Monday, February 25, 2008

Japan's Abandoned Places

Yufu-dake, which rises like a spike overlooking the hot springs town of Yufuin, has lost its snow cap on this unusually warm winter day. Next, the road to Kijima--the Beppu-Yufuin Pass.

One of my favorite link blogs, Grow a Brain, had a link to a Japanese photographer's portfolio webpage a while back that was chock full of fascinating shots of a Japan most people--Japanese included--never see. The subject: Japan's abandoned places. It took me only to page three to become completely enthralled by the collection since #41 is a place I see every single day here in Kusu. The Bungo Mori Kikanko (Bungo Mori Train Roundhouse) is located at what was the center of town little more than thirty years ago, the Mori neighborhood. It's every bit as creepy-looking as the photographer makes it out to be even though there's a Roundhouse Festival every year the town takes pride in.

Kijima's skating rink with Yufu-dake's eastern face in the background. Next door to that, Ranko and Yo-chan mug for the camera.

The site sort of slipped from my memory until last Monday when I went ice skating at Kijima with all eight students from Hiju JHS. Kijima is a strange combination amusement park/golf course/spa resort complex located in the mountains between Yufuin and Beppu, east of Kusu. That strip of mountains is such beautiful country that I'm mortified at the idea of a gaudy amusement park there, and even moreso now that I've got a good look at it and know it will almost certainly be on the above mentioned website within twenty years, tops. I don't think there's anyone to blame really except the park's owners/investors who had the brilliant idea to deposit such a park on a high, windy plateau where only visitors who want fingers amputated for frostbite would come knocking during the four winter months.

Did I mention I got a new computer? Yeah, there it is like the obelisk from 2001. Sorry guys, I've had too much trouble with form-factor/toaster computers to go with one anymore.

As an added bonus this post you get to see my typical lunch...the infamous Kusu-machi Kyushoku! Miso soup, rice, some side vegetable dish, milk and, this time, a freakin' creme brulee?! Just. Plain. Nutty.


Saturday, February 16, 2008


I doubt there's a person reading this blog that doesn't know I LOVE onsen (hot springs), but just let me reiterate it in case--I love onsen. In fact, I think I'll make it my firstborn's middle name, right there between "Remington" and "Lopez-Rockefeller". Anyways, I'm always on the lookout for The One Onsen that will rule over all other hot springs in my mental encyclopedia of Kyushu resorts. Today I may have found it!

As I'd commented in one of my past posts I like to take a trip into the mountains of Kokonoe-machi about once a month to have the best hot dog in Japan (that I've ever found) and then hit a hot spring. Well, much to my dismay the hot dog shop is closed until spring, which makes sense considering the road to it was impassible for much of this last week due to snow. Peeved, but not angry, I pressed on towards a new onsen near the "cider" springs of Yamazato Onsen only to find it really blah-looking. Cheap at 200 J-bucks, but boring. Pointing my car towards the billowing volcanic peaks of Mt. Kuju and the gorgeous Yamanami Highway (in my opinion one of the most beautiful leisure drives in the nation) I stumbled onto what looked like just another two-story family house except for the sign in front--"Kizuna Onsen". Having never failed with the small, cozy type of hot springs I pulled into the lot.

Entering the bath I was let down to find it disappointingly normal except for the bath faucets that were inscrutable. It took me a little bit to get used to multi-directional knobs and buttons I had to press to activate hot water mode and luckily I was alone for the time being to look like a complete jackass who didn't know how to use a faucet. There was a door set against the wall and I didn't pay it much mind because it was small, like a staff access entrance or something. Then I heard voices through it while washing my hair and opened it up to find a rotenburo (outside bath) made of polished rocks and this view...

Why couldn't I have brought my normal camera?! Next time, next time...

What you're looking at is Mt. Kuju on a perfectly clear winter day, its vents steaming. This puny picture does it no justice at all, I damn near went weak in the knees and collapsed like some 13-year-old girl at a Monkees concert. (They're so dreamy!) The air was freezing--literally -2C outside at the time--but the water was perfect, and I mean perfect! I brought a book to read in the bath and could hardly think about picking it up in the face of such magnificence. I could sit there and stare all day and night until I was a waterlogged prune of a man I think.

I can't wait to head back, next time with a proper camera. Also, down the driveway and across the street are a few stylish mountain cafes that claim to be organic so I'll report on those as well.


P.S.: I finally rushed out in time to snap a shot of the Sweet Potato Cryer's truck. This is a man with a portable sweet potato oven in his van that drives all over down singing (in warbly Japanese) "Sweet potatoes for sale! Delicious, delicious and good for you too!"

The Wedding Party So Awesome They Had It Again!

Way back in mid-December a man with exceptionally bad teeth that I'd never met or seen in my life before invited me to his wedding party, possibly while under the influence of alcohol. Not really knowing, or particularly wanting, to say 'no' to his toothy grin I accepted and put it mostly out of mind for some time. Two weeks ago a couple of the Japanese members of Kusu's English conversation circle reminded me of the upcoming day and said they'd pick me up that Sunday. Amidst driving rain and freezing wind we headed to the hall gussied up in our finest along with around seventy other guests, many of them in full-on kimono and whatnot, which was intimidating—I mean, this is my first Japanese wedding party and I'm the only foreigner in the room, so I wanted to make a decent impression for the team. Nobody can ever say I didn't try to stem the tide of nations queuing up to hate on America.

Domo arigatou, Mr. Matto

As I gazed upon the spread at my table that included such unusual wedding dinner fare as fine sushi alongside fried chicken, pizza and bottle-upon-bottle of beer, I noticed an unusual banner behind the bride and groom's table. Translated it read “Eiji and Izumi's Second Wedding Get Together”. At first I thought this meant they'd been married before, split and reconciled, but actually it merely meant this was their second party, the first being in Izumi's hometown of Hita. A glance around at the guests and another thing was made apparent: this was a complete sausage fest. I think there were about fifteen women in the hall total, counting the hostesses serving us too. I felt sorry for the handful of really attractive ones as there's nothing that'll make decent men lose faith in their gender than a roomful of drunk Japanese men in the presence of a beauty. The reason for the sea of testosterone is that most were members of the same para gliding club as the groom, which led to at least three really funny toasts to the bride and groom where every aspect of married life was compared to various atmospheric effects or para gliding procedures. “Let your love always catch updrafts” and other horribly corny C-list toast lines like that.

All the guests brought wedding gifts for Eiji and Izumi. I didn't. Actually, I was told by my two friends, Nobu and Kuma, not to bring anything and soon found out why. They didn't bring anything either except for bass and electric guitars and their gift was to perform for the bride and groom at the party—and apparently so was my gift! “Matt, can you sing 'Stand by Me' while we play guitar?” So with about fifteen minutes to psych myself up and go over the lyrics in my head I was shoved on stage, handed a microphone and told to be a wedding singer. I'm willing to bet there are photos of me on one knee belting out “So darling, darling, stand...” but I've yet to see them. Maybe it's for the best.

Nobu and Kuma went on to do some acoustic stuff and I took my seat and polished off a beer. While I was swilling that down the groom disappeared until the set finished, then reappeared in a Japanese demon costume, arousing my “WTF” sense immediately. He was soon joined on stage by one of the other guests and the two started up a manzai routine. Manzai is like the Japanese equivalent of two-man standup comedy in the same vein as Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, but I couldn't tell what the hell they were joking about so I just looked on in curious amusement and drank more beer. I didn't get drunk here in case you're curious, but I certainly drank my fill over the course of the three hour party, and for good reason. You see, Japanese wedding parties aren't like Western ones where the costs are taken on by the bride and groom—I paid 3,000 J-bucks to get in here, much to my surprise. Sort of made me feel better about not bringing a proper gift.

The groom, Eiji, striking an innocent pose as some hideous male take on Lum (I spent entirely too much of my youth watching and reading Urusei Yatsura)

So modern Japanese wedding parties, in conclusion, aren't all that different than their Western counterparts with exceptions being that guests have to pay-to-play, sushi and pizza are companions on one's plate and people dress up in demon costumes. I was really hoping for some pagan goat sacrifices and naked prostration in front of a jello statue of Bob Barker with his arms crossed, but no such luck.

So, note to the future Mrs. Matthew Lopez, if you're reading this, see what you can do about Bob Barker jello molds, OK?