Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ryumon Falls, Mt. Aso, Kumamoto Castle and more!

Sorry it's been so long since I've updated, but I've been really busy and the internet connection at the kaikan is by no means reliable enough to risk writing an entire blog and having the connection go down when I try to publish it. So, I will try to recall as much as I can about the last week or so.

This past weekend all of the JTW students went on our first group trip. It was a blast!

We started out early in the morning with a 2-hour bus ride to Ryumon Falls, our first stop on the itinerary. I sat next to my friend Alessandra, who's Italian but has been studying in London for the past few years. We chatted a lot about our home towns and universities, Japan and the other international students. Some other friends I made came from England as well: Hiro (whose father is Japanese), Mark, and Simona (who's Romanian but, like Alessandra, was studying in England).

One of the great things about this experience is that I've been able to make friends with people from all over the world. There are international students here from various universities in the U.S., England, China, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, France, Sweden, Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, and Belgium. Each comes with their own cultural experiences thus providing a multitude of viewpoints by which to contrast this country's norms, language, food and the myriad other aspects of daily life that is so very different from our own.

I took quite a few pictures of the Fukuoka countryside from the bus on the way to Ryumon Falls. Here are some:

The shades of green in this country are, at times, breathtaking. These pictures really don't do the actual justice. (Remember that you can click on the pictures to open another window with a much larger and clearer image.)

The whole first day was rainy. Really, really rainy. But that didn't stop us from enjoying ourselves. We arrived at the Ryumon Falls area around 10:30 or 11:00 and ate an awesome meal at the restaurant. The dining room we ate in was set up with the traditional low tables in front of which we sat on the tatami floor. The meal consisted of various vegetables, soup, fish and an interesting kind of blue tofu. I regretfully didn't remember to take a picture of the meal...something I'm going to try to remedy on subsequent outings. I did take some pictures of a few of us in the restaurant though.

Rong Yi (China) and Paul Saleh (France)

Mark Rawlins (England) and Alessandra Bocciera (Italy/England)

After we said ごちそうさまでした, we headed, umbrellas in hand, out into the downpour where we proceeded to walk up a dirt path, down an uneven stone stairs, out into an open nature-made court in front of which rose the majestic Ryumon Falls (龍門滝), a huge natural waterfall with multiple tiers of cascading water, made more beautiful that day by the strong rain.

We admired the falls for about half an hour before walking back up the stairs and down the dirt path to the bus.

The Japanese countryside tourism market has been declining as of late. So, in order to attract tourist, the Fukuoka government decided to create a bridge spanning a giant chasm which you can walk across and admire the vast expanse of wooded wilderness beneath you - which is a far better option than the road you can take around to the other side in my opinion.

For safety reasons, namely a gust of wind sweeping you off the bridge, umbrellas were not allowed. So they handed out clear rain panchos for us to wear. Unfortunately, they did little to protect our jeans, mine ended up getting completely soaked up to the thigh, or our cameras, which we were inevitably going to be using despite the rain (which was at its worst while we were on the bridge). Luckily, as far as I know, no one's camera was damaged that day.

I don't know if it is like this normally or if it was because of all of the moisture in the air, but there was a beautiful, ethereal mist permeating the ground and trees below. The dense green woodland hundreds of feet below stretched to the mountains on either side of us and beyond. A river, tiny to my eyes from so high up, with a rocky bed flowed beneath, occasionally hiding under the shade of the canopy overhead only to reemerge again a few dozen yards later when an opening in the leafy ceiling presented itself.

There and back again I went, drenched to the bone, but feeling as if I'd just experienced something cathartic and well worth the price of a little rain and possibly a broken camera (which was luckily just fine - a very good thing as I have lots more pictures to take while I'm here).

Our next stop would be where we would rest for the night, the Kuju Training Center. This was a small hotel with three floors in the main building which also housed the men and women's hot spring baths (温泉 - onsen), a conference room and gymnasium. Before we got off of the bus we were handed our room assignments. Everyone was amused to see that all of the guys (all 22 of us, including 3 tutors) were in one room on the third floor. The girls were separated into 5 or 6 other rooms on the 2nd and 3rd floors. One other note of interest: all of the guys had to sleep on the tatami foor with futon and blanket...the girls got bunk beds. It was rather comfortable though, I'm just pointing it out.

In all of the buildings, and this is typical of Japan, you are culturally required to remove your shoes before entering the main floor of any building. There is usually a very obvious step demarcating where the shoes are to be removed and the provided slippers are to be worn. Before entering the bathrooms you are to remove those slippers and change into a pair of the toilet slippers (トイレスリッパー). After all, the bathroom is a dirty place and that has to be contained. It makes perfect sense to me and I think we could benefit from adopting this custom. Also, at the entrance to our rooms where we slept there was yet another step at which we were to remove the slippers and enter the room either barefoot or with socks.

We unloaded our belongings, some of us removing our wet socks and/or pants and changing into something drier. We had about an hour to kill before we were to meet in the conference room for a brief orientation on adjusting to Japan which covered topics like culture shock, importance of developing good communication skills, and the overall goal of becoming culturally competent (which, I think, is Professor Pollack's favorite term). During this time I and three other guys (Jack, Mark, and Keiran) decided to brave the onsen. Now, before you romanticize the image of what an onsen is, let me explain that this was not an outdoor hot spring. We were not atop a volcano or mountain, surrounded by various exotic flora and fauna; there were no exotic Japanese geisha catering to our every need. While there are no doubt hot springs in Japan very much like that, this was not one of them.

You entered the first room where there were cubby holes in which to put your clothes. All of them. The custom is you are not allowed to wear any clothes in the onsen or even to bring in a normal sized towel with which to cover yourself with. The onsen is no place for modesty. (I don't have any pictures of this part of my trip...sorry.)

Before entering the bath you are to wash yourself with the hose located outside of the bath. Soap and shampoo is provided. After you've rinsed well, leaving behind no traces of soap, you may enter the bath. This you must do slowly. This water is HOT! Hotter than any hot tub you've likely ever been in. The protocol is to not remain in the pool for more than 10 or 15 minutes. Also, it is inadvisable to drink alcohol in any capacity before going into an onsen. Doing so could result in an untimely passing out which would be fatal if you were alone in the bath.

The water felt great once you got used to it. It was best not to move too much though, because each time you did it would result in intense heat that pricked at you like needles. We stayed in for about 15 minutes and slowly raised ourselves out of the bath. We dried off, changed back into our clothes and headed shortly thereafter to the orientation.

Shortly after the orientation we ate dinner in the dining hall (食堂), which was, as all food in Japan seems to be, delicious.

From after dinner on it was free time. I think almost everyone ended up spending most of the night in the gymnasium. I ended up shooting some hoops for about an hour with a few of the other guys. I think I made about 6 or 7 baskets during that entire time...上手じゃないよ。After that I kind of hopped around from group to group: I played a little ping pong, watched a little volleyball and badminton. We finally decided to start a game of dodgeball. We picked two team captains, designated the boundaries of our court, and the game was on. We played a version where, if a person got hit, they were out but could then remain an active part of the team by standing on the perimeter of the opposing team's side, thereby able to attack from the side and behind if the ball went out of bounds or if one of their team members passed it to them.

We ended up playing 3 games (my team won all 3!) before playing a game called "Catch the Dragon's Tail" which the Korean girls showed us. In this game you create 2 dragons (2 teams) by grabbing onto the person in front of you until you have a line of 5 or more people. The people at the rear of the dragon are the tail and the goal is for the people in front to grab the tail of the other dragon. The game is over if either the chain is broken because someone let go, or if the tail person is grabbed.

We decided to return the favor by showing everyone how to play 4-square. This was not a big hit because we didn't have the right kind of ball for the game and there's really no end to it since you just keep rotating people in as someone gets out.

After everyone was tired we went back inside. I took a quick shower and then headed to the cafeteria where a bunch of people had congregated. We all ended up talking for hours, until about 2:30 in the morning about everything from Michael Jackson, boy bands, English humor, the difference between the buses in Singapore and Japan; even the educational value of Teletubbies (which we concluded was none and actually quite a disturbing television show when you think about it).

The next morning we all ate a delicious prepared breakfast in the cafeteria then packed up our stuff and headed back to the bus. I snapped a few pictures of the room and view from the balcony before I left.

The next stop was Mt. Aso, a beautiful active volcano with a giant caldera of 25 kilometers. We climbed the hill and were treated to a breathtaking view of the neighboring town and miles of fertile land. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, the sun shining brightly in the cloud spotted cerulean sky; the temperature was perfect with a slight wind blowing, bringing with it the distinct smell of this area of Japan.

Nuhad Jahan (Sweden), Liz Fryett (USA) and Phongthorn Wongphut (Thailand)

Cha Yeon Kim (Korea) and Elaine Daiz (Philippines)
Keiran Maynard, Marc Buckholz, Me, and Jack Hunsberger (all from USA)

As I mentioned above, Mt. Aso's caldera is huge, one of the largest in the world, so we couldn't leave having seen only one part of this massive area. We loaded back onto the bus and drove to another area where we were hoping to be able to climb to a high peak. Unfortunately, as happens from time to time apparently, there were poisonous gasses being emitted from the volcano which prevented us from climbing up there. I still managed to get a few pictures from the ground though.

Hazardous gasses' absence permitting, you can ride horses to the top if you'd like.

By this time it was time for lunch and we were all ready for a meal at what would be our final destination before returning home, Kumamoto Castle (熊本城). We arrived and ate an amazing meal in Kumamoto City after which we explored the alley right outside of the restaurant. There we met a rather entertaining vendor who made Mark try on a pair of fake breasts and a stylish hat. She then did the same thing!

After lunch we got back on the bus for a very brief ride to Kumamoto Castle. We pulled in and, looming above the tree line in the distance was a majestic Japanese castle. Upon reaching its foot I discovered its outer walls were uniquely curved, a style known as musha-gaeshi. The four corners of the multi-tiered roof were curved upward into distinct points that recalled every Japanese movie I'd ever seen. In front of the castle was a large, grassy square and a very narrow moat ran along the perimeter.

In order to reach the castle's entrance you had to ascend a somewhat steep ramp that led into another area filled with souvenir shops and food vendors (which somewhat broke the spell the castle had on me, if only momentarily).

Once inside, I discovered that the inside had been turned into a kind of museum for the castle's history and the era when it originally was built and used. The original castle was burned down during a 53-day siege in what is known as the Satsuma Rebellion, though some of the structures remain from the Edo period. The castle was rebuilt with monetary support from thousands of people whose names are immortalized on wall after wall of wooden name plaques that run all through the ground floor. Various other treasures from paintings to scrolls, castle replicas and samurai armor were on display on each of the castles many stories.

Upon reaching the top floor I was treated to a view of the courtyard below and sprawling Kumamoto City which is set inside a mountainous and tree populated valley that climbs as it races out of view into the misty horizon.

The trip was incredible and made me fall even more in love with this country that is to be my home for the next 10 months. This was just the first of many trips that are scheduled to take place over the course of our time here. Ahead I have rice-harvesting, Sumo, a Dazaifu shrine, a day-long trip to Dazaifu-Nishi and Susenji elementary school, a Toyota assembly plant tour, Beppu onsen (this one will be the REAL onsen experience), aquarium, monkey park, a Zen temple, and Kabuki theater. Not to mention the traveling I plan on doing with my friends during the winter and semester breaks to Tokyo and Kyoto.

Since the trip I've gone to an awesome all-you-can-eat/drink Chinese restaurant in Tenjin for a welcoming party with all of the JTW students, professors and tutors; shared meals with lots of my JTW classmates and their tutors in various Kyudai (Kyushu University) cafeterias and other restaurants throughout Fukuoka; experienced my very first karaoke session (which went on for 5 hours straight), where we sung everything from Green Day, Blink 182, and Eminem to Korean, Japanese, and Chinese pop songs, and even music from Aladdin ("You ain't never had a friend like me..."); I've taken my Japanese placement tests (I'll get my results tomorrow) and sat in on my first JTW class, "Adjusting to Japan". Official registration will be some time next week and language courses start on Tuesday!

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I miss all of my friends and family back home in the States, but I am truly loving my experience here so far. The friendships I've formed and those that are in the making are awesome; the kaikan, though modest and a little run down, is starting to feel like home; I'm using Japanese everyday (not ALL day yet, but hopefully soon) and the tutors are some of the coolest and nicest people I've ever met. I hope those of you reading this blog are enjoying living vicariously through me. For those who are planning their own study-abroad experiences here in Japan (or elsewhere), I hope you're excited for the wonderful experiences you will have.

I'll try to update this blog fairly frequently, but classes are about to be in full swing so I may be pressed for time. Again, I miss all of you tons, but just know I'm loving it here in Japan!!!


  1. Hey Chris. I am so happy you are in school and in Japan. How amazing.
    Keep us updated.
    Kat W.

  2. I love reading everything you have to say about your trip and look forward to checking each day for more. Love DAD

  3. It's great to see you are enjoying yourself. This is definitely something I will keep up on. You must feel like a little kid in a candy shop over there! Keep us posted =D