Before I start, I’ll just say that due to extremely intermittent internet access I’ll most likely be preparing updates little by little and uploading them in huge chunks whenever I have the ability to do so. This means that they’re likely to get pretty huge – like this one. During a trip like this I like keeping as detailed of a record as possible for myself, so I figure why not just kill two birds with one stone share those records with all of you too 🙂
As expected, I spent the rest of the day on Friday exploring Fukuoka – from Canal City, a huge shopping mall “designed to strip you of any disposable income and make you feel good about it” to an African cultural festival to a half-kilometer long underground walking arcade in Tenjin to Fukuoka Tower, it was another intense day of walking. And let’s not forget the beach. Ahh, the beach.
But by around 5:00 I decided that it wasn’t worth staying in Fukuoka for a whole extra night just to see the party scene; after all it is just another big city, and I’ll be in Tokyo with two of my favorite party buddies in just over a week. So, I headed back to the station to wait for the last train to Aso, my next stop. It wasn’t until I was just about to pass through the turnstile that I realized I had left out a vital part of the Fukuoka experience: I hadn’t eaten any ramen!
Fukuoka is renowned for its ramen; hundreds of portable stalls line the busier streets and bridges in the downtown area at night to cater to the hungry masses. But I only have an hour until the last train express train! Can I make it? Is it worth the risk? Yes…I can’t come all the way down here and not eat the ramen. So I doubled back and sprinted as fast as I could in the dripping humidity to the closest ramen stall, placed my order, slurped every last drop of that delicious broth about a hundred times faster than anyone has ever done, and sprinted back to the station with nine minutes to spare. Fukuoka: Done.
The ride to Aso was relatively uneventful, although I will say that I really enjoyed the latter leg of the trip, riding on a tiny local train through the middle of absolutely nowhere. It’s always the small trains that have openable windows, enabling you to really “breathe in your surroundings.” And even though night had fallen and I could only barely see outside, it was very pleasant watching the countryside whisk by lit by the occasional red flashing crosswalk.
Arriving in Aso, I was shocked to find a less-than-nothing town. Aso is a gigantic volcanic caldera in the center of Kyushu, home to five smaller mountains within the outer rim, several of which are still very active. Such a cool-sounding area would surely attract more tourists, I thought. But the train station didn’t have so much as a ticket turnstile or even an employee; simply a bucket where you were expected to drop your ticket on your way through. One hundred percent honor system. Outside the station was no different; small, dark, and quiet to the point that I had to dig a flashlight out of my backpack to find my way to a main street. Presumably the area appears drastically different during the day, but even at 10:00pm I was surprised to see the place so deserted.
Once I got my bearings I started in the direction of the nearest youth hostel, according to my outdated Lonely Planet. I walked through that sleeping town and up towards the volcano in the pitch black, stopping for a quick obento at the only place still opened: Lawson’s. Although I was pretty sure that I was just getting myself deeper and deeper into the wilderness, I didn’t have much of a choice because all of the other hostels in the area were only accessible from other train stations, and I had no idea what time the trains would stop running for the night. Thankfully, I at last came to a lone building tucked around a bend on the curvy mountain road. “Aso Youth Hostel,” it said. I was saved, as was my bladder.
But alas, the doors were locked and the lights out, no one responding to my knocks. Now what? I couldn’t really make out anything inside, and nothing was posted outside with regards to how one could get in touch with them. Or was it? In the dark I could just barely make out a phone number on a note posted on the INNER entryway. I called it, and a woman answered in Japanese. They had available rooms, a hot ofuro, and a cool shower. None of the three have ever felt so good.
I found the next day’s climb to be surprisingly difficult in comparison to Mount Fuji. I’m sure it had a lot to do with the fact that I did this climb alone, meaning that I was able to push the limits of my ability the entire way up, and that the mountain itself, while much smaller, was significantly steeper than Fuji. Plus like the curious fool that I am I decided to leave the “path” (which was nothing more than an occasional arrow spray-painted on a volcanic rock) to explore some distant area, soon finding myself in the middle of a near vertical section composed of nothing but loose volcanic ash. There where a few moments there when I seriously thought I was going to tumble down…and down. Which would not have been good. At all.
Another noticeable difference between Aso and Fuji is that while Fuji is predominantly red and black volcanic rock, except for the very summit Aso was very green and pretty. Many times I would pass a clearing with cows grazing or brush so high that I couldn’t see all the way over it. My only question is, if there’s so many cows roaming freely around these volcanoes WHY IS BEEF STILL SO EXPENSIVE IN JAPAN?
In (relatively) short time I made it to the first peak, Nakadake, followed by the second and highest, Takadake. It was here that I was confronted with an interesting problem: the wind had changed direction and began to blow a significant amount of sulfuric volcanic gas from the crater right towards me. It wasn’t long before I developed a painful cough and my eyes started to burn. As the burning worsened, it became harder and harder to see where I was going. I realized that I had to get off of this mountain – and fast. So I headed down the back side, which was (according to my guidebook) both faster and steeper. And it was. Really steep.
Eventually I did clear the gas with no serious problems. From here all I had to do was make a short walk to the Miyaji JR station, two away from Aso, where I could take a train back and pick my luggage up from the hostel. Short walk indeed. After making it to the base of the mountain I walked on a little road for nearly an hour before I saw the first sign: 宮地駅 2.6km. D’oh!
But as always, the walk turned out to be extraordinarily pleasant. Because I’m trying to cover as much ground as possible during the one-week validity of my JR Railpass, I haven’t really taken the time to explore any smaller, less known areas. But there’s a really nice feeling to walking through a quiet little town and seeing people go about their daily lives.
At times I would go fifteen minutes or more without seeing a single moving car. Occasionally I’d pass a cornfield with an old man checking his crops in a traditional straw had and wooden slippers. It was that kind of an area.
An hour and a half later I made it back to the hostel where I took a short breather and spent some time talking with a Japanese biker who was riding his Harley cross-country from Kobe. Interestingly, I had been noticing an overwhelming number of bikers around certain areas near the base of Aso (especially zipping back and forth in front of the hostel). As it turns out, it’s a very popular route because of the gorgeous scenery and convenient location – connecting two main areas of the island of Kyushu.
But soon I was forced to press on if I wanted to make it to my next destination before the end of the evening. Another two-hour luxurious tokkyuu ride later I was at my last stop in Kyushu, the famous onsen town of Beppu.
By the time I arrived in Beppu it was already quite late, and most of the stores in the area were closed for the night. Exhausted from a day of mountain climbing, I immediately headed to a small Minshuku a few blocks from the station before learning that it had been closed for the week for maintenance. Thankfully, along the way I’d noticed a small onsen with a sign on the door saying “overnight stay for 2500 yen.” But the woman at the front desk seemed to be disturbed by the fact that a gaijin with a huge backpack had wandered into her small establishment, and quickly shooed me away pointing at a small sign next to her that I couldn’t fully understand. While I normally would throw more of a fit at such an obvious case of discrimination, I was too tired to put forth the effort so I left with nothing more than a slight dirty look.
After not too long I was able to locate a small business hotel in a back alley – also listed at 2500 yen (I really don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t read kanji – other than the really expensive and touristy places, there is NO English in these smaller towns.) Not wanting to take the time for an ofuro I quickly cleaned myself in the traditional way – by pouring buckets of water over my head and back while seated on a small wooden stool in a communal bathing area – and headed up to my room.
The next morning the sunlight revealed a city 100% different from what I expected. Beppu is a coastal town famous for its natural hot springs, which I figured meant that there’d be a few nice public baths scattered here and there, nothing immediately obvious to a visitor. I was wrong.
Beppu is quite literally steaming – virtually everywhere you look there’s a street stall cooking eggs over a steaming gas vent, a smoke stack guiding excess steam out of an onsen, or a small crack bubbling hot mineral water from the sidewalk. It really makes you wonder if it’s safe to be living in a place like that, where one day super hot gas may just spring up from underneath your house.
In addition to the steam, Beppu was much more lush and tropical than anywhere I’ve been in Japan thus far (as you might have noticed from the previous two pictures). On one side of the city lie tall mountains covered in bright green trees and grass as beautiful as the Austrian countryside. Within the city itself streets are lined with palm trees, vines, and other lush vegetation. On the other side of town the ocean provides a cool breeze that keeps the white gas from building up and becoming too strong. It really is a beautiful place. It took me about five seconds to realize that three quarters of a day wouldn’t be nearly enough time here, and that this would definitely be my favorite place of the trip so far. But if I wanted to make it to the Tokushima Dance Festival in time, I didn’t really have much of a choice – I had to leave today.
Anyways, back on topic. I started off the day by purchasing an all-you-can-ride bus pass and heading straight up to the Jigoku, or “Hells” in English. The Hells are a set of particularly amazing natural springs and heated pools, each with a unique theme. My first stop was the Umi Jigoku, Sea Hell, named for its milky blue color.
Second was Bozu Jigoku, or Monk’s Hell, a series of spattering and bubbling mud pits.
Third was Chinoike Jigoku, Blood Hell. I’ll let you guess how this one got its name.
Finally, Tatsumaki Jigoku. I’m not sure how to translate the kanji, but Tatsumaki Jigoku is a single natural geyser similar to the one in Yosemite erupting for five minutes every half hour or so. All in all the hells were very impressive, and after visiting my fourth I found myself wishing that I had sprung for the discount ticket allowing entry to all nine.
After the hells, I hopped back on the bus for a quick trip to APU, Ritsumeikan’s landmark international campus in Beppu. I’m jealous. The campus is absolutely breathtaking, set on a cliff overlooking the ocean with beautiful rolling hills in the background. The Kinugasa (Kyoto) campus is definitely nice, but you just can’t compete with that kind of natural beauty.
As much as I love living in Kyoto, my recent travels (since Amanohashidate) have only reinforced how much I love – and miss – the beach. Wherever it is that I end up living, I just have to be near an ocean. Even when the water isn’t in sight, I can just feel it. I’m sure this had a lot to do with why I liked the feeling of Beppu so much.
Now, I was presented with a choice. Apparently when I scheduled this trip I was a little too ambitious about how long it would take to get a sense for each city, and as such I’ve fallen nearly a day behind on my schedule. Beppu was my last city in Kyushu; my next journey would be a six-hour one back up the coast of Kyushu, skimming the southern tip of Honshu and back down to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s three main islands. This means that I had to be on a train pretty early in the day if I were to have any chance of finding a place to stay in Tokushima.
Yet I hadn’t visited any onsen yet, the thing for which Beppu is most famous. But an onsen is supposed to be a nice and relaxing experience, not something that should be rushed for fear of missing a departing train. Plus for the third time in the last two weeks I was sunburned (I know what you’re thinking, but I actually have been using sunblock. The thing is that in California I’m out in the sun all year long, and so it’s never been a problem – living in a place with bad weather in the winters has apparently caused my skin to lose its entire defense against burning. One of these days I’ll get my tan back and then I’ll be fine 🙂
So I decided to skip the onsen this time, as I would soon be visiting one of the most famous onsen in the country – Dogo Onsen. Instead, I made a quick stop at a Sex Museum, which was quite interesting if I do say so myself. Not quite as expansive as the one in Amsterdam, but still well worth the stop on my way back to the station.
Although this doesn’t even yet bring us up to date, I’m going to stop here for this update – it’s gotten way too long already and it took me forever to prepare (thank you luxurious express trains for having power outlets!)
Next Time: Awa Odori Matsuri, arguably the most astonishing thing I’ve seen in this country so far. Stay tuned!