After four years, the time has finally come to say goodbye to my life in Japan. In just a few days, I’ll be getting on a plane bound for Stars Hollow. That’s right, ladies and gentleman, the fourth Gilmore girl is on her way! Oh, but if only. I will be moving to Connecticut though. That feels weird to say. For a long time, I’ve called Takanabe home and it feels surreal to be leaving it.
As someone who’s had to do a lot of grieving, I’ve come to know that goodbye isn’t just a single word or event; it’s a process through which, little by little, you learn to let go.
The range of emotions that comes with packing up a life is certainly vast; I’ve felt everything from an irrational fear of missing out on experiences in Miyazaki I’ll never have, to an intense worry about my future, to a profound gratefulness for all the times I’ve had living in this wonderfully weird place. I am deeply sad to be leaving, but also very relieved to break out of this bubble.
In the Valparaíso Region of Chile, a group of statues equal in shape and size rise from a site known as Ahu Akivi and stare out into the Pacific Ocean. These mysterious Maoi are just some of thousands discovered on Easter Island, built by the Rapa Nui to honor important people who had passed on. More than 14,000 km (± 8800 mi) away, on the southern coast of Miyazaki, Japan, the world’s only sanctioned replicas of these statues can be found staring back.
Situated on a gorgeous hill that overlooks the Nichinan Coast, the Miyazaki statues form part of a seaside park called Sun Messe. There are seven figures in all, each standing 5.5 m (18 ft) high and weighing about 20 tons. Each statue represents a blessing (health, love, leisure, marriage, money, business, and academics) and the spirit of one of the seven Easter Island explorers.
Why on earth would a city like Nichinan reproduce monoliths from a Chilean island, you ask? Well, because Japan.
“Please visit Kumamoto Castle,” my colleague urged when I told her we’d be driving through Kumamoto City on the way back from Nagasaki during the Golden Week holidays. The popular tourist attraction is Japan’s third-largest castle, after Osaka Castle and Nagoya Castle. It is especially well known for its expansive grounds, numerous buildings, and more than 500 cherry trees that make it a popular hanami spot in the spring.
Since last year, Kumamoto-jō has become even more iconic after surviving extensive damage during the April 2016 earthquakes that killed 50 people and left thousands injured and trapped under collapsed buildings.
As a result of the tremors, roof tiles fell from the castle, the outer walls collapsed, and the foundation was damaged. Several of the castle’s shachihoko ornaments, an animal from Japanese folklore hung on roofs to protect buildings from fire, were also destroyed.
Of all the things we had planned to do in Nagasaki, I was most curious to see the Peace Park. Established in 1955 to commemorate the atomic bombing on August 9, 1945, it is built on a hill directly north of the hypocenter. The top of the slope offers a commanding view of the city below; looking down at the many trees and rolling hills, it’s hard to imagine this place was every anything but gorgeous and green.
Having already visited the peace park in Hiroshima, where the first bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945, I wondered how Nagasaki’s would fare without its own A-Bomb Dome, which has come to be such an iconic symbol of peace.
Not knowing the exact layout of the park, we followed the route Google Maps had given us and ended up outside the entrance to the Atomic Bomb Museum. The museum was opened in 1996 to mar the 50th anniversary of the atomic blast. I had skipped the museum on my visit to Hiroshima because the line to get in was impossibly long, so I was eager to see inside here.
On top of Minami-yamate, a gorgeous hillside overlooking Nagasaki Harbour, sits Glover Garden (グラバー園), an open-air museum of the homes of former Western residents of the city, who settled there after the end of Japan’s isolationism in the latter half of the 19th century. The Garden is the original site of the former residence of Scottish trader, Thomas Blake Glover, and features six other mansions which were dismantled, moved, and reconstructed here as important national cultural properties.
The walk up to Glover Garden begins at Oura Catholic Church, the oldest wooden church of Gothic architecture in Japan. It was built in 1864 by the French missionary Bernard Petitjean of Fier, and dedicated to the 26 martyrs who were executed on Nishizaka Hill. In 1865, Hidden Christians from Urakami came to the church and professed their faith to Father Petijean after two years in hiding. Pope John Paul II visited the site in 1981 and declared it the “Miracle in the East”.
Next to Oura Church, is one of two entrances into Glover Garden. Along with entry, the 600円 ($5.20) ticket gets you a map and cardboard cutout Glover mask that you can use to take pictures with. Two escalator rides later, Austin and I found ourselves in front of the Mitsubishi dock house, a former facility where crew members could rest while their ships were in for repairs. Even more impressive than the house is the view from its garden, which overlooks Nagasaki Bay and the surrounding hillside.
I’ve always dreamed of visiting the Netherlands, partly due to my Dutch ancestry but mostly because of my love of cheese and other edibles. So when Golden Week began approaching, an annual string of public holidays, and Austin and I were planning a road trip around western Kyushu, I figured why not make a stop in Japan’s very own Amsterdam.
Huis Ten Bosch (ハウステンボス) is a 17th-century style Dutch-themed amusement park located in Sasebo, Nagasaki facing Omura Bay. Named after one of the residences of the Dutch Royal Family, the “House in the Forest” recreates the atmosphere of a Dutch city with windmills, canals, and tulip gardens straight out of a Jacob van Ruisdael painting.
The park is the size of Monaco and pays homage to the city’s relations with Holland, which date back to Japan’s isolationist period. Despite the country’s sakoku policies at the time, Dutch traders were allowed to buy and sell wares on Hirado island, and later Dejima in Nagasaki Bay.
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.
“Please visit Miyazaki again,” a sign reads at the entrance to the prefecture’s last tunnel burrowing through the Kyushu Mountain Range on Route 219. When you emerge on the other side, another one is waiting to greet you: “Welcome to Kumamoto!” It’s as if the passageway is a portal, transporting you to another world. And that’s exactly what Hitoyoshi feels like: a dreamy hidden town that’s come to life from the pages of a storybook.
Just a two hour’s drive from Miyazaki City, Hitoyoshi is located in southernmost Kumamoto, in a basin that’s enveloped in fogs from late autumn to early spring. Once a lake, the town is also an onsen resort, fed by the alkaline and carbonated hot spring waters that flow from rock layers containing fossilized trees.
More than 25 public baths are scattered around town and dotted along the banks of the Kumagawa. Flowing from its source in the Kyushu Mountains down to the Yashiro Sea, the 115 km-long (71 mi) river turns to powerful white water once it reaches Hitoyoshi, making it an ideal location for canoeing and an abundant source of ayu, or sweetfish.
Two crouched rikishi look each other dead in the eye. In perfect symmetry, they rub their hands together, clap once, and then move their arms out slowly to their sides, first facing their palms up, and then turning them to face down. They put their hands on their knees, still not breaking eye contact. One grabs a handful of salt and throws it into the air, and then they both lift their legs out to their sides and bring them back down to the ground. The salt will purify the dohyo; the stomping will drive away bad spirits; and the arm movements will show that they are unarmed. Once the greeting ceremony is complete, the match can begin. They put their fists on the ground. Hakkeyoi!
Sumo is more than just a sport. In this Japanese style of wrestling, the pre-match ceremony often lasts longer than the bout itself, with each movement carefully performed to honor the activity’s core values: integrity, dignity, discipline and strength. Intertwined with the country’s Shinto religion, the history of sumo spans almost 2,000 years. Ancient wall paintings reveal that it was first performed to pray for a bountiful harvest when planting rice.
The earliest written account of sumo, found in the 8th century history book Kojiki, recounts a tale in which the possession of the Japanese islands was decided by a sumo match between the gods Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata. The former won the bout and is believed to have established the imperial family from which Akihito, Japan’s present emperor, traces his ancestry.
AIR RESCUE POINT. The small, yellow sign caught my eye as I clambered over another giant boulder. Take note, I teased myself, this is where they’ll have to come to find you. I was two hours and 40 minutes into the 4,25 km (2.6 mi) ascent of Kaimondake. Most of the hike so far had been a gentle walk, but this last bit was proving to be quite tough. The rock I was standing on was propped up against the cliff face by another rock, and next to it was a sharp drop into the trees and shrubs below.
Located in the Ibusuki region of Kagoshima, “Open Gate Mountain” is a dormant stratovolcano that is part of the submerged Aira caldera in Kagoshima Bay and belongs to the Kirsihima-Yasu National Park. It last erupted in 885 AD and is the 99th of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains as listed in the popular 1964 book by Kyuya Fukada.
Kaimondake is nicknamed the “Fuji of Kyushu” for its similarity in shape and symmetry to Japan’s most famous peak, although it’s just a quarter of its size standing at 934 m (3031, ft). The relatively small mountain rises straight from sea level though, making its elevation change of 815 m (2,700 ft) from the first station a challenge for even the experienced hiker.
At this time of year, the terrifyingly life-like fibreglass statues of Colonel Sanders that guard the entrance to every KFC in Japan are dressed up in red suits and Santa hats ready to greet the long line of customers waiting to pick up their Christmas dinner: roast chicken, champagne and strawberry shortcake.
Born out of a Western visitor’s search for a turkey substitute, “Kentucky for Christmas” has been going strong since 1974. The campaign is one of the many odd mutations of Western culture to be exported to Japan; Christmas here is most enthusiastically observed by young couples, who exchange presents and enjoy a romantic dinner out in an occasion more akin to Valentine’s Day.
But there’s one Christmas tradition that Japan has borrowed and not butchered: the illumination.
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.
During the Age of the Gods, the daughter of the Japanese sea King Ryujin, Toyotama, lived with her father in the underwater palace of Ryugu-jo. One day, the dragon goddess met a young hunter named Hoori who had come to the bottom of the ocean looking for a missing fishing hook that belonged to his brother. The two fell in love and were married.
After a few years of living together in the palace, Hoori began to long for a life above the sea. He convinced Toyotama to come with him and, pregnant with his child, she agreed. They set up camp inside a cave along the shore and soon after Toyotama went into labour.
Not wanting her husband to see her transform into her alternative form, Toyotama begged him to wait outside. Curiosity got the better of him, though, and he peered in to find a giant black dragon holding a baby. Ashamed, Toyotama fled back to the sea, leaving her breasts behind to feed the newborn child.