Thursday, January 28, 2010

Winter Vacation - Beppu

After leaving Aso we took a bus to Beppu where we checked into our hostel for the night. The next morning we were up early and on the onsen/hot spring trail.

We started off at the Takegawara onsen which was only 100 yen and very basic. They didn't even have showers - you just dunked your bucket into the pool and rinsed yourself off before climbing in. It was full of other tourists and wrinkly bent over old ladies. And the water was very very very hot.

Then it was onto one of the famous Hells. The hells are hot springs that you don't get in but just look at and are unashamedly tourist traps. There are eight in total but Danielle and I narrowed it down to four we wanted to see and even then I skipped the last one. I was much more interested in sitting in hot springs rather than looking at them.

The first one we visited was Chinoike Jigoku or the bloody hell. It's name comes from the color of the water which is a nice red. Although I was disappointed to learn that it's not really the water that's red but clay at the bottom of the pool.

I was dressed to match!


A statue of an oni or devil at Chinoike.

Then it was onto another onsen. We visited Hyotan Onsen for lunch and a post-meal bath. The food was delicious and the baths were beautiful. They had a variety of indoor baths, including a waterfall bath that massaged your shoulders and an outside bath with another waterfall and momiji (autumn leaves) that floated down and into the water. They also had a spring that we drank from because the brochure said it was good for your health. What it didn't mention was that the water tasted terrible!

My lunch came with an onsen tamago-an egg boiled in the onsen water.

Still smiling because I haven't tasted the water yet.

We visited the nearby Shiraike Jigoku (White Pond Hell) next. Honestly, it wasn't that exciting. It was just more hot water, which I could see for free just by walking around Beppu. Even the water running down the street gutters steamed. But it was a nice break between baths.

While the Shiraike Jigoku was boring, the Oniishibozu Jigoku was not. It was hot bubbling mud. The name comes from the mud bubbles that look like the bald heads of Buddhist monks. I skipped out on the last hell of the day and waited impatiently for Danielle to get through it so we could try out some of the mud we had seen at Oniishinozu.

We caught a bus to Hoya Land Onsen where we had a mud bath. And not just a mud bath but a mixed mud bath! The inside baths were separated by gender but the big outdoor mudbath was not. We were a little worried when we got there and realized this but the woman at the desk assured us that it was faces only. They had a privacy entrance for women to enter the pond. I assumed, mistakenly, that they also had one for the men. But no, the poor guys had to stroll outside with nothing but a very small towel for modesty (choosing between to cover the front or the back) which they had to discard before they got in. I learned if that I focused my gaze in one certain direction I was much less likely to get a frontal view, although I did see a fair share of butt cheeks. Danielle, however, did not and I couldn't tell by her shrieks if she was traumatized or slightly excited. ;-)

In the end it was definitely an interesting experience. The mud bath itself was great but the rest of the facilities were so run down and poorly heated that we were in danger of developing frostbite when we got out of the water. Nothing beats being stark naked in a unheated shack in the middle of winter! They also didn't have very good showers so after we got back to the hostel that night we took another fourth bath in order to make sure we were completely clean of the mud and some alcohol helped scrub clean our poor afflicted minds of the images of naked middle-aged Japanese men.


Next up: Usuki and finally Fukuoka

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Winter Vacation - Aso

After leaving Kumamoto, we headed to Aso, a small town with a large volcano as its main attraction. We stayed the night at the newly opened Aso Base Backpackers Hostel and I can't recommend it enough. It was beautiful inside and the couple who own it are very friendly. But the best part was the samurai suit in the corner of the common room that said "Try me on!" Of course we had to try.

Don't I look fierce? And this is only half of the outfit. I was too lazy to put the rest on - this was heavy enough!

The next morning we hitched a ride with two American guys we had met the night before. We stopped along the way to take some pictures of the wild horses that live in the national park around the volcano.

aso horses1

aso horses

aso horses2

Then we crossed our fingers as we approached the entrance to the caldera viewing area. The guys we were with had tried to see Mt. Aso's famous caldera three times already but kept getting turned away because the conditions weren't safe. There are four levels of alert and concrete bunkers in case the wind starts blowing the toxic gases coming up from the volcano the wrong direction or if the volcano erupts. We only had one day scheduled for Aso so we were extremely lucky to make it up to the top and see everything in only one try.

It was on blue level alert so we had no problems seeing the caldera.

We peered down into the caldera and then hiked up a large incline for a view of the surrounding area. Our new found friends continued up the trail while Danielle and I made our way back to the visitor center to grab some food. We took the bus back down the mountain where we were able to see views of another interesting feature in Aso. It's a mountain with a large divet in the top. The mythology surrounding it says that it was a mountain of rice meant for the local god but then a famine struck the community. The god took a large scoop of rice from the top and gave it to the people so they wouldn't starve and that's why it looks the way it does today. Or at least that's what someone at the hostel said...

The caldera - you wouldn't want to be breathing that stuff in.





Another view of the caldera from where we had hiked.

aso hiking



After checking out and grabbing a quick bite to eat we said goodbye to beautiful Aso and caught a bus to Beppu. But more on that later.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Some more palace pictures

Here are some I missed in the last post...

To give you an idea of the size of the room. That's a lot of tatami mats.


This is a little blurry because we weren't allowed all the way in, but you get the idea.


The ceiling.


That's all for now. Thanks for looking.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Winter Vacation - Kumamoto

After a three hour video call with the family back home Christmas morning, I jumped on a train to the airport and caught a flight to Fukuoka with my friend and fellow ALT, Danielle. We got in, jumped on another train, and headed to Kumamoto. We stayed in a minshuku, or what is essentially a bed and breakfast. This one came recommended from the Lonely Planet and was cheap at only 3,000 yen a night but it was pretty dirty. But the owner picked us at the station and took us back again in the morning so we were able to endure it for one night.

With our bags stowed in a train station locker, we headed on over to Kumamoto Castle, one of only three black castles in Japan. Inside, they had a recently renovated palace. Normally, when you visit a castle in Japan you only get to see the "defense" portions of the castle and while climbing crazy steep steps to see the view from the top of the donjon is fun, it was really nice to see some of the luxury that past rulers lived in. There was none of the rich furnishings that you see at places like Versailles, but instead just long empty rooms of tatami mats with gorgeous paintings on the screens. The best were the gold ones in what was the "throne" room.





Then we headed over to Suizenji Park. It was very nice. There was a pond, a temple, and an ode to Mt. Fuji. We had tea and manju and then we headed back to the station where I made us miss the train to Aso. With an hour and a half to kill before the next we settled in with drinks and a spicy mustard lotus root treat that is a specialty of Kumamoto.


Fake Fuji.


mustard renkon
So delicious!

Next stop: Aso. With volcanos and more samurai.