The Road to
Thursday, August 14, 2003
Yesterday, I went to Omuta to check out one of my schools, Matsubara
Middle School. It was my first time alone on the mass transit
system. Using the trains is kind of confusing at first, but it’s
easy once you figure it out. It also requires a crash course in
kanji, because you usually have to know the kanji of the town
you’re going to, and maybe the towns in-between if you have
to switch trains. Along the train lines many of the signs indicating
which train station are in English too, but not so for the bus
lines. To make things even more complicated, a lot of the stations
and bus stops are not named for the town they’re in. For
example, the train station in Chikugo is called Hainuzuka, which
means something like Flying Dog Burial Mound. There is even a
big statue of a flying dog outside the station, and its wings
move! (I need to ask Kinoshita-sensei about the significance of
this flying dog, because I have seen a couple of other businesses
with the picture of a flying dog outside.) All of the bus stops
have names, rather than numbers, so you have to know the name
of the bus stop you’re going to. Or when all else fails,
ask the bus driver!
I had the foresight to buy a book of maps for Kyushu, and the
good luck to have it be exactly what I needed. It has very detailed
maps of the whole island, right down to the bus stops along the
roads and important places, like 7-11s, post offices, and oh,
say, schools! You just have to know the kanji for the town you
want to go to! I’ve been using it a lot while traveling
around to these places, and as I do more traveling, will probably
rely on it heavily.
Before I went to Omuta, however, I stopped at the bank for some
cash and ran into these three girls. I asked them why they were
dressed up, and they said they were going to the fireworks festival
in Kurume that evening. It had been put off several times over
the last couple of weeks because of rain. I wanted to go too,
because I had heard it was absolutely spectacular, but unfortunately
it started raining soon after this and rained all afternoon and
So the trip to Omuta
was successful. Omuta is a bigger town than Chikugo, but I don’t
know how much bigger.
The next day I went to the village of Hoshino, which was like
an hour-and-a-half trip by bus. I had to change buses once. But
I have to say that the trip to Hoshino is one of most beautiful,
scenic roads I have ever been on. And Hoshino itself is strung
out along several miles of winding mountain road. I am kicking
myself for not taking my camera, but I will definitely take it
I ran into Shay at the bus station where I had to change buses.
He was going to a different town along the same line. We were
both kind of lost as to what station Shay had to get off at, so
we enlisted the help of a woman that was waiting at the station.
It so happened that she was going to Hoshino to visit her grandmother.
Today, yesterday, and tomorrow are O-bon, the festival of the
dead, when people’s ancestors come back to the house to
visit the living, so most people go back to visit their ancestral
homes during this time. She helped us figure out which bus stop
he needed. It also so happened that this woman, Itsuka, was also
a school teacher, but she teaches pottery craft in a different
town I can’t remember the name of. She was very friendly
and helpful. Three of her cousins went to Hoshino JHS. She knew
a little English, but we conversed mostly in Japanese. Thank god
for my Wordtank, my electronic dictionary. It made communication
so much easier!! She told me that the tea grown in Hoshino is
famous. I’ll have to buy some when I go back there. Seeing
all the tea fields around there, I can believe it.
The Hoshino area is one of the most beautiful areas I have ever
seen, surrounded by high, sharp mountains (Shay is a Mountain
Snob because he is from Edmonton, so he just calls them hills.),
with the sides covered in bamboo trees and terraced tea fields,
beside a rocky river. It was amazing. Pictures coming soon!!!
Itsuka also told me that there are two onsen (hot springs) in
the area. I think I will look for those sometime. She had been
to L.A. and San Francisco, and went to Disneyland and Universal
Once I arrived at the Hoshino bus stop, I found that the school
is about a quarter mile walk from there. It was pretty easy. I’m
glad we get reimbursed for our travel expenses! The bus trip to
Hoshino was about ¥2400 round trip, about $20. On the trip
back, an old lady from Fukuoka City struck up a conversation with
me. She had been to America several times about 20 years ago,
L.A., N.Y., L.V., Niagara Falls. She was very curious about me,
and she spoke no English. I think she was visiting someone in
the area for O-bon. It was a very pleasant conversation. She spoke
slowly so I could understand her better. I hope my Japanese is
getting better. There are a lot of things I still don’t
know how to say.
Friday, August 15, 2003
Today at the office at about noon, one of the vice-bosses came
out and told someone to turn on the TV. They said today was the
anniversary of the end of WWII, and they had a national televised
moment of silence. All the people in the office stood up and observed
the moment of silence, so we did too. Then the Emperor spoke a
few words in the parliament, and then everybody went back to what
they were doing. Some of the office workers came by our desks
and wished us “peace”. This was a strange moment.
For the most part, the Japanese take pacifism very seriously it
Whilst riding down my street headed for home, this old man in
a car pulled up next to me and started talking to me. He asked
me if I could speak Japanese, and I told him a little bit. Then
he proceeded to gesture me into his driveway, saying something
about ‘bicycle.’ He was talking too fast for me to
understand, but he kept gesturing me toward this shed and kept
talking about a bicycle. In the shed were several bicycles, and
he said he wanted to give me one of them. The bicycle he wanted
to give me was a 10-speed (the first 10-speed I’ve seen
since I got here). It was too high for him, he said. The back
tire was flat, but he said he would get it fixed, and to come
back on Saturday about noon. His wife was there, too, and she
seemed so tickled and amused by the whole thing.
So on Saturday I went back there, and sure enough he had the
tire fixed and everything all oiled up. It’s a pretty nice
bike. I was pretty stunned. His name is Yamaguchi. He gave me
a sack of vegetables, too, eggplant, okra, and something else
I’ve never seen before. I don’t remember what he called
it. It looks vaguely like a zucchini with a skin disease. It’s
all bumpy and rough-looking, maybe a foot long. He said it is
very good fried. He also told me he has a relative who’s
a third-year student at Hoshino Middle School. I didn’t
catch if she was his grand-daughter, niece, or what. He wanted
to take me to Hoshino to introduce me to one of his friends. He
also mentioned a temple in Hoshino, but I couldn’t tell
if his friend was at the temple or not. Sometimes I act like I
understand more than I do, and from what I can tell, so do all
the other foreigners here. The Japanese try so hard for us to
understand them, and some of them are so friendly, like this old
gentleman. I told him I had to work during the day, but I would
be happy to go to Hoshino with him sometime to meet this person.
I felt bad accepting his gift, but he was very insistent. So now
I have two bicycles!
Sunday, August 24, 2003
Mr. Yamaguchi, the old man who gave me the bicycle, arranged
to drive me and a bunch of my friends to the village of Hoshino
this morning at 9 am. The only two others who were game enough
to get up that early on a Sunday were Shay and Jennifer. I think
all three of us were a little nervous, because neither of them
had met Mr. Yamaguchi before and I had no idea what to expect
or why he wanted to take us there. All I knew is that he wanted
to introduce me to some people. He has been very kind to me, and
he was also incredibly generous to Shay and Jennifer.
He picked us up promptly at 9 am in his tiny little Mazda. The
first few minutes of the trip were … interesting. Japanese
drivers are quite different from American drivers, and all three
of us were wondering if we were going to make it there and back,
between grinding gears, killing the engine, and a growling clutch.
But eventually things began to settle down.
Throughout the trip, he told us some things about himself. Shigeto
Yamaguchi was born in 1933 in Taipei, Taiwan. His father was a
government official there. I didn’t want to ask him directly
about WWII. Most people here seem to have trouble talking about
it. They view it as a very evil time. After the war his family
came back to Japan. I think he has lived in this region for most
of his life. His father was born in Hoshino. He was cleaning his
father’s house here in Chikugo when he saw me. The bicycle
he gave me was in his father’s shed. I would guess his father
must be dead now, but I haven’t asked him, but his father
hasn’t lived in his house for five years. Mr. Yamaguchi
was a teacher, and he taught at the same school back in the 1960s
that I am going to. He taught mathematics and English there for
one year. He understands more English than he can speak. During
the year he taught there, he lived in the local temple, called
Joen-ji (‘ji’ means temple). The school in Hoshino
I’m going to teach at was built in 1964. Through this trip,
he really wanted to talk about the history of the Hoshino area,
and there is over 1600 years of it.
He said the whole area is filled with Yamaguchi’s, Haraguchi’s,
and Hiruguchi’s. He is related distantly to some of them,
but not all. Before 100 years ago, only samurai were allowed to
have family names. Before that, people just had their first name
and were identified by where they came from, like Bob from Hoshino.
(By the way, the name Hoshino means “Star Field”.)
But common people did in fact have family names and kept them
secret from the samurai and the government. I think Yamaguchi
was one of those.
On the way to Hoshino, he pointed out some strange effigies
that a few houses had outside their houses. They looked like strange
mixtures of octopus and scarecrow, made from straw, cloth, and
balloons or bags. He said that these were to keep the kappa away.
People in this area are very scared of kappas he said. (A kappa
is like a water spirit/monster kind of a monkey with a turtle
shell. Sometimes they are shown with a cucumber on their head.
They have an indentation in the top of their head with water in
it, and if the water is spilled they lose their power. I knew
this because I had researched the folklore. He said that kappas
sneak out and drag babies into the water and drown them. They
are kind of vampiric. It kind of floored me that people were seriously
afraid of them in this region.) The effigies were to frighten
the kappas away.
So Mr. Yamaguchi brought us to Hoshino. We stopped at several
places so he could introduce me to people. I met a couple of my
future students, Naomi and Yuta, a girl and boy respectively from
two different households. The girl was so shy she looked terrified.
The boy was all smiles and friendly.
After a few introductions, he took us to the temple where he
had lived for a year. This tree is growing outside the temple.
The tree is 400 years old.
This temple was built in 1824, near the end of the Edo Period,
the samurai era. About forty years after that was when Japan was
forcibly opened up to the rest of the world. Before this temple
was built, there was another temple on the same site.
Here is the view from entrance outside.
We went inside to what I can best describe as the social hall,
where we met the priest, Higuchi Fukashi. Mr. Yamaguchi taught
him in middle school. The priest’s wife brought us iced
green tea and “summer cakes.” The summer cakes were
a kind of gelatinous, subtly sweet dessert made from sweet bean
paste. They went very well with the tea. The priest was a very
pleasant man, and we tried to converse as best we could with my
broken Japanese, Mr. Yamaguchi’s broken English, and my
Wordtank. We looked through photo albums of when the social hall
annex was built three years before. There were photos of all the
different seasons. This area is going to be gorgeous in the fall.
The priest told us that the ancient tree out front is like the
cornerstone of the temple, but there was another tree planted
when the social hall was built that was going to be the new one.
I don’t know what kind of tree it is.
Then the priest showed us around the rest of the temple. This
is the inside of the temple itself.
After we left the temple, we went to the Hoshi no Bunkakan,
the Star Culture Center, a small observatory on one of the mountains
above the town. We didn’t see much of what was up there,
but we had lunch in the restaurant and had a great view. Mr. Yamaguchi
insisted on paying for everything.
After lunch, we went down the mountain a little ways to the Ocha
no Bunkakan, the Tea Culture Center. There at least five
kinds of green tea in Japan. The best kind, used on special occasions
and during tea ceremonies is called gyokuro. Eighty percent of
the gyokuro tea in Japan comes from Hoshino.
We sat at one of the little table/benches and they brought us
special tea to try. This was a very interesting experience. They
brought us each a try with a little cup, a bowl of water, and
a soft kind of sweet cake that goes with tea. In the cup was some
green tea leaves and a bit of water. There was a very precise
procedure to properly enjoy this tea. The cup had a lid to hold
in the tea. We drank the water that was already in the tea (maybe
a tablespoon). It had a very strong, rich, pungent flavor that
is impossible to describe. After that, we had to take the water
and put it in the cup and let the tea steep again for three minutes.
When we drank that, the flavor was almost completely different.
Then they brought us hot water to add to the tea. When we drank
that, the flavor was different again. Then they brought soy sauce
and poured it into the tea leaves and told us to eat the tea leaves.
Mr. Yamaguchi was as amazed as we were. He had never eaten tea
before. It tasted somewhat like spinach. The whole experience
was very interesting.
I wanted to buy to some tea, but Mr. Yamaguchi would not let
me. After we went back out to the car, he explained that there
was a tea shop down the village that was much, much cheaper, and
he was right. Shay wanted to buy some tea for his parents, and
Mr. Yamaguchi insisted on buying it for him.
The area also has some gold mines. Shay asked him what kind of
fish were in the river. He said that there are hardly no fish
in the river anymore because potassium cyanide in the water from
the gold mine killed all the fish. The gold mines are closed now,
and the fish are starting to come back, but slowly. Near a small
camping park up on one of the mountains, he showed us the mouth
of an old gold mine. It was an opening in the earth about 4 ft.
by 5 ft. It had bars and yellow tape across it. He said now it
was just a home for tanuki (an animal like a cross between raccoon,
badger, and dog).
He said this mountain was called Muroyama, and there were ruins
up there. This area used to be called Arima fief, and was under
the dominion of Kurume Castle. I will have to check to see if
anything of Kurume Castle still exists. He told us some about
the yamabushi, or mountain warriors. He said that many of them
were in this area, and they rebelled during the Meiji Restoration.
They did not want to give up their land and samurai status. Many
of them hid in this area. He said that he once knew a yamabushi
who lived as a taxi driver in a nearby town. He said the yamabushi
were born from Korean esoteric Buddhism and Chinese Taoism. I
don’t understand the strange links there, though. He said
something about Shugendo. I will have to read more about
This is how things look from below the big rock. There are hiking
trails all over the place. This would be a great area to take
a hike. Note the dinkiness of the car we rode around in....
After this, we headed back to Chikugo. We took a different route
home however that looped around to the south, through Setaka town.
On the way home, he showed us where the onsen is in Chikugo. It
is called Funagoya. There is a fountain outside where the water
just bubbles up out of the ground. Funagoya Onsen is famous for
having the water with the highest carbonic acid content in the
country. It is supposed to be very good for the skin and for the
digestive system. We drank some of the water. That was a surprise!
It was carbonated! It also had a kind of funky mineral flavor,
but fizzy water coming right out of the ground was amazing.
On the way back to the apartment from there, he showed us a well
of the same water. There is just a pump and little shed there,
but it is like four blocks from the apartment.
All in all, it was a very interesting day. The three of us were
stunned by his generosity and kindness. When we got back to the
apartment, he gave us a package of what he called “fish
sausage.” Shay grilled them that night for everyone. (I
asked later how they were, and the general consensus was that
they tasted like “ass.”) I didn’t get to try
them because Daniel and I had been invited to a welcome party
for ALTs in Yame city and we had to take off soon after Shay started