My Internship in Japan: Kyushu travels I

kyushu travels banner

In my previous post, I wrote about my internship from mid-September to mid-November 2017. My main place of residence was with a host family in Minamata, but I also traveled quite a bit during those twee months. I visited the following places: Kawaminami, Aya, Nishihara, Furuishi, Hita, Yufuin, Oyama, Shimonoseki, Ube, Yamaguchi, Hisayama, Hitoyoshi, Mizukami, Itsuki, Morotsuka, Tōgo, Miyazaki, Kobayashi, Yatsushiro, Jōyōmachi, Ukiha and Fukuoka. In true paparazzi style, I took hundreds of pictures of which a selected few are published here. Although I am really bad at it, I have tried to contain myself to not include the complete history and a detailed description of natural and cultural features of every place I have set foot in. Just keep in mind that there is much more to write than I did. Enjoy! This is part I of the Kyushu travels posts.


One of my first trips involved crossing the island of Kyūshū from Minamata in the West to Kawaminami town 川南町 in Miyazaki prefecture in the East, a 4-hour drive. I actually went back once more to participate in a food event – for research purposes, of course. Kawaminami is a very versatile place to live: not only is it located at the Pacific ocean, ideal for surfers and fishing communities alike, the area is also covered with pastures and grassland for livestock farming, mountains and vegetable and tea fields. At the foot of the mountain range, there is a viewing point from where you can overlook the whole town (picture below left). Because of the sunny climate, strawberries, bananas, peanuts and other natural sweets are a local speciality. I met one surfing strawberry farmer and was impressed, but as is shown in this promo video for the town, it’s quite common…

Because the area covers such different landscapes and livelihoods that come with these landscapes, the animosity between the fishing community at the coast and the farming community in the mountains was driven to a high in recent times. The former accused the latter of soiling with manure the river water that flows from its source in the mountains to the ocean. Through talking about it instead of avoiding the subject, helping each other out and participating in common projects, the two communities grew closer. As many Japanese, they felt connected the most through food. They organized a “hot pot battle” (nabe gassen 鍋合戦) together and started the tradition of a “seasonal food event” (yotsu no shiki wo taberukai 四つの季節を食べる会), which is still organized four times a year nowadays. The events bring together both communities and their surprisingly different food cultures.

I was so lucky to attend the fall edition of this food event. It was quite the experience, I might say! Somehow we ended up as special guests at the table of the mayor and other high-ranking elder men. The food was arranged for in potluck-style. People who had brought something proudly explained the contents of the dish: all of it was local, home-grown and seasonal. Meanwhile, the presenter made non-stop jokes and cracked up the whole room. At the front an enormous swordfish was exhibited, freshly caught that morning.

newspaper taberukai kawaminamichoBefore the food was even touched, half of the participants had gotten drunk on the booze they had brought in large amount. But the fun part had yet to begin! After dinner, sponsored gifts and local products were distributed… through several rounds of rock-paper-scissors (jan-ken-pon じゃんけんぽん). Those interested in the prize had to battle against each other in the game. Nothing beats the sight of 80-year old ladies in a heated jan-ken competition to win a box of eggs. And another fun thing happened: I was interviewed by a reported for the local newspaper during this event. Apparently, I was the first foreigner to attend in the 11 years, or 44 editions the food event was being held. I got mailed the newspaper article when I was already back in Belgium. See the result, including silly picture, for yourself…

Moving on to a different place, located on the route between Kawaminami town and Minamata city: the town of Aya 綾町. I visited Aya three times in total, since it was one of the favorite travel destinations of my host. He had enormous admiration for Aya and its former mayor Minoru Gōda. Once, Aya was a “runaway city”, a town where people fled from once they got the chance. There was poverty as was common on the countryside, few jobs, little tourism, no hotels or sightseeing opportunities. In other words, Aya was not attractive to locals nor to outsiders. And yet, the city is blessed with one of the last remaining primeval woods in Japan: 2000 hectares of broad-leaved forest.

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The rich vegetation provided Aya’s three rivers with minerals. There’s a saying “the mountain is the sea’s lover” (yama wa umi no koibito 山は海の恋人) that illustrates this important connection. As a result, life in the water flourished; one remarkable specimen is the local sweetfish (ayu 鮎), which has a golden color. Unfortunately, heavy industrial and mining induced pollution of the water started to manifest in health problems among the population. Mining also caused several forest fires. When the authorities eventually wanted to log parts of the forest, Gōda protested heavily – much to the discontent of local woodcutters who finally had the perspective of a steady job. Gōda argued that the forest provided fresh air and delicious drinking water, and that the inhabitants of Aya could start a better life by making use of these gifts of nature instead of destroying them.

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the organic marketplace. Local farmers sell their products here.

Once he had prevented the logging of the forest (it is now a Unesco ecopark), he focused his attention on the local agriculture. Then, in the sixties, vegetables were purchased in neighboring areas. Gōda was actually far ahead of his time, because he predicted that organic veggies would increasingly gain popularity. Instead of a buying economy, he proposed a self-sufficient economy in which inhabitants grow their own vegetables without any damaging chemical substances. In the beginning there were not many different kinds of vegetables and fruits, but soon people started to grow specialities. Gōda’s daughter Mikiko exploits an organic, vegetarian restaurant in the center of Aya. I could try to explain you how good the food was, but I fear words cannot describe the sensation.

Mikiko’s food is based on kanpō (eastern medicine 漢方), featuring 5 tastes: sour, pungent, sweet, spicy and salty. These tastes interrelate as they complement or counterbalance each other. Every taste relates to a certain area of the body, such as the liver for sour, the stomach for sweet, and the ears for salty. If you encounter a physical problem, you can counterbalance by focusing on the taste group opposite to the problem area. For example, too much fatty, sweet foods (including rice, beans, chicken and corn) are to be counterbalanced by seaweed, tofu or soy sauce.

Today, Aya is an agricultural city, famous for its organic production and its touristic attractions, such as the forest  and the international crafts castle, where I made a ceramic mug! You could also try out artisanal weaving or buy art objects by local craftsman.

At the castle, I met an excentric figure called Genta. Genta has been working there for over 30 years. He migrated to Aya because of its beautiful nature. He started out as an amateur (because he thought it would be fun), but is now an expert in natural dyes. While showing me how to dye a piece of fabric in a particular pattern of fading blue, he philosophized about life. What I take away from this conversation: “Don’t think about what the future will bring, think about what you want to do. That’s your future.”

silk weavery

A little outside of Aya is another silk weaving house and dying shop, where silk textile is created according to traditional sericulture: caterpillars are bred and once spun into a cocoon, long threads of raw silk are harvested and twisted together into a fiber. The dye is naturally sourced from plants or shells. The picture on the right shows the famous Japanese indigo colors that are displayed in the shop, and a dipping pattern characteristic for Japanese dye craftsmen. The silk is very light, but keeps you warm at the same time and is incredibly strong. More than a clothing item nowadays, naturally dyed silk is an art object.

Our next stop is Nishihara 西原村, a village of barely 6,700 residents located next to Aso 阿蘇市. I participated in a couple of workshops there. Perhaps a little info about Aso is in order: Aso city is located in the center of Kyushu, and features the highest – still active – volcanic mountain in Japan. Mount Aso erupted violently some 300,000 years ago and shaped the Kyushu landscape as how it is now. Starting from a certain height, the scenery gets fascinatingly steppe-like.

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on the open spots, there were houses once

Equally violent and shocking was the 2016 earthquake in the area. When I visited Nishihara, complete streets had been wiped away, whole families had moved out and houses were being rebuilt. Five people had died, and more than 60 suffered injuries. Blue sheets, indicating collapsed building, could be spotted everywhere even a year after the disaster. I was shocked because the earthquake had only briefly been featured on the news in Belgium: I could never have imagined the gravity of the situation until this day. Signs of the earthquake aftermath were visible in a 140-year old samurai house we visited: part of the gate was destructed, and the entire house had even moved a couple of centimeters to the left.

DSCF7676We hit the road to go find Nishihara’s hidden treasures. I was in the food team, a strategic choice since I got to try some stuff, like pumpkin ice-cream in a triangular cone. Because grazing land is readily available, all types of dairy products are a speciality of the region. In my team, we also noticed that the availability of fresh and tasty mountain water was key to the region’s produce. One Italian-style restaurant, for example, used only the water of the waterfall you see below on the right to grow tomatoes and other ingredients. Wells at shrines were regularly visited by locals to tap fresh water or wash products like chestnuts or beans. We interviewed one guy who drove over an hour every weekend to fill his bottles with Nishihara water. He was a police chief and distributed the water at the workplace.

In Nishihara’s Kazurame hamlet, consisting of only 5 families, an old lady showed us proudly her flower field, an enormous persimmon tree (right) and a field full of soba seeds (left). It was actually the first time I thought about how soba noodles are made. Have you? As it turns out, soba  (buckwheat) is not even a type of wheat, but it’s a seed. When crushed, it forms the flour that is used to make noodles. Further in my journey, I encountered some people who specialized in homemade soba noodles: these noodles stand out because they are unevenly shaped, melt away in your mouth and are delicious in their simplicity. In Shimonoseki, we even had tea soba noodles on a hot roof tile, but later more on that.

Furuishi 古石 is located in the Ashikita area, separated from Minamata by Yajiroyama-mountain. The village houses around 400 people, and everybody knows everybody. I stayed in Furuishi for an afternoon and then for a weekend with the loveliest elderly couple you can imagine. They had a cosy countryside B&B and spent their time like everyday was Sunday. With the same relaxed attitude, they took care of all labor-intensive tasks that living on the countryside requires: harvesting rice, making traditional sweets, logging trees, pickling vegetables and fruit, taking care of ancestral spirits and shrines, socializing with the neighbors, clearing fields from weeds, organizing the annual festival… I think the words “work hard, play hard” actually fit the rural situation very well. At the time I visited them, they were busy building a wall for their new furnace, so I helped out a little. The food on the table was homemade from scratch – the couple practically lived in a self-sustaining way and only consumed local meats like wild boar or fish they caught in the river. Dinner on the first day was creamy pumpkin soup, dried bamboo shoots and pickled greens.

The next day, I made traditional sweets with the lady of the house: rice cake (mochi) mixed with sweet potato, filled with anko, a sweet azuki bean paste, and coated with kinako, roasted soybean flour. In case you have never eaten dango before: beware, because these will get you hooked. We went to 4 local shops where the dango were distributed. These shops, all with locally produced organic products, were surprisingly popular – I was told that people nowadays in a post-Minamata/Fukushima era prioritize the safety of their food above anything else and don’t care to pay a little bit extra for it. After a couple of hours we were notified that all of our dango, even the ones I had made, were sold out. My succesful cooking adventure continued in the evening with being in charge of the sushi. For the occasion I was allowed to use a real razor-sharp sushi knife. Against all odds, I did neither hurt myself nor screw up dinner. Even Pan-chan the house cat was amazed.

furuishi kimono goto junko

kimono by Goto Junko. You can read more in English on her site: http://tananohataya.com/

After dinner, we chatted about life in the village. I heard the story of an older lady who drank one cup of shochū (Japanese whisky) every day until she died at the age of 99. There was once a kimono artist living in Furuishi and she created the lightest kimono in history over the span of 7 years (this sounds like a fairy tale but it actually happened a couple of years ago, I have visual proof ->). The garment weighs 150 grams and is made from hemp, woven into threads so thin you can not see them with the bare eye. The kimono itself is priceless, but you could try it on if you had a spare 20,000 Yen to buy the underwear from the same material required to wear underneath in order not to damage the piece. It is also remarkable how strong social ties are in Furuishi. One young man who had moved to the city came to help his father in Furuishi from time to time. Because some tasks like weeding were done collaboratively, the residents made it a habit to go out drinking together every month. The son liked the company and social events so much, that he moved back to Furuishi.

And then there was this couple who had a restaurants up in the mountains that is completely self-sufficient: they grow every ingredient themselves. The owner had been dreaming for a long time about an independent mountain lifestyle, but was not sure whether he could manage it on his own. But then he met a girl who shared the same dream, they married and started a restaurant far away from the inhabited world. Now it is more or less a well-kept secret that serves a great menu. The interior was designed by the owner’s wife and is full of designer books and magazines. It is a place you might not expect in a village like Furuishi! We had a fantastic lunch there, and much to my surprise,  we could enjoy a chai latte with soy milk, my favorite drink ever.

20171022_161727Since it was national election day, we headed to the village meeting center in the afternoon. Although voting is not compulsory in Japan, everybody went in Furuishi because it would be noticed if you didn’t go. I had been told that the director of the center married at the age of 50. All his life, he had been poor but the villagers encouraged him to marry anyways, and to not worry about the fact that he could not pay much for the wedding. To support him, they organized a wedding dinner in potluck style. The most recent addition to the meeting center was a rock wall for the senior ladies bouldering club. I don’t know about you, but I find this very impressive (needless to mention, I couldn’t get near the top). In Furuishi (literally “old rock” because you can find enormous and unique rock formations in the forest) outdoor bouldering contests are held as well.

That is it for now, see you back for part 2!  All pictures are mine, unless stated otherwise.

4 thoughts on “My Internship in Japan: Kyushu travels I

  1. Beste Nippaku (ken je naam niet meer )

    Proficiat met je verslag van je mooie reis, heb het heel gelezen echt goed. je bent een tof meisje hoor ! je ouders mogen fier op U zijn.

    Mag ik vragen wat je nu doet ? afgestudeerd of nog verder ? en met je vriendje ook nog alles goed ?

    ben nieuwsgierig hé maar heb vele jaren bij uw pa en ma gekomen voor massage en heb veel over u gehoord, dat interesseerde mij.

    Vele groetjes ook aan je ouders

    Marie Louise

    Ik heb nu een nieuw émail adres: marloes1931@gmail.com

    • Dag Marie-Louise, bedankt voor uw reactie! Ik ben bijna afgestudeerd (nog thesis) en werk tegelijkertijd. Alles goed met ons. Vele groetjes terug, Ann-Sofie

  2. Pingback: My Internship in Japan: Kyushu Travels II | nippaku

  3. Pingback: My Internship in Japan: Kyushu Travel III | nippaku

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