Kumamoto

I had a week off and really wanted to see a part of Japan that I had not yet seen. I thought Kyushu or Hokkaido made sense and I was prepared to go it alone. Fortunately a friend of mine from work, Kanamori-san, was also going to Kyushu so I kind of invited myself along. Thanks for letting me tag along.

Kanamori

 

Unfortunately it looked like the weather was going to be somewhat uncooperative with us even going. A typhoon was heading towards Japan and although it was not going to be too strong in Fukuoka and Kumamoto where we were going, it was looking like it was going to get pretty bad in Nagoya. Kanamori-San found a cheap (10000 yen) to Fukuoka on Fuji Dream Airlines so instead of taking the train, we were flying. It really saved him a lot of money. The rain was pretty strong when we got to the airport and a flight from Kumamoto was cancelled so I was a little bit worried. We loaded about on time and the flight was remarkably smooth considering we were on the edge of a typhoon.

Kanamori

 

Kanamori-san is a BIG ramen fan, so a trip to Fukuoaka isn’t complete with Hakata ramen (website of my favorite Hakata ramen shop in LA). We went to Nagahama’s Nagahamaya restaurant for our ramen. The shop looked like we could eat there AND get our oil changed.

Ramen

 

The beautiful exterior of our ramen shop.

Ramen Service Station

 

Other ramen shops in the area.

Nagahama

 

Kanamori-san spent a year on working holiday in New Zealand and one of his Japanese friends from New Zealand runs a backpackers in a very remote part of Kumamoto called THE スナフキンズ (snufkinz). We were the only guests there the first, but they had a friend staying there and helping them. Dai-san and Mika-san are great hosts and I was immediately comfortable. Of course I’ve stayed at some really nice hotels, but there is still a time and place for a nice backpackers. This was the time and place. More on THE スナフキンズ in a different entry all to itself.

 THE スナフキンズ

 

We stayed up pretty late the first night. Kanamori-san was catching up with his Dai-san and I was just happy to listen and be on vacation. Some alcohol was consumed.

Relaxing in the evening

 

The door frames in this country house are definitely lower than US or modern Japanese houses. I had to duck every time I went through a door frame. In the morning, I forgot that that I had to duck and smacked my head really hard as I was walking to the bathroom. So, no, it wasn’t me just thinking I had to duck. I really had to.

 
Day 1

I rented a car in Fukuoka to give us the opportunity to see various places. We decided to go to Kumamoto-shi in Kumamoto and visit the castle there. We walked around the castle grounds. We quicky learned that the castle was of a mostly modern construction, but the castle walls were still from old days, and the castle was beautiful from the outside. The weather was fine, and we weren’t suffering from rain, or high heat.

The architect of Kumamoto castle.

The castle architect

 

The castle tower

 

The meeting rooms

 

An interesting, if not a little bit intimidating, tour guide.

The tour guide

 

The Lord’s House

 

We also went in search of a special library that was supposed to be architecturally interesting, but alas it was not be found. We did go to a library though, and I tried to make it interesting (but it really wasn’t). I guess I didn’t try too hard because I have no pictures!

After three years in Japan, and over a year with an perfectly valid driver’s license, I drove on the streets of Japan for the first time since 2004. I drove in both the countryside, and the “big city.” Pretty cool. I think I did fine, but from that point forward Kanamori-san drove everywhere.

Swift!

 

We headed back to 中十町 (Nakajicho) to THE スナフキンズ and picked up Dai-san and Nobu-san to go to an onsen. We ran some errands at first though, and went to a butcher shop where we picked up some 馬刺 (basashi), or horse sashimi. That’s right, horse sashimi.

Butcher shop

 

Butcher shop

 

Butcher shop

 

raw horse preparation

 

Raw horse

 

The white stuff is basically neck fat, and really does melt in your mouth like butter. Believe it or not, this wasn’t the first time I had horse sashimi to eat. It’s not bad, especially when you throw in some wasabi and soy sauce. Alcohol tends to help as well.

The onsen we went to was great in its kitchiness. It did not have a rotenburo (outdoor bath) but did have many different pools. We enjoyed the various temperatures, went back home, and made dinner.

I slept really well on a futon on the floor. The room was comfortable and the air had cooled significantly.

guest house

 

guest house

 
 
Day 2

Our plan for the next day was to drive to Mt. Aso. We were surprised by a visitor (チェックイン) sitting on the deck in the morning. Hey! It turns out he owns a guest house around Aso, so he gave us some good tips. Dai-san and Mika-san always baked bread overnight, so we always had a good breakfast ready for us.

Breakfast

 

Nobu

 

We drove towards Mt. Aso and Kanamori-san ignored the somewhat annoying voice of the navigation system and instead listened to the advice of チェックイン and instead took the Kikuchi Skyline. A very good choice. I felt a like a little kid because there was a sign for the Kikuchi Gorge and I thought it looked interesting (See Rock City! See Ruby Falls!). We parked, and went on a short hike along the flowing river and all the rapids. I tried various shots, and of course tried to get the streaming water look. I succeeded a little bit.

Kukuji Gorge

 

By the water

 

By the water

 

This squirrel is nervous about failing rocks. Uh oh!

Nervous squirrel

 

Waterfall

 

An added bonus was stumbling across 焼きとうもろこし (yakitomorokoshi), or grilled corn on the cob. Growing up in Indiana, corn on the cob was a summer staple, so I was happy.

Corn on the cob

 

Corn on the cob

 

Mt. Aso is basically a HUGE active volcano. The caldera is a a valley, with some active areas along the edge. The Kikuchi Skyline terminates at the Milk Road (not the Silk Road, but the Milk Road. This was another suggestion by チェックイン. The view was outstanding, and I took a lot of pictures of the same green areas.

The rim of Mt. Aso

 

The rim of Mt. Aso

 

We started down this small road, in spite of the cones in front of the entrance. We learned the cones were there for a reason, but no damage was done so all was fine.

The rim of Mt. Aso

 

The rim of Mt. Aso

 

On the rim of Mt. Aso

 

On the rim of Mt. Aso

 

We continued down and across the valley to the active area on the other side. There, in the clouds, it was almost cold! We got a few more pictures and then left Aso.

This picture is actually an older dome, komezuka. But the next two show how active it is.

Komezuka

 

Warning!

 

Active venting

 

On the way home, I wanted to go to an onsen, and Kanamori-san wanted to visit a shop that specialized in fans. The shop in 山鹿市 (Yamaga-shi) closed at 5:30 pm, and the Navi said we would arrive at 5:35 pm. That meant no onsen around Aso. That was OK. We made it to the shop, 栗川商店, in time and were able to shop for fans. I didn’t even know I wanted one, and bought four! I’ve given away three already, and kept the fourth for myself. We went to a local onsen, that was more like a Super Sento but were able to soak away our day. Thanks to Dai-san, Mika-san, Nobu-san, and チェックイン for waiting for us for dinner. You didn’t have to wait! We tried to eat dinner outside, but the mosquitoes were just too heavy. So in we went.

An attempt to eat outside

 

Dinner moves inside

 

The next morning we were able to share a nice breakfast outside, and I was grateful to have the chance to have spent a few days in the countryside. I had one panic driving alone to the airport because the Navi was clearly giving me the wrong directions. Was that a cruel practical joke from Kanamori-san, or just a by product of turning of the car? Fortunately, Kanamori-san showed me how to enter the rental car location into the navigation system, so a quick reset and I was off. To the airport in plenty of time.

Breakfast

 

Thanks so much to Kanamori-san, Dai-san, Mika-san, Nobu-san, and チェックイン for making my vacation exactly what I wanted. Especially though to Kanamori-san for allowing me to come along, meet his friends, and show me around. My Japanese isn’t good enough to understand everything and when we are together just the two of us, I mostly speak in English. Speaking in a second language is hard work – I appreciate the effort made.

Me and Kanamori-san

 

You’ve got to look good – always

A few weeks ago, a group of colleagues loosely formed around my Japanese teacher decided it would be a good idea to see a soccer match. I’ve described the Nagoya Grampus in my previous post. The only problem was that it was occurring basically at the same time the remnants of a typhoon were blowing through. It didn’t make for the best weather walking to the stadium.

Rainy day

 

But, in typical Japanese fashion, even if the winds are destroying umbrellas, and you are reduced to a red poncho, it is important to have the Louis Vuitton front and center.

Fashion Sense?

Why carry a Louis Vuitton bag in such a mess? I hope it was a knockoff.
 

The soccer match was fun, and the Grampus won. I think the final score was 5 – 2. Maybe it was 4 – 2. We all emjoyed it.

The true fans

Wait for it …

Sitting inside on a rainy day listening to my elementary, junior high, and high school classmate Byron Schenkman play Haydn. Even have a little tea brewing.

It is nice to have this rainy day to get caught up on some things. Like, for instance, a darn blog entry. It has been a long time since my last entry. I have two other entries in my head but have been unable to shake them out onto paper. But anyway, I do at least have one entry for May.

It seems that rainy season, or 梅雨, is upon us. It hasn’t been officially declared as far as I know, but the weather certainly would indicate that.

Time to build an arc

 

I guess this is my fourth rainy season here in Japan. It is traditional that I highlight each one in my blog, like I did here, here, and here. Judging from the previous entries, I may be a bit premature declaring rainy season. I’ll be sure to let my blogosphere fans know for sure. And true to form, a typhoon is on the way. This is the second of the season for Japan, but typhoon 4W, Songda, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

Typhoon 4W, Songda

 

Go GrampusSometimes its nice to have a really rainy day to just stay in, read, write, study, clean, nap, etc. Tomorrow though, I have a late afternoon soccer match with a bunch of friends. No, I’m not playing. I’m going to see the Nagoya Grampus (Japanese site here) play in Toyota-shi (豊田市). The stadium is partially covered, but I’m not sure if they can close the roof if it is too windy. It could be a very unique soccer experience.

What is a grampus, you might ask? It is apparently a killer whale, which the Nagoya Grampus home page says adorns the top of Nagoya Castle. I always thought they were dolphin on top of the castle, and the official Nagoya castle website calls them dolphin. The Grampus website refers to them as killer whales. You be the judge.

A mascot family

The team used to be the Grampus Eight which was always confusing to me. It made me think they were a rugby team and not a soccer team because I thought there were 8 players on a side in rugby (but actually there are 13 in rugby league, 15 in rugby union). The “8” comes from the official symbol of Nagoya, which is the kanji for 8, 八, which I have as the little icon for this blog. I can see why they dropped the Eight – quite confusing.

Let’s hope the typhoon fizzles out and the match goes on without too much difficulty.

The past few weeks

Sorry to all for the lack of posting. On 3/11 the earthquake hit and I was good initially at using social media and my blog to let people know how I was doing, and then obviously I just stopped. There are multiple reasons for that, and just the general energy that each day took following the Tohoku earthquake and the uncertainty associated with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant kept me from blogging.

First thing to report is that I am hardly impacted by the earthquake and by the ongoing issues at the power plant. Radiation levels in Nagoya are at background levels. We are on a completely different power grid so even if I conserve energy it has no impact on the people who are going through the power outages (conservation is good no matter what, don’t get me wrong). For the technically minded out there, Nagoya is on a 60Hz system, and TEPCO and northern Japan use a 50Hz cycle. So the cost of conversion between the two systems are high. The biggest impact I’ve felt personally is that my favorite yogurt is currently unavailable. That’s a small price to pay.

At the beginning though, it wasn’t so clear exactly what was up. My colleague decided on Saturday night, after the quake hit on Friday, to evacuate with his pregnant wife and young son. Other gaijin were also considering leaving as well. My company had no official policy immediately following the events either. Of course I received lots of encouragement from around the world to leave Japan immediately. Apparently the entire island was going to be destroyed in the eyes of some people.

On Tuesday following the quake, my company offered voluntary home leave for expatriate employees and families in Tokyo, but not Nagoya. That didn’t go over too well with the Nagoya-ins, and eventually on Thursday that offer was extended to expatriate employees in Nagoya as well.

I continued to pay attention to the news, plus we were privy to good technical data and analysis of worst case scenarios. Also, we found various links to real data that included radiation levels in Nagoya, a colleague of mine built a little radiation dosage spreadsheet, and I quickly realized that if I did choose to stay in Nagoya, I would have plenty of time to evacuate if things really did get bad.

So I stayed. The general panic and exodus of the expatriate community did not go unnoticed in Japan, and those that left are being called “flyjin”, which is a play on the word “gaijin,” which means foreigner. The media is reporting that there are plenty of business relationships that need to be repaired as those that left slowly come back.

There is a difference, though, between how a local and how an expatriate should react to this situation. For the locals, this is their country, they have their ties, and it is their government who ultimately will be responsible for controlling the situation. They were being told everything was OK, so with some skepticism they accepted it. For the foreigner, given a choice to hope the information was correct and to believe they were not in danger or given the option to return to their homeland, the choice was pretty easy. A lot of my colleagues ended up sending their families home as they stayed on and continued working. The company’s policy all along was that it was safe and remains to be safe, but life in Japan is different than it was before the earthquake.

I am glad that I stayed, and so far I feel like it was the right decision. The period was pretty stressful though as information was fluid and the truth was hard to figure out. I really felt similar to the way I felt post 9/11 in Los Angeles. We were not directly impacted in LA, but definitely impacted as two colleagues were killed on one of the planes (I didn’t personally know them), and my brother lived in New York at the time. There was a general heaviness in the air all the time, and nobody knew exactly how to behave or the expectations on their behavior. That kind of stress is omnipresent and it takes a while to process everything that is going on.

Over time, the amount of thought and energy associated with the events reduce, and life becomes more normal. Of course, for people in Nagoya that happens much faster because most of us are not faced with any real hardship. What continues to be hard for me now is knowing how to help. I’ll have more on that in a later blog entry.

Concern

Although I’ve tried to get the news out on Facebook and Twitter, I thought I would also add a post to my blog because there may be some friends that are reading this blog that aren’t Facebook or Twitter friends. I’d rather saturate with information than under-report and have people worry.

Currently everyone is concerned with ongoing search and rescue operations. Also, there is a real threat at the Fukushima nuclear power plants as well. The event there is already Level 4 (on a scale of 7), and equal to the event in Tokaimura in 1999. Incidently, I was 18 km away from the Tokaimura event, and nearly oblivious to what was happening. Communication has changed a lot since then.

Anyway, to many folks in the US and abroad, distances in Japan are a mystery. I put together a little map to show where Nagoya is relative to Fukushima. Nagoya is about 300 mi SW of Fukushima. In terms of distance, that’s a little longer than Indianapolis to Detroit. In addition, the prevailing winds tend to be to the north and east, so in the event that the incident becomes more severe, the likelihood of a major impact to Nagoya is small.

Nagoya / Fukushima Distance

 

I’m not trying to be cool, or downplay the seriousness of what is going on. I’m very concerned, more concerned for people in the area though than specifically for me. If this incident escalates, it will be very bad, and I am really hoping the Japanese agencies are being forthright with the information. I hope the concern of “shame” does not trump doing the right thing.

One of my colleagues is leaving the country with his small child and pregnant wife. Some European-based companies are evacuating their personnel. I think the memory of Chernobyl and other accidents is still strong in Europe. I have not been directed to leave, nor do I expect to leave. I am monitoring as best I can, I have my work BlackBerry with me and configured to alert me to every email, and if requested to leave, I will.