The very next day after I got back from Korea, I made a trip with Kaori-Sensei and her friend Emiko down to Kagoshima. But first we stopped by the city to visit a shogakko student who was in the hospital.
Ryusei Nishida is a very good student who is liked by everyone. He's good at sports, and the girls like him because he's quite a charming little boy. After feeling a sudden and excruciating pain in his hip, he was admitted into the hospital, and they discovered a problem in his hip joint. They had to put three metal pins to hold together his fractured femur, and told him that he can't play sports or do P.E. until he is 20 years old. That means that from now (the 6th grade) until college, he can't do any sports of any kind. When we went to visit him, he was in high spirits as usual. Its just too sad to dwell on, however, Ryusei is a strong boy both mentally and physically and so he will still do well, even with his debilitating condition. If it had been any other student, I would be more concerned, but I know he will be O.K. We played a few games of babanuki (old maid), and then left with a black, cloudy feeling about the future.
The original plan was that we were all going to run in the Nonahana Marathon in Ibusuki, Kagoshima. However, both I and Ko-chan (Kaori's husband) came down with colds, so he stayed home and I went along just for fun. We went to sleep at about 10 P.M. and took off for Kagoshima at 2:30 A.M. (so that we wouldn't have to spend an extra night and extra money in a hotel). This was pretty rough, and I slept most of the way down. However, it must've been torture for the girls, who had to run. We arrived in Ibusuki at about 5:30 and slept in the car for an additional hour and a half.
There were 2 courses that people ran: the full marathon (42.195 K) and the 10K. About 10,000 people ran the full marathon and around 2,000 ran the 10K. People of all ages ran, some in really strange costumes such as square packages of pickled garlic, fish-men, faeries, and a giant Olive. There were so many people running that the people at the back of the queue were only able to start the race 10 minutes after the bang of the start.
It was inspirational watching those running the marathon. There were so many old people (50 and over) and people in the 70 year old age range were not uncommon. Made me feel like a wuss for dodging out due to a cold. There's nothing like healthy dose of good old fashioned shame to crank up the motivation. So I will be running the Saga Marathon on April 4th, most likely. Then again, maybe I'm not that ashamed of not running the race.
The atmosphere of the marathon was just like a matsuri. There were food booths, a magic show, a stage where I took pictures with Miss Ibusuki 2004, and lots of people in costumes walking around. The course was also spectacular. It was all flat and next to the beach, lined by bright yellow nanohana flowers (rape blossoms). If I'm around, I might have to run this marathon next year.
After they finished the marathon,
we headed over to the sunaburo onsen (hot sand bath). This place was located right on the beach, and the natural volcanic heat rose up steaming through the sand.
First, I observed the bilingual sign telling me how to take a sand bath, and warning not to stay in for too long, or I might become baked like a piroshky. Next, I changed into a yukata (thin cotton robe), and went down to the beach, right in front of a calm ocean. I layed down between a bunch of sand mounds from which only faces protruded. A young man came over with a shovel and started to mound steaming hot black volcanic sand on top of me and asked me if I was Korean (I simply laughed as an answer, so he was probably thinking something like "those crazy Koreans!"). I was slowly covered, and when it was complete, I was entombed in a sarcophagus.
The weight of the sand bearing down on my thorax brought to mind that old puritan man who's last words before being crushed to death with a huge pile of stones on his chest was "more weight" (what a badass!). The sand was heavy, pinning my whole body. This amplified the effects of the heat, which pierced straight through my flesh to my lungs and heart. Watching the rise and fall of the mound on my chest with each breath, I noticed that my heart beat was also visible, and the heat made it so that I could feel my pulse in my fingers and feet. This was one of those strange moments in which I felt completely in touch with my body, kinesthetically, spiritually, and physiologically speaking. After 10 minutes, the heat grew uncomfortable, and so I slowly emerged from my bed of earth, like a mummy come to life under the Egyptian dunes. If you happen to be in Ibusuki in the winter, or during a bout of cold weather, I highly recommend slapping down the 1,500 yen, for it is well worth it. However, during the Kagoshima summer, I think that this might prove to be an unpleasantly hot experience, but maybe not. It was 4:30 when we left, and there were still many people running the final 5k of the marathon. They had been running for 6 and a half hours, and I no longer regretted not running at all.
After the sunaburo, we made a trip down the Ibusuki Skyline. Like the Aso Skyline, this drive offers some excellent curvy roads to practice your mountain driving technique, and the view was breath taking. We drove into the sunset, with Kaimondake looming against a golden orange sky. I had previously climbed up Kaimondake, dubbed the Fujisan of Kyushu, six months ago so it was cool to see it from a different context. It was like looking at a Hokusai print in real life. I must say, if you have the chance to climb this beautiful extinct volcano, I highly recommend it (climbing this mountain was much more fun and offered a better view for me compared to Mt. Fuji).
That night we stayed at Eyouken Hotel, a Ryokan North of Kagoshima City.
This Ryokan boasted 3 onsens and was right on a beautiful river, filled with carp and minnow-like fish. If I ever go back, I will bring my fishing equipment or fashion a line and pole out of some stray bamboo and grass.
I went to the onsen once that night, and once the next morning. Both times I was completely alone, and had the massive pools to myself. It was a bit spooky and had a Purgatory-like ambiance because the rooms were filled with steam, so that you couldn't see anything past two feet in front of you. My morning onsen was awesome. To reach the baths, I had to walk outside in the bitter cold, on a stone bridge arching over a koi pond. Once inside, I showered off and walked slowly through the mist, entering the scalding-hot red-tinged opaque bathwater. My nerves screamed in out in that sharply specific cry that is about 30% pleasure and 70% pain. Large windows situated near the ivy draped vaulted ceiling let in an strong arctic draft, so my face was whipped by the cold while my body turned lobster red from the heat. I walked around the fog, and discovered a miniature landscape with giant statues of frogs, naked women, woodland creatures, and a fake stuffed crane. Had it not been for the heat, I would have stayed in that bath for the whole day, completely happy to have the place to myself.
The women didn't have as good of an experience. Their onsen, the rotenburo, was located outside, in plain view of any who happened to be strolling along on the adjacent bridge that spanned the river. Needless to say, they quickly hopped in and out and so we finished at the same time (girls always take a friggin long time in the bath, so taking my time is roughly equivalent to women hastily racing through the same actions).
The last thing that we did in Kagoshima, before leaving for Kumamoto, was go to eat Shirokuma (white bear, polar bear, or shaved ice, depending on the context. In my case it was the latter of the three) during coming of age day. It was cool seeing all of the 20 year old girls fully dressed in kimono as well as a few guys. Everyone was in a good mood, and had gone though lengths to look their best on this important day. If you have a kimono fetish, this is the day that you want to visit Japan on.
The Shirokuma was excellent. The ice was finely shaved and had a feather-light quality, not grainy or pebbly like the cheaper shaved ice that you get at the country fair. I got the one flavor that I had never seen before, despite skepticism and rude noises made by those who chose their flavor of Shirokuma with less skill. And it turned out to be the shit! It tasted better than theirs, and they kept asking for more. So remember, the chocolate Shirokuma kicks the most ass in the "pure flavor" Shirokuma category.
I must say that traveling with girls is a completely different experience than crusing with the guys. Instead of roughing it, we enjoy the comforts along the way. Instead of getting drunk and wrestling and getting angry and laughing at other's misfortunes, we get drunk, and play games, and have in depth conversations. Instead of saving money by eating food bought exclusively out of convenience stores, we eat frequently at good sit down restaraunts and nibble on delicacies famous to the region. Instead of doing stupid things that might get us into trouble, we relax and enjoy the views and other sensory input, taking on a more reflective role in contrast to a hyperactive one. Instead of covering our B.O. with deodorant, we bathe regularly and remain in a perpetual state of cleanliness. Ah, its good to hang out with the girls for a prolonged period every once in a while, allowing the body to heal from inevitable wounds and other miscellaneous damage that results from hanging out with the guys.
Places That I Enjoyed In Kagoshima:
1. The Kagoshima Suizokan (Aquarium). A top notch aquarium complete with some excellent specimens such as adult Pirarucu from the Amazon, a giant sturgeon, various gigantic rays (but no mantas), a tiny whale shark, and an electric eel of notable girth complete with analog voltmeter that displays the electric output during feeding time. Admission is 1,500 yen.
2. Sakurajima (Cherry Island). This volcanic island sits in the middle of Kagoshima Bay, and there is a youth hostel you can stay at for around 2,000 yen a night (this is super-cheap, and better than camping out during a hot and humid Kagoshima night, as I found out). The onsens on the island have red, muddy, sulfur-rich water that is said to be theraputic (but mostly it just feels good to soak in one after a long day). The ferry is also pretty cheap, and you can even take a car over to the other side (for about 1,500 yen, if I remember correctly).
This mountain is a medium challenge to climb. Takes about 2.5 hours at a slow and steady pace to reach the top. The view is spectacular, both from the peak, and from a distance. It is free to climb if you enter through the town. Also, the beaches around this area are spectacular, with black sand. My only complaint is that just below the tideline, medium sized stones will crush your toes is you forget to pack the aqua socks (I didn't so I was O.K.).
4. Kagoshima City. This place is a lively, decent sized metropolitan area. I feel at home here for some reason, and find it more exciting than Kumamoto city. There are many historical sites to check out in and immediately around the city center. At night time, the red light district is really lively, and the girls flirt more agressively to drag prospective clients into their snack bars.
5. Unagi Mura. This place seems even more inaka than Ubuyama, because everyone seems to be at least 80 years old. Unagi (meaning "eel") is a small town located in the middle of a dead volcano, with a lake in the bottom of the caldera. I went to the local onsen (a tiny hut) with a hairy Portugese ALT, and it was a true life anthropological experience interacting with the native "small people". Dayamn pops, yeah we're foreigners, but staring at another man's wang is poor manners in any culture that I know of. Tend to your own unagi. Anyhow, this is a cool place to drop by and experience a deeper level of hidden culture.
There are so many cool places to check out in Kagoshima, and I have the feeling I will return once again.