Saturday, February 27, 2010

Horsin' around in Kumamoto

Night view of Kumamoto Castle from our guesthouse on the hillside. (Photo by Joe)

From Mt. Aso, we headed to Kumamoto, home to what is generally considered to be the finest castle in Japan after Himeji. Unlike Himeji, Kumamoto-jo is a reconstruction, since it burned in 1877 during a rebellion by samurai warriors. The castle did, however, withstand the attacks by the rebel army and "proved its worth as an impregnable castle."

The plum blossoms were beginning to bloom while we were there, sending splashes of pink and white across the muted winter landscape.

A sign on the grounds informed me that "The stone foundations with their unique sloping lines and curves and their massive impenetrability are famous throughout the nation as the 'walls that repel enemies'."

The stone walls definitely were impressive and higher than the ones we've seen at other castles. It seemed impossible to imagine scaling these behemoths.

One interesting feature of Kumomoto is the built-in slots for dropping stones or other weapons on attackers, as well as the covers that can be pulled down over the windows.

The museum inside was nicely done and well labeled in English. I particularly liked the miniature models of the castle and grounds, and this illustration showing a cross section of the castle's interior.

Besides the castle, we also paid a visit to Suizenji Jojuen Garden. The interesting aspect of this garden is that it was built to represent the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, the old road that linked Tokyo and Kyoto. It even has a miniature Mt. Fuji.

You can imagine what this looks like when everything turns green.

While in Kumamoto, we made a point of trying the area's specialty dishes, including some tasty garlic ramen, lotus root stuffed with spicy Japanese mustard (karashi renkon) and raw horse meat (basashi).

Yes, we ate raw horse meat. I didn't even know you could do that before moving to Japan. It made me think of the time when I was maybe 13 and I went to Florida to visit my Nana on spring break. During the visit I asked her if we could eat at McDonald's. Her disgusted response: "Ah, it's all horse meat!"

Basashi and karashi renkon

The Japanese aren't so turned off by that idea, though, and in fact the stuff is considered a delicacy, because it was a little pricey. Surprisingly, the horse meat didn't have a very strong taste of any kind. It really just reminded me of tuna sushi, but chewier. I feel like I should have felt guilty about trying this, but truthfully I did not. I just tried not to think about it.

The karashi renkon was good but that mustard was seriously spicy. It kinda makes its way up through your sinuses 'til you feel like your brain is burning. But I liked it!

Friday, February 26, 2010

And now I have been up the Aso!

Soon after we first arrived in Japan, I remember buying a bottle of mineral water from a vending machine. The label featured a photo of a mountain and the slogan "Straight from the Aso." Joe and I got a good chuckle out of that... Mineral water. Straight from the Aso. HAR HAR HAR HAR!

Turns out "the Aso" is a very famous mountain in Japan, or rather a volcano (just like Mt. Fuji). And not just any volcano, either — one of the world's largest active volcanoes. The springs that flow from Mt. Aso are so exceedingly pure that people dip containers straight into the springs and take the water home for drinking and cooking. Hence the slogan on the water bottle.

Mt. Aso as seen during our bus ride to the ropeway station.

The caldera of "Aso-san", as it is called by the Japanese, measures 15.5 miles in diameter and is actually home to a small town. Within Aso's caldera are several other volcanic peaks, the highest of which is Nakadake. Nakadake remains active today and continuously emits gases and occasionally erupts. Tourists can ride a ropeway up to the top of Mt. Aso and peer into the crater, which is filled with a vibrant turquoise-colored lake that looks like this:

Photo swiped from Wikipedia

This is of course what we were hoping to see when we went to Aso after leaving Beppu, but we were not so lucky. The weather was pretty lousy when we arrived at Aso. It was very cold, cloudy and drizzly in spots. We took the ropeway to the top only to discover the entire peak was encased in thick fog.

Walkway leading to the crater

Many signs were posted around the area warning visitors that the volcano spews sulfur dioxide gases that can shock the respiratory system and cause life threatening physical reactions from those with asthma, bronchitis or a heart condition. Visitors were advised to carry wet tissues to cover their nose and mouth if they felt any "abnormalities".

Inside the ropeway building were some maps with lights at various points around the rim. The lights would go on when the gases became dangerously strong over certain points.

Along the way to the rim we saw several concrete shelters in case of an eruption, though, as my friend Adam pointed out before our trip, one has to wonder if these bunkers wouldn't morph into massive broiler pans to roast the poor folks trapped inside on such an occasion.

Once we reached the rim, this was the view we got:

No pretty green lake for me. *tear*

We tried to walk along the rim toward Nakadake but it wasn't long before we were socked with strong waves of gas that quickly changed our minds. After purchasing a couple yellow sulfur rocks as souvenirs from an unmanned table, we scooted on back to the ropeway station where indeed the warning lights were lit up for the area where we'd just been walking. Not inclined to go back out for another lung-full of poisonous gas, we just caught the next ride back down the ropeway and said so long to stinky Aso.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The weirdest thing I have ever seen in Japan

Warning: Not Safe For Work.

I've seen a lot of weird things in Japan. I mean, you don't have to look far to find the weird side of Japan — it's half of all the media reports on Japan anyway. The Naked Man Festival, the peeing boy truck, the tanuki statues, it's a long list.

But this thing I saw in Beppu totally takes the cake. I mean, this was just so ... out there.

While touring the jigoku in Beppu, Joe and I stopped for lunch in a little ramen shop after leaving the hell with all the crocodiles. (This is, you'll recall, an area filled with tourist kitsch for the kids.) Emerging from the ramen shop, we were face to face with the suggestive mural pictured above.

Being a diligent reader of my Lonely Planet guidebook, I knew exactly what this was when I saw it: A sex museum. Yee-haw.

I figured it would be a lot of erotic paintings, sculptures and sexual artifacts and whatnot. Probably some portable penis shrines of the sort that get paraded around during Japanese fertility festivals. Whatever. But I was not prepared for what I would see inside. Oh, Japan, I should not underestimate you.

Joe and I forked over 700 yen each to the old woman manning the front counter, a large glass case filled with a wide variety of sex toys. No big surprise there. I was quite tickled by some of the merchandise, in fact.

That's really quite clever, isn't it?

Walking further in, we encountered some glass cases filled with wooden statues of phalluses and ceramic knick knacks "doing it."

Yeah, baby!

Um... Ow.

Not so weird yet right? Yeah somewhat strange, but this IS a sex museum after all, so what did we expect? Uh... Not this:

Taxidermic zebras making love against the back wall. This is where the tour takes a depraved turn. Carrying through the whole place were the squeaks and moans of a an over-excited Japanese girl in a porno playing in a theater off beyond the zebras. Appropriate background accompaniment, I suppose eh, sets the mood. Past more photographs of animals having sex, we came to this:

An animatronic orgy involving Snow White and the seven dwarfs, as well as Prince Charming and the Queen. You cannot make stuff like this up. That's Dopey in the left foreground playing with a large pair of knickers and other dwarfs looking on as one of them pleases Snow White, bare butt high in the air.

Yes, that's Grumpy on the right taking matters into his own hands, so to speak. Yes, the Queen has a dick for a nose. The worst part: when you hit a button on the outside of the exhibit, all of the characters would move. Dopey waved the underwear up and down, Grumpy flogged the dolphin, the others ducked around maneuvering for a good view of the action.

What can I say? HOLY CRAP.

The second story had more provocative interactive wax figures. One was a woman wearing a skirt that would blow up to reveal everything underneath when you hit a button. There was one of those movable claw carnival games filled with sex toys. And there was even an exhibit where you had to peek in through a small opening and hit a button. When I hit the button, a red light came on to reveal a topless woman sitting in her underwear and a split second later a sudden stream of water shot out from her underwear to hit the glass in front of my face. Made me jump.

Ah, Japan. Always an adventure.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Go to hell and back: Check!

The boiling waters of Beppu.

Valentine's Day this year was red hot. Positively steaming.

We headed south to Kyushu, Japan's southernmost main island, to the famous little town of Beppu. Beppu is famous for a couple things: 1) onsen, also known as hot spring public baths, and 2) its "burning hells."

Beppu is built upon numerous geothermal hot springs, which make the town a pretty steamy place. There are numerous hot springs for bathing in, and then there are the hot springs too hot to handle — those are the burning hells, known in Japanese as jigoku. They're just for looking, not bathing.

Down the mountainside in one area of the city, eight of these hells bubble to the surface in a variety of colors. There's plenty of tourist kitsch surrounding these wonders of nature, but it was still worth the visit. Here's what we saw.

First up: Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell)

This pond of boiling turquoise water is about 656 feet deep (nearly 220 yards — think of that, well over two football fields in depth!). It was formed 1,200 years ago after a volcanic explosion.

A great deal of stinky steam poured off these hot springs. It smelled like sulfur. Not so pleasant but I didn't really mind.

As you can see, there's a basket of eggs boiling in the water. Perhaps the sulfuric water increases the eggy intensity? These hot spring boiled eggs are considered a specialty of the area, and they were sold in road side stands and even the train station.

Hot springs boiled eggs for 50 yen a piece (55 cents). I think they're covered in salt.

In sharp contrast to the Sea Hell was the nearby red hot spring. Not big enough to be one of the official eight jigoku, but pretty cool (and equally stinky).

Next up: Oniishibozu Jigoku. A.k.a. Oniishi Shaven Head Hell. So named because the hot gray mud that bubbles to the surface here resembles a bald monk's head, perfectly round and smooth and shiny.

These were cool. I stared for a long time. The mud all around the bubbles hardens into what looks like a ringed tree trunk made out of clay.

Number 3: Yama Jigoku (Mountain Hell)

Mainly a lot of steaming rocks. Penned up nearby were an unhappy hippo and icky looking monkey. Also a very sad elephant. And some flamingos that were attacking each other. Nothing like random zoo animals to make an instant kiddie attraction.

4.) Kamado Jigoku (Oven Hell)

If the unhappy hippo didn't cast enough of a touristy haze over the place, the next hell stepped it up a notch with a corny demon statue.

Kids not impressed by the unhappy hippo? Don't despair, they should really love this character and his giant...


Amusingly, the brochure left out those gems with a shot expertly photographed from the right angle.

The Oven Hell includes a large blue pond that changes color somewhat depending on the time of year, and some smaller ones filled with bubbling red water and brown mud.

Fifth up: Oniyama Jigoku (Demon Mountain Hell)

This Hell bubbled violently with waves splashing everywhere. Signs informed us that the force of the steam rising off this hell was strong enough to pull one and a half train cars, and indeed it was too steamy to photograph.

Supposedly all that steam creates an ideal environment for breeding crocodiles. There were dozens of crocodiles and alligators penned up nearby.

We even saw one with moss growing on its back.

That can't be good.

Number 6: Shiraike Jigoku, the White Pond Hell

According to the sign, the water is clear when it bubbles from the ground but over time it takes on a creamy white-blue hue. There were some fish tanks in a building next to the pond. They contained piranhas.

The last two hells were 1.5 miles away. There's a bus to take you there, but the next one wasn't due to arrive for another 40 minutes or so, so we decided to hoof it. Probably not the smartest decision we've ever made, as the sidewalk disappeared after the first five minutes. But, at least we got some nice views over the city and the ocean as we walked.

It was neat to see the spouts of steam dotting the city.

After a nice walk in close proximity to traffic we came to Number 7: Chinoike Jigoku the Blood Pond Hell, which is the oldest natural jigoku in Japan. It looked pretty much like the first red hot spring we saw, just bigger.

The red color comes from the red clay beneath, which dissolves in the water. The water is used as dye and is supposedly "good for skin diseases," though the sign didn't specify if that was for curing or causing them.

Last on the list was Tatsumaki Jigoku, the Water Spout Hell, an intermittent spring that shoots water every 25 minutes or so. It apparently spouts up to 65 feet, though the rocks built up over the top blocked the spray.

I could have done without all the hokey tourist melodrama — crocodiles! piranhas! blood! demons! — but I guess that's just par for the course at a site like this. I might have appreciated the lighthearted nature of it a little more if the animals weren't treated so shabbily. Still, the hot springs were intriguing. Worth the visit.

The evening after seeing the jigoku, Joe and I went to visit a really nice onsen at the Suginoi Palace. We had wanted to stay at this place, but at a minimum of $200 per night per person, it was obviously too expensive, so we opted to stay in a cheap business hotel instead and just visit its onsen for 1,000 yen ($11).

I was nervous about going. You can imagine that bathing in front of a bunch of other Japanese ladies didn't exactly fill my heart with feelings of calm and serenity. Especially not when I'd be the lone naked foreigner. Actually though, it turned out to be not a big deal at all. Here's how it worked.

The onsen provided me with a towel and wash cloth. After stripping down and stashing my belongings in a locker room, I entered the showering area where everybody was taking a shower seated on little plastic seats. There were partitions sectioning off each shower head. You're still in a big room with lots of other ladies showering, but it's sectioned off enough that you feel like you have your own little area. The onsen provided face wash, shampoo and soap, which even had a lovely limey scent since the Beppu area is famous for a kind of lime.

After showering, it's time to soak in the bath. Essentially it is like a giant swimming pool that is perhaps 3 feet deep and steaming hot. I tied my hair up so it wouldn't drag in the water (a faux pas) and set my washcloth on the ledge of the bath because you're not supposed to bring it in the bath with you and I didn't know where else to put it (by the time I got out, it had disappeared).

You can opt to bathe indoors or outdoors. I headed outside and wasted no time getting in as it was probably around 35 or 40 degrees outside. The onsen was designed with five tiers, with water from the higher steps pouring down to the lower steps. The Suginoi is situated high on the hillside overlooking the city, which made for a beautiful night view while we were in the bath.

Like this only at night with all the city lights. Photo of Suginoi stolen from the Net.

I hadn't expected to stay in the bath very long. I'd tried the public bath in our business hotel the previous evening and it was so hot that I got out after 10 minutes feeling a bit lightheaded. This was better though. Whenever I started to feel too hot, I just hoisted myself up onto the ledge and sat in the brisk winter air for a few minutes until I'd cooled down enough to get back in. Steam rolled off the smooth surface of the bath. The water came up to my chin.

At the front of the bath, on the lowest tier, the tiles were formed into reclining chairs with a wooden headrest. After a while, I snagged one of those and laid there for a very long time feeling so relaxed I was kind of half asleep. All the things that irritated me about Japan just melted away. Turns out bathing with a bunch of Japanese ladies filled me with calm and serenity after all.