Friday, May 29, 2009

There's No Place Like Anywhere But Chûgoku, Finale!

Getting to Miyajima was mercifully swift, a far cry from two days before when we were around these parts. Parking was 1,000 yen, however—and I don't believe I've mentioned this before—I long ago refused to pay for parking in Japan except in a very few cases that are too boring to warrant the space here, so I'll just say we took a really long time at that bank's ATM. From there it's a short ten minute hop across the bay to the island and, boom, we're on the Island of Ravenous Deer. Miyajima, like Nara Park, is one of the places in Japan where deer are allowed to run wild through the streets, but actually they're not nearly as aggressive as their Nara counterparts that will attack you for food so that “ravenous” comment is an embellishment. Sorry.

Having been suckered into visiting Kyoto's over hyped cultural properties and jilted twice I feel jaded towards things in Japan with a UNESCO World Heritage Label attached to it, but Miyajima is the real deal. From the port you have to walk through the obligatory block-sized gift shop street until you reach the shrine where the first thing you'll see is the famous ten meter red torii either floating on mirror-like water or protruding out of a barnacle strewn sludge. We came at low tide. Still, it doesn't take much to imagine the thing in all its grandeur and the shrine buildings themselves were fairly impressive and very very red, as if a gangster massacre had just taken place.

They should hire me to take postcard shots for this place, just as long as I can live on the island.

The main shrine complex was not, however, the star of the show in our opinion—that honor went to Daishoin Temple located a few hundred meters beyond and on the hill overlooking the entire shrine and harbor area. Compared to the crowds that shelled out (I think) 500 yen to enter the main shrine complex this temple was virtually deserted even though it cost only the lint in my pocket to walk through its ornate gates. Looking back on it, I'm wondering if people didn't pass right by it, not see much to draw them in and just keep on strolling as the structures within did blend into their environment in an uncanny way. This struck me as somewhat unusual because Shinto is supposed to be the nature religion and there they are with a sprawling red shrine located conspicuously over the water, whereas this is a Buddhist site. Nothing saying Buddhist architecture can't get all hippy and be one with nature, but still.

To reach the main temple one has to climb maybe the equivalent of four floors and located inside the railing the entire way were sutra wheels to spin. I love this kind of thing—it makes me feel like I'm rolling dice and this is a Candyland game of the gods. There is so much to look at in Daishoin from the get go it's hard to know where to turn. The head careens wildly from side to side taking in the temples and pagodas made from unfinished wood, gardens, statuary, monoliths and water features. There are about a dozen seniors with easels, canvases and various paints laying down their interpretations of it all. We find another stairway with sutra wheels and it takes us to a rock garden and temple lined with amazing carved wooden dragon and lion heads. We pass by some Buddha statues and Maia waterboards one of them. There's a cave filled with placards of some sort and creepy charcoal drawings of old men, both basking in the glow of ultra-low lighting. Within the hour we've seen enough and start turning the sutra wheels in the opposite direction as we descend the steps back towards the port. Within that hour I've taken half the pictures I'm going to take on this entire vacation.

Meditation's for chumps--Maia waterboards Buddha in a vain attempt to gain his sage insights into life and existence. Then, Daishoin's main pagoda blends in well with its surroundings.

On the way back towards the port Maia and I are stoked, but in typical Japan fashion you just can't have the manic sans depressive. While exploring the hill paths, Maia and I came across a tea house sporting a fantastic vista of the shrine and bay and I'm hot and thirsty enough to want to stop in, but as we approach the shopkeeper walks up to us and, in a very hostile tone of broken English, tells us this is his house and we should go. Uh...there are customers enjoying tea right in front of our face and there is a sign in Japanese that we can fucking read that says we are entering a cafe—this is not your house, racist jackass, you just don't want foreigners around, as evidenced by the attitude copped while dealing with not only us but a seemingly kind Indian couple as well. He asks me if I understand him in English, to which I respond in Japanese in a tone that lets him know I think he's a piece of shit.

On our way back towards the ferry port Maia and I take a detour through the town of Miyajima itself, presumably where all the service staff and whatnot live. Now this literally was a deserted part of the island and woe be upon those who miss it because it's a hidden gem. The streets are just lined with some of the most charming guest houses, cafes and craft stores you'll ever see in Japan. In fact, had I known these ryokan and minshuku existed on the island I think we would have forked over the cash to stay here the previous night. Well, coulda, shoulda, woulda, it is my official recommendation should anyone reading this go.

The backstreets of the town of Miyajima. I could see living here for a spell if it means waking up to this every morning.

After crossing the bay to reach the car we were in for a shock when we found it had been towed. Haha, gotcha! That didn't really happen, not in a million years! No, seriously, there are no consequences for this stuff in Japan. Perhaps our punishment for being bad though was a grueling seven hour drive home over the same terrible factory town strewn, boarded-up business littered, Valium-for-eyes path we tread to get here. We tried to stop for a bath at two onsens—one place was actually an entire onsen town—and both times found either nothing there or a series of senior citizen homes. That's it, the final straw. We're two filthy, weary travellers setting course south and not stopping until we cross the Kaimon Straights. Chugoku, you've taken a dump on us for the last time and we've had it. Every road sign indicating the distance back to friendly Kyushu soil was an object worthy of praise and worship to us. Only the familiar Nissin Cup Noodle factory draws my attention on the horizon, but Maia delivers a series of blows to my solar plexus to reel me back in. We cross the straights into Moji and have dinner at our favorite restaurant in Kitakyushu, Bear Fruits.

Life is good again.


Monday, May 25, 2009

Stray Kibbles N' Bits

At Kappa Sushi, the kaiten sushi restaurant with the amazing  touch screen and bullet train order system, if you steal someone's order as it's zooming by--and there really is nothing other than one's own agility to stop anybody--can we call that a "train job"? Staying with that wild west theme we also wondered if somebody who pilfers an order of basashi (horse sashimi) as it zooms by would be a "horse thief". I think the answer to both is a resounding 'hell yes'.


The lunchtime activities of elementary school kids is inexplicable here in Japan. Two weeks ago I visited Yahata JHS's companion elementary school for a string or horrible classes and got sucked out into the vacuum that is the lunch break there and pulled into orbit around a group of children toiling under a wood lattice canopy. They were, well, digging a pit and wanted my help. To what ends the pit was being dug I can't say. They were even making a sort of cement out of sand and mud to shore up the walls. I didn't want to get dirty so every time I was given a trowel I circled around and twirled it in my hands to give the appearance of working. Some keen-eyed munchkin noticed this and pulled me aside to do something else. My new task was collecting weeds to be used in the mud-sand daubing and I spent the rest of the lunch break doing that. Weeding. Weeding in the school's backlot.

When I returned with my bounty they were pouring water and sand into the pit to collapse it. My work all for naught.


Maia said it best about life here in Japan and I wholeheartedly agree: Days in this country are manic depressive, as perhaps you'd get the idea of after reading this blog at length. It's a place where the adventurous are finding new and beautiful experiences one day and then kicking in a car door over the next day's ridiculous monetary extortions. Relax in a solitary onsen overlooking an emerald vista of grass, flowers and rock, go to work the next day and have to pound your fist against the chalkboard to get anybody's attention in class.

It's a bit of a surprise that more medication isn't doled out to the masses here to deal with this affliction they call "life".


Friday, May 22, 2009

There's No Place Like Anywhere But Chûgoku, Part 2

We were super-late picking up Maia's friend, Sam from Hiroshima Station, but I hope I made it up to him by using my preternatural sense of direction to find a delicious Indian restaurant. Before leaving the station I had asked Sam to procure a map of the city and I spent a few minutes perusing it in search of our campsite for the night. Yup, we were pitching a tent in the park, a.k.a. the I'm-A-Raging-Cheapskate-Because-This-Country-Already-Bilks-Me-Out-Of-A-Fucking-Mint style of traveling. Hijiyama Park was the park we ended up at and it was both perfectly central in the city while being off the beaten path of your average citizen, if that makes any sense. I don't know why, but hardly a soul went there, morning, noon or night. The place was fairly interesting, really, as it contained not only your requisite open spaces and greenery (like a forest in spots), but also the sprawling Museum of Contemporary Art, a manga (comics) library and the, uh, Hiroshima Center for Radiation Studies. Why a place that deals with powerful radioisotopes and their effects on life was located here, in the largest park in the city, and not on some university campus or perhaps ANY DAMN PLACE BUT NEAR A MILLION PEOPLE is beyond me. The sliver of the park we chose was perfect for another reason as well: it was already inhabited by two homeless men, their cats and three itinerant cyclists. It was like a little Japanese Hooverville.

Admittedly, sleeping on the park ground isn't the most comfortable lodging choice and we woke up in various states of delirium. The biggest problem was a nearby tunnel and the sounds of rampaging bosozoku (epically annoying bikers on weak-sauce bikes with cut exhaust pipes who all dress idiotically like a new wave Skoal bandit) riding by at all hours. You know, this worked so much better last year when I was either A) sleeping on the conforming sands of a beach, basking in the natural sound of breaking waves or B) drunk as a skunk. There are few times in life I've wanted—no, needed—a coffee more than that hour, and I think Maia and Sam were with me.

The Starbucks behind Hiroshima's downtown Parco has the best people watching in Japan the three of us had ever seen. We occupied a second-floor corner window table and looked down upon the masses, judging them like three Greek gods. OK, maybe not that harsh, but damn did they wear some funny shirts, “Come To My Island” taking the prize for the day (I still regret not mugging that dude for his shirt). From coffee our plan was to leave the city and head for the less crowded pastures of Kure and, hopefully along the way, find a bath.

Now, if there's one thing I will never take for granted ever again in Kyûshû it's the abundance of honest to goodness hot springs at reasonable prices. This is not the case in other parts of Japan. We saw three billboards for onsens on our way to Kure and the first two turned out to be so expensive I vomited a little bit in my mouth when I read their sandwich boards. The third finally turned out to be serviceable, but quality-wise it was junk even compared to the worst springs here. The water claimed to be tennensui (natural spring water), but then why was it chlorinated? Upon entering the bath Maia and I got the same reaction from the locals on both sides of the male/female divider, namely that all talk juddered to a halt and then resumed with only we foreigners as the conversational topics. This happened in a bar the night before—which is another story altogether—and it was grating on my nerves enough I could just rip some heads off without even caring. I am so very tired of it, Japan. So very tired.

Pics of the mystery islands on the inland sea and their only functional restaurant, which is really quite good. I sure wish I could remember what these islands were called. I can't even find anything about them online.

Our destination in Kure this day was a string of four islands jutting out into the inland sea and connected by newly built bridges. Previously each island was only reachable by ferry, so this was sort of unexplored territory even for the locals. The half-kilometer first bridge was ridiculously expensive (800 yen), but a restaurant located just past it on the first island made up for it. Nice folks, good food, cheap and the Rasta décor said to me that the owners were definitely purveyors of some of the finer herbs in life despite what the man says about that around these parts. These islands are a really nice place to take a day trip to and I envy the people of Hiroshima and Kure—the views towards Shikoku and the blue nothingness are stunning. We had a nice laugh at a supposed “waterfall” that took some slick gravel rally driving on my part to reach, except it turns out this sacred falls is actually a trickle coming out of a hose. Probably the biggest deal on the archipelago is the Citizens' Beach facility overlooking the sea on the south shore. They had a pristine beach, tennis courts, a gymnasium, cottages to rent out, some beekeeping somethingorother and even an astronomical observatory. The beach had a free camping spot which we were about to set up at...until we went looking for dinner. Damn these islands, there isn't a morsel of food to be had after 5PM. The best we mustered was a 6-pack of beer and some Ritz crackers. So we headed back to Kure, bit the bullet and got couple hotel rooms, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it started to fiercely rain just as we pulled in. The rest of the night was spent getting intoxicated and watching some very good Japanese game show TV.

The next day we headed back towards Hiroshima and visited the city art museum and gardens before bidding Sam adieu at the station. Maia and I drifted towards the downtown shopping area and came across some very spiffy riverside cafes with impressively tasty menus. Comparing Hiroshima's city center to Oita's, I have to say that it's certainly more pretty and bustling, but man is it boring. Maybe we just didn't have the knack being non-locals and all, but we ended up just studying Japanese at Starbucks—not exactly the thing you think you're going to do on what's supposed to be a vacation. We once again stumbled upon another Indian restaurant, this one being quantum leaps more delicious than the one before and perhaps the second tastiest in Japan that we've found yet. A movie poster for Slumdog Millionaire hanging in the eatery indicated it was playing at a nearby movie theater in a few hours and having been foiled before already in seeing it we thought we were about ready. Alas, the poster was wrong, wrong, wrong—the run had ended days before we arrived. This city really knows how to leave a bad taste in your mouth.

If the city were just rows upon rows of these riverside cafes I'd never leave.

We slept in the park again—with earplugs this time—and did pretty much the same morning routine as Tuesday. By Thursday now Golden Week was officially over and the city was much quieter for it as everyone shuffled off to their horrible jobs. People watching at Starbucks was more or less a bust as the crowd had been reduced to a trickle, but there were still enough office ladies tardy to work and doing their ridiculous little half-walk/half-run sort of trot in heels to make it a good time. Filled with coffee and mirth it was time to hit the road back home with a little stopover at Miyajima, one of Japan's major cultural heritage sites.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Costco Reprise

Maia, David (Hita ALT from WI) and I all went back to F-town Costco again today to replenish spent cheeses, acquire new raviolis, renew our relationships with Spanish olives and get a nice dose of trash thrown into the mix for no additional charge. As we arrived at the store entrance we were met by a queue stretching back about ten meters and wondered if the bouncers were metering customers, which was a close guess but ultimately incorrect--actually the place had run out of available shopping carts and your choices were to either wait in line or, I don't know, use a bucket brigade to get your multiple armfuls of family-sized Cheetos/toilet paper/Franzia boxed wine to the registers. Yeah, the place was that packed.
We waited a short time for a couple carts and leaped into the fray. I tried to be courteous at first by yielding to cross-traffic until I realized again that we were all following a close approximation of Japanese traffic laws and, in fact, the concept of yielding doesn't exist here, replaced by deft (read: asshole-ish) cutting off maneuvers. When in Rome. So, yeah, I bumped carts, rubbed sidings and got lewd with the way my rig wiggled, all in the name of getting ahead of folks that want so badly to scrutinize that two-liter jug of Ragu tomato sauce.
The free sample folks were out this day and caused easily half the floor backups. My favorite sample giver of the day was for some generic red wine simply because, heck, how often do you see anyone handing out free samples of the sauce to these booze hounds? The bakery area was absolutely littered with plastic wine sample cups. By the time we were rounding alcohol though Maia and I were essentially finished with our shopping and it was a simple matter to link up with David and exit stage left. First, though, was the little matter of greasy vittles.
Let's be perfectly frank about the concession food at Costco: the stuff is probably responsible for a sizable percentage of the American obese due to it's massive--massive--oil content. Really, rub a sheet of A4 paper over a slice of pepperoni pizza and you've got a nice little 8"x11" opaque window. Your window to weight loss, as Dr. Nick Riviera might say. However, when you've spent so much time away from these foods that belong in a carnival arcade and are actually somewhat embarrassing to admit are American...I don't know...for me a craving, a very evil craving, overtakes me and pulls me in with its tractor beam of MSG and cheese. I had a hot dog and a slice of combo, and I'm not proud of it.

A little slice of America come to Japan. Next, sexy posing on a kiddie chair. Nothing about that's suspicious or disturbing in the slightest, nosiree.

Eating was difficult though. The small field of picnic benches that they call the cafeteria is really more of a human feed lot. There's plenty of unruly kids, frustrated shoppers and tired faces to go around. If you ever want to see the trashiest side of Japan I think one need not look any farther than this pit. The main spectacle of this tragic show is a family I dubbed "VH1's Charm School Family," as in they all looked and behaved like some of the skeeziest contestants from that series of programs. As I was performing the act of sitting down to eat Ma Charm School came and fully, literally shoved me out of the way to get by with sodas for her spawn. No, really, hands on my back and a stiff push. Maia nearly poured her tea over the lady's head. My jaw was on the floor from that, but Daughter Charm School pushed it into the basement when she got up to retrieve condiments, walked by and--and I maintain this is the entire truth--had her nipple sticking out of her bra and shirt. Oh, did I mention her hair was done up like a club hostess? Nothin' but class here, folks.
Fukuoka Costco: Your Japanese one-stop-shop for all trashy reality show contestants.


Friday, May 15, 2009

There's No Place Like Anywhere But Chûgoku

What a difference a narrow strip of water makes. I'm talking about the Kaimon Straight, the tiny passage that separates Kyûshû and Honshû, Fukuoka and Yamaguchi Prefectures. On one side lay Moji and on the other Shimonoseki, which, because of the bridge, tunnel and ferry links to Kitakyûshû, is essentially one big suburb. Maia and I have gone that far, but no further—until last week.

Another glorious Golden Week has come and gone for we residents of Japan, that time when a handful of holidays and royal birthdays align just right to give us three days off in a row. We were planning on three or four days of misanthropic adventure, drinking malt liquor, driving around shooting up road signs and generally kicking around our island neighbor to the east, Shikoku, but once again the logic of Japan has taken us down with a swift right jab. There are two ferries offering service between Kyûshû and where we wanted to go in Shikoku, one from Saganoseki, the other from Usuki, and normally their ships depart once an hour for the seventy-minute trip across the straights. Oh how I wish normality would win the day just once over here. Golden Week is a time of year when everyone knows there's going to be plenty of movement around the island as Ma and Pa Tanaka jet or drive off to Kalamazoo, Japan. Making money hand over fist during this time for anyone intrepid enough to remain open or even offer enhanced services isn't just a possibility, it's inevitable. So why in the hell did these two ferry companies cut service from one ferry per hour to one ferry per day! Of course it was sold out and of course we were fools to believe any trip of this sort wouldn't involve months of planning and carefully laid out spreadsheets.

So within the span of fifteen minutes as we scrambled in vain to find any ferry that would take us across our GW plans were laid to waste. This little issue was compounded by the fact that one of Maia's college friends now living in Kobe was planning on meeting us on Shikoku in Matsuyama for a bit of beach camping. We thought about the situation for about as long as it takes to microwave popcorn and figured that the only course of action would be to meet on Honshû in Hiroshima since he could easily reach it via Shinkansen. Hiroshima is the largest city in what's known as the Chûgoku region, the southern reaches of the main island that is also some of the least densely populated land in the nation, and we were about to see just what that means in real terms.

After making the jump from Moji to Shimonoseki through the Kaimon Tunnel, for those heading north, there's really only one logical choice if you're going it cheap and not using the expressways (literal highway robbery): Route 2. Like I said, this is not the most populated part of the country, however I didn't expect it to be one of the more depressed. Not far past Shimonoseki is a Nissin Cup Noodle factory (I wanted to pull off and see if they offer tours, Maia just wanted to hit me until I agreed to move on. Not a fan of cup noodles I guess) and then...very little else. And I don't just mean in that immediate vicinity, this is the state for the next hundred or so kilometers. The verdant green of spring and the occasional ghost town were our traveling companions. Maia can attest to the fact that something like 75% of the roadside businesses were shuttered up. One thing we could have a chuckle about along the way though is how much Yamaguchi Prefecture seems to hate their own capital, Yamaguchi City. As we approached and passed the city there were nearly no signs indicating that it existed—they all read out the distance to cities around or past Yamaguchi. A sad fate for the metropolis once hailed as “The Kyoto of the West”.

And then there was Shûnan. Last year when I went to Osaka and Kobe I described the city of Amagasaki as the worst, most blighted place in Japan I have ever seen, but that honor may just go to Shûnan now. Driving along the coast from our direction the transition is as abrupt as a bucket of ice water to the face: you just come over a hill and, boom, there it is, a city of factories and smokestacks as far as the eye can see. So many of the apartment buildings are corporate dorms and many have company names or logos on them like “Mitsubishi Concrete” and “Japan Vinyl House”. Charming names, really. Company towns creep me the heck out, but more importantly I can't see how individuals healthy in mind and body can be brought up in such a place. Perhaps it instills a greater appreciation for beauty and love for nature, but more likely it just breeds cookie cutter drudges.

Just a glimpse of Shûnan. Imagine this image of houses backed by sprawling industrial estates for tens of kilometers down the coast and you've got this city.

We couldn't get out of Shûnan quick enough and time was running out before Maia's friend's train arrived so I decided to ride the expressway a short and cheap jump to the city of Otake just outside Hiroshima. No sooner did we get off the highway though than we ran into a massive traffic backup reaching twenty-five kilometers outside the city. We're all very familiar with traffic snarls in California and the constant jockeying and lane changes required to get ahead, but what do you do on a two-lane road? After perhaps a half-hour and less than a kilometer I was pissed off that this road, this trans-Honshû route 2, the main artery in and out of the only major city in the region was a two-lane POS that gets this funky. We bit the bullet and jumped back on the expressway to get into the city.

This is becoming much too long so I'll end here and pick this up later on. I'm pretty sure I can finish this in one more installment if you'll bear with me.


How To Raise Future Bomb-Shelter-Squatting, Shotgun-Clutching Children

Remember that episode of The Simpsons where the family came to Japan, ran out of cash and had to appear on a local, cruel game show to win their plane tickets home? Of course you do, but if you thought that depiction of TV on this far side of the planet was a work of fiction from the minds of Hollywood writers then I have some news for you. And hey, it turns out that after decades of abusing contestants and just plain normal people everywhere these shows continue their abusive march onwards to find ever more ways to deeply scar the populace...young and old.

This show in particular--I'm afraid I don't know the name of it--seems to specialize in terrorizing the young'uns because I saw another episode where kids come home to find a dead body in their kitchen, with hilarious(?) consequences. So, without further ado, I give you TV hosts traumatizing children for life. $20 says one of these kids goes on a rampage and decapitates scores of "zombies" in a shopping mall within five years time.

PS: The subtitles are fairly accurate.
PPS: The kids' names are all part of the "New Wave" Japanese tendency to impart their kids with needlesly complicated and ridiculous titles, just like you see way too many kids named "Hunter," "Sapphyre," "Chardonnay," "Zane" and the like in America.


Sunday, May 3, 2009

Tricks Up Her Sleeve

Wednesday was Showa No Hi, the annual holiday honoring the Showa emperor, and Maia and I took advantage of it to explore a neglected (by me) part of the prefecture and chill out from the bad-then-good events of the day before. The holiday's was smack in the middle of the week this year for maximum annoyance, delivering the tease of a weekend and then slapping you in the face with the fact that yes, indeed there is work tomorrow. Bastards.

The day before began with me participating in Kusu JHS's ensoku field trip to the top of Mt. Kirikabu. It wasn't pretty, but what do you expect when you put two hundred screaming kids on a march up a mountain? I'll spare you the details, but suffice to say it was a crap cake with sprinkles on top—dealing with the fighting, bullying, littering on and eroding of a wonderful mountainside, plus the general shenanigans that kids get up to was taxing to say the least. When the rain and thunder came to scare us all away I was thankful to have the field trip cut short, but secretly hoping we'd stay and raise the chances one of the demonic kids (not the good ones) would become a pile of lightning-induced ash. A man can dream.

Later on Maia and I tore out of Kusu and headed to Oita for a performance by our friend, Rie, supplier of fine Kyushu-designed shirts and general mirth. First, though was dinner at our new favorite restaurant, a little Indian/Nepalese joint called Surya. This is the first restaurant offering 100% authentic cuisine of the Asian Subcontinent that we've found in Kyushu so far and hands down the best curry in the prefecture. Apologies to Pushkar in Nakatsu, hope your feelings aren't hurt over being displaced as the top shooter here, however the Saffron Rice Incident still burns in our minds to this day.

The show was held in a quaint little live house on the second floor of a dilapidated building and was a bittersweet experience from the get go. After having the chance to meet Rie's friends and acquaintances it became excruciatingly obvious (yet again) that life would have been incalculably more interesting had I been placed in this city rather than Kusu. Despite being just a minuscule (in comparison to other Japanese cities) dot on the map, a secondary industrial tributary to the Fukuoka/Kitakyushu production powerhouse, this city is still the home to some of the relentlessly unique free-thinkers I enjoy and are so damn rare in this country. Still, with this ringing in the back of my head the show was freewheeling and fun as hell. The theme tonight was Shibuya-kei, a J-pop sub-genre straight out of Tokyo's ever-so-fashionable neighborhood of the same name that I'd love to describe to you if a concise way existed to do so. All I can say is to check out Pizzicato Five, Cornelius, Supercar and their contemporaries for the answer. Back in the mid-90s these were the first Japanese sounds I heard and loved, and damn if they're not still the most fantastic things out there.

The show started a tad late and went for a couple hours meaning we didn't get home until around 3AM, so you can see our need to chill out. My body just can't sleep like it used to be able—I couldn't sleep past 10AM if my life depended on it. But that was fine, we got a more normal start on the day and headed out towards Nakatsu for lunch at a newly discovered organic foods buffet. In Japan though, it's not called a buffet, it's called—and you're going to love this—a “viking”, possibly because we're raping and plundering the food table. In longboats.

Every "viking" plundering should be followed by a walk to a bridge this lovely. Then, perhaps Usa is the Great Satan afterall since route 666 snakes insidiously within its borders. Oh, that's Usa, Japan. Right...

After lunch the plan was to get up to the Innai and Ajimu areas in the mountains that separate Kusu and Usa, but we detoured to Nakatsu to feed our addiction to The Game and see Japan's very ordinary looking Route 666 leaving very little time to poke around either town. A feeble attempt was made to go onsen-ing in Innai, but the first establishment we found was closed and we couldn't be bothered to find the other one nearby, plus the sun was starting to sink low. This, it turned out, was a blessing in disguise because had we settled on an Innai joint we would never have bothered to turn off towards Udo No Sô on the route 387 homestretch.

These are the typical kinds of bird enclosures found at any farm, only their contents are anything but.

Here's the kicker for me on this day: I pass by Udo No Sô at least once every two weeks because it lies within the Kusu boundries on the way to one of my schools, Hiju JHS. I had seen the signs and never bothered to turn off because the onsen proper is situated maybe half a kilometer off the main road down an extremely steep incline in a tight little valley. How could I have allowed myself to remain ignorant about this place? Actually, I'm not convinced many people in Kusu know about it either seeing as how nobody every mentioned it when asked what a good onsen in town is. If they knew about this place they'd say Udo No Sô is the best, no contest. For 1,000 yen Maia and I rented a private room and took one of the nicest baths either of us had experienced since Kokonoe's Kyûsuikei a couple months previously. The water was immaculate and the scenery hauntingly beautiful.

Hard to tell if this valley is more stunning in the sun or moonlight.

Even if I won't be around much longer to enjoy it it's nice to know this ol' town still has some tricks up her sleeve.