Thursday, September 25, 2008


Kyushu: the third largest island of Japan; located southwest of the main Honshu Island; cities include the infamous Nagasaki, up and coming Fukuoka, and Navy base, Sasebo; and the place I spent the last three days of my life. 

It all started with some Mexaneese food, or as Courtney (my good Sado-Island travel buddy friend) would put it, “great travel food” in Niigata City.  An 8-hour overnight train to shin-Osaka, followed by a 3-hour shinkansen to Fukuoka would follow.  All great journeys have to start with a funny phrase to reminisce on throughout the rest of the trip, and ours came right at the start.  We probably should have expected to run into drunk salary-men on a train platform on a Friday night.  As we were patiently awaiting our 10:55pm train, we caught his eye.  He proceeded to invite us over and over again to his house in Sanjo, where he promised us that his very nice wife would cook for us.  Courtney, being the people watcher that she is, allowed me to handle this whole situation (even though he was really talking to her) while she stood in silent amusement.  This is how the translated conversation went:

“Come to my house in Sanjo.” salary-man

“We don’t want to go.” me

“Come to my house in Sanjo.” salary-man

“We don’t want to go.” me

“Why?” salary-man

“Because we don’t want to go.” Me

“But why?” salary-man

“Because we need to catch another train, and we don’t want to go.” Salary-man

“Buy why?” salary-man

“Because you’re scary” me

“Fine, if you don’t want to come, then don’t come.  How could you be Japanese and the number one mean person!?!” salary-man


In reality, this conversation repeated itself a lot more before he called me the number one mean Japanese person, and actually involved a couple other people on the platform who tried to help the salary-man translate until they figured out what was going on, but all in all, it was HILLARIOUS and I was called the ‘number-one mean Japanese person’ for the rest of the trip.  

So anyways, the overnight train was uncomfortable as heck, but also cheap as heck so we really can’t complain AT ALL.  Sierra and Cate drove all the way from Saza to pick us up in Fukuoka. Fukuoka is a relatively new city, but man oh man is it booming!!  I mean, when a city has an Apple store, you know that they’ve either already made it, or are on their way to the top.  A typhoon was supposed to rip through southern Japan this weekend, but found out that Courtney and I were visiting, so decided to change direction and allow for some PERFECT weather.  While northern Japan is quickly showing signs of fall, Kyushu still has the electric lime green rice fields of the summer.  We spent the day in Fukuoka eating tons of bread, then immediately eating tons of Japanese lunch, followed by tons of shopping, tons of Starbucks jelly coffee frappuccino, tons more shopping, and then tons of DELICIOUS FUKUOKA RAMEN!!!  Sierra was awesome enough to house all three of us.  Being able to stretch out on a flat futon could NOT have felt more glorious!!

YES!!  we MADE it to FUKUOKA!!
'Tick or Treat'
Coffee Jelly Frappuccino...DELISH
Fukuoka Ramen

Sunday…it was Sunday right?  (The over night train made it was a little difficult to keep track of the days).  Yes, Sunday was NAGASAKI City!!!  Well before the drive down, we had to fill our already stuffed bellies with more delicious breakfast food and breakfast drink bar green-tea-lattes and mocha-lattes.  Then Sierra took us to this beautiful mountain drive then hike-up-tons-of-stairs lookout over the beautiful Saza.  It was spectacular, really spectacular. 

Now onto Nagasaki.  Nagasaki City was full of history until the nuclear bomb, ‘Fat Man’ flattened it, which, in turn gave it even more history.  Located on a long, natural harbor, and surrounded by steep hills and mini-mountains, throughout Japan’s long period of isolation, was one of the few cities open to trade with the west.  First it was Portugal, then China, the Netherlands, and then in more recent history, America, Britain and so on, up until the Second World War.  Some of the islands off the coast of Nagasaki are actually closer to Korea than they are to one of the main islands of Japan.  With more foreign influence than the rest of the country has been exposed to, colorful Chinese temples, Catholic Churches, and European-style houses pop up amidst the traditional Japanese clay tiled roofing.  We started with Nagasaki Peace Park, then moved on to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, where many hours were spent reading, looking, and thinking about what kind of world this was 60 years ago.  We needed a break and a cleansing of the soul after all that, so headed to a little shrine at one part of the city.  After all the sightseeing, what better way to celebrate Nagasaki than with the famous Nagasaki Champon noodle soup?!  The noodles were a cross between ramen and udon, the soup tasted a little Chinesie and a little Japanesie, and the whole thing was loaded with vegetables and sea food – SPECTACULAR!!

Monday, our final day on the island of Kyushu, was spent in Sasebo.  I guess Sasabo can be described as a little city, cute shops and food (Tanuki Udon (the greatest fast-food udon establishment EVER), Mr. Donuts, Starbucks, and Baskin Robins.).  It’s also where one of the US Navy bases is located and shows its western influence with the famous ‘Sasebo Burgers.’  The burger I got was a true burger with beef, lettuce, tomato, catsup, mayo, onions, AND an egg.  Oh yeah, and I almost didn’t forget to mention the Kyujukyushima, or 99 Island boat tour.  Actually there were 208, but apparently in Japanese, 99 can be used to refer to ‘many’ of anything.  The weather was perfect, the boat ride was relaxing and gorgeous, and the company was fabulous.  The mini-cruise gave us the idea to scout a little beach spot out afterwards which ended up being equally fantastic.  Words really can’t do it justice, and neither can the orange point-and-shoot camera that I own.  But seriously I LOVE Kyushu, and ehem, Barbi: this is Sasebo, you’re next choice for stationing, WOOT!!

Navy Base in Sasebo

Monday night to Tuesday morning was a repeat of the long and uncomfortable night train ride, on which I was able to sleep most of the way and poor Courtney was left jealous watching me sleep.  We spent Tuesday morning to afternoon homeless, living out of Niigata Station’s public restroom and lockers until the Niigata Albirex Soccer game!!  Courtney and I made sure to show up with Albirex orange gear.  In order to accomplish this, Courtney would spot a person wearing an Albirex shirt, tell me to ask them where they got it, and I would.  Eventually we found a doll shop where she got a scarf and a flag while I got a child’s jersey type shirt.  The game was intense, goal Niigata, goal Kobe, goal Niigata, goal Kobe, GOAL NIIGATA!!!  Laura, Jon, Courtney, and I were able to pick up on some of the chants and songs that were sung in unison by the Albirex fans ALL game long.  “Ore no Ni-igata!!”

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ninja Camp

Somehow, somewhere, someone discovered this thing called ‘Ninja Camp’ in Nagano Prefecture’s Togakushi.  After hearing about such a place, who wouldn’t be immediately captivated?  And with that (and Colleen’s bright orange car), Jon, Colleen, and I were off on our first road trip in Japan.  Taking a bullet train would have probably gotten us there within a couple of hours but would have cost something like tens of thousands of yen.  Driving on the expressway would have got us there in something like three hours but with the ridiculously priced tolls, would have been thousands of yen.  As a result, it was executively decided to take route 7 to route 8 to route 16 and then back to route 8 and so on…which took something like 5 hours.  Luckily, Colleen had packed the soundtrack to ‘Mama Mia’ and Jon had a pillow. 

The only thing we had really planned on doing for the next two days was ‘Ninja Camp’ stuff.  Little did we know that Nagano and Tokakushi would be surrounded be the most gorgeous mountains with the most delicious soba (thin, handmade buckwheat noodles), and the most bizarrely friendly people!!  To start, we didn’t exactly have a place to stay on Saturday night when we left Niigata.  Instead, we had a couple of phone numbers to Inns in Togakushi.  Luckily, the first place we called (actually Jon called since he’s got his polite Japanese down), the ‘Pension Love Apple,’ was open and ready to accommodate and feed three foreigners.  Once we had a place to stay, we were able to hit up the Ninja Museum and Okusha-shrine, worry free.

The Ninja Museum was fully equip with old Ninja houses, Ninja weapons, Ninja outfits, and Ninja history that we couldn’t read or understand.  The ‘Ninja House’ can be compared to ‘fun houses’ at carnivals where you have to go through a maze of dead ends to get through.  The only difference was that this one had trick doors, hidden doors, and an angled room!!  After dead ends and feeling the wall for sliding and revolving doors, we entered the NINJA ROOM!!  Oh yes, the slippery tatami floor was angled somewhere between 25 and 40 degrees and was AWESOME!!  The second you look at it and step foot into the room, you center of gravity gets thrown off and you immediately get dizzy and disoriented.  Luckily Jon and I were wearing socks (like many of the places you enter in Japan, you must take your shoes off before going in), which made it all the more challenging.  When running up it, we had to not only fight gravity, but also the slipperiness of our feet.  We spent most of our time in this room, running up and sliding down.  It was GREAT FUN.

After the Ninja House, we found a couple more little obstacle courses.  There was the broken pseudo-traverse-rock-climbing-wall that took all our upper-body strength to conquer.  After that was the tightrope.  It took much concentration and perseverance to overcome the quivering of the jiggley wire.  At times it seemed impossible, but once Jon successfully crossed over it, Colleen and I knew that we couldn’t be shown up by a boy.  The final task was to throw shuriken (those metal pieces with sharpened edges) at the samurai enemy.  All three of us hit our targets at least 5 times out of 7, thus passing the final task and winning custom made fans. 

All of this Ninja-ing around helped build up an appetite, and we fully enjoyed our first of what would be many soba meals.  Following the meal, we went on hike through some majestic woods toward Okusha Shrine.  I know I haven’t been everywhere in the world, but I feel like I’ve been on enough hikes through quite a few woods to realize how unique each place is.  The mountains and the trees, and the whole set up are just different from anything I’ve ever seen before. 

During the hike, we decided that it would be more fun to drive to Nagano City and meet up with Mark and Brittany, instead of staying in Togakushi.  On our way out, we designated Jon to call and cancel our reservations at the ‘Love Apple.’  In his most polite Japanese, he told them that ‘it was too bad, and that we were very sorry, but we would not be able to stay there that night.’  Apparently the woman on the other line was shocked, and said that ‘this would be a huge problem as they had already pushed all of the beds into a room and prepared dinner.’  Hearing this, we immediately felt overly guilty and decided that it was best to change our minds again, and stay the night at the ‘Love Apple’ after all.  The only problem was that we didn’t know where it was, and the reception in the mountains was iffy.  Jon asked the woman how to get there from Tokamachi, to which she screeched ‘What?!?!  That’s two hours away!!’ and then phone signal was lost.  Jon wondered ‘how could we be two hours away when we’re in the same tiny town?  Oh no!!  I said Tokamachi instead of Togakushi!!’  When he called back, he explained that we were actually in Togakushi, in the Ninja area, which was actually only 5 minutes away.  For some reason, she kept on asking what color our car was, and the line kept on going out.  One of my favorite quotes was when Jon lost signal for the last time, got off the phone and exclaimed ‘Gosh darn Japanese people, always being way too nice and making me feel so guilty.  I wish they would just let us figure things out on our own.  I think they’re sending someone out to find us in a silver car!!’  And then all of a sudden, a man in a huge silver van labeled ‘Love Apple’ was waiving at us and telling us to follow him.  Before leading us to the ‘Love Apple’ he showed us to a huge beautiful soba field, or buckwheat field.  As it turns out, the ‘Love Apple’ was located off the road and down a tiny street, so we definitely needed his help in getting there. 

I’m so glad we decided to stay there, as they really did put a lot of work into preparing for us.  It was essentially a bed and breakfast; only a DELICIOUS six-course dinner and a four-course breakfast were included.  As we were hanging out in the lounge, we talked to and got to know quite a bit about the nice man/owner who had picked us up earlier.  It turns out that they hosted some participants of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games.  Not too far from the location was where the bobsled events took place.  This man is actually a competitive skier himself, and won a couple Giant Slalom races.  When he was younger he got in a pretty bad wreck, which led to his leg needing to get 13 metal screws and a rod put it.  Months later, they were taken out, and he kept these pieces in a plastic bag, which he humbly showed to us.  They were HUGE!!  When asked if he had ever been out of the country, he told us that he had not, but that he would like to someday visit Finland.  Why?  Because he was told by a man who could see auras that in one of his past lives he was a happy Finnish woodsman who spent all of his days carving wood.  He considers himself lucky and fortunate because his ancestors are looking down on and protecting him during this life.  After hearing this, I decided to set out to find one of these people who could see spirits so that they could tell me about my past lives. 

After the hearty Japanese breakfast, we set out to the soba museum where we decided to bypass the paying of more money to make soba and instead hike through some woods and then slide down a huge slide.  After that, we hit up the Ninja Camp.  This ended up being a huge amusement park-type place for children with dangerous obstacle courses that you would never find in the U.S.  The fact that it was geared toward kids didn’t stop us from climbing over, through, and across a few of them.  It even had a Ninja House and a Shuriken-throw, similar to the one at the Ninja Museum!!  A parking lot attendant stopped us on our way out to the orange car.  We soon found out that he was a Ninja in disguise as he showed us (by using Jon as the victim) the ways of a true Ninja. 

Before heading back to Niigata, we met up with Mark and his friend Brittany for a final soba meal.  Since I already had quite a few soba meals, I decided to try something different: a giant ball of soba dough.  While the first couple of bites were quite tasty, it really was just a ball of dough, and left a funky feeling in my stomach.  In order to cure this feeling, we set out on a quest to find soba ice cream!!  It took a couple of places, but the wait and the search was worth it, as buckwheat is my new favorite ice cream flavor!!

Japan has many random holidays such as Monday’s ‘Respect for the Aged Day.’  These holidays are essentially paid vacation days, which is AWESOME!!  Since I was already in the city, I decided to hang out with my obaachan and actually celebrate the day with her.  I had almost forgotten about the Soh-odori festival going on that weekend and luckily bumped back into it near the station.  I think that Soh-odori (odori = dancing) is specific to Niigata.  It all started something like 300 years ago when people danced for 3 days straight, praying for health and luxuriance.  I read somewhere that it’s all about bringing vigor and power to people who lived in a gloomy snow country.  Anyways, these dances were brightly colored and wild, and I must find a way to get in on it!!