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Japan, an experience
Trip to Kyushu, October 1998
photographs © Sven "anjinsan" Lanckmans
Most of us only know this mythical place through Shogun-series and Black Rain-movies. Recently I had the opportunity to examine all my prejudices - thank you, TV - up close. During several weeks I travelled around in this beautiful country as to learn as much as possible from there culture. I had to restrict myself to the Island Kyushu because of the weather and the lack of sponsors. Luckily, Kyushu is one big pot of all types of Japanese people, so I got a good picture of Japan as a whole. Kyushu is the bottom island of the 3 biggest ones, which, together with a lot of smaller ones, makes up Japan.
After a killing, 16 hour flight, the plane finally landed in Fukuoka. Since this is a big industrial city, we decided to move on to Nagasaki the next morning. When we arrived, there was a big festival going on in honour of their many gods. This festival included many small markets and entertaining shows. Off course we visited the atomic bomb site. At the peace park were statues, sponsored by the international community, erected for the advancement of peace. This is the same international community that still continuos on atomic bomb testing, also in the name of peace, like France, China, India, �. Irony isn�t very far behind. The museum was very interesting. Modern interior, educational and it carries a clear message for future generations. After shooting a lot off pictures (we tried to integrate ourselves as much as possible, and yes, even in Japan, Japanese people tend to take a picture of everything that can be developed), we took the ferry to Kagoshima.
Kagoshima is a city that is mainly for the presence of a nearby active volcano. They are only separated by a narrow bay. The name of the volcano (borrowed from a well known Iaido-association in Ternat-Belgium) is the Sakura-jima. The ferry took us to the Sakurajima in about 5 minutes and once there, we had a magnificent view of the many "lunar landscapes" that the different volcanic eruptions left behind. A little �burp� from this big guy makes the people carry umbrellas against the erupted ashes. After staying here a few days, we decided to refresh our knowledge about Japanese mythology and the place for this was in Kirishima.
Kirishima is a huge volcanic area, but the success is of this area is mostly due to one vulcano in particular, Mt. Takachiho. This is the place to go on a pilgrimage for the Japanese. It is here that the god Ninigi-no-Mikoto descended to earth to found Japan. Before descending, he wanted to make sure that there was no more "mud of chaos" present on earth and so he threw his sword down to see if it would stick. Until today, this sword is still up there. Ninigi-no-Mikoto was even kind enough to pile up some rocks to make sure that it wouldn�t fall over during all the earthquakes that happened since then�
Besides Mt. Takachiho, there are different craters, with or without lakes in them. After climbing all these steep mountains, we went to Kumamoto for a little relaxing. Kumamoto itself is not so spectacular, except for a grand castle and, off course, the grave of Miyamoto Mushashi. Mushashi developed his own school, Niten Ichi Ryu, which used two swords instead of one. This was a big advantage in combat and thanks to this technique Musashi didn�t loose a single fight, except one (this depends on who is telling the story). Eli-sensei, teaches and enlightens us with this ryu and �way of life� during our Iaido training [haha very funny Sven, laugh while you can...]. We left Kumamoto after a day or two, as this was the only reason to visit Kumamoto in particular. Our next destination was the national park of Mt. Aso.
This is one big crater ( 24 km in diameter) with towns, railroads and highways in it. We stayed at one of these villages and went to visit the center of this super-crater where new smaller (1700m) ones were formed wich were, again, highly active. Climbing this one wasn�t very easy but on top, we had a great view of the intestines of the crater. On this vulcano was also a museum, 2 cablecarts and even a skiing slope. Japan is already as commercial as the west.
Aso National Park:
To give our feet also a bit of vacation, we decided to go to a well known hot spring-area in the perfecture Oita. In a town called Beppu, we did the �Hell tour� which consists of different hot water springs which are not made for bathing but for looking at. They can be hellish red our snowy white. Of course, these are surrounded by the necessary commercial activity. The name �Las Vegas of Kyushu� is very appropriate for Beppu. Luckily, we spend our nights in a much more peaceful place named Yufuin. Just as we were beginning to recuperate, we realised that the day had come to face the 16 hours of our personal �flight hell� again.
In conclusion, sadly enough there are a few prejudices that turned out to be true but others are complete nonsense. Everybody we met was very friendly en helpful. Several times, people started talking to us just out off curiosity and asked if we were having a good time. We even got spontaneous lifts. Even if they do it out of curiosity, I don�t think that this happens in more West-oriented countries. Japan is also the cleanest and safest country I have ever been to. Recycling is even more practised then here (in Belgium) and nature is still as it should be ( I�m not including industrial zones). Crime is almost non-existent and the feeling of being able to walk, at 11PM on a street, without having to look over your shoulder every 5 seconds was totally new to me.
A last, but maybe most importantly, Japan is definitely not as expensive as is being said. This is, off course, only true is you don�t start acting like I-am-a-tourist-with-way-to-much-money-Please-take-what-you-can. Overnight rooms are clean and relatively cheap as long as you stay away from the hotels. We stayed in different Minshuku & Ryokan ( a kind of Bed&Breakfast) and I highly recommend this. You get to know the local people a lot easier and you see Japanese life as it is. When we arrived, we received tea and a yukata (light kimono) at almost every Minshuku/Ryokan.
If one thing was cheap, then it was food. A complete menu cost 10$ max. (I even had a noodle-dish once for 3$). This is in the standard restaurants where the �normal� people eat. I you want to play Mr. Tourist from a few lines earlier, then you pay a lot more. Do some window-shopping (all the menu are displayed in the front window) before you enter somewhere. One of the reasons that it�s so cheap, is that you always get hot tea or water for free and the waiters make sure that your glass never stays empty too long. (one of the customs in Japan. If your glass is empty, then you want more) Kampai-training is expensive, a beer costs about 5$ (the price of half your dinner). If you really need a beer, buy one in a vending-machine (Japan is infested with these things, on each corner are at least three vending-machines). Then it will only cost you about 2$. The lifestyle you use greatly determines the speed at which your wallet shrinks.
What of the gossip is true then? Well, the youth is being disciplined much more and prepped for university. It�s almost an obsession. Class doesn�t stop till late at night and afterwards there are mandatory activities, school on Saturdays, shooltrips on Sundays. Crash-courses are as common as rice. Another strange thing is that Japanese, especially when they are "touristing", have little curiosity or sense of discovery (could this have a historical origin?). Instead of walking to a mountaintop, they take the bus as far a possible, visit the local visitors-centre (which has a miniature display of the mountain), and take the bus to the next sight. We�ve met a Japanese couple who did the same trip we did, not in 3 weeks but in 3 days �
The biggest disappointment was that they can�t wait to become "Western". Sleeping on a futon is reserved for tourists; the national sport is not some budo, but baseball and golf. Why, I don�t know.
Should you have any doubts, don�t. Japan is worth a visit. The culture, the people, nature, everything is different and yet again not. It gives you an entirely different perspective of how people deal with life. We can learn a lot from them besides Ipponme Mae.