Sunday, October 3, 2010

Mt. Aso Volcano!

Ah, so, Thursday, September 23rd, I drove with Diana to Mt. Aso Caldera! (By the way, I couldn't resist starting with a classic Japanese pun. The place name is pronounced "Ah, so," which is a Japanese interjection used when thinking or to express understanding. So if you ask a Japanese person "where will you go for vacation?" they may say, "Ah, so...Aso." To which the other person replies, "Ah, so." It sounds kind of funny, and can be used a joke, since the Japanese love puns. I guess it would be like there being a mountain in America called "let me see" and "I see" at the same time.) It was a long trip, and we stopped often for pictures on the lookouts. Like I said, mine broke, but Diana let me borrow her "cheap" $100 one, and I'm using a lot of her pictures taken with a far superior camera and photography skills. See all the multi-colored fields? That’s different types of crops:



But when we arrived around 11:30am, the ropeway up to the volcano was closed because it was spewing toxic fumes! Oh, dear! We had lunch at the little Japanese style cafĂ©, hoping conditions would improve soon. I ordered an Aso special of beef and raw egg over rice, though they tried to cheat me out of my egg…fortunately, Diana is more fluent in Japanese than I am, so she was able to explain step by step how I had paid for the egg, the money given, the change, etc, until the owner finally gave me my egg. I know raw egg sounds disgusting, but the Japanese make it quite good. And that’s nothing compared to what Diana got! She asked me if I wanted to try some of hers, and I gladly obliged.

“Hmm, the meat’s pretty tough. What is it?” I asked.

“Horse,” she replied.

I suddenly felt a little sick to my stomach. She had warned me that Kumamoto’s number one specialty is horse, and had even said she might order some herself. But I had forgotten.

“Poor horsy,” I sighed.

“Basashi is a particular delicacy here,” she reminded me.

“Horse sashimi? RAW horse?” I cried.

“Yeah. It’s quite good.”

“In Oklahoma we don’t eat horses. We RIDE horses.”

“Well, you can do that here too.”

“Oh, really?”

So after checking with the volcano safety people and finding that it was still spewing toxic fumes, visiting the outdated, non-comprehensible, volcano museum (though slightly humorous for all the cute cartoon character detailing how deadly volcanoes are), and buying souvenirs at the shop, I decided to go horse back riding through the misty mountains. Ah, but first, here’s Diana and me in front of a picture of the caldera:


Diana said it looks exactly like that, so I wasn’t missing anything. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I don’t think I’ve introduced her very well. She’s a third-year Japanese Exchange Teacher in my Monday night skype Bible study. She’s fourth generation Japanese American from LA, is fluent in American and Japanese sign language (yes, they are different, as are most country’s sign languages because gestures vary from culture to culture), and sometimes she helps out with that at her church. She’s a really sweet girl.

Diana was tired and not so keen on the mist because of her asthma, so she took a little nap in the car while I checked out the horses. I wasn't sure what breed they were; some were big with the huge, wide hooves of a Clydesdale, but they weren’t as large as the Clydesdales I’ve seen at American fairs. Maybe Clydesdales mixed with American Quarter horses? The guy said they came from America. Anyway, here’s a picture, and some equestrian out there can tell me what they are:



I saw a lot of little kids riding, and there weren’t any fences or signs, so I figured they must be nice horses. I went up to pet one, approaching it like my sister-in-law taught me (she used to live on a horse ranch), and the darn thing stretched out its long neck and bit me! Not hard, but enough to startle me and leave a little bruise that itched for awhile. I’ve only seen a horse bite a human once, and that was as the result of the horse the human was riding pestering the other horse and the human accidentally getting in the way of the teeth, so I’d never seen it unprovoked. Well, I guess this horse wanted a taste of human sashimi. TouchĂ©.

The owner came over shortly after and helped me pick a nicer horse. Normally he leads the horse, but he could see I had a little experience (very little, but still more than most Japanese), so he let me guide the horse where I wanted and just walked alongside us. Here’s a picture of me on a horse, definitely not a Clydesdale:



You can see how misty it is. We rode around the lake and through the volcanic valley. I guess people tend to think of volcanic valleys as very barren places, but whenever I visit one, I’m struck by how lush and green they are. Volcanic soil is actually quite fertile! On Sakurajima where I visited later, (a volcanic island that experiences frequent eruptions), they grow radishes bigger than my head!

It was really magical; I felt like I was in one of my fantasy novels. In fact, as we were cresting a hill, I thought of the perfect ending for An Honest Assassin! I knew Rena was going to have to meet and kill her former lover at some point, but I wasn’t sure how or when. Throughout the whole book she’s running from her past mistakes while simultaneously trying to return to her old life. What if, right when she has to make the ultimate decision whether to follow General Kyra of the resistance or return to her family in the Hierarchy, she meets Jasic, standing in the middle of a misty valley at the foot of a lake, like a specter from her past magically reborn to give her a second chance at life and love? But far from a happy reunion, he’s now general of the Hierarchy forces, sent to either convince her to rejoin the Hierarchy cause or kill her! His army is waiting in the mist where she can’t see them. Oo, the ultimate betrayal! And just the test I need to push my heroine to her limits. I find a strange, powerful delight in making my character’s lives as miserable as possible. To use the technical writing term, it’s called “conflict.” Without it, there’s no story.

Anyway, here’s some beautiful pictures of the valley:





It was pretty cold, dumb of me to wear shorts, but summer was still blazing hot in Nabari and weather.com said the same for all over Japan. My mistake. I spent most of the time conversing with the guide in Japanese. I was pleased to be able to answer all his questions about my home in America and my thoughts on Japan. The Japanese are always happy to hear that I like their country and the people. You really can't find anything like it anywhere else. When my friend Junco invited me over to her house this past week for dinner and I sat on the floor Japanese style with my knees folded under me, poured tea for the other ladies and started jabbering away in Kansai-ben (a "rough" dialect of Japanese used in Osaka and the rest of the Kansai region where I live), she commented that I'm more Japanese than most Japanese people. I don't even sound foreign anymore. Coming from a Japanese, that's definitely a compliment. I have noticed how I tend to gravitate a lot more towards Japanese friends than other foreigners. I just feel very at home here. The other day, I told Mom that I'm even starting to prefer the squat toilets.

At about 3:00, Diana and I headed back to Kumamoto. We stopped in another volcanic valley along the way and got some amazing pictures. Here they are:











The Japanese pampas grass dance like wind over the ocean. It kind of reminded me of Oklahoma, except instead of being flat, the hills made it look like rolling waves. I hate to say it, but Japan’s got us beat on just about everything. Even the grazing cows, which I've never seen anywhere else in Japan, looked fatter and happier (and I can tell you they taste better too). If I could immigrate my family here and find a Christian book agent who's willing to work with an overseas client, (not mention a handsome Christian guy to marry), I would most definitely stay forever.

Well, there are the giant spiders of Kyushu to contend with. As with many of the others, Diana took this picture:



That's actually one of the smaller ones. But they're not that much of a nuisance. Unlike Oklahoma spiders, they aren't poisonous, don't bite anyway (unless you trapped one in your hand, in which case you'd deserve to get bit) and they typically run from humans. The only bothersome point is the giant, sticky webs they seem to weave across every door, window, and path.

Oh, oh, I almost forgot about the green volcano we saw along the rode! Kind of looks like a macha (green tea) ice cream cone. (Yes, the number one flavor of ice cream sold in Japan is, believe it or not, green tea. It's not bad, actually, and since they use actual green tea powder, it's quite good for you.) This one’s no longer active. I wouldn’t exactly call it extinct, as it erupted back in the 1700s, but at least it’s sleeping:



Our last stop was at a strange little monkey park. There was no one tending the gate and I couldn’t read the sign, so while Diana got a snack, I slipped through (oops) to see what it was. They were doing a monkey show! I had read about in online, but hadn’t realized this place was it. I watched for about ten minutes, but then felt guilty for not paying (plus I hadn’t told Diana where I snuck off to), so I left. I don’t think it would be right to post a video since I didn’t pay, but here’s a link to good one already online:

http://picasaweb.google.com/dmsakata/AsoWithLauraJanePopp?authkey=Gv1sRgCNr0lNfC1eG9Qg#5521163925833828450

We got to Kumamoto about 6:00 and had dinner at an AMAZING Mexican restaurant, salsa steak and refried beans with cheese. Not to mention a brownie fudge crape for dessert! I missed Mexican food…and brownie fudge sundaes…so much! Here’s me enjoying my crape:



It was another hour to Diana’s apartment, getting in about 9:00. We went to bed early, so I could head for Kagoshima and Sakurajima in the morning, a real live volcano! (And I actually got to see this one!) Stayed tuned for next time...

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