Kagoshima with Sayaka and family

Trip Start Oct 17, 2007
Trip End Feb 04, 2008

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Flag of Japan  ,
Thursday, December 13, 2007

Combined, our 3 flights to Hiroshima, Japan from Bangkok took 19 hours from the time we left our hotel to the time we touched down at Hiroshima airport.  We had a stopover in Seoul, which has the most incredible airport for a layover; I'd say it's on par with Singapore's.  Maybe not as pretty, but just as clean, convenient and comfortable.

We were incredibly excited to be meeting up with Sayaka who lived with us for 5 weeks in Australia when she did work experience at Currumbin.  She knew we were coming and had written, "Don't move from Hiroshima airport, I come see you", and "You come to my home town".

Being the only foreigners on the arriving flight (at least, I think that's why), we were singled out by customs and had our bags checked.  Thoroughly.  Including the padding.  And every piece of clothing.  And our wallets, including checking all the cards.  And our shoes which then got x-rayed (we're not getting ON a plane).  And all our pockets.  And all our toiletries.  And our bags were left a complete disaster.  We were questioned over and over again about our plans, and they seemed happier to know we were meeting someone in Japan.  "Japanese person?", they asked.  Yes, yes.  They really liked that.  The entire time however, the customs officers were very nice and polite about it all, so we left in good spirits, but despite it, I was a bit confounded.  What did they think we'd have?  I felt like they were trying to catch us in a lie.  Anyway, whatever.

Sayaka was waiting for us outside, gorgeous as ever (and with a new hairstyle), worried she had misunderstood our emails and she was waiting for us on the wrong day!  No, no, we got stuck in customs we said, and off we went to the bus.  We had absolutely no idea what was happening, just that we were going to her home town and meeting her parents, which made us nervous!  One bus, three trains, one which was the incredible 270km/hr bullet train, and eight hours later that day we arrived in Kagoshima at the very southern tip of Japan in Kyushu, Sayaka's home town.  We had no idea we were going that far, but how exciting!  Her mom, a lovely woman looking impeccable was waiting for us at the station to take us to their home, and their awaiting puppy, the sweetest, most gentle golden retriever.  Bonus!

We had way too much fun over the next three days as we were zipped around the south of Japan by Saya and her parents.  We went to a temple in Kagoshima called Nitta Jinja, surrounded by beautiful deciduous trees.  We caught the tail end of the changing autumn colours!  We hadn't seen leaves that red in ages, we couldn't stop staring at them.  Visiting a temple in Japan is complex, as first the bell is rung, then you clap twice, then you bow twice, and that is followed with cleansing the hands in a well.  We did very well with the protocol, having read what to do in Lonely Planet, and then copying Saya's mom (which we did a lot of actually so as to be sure to not be accidental cultural morons).

One of my favourite sights was Izumi the breeding grounds of thousands of cranes that migrate each year from Russia.  They are beautiful!  And so large, we honestly had no idea.  I'm guesstimating here, but I think they were 3-4 feet high.  Imagine the wingspan!  They calculate this year 12,039 cranes have migrated to those grounds.  In summer, the same area is a rice field, so it serves a double purpose!

Sayaka's dad drove approximately 6 hours from where he works (he's a nuclear engineer) to Kagoshima to meet us... we were so overwhelmed and humbled by her mom's hospitality, and then to hear of the drive her dad made!  They were just so welcoming, and went out of their way for us in every way.  The five of us set off to Japan's most southern point, an untamed, rocky outcrop with a large lighthouse, and dozens of kites (as in the bird of prey, not the material attached to a frame and string type) circling overhead.  Then we headed to one of the coolest, or hottest, places we've ever been:  a Japanese onsen, aka a natural hot spring called Ibisuki.  But wait, it's not what you think!  This one was a sand hot spring, so they bury you in natural thermal sands.  This is how it goes:  you are provided with a yukata which is a cotton, floor length robe which you put on devoid of all other garments and head out to the sands by the beach.  An attendant then leads you to your literal burial plot (I know, how macabre, but it's a riot to see it!) where you lie down in the company of other buried living, and they proceed to shovel sand on top of you.  The sand is sizzling!  It's suggested you stay a maximum of 10 minutes, and understandably as the sweat and grime and anything else creepy within you is sucked out by these sands.  It is the most incredible feeling.  The sand's weight on you edges on claustrophobic, and the heat makes you feel your pulse pounding through every vein and artery in your body.  It was like our entire body was a giant heart.   After you rise from your grave, uh, I mean spot, you head back inside where we split into boys and girls, and throw your yukata, your shame and your timidity down a chute, and head into the water onsen with your birthday suit and... and that's it, just your birthday suit.  But heck, everyone else is doing it so who cares?!  Once again, the water is a scorching 45 degrees, so lingering only a few minutes is enough, after which you shower sitting on stools (I can't even explain this one, you have to see it) and head back to the change room where the ritual ends.  It is the most amazing feeling and experience, you walk out refreshed and awake and feeling a few pounds smaller, even if it is only sweat.  HIGHLY recommended, and what a setting we had right at the beach!

At night, as we waited for a table at a restaurant we had another Japanese experience.  No, not karaoke, but the infamous sticker booth, used mainly by teenagers, and us.  The five of us ran into a booth with flashing lights and music and proceeded to pose and pull faces for our pictures which we then got to edit (yeah!) with wording, happy faces, extra pictures, etc.  It was soooo much fun, just way too funny.  Being a sticker booth newbie I accidentally painted a rainbow directly over Sayaka's mom's face and not knowing how to erase it, deleted everything I 'd put on it!  Aaargh! Had to start again, with the time limit counting down... oh!  Just made it in time!  Saya, of course, was a full professional.  That, and she can read the Japanese instructions, I think that may help.

Our last day with Saya and her amazing family we began our 8 hour travel back to Hiroshima.  Saya's brother joined us this time around, and we visited 400 year old Kumamoto Castle which was restored in the 1960's and is still undergoing restoration.  Inside were artifacts from past royalty and samurai warriors.  We also had our photo taken with a guy dressed up as a samurai!  We said our goodbyes to Saya's mom and brother who took the train back down to Kagoshima, and the four of us continued north, passing the Kaimon channel separating Kyushu from Honshu at twilight, and arriving in Hiroshima in the evening.

Now I'll quickly mention the food we tried, so much of it was new and Scott was a real adventurer since he doesn't even eat fish.  We had Oden which is like a hotpot with Japanese radish, fish paste cooked in bamboo, burdock and whole eggs.  It looks incredible in the pot bubbling away.  We also had Bukkake udon which are served cold with tempura (Scott's favourite), ramen (the real ones, not the instant package with MSG type) which were fabulous, okonomiyaki which is like a pancake with cabbage and bean sprouts (my favourite), rice balls which is essentially sushi rice in the shape of a triangle wrapped in nori (seaweed) and you pick it up and just eat it!  Yummy!  And healthy too!  As for the sweets, the outstanding ones were the purple sweet potato chips and momijmanjuu which is like a tiny maple-shaped cake with sweet red bean paste in the middle.  This is a Hiroshima specialty and it's outstanding.  I think, however, the biggest gold star for effort goes to Scott for giving sashimi a go.  He tried it.  He didn't like it.  He kept it down.  Remember, he does NOT like fish, and to give raw fish a go is exceptional.  I like fish, but the raw variety is also bit hard for me to swallow.

Before I finish off, I must mention a very important fact about Japan:  the public toilets.  They are NASA-engineered, AI driven super-machines catering to your every nether-region need!  If from Canada, you will appreciate the heated seats, particularly coming in from the outside in the winter or waking up in the middle of the night... let me tell you, there is nothing more inviting than a warm toilet seat.  In addition we have the bidet spray button and the buttock spray button to refresh necessary areas, and wait; you can even control the water pressure as necessary.  Would you like a gentle spurt, or a forceful spray?  Are you embarrassed when people hear you tinkle?  You know who you are!  Be embarrassed no more, as you can activate the flush sound button, adjusting the volume as required so that the sound of running water, not your dripping pee is heard.  Have a baby?  Please, feel free to place them in the secure high chair within your stall.  Confused about all the options?  Not to worry, instructions are posted on the wall, fear no more!  And enjoy.

Seriously, after some of the toilet paperless, swarming fly squat toilets in part of SE Asia, can you imagine our absolute elation at walking into that?!  Freakin' heaven.  

Canaussie rating:

Ibusuki onsen: 5+++ you feel great afterwards and it's so unique

Izumi crane breeding grounds: 5+++

Real Ramen: 5

Toilets: off the scale

Okonomiyaki: 5!  And Saya's mom made it too

Kumamoto castle:  5


Hmm, see a pattern?  Scott told me that he's heard me say one word over and over again in Japan:  "perfect".  But it is!  The people, the landscape, the hospitality, the sights, her family... perfect!  Sayaka, if you are reading this, thank you and your family again SO much, we had such a memorable time and would not have wanted to do it without all of you. xooxox

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