11/12.04 How I ended up in Kumamoto, South Japan
I LOVE Japanese food. Japan therefore HAD to be in my itinerary Period. I knew little more of Japan than that Tokyo was the capital. Consequently, I thought 2-3 days Tokyo plus 1 day for its rural area would be ample of time. And maybe if Japan would have been like Hong Kong I could have gotten away with it. But Japan isn’t, it is humongous. It has 29,000 kilometer of coastline for example. I thus clearly needed a change of plan; add more time, inbound in the South, trains to the North and a outbound via Tokyo to Vladivostoc.
For those who also know little about Japan, here’s a mini overview. Japan is an island nation. It constists of 4 major islands; Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu and Hokkaido. It has 6,848 smaller islands. The country is lush green all over the place and predominantly rugged or mountainous. The temperature ranges from cool in the North (hidden gem for skiing) to tropical in the South (jackpot for diving/sunny island retreats). In short, if you look up ‘heaven’ in the dictionary you will get a picture of Japan. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I touched down.
So why Kumamoto? Japan is renowned for terrific hiking and it offers a bonus feature; vulcanos. I was eager to tick the box ‘summit an active volcano’ off my bucket list and fancied Mount Fuji (world-famous active volcano, 3,800m). Unfortunately, it is ‘closed’ until May because too many people die due to extreme cold. Since death on the mouontain doesn’t sound appealing at all, I needed an alternative.
(Mount Fuiji. Courtesy of an unknown photographer)
Vince (of the Yangze cruise) had a cool suggestion. He summitted an active volcano in Kirishima on Kyushu Island in the South. I anyhow wanted to start in the South, so that was an easy decision made. All I had to do was to fly to Kagoshima, take some trains and a taxi. I did not spend much time preparing for this endeavour because I was too submerged in Beijing. I had noticed that information in English was scarce, but how difficult could it be, right? Ehhm, wrong…
Firstly, I never reached Kagoshima. Once I knew my departure date I had missed out on all reasonably priced flights. The nearest airport was Kumamoto and that didn’t look to far away on the map. Now, I told you that Japan is BIG, so in short, it was not near at all. I needed a 50 minutes bus to a railway station, hurry to catch the last high speed train of that day, and somehow get a room booked on the way. Not impossible if only for those few “minor” challenges:
1: No data. It seemed impossible to buy a sim card, so I could not use the internet. Disaster! I could not check the train time table, use google maps, book a room or use the translator
2: No English speakers. No one spoke English and most signs were in Japanese only. Fudge, China had been child’s play compared to Japan.
3: No clear maps, at least not to me 🙂 The online maps were outright confusing. Did I really see two Kirishimas, 200 km apart? Which one was the right one?
4: No Lonely Planet guide. I hadn’t bought a travel guide yet (as China didn’t sell in English) so I was literally in the black.
It was 6 PM at night, I was all alone, in an unknown country, tired and overwhelmed. All I wanted was sushi. So I decided to call it a day. I checked in at the first random hotel that looked OK to regroup. So that is how I ended up in Kumamoto.
12.04 Kumomoto-jo, what it looked like just before the earthquakes
Kumomoto is famous for its castle so I paid a visit on the next day. Japan has taken their castles very serious. Shiro or jo’s served to impress and intimidate rivals not only with their defenses but also with their size, architecture and elegance, and were the residence of the daimyo (feudal lords) and their samuraj.
I didn’t know at the time that I have made some of the last pictures of this gorgeous place. Two days later Kumomoto was struck by two earthquakes of resp. 6.4 and 6.2 on the Richter scale. Japan announced a state of National Crisis. Tens of people died and thousands got injured. Material damage is in the billions and it is said that the quakes will impact the Japanese economy. What a tragedy! I was ofcourse glad that I had evaded the danger but I can help thinking that -if I would have been there/close, I could have joined the rescue teams and helped the people in need.
12/13.04: Aso’s toxic smoke (what an aso…)
During my ‘regrouping night’ I had resolved my travel itinerary chaos; I replaced Kirishima by Mount Aso, the largest active vulcano in Japan and amongst the largest in the world. A respectful replacement, don’t you agree? Aso-san actually consists of 5 vulcanos. The Nakadake is the one that is active. On my hike, I was lucky and unlucky; Nagadaka was highly active and emitted toxid smoke. Although this was a fantastic sight to see, it meant that the authorities had set a 2 km no-go perimeter. I alternatively climbed one of the highest peaks, mount Kijimadake, which surprised me with a view on 4 of the 5 Aso volcanos. Awesome!
One closing note on Aso – and I am sorry if this only comes across for Dutch speakers, as Aso is in Dutch short for an a-social person, let’s say in English… an asshole. When I reached Aso City I had to laugh all day. Yes, Aso City (asshole City) really exists! I always knew there was a place especially for aso’s/assholes… So next time that you meet an aso/asshole, just tell him to p#ss off to Japan! 🙂 🙂 🙂
13/14.04: How I fell in love with the Japanese
I had been recommended to stop-over in Kitakyushu in the Fukuoka prefecture by a fellow traveler in Aso. I still don’t understand why because I didn’t find much of interest. What did happen there is that I fell for the Japanese. Here are just three extraordinary stories.
The bank officer
Japan is expensive… I had spent almost all cash in 3 days that I thought would get me to Tokyo. I am not complaining but no cash is no fun. It was even less fun to get new cash. The ATMs didn’t work. A senior bank officer came to the rescue when his ATM also failed. He put on his coat and escorted me for 2 hours (!) from bank to bank until one finally worked. How amazing is that! I brought him a big box of chocolats afterwards. The whole staff was gleaming with pride. Very special!
It became even better that night. A hostel guest asked me to drop a note in Japanese at a nearby (tiny) restaurant. I don’t know what it said but it made the chef laugh aloud. I instantly became his Guest of Honor and was sat down on the ground (Japanese style) with two locals. We were his only clients for several hours. So there I sat, not understanding a word they said yet patiently awaiting the tantelising food to reach my plate. Yummy! Biggest surprise? I was not allowed to pay. Huh? Wow!
Ex-US citicin Mateo gave the last push. He spent his whole morning to help me get my sim card, stamps and long distance rail passess sorted. This would have been quite cumbersome on my own. He dissapeared for an hour to return with specially painted postcards, soaps and candy as a present for my onward journey. He was the sweetest ever! We went for lunch together untile it was time to part ways; Hiroshima was waiting for me.
And finally, the ‘tube’
I had heard about Japan’s tube hotels. Tube hotels, as the word already suggests, offer (cheap) rooms in the shape of a tube. Image to sleep is an ‘MRI scanner’ with fellow sleepers above and below. I just don’t know about that. Altough I can appreciate the efficiency. My hostel didn’t have real tubes, but rather, ehmm, ‘holes in the wall’. I can’t recall that I had a smaller room in my whole life. Luckily I am not clausterofobic