Kyushu, Japan - Easter 2004
Visitor number (since May 2004):
A tour of not one hell, but several...
Kyushu is Japan's southermost main island and only a short flight from Shanghai. When I had applied to go to Japan on the JET Programme Kyushu was the posting I asked for - but got Niigata instead. However it can be truly said, "all that ends well..." as far as that is concerned. Both of us have ventured to Kyushu at various times over the years but we hatched a plan to spend the 4-day Easter break there and combine it with a check-up for Youki at the University Hospital in Fukuoka.
The flight over was uncrowded and one of the great benefits of Fukuoka is that, compared to other major Japanese cities, the airport is only about 15 minutes from the CBD. We could have caught a shuttle bus/train but wanted to make sure we got an early train to Beppu so we jumped in a cab to Fukuoka eki. We just made the 3.30 train and even managed to get some family discount, all three of us travelling for just a little more than a regular single fare. Beppu is Japan's most famous onsen (hot spring) town. It gets a fairly bad rap from one of the more popular travel guides but there are a lot worse places to go.
Our first night we stayed at the Hotel New Tsuruta on the seafront, an easy walk from the eki. Our room had wonderful ocean views and it all made me think of Omi and feel a little natsukashii. It even overlooked a busy road, reminiscent of the Highway 8 and its contingent of thundering trucks. The onsen on the top floor also overlooked the ocean. Despite the views it was a little bit hot for my liking so I couldn't relax quite as much as I would've liked. It was just as well that it was a typical tatami style room as Youki was quite active and couldn't get into so much trouble. In the evening after dinner I went for a walk while Youki slept and My wife caught up with Japanese TV. The area around the hotel is definitely on the sleazy side with many laneways crowded with hundreds of notorious 'snack bars' and 'clubs'. I think I read somewhere that Beppu has the highest concentration of these in Japan. All milking the tourist dollar one presumes, and probably a lot of it controlled by various 'syndicates'. Speaking of which I had to come to the conclusion that Kyushu people generally are, how can I put this tactfully, ugly? Maybe there is a large involvement with crime causing them to dress so poorly, or it could have been official 'Ugly Tourists in Kyushu Week'. I don't know. In Japan the best looking people are meant to come from Niigata and Akita but I could obviously be just a little biased due to being married to someone from Niigata.
In the morning I awoke early and decided to have an onsen while the sun rose. I thought it would just be me but a lot of others had the same idea. Nonetheless it was a great start to a beautiful day. After a relaxing read of the newspaper we took a pre-breakfast stroll along the waterfront seeing along the way an eclectic collection of the population - old folks out in their yukata, Taiwanese ladies who introduced themselves as 'tourists' but looked suspiciously more like employees of one of the previously mentioned establishments, a man in a flimsy boat collecting seaweed, plus a small colony of homeless in a park abutting 'Spa Beach'. Upon return we tucked into our 'western style breakfast' - pumpkin soup, smoked salmon, salad and prawns. Quite nice but not what I would expect so early in the morning.
We checked and headed back toward the eki where we stocked on some snacks while Youki elicited constant cries of kawaii! from the local populace. One of the really fortunate parts of this tour was that the preceding couple of weeks had been extremely coll for the time of year and that had preserved the cherry blossoms past their usual date. So we trundled up to Beppu koen (park) and had a lovely morning tea under the blossoms - Youki's first o hanami (see photo) and our first for several years.
From the park we took a taxi to the Shinkiya Ryokan where we were staying that night. After dumping our bags we set off on a tour of not one hell, but several. In this corner of Beppu are many different jigoku, which translate as 'hell'. They are basically very hot springs of varying sizes that could include hot mud, sulphuric smells and/or large steam geysers. Some of the jigoku are quite small so to keep the punters happy they have added on 'attractions' to all of them to justify the admission price. These include:
On the way back we decided to give the Sex Museum a miss (with the evidence that we already knew about it sitting in the pram with us) before stopping for a delicious bowl of champon (Nagasaki ramen) and onsen tamago for lunch. We also browsed through a few of the local antique shops before settling in at the ryokan for the night and a couple of relaxing dips in the onsen.
Recently Japan has opened it's visa system just a crack wider and allowed Hong Kong tourists the opportunity to obtain their visas upon arrival. Kyushu has become a fairly popular destination under this new regime and so it was that we found one wandering around the bus station in the morning looking decidely dazed and confused. It was fortunate for him that we were heading on the same bus to Yufuin and were able to help him get there with a minimum of fuss. My wife had looked into staying at Yufuin for a night. It is just a short trip over the mountains by bus and supposedly much nicer then Beppu. Maybe with a car it might be but as we wandered around we couldn't see much attraction to the place. We decided to catch the early afternoon 'tourist train' back to Fukuoka and in the meantime sat and watched as a movie was shot in and around the eki. I remembered the main actress (Harumi Inoue - see photo), who could not be rated attractive - even by Kyushu standards, from the B-grade flick 'Freeze Me'. Her role in this was to kill abusive ex-boyfriends and their conniving colleagues, then store their bodies in freezers in her apartment. Having spent a large part of this movie in her, ahem, birthday suit the Aussie nature in me was severely tempted to cry out, "Oi! Show us your ****!" in attempt to liven up an otherwise uneventful morning.
So eventually it was onto the train and back toward Fukuoka. The kind conductor found us new seats in the front carriage as he saw us struggling on with our bags and Youki in tow. The train has large viewing windows and a see through drivers compartment so all of the scenery could not be missed. It was rather nice but, probably being biased again but based on previous experience, nothing better that you could see in Niigata or Nagano. Along the way houses were strewn with koinobori (large paper carp) in honour of Boys Festival.
And so it was late afternoon as we rolled back into Fukuoka. We negotiate through the subway to Gion station near our digs for that night - Kashima Honkan. This is a delightful old inn dating back to the Taisho period about 90 years ago. It is not luxurious by any means but it is cheap with a friendly staff. The room we stayed in adjoined the central courtyard garden area which gave it a lovely aspect. After settling in we went for a wander down past the huge shopping mall (Canal City) and also stopped by the famous Kushida Shrine (see photo left). We were searching for the famous yatai of Fukuoka (see photo below). These are small night food markets that nestle alongside the Nakagawa (Naka River). At one point in time they numbered in the hundreds of an evening but have now declined to only a handful. We sat down and enjoyed a great meal of tonkatsu ramen, skewers and some special Kyushu chicken. However the price was not that cheap and maybe this is one of the reasons for declining patronage of these establishments. It was a delightful spring evening and we enjoyed a few drinks while the population ambled by along the river. If dress sense was taken into account it seemed every third person in those parts were paid up yakuza members. We stopped by Daiei on the way back and stocked up on some victuals to take back to Shanghai with us. I wanted to take a bath but they had produced water in the communal bath that would have, and I'm not lying here, produced third-degree burns. I, along with the French customer who joined me shortly afterwards, spent 30 minutes putting in cold water and it was STILL too hot! So I came up with the idea of pulling out the plug. Only problem was that I couldn't get the plug back in and eventually I gave up, leaving my new found compatriot and his son wallowing in still very hot water about 10cm deep.
We were up early in the morning for Youki's visit to the University Hospital. We caught a train to near the Fukuoka Dome and then a taxi from there. More on the results of this can be found in our Luft Post. The hospital visit went late and we were worried about missing our flight so eventually we caught a taxi straight from the hospital via the inn to collect our bags. As it looks like we will have to visit often we are looking forward to exploring a little more of Kyushu in the future...