Monday, April 7, 2014

Fresh fish and cool caves

If I had known that filling up our mp3 player with nothing but Disney songs and Green Day albums would have the unfortunate consequence of Roland jumping out from around every other corner singing, `do you wanna build a snowman?` I would have been a bit more discerning in my taste of road-trip tunes. As I had already colored in every prefecture that forms part of Kyushu on the map stylishly stuck to my fridge with `Attack on Titan` and `Adventure Time` magnets it was time to move my travels a little less south.

Coloring in the prefectures (just driving through does not count) 
And what a little less south it was as Roland and I settled on Yamaguchi, the prefecture so close to our island that they would be asked to move apart at a high school dance. After many renditions of Basket Case and I'll Make a Man out Of You, our voices started to be drowned out by the sad gurgling coming from our stomachs, reminding us that we had yet to stop for lunch. Fortunately we were just about to cross the beautiful bridge linking Fukuoka to a little town called Shimonoseki (or Shimonosexy to those, who like me are eight years old when it comes to humor) and get our hands on some sweet, sweet sushi.

While the fresh fish market is really designed to entice you to try the platters of thinly sliced fugu (puffer fish), my eyes were immediately drawn to the salmon nigiri with basil and a thin slice of lightly grilled cheese draped sexily over it. The market was busy and bustling and I felt a little lost at first with my plastic plate about to be filled with fish that had been singing `Under the Sea` an hour ago but soon I felt the rhythm and the rhyme of the place and started stacking up some of the best sushi I have ever eaten. Next I took my catch of the day up to the second floor, sat down at one of the seats lining the entire market and entertained myself with the sights of the vendors, some wearing puffer fish hats and customers going about their business down below. 

As the sushi settled into its new home, Roland and I jumped into the Daihatsu and bounced that Krusty Krab for our second location. Now I love a good cave, provided I do not have to scuba through tiny tunnels, undoubtedly filled with cave monsters, or climb slick, high walls with only some worn out chains hastily hammered into the stone to keep me from meeting my maker. Akiyoshido did not violate any of my cave liking conditions and so the biggest cave in Japan was the next stop on our journey. I had but walked two steps past the enchanting entrance perched over a clear turquoise pool before my hair frizzed to full orphan Annie from the humid air. I had little time to mourn the loss of my neatly blow-dried locks though as I was too busy staring at the massive cavern I was now standing in. The thing that really messes with your mind is the still lake next to the walkway that reflects the surrounding rock face, damn near giving you vertigo as you look down at that unending abyss. What the cave lacked in stalactites and stalagmites it made up for in rimstone pools that looked appropriately like rice fields and enormous halls of stone that thoroughly tests your ability not to shout Baruk Khazâd to hear what that echo would sound like. At the end you can take an elevator up or climb out using a tunnel decorated in lovely anime panels depicting evolution all the way from a single celled organism to a bright-eyed traveler proudly standing next to his Winnebago.

Awesome entrance

Stille waters, diepe grond, onder draai die duiwel rond!

Rimstone pools
The last stop before hitting that hotel bed hard, was some Karst topography or to be a little less fancy, a grassland dotted with lots of pretty white pinnacles. Yamaguchi was a very gracious host and as I still have bridges out of antiquity and many other sites to see, I will surely make a return trip as soon as I have deleted a certain song about a snowman from my road trip repertoire.       

It would not be a Japanese attraction if there was not at least a little anime


Monday, October 7, 2013

Is that polar bear eating shaved ice?

Foot spa + volcano
Those fifteen minutes were faultless. As I lay back on my elbows watching this enormous mountain effortlessly churn out tons of ash and smoke while Roland and I looked on from a peak further away, I could feel the memory cement its way into my heart. This was however merely the cherry on top of the sweet bowl of shaved ice, as our little adventure started a few days earlier, just as the sun was slowly starting to rise over a glittering Beppu bay.      

With Darth Vader directing us via GPS we hit the scenic route hard as we made our way to Kagoshima via Kumamoto. Growing up with a speed demon for a mother who tolerated only the direst of bathroom breaks has obviously left some scar tissue that manifests itself in compelling me to stop and look at damn near everything I spy with my little eye. We checked out some cute/creepy topiary, walked over the five beautiful bridges of Amakusa and spent the rest of the day giggling at some unfortunate felines at a place called Cuddly Dominion. 

Just look at that face!
A stamp showing some of the bridges.
After brushing off some cat café fur we headed to our on route accommodation that was situated in a town called Minamata. I am always fascinated when history takes a little time off from chilling in the past to pop up in my immediate eye line. This time around it was my ecology textbooks that turned corporeal in front of my face as I looked out at the real versions of pictures I had studied so many years ago. You see our stop over for the evening is known for experiencing one of the world’s most devastating environmental disasters. The town is best known for the time when a local chemical plant dumped untreated wastewater into Minamata bay, causing its citizens to contract a deadly neurological disease (now known as Minamata disease) caused by mercury poisoning. The extremely sad story does have a somewhat happy ending for the people now living in the town as it is one of the frontrunners in environmental living.    

So once we had a good nights sleep and finished a very Japanese breakfast of rice, salad (I am still not on board with this Japan) and two types of fish we made our way to one of the most beautiful parks I have seen to date. The park dedicated to those who died from Minamata disease was beyond words. We saw huge open lawns where some senior citizens were playing with a traditional Japanese top that you maneuver around your head with the help of some string, there were kids playing with pretty music making installations or splashing in the free pool, a bamboo forest showcasing varieties found all over the world and a duck / koi pond that begged for a picnic by its shore. 

Heavy top spinning about your person, not dangerous at all.
 After appreciating the subtleties nature had to offer we were now more in the mood for some fire and brimstone and as such hopped onto a ferry heading for Sakurajima. As we drove all around the island we spent some time soaking our weary metatarsal bones in the free foot onsen and lazily watched a freaking volcano erupt!

Once we had showered away some of the ash that had collected in our eyes and hair (making use of the hotel`s shampoo bar to choose our favorite hair care products), we went hunting for some black pig. Kagoshima, like most other prefectures has a signature dish and I had no beef with the delicious, gamey pork spareribs that we managed to track down. We also turned a corner, while exploring the town, only to find a polar bear eating some shaved ice. The huge stuffed mascot of Shirokuma (white bear) Kakigori (shaved ice with condensed milk and in this case fruit) tempted us to try a treat that has been enjoyed in Kagoshima since the Edo period.

Shampoo bar :D
With our three day weekend running out of steam, Roland and I jumped in our little car, turned onto the express way and started planning our next trip as Sakurajima sent up one last plume of smoke to reflect in our rear view mirror.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Earwax and green apple beans

“We all have two lives. The second one starts when we realize that we only have one.” 
While I have only recently stumbled onto this quote by Tom Hiddleston, the sentiment contained in it has been kicking my ass into all kinds of fun for a good few years now. I realized a while back that I have a finite number of flights around our sun and as such decided to wring as much enjoyment out of this trip as my environment would allow. It is also due to this little revelation that I no longer have guilty pleasures. This does not mean that I no longer get embarrassed when I accidently tell my teacher that I am boobs (oppai) instead of full (ippai) or that I do not know how terrible my reality TV shows are or how nerdy playing with Star Wars toys at 30 seems to a more cultured crowd, it just means that I like what I like and I really like Harry Potter.

And so it was that I tucked this little philosophy into the pocket of my Hermione Granger shirt and set off to the Harry Potter exhibit currently stationed in Tokyo. I was pleased to see that I was not the oldest fan waiting in line, as a man of about 70 or more, was standing all by himself in front of me, waiting to get his Hogwarts on. 

The mist they pumped in smelled like lazer-tag and dreams.
As soon as you enter the exhibit hall the atmosphere starts seeping out of the walls. That quintessential tune starts taking you back to your childhood, as what you thought were movie posters, turn into moving images from all the films. An effervescent guide pops the sorting hat on a few young, Japanese fans` heads and announces which house they will be representing. Then when your eyes cannot get any shinier the wall opens up to reveal the Hogwarts express, hissing steam and leading you to thousands of props used throughout all eight movies. 

I stared at every stitch covering Snape`s robes and had my face inches away from Marauders maps and potions textbooks. The detail was staggering and everything from watching Voldemort`s costume billow in the breeze to throwing a quaffle through a hoop was genuinely fun. Roland eventually seduced me away from all the displays with talk of chocolate frogs from the gift shop and so we eventually made our way out of the building carrying some candy and a new Gryffindor scarf. 

My sweet, sweet swag.
Next we hurried over to J-world in Ikebukuro to see some of our favorite Shonen Jump related anime characters. All the big players like One Piece, Dragon Ball Z and Naruto were present and while anime hipsters often frown at the mention of these titles, they are still among Roland and my favorite shows. The ambiance created by the colorful décor and theme songs playing in all the respective areas had us reminiscing about college days where we and all our house mates would sit glued to the screen when the announcer said `tiiiimmmmeee foooor Dragon baaaaaaall Zzzzzzzz` instead of studying.   
Naruto Area

Some of these were a little too real for my taste.
That night while I sat on the hotel bed laughing at Roland as he spat out a vomit flavored `Bertie Botts every flavor bean` trying not to do the same with the earwax flavor I had just popped in my mouth, I could not be more satisfied with my trip, filled to the brim with not-so-guilty pleasures. I have a feeling that I will have a fair bit in common with the old man I met earlier that day, in that if I am lucky enough to reach 70 or more, I will probably still be visiting anime attractions and rereading Harry Potter for the 200th time.