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Japan – Mount Aso, Kurokawa, and Kumamoto

January 11, 2013 4 comments

Japan so far:

This post is a photo tour of Kyushu, Japan’s southern island, including the national park around the active volcano Mount Aso, as well as the spa town of Kurokawa and finishing up in the Kumamoto, dominated by an infamous samurai castle.

NOTE If you are reading this in a news reader such as Google Reader, or inside Facebook on a tablet, you might want to open this in a dedicated browser window as the photo layout may work better. And there are more photos from these locations available on Flickr

MOUNT ASO
We hopped an early morning train from Fukuoka south along Kyushu’s west coast and changed to a rental car. After getting our heads around Japanese road signs, and puzzling out the sat-nav system (in which you enter phone numbers, not addresses, to locate your destination) we headed through Kumamoto’s suburban sprawl, which could be mistaken for Anywhere, USA, east into the hills of central Kyushu. We were headed for the national park around Mount Aso, a set of active peaks and a boiling sulphur lake in a crater, all of which sit in one of the largest calderas on Earth. It makes for a dramatic landscape, and one that you have to take care with – the viewpoint over the crater is regularly shut down when the sulphur emissions get too strong, and there are bunkers in which visitors can shelter in the case of any violent eruptions. But it’s worth visiting as the turquoise sulphur water bubbling away, and the columns of steam shooting a hundred feet in the air, are a sight to behold…. and the rolling grasslands in the plains around the caldera made for a very enjoyable drive.

 

KUROKAWA
After a lovely outing to Mount Aso, we headed down through the mountain passes into the forested valleys south of the caldera region, ending up in Kurokawa, an onsen town built around a pretty bend in the river, hosting scores of ryokans catering mainly to more mature Japanese tourists whose idea of a fun day is to lounge around in a yukata robe and flit around from one outdoor hot spring bath (rotemburo) to another, and retire in the evening to be pampered in traditional Japanese ryokan style. We were keen on this, as it happened, and we chose an excellent inn just outside the main town, the Sanga Ryokan, because it had its own pretty stretch of river, seemed smart, and boasted no less than five separate rotemburo. Aside from all this, it had incredibly pretty traditional rooms and the food was edging onto what you would get in a high-end kaiseki restaurant. We could have stayed there longer. Sadly, we had only the one night.

 

KUMAMOTO
In the morning, after another lovely rotemburo at another ryokan set beside a river with a waterfall, we took our time driving back to Kumamoto, as the weather turned sour. We felt very lucky to have gotten a lovely sunny day to see Mount Aso, and so we arrived in Kumamoto fairly happy with our lot. We (just) had time to pop over to Kumamoto’s samurai castle, infamously besieged and burnt down during the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, which was the loose basis for the film The Last Samurai. Sunset arrived and we were ushered out (politely, of course)

 

That’s all from Kyushu. The next instalment will bring us back onto the main island of Japan and will feature Hiroshima and its monuments, the idyllic island of Miyajima, and then we will head off into the mountains to stay in a Buddhist temple and visit Japan’s most prestigious…. cemetery.

Japan – Osaka and Fukuoka

January 7, 2013 5 comments

Japan so far:

After the forested temples of Nara Park, a short train ride brought us back into modernity with a bang and deposited us right into the middle of the buzzing burg of Osaka. Later, we moved on to Fukuoka to catch the yearly sumo tournament.

NOTE If you are reading this in a news reader such as Google Reader, or inside Facebook on a tablet, you might want to open this in a dedicated browser window as the photo layout may work better. And there are more photos from these locations available on Flickr

OSAKA

Osaka is a paradox – a city with seemingly little to see from a typical tourist’s viewpoint, but a city that remains nonetheless very compelling. Aside from Osaka Castle and a couple of other attractions, the main pull for Osaka has a rather more hedonistic bent. This is, after all, the city which boasts a special word for “eat until you drop” and the same might be said of the attitude towards drink. More working-class and street-food-oriented than its big brother Tokyo, less stuffy than its neighbour Kyoto, Osaka is proudly brash and boldly neon.

To get it out of the way: yes, we did visit Osaka Castle. Sadly, we did so having suffered the after effects of our first night out in Osaka, so we might not have been best placed to appreciate a seven story climb through a museum stuffed to the rafters with Japanese pensioners and with little in the way of English commentary. We did however appreciate the walk, and the obligatory green-tea ice cream cone in the park outside.

 

But, dear reader, the main event in Osaka is the nightlife. This is truly a city that looks better when the sun goes down and the neon signs ignite. Ridley Scott famously quoted night-time Osaka as his inspiration when designing Blade Runner, and he returned here to make the Michael Douglas-starring yakuza drama “Black Rain”. In any case, we enjoyed galavanting up and down the Dotonbori canal and main street, and even ventured far enough abroad to Shinsekai, the dodgier end of town, to go up a pointless viewing platform in a faux-Eiffel Tower and eat many varieties of fried foods. A good time was had by all.

 

Of course, we occasionally saw the dark side of hedonism (or perhaps Japan’s ever-fluctuating economy) and Osaka had its fair share of down-and-outs, including this poor chap:

Homeless Man under Overpass, Osaka

Homeless Man under Overpass, Osaka

 

FUKUOKA

After a couple of nights’ liver damage, and a daily rate of one okonomiyaki per person (which is frankly unsustainable) we moved on to Fukuoka, a medium sized city at the north end of the southern island of Kyushu. Fukuoka is another place one could reasonably say held little in the tourist-magnet department in terms of sightseeing, but for those of a foodie persuasion, Fukuoka is a bit of a mecca. Not only is it the home of the lovely and very-bad-for-you Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen, but there are also heaps of street food vendors in stalls called yatai lining the many waterways running through the centre of the town.

Yatai food stalls along the river, Fukuoka

Yatai food stalls along the river, Fukuoka

 

The main reason we had for coming to Fukuoka, aside from the lovely food, was to visit the 2012 Fukuoka Grand Sumo competition on its penultimate day. I had been to this same competition in 2007 but timing then meant that I could only stay for the midday session, when the lower-ranking rikishi (fighters) had their bouts in front of an empty hall. This time, we had ensured that we arrived in Osaka with enough time to enjoy the full afternoon of competition, being able to see the higher echelons of competitors in the juryou and maku-uchi divisions (the latter including the highest class of Yokozuna). This time, as the afternoon wore on, the crowd filled in and the hall was soon filled with raucous cheering, no doubt enhanced by copious amounts of beer and sake being consumed in the seats and boxes all round. This was definitely a higher class of sport than what I had previously witnessed.

 

Next time we’re going to venture south into Kyushu, into rolling grasslands, volcanic lakes, burbling hot springs, and samurai castles…. see you then!