It turns out my host family has some connection called optical fiber network. Yet it is not as fast as I would expect fiberoptics to be, probably for one or both of these reasons: either the computer is too outdated or it's not really fiberoptics. But of course, I am happy to be able to check my mail and make occasional posts to this blog so that people don't forget that I'm still here... Gotta make do with what you got.
Here are some links to my golden week pictures. It was truly a fantastic week. Perhaps never again will we be simultaneously so carefree and filled with youthful spirit, both of the non-alcholic and alcoholic varieties. Although in Japan, one cannot hope to socialize without drinking, so it seems. But I digress. Taking advantage of the JR pass, which we had so much trouble trying to redeem only to realize that there was no need for trickery of any type (yah should've listened to you Li), we romped through Takamatsu, Tokushima, and Matsuyama in northern shikoku and then through Oita, Mt. Aso, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, and Hakata in kyushu. I think I've seen enough trains, of all types, during the trip to be officially sick and tired of trains. Never, however, will I fail to be impressed by how technologically superior and surprisingly comfortable the trains in Japan are compared with the ones I've ridden in the United States. Just picture this... trains the bank on turns like airplanes and trains that travel silently at disturbingly fast speeds...
Really quickly, here are my impressions of the various stops along our journey. Tokushima's Naruto uzushio (whirlpool) turned out to be kind of a disappointment. We got there too late, it was low tide hence no whirpool in sight, and the ferry's stopped their service for the day. We did get a terrific view of a small part of the setonaikai (inland sea) on the Great Naruto Bridge overlooking the strait. We saw the inland sea when we crossed the setoohashi bridge from Okayama (in honshu) to Takamatsu as well. It is an extremely peaceful and natural area away from the bustling urban culture that dissipates from the likes of Tokyo and Osaka.
Moving on, Takamatsu had some delicious sanuki udon. The innkeeper gave us a guide to all the udon places in the city. If they have such a map for any city, the udon must be fantastic. We also went to ritsurin garden which, although it is written in the tour guide that it is not one of the top three gardens in Japan, the scenery was quite impressive. Check out the pictures in a bit.
After a three hour long express train ride from Takamatsu to Matsuyama and then a stinking hot and slow street car ride, we arrived in Dogo, a hotspring resort town. It is famous for Dogo onsen, a public bath facility where Daryl, Brian, Michael, Jason, and I let it all hang out. After a long hot bath we found ourselves dressed in yukatas sipping tea and eating cookies while the tingling breeze blew in from outside. At night, we had a marvelous dinner at Sushimaru, a restaurant praised in my travel guide and located right next to the hotel.
The next day, we woke up early and caught the ferry from Matsuyama to Oita. On the three hour long boat ride, Stephanie introduced us to the game Munchkins and got us all addicted. Before we knew it, we had arrived in port.
From Oita, we took a train to Mt. Aso. When we got to the youth hostel, we discovered that it was already too late for a hike in the mountains. To find a place to eat, we had to walk a ways back to the station where we found a satisfying and affordable ramen meal in one of the two restaurants in the area. The next day we ate at the other one. That was after heading up Mt. Aso by bus and then to the cone by ropeway. The wind was howling on the top of the volcano and ironically it was freezing. There also wasn't much to see with the morning fog covering the mountain like a veil. But every once in the a while the clouds would clear and reveal a pool of sickly green and blue bubbling vat of who-knows-what at the center of the cone.
From Mt. Aso, we took a train down to Kumamoto, where we decided to take a break from the long train ride and stretch our legs. We headed to Kumamoto castle which in my opinion was quite an impressive and solid structure. Who knows though, it might have burnt to the ground and since been reconstructed like what appears to have happened to most if not all historic buildings in Japan.
From there we left for Nagasaki. During Japan's period of isolation, Nagasaki was the only port open to foreign trade. It was also where the persecuted Japanese Christians sought refuge. And finally, it was also the site of the second atomic bomb detonation. Nowadays, the city seems to have recovered quite nicely and has since benefited from the foreign influence with national treasures like the Oura Cathedral (which was not very spectacular compared to Stanford's Memorial Church), Ming Chinese style temples, and the Peace Park. Having traveled for the previous days in the countryside, it was good to be back in the city again. We hit up karaoke the first night. Then the second night, we couldn't find any clubs other than sketchy hostess clubs suggested by equally sketchy girls in sketchy dresses standing in sketchy poses saying sketchy phrases in sketchy voices. We opted for Jason buying some alocohol and returning to the hotel to play King's Cup in celebration of Brian's 21st birthday.
Our last and final stop was Hakata in Fukuoka. We stayed an hour's train ride away at the Takeo Onsen youth hostel for the night. That night, we headed to Hakata to check out the opening night for the Dontaku festival. We came away a little disappointed the first night since we were expecting larger crowds and more rowdy behavior and inebriated people. The next day, we saw the people. Though sober, they lined the streets everywhere watching a huge parade of school bands, baton troops, dancers, the Fukuoka soccer team, etc. It was quite an experience and definitely worth the visit. In the end, I've decided that Hakata really is a happening place. And it was not named the city of beautiful women for nothing.
We concluded the trip with a 4 and a half hour long shinkansen ride from Hakata back to Kyoto. It was truly a fabulous trip and I thank Brian, Stephanie, Michael, Jason, and Daryl for coming along with me. It certainly wouldn't have been the same without them. During the trip we starved a little, worried a bit about where we would stay the next night, got lost, found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, waited around for trains, waited around on trains, slept on floors, met with disappointment after disappointment and frustration. But looking back, even I am impressed by how much we saw. Just the fact that we were able to get through ok sticking as closely to the plan as time and money permitted is quite an accomplishment in itself. Traveling in a foreign country, trying to communicate with the vocabulary of a four-year old, I think we gained an invaluable and priceless experience. And gosh it was fun.