On the first weekend of April, Austin and I were out hiking in the north of Nobeoka when all of a sudden it began to snow. Snow! In April! I shouldn’t have been so surprised – it’s been a pretty weird spring so far. Not only has the weather stayed unusually cold in Miyazaki, the cherry blossoms have been late to bloom. When the sakura were finally rumored to make an appearance this past weekend, we were disappointed to learn that rain was also forecast.
“Wanna go to Kumamoto?” Austin asked.
I immediately replied, “I’ll find us a place to stay.”
One of his colleagues had recommended Hitoyoshi for cherry blossom viewing, and having already fallen in love with the town during my first visit, I was just waiting for a reason to go back. Sure enough when Saturday came, it was pouring. We packed the car and left Miyazaki City after lunch.
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.
“Cherry blossoms in spring, they mean everything…” coos the Night Beds’ Winston Yellen on the sixth track of Country Sleep. A truer line could never be sung for Japan. Here, cherry blossoms are spring.
From the first bloom in Okinawa in February, the forecast is predicted and tracked as it heads to the mainland and then spreads north. The arrival of the pink and white popcorn balls are eagerly awaited; sakura is the unofficial national flower of Japan and has been revered in art, culture and poetry for centuries.
But spring came late to Miyazaki this year; the weather is not nearly as warm as it should be and the blossoms were slow to open, with a bout of rain causing them to fall before they reached their full potential. Streets and parks are still covered with a dusting of pink snow, reminding, perhaps more than usual, of the beauty of transience.
I spent three different days tracking their progress in Saito City, along with the rapeseed that is in full bloom.
In Shintomi Town, on the road from Takanabe to Saito, is a garden carpeted in bright, pink flowers. During spring, when the shibazakura (moss phlox) is in full bloom, the private residence attracts up to 3,000 visitors a day. People come to admire the beautiful flowers, of course, but the garden is attractive for another reason; the story of how it came to be.
Due to the stubborn Mei-yu front, most of East Asia experiences a two-month rainy season. During June and July, the weeks become an endless parade of cloudy days, accompanied by debilitating humidity and, if you’re not careful, drawers full of mould. In Japan, this period is known as tsuyu or baiu [梅雨], which literally translates to ‘plum rains’; the season is supposedly named for coinciding with the ripening of the plums.
This year in Miyazaki, which delivers up to 1,000 mm (39 in) of the wet stuff during tsuyu, we bid farewell to our sunshine and good hair days at the end of May. It’s been pretty much a constant downpour ever since (it’s raining as I type this), and it’s getting depressing. Thankfully, there is an upside: the hydrangeas are in bloom.
“This… is so wonderful that I don’t know how to express it,” said British diplomat Harry Smith Parkes of his sojourn at Senganen in 1866. “Anyone who visits there must be stricken by a desire to stay for three years at least.”
The historic garden was built in 1658 by the second lord of the Shimazu clan, and contains within it the family’s former summer villa. It was used to entertain guests of the daimyô and, overlooking Mt. Sakurajima and Kinko Bay, often left a lasting impression on its visitors. A small pond and hill are integral to the design of Japanese gardens; Senganen ‘borrows’ these elements from the ocean and volcano.
Two years ago, I would have never considered disappearing into the countryside for 4 days by myself. Growing up in a city where danger is perceived to be lurking around every corner, having backup was always essential for when the shit inevitably hit the fan. But in Japan, I feel safer, and while I still lock my doors and check them at least once before bedtime, being alone doesn’t really make me jump any more.
So when “Golden Week” – a cluster of public holidays in the same week – began to approach, I decided to do something I’ve never done: road trip solo.
Miyazaki is definitely an underrated prefecture, and one of the more un-known, buried in the depths of Google’s search results, under all the pages dedicated to Hayao and his many castles. But the great thing about living in the middle of nowhere is that there are plenty of places hiding in the countryside, waiting to be discovered.
One such gem is Tōgō-chō [東郷町], a beautiful little mountain village 20 minutes outside of Hyuga city (although it merged with Hyuga in 2006). It is the birthplace and hometown of the famed poet, Wakayama Bokusui.
After leaving the snow in Nagano behind, and spotting hundreds of tree lilacs on the drive from Nikko to Ibaraki, John and I were starting to feel spring fever. Which is why, on the last day of our holiday, we decided to head to Saitama for the annual cherry blossom festival in Gongendo Park (権現度公園).
We had checked the park’s website the night before and were thrilled to discover that the trees had officially been declared in bloom. Since cherry blossoms open and fall in the same week, we had got the timing just right. Or so we thought.
One of the history teachers who used to work at my school (he was transferred to Miyakonojo) sent me on a little treasure hunt one typhoon day. The students weren’t at school and I was sitting at my desk wondering why the teachers bother to come in. I guess he figured I was bored, so he gave me a clue and sent me off looking for a haniwa, or burial statue, hiding somewhere on the grounds.
I never did find it, granted I wasn’t much into looking for it in the rain, and so he ended up pointing it out to me. It was almost identical to a statue I had seen sitting under my neighbour’s carport. He explained that they were burial statues and that there was a whole garden of them in Miyazaki City, which he urged me to visit.
My former roommate and longtime bro, Matthew, decided to come to Miyazaki for a week during a month-long visit to Japan. Since Culture Day fell on Monday the 3rd, and I had a day of daikyu on the 4th, we were able to spend 4 days exploring together.
On the Saturday, I took him off to Saito to experience his first Japanese festival. Two fellow JETs were participating in the Saitobaru Kofun Matsuri – an annual fire festival that includes a torch parade from the Tsuma Shrine through the Saitobaru Burial Mounds, and a big bonfire.
It was supposed to be a jam-packed weekend: John was coming down for a visit, Monday was a holiday and there were three festivals to enjoy. Instead, Typhoon Vongfong came barrelling straight towards Miyazaki, wrecking all of our plans.
So when Saturday morning woke us up with a slither of sun, it was all the motivation we needed to jump in the car and head to Kobayashi.
Less than two hours outside of Tokyo, Hitachi Seaside Park is one of the best places to view flowers in Japan. With seasonal gardens that sprawl across 1.9 sq km (0.3 sq mi) of land in Hitachinaka City, Ibaraki, the park is an ever-changing palette of colours all year round.