Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Cats of Moji

The Kanmon Bridge from Retrotown. The far side you see there is Honshu and Yamaguchi Prefecture. Next, me posing with a banana man!

Maia and I wanted to have another crack at visiting historic Moji "Retrotown" when it wasn't raining cats and dogs and finally got our chance Saturday. We had a bit of a secondary motive for visiting though and that is to find cats. Well, one cat, specifically. When we visited before we found a single kitten near the docks hiding from the downpour under floatation rings, styrofoam bits and random plastic detritus and were determined to feed it. Maia's more an Elanor Abernathy (the "Crazy Cat Woman" from The Simpsons) about cats while I'm just your average schmuck who likes to pet soft things (maybe like a meth or ecstasy addict), but combined we couldn't find anywhere selling cat food that day, so she came back alone the next day after work to feed the little guy.

Got a bit nostalgic for my dear departed BC when this very sociable black cat showed up, but she would not look at the camera no matter how much I rubbed his chin! Then, Maia plays with a very cracked-out white cat. That thing just attacked everything!

Well, this time we didn't end up finding him, but we did find a lot more--and some fantastic eateries to boot. Moji is definitely on our list of hot places now.

Moji Station, replica of old Termini Station in Rome and last stop in Kyushu. All aboard.


Monday, November 24, 2008

A Proper Trip to Kyoto

So it's that time of year again when Kusu's second-year students set off on a four-day excursion to some destination in Japan under the pretenses of "education", but which end up more or less as semi-supervised vacations. In certain cases, like Kitayamada JHS, there's really no way to veil the reality if it being a vacation since the kids get to go to freakin' sunny, warm Okinawa, but with most of the rest it's off to frigid Kyoto. I went last year with Kusu JHS and had a godawful time, however there were about eighty students to herd around that time so its low score on the fun-o-meter was understandable. This year I was invited again to go with Hiju JHS, one of my mountain schools with a grand total of three second-years, so I warily accepted. For the most part it was a good decision.

Two pics of Kiyomizudera, easily Kyoto's most impressive single temple.

Now I probably said much of what I'm going to rant about in the following paragraph last year, but I can't be bothered to check, however the core of it is this: I have never had any desire to visit Kyoto. To Japanese and Japanophiles alike Kyoto is some kind of pilgrimage destination, some place you "just have to go if you ever visit Japan". Oh, bullshit. It's a city-sized tourist trap, quite possibly the biggest in Japan. All the temples are way better in photos than in reality, which may be a given, but you'd expect at least a single moment of grandeur to sweep over you at some point and yet it doesn't. In fact, the famed Ryoanji Garden was disappointing enough to leave me a tad bitter that I'd paid 800 J-bucks to get in. And I feel sorry for young inhabitants of the city as it lacks that intangible core of vibrancy that makes life in the city so much fun. So I say to you, dear reader, if you want to see magnificent Japanese architecture and really be wowed then I suggest Nara.

Fun with nighttime photography! Wheeeeeeee! Next, Gion's main thoroughfare. Had I turned around you'd have seen the geiko standing directly behind me.

On the plus side I did get some fantastic shots of dark cobblestone alleyways and the fall colors were really at their peak over on the Arashiyama side of town.

You couldn't tell it from this picture of Arashiyama, but man was this place packed. Perhaps it was the fall colors because it was certainly the most mobbed destination we hit up that day.

And because I know it's going through your head, yes, I went to the Gion District and yes, I did see two geiko (they're not called "geisha" here). I didn't take a pic of or with them as they're absolutely beset upon by tourists whenever they stick their necks outside their private establishments to welcome a client in or see one out. Anytime there's an opportunity to reverse the boorish foreign tourist stereotype you can bet I'll be there.

See? You want impressive, go to Nara! The hall of the Nara Daibutsu, the largest wooden building in the world.

But despite my above gripes, yes, I did have a much, much better time than last year. I tell you, take the horrible mass of urchins of Kusu JHS (not all of them, certainly, but it only takes a few to really spoil things) out of the equation and things come up roses. Yuki, Asuka and Hiro from Hiju JHS are three of the smartest kids in town and there is a very short list of students I could concieve of as better companions to Kyoto. Sure, they don't speak English well (read: not at all), but they give it their best and when that fails they're not afraid to shove mystery foods in their mouths on a dare for our entertainment. That's the spirit!


Monday, November 17, 2008

High Road, Low Road

Just a real quick update to put out there to cover travels of the past couple weeks before I head out for the duration of this one (more about that later). First up is a bit of a quirky destination that came to Maia and I by way of one of her high school students when prodded about any interesting places they might know around Kitakyushu. Technically speaking, Inunaki Pass isn't is outside the city limits and closer to Fukuoka City than Kitakyushu, but it's not the pass's, uh, proximity to any metropolitan area that makes it interesting--it's the "fact" that Inunaki Pass is...HAUNTED!

The approach to the pass's tunnel is half overgrown with vines and other detritus. Scraped the car paint more than once. Getting onto and over the barrier that blocks the tunnel is ridiculously simple.

The pass's supposed haunting is a fairly well-documented phenomenon, with a short list of the ghosts inhabiting it and some background info to be found here. The newer pass tunnel has been open for some time and serves and a busy thoroughfare between Kitakyushu and Dazaifu. Can't say we saw any of the ghosts ("a woman in a white one-piece at the telephone box", fifth entry down on the bullet indexed list of ghosts at the top of the first linked page), but I did certainly feel the spirit of Robert Stack in me, yearning to understand the secret history of these man made Morlock tunnels.

Next, a trip up The Cupboard of the Gods! Let me explain. One geographic feature dominates the Kitakyushu skyline--Mt. Sarakura. Dividing the built-up metropolitan area of Kitakyushu from the sparsely populated karst plateaus to the south, Mt. Sarakura is a pretty awesome sight to have your city's back to. It's just that name is so damn ridiculous. You see, the kanji for "Sarakura" literally mean "dish storage". Dish Storage Mountain. I'm not making this up.

It's no monorail, but...wait, it's better--it's a funicular! Next, hazy in the late afternoon from all the water vapor collected after a shower, the pic here is of downtown Kitakyushu, the Kaimon Straight in the distance and the southern tip of Honshu, main island of the Japanese archipelago.

Being of infinite wisdom, and just a bit hungry, we decided to stop for lunch first and emerged from the restaurant just in time for a rainstorm. The one day we had to travel up the mountain...just lovely. We hit it anyways as a futile, symbolic gesture of shaking our fists at the heavens and paid a rather modest fee (comparatively) to ride the funicular to the top. As I get with my temporary obsessions, I literally spent hours studying funiculars of the world before stepping onto Mt. Sarakura's vehicle, and was more interested in the cable movements and passing track than the view. You really can't take me anywhere without a geek-out.

Welcome to Cafe 3po, home of the meticulously handcrafted cup of coffee and a man undoubtedly with horrendous back problems from sitting in a VW bus all day. By the way, '3' in Japanese is pronounced "san", so the name is "Sanpo" Cafe, not our favorite effeminate protocol droid.

Finally, a major breakthrough in the continuing journey of coffee exploration in Japan! Thanks to Fukuoka Class magazine we have discovered a small, but tasty network of roving coffee trucks that ply the mean streets of Fukuoka Prefecture and sampled two of them on Sunday. What's great is that these two are conveniently located in what Maia and I have decided is hands down the most awesome neighborhood in Fukuoka and, by extension, Kyushu. Yakuin (which basically means "pharmacy") boasts a strategic location adjacent to the always fabulous Tenjin district, at least one each Thai, Indian and Korean restaurant, a delicious bakery, cozy-looking bars and, as if to top it all off, the best bike shop I've found in Kyushu so far. Liked it so much I became a member.


Top Gear Came to SF?!

Damn it!

Damn it! Damn it! Damn it, I wasn't in town to catch them! The greatest show out of the UK since Peep Show came to SF and I'm in Japan...



Thursday, November 13, 2008

Please Refrain From Lobbing Fruit in the Bath

We had a three-day weekend a couple weeks back and that, coupled with the ridiculous Kusu-gun English Festival that I had to MC on Sunday, meant that Maia was coming down to Kusu for the weekend instead of my usual heading up there. Always an excellent occasion to kick around the local Kusu/Kokonoe/Hita area having lots of fun and get good and nostalgic. This particular weekend we left the area and headed over to the eastern coast of Oita Prefecture to visit our friend Lisa and view (in my opinion) the single most gorgeous festival in all Kyushu, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

You can't see them here, but there were oh so many bees here. And me without my bee suit...

Saturday we decided to head into Amagase, that plucky little onsen town nestled right between Kusu and Hita proper, which I discovered is more than the sum of its riverside onsen bits. No, we got away from all that and climbed the canyon walls into the highland plateaus above the river to end up at Amagase Flower Park, a delightful little flower preserve whose specialty is the Cosmos...whatever that is. Seems rather cut and dry--pretty pretty flowers, nice smells and epic vistas--but this flower park had a couple tricks up its sleeves: two rabbit pens that were microcosms of Japanese society (one pen contained several identical white rabbits with one aggressive leader that chased and attacked one scarred and haggard looking rabbit, while the other pen, located well away from the first, contained three multi-colored social rabbits); and a monkey show. I had no idea that monkeys could be trained to walk on three-meter-tall stilts. Go figure.

Lyle Lanley approves. (No, I'm never going to be tired of saying that.)

After that we headed just over the border of the prefecture into Kumamoto to the hot springs resort town of Tsuetate Onsen. There are several choices here, all very interesting and flashy, but the most flashy and the one that I'd been wanting to visit since I first laid eyes on it over a year ago is a place perched on a rather steep hillside that can almost be called a cliff. Overlooking a rushing river the...uh, I didn't actually get the name of that hot springs we went to, but this place was freakin' amazing. First, the parking area is a good 30 meters above the actual onsen itself and there is a switchbacking pathway down, but more importantly there is also a motherflippin' monorail to get down also! Already dazzled by the monorail the operators of this place just had to drop some cocaine in my already quite happy fruit smoothie when we discovered that our onsen had whole yuzu fruits floating in it! Whoa! In addition to coming out smelling citrus fresh you can chuck fruit at people in the bath. Nothing says fun like a nice Nolan Ryan pitch of sour/sweet fruit in the eye!

Maia: "I'll never be satisfied taking a bath ever again with anything less than fruit floating in it."

Sunday, after the Lovecraftian horror that is the annual English Festival for JHS students, we fled east to Tsukumi first to meet up with Lisa and then went via train to Usuki for the decidedly less horrible annual bamboo festival. I've ranted about it before and I really have nothing more to say other than there is nothing like it on that side of the pond that I can remotely draw a parallel to. You have to see it to believe it.

They got creative with what they did with the unused cuttings from bamboo lamps this year, turning them into chains hanging off this shrine foundation's wall. Well played.