Friday, July 31, 2009

Final Dispatch?

United 886 departing from Kansai International is hopelessly overbooked, I'm told, and yet I find myself one of three people in an arena-sized departures lobby leeching off somebody's wireless while a disturbed, possibly chemically imbalanced woman rants at her computer to my one o'clock. I was offered a cool $400 ducats from United to drop my priority standing on this flight and shunt myself through Hawaii for way too many hours, and declined after some careful consideration into what it would take to call my ride (my parents) and relay that I'd be in at 9PM instead of 11AM. The walk to the international phone card was about fifteen meters--fourteen too long, I'm that anxious to rise above and away from this strip of terra firma.

Indeed, this will be my last bit of blogging from Japan, but I nor this page are giving up the ghost just yet. There's simply far too much of a good thing going on in the Bay Area and, at least in the short-term, my schedule's *ahem* opened up a bit now that I've joined--what percentage is it now--the California 10%-ers. No better time than the present to try on the good-natured vagabond jacket.

There are a raft of people I need to thank before this post is over, it's difficult to know where even to begin:

--The sane people at the Kusu Board of Education, past and present, which includes, Watanabe-san, Goto-san, Hiramatsu-san and Akiyoshi-san. They all helped more than hassled (if they hassled at all, that is) and my life would have been much more difficult out of the starting blocks were it not for them. It's too bad Watanabe-san (formerly Nogami) left for maternity purposes and left me in a lurch with--*shudder*--Honda-san, who hounded me with her incompetence all the way until Fukuoka Airport. Thank you all the rest, and curse you Honda!

--Uno Chizuru, a woman far too cool for Hita City (actually, I can say that about the following two people as well, but Chizuru gets the treatment first). I met Chi-chan a few months after I arrived at a winter solstice party and we clicked like a pair of castanets. Throughout the two years she and I have maintained a steady friendship, but I can't help and feel like I took more than I gave: We spoke almost entirely in Japanese and most of my language gain on this rotation is thanks to her. We're destined to meet again in the not-too-distant future, so until then!

--90% of my new wardrobe is thanks to a single person: Oita City's very own Ogura Rie. People joke about being dressed by their mothers or whoever, but this is a very real story of triumph from when one allows their fashion choices to be dictated by someone with infinitely better taste than their own. And I am in no way ashamed to admit that! We met while I was shopping for wacky shirts at Oita's FORUS department store where she was manning the T-fact counter with a great big perfect, and most importantly, GENUINE smile. I was caught in the spider web from there on out. Rie is a self-taught master of the English language and I respect her a ton for it. I mean, how many Japanese people will you ever hear say "Fuck you so much, and the horse you rode in on!"

--Usuzuki Mayumi I met five years ago (Jesus H. Christ, it's been five years since my study abroad days!) when I was tutoring English for quick side cash at Oita University. Again, like Chizuru, I feel I've taken more than I've given and have a lingering, palpable guilt in my belly. Our schedules and geographical positions made meeting difficult, but every time we did get the chance it was nothing less than magical. For all my bitching and moaning about the inaka here is a stunning example of a person born in the country who's transcended that culture mentally and now is setting goals to physically transcend it as well. In other words, she wants to get out, she knows why and now she's started a drive to better herself, never settling. Damn inspirational, if you ask me. Thanks for being a kick in the pants for my ambitions and I will do everything in my power to help you achieve yours.

--Of course, I couldn't possibly end this list without saying thank you to my beautiful, brilliant girlfriend, the human natto-vacuum herself, Maia Z. Without Maia it's entirely possible I would have turned to armed robbery to work out the stress of ALT life. I'm telling you, it's just not worth the trouble to smash n' grab a few onigiri, so I'm in your debt.

I'll get to more Thank Yous later, but my battery's about to go and the flight's about to board. If I crash and die and my remains are never found then just know that I went down clawing out the eyes of my neighboring passenger in an orgy of fear and anger.

No, scratch that. For posterity's sake it's best not to be remembered that way.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Doctor, My Eyes

I suppose one would have to be under a rock, passed out from a week or more of binge drinking Benadryl and Draino not to have heard about the total solar eclipse happening across Asia today. The region of totality was a few hundred kilometers south, down off the coast of Kagoshima (is there anything not awesome about that place?), but we in Kusu got a 89% eclipse nonetheless and it was awesome!

I'm notoriously cheap when it comes to these temporary fascinations in life, so I didn't spring for the 500-yen polarized specs like all the other suckers did here, I just came up with two alternative free solutions: First, use a pool of dirty, low-albedo rainwater on the ground to reflect the image into my eyes; use the polarized faceplate of my cell phone to reflect the image into my eyes. Money saved is peanut or sesame tofu (mmm...)bought, that's what I always say.

The event stretched from about 10:15AM to 11:30AM local time, but the best bits were around 10:45-50. I arranged to meet Maia at the bridge in the middle of town for a couple of Eclipse Happy Hour beers and sushi. Besides, who in their right mind would work through something like this? I never thought I'd ever see an eclipse in my life and I'd be a colossal fool not to seize the opportunity.

Now, with motivation and execution well out of the way, oddly enough I don't have volumes to say on the event. It was noticeably darker—which I suppose you'd expect when only 11% of the sun's light is reaching you—and I imagined that's what life in winter near the Arctic Circle must be like day in and day out. Again with the Arctic feeling, it was also way, way colder than it had been just an hour earlier when, in the office, I was sweating in a short-sleeve. Even if the 89% occultation lasted for only a handful of minutes I still count this as another notch on my belt of rare and spectacular natural phenomena that I've experienced in Japan, right alongside the eruption of Sakurajima, earthquakes and typhoons. As I've lived through them all it just proves to me that Mother Nature will never be the death of me, instead that honor will most likely go to a banana peel and an unfortunately placed formica countertop.


The Ultimate, Part 4

So much has changed in Kagoshima since the first time I came with my parents on an ill-conceived visit in late summer 2004—all of it for the positive. I'm reminded of the Phillip K. Dick short Second Variety for some reason, where the “Claw” robots developed by the U.N. For use against the Soviets continue to adapt themselves to become better at infiltrating human social groups in order to exterminate them. Like the fictional Claws, Kagoshima continues to evolve into something designed to ensnare me—it remains the only Japanese city I've visited to do so. The Central Station complex (magnificent as always, perhaps second in grandeur only to Kyoto Station) is 100% finished, with all the subterranean access tunnels finally complete. One of the more impressive facelifts has to be how the streetcar lines have all had their tracks repaved in an environmentally friendly concrete made from the recycled ash spew of Sakurajima. Furthermore, grass has actually been planted on this surface (as one sees in many European cities with streetcar lines) giving the appearance that the low-slung cars are just floating along on a fluffy bed of grass. The summer heat and humidity...ahhh!...perfection.

In Kagoshima streetcars are called chinchindensha, the onomatopoeia derived from their bell's ringing. In coloquial Japanese, chinchin means "penis", causing much grade school-style snickering among tourists.

After checking into our hotel Maia and I hopped a streetcar to Starbucks for the very guilty pleasure of a couple iced coffees and people watching, which turned out to be more difficult than we had thought. You see, our people watching really peaked when Maia lived in Kitakyushu and we could walk down to her nearby mall Starbucks where a Roman legion of anorexic, Chihuahua-toting, track suit-sporting, blonde-dyed, makeup-caked, Japanese analog to American trailer trash-style men and women congregated to blow the money and time they should obviously have been spending on their malnourished, unloved kids, and it was all just so much shooting fish in a barrel to sit there and marvel audibly at the very worst embodiments of the 21st Century knowing full well they wouldn't catch a single word you were saying. Whew. In Kagoshima, where men and women are (mostly) fashionable, self-respecting and have a look of at least a cursory education the pickings were slim and the spirit wasn't willing. I can't argue that's a bad thing though.

And now, for no reason, a schoolgirl lap pillow you can win at an arcade! Notice the sitting position with the legs splayed out to the side slightly there--denotes that this surogate lap is that of a very underage girl and that you are, in fact, a complete sleaze if you own this. (I won three)

It wasn't long before hunger gripped us and the dinner search ensued, but not for long. That's the thing here: You just can't walk more than a handful of minutes before finding someplace good to eat/something nice to browse. This time we stumbled upon what will go down as one of my all-time best finds in Japan, a second-floor Sri Lankan restaurant with some of the cheapest, tastiest curry I've ever had, not just in Japan, but anywhere! I wasn't quite as hungry as Maia and ordered a mini portion only to have it differ from the normal size by seemingly a pitiful handful of centimeters in plate diameter. I would have accepted a mere drizzling of this curry though, for it was heavenly in flavor. After this dinner Maia and I parted ways for an hour so I could indulge my lust for Kagoshima's specialty, kurobuta (“black pig”), and headed for a local favorite restaurant. The kurobuta donburi I ordered was...orgasmic. Huzzah for second dinner!

The hip part of downtown, just behind the Tenmonkan shopping arcade. Our Sri Lankan friends are just off to the left.

To sort of work off our dinner we went for a streetcar ride and a bit of a walk into the quietest entertainment neighborhood in Japan, Kishaba, a yokocho (a side alley) frequented by college students from the nearby university and the metro sophisticate type. My favorite izakaya/dining bar in this area is a second-story joint with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over a quaint four-way intersection called...I can't remember, but I can find it nonetheless. We had a couple beers, at the most delicious dish of goya champloo EVER and chatted for a while before catching a train back to Tenmonkan and our hotel. Oh, along the way we fed a ridiculously cute alley cat and finally saw some of the more skanky members of Kagoshima's human element, but what do you expect in the largest, seediest entertainment district in Southern Japan?

Ah, the Kishaba Donguri Yokocho. If you're ever in town that there second-floor izakaya is tops!

The next day, before beginning the trek home, we visited the newly built Future of Kagoshima's Environment museum, a stunning piece of green architecture that practices what it preaches—a difficult thing to find in Japan. The building is constructed of recycled materials, cooled by termite mound thermoregulation techniques, topped by a grass roof you can picnic or play on and filled with informative displays backed by hard numbers. I was, to say the least, impressed. The displays of trash art inspired me to build my own steel coffee can sculptures (I've shipped back my entire can collection, over fifty in all, to help me in this endeavor) and hopefully build a few bits of furniture out of cardboard or used books.

I sure hope the people of Kagoshima know what they have in this green roof here. The view is might fine.

Alas, the vacation—this last view of my personal Utopia Japan—was at an end. Disengaging from Kagoshima's newfound environmental savvy, its delicious vittles and quirky little single-speed hipster subculture almost caused me to tear out the spark plugs from my car if only it meant I could stay for a little bit longer...and hawk the copper at a pawn store. Though I've toyed around with plenty of cities here in Japan, touching and teasing and sussing the situation out, Kagoshima, you're the only girl for me! Let's not lose touch after high school!


The Ultimate, Part 3

OK, I have to concede one minor problem with free beach camping: The total lack of any bathrooms or wash facilities of any sort. When the morning sun has turned the inside of one's borrowed black tent into a virtual sauna, just a quick post-rise face wash would feel like the cleansing power of the finest hot spring, but there wasn't even a basic cold water spigot anywhere nearby. We took down the tent sheathed in a slimy, sandy paste and drove towards the nearest conbini in the direction of Kagoshima to do our trucker thing with their facilities. Nothing like a good scrub in a roadside sink to put the luxury of even the most basic tenement bathroom in perspective.

On the road again, transecting the southernmost peninsula of Kyushu, and we come across the first indication that not all is right economically on this part of the island. Maia and I had noticed all down Miyazaki Prefecture's eastern coast that even though the region was not heavily industrialized the businesses were vibrant, downtowns (regardless of size) weren't shuttered wastelands and everything had a very un-Chugoku feel to it (see the Golden Week trip posts, specifically Shunan). Unfortunately the same could not be said of Shibushi and Kannoya (the latter literally meaning “deer room”), two cities in need of TLC. I just hate seeing this fate befall Kyushu cities, but I suppose it doesn't help when your city is fifty kilometers away from the nearest expressway, at the dead end of a train line and has no useful sea links. This area should become the mecca of Japanese survivalist/recluses if it isn't already.

When inland plain finally gives way to the southeastern coast of Kagoshima's Kinko Bay and a royal flotilla of fishing boats bobbing in the sun you know you've entered the long, lithe fishing city of Tarumizu, a place with a couple intensely good memories from 2008's Golden Week trip. It was then, while exiting the Nafco hardware store after buying some silicon grease for my bike axles, that Sakurajima erupted in front of my eyes and filled me that profound sense of “holy shit!” and an appreciation for life through demonstration of the fact that we're all just smart apes floating on a ball of unspeakably hot magma. Back then I rode like a demon towards the eruption, this time we drove in ghetto style slowly towards the volcano's backside and pulled into the Tarumizu michi no eki, the best damn road station in Japan (as far as I'm concerned). This eki has two things that set it apart from all the rest: a fabulous, free foot bath shaded by cabana umbrellas that looks out over shellfish traps and Sakurajima, and the best biwa (loquat) culinary creations I have ever tasted. The yakuza onsen (back tattoos are A-OK here!) was closed until noon for some reason, so we had to remain filthy a tad bit longer (a blessing in disguise as you'll soon see), but there was a man with a complete painting studio in a tiny kei-van creating images of the volcano to entertain and amaze as thoughts of loquat soft-serve ice cream, loquat jam and loquat donuts danced through my head.

I could sit here with a book all my life and just read until doomsday or the volcano explodes, killing everyone. Whichever comes first.

The plan from Tarumizu was to drive around the rim of Sakurajima to the ferry port and load the car for a short trip across to the city where our hotel awaited. Halfway around the island we took a gamble on a hotel onsen that we thought was the famous Furosato no Yu and, as it turned out, it was a good day to be rolling the dice. This onsen is often seen in tourism pamphlets for Kagoshima and seeing it in person one understands immediately why it's the perfect hot springs symbol for the prefecture. Perched a meter or two above sea level, only a lava rock wall and some concrete separate the bay's saltwater from the pool of nigh-scalding sodium-rich water with a massive mangrove perched over one side—on this clear day it was a stunning synergy of earth, sea, sky and fire.

Tell me you've ever seen something so enchanting, please.

Before leaving Sakurajima behind we just had to visit the campy dinosaur park located on a ridiculously steep hill overlooking the port. Since Sakurajima as a land mass is only 13,000 years-old it's just impossible—unless you're a Christian fundamentalist—for any dinosaurs to exist on or even near Kagoshima, so why the dinosaur park? Who knows, but you can't let those details come between you and fun, especially when large fiberglass dino models with flaking paint call out to be climbed on. It'll fill your heart with joy and your hands with microscopic fiberglass splinters.


Departing the Land of the Lost, it was time to catch our ferry down the hill—a new experience since I've never driven a car on a boat before. Now, to tell the truth, it wouldn't have been terribly difficult to just drive the car around the north reach of the bay and save the 1,500-yen ferry vehicle fee, but there was an ulterior motive at play here. Several months ago Maia had done some voice recording work in Fukuoka for the English announcer voices one hears on trains, buses, moving walkways, etc., or, in her case, for the Sakurajima ferry. She was paid for the job even though no word of whether or not the voice was actually used came in her direction, thus our little fact-finding crossing. Sure enough, just after the Japanese announcer ended her spiel, Maia's voice came up and directed me to enjoy my ride...or else! Seriously though, it was a disconcerting experience to hear the disembodied voice of my girlfriend giving me safety directions while she's standing right there. Oh, this wacky era we live in.

Next time, the conclusion! Huzzah!


Friday, July 17, 2009

Offal of the Mind: A Trip to the Jewish University/Trailer Park

Man, I had another batshit crazy dream last night and I'd better get it down before the old gray matter dumps it into the recycle bin. I really hate how our brains do that. Doesn't it realize the lucrative opportunities for art and literature such insane and inane fantasies make available? Intelligent design my arse...

The first thing I can remember is being on a sort of drive-about vacation like our recent Miyazaki-Kagoshima affair, except the environment was more arid. I stopped at the outskirts of a trailer park where there was a crowd assembled and a dreadnought of a woman sobbing uncontrollably. Her mail was being stolen, she said, and the mumu-sporting land whale was at wit's end in discovering whodunit. The crowd was equally as stumped. I noticed the convenience store about fifteen meters away with a massive—Massive!—surveillance camera mounted to the awning outside and pointed directly at the mailbox. Very convenient, dream. I chimed in: I'll bet you that convenience store's camera caught something, why don't you go ask them? “Ohhh...Just as we expected of you, Matt, always being so observant!” How did they know my name? Snooping in my garbage I suspect.

The affair gave me some kind of minor celebrity status in the trailer park where, I soon discovered, my friend Mayumi lived. Her father gave me a cigar to chomp on and we went and played the ancient Japanese game of Throw the Stick at Stuff. Oh, did I mention it was high summer and snowing? That didn't last long before I was invited to go swimming by the local bad boys and play a game of pool volleyball...with foam baseball bats. The jackasses soon annoyed me and I beat the living hell out of two of them before leaving.

By this time the trailer park had turrned into a Jewish university and it was graduation day. One of my Midwestern ALT friends, can't recall whether it was Caitlyn or Betsy, despite neither being Jewish, was graduating this day and the commencement speech promised to be spicy. Recordings of previous year's speakers were being shown on flat screens all around the campus and each snippet of speech invariably contained the phrases “Now, I don't want to offend anybody...” or “I know this is going to ruffle some feathers...” so why would this year be any different? I didn't get to see the speech I'm sorry to say, because I was too busy running from campus security for some crime I may or may not have commited.

Then I woke up.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Super Great Japanese Supermarket Thing!

Maia and I "live French", as some might say, and buy our food mostly daily instead of stockpiling crap in the fridge. We want the freshest ingredients for our food, sure, but also my fridge simply isn't terribly large. Well, I remembered some fantastic baked veggie chips we tried last week and went to get more in the snack aisle when I spotted something new, the below bag of Yakijaga (baked/roasted potato) in the flavor of yuzukoshou. Yuzukoshou is a condiment made from the fascinating yuzu citrus fruit that one eats with...whatever you want to put it on and I typically don't like it, but for some reason seeing it in potato chip form enticed me enough to buy them. I was not disappointed! These chips are like a cross between salt and vinegar- and lime-flavoring. And as you can see from the packaging they're fairly low in calories too. Take that American potato chips!


The Summary Execution of Common Sense

There's a massive stink being kicked up in Oita Prefecture stemming from a bus accident that occurred Saturday morning near Beppu. Students from Yanagigaura High in Usa City were being bussed to Oita City for their scheduled Koshien (the name of the stadium located in that Mad Max wasteland between Osaka and Kobe where the annual, massively popular, national high school baseball tournament is held) preliminary game against...who cares...when the thing flipped and slid in heavy rain and fog. The bus was driven by one of the boys' coaches who was trying to make up time lost on being speeding through fog and rain. Fucking. Idiot. One boy is dead, the other twenty or so are seriously injured.

Above simply parroting the headlines of the local news rags I'm writing this as yet another demonstration of the utter lack of an consequences in Japan; the coach whose actions cost a life, injured many others and cost the school their one shot at Koshien (most schools with even a good baseball team only ever get one chance a decade to go) will not be prosecuted. The reason: He never intended to cause harm. So the hell what? He was acting reckless and staggeringly stupid when he drove a multi-ton vehicle barreling through a fog bank that I've experienced before many times and let me tell you, you slow down for that sucker on the hill. Five meter visibility, no joke, and strong enough wind that they have vehicle arrestors dangling over the railing in case your car is blown off the road! He should be tried just on general principal, if such a thing existed here. Do they realize the precedent this sets for involuntary manslaughter?

This is just another chapter in the very long Japan Book of Unaccountability. While driving to work today I happened to be reminded of another auto-related travesty that is pervasive throughout the nation, namely the almost complete lack of child seats. There's a preschool near Yahata JHS that I pass on the way to either that school or Kogo JHS that buses in their charges via colorful van that gets stuffed to the gills with screaming kids. They are standing on the seats and climbing from one area to another, not a single one strapped in. Parents often have their kids on their laps in the front seat—the parents being equally sans seatbelt—or, in one chilling scene, crawling on the dashboard. These people are legion and yet I see them given the pass by cops while speeders are reigned in.

For once I can say concretely this is not some situation where I'm trying to impose my society's values and standards on this one, these issues are just plain common sense.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

BEYOND Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Whoa Nelly, do I have a treat for you today. If you have a spare ten minutes burning a hole in your PDA/smartphone then feast your eyes on Sailor Fighter Nanami, a stop-motion doll-based action animation from 1988 or thereabouts. Just fantastic madness, what this country used to turn out.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Ultimate, Part 2

I'm not calling this post "The Ultimate" for nothing, but up until now Miyazaki City, beach camping and Aoshima are all things checked off my places to see list last year. It's from Aoshima, however, that we moved into unexplored territory and the wonder begins to ratchet up. Before getting down to any more major sightseeing food was an order. We found a surf-shack restaurant with mugi-cha (wheat tea) in a pitcher at each table and to-die-for chicken nanban, one of Miyazaki's famous dishes that consists of fried chicken smothered in a secret sauce concoction. I can't properly say why, but each time I've come into the prefecture I never sample their local specialties (that chicken dish and mangoes, among others) and this was certainly a kick in the ass to beware of what I may be missing.

We were heading for a shrine called Udo Jingu down the coast when a supposed onsen caught our eye and we stopped. We still hadn't found a proper hot springs all day that didn't cost an arm and a leg and thought we had one in this place only to find that it was something like 2,000-yen and involved hot pebbles. Really. Outside the place though were two giant Moai statues, one of which the likeness must have been taken from me while I slept or something, it was that much my doppelganger. As it turns out, this part of Miyazaki has an entire theme park based around Moai statues and these must have been a couple of samples to entice visitors up the hill.

That's...that's me! Goddamnit, I need better locks on this apartment.

Arriving at Udo Jingu we met a phenomenally nice sixty-something year-old woman who explained the historical significance of the shrine and the stairway we were about to climb up--in the 85-degree weather. Fully being able to appreciate the 800-year-old stone pathway we were hiking up took my mind off the driving sun and sheets of sweat rolling down my shirt. The shrine, located inside a sea cave and mercifully offering respite from the heat, was gorgeous. Actually, the approach may be more impressive than the building itself, as you have to descend a bit of swirling sandstone cliffs and cross a couple crescent moon bridges to reach it. The two mound-shaped rocks jutting out of the sea below are said to be the breasts of a fallen goddess and visitors are invited to throw rocks (five for 100-yen) at a hole in them, just going to show that even the minds of shrine priests here are little more developed than that of a junior high student. Which reminds me of a story one of my vice principals told me last year: We were driving over the Yufuin-Beppu Pass, near the dual peaks of Yufudake, when he said "I used to look at those mountains when I was young and see an enormous pair of breasts. It gave me a hard on." Wow...

I'd call Udo Jingu the most impressive holy site I've ever been to in Japan, but it's lacking rice spoons I can write limericks on and hammer into the wall, so it loses to Rakanji.

Further down this pristine coastline, past the city of Nichinan--a seemingly pleasant place to live, if not completely isolated from everything by at least three hours of driving--Maia suggested we make a detour to a place she'd heard of called Cape Toi. Word was that wild horses roamed the peninsula and we weren't disappointed on that front because there were horses left, right and standing in the middle of the road even. We pulled in just a tad bit too late to get up to the lighthouse at the furthest reaches of the cape or to see Shirohebi Jinja ("White Snake Shrine", really), but were rewarded when, while heading back to the main road, we spotted a monkey in the road. Then another. Then two more. We got out of the car to have a better look and found ourselves surrounded by maybe thirty or more monkeys! They were pretty apathetic towards humans, luckily, and we just stood there for a while snapping pics and basking in the fact that this was closer to a monkey than most people will ever get.

Monkey...'nuff said.

Down the road we found a charming little onsen on the outskirts of fishing and farming mecca Kushima City. Finally, cleanliness, and it only took us eight hours to find the place. Down here in the southern reaches of the island, where inaka farmland meets the sea, there is no shortage of deserted beaches to pitch a tent on--point yourself in any direction and you can't fail. This night's beach was arguably better than our campsite in Miyazaki since the waves broke more softly and soothingly over the sand while the only partly cloudy sky allowed the moon to shine on us splendidly. Before bed though, dinner. Kushima unfortunately reminded me a lot of Kusu on one point: A lack of restaurants of seemingly any merit at all. Yakiniku and yakitori shops, generic izakayas, the obligatory Joyfull chain restaurant and an overpriced, underwhelming pasta joint. Dejected, we resigned ourselves to the kaiten sushi restaurant we saw on the main strip, Sushi Tora, and tidily had all our preconceived notions about the place blown away like ash in a gale. The staff--every single person--had a smile on their faces and were extremely helpful, while not ever flinching that two foreigners had just entered the building. In fact, not even the customers flinched when we came in and nobody ever gave us that patronizing "Oh, your Japanese is so good!" line after saying some elementary school-level phrase. So, now that the ambiance is set, how was the food? Divine! Maia's vegetarian friendly sushi was legion on the revolving belt and included never before seen items like shiitake tenpura nigiri and eggplant with miso sauce in addition to old favorites like kappa (cucumber) nigiri and natto (fermented soy bean) maki. As for me, I couldn't get enough of the aburi...anything. Doing something aburi means to basically take a blowtorch to it and a lot of sushi places around the island here are doing this to tuna, yellowtail, salmon and mackerel. Sushi Tora does it better than anybody else. The fish is fresh to begin with, so blowtorch or not you're eating a quality catch, but torching it brings out some of the juices and oils, plus the garnish of a pinch of rock massages the taste buds in all the right places. Final verdict: Best Sushi Ever! EVER!

Our consumate master sushi chef hammering out another aburi masterpiece. Next, our campsite for the night.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Ultimate, Part 1

I forgot to mention that I would be gone from Sunday to Wednesday this week, so if anyone was trying to contact me (not bloody likely) I was with Maia hitting up the southern reaches of Kyushu once again--and it was amazing.

The background to this mini-vacation is that Maia and I have been studying like a pair of born-again undergrads in preparation for our respective levels of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) held last Sunday in Beppu. The prep's been three months of daily, steady flash card review and textbook slogging, so we figured a break was an order. Foreign lands were considered and discarded as too costly and time-consuming, but Maia still hadn't been properly introduced to Miyazaki and Kagoshima Prefectures yet, and I wanted one last blast in that southern paradise, so southward ho it was!

The eastern road down Kyushu, route 10, isn't terribly exciting leaving Oita but also not offensive. Of course, my perception of what is and isn't offensive is colored by the Golden Week/Hiroshima trip, because I don't think much can be as painful to the eyes as the Chugoku Region. Anyways, it's just a leisurely four hour stroll down the coast filled by trippy tunes and us harassing uyoku dantai (right wing protest groups) noise trucks. We arrived in Miyazaki City just in time for a blanket of darkness to cover the city, but not obscure things so much that I couldn't find our first beach campsite for the night...the backside of the Miyazaki Phoenix Zoo.

If you're in the land of onsens (for bathing) and conbinis (for toilets), what concievable reason would one have to spend money on a hotel room?

I stumbled onto this largely deserted, nigh-pristine beach during the '08 Miyazaki sojourn and have kept it a closely guarded secret. Two people came in the night to light off fireworks and one woman came in the morning to sit under a parasol and stare out at the sea wistfully, but other than that it was empty for a kilometer or more in each direction. As an ingenious natural tsunami protection barrier the city has built countless wood-fenced cells stretching almost the entire length of the city's coastline and reaching a hundred or so meters inland and then planted native pine trees to grow within. A group of kids could have the time of their lives in those cells playing hide-and-seek.

Aoshima-jinja, one of the most colorful and alive shrines I have ever laid eyes on here.

Miyazaki City is blessed with at least one Starbucks and two Tully's, so after a brief cuppa joe in the morning it was straight to the road again for a short jump south to see Aoshima. I talked a bit about Aoshima last year, but here's a refresher: the "island" (only one at low tide) is a low, long sandbar with an immensely dense tropical jungle growing on it and surrounded by a strange geological formation aptly known as the "Devil's Washboard". In the center of the island a massive effort must have been undertaken in days of yore to hack away the thick vegetation and build the gorgeous shrine that stands there today where visitors can bribe the gods and complete some adorable-yet-pointless task to get them pushing fate in your direction. (Can you tell I'm not a spiritual person?) We paid some skrilla, tied a green wire to a sacred rope to help us get jobs and then chucked a clay disk at a rock, somehow sealing the whole deal. Hey, how many shrines can you go break dishes at?

Aoshima is surrounded by this rows of rocks and sand that all face the same direction and are all 100% natural. Next, Maia throws dishes in a holy place. My kind of house of god.

I'm starting to get pooped out now. Let's continue this stuff later. Blogging and reading about this trip will require a commitment from the both of us, respectively.