Monday, May 18, 2015

Flowers, Fish, and Friendship: Golden Week in Kitakyushu

Warning: this post is long and pretty personal, as far my posts on this blog go. I wrote it mostly for myself, so I won't forget anything that happened. That said, happy reading if you're in for the long haul!

The best times I've had in Japan have been times spent traveling. It's my own tendency to sometimes think of "Japan" as monolithic. Granted it is a relatively small country that favors homogeneity, and I still find it funny the weather reports can use the word 全国、"country-wide" as in "this weekend we can expect sunshine country-wide"--impossible in a large country like America! Yet I wrote my graduation thesis on this trend--how many academics use the word "Japan" in a monolithic sense with no treatment of the great variety to be found here. In daily life this variety is one of Japanese peoples' favorite topics for conversation: Shikoku udon vs. Kyoto udon, Osaka dialect vs. Kobe dialect, the dangers of dating Nagoya girls and Kyushu men and making Kansai jokes in front of Kanto people. And because it is a smallish country (geographically about the size of California) this variety is all very accessible. You can hop on a train for an hour or two and be surrounded by a completely different dialect or a different Japanese world when you get off. I love traveling here, and seeing all these different versions of "Japan".

This Golden Week (a string of national holidays at the beginning of May) my husband and I planned a trip to Kyushu, the southern-most of Japan's four main islands. Ostensibly it was to visit Yuya's good friend Akira F. (the best man in our wedding) but we also planned two days on our own to spend on a small island off the coast of Fukuoka. When the trip was in its planning stages, I could hardly contain my excitement--but I didn't tell anyone about it because I was so afraid things might change or cancel last minute. Akira promised to take us on road trips to "wild" places of natural beauty every day. As a city-bound girl I longed for these kinds of places. We don't own a car and so we are stuck with places you can get to with public transportation. In the Kyoto area, that means crowded sites with lots of concrete. It's hard to truly get away from it all, to find pristine disheveled natural beauty of the kind I grew up with and love. Yuya and I were both negotiating with our workplaces to tack paid vacation days onto an already long weekend, and I was afraid we'd have to cut things short, and really had no idea what to expect, since we'd left everything to our friend and made no plans for places we'd like to visit. And then, finally the day came when we got on the bullet train to Kokura, northern Kyushu! The train whisked us through cityscapes and countryside and too many tunnels to count though the mountains. On leaving a tunnel I'd catch glimpses of forested hillsides and deep ravines hung over with wild wisteria, before diving back into a tunnel again.
At the lake near Kawachi Fuji Gardens

In only two hours we arrived at Kokura. There was Akira at the station to meet us, all grins and laughs as always. We got in his car, listening to Gary Moore rock out the car stereo, and he and Yuya guffawing away at each other. His family's house, when we arrived, was in a quiet neighborhood that smelled like flowers. An uguisu (nightingale) called low and longingly somewhere close by. The house was made of wood and Akira's mother greeted us with hugs and showed us to a sweet-smelling guest room. Her welcome was natural and big-hearted and made this American girl feel right at home. That evening we went out with the whole F family for a delicious seafood dinner, featuring squid sushi that was so fresh its flesh still moved!

The only thing I'd looked up beforehand and asked Akira if we could visit was Kawachi Fuji-en, a giant wisteria garden boasting long tunnels of the purple flowers, pictures of which I'd seen around the internet. I'd heard it was nearby Akira's house, and Golden Week was just the season the wisteria bloomed. What a chance! So the next day Saturday found us in the car with Akira's younger brother Keigo, the stereo still blasting some kind of 90s rock music on the way to see some wisteria. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was extremely crowded! The garden was located in a little valley at the back of some mountains, with one narrow road accessing it that ran along a man-made lake and dam. The traffic slowed to an agonizing crawl. Our navigator showed we had about two miles yet to go when the three of us decided to get out and walk (leaving Keigo to drive the car). As it turned out poor Keigo never got to see the wisteria. In the time it took us to walk to the garden and spend more than an hour there, he finally arrived at a small parking lot about a mile from the garden where he waited for us to return. On the return journey at about 4:00 pm, the road to the garden was backed up all the way into town! We thought some folks would never make it to a parking lot before the garden closed, but on such a narrow mountain road there were few chances to give up and turn around. Thanks to Keigo's sacrifice we were able to take a lovely lakeside walk (my eyes drinking up as much of the green color, and my lungs gulping as much of the clean air as possible) and see an astounding display of wisteria. The park was quite large and it didn't feel as crowded as it was. The sunlight filtering through the hanging curtains of flowers was magical, accompanied by the low hum of thousands of bumble bees and the heavy luxurious scent of wisteria. It made one sleepy and reflective. The crowd was quiet and slow-moving, entranced. It nearly felt sinful to be enveloped in so much beauty. We sat down in silence under a seemingly endless curtain of the flowers, watching them sparkle in the sunlight as the wind blew through them. And to think Heaven will be even more

That evening, we attended a gathering at the house of a missionary friend of Akira's. Rocky Ayatsuka is Japanese and blind, and his wife of 15 years, Marla, is an American from Texas. They make their home in northern Kyushu, and are involved in several ministries in the area. Here is their story. When we came to the door we found the narrow entry way filled with a mountain of shoes that nearly spilled out onto the street, and the sound of loud happy voices and laughter flowed from inside. A Japanese boy about 10 years old or so came rushing to the doorway. "Welcome welcome!" he shouted in perfect English, "Come inside! It's not my house, but welcome!" And that is how the gathering went. After a paper-plate potluck in the narrow kitchen, surrounded by chattering kids of all ages who didn't seem to care which adult they were playing/cuddling/getting food with, everyone sat in a circle in the little living room. Rocky brought out his guitar we sang several praise songs, and then Rocky gave a talk about the Great Commission, using Japanese, English, and Chinese alternately. He asked many questions and the children spoke up and answered, and I was amazed at their confidence and understanding--then I learned they were all being homeschooled. At the end one little boy volunteered to pray, and his earnest voice made me think, yes this is the kind of faith God loves! Akira also spoke up and asked for prayer for us--"they are newlyweds and facing lots of pressures from Yuya's salaryman job and even their church, I hope they can be refreshed here in Kitakyushu", and I felt so moved and blessed. I know he and Yuya keep up with phone calls from time to time, but I didn't know our little family's small struggles were seen and shared so much. Afterwards I learned the Ayatsukas, former members of Akira's current church, were not exempt from the same kinds of problems in our own Kyoto church: divisions and hurt feelings, though even in the little gathering at the house there was reconciliation and forgiveness extended. I wasn't party to the full issues going on in the local churches there, but I felt immense love and openness from both Rocky and Marla.

The next day was Sunday: we woke up to rain and prepared to go to Akira's church. Like most churches I've attended here, it was small and most of the members were elderly. A young man was playing the piano for the service, and afterwards Akira introduced us to Shuhei, a musician and youngest member of the church hitsujikai, a position similar to a deacon in my Presbyterian denomination, a position Yuya was also recently elected to. Though quiet and modest, he and Yuya seemed to find an instant connection in both music and church life. He promised to come with us the next day on a road trip Akira had planned, and I knew all three were looking forward to knowing one another better. I sensed that in this rural area, where Christians (especially young ones) are so few and far between, they seemed thirsty for fellowship with other young folks.
That evening, Rocky and Marla descended on Akira's house (there's no other way to describe it!) with their two children, together with Keigo and another friend, a Chinese student and earnest young Christian man Shoten. The laughs and the stories and feasting went on until late at night. Rocky for one was so different from a "typical" Japanese: when he spoke English it was in a broad Texas drawl and full of silly jokes. He seemed sprung from the pages of a kids' cartoon!

The next day, we piled into the car, picked up Shuhei, and off we went bound for "the edge of the world" and "a wild place" as Akira described. The morning was cloudy and sprinkled rain now and again, but the low fog trailing through the trees on the tops of the mountains fit the countryside scenes perfectly. We soon crossed the bridge from Kyushu to Yamaguchi prefecture and wound our way for about two hours over the mountains to the Sea of Japan. Akira's hometown Kitakyushu is an industrial city--its skyline is dotted with factory towers, some of which are very old and look like something out of a Ghibli movie. Akira explained the proximity of the ports mean goods are packaged or manufactured right on the coast and then loaded directly onto ships headed to Korea, China, and the rest of Japan. On Saturday when we had gone down to the waterfront I noticed some old Western-style brick factory buildings, left over from a previous era, but still in use! Kitakyushu is not ugly everywhere; there are green mountains behind and many streets were lined with blooming azaleas, the prefectural flower. But as we drove into the mountains, my eyes were glued to the green hillsides. With its neat little farms and rice paddies the Japanese countryside looks so different from the American version, but wild wisteria and various other flowers (it was the beginning of May and everywhere was blooming) were everywhere. The sky began to clear and the sun came out just as we got a glimpse of the Japan Sea, its emerald water and forested islands a feast for the eyes. Our first destination was Senjoujiki, a park on top of a mountain, "the edge of the world". Akira gave us two choices: get in line at the only nice restaurant in the area, or pick up some snacks at a convenience store and eat on the grass at Senjoujiki. "Oh please," I said, "Let's picnic, please!" And so we had the best lunch ever on top of the world, lined with pink azaleas in full bloom. Heaven seemed so close and the breathtaking scene brought tears to my eyes. It had been so long since I'd been in such a place. I wanted to run and dance and sing and lie on the grass and sleep all at once. I nearly had tears again when we had to leave.

But the next place we visited was no less impressive. We arrived at a mountainous cape, Kawajiri-misaki, and after parking in a little grass lot Akira took out from the back of the car...a fishing pole. It needs to be said, one can't visit the F family without putting a hook in the water at least once. They are all fishing fanatics. Though he'd said, "Don't worry I won't drag you guys along on any fishing expeditions!" I'd noticed in the bag of snacks Akira had handed to us at the start of the trip a little box of uncooked baby shrimp that said "Bait." Ha! Still he insisted, muttering, "I'm bringing it just in case, probably won't use it today..." and guided us to a little muddy trail through stunted coastal trees. The track was the kind that was probably a river when it rained and was very steep, a little heart-stopping in some slippery spots along the cliff, and the menfolk praised me for my choice of sensible shoes: "Some girls from the 'Sparkle Club' would try to wear heels or fashion here, and we'd never be able to get to the bottom!" They laughed, "But I'm American so hardly a girl," I said, grinning from ear to ear at the prospect of a little dirt and danger. The trail ended at a field of boulders that tumbled away to the clear blue ocean. I felt so at home, the rocks reminded me of the Pacific Northwestern coast, and we jumped from rock to rock like kids (either the animal or human variety works for comparison). At the cliff edge we sat down in the sun and let the salt wind play with our hair. The cliffs were alive with birdsong. Gentle waves lapped and pulled at the rocks. We discovered a small bright orange fish was biting just at the bottom of the cliff, and enjoyed fishing for some hours in water so
clear we could see the bait, and any interested fish, from several meters above. Akira apologized for making us fish, but I loved it--I hadn't in a while and it allowed us time to just sit and enjoy the sun's warmth, good friendship old and new, and the dazzling beauty around us. When the sun began to sink and our stomachs reminded us we were far from home, we made the climb back up the cliff and regretfully got on the road home, though it was beautiful, showing us vistas of wooded mountainsides and terraced rice paddies falling away to meet the endless blue sea. En route I got a little carsick, but Yuya and Shuhei listened to each others' CDs, and gave each other very technical, artistic feedback. Yuya even got invited to play with Shuhei and Rocky this winter in a concert
at our church here in Kyoto--I was happy to see Yuya in his element because I hadn't seen him so animated in a while. Akira's family would leave to visit extended family the next day, and Akira invited Shuhei to have dinner at his house then, just the four of us.

That day came, Tuesday and our last day intruding on the F family's hospitality. Both Akira and Yuya expressed regret the weekend had gone by so fast. That day we were all tired from previous adventures but in the mid-morning Akira said, "Let's go explore a cave! It's not far." So off we went. Wednesday and Thursday, Yuya and I would go to Iki island and Yuya would drive us around in a rental car, so to practice (since Yuya hasn't driven much though he has a license) Akira let him drive to the cave. We went up a crazy curvy mountain road and poor Yuya had to deal with both Akira and I grabbing onto the sides of the car or stomping on our imaginary break pedals. But we made it to Hiraodai, a truly strange mountaintop, all in one piece. The grassy, gently rolling and treeless mountaintop was studded everywhere with large, smooth, pillow-y white rocks, that from a distance made the fields seem filled with flocks of sheep. The air was thin and fresh: mountain air. High above we could see paragliders drifting. But we ended up going underground into the strangest cave! After a narrow damp walk through the convoluted rocky folds of the cave, the trail was lost in a cave stream. We had to walk through it to reach the end of the cave. It was icy cold, and made the
bones of my feet ache! We sloshed through the clear stony water, usually ankle-deep, but in some cases up to our thighs, laughing and screaming along with the other guests to the cave (many families just had their kids in swimsuits, and it seemed like a naturally-occurring Disneyland attraction!) and came out pretty exhausted. When we got home, I took a nap while Yuya showered and Akira prepared dinner for Shuhei, who joined us later in the evening. Akira dished out the most delicious "bachelor stew" and big chunks of bread while Yuya and Shuhei talked the night away about everything from church life, marriage, and music. Akira looked on, seemingly
pleased as punch. Apparently he'd been waiting to introduce Shuhei to Yuya. Yuya still talks about meeting Shuhei and being so inspired by him to use his music more and not let his talent get rusty.

The next day with heavy hearts we packed up and left the F house. Akira drove us to the station; we'd catch a train and then a bus to Hakata Port where we'd board the 2.5-hour ferry to Iki Island for a night and two days with just the two of us. I was excited for some together time but had no idea what the island would be like, and we were both sad to say goodbye to Akira. The time with him and family and friends had been so blessed, and we weren't sure when we could meet again. "Keigo and Shuhei were so happy to meet you two! We don't get chances to talk with other young Christians much" Akira said, and I almost cried again. We'd come here looking for refreshment and encouragement ourselves, and hadn't expected our presence would be an encouragement to others we met on the way. Yuya and I were both quiet on the train and bus ride, a little sad probably and busy with our own reflections and thoughts.

Our spirits lifted when at last we boarded the ferry to Iki. I had never been on a ferry like it, either in Japan or in the U.S. The crossing would take nearly three hours; Iki was a fair distance from the coast. Inside the ferry were some rows of seats like the ferries I knew in Seattle, but there were also funny raised carpeted areas with no furniture except cushions. People put their baggage in lockers and then stretched out on the floor on cushions and took naps. We followed suit, and luckily the
ferry was fast and large enough I didn't get seasick even after we left the harbor and encountered some gentle swells in the open sea. We arrived at Iki at a tiny harbor and seaside shopping area, with modest green hills sloping up behind. It was an overcast, chilly Wednesday afternoon.

When we were first planning our trip, we'd thought about saying goodbye to Akira and traveling down to Nagasaki or Kagoshima, places rich in history and natural beauty with plenty to see, but in looking for sight-seeing destinations, nothing peaked my interest very deeply. Then looking at Kitakyushu in Google maps, I saw off the coast a funnily-shaped little island, placed interestingly
between Kyushu and the Korean peninsula. Iki Island, it was called. I googled the name, and pictures of beautiful, undeveloped beaches came up. Water this blue, sand this white, and no towering resort hotels--only rocks, bushes, and trees--on the shoreline? Yes, please! After some searching Yuya found a hotel, one of the oldest on the island and one the Showa emperor had stayed in (Room 307, by the way, and we stayed next-door in Room 308!) that offered an ocean-view room with  gourmet seafood/local beef dinner and a private natural onsen bath at a good price (under $200 for one night and two people) and so we decided on visiting this little island we'd never heard of and that no one seemed to know about.

We rented a car on the island and went to find some beaches. It was a grey blustery day, but I didn't mind. We drove along little winding country roads past tiny farms and terraced rice paddies that stepped away down green hillsides right to the seashore, and muddy yards where the island's famous beef cows dozed, and we listened to Shuhei's guitar CD that we'd bought from him, which fit the relaxed, sweet atmosphere of the island perfectly. How can I describe the smell? Everywhere we went there was a rich, balmy, green smell of fresh-cut hay and flowers, mixed with a salt sea breeze. The forests were alive with the voices of nightingales and many other birds singing, piping, chirping. Flowers were everywhere. We found a rock formation shaped like a monkey, an old artillery unit left from WWII, and a few lonely, weather-beaten beaches. We discovered the small island was home to more than a thousand shrines, the keen reverence for nature no doubt brought about by centuries of life at the mercy of the sea and the harvest. There was even--very primitive to me since to find anything similar in my European culture we'd have to go back thousands of years to a pre-Christian era--a fertility shrine dedicated to the human male organ, complete with a huge wooden replica of such.  We didn't go to see it, though Yuya teased me about it; we saw enough of it in the form of cute little lollipops (both anatomically male and female versions available) in a gift shop. Oh my! That night we enjoyed our gourmet seafood course dinner (a requisite part of traveling to the Japanese mind) and a natural onsen bath, in a private pool just for the two of us, with matching clean yukata (informal kimono) afterwards. Scratched that off the bucket list!

Iki Island farmland

The night passed in sound, good sleep, and the next morning dawned bright and clear. Finally, it would seem I could get my wish of seeing the clear emerald water and white beaches under a bright sun! We had a lovely Japanese-style breakfast (plenty of fish and miso soup) and set off for the opposite end of the island on a slow 30-minute drive through more utterly charming farmland and forests to a little port-town. The sun was high when we arrived and a few fishermen were coming back in with their early morning catches. We were the only guests on a boat-tour of an uninhabited island. We were warned against buyo--swarms of biting flies--but decided to be adventurous and went to the island anyway. What fun it was! The tour boat circled the island, giving us great glimpses of underwater caves and canyons (everything seemed very volcanic, and the rocky island seemed thrust up sideways out of the sea) and once, while we stood in the bow of the boat, the captain turned it into the wind and towards the open sea, and we went skimming the waves. I laughed like a little girl. Then the boat pressed its tire-covered nose against a piling on the island long enough for us to get off. We asked the skipper to come back for us in 2 hours. The island was completely ours for the afternoon, though some deer tracks told us we weren't alone. We followed a trail around its glistening white sandy beach and clear turquoise water. We paddled our feet for a bit and then hiked up a trail to the summit of the island, high above the cliffs and canyons we'd seen from below in the boat. Unfortunately, at the very top of the cliff-edge (a small round hill with dramatic drops to the sea on three sides) we were attacked by a swarm of buyo! Yuya had reached the high point first when he suddenly started waving his arms and dancing around! There is no railing or fence at all there so I had no idea what he was doing. He came running back with the swarm following him, and then we probably looked like idiots: on a cliff-top yelling and waving around beach towels and an uchiwa fan trying to get rid of the nasty flies! Afterward we had a good laugh about it, and miraculously neither of us was bitten! After the flies, neither of us were very keen to stay in one place for very long, and before we knew it the boat was back to pick us up. On our way back to the port, I saw what at first I thought was a swallow darting over the waves. It glided without moving its wings for several long meters before suddenly it turned back into a fish and plop! returned to the water. "A flying fish! I just saw a flying fish!" I couldn't believe it.

Photos from the uninhabited island:

This was our last day on Iki. We were going to get on the ferry back to Hakata at 5pm, after which we'd ride Peach airlines (my first time!) back to Kansai, and arrive home in Kyoto a little after midnight. After we got back from the uninhabited island, I knew we had only a few hours left in this magical place. We headed back to the main port, got some lunch nearby (Yuya finally got the fresh raw sea-urchin donburi he'd wanted to try, and seemed nearly crying with happiness--I thought it didn't taste bad, but the luxury of it was wasted on me), and visited one last beach, and one of the best--it was wide, the sand was soft, and again a day after Golden Week there was no one but the two of us. We played around for a bit and then had to put on our shoes, turn away from the beach and head back through the piney trail to the parking lot. "Here we go," I said, "our 帰り道 (way home) starts now." We dropped off the rental car,  picked up some omiyage (foodie souvenirs) for friends back in Kyoto, and said goodbye to Iki, and to Kyushu under a beautiful sunset. 
The start of our road home
What a trip it had been. Yuya and I hadn't traveled together as husband and wife since our little honeymoon to Leavenworth in Washington State, and I'd forgotten how fun it was to travel together. As a married couple there was no need to sleep separately (yay for saving money and trouble on double occupancy!) or 気を遣う (guard ourselves?) together or when with friends. Visiting with Akira and his friends, as his friend's wife I could just be lumped in with one of the guys. No awkwardness from our single days; every conversation was so natural and free. Though they were all single and what with the rock music, hiking, and fishing there seemed to be huge amounts of testosterone floating around, I enjoyed it very much. I didn't feel any pressure to act "girly" or "proper" like I do in the city, or with Yuya's parents in his hometown for example. I felt free to be myself. And then with just the two of us, we had sweet times to truly relax and enjoy seeing each other in a completely different setting. Married traveling is the best!

Coming back to the city, to feeling walled in by buildings and concrete everywhere, to city smells and sounds instead of natural ones, to our workplaces, we both felt a little depressed. I find myself going through pictures and videos I took every few days. I will never forget what a lovely time it was with Akira and friends, the encouragement we drew from the fellowship we enjoyed, and the unspoiled charm and beauty of Kitakyushu, Yamaguchi, and Iki Island. Our lives in Japan are so centered in cities and urban areas, I needed to know wild unspoiled places still exist in this country. That sounds silly, I'm sure there's a ton of pristine places in the mountains with the human population concentrated as it is along the rivers and plains, but it's just not in our backyard or as accessible as I'd like. Someday, I want to come back, and walk on Iki's pristine beaches again...

The view from our ferry to Hakata. Until next time, Iki!


Thanks for reading, be nice!