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The Road to Hoshino


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 evening.


It was a short trip to Omuta once the train came, maybe 20 minutes. The school is about a quarter mile from the train station. To get there, I had to use a walking overpass across a busy street. Two little kids, maybe 9 or 10, yelled at me and waved from their bicycles about 100 yards away. I smiled and waved back. Apparently I was visible from that distance…


A shot of Matsubara Junior High School.



So once I found the school, I made my way back to the train station. One the way there, I discovered a model shop that was pretty cool. Here are some samples in a case inside the store.



This place had every kind of model I could imagine, from Gundam stuff like this, to cars, to military vehicles, to models of all kinds of handguns that looked real, plus it had all the airbrushes and paints and stuff. The bad part was the aisles were so narrow I could not really move around in there. It was packed to the ceiling, wall to wall, with model kits.


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 next time.

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 Studios.

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 seems.


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.


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 cooking.