Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Capuchin I Keep in the Closet's Gonna Be Pissed

I'm genuinely surprised why the subject of the banana doesn't come up in environmental and/or free market discussions, but then again it's probably more the media's fault for that than the scientific community's. The topic I'm talking about is the imminent death of the banana. Yes, that banana. The one we peel and put on cereal, slice and mix with strawberries and soy milk to make shakes from or just plain munch before work. I heard about it from a college professor and looked into it a bit just a few years ago and not much has changed--we're still heading towards its demise. Here, read this please.

There's one more issue facing the humble banana the author doesn't mention in there, namely that the banana has been bred by United Fruit (is that just about the most heartless, totalitarian fucking fruit company name you've ever heard? No wonder they changed it to Chiquita...) to be nearly seedless. Banana's still have really tiny seeds, sure, but they're not as hardy as they used to be and the banana plant has a hard time reproducing itself without human assistance. Well, the domesticated "Cavendish" type at least. Actually, the modern banana is bred asexually, ensuring that the plant will never ever evolve an immunity to Panama Disease or any other disease that comes along to hasten its demise.

I'm sure Republicans, Libertarians and assorted Randian jackasses will take umbrage at this, but it's really examples like this and Enron--companies that play fast and loose looking for the best short-term buck--that show the need for some, some, regulation. I'd pay three times as much as I pay now for bananas to know I can still jam some into a PBJ sandwich at the age of 60. If I have to resort to help me, I will *bleep* *bleep* your *bleep* *bleep* in the *bleep*. And your cat too, Chiquita.

Act like adults, damn it. Show a modicum of responsibility.


Sunday, May 25, 2008

The One Onsen

Three onsens for the keiretsu-kings under the boardroom lights,
Seven for the middle-management in their cubicle kingdoms,
Nine for the salary men doomed to meager pensions,
One for the lone ALT on his computer desk chair throne,
In the land of Kyushu where the hot springs lie.
One onsen to rule them all, one onsen too sublime, man,
One onsen to bring them all and in the soothing waters bind them
In the land where the hot springs lie.

Well I was going to write about my trip to the JSB (Japan Superbike) race at Autopolis, which has been a five-year-old dream of mine, but maybe it's a sign of my removal from motorcycle riding for the past several months that I left before the whole thing was over and moseyed down the road to that favorite onsen town of mine, Kumamoto Prefecture's Kurokawa. Well, I can actually put my finger on the reason I left early when I think about it, though it's boring and technical: worldwide production bike racing became so damn boring when the 600 and 1000cc classes got I4 engined machines' airbox restrictor regs all but tossed out, pushing v-twins almost entirely out of competition in the face of overwhelming horsepower. Since I love the sound, torque and bucking bronco feel of v-twin superbikes--enough to drop $12k on my own slice of two-wheeled, two-cylinder heaven--I'm dismayed at their exit from the racing scene.

See, didn't that put you to sleep? On to the good stuff.

A long time ago a coworker mentioned his osusume (recommended) onsen in Kurokawa as something-mizu-something. I couldn't recall it for the life of me, but I knew it had mizu (water) in the title. Entering the town I glanced up at a guide sign with twenty different onsen names and saw Yamamizuki (mountain, water, tree) by chance. Down a one-lane gravely side road I piloted the car and dodged bathers strolling between onsen until I came across yet another guide sign and another side road that finally brought me to Yamamizuki.

I had an immediate good feeling about the place thanks to it's unpretentious, natural feel aided by it being situated next to freshly planted rice terraces and oodles of bamboo and birch trees. What clinched it though were the people kicking it in the after-bath lounge/cafe--everyone, to the man, woman and child, had a big dumb grin on their face and looked so approachable. Oh yeah, they had a fat ass-but-playful cat mulling about outside too. Nice touch.

On the path down to the bath I came to a fork, to the right the women's bath, to the left is the mixed one. No men's option here. The changing "room" is just a doorless shack, really, and it leads directly to an impressive outdoor bath. Spacious and perched over a pristine and swiftly running river the bath is something else. You have to experience it in person to believe it, so I hope some of you reading this will come check it out some day. This is one of the the first onsen I've entered where the question "what do you want to do?" popped into my head. What do you want to do? It's almost deep enough for a swim, you could try that. You can recline against river-worn rocks under a canopy of leaves. You can sit on the outer edge and gaze into the river. There are two water streams shooting out of bamboo tubes extending from the wall for you to sit under for a bit of a shower. As for me, I tried those all and ended up reading a book on a rock near the center of the pool.

When I mentioned the mixed aspect of this onsen you might have immediately wondered if there were any women in the bath, and the answer is yes, there was one. Hundreds of years ago in Japan a majority of the outdoor baths were mixed like this, but then England, American and all those Puritan puke nations came in and set up trade agreements with Japan and one of the caveats was that the country do away with this sinful, sinful practice. There still aren't many, only two that I can think of in or around Oita, in fact. Nobody cared when she came in, no habits changed. I for one didn't feel self-conscious about her entering. I'm glad to see that some folks understand that the sexuality of nudity is entirely based on context.

How Yamamizuki stacks up against Kizuna in Kokonoe, which you may remember from posts of months past, is that both are in different classes. While Yamamizuki is hands down the most impressive piece of onsen real estate I've laid eyes on it's about an hour away by car, at least twice as far as Kizuna. So while conceivably I could go to Kizuna every day of the week Yamamizuki is more an out-of-the-way luxury destination. But damn...what a destination.

My camera's still on the blink (rather, I haven't bought a new one yet) so I'm afraid I'll have to let Yamamizuki's very old website give you a taste of what I was able to see. The second menu button from the top on the left will show pics of the various baths. The top one is the one I went in.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

At Nature's Mercy, Part 2

The Tarumizu michi no eki was a little too comfy and I spent a while there relaxing in the foot bath reading a book and eating lunch. Eventually I got up the raw courage to leave and look for my night's beach campsite. I liked the previous night's results I wanted to do it again and, weather willing, every time I do this sort of thing. I found the perfect spot nestled in some tall beach grasses and made note of where it was before heading to Nafco (a hardware store) to get grease for my bike's crank. Damn thing's shot to hell, I need to grab a new one some time soon. Well, I'm walking to my car in the lot when hear a soft rumble and I look up to see a plume of black jetting out of Sakurajima--the mountain was erupting!

This is sort of a big deal to me. Four years ago when I first came to Kagoshima for just a day and a half I was genuinely touched by the image of Sakurajima looming over the city in the middle of Kinko Bay. Kagoshima will most likely never become the Japanese Pompeii for various reasons, but with the enormous Taisho and Showa Era eruptions that wiped out towns of thousands in a matter of days on the eastern slope the people of Kagoshima are folks that live their days to the fullest. It is indeed my not-so-secret dream to move to this city, rent an eastern-facing apartment on the top floor of an apartment building and wake up every day to the sight of Sakurajima, shaking its fist at me menacingly.

So, yeah, getting to see it erupt ratchets up the majestic several notches. Naturally I had to get closer, I had no time to waste. I whipped out the bike, greased up the crank and started a mad dash to the volcano 10-15 kilometers away. The first thing I noticed about the people of Tarumizu while Sakurajima was doing its thing is that nobody gave a damn and I was the weirdo sprinting down Main Street towards the thing with a stupid grin on his face. Getting closer and closer the temperature jumps at least a few degrees and you lose track of what time it is because the ash cloud blocks all sunlight. When I start riding around the actual perimeter of the island ash is getting into my eyes and sticking to my sweaty skin. The bike's getting a fine layer of raw pumice from the source, which I don't know if it's a good or bad thing. By this point I've just gone full bore for 15+ kilometers and am feeling tired and covered in ash, so one of the island's onsen is an order, but when I find one it's gaudy and pricey and I hate it. A little less than halfway around the island is the ferry port that connects the peninsula to Kagoshima and they have a non-gaudy, non-bank-breaking onsen called the "Rainbow Magma Springs". Intriguing.

Jeebus H. Christ...the place lived up to its name. The water was impossible to enter fully and, in fact, even a bit too much for my feet after five minutes. The digital thermometer on the wall read 91C (about 195F, the boiling point of water being 212F). The shower had adjustable settings, mercifully. Now that I had a chance to relax two things became apparent to me, the first being that I was utterly spent after the 25km speed run to the port, and the second that my left ankle was messed up and if I didn't knock off the repetitive motion and hard cycling I'd be in trouble. Well how am I going to get back to my car then? I floated the idea of partying the night away in Kagoshima in honor of having seen a volcano erupt and spending the night there, but ran into the "I'm spent" barrier. Take a bus back to Tarumizu? No way am I going to leave my bike. Luckily there was an Intl. Youth Hostel near the port with rooms for the low low price! of 2,400 J-bucks, so I stayed there. Before the sun had even set I was conked out and slept for twelve hours.


Saturday, May 17, 2008

At Nature's Mercy

Whether it be earthquakes, cyclones or train wrecks (hey, human stupidity can be a force of nature sometimes) Asia is getting the living hell kicked out of it about now. Japan's had a lull in the past few years, but that doesn't mean the folks here don't have their daily reminders that they can lose it all in a New York minute if Mother Nature's not feeling so fresh. That goes doubly for the people of Kagoshima as I was able to witness...awesomely.

Did I mention I didn't have a tent when I camped at the beach? It's not the lack of privacy that bothered me in the morning though, it was the sun--Kyushu's southern climate is much much different than in the north if this intense 7-friggin'-AM sun is any indication. But hey, as the adage goes, early bird gets the first Starbucks latte. The manager must have thought I was a stalker. I mean, I'd been in town 36 hours and already come in three times for a tall latte. She was definitely stalk-worthy though (did I just say that? Incoming restraining order), as indicated by her putting on a Doors greatest hits album and flipping ahead to Roadhouse Blues to start the morning. What kind of woman does that?

But getting back on track, under power of Trandor and latte I hit the road heading west, young man, towards Kagoshima. There's really not a lot of spectacular junk between Miyazaki and Kagoshima other than some nice meandering rivers, farm after farm after farm and then the city of Miyakonojo, and that's not too hot. A bit north of this midway netherland is Kirishima National Park, known for its volcanic vents, hot springs and as one of You Only Live Twice's filming locations. It was good enough for Connery, but too far out of the way for me. Instead I zipped down the east coast of Kinko Bay to the fishing town of Tarumizu to their truly awesome michi no eki. What the hell is a michi no eki you ask? It translates to "road station" and are little roadside marketplaces, rest stops, photo ops and more that serve to promote the area it's situation in. They're all nationally funded by, I guess, the MLIT (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport) and I have no clue why they place them in ABC municipality while not in XYZ. Anyways, I'm on a quest to visit all ninety four eki in Kyushu--by bicycle whenever possibly--and I've got a good fifteen down, but so far Tarumizu's has been the most impressive. There are a few criteria an eki needs to fulfill to be on my good-list: a nice view of something; and interesting or tasty soft-serve ice cream flavor; and finally a gimmicky hook, anything will suffice. Tarumizu has a fantastic view of Sakurajima's eastern slope over a bay filled with boats and crab cages, biwa (loquat) soft serve ice cream and finally a free foot bath. On top of the foot bath it has a normal onsen too at the ridiculously low! price of 330 J-bucks, which includes all the trimmings. I got an extra value when I came in for my morning bath this day --gangsters, thrown in for free! Without going into the details deeply, the infamous yakuza in Japan can be identified by their full-back tattoos of mystic Asian imagery, most onsen like to bill themselves as family establishments rather than gangster havens and bar tattooed folk from entering. It's technically discrimination and against the law to do such a thing, but when have the Japanese authorities ever upheld those laws? I didn't see one of the ubiquitous warning signs here, but was still a bit surprised to get my toiletries out, get naked, go into the bathing area and plunk down next to two dudes with the previously mentioned back tattoos. I tell this to my Japanese friends and their reaction is something like "Oh damn man...I would've jumped off the balcony to get away from them. Scary!" Truth is that I've never had anything but pleasant experiences with yakuza--seriously, I've talked them up, poured them drinks, been given directions by one and drank at their bars. If I was going to be shot, stabbed or robbed by them it would've happened already.

And now I'm really sleepy after last night's antics in Oita's ever-amusing Miyako-machi, so I'll finish this post tomorrow and leave it at this for the day.


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Drivin' on 10

One tank of gas, one bike, one sleeping bag, one towel, one change of clothes, one Super Mapple, four days, one dream: to be an itinerant drifter in Southern Kyushu with no responsibility whatsoever. Result: success!

I pulled back into Kusu yesterday, Saturday, at around 2PM, making my outing across the island exactly four days in length. Part of me was ready to come back--especially the part which had no money in his pocket--but the other part that I like to call "The Dreamer" is still floating in space somewhere over Kinko Bay in Kagoshima. It was an eventful four days.

To start off with, why now? Well, this week was what's called "Golden Week" in Japan, when the cluster of coinciding national holidays for Children's Day, Constitution Day, Green Day (no relation to the band, really) and the Showa Emperor's Birthday give workers a free handful of days off in a row. Of course, like many other holidays, workers get the shaft when any of those days fall on a weekend, automatically eliminating the benefit. This year two of the days fell on the weekend, turning it into Golden...Day. For me this was compounded by the fact that one of the remaining holidays was Children's Day when Japanese put out koinobori in their neighborhoods and hold festivals and stuff. No problem, right? Sure, except that Kusu has the largest koinobori in Japan with a large festival to accompany it and guess who had to wake up at 7:30AM and work until 4PM as staff (because he's a city employee, technically)? Out of a misplaced sense of spite I decided I was going to take the rest of the week off and do my thing.

The original plan was to hitchhike to Kagoshima and hang out there for the duration, maybe hitting up the Kirishima and Ibusuki hot springs regions while I was around. Complications arose though when I started to make an inventory of all the places in Southern Kyushu I wanted to visit and what equipment it would take to prepare. To make a laborious explanation short, too many places on my list I wanted to go, a loss of freedom of movement within Miyazaki and Kagoshima cities, no good backpack and no will to spend the money to buy one and, finally, I couldn't find a small blackboard to use as my destination sign. So Plan B became drive your car to Miyazaki and Kagoshima, park somewhere and ride your bike around. Retrospect can be a wonderful or terrible force, but in this case I'm monumentally pleased I used this plan since doing otherwise would have changed the wondrous things I was able to see.

And so it was that at 2PM on Tuesday I set out from Kusu, through Kokonoe and over the Kuju Range into Taketa, Bungo Ono, Mie and the northern outskirts of Nobeoka City and Miyazaki Prefecture on National Highway 10. Highways 10 and 3 are the two north/south trans-Kyushu highways (10 being on the eastern coast and 3 the opposite, of course) that both start in the former city of Moji, the island's northernmost reach. Funny bit of trivia about Moji, you know the saying "all roads lead to Rome", well on Kyushu every national highway road sign indicates how far you are from Moji Station so you could also say here that "all roads lead to Moji." That's not the interesting bit though. Moji Station is the oldest station in Kyushu and was built coincidentally as a replica of Rome's former Termini Station (it's since been remodeled), hence, in a way, all roads in Kyushu lead to Rome.

Even major Japanese highways are scarcely discernible from any old street. Highway 10 is, for example, a two lane road almost the entire length of Kyushu despite being the main automobile lifeline between all points north and south in Eastern Kyushu. Between Beppu and Oita (about eight kilometers) it grows to six lanes, and again within Miyazaki City (about 10-12 kilometers). I drove this road with my parents four years ago and things haven't become much quicker, but perhaps that's for the better--it's a gorgeous drive at points. The city of Hyuga, known well 'round these parts for fantastic surfing, is a charming little tropical wonderland that I will certainly be returning to this summer. Nobeoka, except for its rural outlands, not so interesting. I found a fantastic used goods shop in Miyazaki City's neighboring municipality, Shintomi, and spent almost an hour there checking out its great selection and low, low, low! prices. If only I weren't on a budget. I pulled into Miyazaki City around 8:30PM and hastily started looking for my first night's digs.

Like I said, I was on a budget, and few things break a bank like lodgings. What's the cheapest lodging then? None, of course. Quite simply, Japan's vagrancy laws differ from America's significantly in ways I don't comprehend except I'm positive that one can camp virtually anywhere on public property. Good evidence of this can be seen in the parks of major cities such as Tennoji Koen in Osaka where a good portion of the park has become a homeless encampment. Imagine a large section of GG Park's Panhandle being annexed by homeless and you have an idea of the scale. But I'm not here to rail on about Japan's virtual ignorance of their most destitute population, what I did was steer myself towards Miyazaki's largest public park, find a nice out-of-the-way place to park, unload my bike and set off in search of dinner and drinks.

The first thing I noticed about Miyazaki is the weather: it's 9PM and I'm sweating in a t-shirt and shorts. In Kusu I'd have jeans and a long-sleeve on and be nominal, at best. One of the people I met at a bar called Tam Tam told me that it did snow one day last winter, five whole centimeters of the stuff, and the town was in a panic. Downtown Miyazaki is a pleasant enough place to be with plenty of small parks, a little riverfront, two Tully's and a new Starbucks behind the station. Oh, and a Trandor. Miyazaki can join the club of real cities in my book. My night in the park, while I've had worse rests, wasn't as good a choice as I'd hoped. The street adjacent to the park's border was horrendously busy at all hours, and in the morning students, walkers and joggers kept passing me by. A change of venue was an order for the next night.

Though Miyazaki is one of the island's major seaside cities it has no natural harbor, just one long, pristine, relatively deserted beach. I should have done this the previous night...I move my car to the marina and set off again on bike. I was out on the town the night before for only a few hours, didn't see a single foreigner and thought it was just a fluke. As I went about my day in and beyond the city I noticed it again. Most discomforting of all were the stares of people with their mouths agape, but that was followed closely by the ear-to-ear amused smiles of staff and others who couldn't believe that I was ordering food and asking questions in Japanese. Even people in Kusu don't give two glances at me anymore, and there are only three non-Asian foreigners in town. While I was having breakfast in Tully's a man could/would not take his eyes off me and they were burning such a hole in my head I moved outside.

I rode south out of the city towards the town of Aoshima and its namesake natural monument. On the way I was looking for an onsen to wash up at, but couldn't find anything using the crappy fold-out maps I had and Super Mapple was back in the car. I did finally find an old school place that was more sento than onsen, the difference being that the former is a more utilitarian place of bathing that does not derive its water from natural springs. But less surprising than the fading aquamarine tiles or the mere tall wall that separated the men's and women's bathing areas had to be the spring water that was rich in phosphates, making you feel like no matter how much you scrub the soap will never come off. Slimy water is weird.

Also on the way to Aoshima I found Miyazaki University and decided to pay a visit to Oita University's southern counterpart. Now, I can't be positive, but I'm thinking there are physically no foreign students at Miyazaki U. as I was getting more stares than even while in the city. Now it was downright disturbing. I've never really craved fame or attention much, so now that I'm getting it I don't know what to do under its glare. Anyways, the campus's facilities are exactly like Oita's--concrete, uninspiring, undecorated and just positively dull. I sat down to have lunch in the central plaza and some guy followed me, sat at a facing bench and pretended to read, but "secretly" stared at me the whole time. I moved on to Aoshima quickly.

The town of Aoshima is interesting for two reasons: first, its home to some spectacular natural geological formations, namely the island of Aoshima itself and the surrounding "Devil's Washboard" area; second, it's a place where some investors some time ago banked big on the town becoming a major seaside resort. Those dreams seemingly never materialized. Some spectacular hotels and other facilities have been completely abandoned and left to Mother Nature's whims, which, in Southern Kyushu means a quick reabsorption into the Earth. I mean, all of Japan fights a battle with Ma Earth to keep her floral hordes at bay during the warm months, but in nearly subtropical Miyazaki and Kagoshima the battle rages every day, the human combatants clad in high boots and dungarees clutching ever-hungry weed whackers. But yeah, Aoshima. I found a crappy page of photos of this quite beautiful and peaceful island, but it doesn't begin to convey the feeling one will get of being transported to some South Seas tropical paradise upon stepping on the island, especially the central shrine. The hotel complex you can see in the background of photo 12 is entirely abandoned and slowly crumbling.

I tried to head further south along the coast, but ended up lost after less than ten kilometers. Oh well, I had to meet my friend Guy (from the biking trip) in a couple hours for tea and dinner anyways. We met up, talked shop about bikes, had some tea, watch videos of his mixed martial arts-practicing roomy beat the living hell out of some Japanese guys and said our goodbyes. I rode back to the marina to find my car the only one in the parking lot still left and the gates to the place locked. A little bit of panic, but then I realized it's Japan--what the worst that can happen? Famous last words, those are typically, but not tonight or the next day. I fell asleep on the sands of Miyazaki City while fishing boats and ferries puttered by and the waves broke gently in the darkness.

Now, you may be wondering why there are no pictures displayed here. No, there's nothing wrong with your browser or connection, nor did I forget my camera. Before I hardly even left Oita Prefecture my camera crapped out. Something is jammed in the focus apparatus and the thing is stuck in the open position and unable to, well, focus. This thing is so far out of date it's not worth repairing, but I'll have to wait until the 15th and my paycheck to buy a new one. And that, ladies and gents, is a damn Greek tragedy, because my camera missed some heavy stuff this trip. Heavy...and far out, man.


Monday, May 5, 2008

Get My Vacation On!

Folks, I'm heading out of town until Sunday evening to Southern Kyushu, land of sweet potatoes, beautiful beaches and mayonnaise-smothered chicken breast (nanban, baby)! This journey will involve the erratic use of car, bike and hitchhiking and I'll let you know how that pans out when I get back.

If you need to reach me use my phone email--same as normal email, but with "" suffix.