Sunday, January 08, 2006

Heading South for the Winter

Well, it's been near a month and now, finally it is time to write again.

Part of the reason for my extended abscence was a literal abscence in the form of a vacation I took over the holidays. I flew down to the southernmost island of Japan, Kyushu, to visit my friend Bruno, whom I hadn't seen in almost a year. He lives in the smallish farming town of Miyakonojo which is about an hour inland (west) of Miyazaki about as far south as one can get on the Japanese mainland. Past that and you're in Okinawa, and from what I've been told, it might as well be a seperate country for all it's differences in language and culture.

I left from Nagoya the afternoon of the 23rd of December and arrived in Kyushu a mere hour later. Still, no matter how short a flight it was I love flying. Because Bruno doesn't have a vehicle I had to take the bus an hour to Miyakonojo, but I was heavily engrossed in a book, so it was no sweat. He and his lovely girlfriend Shimon picked me up at the bus terminal and we were off immediately. It seems that we had already been invited to a family dinner with some friends of Shimon's. It was a great time, and Japanese people are always curious about foreigners, so there was plenty to talk about. The matriarch was an English teacher as well, so that helped things along a bit. There were two small children there, and although I can't recall their names they were precious. There was a whole room adjoining the dining area that was literally littered with toys, and during a break in the meal just before dessert Bruno and I dove right in and got those kids laughing up a storm. The whole evening was good wholesome family fun. Nice way to start my trip.

I won't go into the details of the entire trip day to day because much time was spent relaxing and playing scrabble and chess with Bruno, along with watching movies. Again, not having a vehicle hampered us somewhat in terms of getting around Miyazaki prefecture. There are, however, four occasions worth mentioning.

The first was Christmas dinner at Bruno's house. There were about 10 of us in total I think, and what a feast! It was my first experience with a Japanese tradition called 'nabe' and let me tell you, I hope it's not my last. In the afternoon we had gone to the grocery store nearby and stocked up with all manner of vegetables, meat and fish. There was a plethora of edibles, and I could barely imagine the group of us finishing off half of what we had bought. Needless to say I was dead wrong. The easiest way to describe nabe is that it is a kind of stew. You put a broth into a stoneware crock-pot and put it on a burner to boil, adding vegetable and meat once it gets hot enough. Then, as the meal progresses and the food gets consumed you just keep adding more broth and more delicious morsels until there is no more. Even at that point, if people are still hungry often udon noodles will be thrown into the pot, and beyond that point, although I couldn't imagine getting there myself, some people even put in eggs and steamed rice to sop up the remainder. All of this was arranged on two portable gas stoves that were set on the two tables, and we had two different pots going each with their own broth. The night was spent eating, drinking and making merry with all of these folks I had just met, minus Bruno, and it was spectacular. He is a lucky fellow to have such good friends.

The next adventure I want to relate regards the day that Bruno and I took the train into Miyazaki city to do some shopping and to meet up with his friend Chie. She picked us up at the train station and took us to a large mall nearby where we ate lunch and cruised around the stores for a while. Nothing special there, but Chie is a very nice girl and it we were having a great time laughing it up and mostly window shopping. Then she drove us downtown where we dropped off her car and proceeded to the bar/restaurant where she works because she was working that evening. It was a nice place, very stylishly decorated and all wood inside. It felt very cosy, not that the all-you-can-drink beers didn't help some. Bruno and I ordered a pizza there, which he had told me was delicious, and it turns out he was right. When we were sated we strolled over to the train station and headed back to Miyakonojo.

A couple of days later, I think maybe the night before New Years eve, Bruno, his roomate Laughlin, a wonderful chap named Izaku and I drove up into the hills heading for Izaku's favorite hot spring. The place was called Gokuraku, and it was an authentic onsen, let me tell you. It wasn't very big, and it didn't have the variety of baths that the sentos in Kyoto had had, but it was very comfortable and the water was excellent quality. They even had an outdoor bath which was delightful, allowing the cold air to mix with the warm, natural spring water. By the time we left, as with all times leaving a place like that, one feels completely cleansed and at ease. I think these Japanese people are onto something.

I'll end my tales with New Years, and although the telling of it may seem underwhelming, it was a good time. Long ago I gave up believing in some major significance tied in with this one moment in time that the Gregorian calendar declares is a distinct change from one year to the next. I don't know if I'm describing my disillusionment accurately enough, but that's not really important. The evening was actually quite similar to Christmas in terms of everybody gathering at Bruno's place, eating and drinking and making merry. Soba noodles are the traditional New Years eve fare in Japan, and it just so happened to be my first time trying them. I was pleased, but I can't say that they have replaced udon as my favorite type of noodle. Before I continue, I just want to make a brief aside to explain that New Years in Japan in the most important holiday of the year. I couldn't even begin to go into the significance of it due to my own ignorance, but there are many traditions tied into this time of year for Japanese people. Shrines are packed full of revellers of all ages, performing 'hatsumode' which is a prayer, and buying fortunes and good luck charms. Having said that, I can now explain that that is exactly what we ended up doing. Just after midnight when the last of our party finally showed up, we all put on our jackets and grabbed our umbrellas and ventured out into the rainy night for a walk to Kambashira shrine. The entrance to the park where the shrine is located is flanked by what is believed to be the largest torii gate in Kyushu. You can refer to my online photo album for pictures of this monstrosity, and if you look really, and I mean really, hard you can actually see an infinitesimal me underneath the looming beast. So we went, took some snapshots, got our fortunes for the year and bought some charms. Although it didn't seem terribly significant to me, I was glad to have been able to experience the traditional New Years as it happens in Japan.

One last thing I want to mention about the trip before I go, and perhaps one of the nicest things about the whole thing was just how warm it was down there! Warmest Christmas/New Years ever! One day I think I was out in a t-shirt. At the end of December! Since I had originally planned to go to Thailand over the break and it fell through, I was glad to have at least had a little taste of warmth before having to resume life in chilly Fukuroi. That being said, at least there is no snow here, and that too is a welcome change from life in Toronto. I do also want to extend my thanks to Bruno for putting me up, and for putting up with me for such a long stretch. You were a kind and gracious host, and I hope soon to be able to repay that generosity.

Cheers to everyone, and I hope your holidays and New Years were the best possible. Here's to a fruitful and joyful 2006.

P.S. - There are many, MANY new photos on my website, from both this trip and Kyoto. Enjoy.


Post a Comment

<< Home