Monday, May 07, 2007

Four days in Kyushu

We had a string of national holidays in Japan last week so my friend Aiko and I decided to hop on the ferry and head south to Kyushu.

One of my favourite things about Japan is how easy it is to get around without a car. We stood on the edge of an active volcano, sampled the nightlife of a pulsing city and relaxed in a town famous for its hot springs. All made possible by Japan’s extremely efficient and very reliable network of trains, buses and ferries.

The first leg of the journey took us from southern Shikoku to northern Kyushu. The two-hour ferry ride was uneventful, aside from being swarmed by a group of rowdy junior high school boys hell-bent on showing off their mad English skillz.

They’d consult with each other in Japanese and whisper the words in English until one boy would be brave enough to shout out “I am crazy!” or “I like soccer!” and then the pack would dissolve into hysterical laughter. (It’s a testament to how cute Japanese junior high school boys are that, even after nine months of it, I still find this sort of thing utterly endearing.)

The only other thing about the ferry ride worth mentioning was how much it reminded me of crossing the Georgia Strait between Vancouver and Victoria (minus the three-hour sailing waits). There was no White Spot on board but the scenery outside the ferry windows was strikingly similar.

After we got off the ferry, we boarded a train that took us into the heart of Aso National Park. As soon as we arrived in Aso, we dumped our bags in a locker and waited for a bus to take us up into the mountains to see the park’s prime attraction -- an active volcano.

Two older Japanese men wearing crumpled suits and stinking of sake stumbled over to where we were standing and struck up a conversation with us. One of the men was excited to learn we lived on Shikoku Island and even more excited when he found out Aiko lived in the same town he grew up in. He disappeared for a while and when he returned, he thrust half a dozen chocolate bars and two ice cream cones in our hands.

It may sound sweet but it was actually kind of creepy. As we licked our ice cream cones, the two men kept staring at Aiko’s ample bosom and telling us how pretty we were. (Seriously, though. Why am I such a magnet for dirty old men? Why can’t I attract clean young men?)

When the bus finally pulled into the station, I dragged Aiko aside and whispered, “Okay. We’re going to let those guys on the bus first. We’ll wait until they sit down and then we’ll sit as far away from them as possible.” But they never did board the bus. They just stood on the platform waving to us as the bus left the station.

The bus switchbacked up a winding mountain road and dropped us off near the mouth of the volcano 45 minutes later. We walked on a spectacular path that ran along the edge of the dramatic crater.

Once we reached the mouth of the volcano, we joined the masses posing for pictures along the guardrail. Earlier, Aiko had told me her secret for looking 10 pounds lighter on camera, “Just twist your body sideways and lift your chin up.”

But instead of making me look thin, it just made me look stiff and slightly deranged.

We hiked around the volcano for a couple of hours before heading back down and checking into our hostel for the night. I didn’t really know what to expect since I had never stayed in a hostel before.

I assumed hostels were full of obnoxious 20-somethings trying to one-up each other with tales of their travels. They’d go out drinking and talking about how great they were until 2 a.m. when they’d come crashing into the dorm room, slamming doors, turning on lights, playing bongo drums and vomiting over the side of the bunk bed.

It turned out my fears were completely unfounded. We stayed at three different hostels and each one of them was clean, comfortable and quiet. Our roommates were lovely young women who were all in bed way before midnight. And not a bongo drum in sight!

From Aso, we hopped a train heading north to Fukuoka, the largest city in Kyushu. We timed our arrival to coincide with the city’s Dontaku Festival, which promised lots of music and dancing. The highlight of the festival was supposed to be the parade. But it turned out to be little more than dozens of high school marching bands parading through the streets for four hours.

The next day we went to Beppu, which bills itself as the hot spring capital of Japan. We were a little confused by this sign:

We figured it out as soon as we rounded the corner and saw people dipping their feet in one of the hot springs. Suddenly “hot spring of a leg” made perfect sense.

In Beppu, Aiko guided me through my first onsen experience (that’s a whole other blog post). I didn’t mind being naked with a bunch of other naked people. And I enjoyed soaking in a hot tub of water. But I wasn’t completely sold on the whole public bathing experience. Why pay money to have a shower and a bath with a whole bunch of other people when you can do the same thing for free in the privacy and comfort of your own home?

We spent one night in Beppu before catching the ferry back to Shikoku yesterday. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the ferry ride back home because I spent most of the trip curled up in the fetal position trying not to vomit as the boat rode over giant roller coaster waves.

I don’t know what made me feel more nauseous: the roiling sea or the sound of people retching all over the ferry. It was so bad that the bathroom sinks were clogged with vomit. Everyone was splayed out on the floor. Old women were holding handkerchiefs to their foreheads.

But other than that, it was a great trip.

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