For my final post in my 30 for 30 series I figured, since I’ve spent a substantial amount of time telling you about places that are mostly in South Africa, I’ll compile the top 7 places that I’ve visited here in Japan. But before we start on that, last week I touched on the fact that age 30 feels meh for me. As promised, I’ve spent the last week and a bit reflecting on these feelings and trying to figure out why they are. That’s probably not enough time to reflect on this big topic but it was enough to have me conclude that it might have to do with this odd bout of homesickness that I find myself wading through right now. Instead of missing South Africa the place, customs and familiarity that it holds, I find myself missing people. In my brain, this is translating into the age 30 meaning almost less than nothing since I can’t spend 30 with the people who have given most of these 30 years meaning. Anyway, before this turns into a pitty post, let’s get back to the real topic for the week.
So I haven’t necessarily been to many places in Japan but I have managed to cover a lot of ground here in Kyushu (the southernmost island of the islands that make up Japan). For those interested in travelling all of Japan as part of crossing off every prefecture of Japan from their bucket list, this might sound great, but as someone who lives in Kyushu right now, something inside me wants to break free of what feels like the most forgotten island of the Japanese archipelago. Anyway, with that said, let’s continue my list of:
30 best travel memories from a wandering soul! – Japan edition!
The first trip I ever took here in Japan, was over the lovely 4-day long weekend that we get in September. As most trips go, this started out as a girls trip for myself and a few of the South African ladies I’d met coming over here. As these things go, by the time that it was time to travel, I was the only one who managed to start the trip towards Kagoshima. This journey was not without its hurdles though. There was a typhoon moving over our part of Japan that weekend (one of the reasons why one of our last willing members tapped out of the trip after getting trapped on her island due to cancelled flights) so I initially planned to take the bus. Because I was two days old in terms of this Japan life, I didn’t have a clue about how long haul buses worked. I waited for a full hour for the bus to come and it never did. Since then I’ve learnt that you need to book your space for these kinds of trips.
Even though it felt like the universe was against this trip at this stage, I decided to fight through my anxiety and find another way to get to Kagoshima. Google maps was a lifesaver that day. I quickly walked over to the intercity bus stop and caught a bus to Nagasaki city (basically the main transport hub if you are trying to leave Nagasaki prefecture). Once I reached the city, I used the self-service machine to get myself a ticket to Kagoshima via bullet train and I was off.
Unfortunately, the good times did not last long. While I was enjoying the first leg of my ride, the train marshall came around to check our tickets. Turns out I didn’t buy the full ticket for the trip. I paid the extra bit that I needed to and held my breath that nothing else would go wrong. When we reached the station where I needed to change trains, I found myself needing to pee. No big deal right? I mean for a normal person who can read the signs and knows where and how they are getting somewhere, absolutely, unfortunately, I was still thoroughly confused when it came to getting around. I went to the loo, and on my way out I realised I had missed the train I was meant to be on. This was okay though as a quick peek at the schedule let me know that there would be another train in 15 minutes. I relaxed a bit, found a place on the platform to sit and took a breather. When the train arrived I’d managed to get my anxiety down again. I was sure nothing else could go wrong at this stage – I mean come on, I was two hours from my final destination.
Man was I wrong. Exactly 6 minutes into the ride something told me to check for my train ticket. My heart sank as I remembered the exact moment – as if watching a movie in my mind – when I sat down in the toilet and put my ticket on the baby changing station. I hadn’t picked it back up again. I was now officially stealing a train ride in Japan. This is perhaps the most afraid I’ve been since getting here. My worst fear was happening. I was going to get arrested for stealing a ride and get thrown in a Japanese jail. My family would never hear from me again as I dissolved into the mystery that is the Japanese justice system. To say I wanted to burst into tears right then and there is an understatement. Fortunately for me, stressful situations usually inspire me to turn to the internet. I Googled my situation in hopes that some official-looking advice would come up and it did. So when you lose your ticket on one of the JR lines, you should tell the train official immediately. Sometimes you will be liable for a replacement fee but if you can tell them where and when you lost the ticket and they manage to find it, you won’t need to worry about paying anything. I flagged down the first official-looking man I saw and told him my situation. He didn’t speak much English but he had this cool translation device that worked better than any translator that I’ve ever used. He asked me to give him a few minutes as he waited to hear from the station where I had lost my ticket. He was probably gone for a good 15 minutes. Even though he had put me at ease about the situation, I still held my breath as I waited for his return. I might not be going to jail, but paying for the whole trip for a second time was a prospect that I was not looking forward to. We were probably 40 minutes from reaching Kagoshima when the marshal finally came back with some good news. They had managed to find my ticket in the exact spot where I had left it so I wouldn’t need to pay. The marshal wrote me a slip to give the people at the station when I finally got off in Kagoshima and that was the end of that. A few hours later I was chilling with the friend I was visiting in Kagoshima, along with a few of her friends while playing a JET Programme version of Cards Against Humanity.
I remember posting on Instagram after this happened that one day I would share the long harrowing tale of the time I used a bullet train for the first time and here it is. Unfortunately, this story has taken up most of the space for all the good things I have to say about Kagoshima. I’ve gone back a few times now and every time I go, it feels like coming home. I’m not sure what it is about this seaside city, that sits next to an active volcano, that has my heart. What I do know is that every time I go, more things are added to the list of reasons of why I love Kagoshima.
25) Unzen and Obama
Winter in Japan is cold. Luckily, I live south enough to enjoy winters that resemble the ones I’m used to in South Africa. That said, it’s still cold yal! With the lack of insulation on our houses to protect us from the cold, by the time winter rolls around, most of our souls are gripped by the icy coldness that is winter. It’s under these conditions that a couple of friends from my town and I decided to go explore the hot spring towns of Unzen and Obama. Japan is on what is called the Pacific ring of fire, so named because of the amount of volcano and earthquake activity that can be found in the area. For a more practical example, South Africa only has 4 hot spring areas (our neighbours in Swaziland have 13 – can I just say how shook I am at all that I’m learning about my country and surrounds during my time writing this blog) whereas Japan has more than 3000 hot spring areas.
So we headed out to Obama, one of the towns famous for hot springs in Nagasaki prefecture, to experience some warmth. I loved Obama because it reminded me of coastal towns back home. Not in terms of vibe or architecture per se, but something about the palm trees lining the beachside road. I don’t know. The buildings were different though, mainly because of the constant cloud of steam pouring out above them. We slept in Obama and decided to drive over to Unzen because it was pretty close. Unzen holds a sad history for Christians, having been the site where many of them where tortured and killed in the hot springs (called Unzen Hells – can you tell that these are the hot springs that aren’t meant for human consumption?). Despite all of this, Unzen is such a beautiful little town that I have wanted to go back since that visit. The cream and grey coloured sands that make up the landscape are so pleasing to the eyes that it makes inhaling that strong sulphur smell worth it.
26) Nagasaki city
Even though I live in Nagasaki prefecture, i.e, this is home, I thought I would make special mention of our main city here. Nagasaki city is about a 45 min drive or train ride from my town. When I first got to Japan, I frequented the area quite often. There’s a bus stop a few minutes from my house, and even though it is slightly more expensive than the train, I enjoy the comfort and convenience of catching the bus. I enjoy visiting Nagasaki because it is so rich in history. At first, I thought that the atomic bomb is all the history that this place had to offer. This is mainly because when you search on the internet about Nagasaki, all that comes up is atomic bomb news. I won’t lie, there are a lot of sites that are dedicated to what happened there in 1945, but that’s not all there is.
Nagasaki has a long history as one of the main trading hubs with the western world. With these ties to the west, it can also be called the birthplace of Christianity in Japan. There are loads of museums and heritage sites littered all over the city dedicated to teaching visitors about this history. Of course, history isn’t the only reason I like to visit Nagasaki. Sometimes it’s just nice to go watch a movie there (my town doesn’t have a cinema – insert broken heart emoji).
Next on my list is the lovely city of Kumamoto. I visited here over a long weekend and this city is great. When I went, my friend and I spent most of the trip just eating. I’m very sure I gained 2kg’s from the weekend. Kumamoto is great for this though. There are so many cute little cafe’s and restaurants and so many unique foods to try too. Japan is controversially known for its taste for whale meat, but not many people know that there are also places here that are known for their taste for horse meat. I’m a yolo kind of girl, and after South Africa’s horse and donkey meat scandal circa 2013, I have always believed that these off-brand meats gave our taste buds something good that was unfortunately lost after the authorities stepped in. Fast forward to my Kumamoto trip, and I was keen to test my hypothesis: Did the fraudulent horse meat make meat products taste good? My friend and I sat down for a mini horse meat barbeque and I didn’t even have to chew twice before I knew. Horse is delicious yal. I am thoroughly disappointed that we picked cows to be mass-produced for food over horses. Where beef tends to just taste like blood or copper, horse meat has a lovely sweet undertone to it that is hard to describe. The meat is also very tender in comparison to beef. I was pleasantly surprised.
Kumamoto made my list not only because of food but because of the general vibe. It’s a city but it’s not overbearing with its cityness. There are actual malls and you can find a few international food joints around too. Thinking about it now, I’m keen to go back to do some more exploring and get some more coffee from Okada Coffee (10/10 would recommend).
This place is known for its cedar trees and as the inspiration to the anime artist behind the movie Princess Mononoke (a movie I only watched after a creepy encounter with a fan who had some dolls from the movie with him in the Mononoke forest – that said, not my fave Studio Ghibli film but to each his own). There’s a saying that says “It rains 35 days a month” on this island and man if that ain’t the truth. Most of our trip was spent under the cover of rain, something that wouldn’t be too bad if there were any indoor activities to keep us occupied, but unfortunately, this island isn’t for that kind of trip. We spent most of our time hiking. For some strange reason, my friend and I, both not hiking people by the way, kept lying to ourselves and somehow goading each other to go further and further up into the mountains. Looking back on it now, I think we need to get honest with ourselves and call it what it is: We love hiking!
I also got to try some flying fish while I was here. Japan has so many different meals dedicated to a different type of fish yal, it’s crazy. Unfortunately, my South African pallet – used to Hake and basically little else – just isn’t cultured enough to appreciate the differences in taste in all the fish they have to offer here. It all tastes like Hake to me. The flying fish just has more bones.
29) Arita and Imari
I’m not a big porcelain fan. Growing up my mother always had ceramics stashed away in her cupboards that were reserved for guests and special occasions. Every December, when it was time for Christmas cleaning, the dishes and glasses would come out and they would get a full wash in preparation for the season ahead. The dishes looked great but I still didn’t get the hype. Fast forward again to my time here in Japan and my friend suggests we pass through the two towns that are famous for porcelain making. I still didn’t get the hype but I was like, sure why not.
We started in Arita which has a small park dedicated to the art of porcelain production. Unfortunately due to the rona the museum wasn’t open. This was okay though because it was much more fun just enjoying the grounds and taking as many pictures of ourselves as we could. The park is built in a dutch styled architecture so everything was just picturesque there. After this, we drove down to a street that is known for its porcelain sales. I had tagged a modern porcelain creator as one of the places to visit and man am I glad I did. When we reached the shop, we found out that they were running a small cafe in the back too. As we strolled through the porcelain displays, the wafts of pulled pork hitting our nostrils convinced us to stay for lunch after dropping some hard cash on some ceramics. You guys, if I could include the taste of that meal here I would. I’m not sure if it was the presentation of the food on the beautiful plates or if the chef is just an artist but the food was heavenly.
With full bellies and happy hearts, we moved on to Imari. If I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting much from Imari after we had seen all the places in Arita. I mean, how much can one possibly do around the culture of porcelain and ceramics? Well, a lot. Imari was different from Arita in that they have an entire small village dedicated to being a sort of porcelain only shopping district. Nestled in a valley between two mountainscapes, it was a real beauty to behold. Overall I think this currently sits at one of the top two destinations that I have visited in Japan.
Last but certainly not least on my very long and elaborate 30 for 30 list is Amami-o-Shima. Oshima just means island, but the number of times I’ve gotten blank stares when I refer to it as just Amami has made me add Oshima in as an explainer now. One of Japan’s less known gems, this island sits almost slap bang in the middle of the sea between Kagoshima and Okinawa (for some perspective, Okinawa is basically the popular kid at school). I am not exactly sure why Amami isn’t more popular because, in my opinion, it holds all the ingredients to be a hot spot tourist destination. It has that cool Ryukyu history going for it (google it, I’m tired of explaining things). The famous Japanese artist Isson Tanaka spent a few years here and earned himself his own museum. There are even some Last Samurai sites to visit, as this is where the man who inspired the movie, Saigo Takamori, was exiled. This isn’t even everything but this is all the touristy things I could cover in my short visit there.
Above all of this, is the island itself. Man, I thought I had seen beauty before but Amami blows all of that out of the water. This island has the most breathtaking natural landscapes I have ever seen. Just driving around one of the bays one day I started crying because of how overwhelmingly beautiful it all was.
Amami also holds a special place in my heart because a good friend of mine lives there. I got to experience the island as a tourist and as a resident and it was great either way. This is probably one of the first places I’ve ever been to where I have looked at what it has to offer and been convinced that I could make a life there as more than just a tourist. It’s been months since my visit to Amami but I still sit down and make art out of the places I saw there.
That brings to a conclusion my list. For those who have made it this far: Thank you for reading. Corona has made it difficult to travel further out recently but I hope to see more of this mountainous country that I am temporarily calling home. Even though everything in my body is trying to make 30 feel like it sucks, I am going to do my best to live a life that challenges that feeling.