“You ate what?” Maria-san asked with surprise.
“Wild boar and deer.”
She scrunched up her nose in disgust, “Urgh…really?”
“Yeah, it was delicious!”
“Oh no,” she frowned unconvinced, “I’ve never tried it.”
Maria is the co-owner-co-chef of one of my favourite restaurants in Miyazaki, which made her reaction that much more amusing. It’s not an uncommon one in Japan though, where game meat seems to have a pretty poor reputation. As my one colleague explained it, “most people are put off by the smell.”
Last Saturday, generals at the Nyutabaru Air Base in Shintomi Town, Miyazaki, constructed and hung a giant teru teru bozu doll from the awning of the Fifth Air Wing offices. Traditionally believed to bring good weather, it was hoped the doll would eliminate the rain forecast for the following day, when the base would hold its annual air show.
The Nyutabaru Air Festival is the biggest of its kind in western Japan. Every December up to 100,000 aviation enthusiasts and photographers from all over the country descend on the aerodrome, just a 40 minute drive from Miyazaki City.
Visitors can explore the base, see various airplanes and equipment from the Japanese military on display, and grab a bite to eat from one of many food stalls, or shop for souvenirs at pop-up stalls selling caps, t-shirts, bags, posters and DVDs of Japanese aircraft. But the festival’s biggest attraction is an hour-long display by the Japan Air Self Defense Force’s (JASDF) aerobatic demonstration team, Blue Impulse.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Just wait for the next wave. Ok, now go! Move your hand around!”
A tiny spec of blue suddenly appeared under the water.
“Woah! I see one! There’s another one!”
Mermaid fireflies, dancing around our hands and legs.
“Holey shit, that’s cool!”
It had been a really long day, but I immediately forgot I was tired. It was going to be a great night; I could just feel it.
On the last Saturday of August, Danielle and I packed up my old but trusted Kei, Anene, and headed out for the long drive to the southernmost tip of Miyazaki prefecture, picking up Austin and Alicia on the way. Cape Toi is one of my favourite places in Kyushu, but I had yet to experience its single most popular event – the annual Toimisaki Fire Festival.
At different times in my life, August has either represented the approaching autumn, or the coming spring. And as if to echo those transitions, it has marked my most exciting beginnings and most painful endings. Consistently, it has been a month of change.
Now, as a JET, August is the time of year when I have to bid farewell to old friends who have made the decision to return home, and welcome new ones who have just arrived to start their Japan adventure. Anyone who has lived abroad for a length of time will understand just how hard those hellos and goodbyes can be.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt on this very crazy journey of my own it’s that change can bring about the most beautiful of things.
“I’m pretty sure it will come down this way,” I said to Ian. We’d been waiting on the curb of the tree-lined avenue that runs from Meiji Shrine up to Omotesando.
“That guy asked the official standing over there and I’m pretty sure she said it will come down this way.”
I heard a voice to my right.
“Do you know if it’s coming down this way?”
I turned to find a brunette standing next to me with a blonde guy by her side.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it is,” I said.
“I’m Maria, by the way, and this is Chris.”
“Where are you guys from?”
“We work in Denmark.”
“But I’m Irish,” Chris smiled.
And so there we were – a South African, American, Venezuelan and Irishman – celebrating St Patrick’s Day in Japan.
WELCOME TO NAGASAKI! I fist-bumped the air as we drove across the border into Kyushu’s westernmost prefecture – the only one I had yet to conquer on Japan’s third largest island.
Ian, Vidy and I were making our way down for Nagasaki Lantern Festival. The event, now in its 22nd year, draws crowds that make it nearly impossible to find accommodation anywhere near the city center. So we had driven to Saga the night before (Friday), slept over in a hotel, and were now completing the final leg of our 5-hour journey.
When we finally pulled into the park where Ian and I planned to car-camp for the night (Vidy had managed to hustle some floor space in a local B&B), the light drizzle that had followed us all the way from Kumamoto had finally stopped. It might not be the fanciest of accommodations, I thought to myself, but boy do we have a view.
“We’re going to miss the balloons.”
“Stop being a Negative Nancy.”
“I didn’t drive 4+ hours to miss the balloons. If we miss the balloons, I’m going to be pissed.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“I see a balloon.”
“No you don’t. Where?”
“Behind that house. You can’t see it from where you’re sitting but I see a balloon.”
“Where? Oh… there. I see another one!”
“There’s four now.”
“At least six!”
“We’re missing the fucking balloons.”
Every year on the third Saturday of July, Chiran holds its own, miniature, version of the famed Nebuta Festival that takes place in Aomori City. Large washi lanterns, decorated with images of legendary warriors, are hand-wheeled up and down the town’s main shopping street, accompanied by drums, flutes and dancing. In the Chiran adaptation, the performers still wear the traditional haneto costume and chant “rassera, rassera’ to liven up the crowd, but it has a character of its own, with a smaller crowd and oozing a charm that only small towns can.
Here in the inaka, rice fields are woven into the scenery like squares on a patchwork quilt. The need for a calendar is obviated by their narrative of the seasons; glassy strips in early spring, neon sprouts in summer and golden ears by the end of autumn. Kyushu is where paddy cultivation is believed to have begun in Japan some 3,000 years ago. Since then, the grain has endured a long and complex history in the country, and although consumption has declined in recent years, it is still considered a cultural and an economic staple.
The Japanese word for cooked rice, gohan, literally translates to ‘honourable food’, emphasizing the esteem in which the crop is held. In Misato town, a special festival is held on the first Sunday in July to honour the fields and pray for a good harvest.
If ajisai is the quintessential flower of tsuyu season, the firefly must be it’s insect. Called hotaru in Japanese, these lightning bugs swarm around streams and rivers in the countryside from late May to June and can be viewed in some places up until August. In Kobayashi, Idenoyama Park hosts a firefly festival every year, and after talking about going for almost a month, I finally got to it.
Fukiagehama beach is one of Japan’s three biggest sand dune systems. Bordered with pine forests, and facing the East China Sea, it’s also a beloved spot for both the residents of Minamisatsuma City, and the loggerhead turtles who come to lay their eggs there. But it is best known for hosting an annual event that brings artists from all over the world to showcase a unique talent; sand sculpting.
Mark and I have been joking that I should rename my blog “Following Mark around Japan” since the last couple of posts have all been about my adventures with him. And this one is no different; on Wednesday it was Showa Day, and since we both had the day off from school, we decided to head down to Mimata Town to check out the Hayauma Festival.
Hayauma is a supplication festival for the increase of animal stocks. It takes place at different venues throughout Japan, but every year on April 29, you can see it in Mimata Town. The Google translate version of the town’s website had the venue down as ‘Hayuma Shrine’, but when we put that into Google Maps, the GPS led us to the local bowls tournament.
Up until Saturday, my music festival experience consisted of five dusty days at Woodstock 9 in the highway town of Harrismith, Free State. So when Mark invited me to celebrate his birthday with a couple of friends at a two-day gig in Hyuga, I was game.
But first I had to go to work. It was PTA Day at school and while the other teachers were giving lessons in front of the parents and attending meetings, I was in the office keeping the desks and chairs company.
As I thought about the less pleasant side of our Woodstock trip (our tent being raided and the bathrooms getting clogged on the first day), I wondered what a Japanese music festival would be like. The hours ticked by, and finally, at 5pm, I hit the road.