Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Home Away From Home

Our next stop was yet another area famous for its onsens. After travelling through Kyushu, we have concluded that the whole island is one steaming mess of volcanoes and hot springs. Paradise, if you ask me! Our travels brought us to two places: Yufuin and Beppu. We had read that Beppu was a bit too 'Las Vegas-y', so we decided to stay in a youth hostel in Yufuin, and do a day trip to nearby Beppu. Good choice.

Beppu is famous for two things: its jigoku, or hot spring 'hells,' waters that are pretty to look at but not so pretty to touch, and its onsens, or hot spring baths. You may recall we had already seen some jigoku when we travelled through Unzen. Well, in Beppu, the jigoku don't come free... it's ¥400 a pop, and there are 8 jigoku. But thanks to the wonderful Aoyama family, who you'll remember we spent a night with in Ebino Kogen, we could see all of them for FREE! It turns out a friend of theirs runs one of the most famous of these jigokus, so they were able to get us set up with a special pass. Thank you!!

The first jigoku we visited, where we got the free pass was called (translated) 'Blood Hell'. I think you can figure out that's due to the red water. The water becomes this colour because it actually dissolves the clay due to its heat.

Each of the 'hells' were surrounded by beautiful Japanese gardens, with all the typical elements... ponds, running water, waterfalls, large stones and boulders, stone lanterns, and gorgeous plants and trees. Of course, it helped that there were palm trees and that so many of the flowers were in bloom!

I absolutely love the bright blue water of this one...

We really liked this one too. It was called something like 'Monks' Heads'. The mud bubbled up in such a way that it actually looked liked bald men's heads!

A lot of onsen towns create free 'foot and leg' baths that anyone can use. And people use them all the time. They'll plunk themselves down, take off their socks and shoes, and rest for five minutes or so while their feet soak. A lot of tourists carry around small towels for this purpose. And it's actually very soothing, especially after you've been walking around and touring for a while.

After checking out the jigoku hells, we decided it was time for us to enjoy our own onsens. Being expert bathers by this time in our trip, no simple onsen would do! So we chose a rather unique one. In Beppu, on the mountainside, lives a man with a bento, or lunch box catering business. The thing is, he loves onsens so much that he decided to build his own rotemburos, or outside baths, in behind his catering business. For ¥1000, you can buy a bento lunch and enjoy a dip in the rotemburo. Your lunch is prepared for you while you bathe!! I had read about this in the Lonely Planet, and had already highlighted it, but we decided we definitely had to go once the woman at the tourist office recommended it to us for its fine views of the city. It was incredible! The women's side had a natural steam sauna too, so I was in spa heaven. Jeff was lucky enough to have the men's one all to himself, so he took the opportunity to finally get some onsen pics!

Oh, and yes, Beppu was definitely Las Vegas-y. As we drove through it, we kept coming up with comparisons to Niagara Falls and its tackiness. Check out the picture of this love hotel!! Total Jurassic Park rip-off! We had heard love hotels could get really outrageous, but we had never seen one quite like this! We agreed that while Beppu was the tacky Niagara Falls, Yufuin was the Niagara-on-the-Lake equivalent. Lots of expensive little shops, museums, funky art galleries... and yes... everyone was eating ice cream too! All just a bunch of cone lickers, I tell you!

And finally, a note about the title of this entry. The Yufuin youth hostel was definitely a home away from home. By this time in our trip, Jeff and I were both getting tired, and both getting a little tired of being essentially 'homeless'. When we walked into the Yufuin youth hostel, we felt like we had come home. It was beautifully decorated, with gleaming hardwood floors, and tatami mat bedrooms; soft music was playing in the common room, inviting us to come and stay awhile; beautiful natural-style hot spring baths were available for our use; and the owners and staff were incredibly kind and warm. A one/maybe two night stay quickly became three. There was something about the place that invited conversation and relaxation. After dinner, the hosts often came into the common room to share small talk and tea with their guests. And we met some really fine people here, including Neil (Jeff's hiking buddy) and crazy Avi. Below is a picture of the group of us as we all said good-bye.

You think I'd learn...

So as we are arriving in Yufuin, I start to think to myself, "I should talk to people I meet in the Youth Hostels more. And that mountain behind the town looks like a good mountain to climb". Why I was thinking those things I'll never know. That evening, we met Neil. I can't tell you a whole lot about him, except that he's on a six month sabatical from his job, has travelled through Africa on motorcycle, and is now travelling through Japan. Why Japan, I don't know if he's even sure of that. Neil was trying to figure out what bus to take to the start of the hiking trail, and I offered to give him a lift, and possibly go with him. After climbing the volcano in Ebino Plateau, I'm not sure what possessed me to climb again, but this mountain looked easy. You could see part of the trail from the road, and both Neil and I figured, "you'd have to be an idiot to get lost". Off we went the next morning - I started to worry when I saw him filling up two waterbottles and a collapsable canteen. Proper hiking gear, water, food.... At least I had a snickers bar.

The guide book said the hike was about four to five hours. Kathy dropped us off at the base of the trail at 9:30am. And so began our adventure.

I have to say, it was one of my most pleasurable days yet. The trail was steady, but not too steep (until we had to rock climb to the west peak). It was refreshing to have a meaningful and intellegent conversation. I should explain a bit - Neil likes photography - a lot. He understands the computer chip in my camera very well (he designs similar chips as part of his job) and didn't mind explaining it too me. Neil is also interested in finding a bit of truth in the world. We had such an intense conversation about faith, science, religion, and "the plight of the human soul", that we spent an hour at the summit just talking. I loved that we could just talk about it - with as much honesty and candidness we could muster. The only problem was that the way down was different than the way up, and after ascending from 800 meters to 1584 meters, we descended to about 500 meters. It was a long way down, and I knew Kathy would be worried. She was - we didn't get back until a little after five. My snickers and one small bottle of water almost wasn't enough.

Neil, thanks for a fantastic hike and even better conversation!

Here are a couple pictures from the climb:

The day always starts off beautifully, and the mountain always looks easy!

This dormant volcano has two peaks. To get to the top of the west peak you had to do a bit of rock climbing. Nothing too hard, but not for those with any fear of heights.

Me at the top of the west peak. The sign has the name of the mountain and the height - 1584 meters.

Looking from the western peak to the eastern peak, and the trail to it. There was a hiking club taking their lunch break between the two peaks when we first got up. Must have been about 30 people (and no one younger than 50).

The trail down.

On top of the world, with Yufuin town way down below.

Monday, April 24, 2006

From Miyazaki to Yufuin

Our next destination was Yufuin and Beppu, another popular hot spring area, and quite famous throughout all of Japan. On the way, we stopped at Takachiho Gorge. Apparently this gorge was created by an explosion of Mount Aso. It certainly looks as though something violent caused the formation of this gorge! The rock formations were really varied and incredible. Again, we were reminded of "God's playground".

After Takachiho Gorge, we drove the long and windy route to Yufuin. Along the way (while I was sleeping), Jeff saw a sign for another waterfall and simply couldn't resist. I grumbled *quite* a bit at being wakened, but even grumpy Kathy later had to admit that the stop was well worth it.

The falls were called "Shiramizu Taki". Shiro means white, and mizu means water. Bet you can guess what taki means! After all the travelling we've done in this country, we've realized that there are a heck of a lot of "white water falls" in this country. You'd think they could at least be a bit more creative with their names!

When You Think Life Just Can't Get Better...

You then hit the coast of Miyazaki prefecture. OH...WOW... Didn't hurt that we had absolutely perfect weather! After leaving Sakurajima, we travelled towards the coast and then drove up it to Miyazaki. It was all blue skies, pounding surf, amazing coastlines. Wow.

Our first stop was at Undo-Jingu, a shrine that is built on the coast, inside a cave. This was a really incredible sight. Jeff and I walked up a gazillion stairs to get to the shrine (we realized later after watching the tour groups that the exertion had been completely unnecessary...there was a tunnel to facilitate us!). Once up the stairs, the remaining path to the shrine was literally right along the was so gorgeous. The orange of the shrine tori contrasting with the deep blue of the sea...and the palm trees swaying all around us (well, the ones that hadn't been mercilessly HACKED, that is!) It was truly fantastic.

The shrine was, yes, in a large cave. Outside of the cave was a path along the edge of the rocky coast. Looking down below, there were apparently two rocks that were supposed to represent some emperor's mother's breasts. Admittedly, the one rock DID look like a boob, nipple and all. Well, we've realized that when the Japanese like something (consider it sacred) they tie a rope around it and find a way for it to give you "good fortune". In this case, people buy five round stones from the shrine and try to toss the stones somewhere inside the rope. Men have to throw with their left hand, and women with their right. If you land a stone within the ring of rope, good fortune is yours! With this shrine, the good fortune generally has to do with marriage and fertility, which seems somehow appropriate since you're tossing stones at rocks resembling an emperor's mother's boobs! It was kind of comical, really.

After leaving the shrine, we continued along the coast, stopping next at Aoshima. Aoshima is a small island covered in betel nut palm trees. It is connected to the mainland by a small causeway, and it's a very popular hangout in the summer. Since we were there out of season, it was just us and a couple of tour groups.

One thing that is unique about Aoshima is that it is surrounded by "washboard rock". And from far away, it really does look like a MASSIVE washboard! But on closer inspection, we found a number of neat patterns. Some rocks actually looked like stone waves, whereas others were fit together like giant puzzle pieces. Some pieces were even loose, so you could move them around. And many of the rocks looked like they had fingerprints in them. We kept saying that it was like God's playground... He fingerprinted the rocks; He made puzzles of the stones...

The one side of the island was incredibly windy, but as we rounded the bend to the other side, it became much more calm. Jeff roamed around taking pictures of the rock formations while I lounged around by the palm trees.

I ended our time there by testing out the waters. Because of the tides, the ocean around Aoshima is remarkably warm. Our guidebook said that you don't get to experience such warm water unless you go as south as Okinawa. And yes, it was wonderfully warm.

We finally reached our destination of Miyazaki city that night. It was a city we both agreed we would be very comfortable in. The streets and sidewalks were wide, and palm trees lined many of the main roads. And of course, the ocean is only ever a few minutes away. Not a bad life, I think.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Just a Warning...

We are leaving Kyushu today. I'm very sad... :( We have stayed in Yufuin in the same youth hostel for three nights. It's been a lot like home. We've met some great people, and the hosts have been fantastic too. And the Internet hook-up has been sweeeeet. However, we are moving on today. We are going back up to the main island, Honshu, today. And of course, we have no idea what our internet situation will be. So although we've got a lot more updating to do, it might have to wait. Have a great day!

One of the Best Yet

Sakurajima. If you have the chance, go. It is Japan's most active volcano. OK, so maybe those statements don't go so well together. But it really is amazing. Sakurajima is just a 15 minute ferry ride away from Kagoshima. The whole city of Kagoshima kind of sits watching the activity of Sakurajima. Our Lonely Planet guide says that "'dustfall' brings out the umbrellas in Kagoshima as frequently as rainfall in other parts of the world."

We were lucky enough to see Sakurajima "belch" a couple of times, as Jeff lovingly referred to it. This is the first belch we saw. Stayed in the air a few minutes and then slowly drifted away.

Since 1955, Sakurajima has been belching and gurgling quite continuously. Its most violent explosion happened in 1914 when over three billion tonnes of lava poured out of the volcano, connecting it with a nearby peninsula. Small explosions occur every year.

No, you cannot hike to the top! There are various observation lookouts around the volcano, but you can't get within 2 km of the caldera. I certainly wouldn't want to.

What an ugly beast he is!

In this picture, you can see that he's steaming all over the place. That's part of the worry, really. When he blows, he might not necessarily blow from the top. It's a very real concern. To our surprise, many people live all around Sakurajima. The school kids all wear hard helmets when they walk to school, and there are concrete "explosion shelters" all along the streets. Some people have also built their own shelters by their homes.

This is another crazy tree Jeff likes. We found it near the visitor center. Jeff said it reminded him of the Lord of the Rings.

It was a lot of fun to spend a day driving around the volcano and stopping at all the observation spots. There were lots of interesting pathways along and through old lava fields. It was really wild... lots of crazy, rough, black rocks.

And finally, peaceful Kagoshima city, resting with it's half shut eyes ever on smoking Sakurajima...

By The Way...

I just put the posts in order, so make sure you scroll down and see the whole page. Otherwise you might miss out on some of our adventures and Jeff's great pictures!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

If Hot Springs Weren't Enough...

After the long hikes of Ebino-kogen, it was time for some serious relaxation. So we headed further south, past Kagoshima and into the Satsuma peninsula, to a town called Ibusuki. The scenery became well, really nice. Tall palm trees have a way of making the world a happy place, wouldn't you say?

Ibusuki is actually kind of a dumpy place, although its coastal location helps it a bit. It's starting to slowly build up, but the town has yet to... come into its own, shall we say...? It is popular for one reason and only one reason: its hot sand "baths". This sand is heated naturally from the earth. Sorry, Nathan and others, but that's as good an explanation as you're gonna get!

You go into the "sand bath center," pay your fees, and receive a yukata, which is a light cotton robe. You go into your changeroom, men and women separate, of course, take off everything, and put on your yukata. Then you go outside, lie down in the sand, and have the attendants shovel hot sand on you. You sweat it out for 15 minutes, and you're done. Then you go in, shower off the sand, and get into the hot spring bath. (men and women again separate). It's a very nice experience really. But overall, I think the sand is overrated. I prefer just the hot spring baths.

Before leaving the Satsuma peninsula, we also drove around Lake Ikeda, known for its giant eels. The eels grow up to 2 metres long! (Yes, eel is a popular dish in Japan). As we drove past the lake, we saw a group of people getting ready to go out wakeboarding. Not so sure I'd wanna be doing that in a lake full of massive eels...

Finally, just past Lake Ikeda, we could see the perfect cone of Kaimon dake, also known as "the Mount Fuji of the South." We happened upon an "old car festival" while there, but I'll let Jeff tell you about that!

An "Old Cars" Show

Kathy and I were just driving around the monster eel infested lake, enjoying the scenery when we noticed a small sign with a picture of a 1930s-ish American car of some type. The sign said "Old Cars Show". Didn't think too much of it, but noticed a few really interesting vehicles driving by as we did our daily Sunday drive. Next thing we know we are being directed into a parking lot. When in Rome...we did the Japanese thing and followed the crowd up the hill, across the road and past the park. It was an "Old Cars Show". But I hadn't thought about it - these were old Japanese cars - I had never even seen most of them before. Here's a couple of my favourites.

Now here's a success story! I was amazed at how small and weird the cars were in Japan when we first got here. But then one day I came across a car named the Midget II. I couldn't believe it. Of course I took a picture of it and posted it on our blog.
So here we are at the "Old Cars Show" and I see history unfold before my very eyes. The reason the current model is called the Midget II! This is the original MIDGET - fitting name. Who comes up with these things anyway? Why not just attach a chainsaw engine to a bicycle?

Check out this little Honda! Could it be the missing link? Could it be the fore runner of the CIVIC? Now if only the new CIVICs came with a handy roof rack like that!

A practical and handy model - the Honda VAMOS. Interestingly, Honda still produces the VAMOS, but it has been modified a bit - it now looks like a perfect box with four wheels. I actually see them driving around all the time.

A slick little number from the Toyota sports car division - circa 1960 I think.

Who said Japanese cars are always small and wimpy? And did you know that Mazda produced late 1960s muscle cars? This one actually is a Mazda. The world get stranger everyday...

I don't know how I would even get in this one.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Nowheresville cont...

After our hikes around the lakes, we had lunch, and then geared up for our big hike up Karakuni dake, a no longer active volcano. It took us a couple of hours to get up there, and it was pretty rough hiking. The landscape was quite barren, and very very rocky. And just as we were beginning our ascent, about 1,000 junior high school students were in varying stages of their descent. (I'm not exaggerating here, folks!) All students in Japan are taught that when mountain climbing, etiquette dictates that you should greet every climber you meet on your way. For us, this meant hundreds of "konnichiwa"s, some genki "harroh!"s (that would be hello), and some cheeky, "how are you? i'm fine thank you and you?"s (at least they answered their own question, freeing us to plod right past them.

This is the caldera at the top... impressive, don't you think?

The triumphant hikers! We enjoyed the top for a bit, but when the clouds started surrounding us, it got misty and cold, and we decided it was time to go down, down, down...

The last three pictures give you an idea of how steep it was on the way down. In some ways, going down was worse than going up. Compound that with my back problems, and you get "crungry" - the new word Jeff uses for me when I become the embodiment of grumpiness, hunger, and crankiness all at once, wrapped up in a rapidly deteriotating, not-so-cute package. I was ready for my hot bath!!

At times, stairs were provided, but they were rather steep.

And sometimes the path had been completely washed away, by rain and rockslides.

After we finally got down, we went for our usual hot spring bath. Let me tell you, if you ever have a chance to use a natural "wet" sauna that is heated by hot spring steam, please do! They are heavenly. I don't like dry saunas, but the wet, steamy ones are amazing!

And yes, we did meet up with the Aoyamas, the couple that had invited us over for dinner. What a fantastic experience! They took us to their home in the countryside. There were big trees, big farms, and even big barns! Jeff kept saying it reminded him of Fenwick. We had a wonderful homemade Japanese meal...salad, sashimi, rice, yakitori, and Jeff's favorite, tonkatsu. And at nine at night, we fell into our futons and promptly fell sound asleep.