Dispatches from the back of the sock drawer of life

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Kumamoto: 明けましておめでとうございます (Happy New Year!)

So, here we were in the Year of the Boar.

Cloudy start so probably a good thing I didn’t head out to find somewhere to watch the sunrise (an auspicious start to the New Year in Japan). There was a cockerel crowing, so I knew it was definitely morning.


Luckily one of our regular go-to coffee places Doutor was open – very little else was. Had a cake that looked like it was topped with soba noodles – v good – soba are traditionally eaten as another good luck New Year dish.
UPDATE: just found out this was a Mont Blanc, a version of a French pastry, the ‘noodles’ are actually a chestnut puree – still like the thought of it representing soba though!

Walked up to the castle grounds to watch performances by a local taiko drum preservation society. They were excellent, and it was a good wake up call for 2019. Locals were engaging in another new Year tradition – kite flying in the grounds. The queues at the small shrine at the castle were huge – as they would be at shrines all over Japan today.

Sampled a trio of shochu (local spirit, made with either barley, sweet potato or rice, these were rice based) alongside my good pal Kumamon, the mascot of Kumamoto. Judging by the photo of him at the bar he had something of a drink problem, but at least didn’t fall off his stool. I’ve seen him in many places on my travels, he has been an effective goodwill and fundraising ambassador to help Kumamoto after the earthquake of 2016.

Tram stop

Tram down to visit the Kengun shrine, unusual as the shrine torii (gate) was located on the main road by the tramlines, 1.2km away. Arrow straight road with stone lanterns lining it (increasing in frequency as you got closer to the shrine). They’d turned it into a one way street, using the return lane a a car park, with lots of people guiding the busy traffic – very practical, very Japanese.

Didn’t go into the shrine, the queues were again very long, and didn’t like to feel like I was taking someone else’s spot.


Tram back to walk around Suizenji gardens again, green tea and a sweet, more queues at the garden shrine. Took the opportunity to lose the ‘fortune’ I’d picked up on the Osaka bar tour – these are wrapped around sets of chopsticks. Jason and Taryn got good ones, but Yaeko and I scored poorly – still haven’t translated what it actually said – and the tradition is to take it to a shrine and tie it to the long strings there in the hope of increasing your luck.

Japan Post workers were still out on their scooters delivering mail at 7pm. The Japanese don’t do Christmas cards, but another New Year tradition was ‘nengajo’, New Year’s cards.


Much like our Christmas cards, and guaranteed to be delivered on New Year’s Day if posted before a certain date and marked correctly. So one of their busiest days of the year.

Sadly once again most of the restaurants and bars were shut (and would remain so until the 3rd) so I missed my favourite Kumamoto ramen and a chance to visit the regulars at Voyager. Ah well, the katsu place I found did an awesome cutlet set – pork loin, pork filler, and hamburger stuffed with gouda cheese.


Kumamoto: Here comes 2019…

31st December 2018:

Good thing i changed plans, mountain in the cloud today, so definitely wouldn’t have accessed the crater.


Started breakfast with a couple of the humungous apples I’d bought in the market in Beppu. The fruit here (when you can find it) is amazing. Then, a minute or so walk from the hostel was a patisserie with probably the best cakes – cream puffs – I’ve ever tasted. They make the shells in advance, then fill them to order with a sweet cream filling. Absolutely stuffed – but probably my own fault for not stopping at one!

Afternoon bus to Kumamoto, then tram to the hotel. Set out for a stroll around the castle perimeter to see how the rebuilding was going – and bumped into a guy from Taiwan again. Had met him on the train (he’s in the photo behind me), then on the bus to the crater, and now wandering around the castle in a city on the other side of Kyushu – small world! He’d actually returned to Beppu the previous evening by train, and Kumamoto just happened to be his next destination.
The rebuilding is still progressing. It’s clear to see where one of the main towers has been stripped back to its internal steel structure (these are all modern reconsructions of the original), but things are coming along. One of the corner tower buildings in the gallery is held up at one corner by just a single stack of stones…

So, I went to bed at midnight having discovered that on New Year’s Eve everyone stays at home with family, eating soba noodles and watching “Kōhaku Uta Gassen (Red and White Song Contest), a special NHK program aired annually on New Year’s Eve whereby popular male and female music artists compete against each other. The males represent the ‘white’ team and the women ‘red’, the traditional colors of New Year in Japan.”.

The acts were mostly of the J-Pop group variety, and as over the top as it is possible to imagine.

Dinner was takeout from a convenience store, as all the bars and restaurants were shut!

Kumamoto and Takachiho

Monday 16th

Farewell Shimabara

Started the day sitting in the ferry port café with an iced coffee, listening to a radio station playing just Beatles songs – originals and covers (including some in Japanese…). Slower ferry back to Kumamoto this time.

When I disembarked, there was a Japanese man with a sign saying ‘free shuttle bus to Kumamoto Station’. He was a tourist guide and driver, and he was learning English – at 63! Very helpful, and very pleased that I was visiting from England. As with a lot of this trip, since it wasn’t really peak season and I was going off the beaten track a lot, I wasn’t seeing many Westerners at all.

Hard workin’ bear

Got to the hotel and found Kumamon, hard at work in his office. Couldn’t check in until 3pm, so dropped off my bags and went for a stroll around the castle. Pleased to see that the reconstruction work has really picked up speed, lots of scaffolding and frameworks up around the main two towers, and work on the walls progressing well. Still a very long project though – I think they said a 20 year rebuild schedule. Stopped for ice coffee, and an amazing ice cream parfait with a coffee jelly – tasty stuff.

So to dinner – went to Ramen Red Team again (visited there last time I was in Kumamoto), still awesome. The roasted garlic oil that they add just gives an amazing flavour. Then on to Voyager for American Citra IPA, and chats with Akira the barman, and a regular who’s an Anglophile – fan of Mod and Punk fashions, works as a ‘hair designer’. Told him I was beyond being designed.

Tuesday 17th

Started the day by walking over to where I would catch the highway bus out to Takachiho the following day. Spotted an interesting sign – 100 yen beer festival – after some research online found that it would be on that afternoon and evening, resolved to head back there. Took a photo of one of the buildings in an area of nightclubs and bars, and wondered how they all stay in business.
You have an area of multiple buildings, each with a club or bar on every floor – sometimes two. As I understand it, many of these can only hold a dozen or so customers, so I can only assume the ones that survive do so because they have dedicated regulars. Always intrigues me.

As the weather had improved and it looked like no more rain for the day, spent half an hour riding one of the tramlines out to the end of its line, so that I could walk back along the river and through parks. As part of the Japanese fascination with all things train related, they like to run well maintained old trams as well as modern ones – this one had the original wooden flooring and lovely brass instrument panels. In preparation for my stroll, I picked up an apple to keep me going. Now, it’s not always easy to find fresh fruit in the convenience stores, so finding a little grocers was great. One thing though about their fruit – it’s usually perfect with no blemishes or imperfections, it’s expensive, and can be very big. For about £1 I got an apple the size of a large grapefruit – I’d say it weighed about the same as 3 ordinary sized ones – and was something of a challenge to eat, but absolutely delicious.

I spent several hours walking back in to the centre of town, revisiting the lovely Suizenji garden on my way. In the first park, spotted some amazing purple blooms – on closer inspection it was actually bindweed, but where as in the UK it’s usually white flowers, these were an incredible deep purple. Suizenji ponds had their usual array of koi carp. Now one thing about what we would call ‘goldfish’ – there more orange than gold. I spotted one lovely specimen that actually was gold…

Got back to the beer fest to find it not quite what I expected. There was only one beer (Asahi), and a small was 100yen or a ‘large’ (not much more than a half pint) for 200 yen. The ‘competition’ was actually around all the food stalls – all foods perfect to go with a beer, from chicken karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and noodles, to snacks like the amazing cheese simply named “The Excellent”.

One thing struck home as I browsed – I really could do with being able to read Japanese. It feels like a world denied, but such a high bar to enter. Or I need a better translation app… as I walked back from the fest, spotted another election campaign van and managed to grab a video. Loving the dude’s pink suit, and the rather hysterical tone of the announcer:

Wednesday 18th

Early start to catch the highway bus to Takachiho. Great views en route as we drove up into the mountainous landscapes around Aso – a massive volcanic caldera that has towns and farms within the 25km wide rim. Sadly can’t hike up to the active volcano still, as they still have a level 1 warning for eruption risk after the earthquake and subsequent volcanic activity.
Spotted some more interesting English along the way. Sections of an outdoor market with signage stating: “Fruit. Vegetable. Meet”. Then a bakery: “The new framework of bread” – interesting.

Long drive through coniferous forest and mountain passes. Small towns here and there, rice paddies still not harvested in places. Reached Takachiho after two and half hours, and took a taxi to the hotel – raining again today… Dropped my bags and walked to the tourist info to get maps, then walked over to the shrine at the head of Takachiho Gorge.

Hotel mosaic of Tajikarao

Takachiho: there’s lots of information on the local tourism website linked here. “Steeped in myth and legend, Takachiho has been known since ancient times as a sacred ground where the gods descended to earth. The area is also famous for yokagura, sacred dance rituals reenacting the legends, which are performed in the fall and early winter.”
From the Rough Guide to Japan:
“Takachiho’s famous traditional dances have their roots in local legend. The story goes that the Storm God, Susano-ō, once destroyed the rice fields of his sister, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, and desecrated her sacred palace. Understandably offended by these actions, Amaterasu hid in a cave and plunged the world into darkness. The other gods tried to entice her out with prayers and chants, but nothing worked until, finally, a goddess named Ama-no-uzume broke into a provocative dance. The general merriment was too much for Amaterasu, who peeped out to see the fun, at which point the crowd grabbed her and hauled her back into the world.
Takachiho locals also claim that nearby mountain Takachiho-no-mine – not the mountain of Ebino Kōgen – is where Amaterasu’s grandson, Ninigi-no-mikoto, descended to earth with his mirror, sword and jewel to become Japan’s first emperor.
A visit to Takachiho is not complete without viewing a sample of this dance at the Kagura-den (see Takachiho-jinja). In one hour you see three or four extracts from the full cycle, typically including the story of Amaterasu and her cave, and ending with an explicit rendition of the birth of the Japanese nation in which the two “gods” leave the stage to cavort with members of the audience – to the great delight of all concerned. The performers are drawn from a pool of around 550 local residents, aged from 5 to 80 years, who also dance in the annual Yokagura festival (mid-Nov to mid-Feb). In a combination of harvest thanksgiving and spring festival, 24 troupes perform all 33 dances in sequence in private homes and village halls, lasting through the night and into the next day.”

The sheer gorge running through a basin surrounded by steep green mountains is the highlight of a magnificently variegated terrain that presents fresh beauties with the changing seasons. Hiked down the road leading into the gorge. Spectacular scenery, with hexagonal basalt columns forming the cliffs along the river. Sadly the rain had risen the river level, and for safety reasons it wasn’t possible to hire row boats to view the gorge from underneath. After some refreshments (where it seems they don’t like Pokémon Go) , walked the gorge path which winds along crossing back and forth across the river a few times.
Spotted the biggest carp ever – this thing was huge, I’m amazed the ducks went anywhere near it. Final part of the walk takes you back up through the forest to the shrine again – strenuous and steep, proper workout.

Back to the hotel to grab some food and change, then took a cab back out to the shrine where they hold one hour evening performances of the Yokagura dances. In the winter these dances are held every weekend, and can go on long into the night – different groups take turns to perform, at village venues and private houses. Throughout the year, these evening performances are held every night for tourist visitors – as you can see from the photos, the turnout was good.

The dance which was performed for us started by depicted Tajikarao, the deity of power, finding Amaterasu’s cave and using his great strength to remove the door. A fascinating experience, and a real example of how the Japanese preserve their ancient cultures.

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