick up me and a couple of other guests from the train station by car, taking us to a pittoresque location up the mountainside. The place was run by a friendly family, furnished more like a home than a normal hostel and even had a private onsen. But best of all was the 1000 yen dinner - a nine dish course of home-cooked delicacies which topped anything I've had in restaurants up to double the price.
On Monday morning I had a nice breakfast and then got a ride to Yufu-Tozan-Guchi which is the normal place to start climbing to Yufuin-dake (1583 m). Few other hikers were around, perhaps because March was still quite early and not considered the best hiking season. There was some snow left above 1000 meters and the weather was cloudy. I made a tour around the crater - Yufuin-dake is an old volcano - and occasionally I could see some deer between the bushes. No magnificent views due to the weather, but a nice place nevertheless. When coming down I took a bit different route leading straight to the village. In the Lonely Planet hiking guide it was clearly marked but I had some difficulties in the midway, as a part of the forest had been taken down and truck trails were more prominent than the small path.
I was back in Yufuin next to the Kirin lake at around 3 pm. Right next to the lake there was a superb onsen called Shitan-yu (下ん湯): small thatched-roof building with no permanent personnel, just a money slot with a sign "please insert 200 yen here". It had a small pool inside and a bit larger outdoor pool - rotenburo (露天風呂) in Japanese - with a lake view. Shitan-yu was a mixed only bath, in other words it didn't have separate sections for men an women. However, the Japanese clearly seemed hesitant to come in, some opened the door slightly and retreated quickly whispering "There's a gaijin". Well, at least I got a good chance to take a photo.
After the bath I took a small walk around the town without finding anything really special to write about. Back to the hostel for another superb dinner, different dishes but just as good as the previous day. We chatted about hot springs and the hostel owners recommended Kurokawa Onsen (黒川温泉) between Yufuin and Aso, which fit my schedule well because it was clear that I would have to postpone climbing Mt. Aso to Wednesday anyway. I wrote to the hostel guest book, apparently being the first Finnish visitor there.
Tuesday morning I got again a ride to the center and took the 9:07 bus towards Aso, getting off midway at Kurokawa. Actually the bus stop was by the highway almost 10 kilometers away from the main site, but I managed to hitchhike there in a van which was delivering some other passengers to the other direction. Kurokawa was a big group of hot spring resorts gathered in a small area, most of them also being inns. Prices for staying overnight started at around 100 euros per person, but all of them also offered reasonable 500 yen daytime onsen access for bathhoppers. That suited me well, and I tried out three different hot springs: Hozantei (帆山亭) was a nice quiet place having one hot, one temperate and one cold outdoor pool beside a river, Yamamizuki (山みず木) was a famous larger outdoor bath by the same river and Shinmeikan (新明館) featured a hot bath inside a cave.
After soaking myself several times in a row I felt clean but hungry. I first planned to eat somewhere cheaply and quickly but ended up in a bit more expensive (about 2000 yen) place where I got in front of me a small grill heated up by firewood and a plate of meat and vegetables to prepare on it. The group in the table next to me even offered the rest of their portion to me when leaving, so there was definitely no shortage of food. However, eating took a bit longer than I had planned to spend so I had to take a taxi back to catch the last bus to Aso. There, I didn't have any problems finding the hostel, which wasn't as special as the one in Yufuin but okay. A cool detail was an old diving capsule lying on the yard, apparently used as a changing room in some events. On the other hand, the Aso town itself was completely uninteresting.
In the morning I took off towards Mt. Aso with an Australian couple I had met the previous evening, once again getting a free ride. Good luck with the weather, I heard that on the previous day it had been impossible to see anything and now the sky was clear. Mt. Aso is a popular tourist attraction so there was a big parking place almost next to the crater. The volcano is still quite active: the crater called Nakadake is spewing fumes continuously and there has been dozens of small eruptions during the last few hundred years. The fumes contain sulphur and are toxic so the place is closed if wind is blowing in the wrong way, and small protective bunkers are scattered in the environs.
We took a look towards the green boiling lake at the bottom of the crater and then headed towards the hiking trail which makes a tour around nearby mountain tops. The trail was far from crowded, only a few other people around. The beginning was interesting black sand, somehow it gave a feeling like walking on the moon, although we all knew that moon is probably quite different. At one point the wind brought a small amount of Aso's gases to us. Even being nearly invisible it attacked the throat instantly - a wet towel is not a bad idea to carry around.
From the top of the first peak there was a beautiful view over the whole Nakadake crater. That was enough for Andrew and Michelle who started descending, I decided to do the full tour around and continued forwards. I didn't gain much on views but there were many interesting lava formations on the way. I was back around 13:30 just missing one bus, so took the next one to the station and continued by train to Kumamoto (熊本), a bit bigger city on the west coast of Kyushu. There I encountered a pleasant surprise, the flowers in cherry trees had just opened to full bloom.
Cherry trees, or Sakura (桜) in the local language, have a special meaning for the Japanese, and many famous places are well populated with them. There is even a special term Hanami (花見), which means watching cherry blossoms. The flowers open before the leaves in most types of cherry trees, covering the whole tree with light pink colour. Traditionally people then go to walk in the parks, and have a picnic under the blossoming trees. I had only a bit more than one hour to walk around in Kumamoto, too short for a good relaxing picnic but enough to see the castle park and take a few photos. The castle was, as usual, nice from outside but completely uninteresting inside. Then I finished the long day by taking a ship over to Shimabara peninsula and taking a long awaited bath in the youth hostel.
Next morning (Thursday) I took an early bus and train to Nagasaki (長崎), a city famous for having been the only city open to foreign trade in the Edo period during 17th, 18th and first half of 19th century. It also had an important Christian population a few hundred years ago, before Christianity was banned in 1614. Despite having been the target of an atomic bomb attack in 1945, the history of long time Western influence still shows clearly in the buildings and ambience of Nagasaki.
I quickly dropped my backpack to a hostel and went sightseeing right away. I hadn't seen much temples during this trip so checked a few in Nagasaki but to be honest wasn't too impressed with them. Lunch in a "Champon" (bowl of ramen and seafood, a Nagasaki specialty) place was nice. Then it started to rain, first lightly and then quite hard, so I dropped in an Italian cafe for an ice cream. After the rain I strolled through Chinatown and ended up to Dutch Slope, which was the best part of the whole city. An interesting mix of Japanese and Western architecture, trees - including cherry blossoms of course, bushes and flowers. More of that could be found in Glover garden which is an outdoor museum of Western style buildings. The nearby Chinese culture museum was also worth a visit.
After visiting Glover garden I walked a bit along the seaside bulevard and took a 100 yen streetcar to Peace Park. Next to it there's a museum about the atomic bombing in 1945. It was already late and I had visited the bomb museum in Hiroshima so I decided to skip that and only went to the park to enjoy sculptures in sunset hour quietness. Still a quick visit to a nicely illuminated church nearby and back to the center.
For the dinner I went to a small tempura shop which turned out to be truly excellent. Already the basic set (980 yen, including rice, miso soup and pickles) seemed good, but I opted for the 1300 yen set which added some more fish and a dessert. It was one of those shops where customers sit in front of the counter and food is prepared by the owner right in front of them. An elderly couple sitting next to me started a conversation by the usual "Excuse-me, where do you come from?" line and in no time we were chatting this and that, again giving me an opportunity to improve my language skills. They also insisted to offer me a whole decanter of local sake, or nihonshu (日本 酒) as it is called in Japan. Sure, it complemented the meal nicely.
Quick instructions if someone would want to follow my footsteps: In front of the railway station, go over the bridge crossing the main road and continue to the pedestrian-only restaurant / shopping street. Walk maybe fifty meters and the tempura shop is on the right. There's a very good chance it's still there: these kinds of places tend to be run for dozens of years, maintaining the same cozy atmosphere they've always had.
Friday morning was initially still reserved for touring Nagasaki but I had already seen the essential parts on Thursday so I had time for something else. I picked the Dazaifu (太宰府) temple area near Hakata (博多、also called Fukuoka, 福岡) as my target and hopped in the 7 o'clock train. The best part was again not the famous main shrine but a bit less known temple called Komyo Zenji (光明禅寺) next to it. Lovely peaceful gardens, and also temple buildings open for visitors without a fee. The lack of tourist hordes and guards checking out for every move permitted walking around the rooms and appreciating the place in solitude.
Later in the afternoon I continued to Hakata and boarded a ship heading to my next destination, South Korea.
To be continued...
Last update 16.07.2003.