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.
In Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis wrote, “The love of knowledge is a kind of madness.” I must be kind of mad, then, because everyone who knows me knows that I suffer from incessant curiosity. And if you read my blog, you know that that curiosity regularly centres on the morbid. A forest of suicide victims ? A prison of torture? There like a fucking bear.
It sometimes disturbs me – perhaps ironically – how much I am drawn to this darkness. Especially so when I think back to how young I was when I began poring over news articles and books and documentaries on the most gruesome of cases, the most terrifying of things.
But then I remind myself that everyone loves a good train wreck; our propensity for the macabre just manifests in different ways…gory reality TV, courtroom dramas, disaster footage, celebrity scandals, reddit AMAs…
I indulged myself most recently by exploring an abandoned hotel on Miyazaki’s most southern tip.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Woaah!” I exclaimed to Mark. “Are you seeing this?” The red shrine that he was investigating wasn’t enough to distract me from the roar of water falling down. An unexpected stop on our roadtrip to Miyakonojo had led us down a flight of stone stairs to meet the majestic Sekino-o Falls.
With the cherry blossoms forecasted to open in Miyazaki later this week, our original plan was to see if we could catch any early bloomers; the sakura festivals will take place around Miyazaki next weekend but I’ll be away in Nagano and Nikkō then.
We had been in Mochio Park, enjoying the couple of blossoms that had opened and the tree lilacs in full bloom. We were definitely too early to see the sakura in all of their pink and popcorn glory, though. But the view of the surrounding countryside from Mochio Shrine was pretty impressive.
At this time of year, special dolls are set out on displays in homes and shops around Japan for the annual hinamatsuri (doll festival) celebration on March 3.
I’ve always been a teddy bear person, but I had a couple of porcelain dolls as a child. I was always careful to be extra nice to them when we played, in the way that you might appease a person with crazy eyes because, well, they might cut you. In ancient Japan, it was believed that dolls can indeed possess evil spirits.
In a practise known as hina-nigashi (doll floating), straw dolls were set afloat down the river to drive bad forces away. Over time, this evolved into the modern day hinamatsuri festival, which now celebrates the health and happiness of young girls.
After Naked Man Festival, we decided to drive the hour south to see Obi Castle Town (飫肥城下町), the “Little Kyoto” of Kyushu. The town was built on the remains of Obi Castle, ruled by the Ito Family for 14 generations.
The original castle was governed by the Shimazu Clan of Kagoshima, until it was offerred to the Ito Clan in 1587 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi for their aid during the Kyushu campaign. In the 1970s, work began to rebuild the neglected castle and surrounding town, which now reflects an authentic castle town of the Edo period. It was the first castle town to be registered as a Preservation Area in Kyushu.
Through the main gate, Otemon, you follow the wide, stone steps up to the Obi Clan Historical Museum. Here, you can choose from several different walking tour packages. For just ¥610, we got a ticket to see 7 of the town’s buildings.
When I returned to Japan after Christmas break, I found it only a couple of degrees warmer than I left it. Averaging a high of 13°C a day (about 55°F), the Miyazaki winter is by no means brutal, but it takes some getting used to for a Southern-hemispherian like myself. Scraping ice off my car windows before work in the mornings has certainly been a new experience. Which is why I can’t imagine wanting to take a dip in the ocean at this time of year. In January, however, over 9 000 people in Japan do precisely that.
The Hadaka Matsuri (裸祭り), or Naked Man Festival, is a purification ritual that takes place at different locations all throughout the country. Despite it’s name, it’s open to both men and women. In Miyazaki, the festival happens on Coming of Age Day, which fell on the 12th this year, at Aoshima-jinja (青島神社). Since it was a public holiday, Mark and I decided to go check it out.
For a country that doesn’t really celebrate Christmas, Japan sure knows how to do Christmas lights. They are the romantic backdrop for Christmas Eve – a night celebrated like Valentines Day, where couples take strolls to see the lights and then enjoy dinner at a fancy restaurant.
The lights are called ‘illuminations’ (イルミネーション) and go up in December. They stay put well into January, sometimes even until February. But seeing Christmas lights after December isn’t as fun, I don’t think, and after this week, I’ll be away until after New Year. So, on Saturday, I went with Mark to see Miyazaki’s best offering at Florante botanical park.