Thursday, October 7, 2010

Kagoshima and Sakurajima volcano!

So Friday September 24th, Diana dropped me off at Oita station (she had to work) to catch the 7:15 train for Kagoshima! It was a two hour ride south on the limited express, but definitely worth it! I went straight to the information desk to find out about tours and bus routes. Kagoshima has so many siteseeing options! The area played a very important part in Japanese modernization in the 19th century and during the Meji restoration or return to political stability, so there are many museums of history and industry. The area is also rich in local culture and beautiful nature! I discussed in my last post how beautiful volcanic valleys are (another point: just think of Hawaii!) and Kagoshima is bursting with tropical gardens, gorgeous beaches, hot springs, and of course, the volcano. Plus it`s not as touristy or overpriced as a lot of other similar locations. One could easily spend an affordable week there, using a 600 yen all-day bus pass which also includes discounts for many attractions. It`s also foreigner friendly with plenty of English maps, brochures, English-speaking staff, and even English announcements on the buses.

After some deliberation, I settled on an afternoon tour of Sakurajima (the most active volcano in Japan) and a ride on the city view bus for a morning self-tour of the famous Senganen landscape garden. The staff at the front spoke fluent English and told me all about its history and importance. The Shimazu family who owned it used the waterfalls to power their glass factory and other industries, Japan`s first Western-style factory.

I`ve seen landscape gardens in the past and was never terribly impressed, but this one was by far one of the best gardens I have ever seen! Even though there weren`t many flowers, the setting was simply gorgeous. Here are some of the smaller waterfalls not used for powering the factory:






But what made Senganen my favorite garden was its shakkei or “borrowed scenery.” It is built in such a way as to incorporate the majestic Kinko bay and Sakurajima volcano island into its vista. Here`s what I mean:



That I-phone picture just doesn’t do it justice. I spent almost three hours walking around the garden, which is probably a good square mile or two square kilometers, enjoying the various views and smaller gardens. One of these was the poetry garden, a small stream were attendees sit and compose haiku (three-lined, seventeen syllable non-rhyming poetry). A saki cup drifts down the stream on a little raft, and when it reaches them, they must have finished their poem or they can`t drink. I think the Japanese have invented just about every twist to the drinking game imaginable. It`s no wonder they ended up with poems like this:

Oh my big toe
Stubbed against my chair
Throbs with unending agony.

OK, ok, so that`s one I just made up on the spot. Most of them are actually quite beautiful.

As I walked around, I noticed a number of students on their school trips. At first I hung out with these groups to see what I could glean from their guides, but I was always intercepted by a student or teacher who wanted to practice their English on me, usually amidst giggles and red faces and dares from friends and all kinds of comments about my physical appearance in Japanese, some flattering, some not so much. One curious math teacher actually followed me around with comments like “nice weather, isn’t it?” “Where are you from?” “Do you have volcanoes in Okurahoma?” (Oklahoma) until he was forced to return to his students. So pretty soon I started avoiding these groups and sticking to the less worn paths, only getting the occasional “Herro” (Hello) shouted at me from across a pond. I just wanted a nice quiet walk in the park, so I noticed that when I wore my big sunglasses, groups I happened to meet accidentally stopped shouting butchered English at me. I wonder if it`s because they couldn`t tell I wasn`t Japanese or because in Japan, you just don`t talk to strangers wearing sunglasses. In fact, apart from Japanese people driving or suffering from hangovers, I`ve only seen foreigners wear them.

One of the secret treasures I discovered was the cat shrine hidden away in the woods behind the garden. Apparently one head of the Shimazu family had a superstition that cats bring extremely good luck in business (a belief common in Japan, stemming from the prominence of the fisherman trade, and hence all the little white statues of beckoning cats in store windows). He took cats with him on all his trips, including to Europe, and imported a lot of different breeds to Japan. So he enshrined the remains of the family cats here:



I love cats myself, but that`s kind of creepy if you ask me…

Speaking of cats, it never ceases to amaze me how many gnarled cats I see whenever I travel around Japan. There are so many scraggly skinny strays with cut-off tails and even mutilated or missing feet. Who does that? Are they just getting in fights or are some mean, nasty kids up to mischief? I never see stray dogs running around. The dogs are so pampered; many Japanese dress them up in baby clothes!

The best part of the garden grounds was the forest mountain trail. The sign warned that it was a thirty minute climb one way to the top, so a total of an hour, but it wasn`t nearly that long. But then my mom tells me I walk pretty fast. Along the way, I met a Chinese family and greeted them in Putonwha (Mandarin), though they answered me in English and chatted for a minute because they wanted to practice. The father didn`t even have an accent! Why are Chinese people so much better at English than Japanese? I chalk it up to the fact that they start studying when they`re ten or even younger and high school classes are conducted almost entirely in English, instead of the Japanese who start at twelve. Yeah, there is “English” in Japanese elementary schools, but it`s just games. Even in high school, most of the English lessons are taught 50% in Japanese. (Some of my students still need me to translate “please listen and repeat” for them.) But maybe I`m getting a biased view because I only meet Chinese people who travel abroad. Of course their foreign language skills are going to be better. Maybe if I actually taught in China I would think differently.

Anyway, the trail led to a waterfall viewing area, along with spectacular views of the ocean and sakurajima. Here is my favorite:



If you look closely, you can see it`s “coughing,” which means a non-violent eruption of non-poisonous gases. Perfect timing! I sat there and stared at it for almost thirty minutes. It was just so peaceful. And on the way back, little purple flowers lay strewn along the path and the air smelled of fresh, clean cyprus and pine after the previous day`s rain. I just love nature, which is why I love Japan!

There was an old residence in the garden, but you had to pay extra to go in and I hadn`t the time, so I just checked out the free colored glass displays before catching the bus back to the station for my volcano tour. That`s when something really funny happened!

So I was sitting waiting for the bus. Two buses came, one red and one blue. The brochure said to take the red bus, but it had the wrong number, but the blue bus had the right number. So I got on the blue bus and asked, “Kono busu wa kagoshima eki ni ikimaska?” (Does this bus go to Kagoshima station?) I found out that it did, so I sat down. We were just about to drive off when a lady, maybe thirty-five or so, ran up shouting. She jostled her way onto the bus and asked the driver the same thing I had just asked. Then she shouted out the window.

“Okasan! Kochi, kochi! Kono busu yo!” (Hey, Mom, over here, over here! This is the bus, for sure!”

The mother, maybe sixty or so, fumbled her way onto the bus. “Eay? Kono busu wa aou desho! Akai busu dake Kagoshima eki e iku yo.” (Really? This bus is blue, see! Only the red bus goes to Kagoshima station!”

The two women sat down but continued to argue loudly in very non-Japanese fashion, the bus driver not knowing what to do, until I finally turned to the older lady and said,

“Kono busu daijobu des. Watashi mo Kagoshima eki ni ikimasu. Onaji koto o omoimasta, demo akai busu wa chigaimas yo. Ishoni ikimasho!” (This bus is OK. I`m going to Kagoshima station too. I thought the same thing, but the red bus is wrong, really. Let`s go together!)

“Hontoni? Ja, yasashi gaijinchan des ne?” the mother said. (Really? Well, what a nice little foreigner, isn`t she?)

“Neh!” her daughter replied. (Yeah.) (By the way, you could probably have an entire conversation in Japanese with just the word “neh” which can mean both “don`t you think” and “yeah, that`s right.” Some Japanese people use it, along with "yo" at the end of every sentence, it seems. It`s kind of like the Canadian “eay?”) Then she added to her mother, “Ima, daijobu?” (Are you OK now?”)

“Eh. Ikimasho!” The mother cried. (Yep. Let`s go!)

The poor bus driver, who had been waiting all this time to see what the two women would do, tipped his hat to me in thanks and drove out of the parking lot.

It was just like a scenario from Japanesepod101.com! (I listen to the intermediate level pod casts every morning on my way to school, which are not exactly 101 anymore.)

So the daughter (Umeko) continued talking to me in Japanese and we figured out we were actually going on the same tour! I had thought we had to go all the way back to Kagoshima station, but Umeko found out we could get off at the ferry terminal and get the tour there for a discounted price! She helped me buy my tour and ferry tickets and find some good, cheap food for lunch. I sat behind them on the ferry and enjoyed my udon (thick white noodles) and tempura (deep fried vegetables) soup. I was so surprised by how loud she and her mother were! They exclaimed over everything, from my pathetic Japanese to the fact that I had the same information that they had, only printed in English. Many Japanese people shot them side-long glances and shook their heads. I found out that they were from Tokyo. I wonder if that`s it. They just seemed very…un-Japanese. Actually, Umeko especially reminded me of a lady from my church back home in Oklahoma named Diane Helt. She`s really fun.

Here is a picture of Sakurajima from the ferry:



And here`s the tropical bay:



I think my Japanese is still pretty basic, but I was able to have a conversation with them about global warming, which was interesting. All Japanese I have met think it is the direct result of human interference, rather than some in America who think it is a natural phenomenon. Either way, Kagoshima used to have a fairly temperate climate, but it`s getting to be more and more tropical, as is the rest of Kyushu. Climate change all over Japan is both a problem and interesting opportunity. I say opportunity only because of the booming tourism in places that are slowly getting warmer and extended beach seasons, but lots of people are dying of heat stroke too, more than ever before. They actually have a word in Japanese: natsubate, which means to be generally worn out by the summer, which is different from the specific medical term for "heat stroke." They also have natsukaze, or summer cold caused by the resulting weakend immune system. Next time another foreigner tells me the Japanese can handle the heat better, I`ll tell them they need to study more Japanese. Every other word out of their mouths is "atsui! Sugoi atsui des ne? Atsui sugimasu!" (It`s hot! Isn`t it so very hot? It`s too hot!) Of course, now that it`s getting to be fall, they say the opposite. "Ah, samui! Kyo hidoi kaze ne?" (It`s so cold! Today there is a terrible wind, isn`t there?)

While we waited for the tour at the ferry terminal, I went to get some ice cream, only to return and find that Umeko had already bought me some. (I have already written about the Japanese propensity for buying foreign guests ice cream, but I don`t like to take advantage of it so I tend to get some for myself so they won`t. Darn, not fast enough.) Oh, well, she simply ate it instead.

Finally, the tour bus came around 2:20. There were several other foreigners on board, so the tour guide passed out English notebooks with explanations. As we rode along, she would explain something in Japanese for five minutes, then say “Number two” or whatever the corresponding number was in the notebook. The explanation would be a few sentences long. Then she`d go on for another five minutes and say “number three” and the corresponding English explanation would be maybe a paragraph. Ever seen the movie Lost in Translation? It was kind of like that, complete with kareoke. (Our tour guide sang us several traditional Japanese songs written about Sakurajima. She sounded pretty good, actually.)

Our first stop was an outlook point of a mountain near the volcano. Here you are:




Also famous in this site was the hidden stone heart:



Lots of places have them, actually, including one I saw last year in Glover Gardens in Nagasaki. The game is to see how many you can find throughout Japan. Kind of like collecting stamps. Not postage stamps. The Japanese really like collecting big red ink stamps they get for visiting different places to fill their stamp books. There are always long lines to get your stamp, so I think it`s kind of silly and don`t do it, though if I did I`d probably have more stamps than just about any Japanese person. I use a version of this game to motivate my students in class. I have “stamp cards” with the flags of many English-speaking countries and territories. When a student volunteers to speak English, I give them a stamp. The stamps also represent points on their test. They get an extra point for each stamp. Some of the students are really into it and compare what they have. “Igirisu to Gebralta ga arimasu. Anata wa?” I have England and Gebralter. What about you?” Other`s couldn`t care less. But those are the students that don`t get motivated over anything. They just sleep through class.

Our next stop was a store to taste and buy (if we wanted) the famous sakurajima radish. Some of them were as big as my head! They hold the Guinness book of world records for heaviest radish in the world. They grow so well because of the fertile volcanic soil. And from the free samples, raw, pickled, salted, dried, candied, and sauced, I can tell you they taste pretty good too!

Next we stopped by the famous buried tori gate of a Shinto shrine:



Do you see it sticking up from the ash? The last major eruption was in 1914, and it covered a lot of the island. The people were told to evacuate, but only 30% did, so many died. After that there was one in the 1950s that wasn`t so big and hardly anyone died. By the way, statistically, volcanos have killed more people in the history of the world than any other natural disaster, nearly double that of earthquakes. Though many of the deaths are estimated numbers predating recorded history.

Here`s a testament to the power of the volcano, an old lava flow from 1914:




And our last stop, the closest point to the volcano and volcanic rock field. Here`s what that looks like:



The pavilion overlooking the bay:



And here`s me and Umeko (the “flying” pose was her idea) and a guy from Sweden:




And that`s all! The whole tour took about three hours and I finally got to see a live volcano spewing smoke! I took the 5:45 train back and got into Oita about 8:00. Diana picked me up and we had dinner at a nice Italian resteraunt. There she told me something really amazing. She`s Japanese American and didn`t request any particular place in Japan, but she happened to be placed very near her Japanese extended family. She often went over to have dinner with them and share her Christian faith. Then, suddenly, her great aunt died in a car accident! She was so glad she got to share Jesus with her before she died. The longer I spend in Japan, the more I am convinced that God is beginning a great work here. He just keeps connecting people together and making miracles! Just remember what happend with me and my little church in Nabari. I was praying earnestly for a spirit-filled, mission-minded church where I could teach an English and Evangelism class, and they were praying fervently for God to send a passionate Christian English teacher who would do that. And then Kae just happened to read my blog and took me to their church only a few miles from my house, and now three new members are being baptized this coming month because of the class! Who would have thought? Only God!

Ha, ha, speaking of such things, stay tune next time for Beppu, home of the eight jigoku, or “hells!”(Sorry, bad joke, but that`s what they`re really called!)

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