My Internship in Japan: Kyushu Travels II

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In a 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 II of the Kyushu travels posts. You can find part one here.


Let’s get this second part starting with a visit to Oita prefecture. I went to Hita city twice with side trips to Yufuin town and Ōyama town, the latter officially part of Hita since 2005. Hita city 日田市 gained importance at the end of the sixteenth century as the headquarters of the Toyotomi clan. Later, is was assigned as tenryō 天領, shogunal demesne for tax collection and other administrative matters, a center of power from where the Tokugawa shoguns ruled over Kyushu. Commerce and culture in Hita thrived, and the city became known as “little Kyoto” 小京都, still visible in the historic shopping street of Mameda nowadays.  Hita is known for its antique hina doll collection, imported by rich families during the Edo period, and geta, Japanese sandals, made from the excellent cedar trees that the surround the area.

A small village in Hita called Onta 小鹿田 houses only ten families who all share the same occupation: making pottery. Around 300 years ago, the three clans Yanase, Kuroki and Sakamoto established themselves there and started the tradition of Onta ware (ontayaki 小鹿田焼). Onta pottery is easily recognized by its simple but tasteful design and the unique comb-like patterns. Once you have set eyes on it, you will be able to recognize it everywhere. The potters retrieve the yellow-colored clay, rich in iron, from the surrounding mountains. Today, Onta pottery has been designated Intangible Cultural Property but until eighty years ago, nobody knew about it. As a result, visiting Onta is like stepping into a world where time stands still. Because my pictures are of mediocre quality, I recommend you to look for better ones on the Internet (Onta has been captured beautifully by Simone Armer, for example).

The first thing you notice, is the pounding sound from the karausu 唐臼, wooden constructions powered by water energy and operated all day long without manpower or electricity. Through a small mill, water is scooped from the river below and poured into the hollow side of the beam. With every “thump”, the water-filled side tilts and the hammer on the other side crushes the clay to powder  – this sound has been selected as one of the 100 soundscapes of Japan. Every family can only have two pottery wheels, and since the profession is passed on in a patrilineal way (yes, it’s very traditions), the grandfather will stop working once the oldest grandson is ready to take over. The labor-intensive task of preparing the clay is done by the female family members. They transfer the crushed clay from the karausu pits to a trough with water, and then put it on top of a kiln to harden. When the clay is moulded and decorated in the desired shape, the onta ware is placed outside to dry in the sun. In the last phase, the pottery is burned for 60 hours and glazed. The “climbing kilns” in which this happens is only lit five times a year. During that time, the potter is barely allowed to sleep, because he has to watch over his pottery.

I had expected a lot of tourists in Onta, but we were the only people walking around, chatting with the potters and buying plates and cups in the shops. If you are in the vicinity, please go take a look! Every time I write about it, I am amazed by the fact that a place like Onta exists: its uniqueness is almost indescribable. As an afternoon snack that day, we had handmade soba in the only restaurant in the village – the plain noodles mirror the simplicity and quality of Onta ware perfectly. Yet, the area is not spared from natural disaster. Some time before my visit, the neighboring village Ono had been hit by a landslide caused by torrential rains in July 2017. As you can see from the picture below, the houses alongside the river were completely wept away, giving rise to three casualties…

Once an independent town, Ōyama 大山 is now part of the expanding city of Hita. Oyama has an interesting history: until 1961, the local agriculture focused, with governmental support, on the cultivation of rice. But unlike other areas, Ōyama’s fields are too small for this type of cultivation and the population remained in poverty. As a result, the New Plum and Chestnut Movement was established, which provided farmer residents with subsidized seedlings and training session to facilitate the transition. Plum and chestnut crops proved to be succesful. Ōyama is now famous for these products: they organize annual umeboshi (dried plum) contests and festivals, and I can personally testify to the umeboshi’s deliciousness.

Moreover, agricultural successes led to wealth. An illustration of this is the slogan “Let’s plant plum and chestnut trees and go to Hawaii” (For decades, Hawaii has been the holiday destination by excellence for well-off Japanese). Apparently, at the end of the sixties, Ōyama residents had the highest rate of passport ownership in Japan with 70%! I visited the direct-sales stores Konohana Garten that features almost thousand locally produced items, and stuffed my belly at the popular buffet-style restaurant next-door.

Fifty kilometers east of Hita city lies Yufuin town 湯布院町. What I heard from the locals, goes as following: in the beginning, Yufuin was very rural with slim future perspectives. It had, however, amazing views on the surrounding lakes, rivers and mountains, and a several onsen, natural hot springs. Three young people took matters into their own hands, travelled to Baden-Baden in Germany, the mecca for natural springs in Europe, and learned how to make Yufuin more attractive to outsiders. Nowadays, the town is a popular destination for domestic as well as international tourism. One lady told me that where she used to make crayon drawings on rocks in wasteland, is now the main shopping street. Although most onsen are still resident-only, a couple of spas have been opened for tourists. I visited a high-end ryokan, one of the three traditional hotels in Yufuin that have contributed to the town’s attractiveness.

Yufuin is also home to a remarkable tradition: the screaming contest. First, everyone gathers on a large meadow for a local beef barbecue. Then, participants can shout whatever they feel like, going from personal worries to political statements. The screamer with the loudest voice – measured in decibel – wins (movie from 2015 here). Although I could not witness this bizarre contest, I had the opportunity to visit some talented craftsmen around town. First, I made my way to the atelier of designer Tokimatsu Tatsuo. He creates tableware and utensils by hand from a variety of wood types. One of his former apprentices started his own shop specializing in chopsticks nine years ago – a rarity. When I asked him about this choice, he explained that with chopsticks, not much of the wood is wasted. Here as well, you can choose between a whole array of wood types, lengths and styles. As a customer, it’s like choosing a wand in Diagon Alley. I was presented one of 25 centimeters in cherry tree wood. Did you know that it takes 4 years to make a qualitative pair of chopsticks? That is how long the cut wood needs to dry.

I spent most of my internship time on Kyūshū, but one day we crossed the border and entered Honshū, Japan’s main island. On the most Southern tip lies the city of Shimonoseki 下関. I was particularly excited about the visit because of Shimonoseki’s historical value. in the twelfth century, the decisive sea battle between the Minamoto and the Taira was fought in the bay of Dan-no-ura. Before there was a bridge, one could not easily cross the strait by boat between Honshū and Kyūshū because of the strong current. As a result, Shimonoseki lodged many travelers. During the Edo period, the Chōshū domain (the current Yamaguchi prefecture) ruled by the Mōri clan played an important role, and Shimonoseki attracted many influential politicians. In 1863, the battle of Shimonoseki Straits took place, followed by an almost year-long bombardment of the city by the foreign forces of US, The Netherlands, UK and France. The Japanese were forced to surrender. As a result, you can still visit foreign buildings around the city, such as the Former British Consulate (there was a Beatrix Potter exhibit going on). On the picture right, you can spot a garden on the roof of the building in eclectic Japanese-European style from the Former Akita Company: this was the first rooftop garden in Japan, and probably one of the first ones worldwide.

For the foodies among us, besides fugu fish and squid, Shimonoseki is known for its kawara soba, green tea buckwheat noodles, pork or beef, egg, seaweed, green onion, grated radish, lemon and chili flakes baked on a hot roof tile. To eat, you dip it in a tuna-based soup. According to legend, soldiers in the 19th century civil war heated their food on similar roof tiles due to lack of cooking materials. A clever soba maker reinvented this original way of serving soba in the 1960s, and it has only become more popular since then. Because of my dietary choices I cannot tell you how it tasted, but it sure looked delicious!

The kawara soba dish can only be enjoyed in Kawatana Onsen, a rural district at the outskirts of Shimonoseki. Perhaps it was just because of the stunning weather, but I thought Kawatana was like paradise. Not only are there tons of hot springs, nature has outdone itself by giving the residents a view to die for: primeval forests, beaches, mountains with hiking trails, near-by desert islands to camp on, historic pilgrimage routes, an excellent jogging path around the dam (see below) … In terms of culture, things can not get more exciting than this legend about a blue dragon. Once upon a time, when Kawatana was still swampland, an enormous blue dragon lived in the water. In the 6th century, an earthquake struck the area and killed the dragon. But the villagers kept praying for the magnificent creature, and they were rewarded with onsen, hot water that welled up from the earth.

But do not only take my word about Kawatana’s attractiveness: many poets and authors have come here to end their life in beauty. Not a few haikus have been written on this view. I wish to highlight one of them, written by Taneda Santōka 種田 山頭火:

「こころつかれて| 山が海が|うつくしすぎる」

kokoro tsukarete | yama ga umi ga | utsukushisugiru .

My heart is tired | the mountains, the sea | They are too beautiful (own translation)

A couple of his poems are engraved in rocks surrounding a thousand-year old camphor tree, which I could not fit in one picture (left). Kawatana has also been pimped to appeal more young artists, for example with the construction of an ultra-modern concert/cultural center, the Cortot Hall in 2010. The Hall was named after the Swiss musician  and founder of the Ecole Normale de musique de Paris Alfred Cortot, who had toured around Japan in the 1950s. At one point, he gazed out of his window at the Grand hotel in Kawatana and spotted the most beautiful island he had ever seen, Atsushima. It was his dream to live alone on that island. He started negotiations to buy it, but the village chief simply said: “if you come live here, I will give it to you for free”. From that time on, the island was known as 孤留島 Korutō, the same pronunciation as his name, with the kanji meaning ‘stay alone island’. Unfortunately, Cortot was unable return to Kawatana and he died of kidney failure ten years later. To celebrate 150 years of friendship between France and Japan, many musical events have been organised in partnership here since 2008.

Some more fun facts about Kawatana: 1) the vanguards are yellow instead of white. 2) Elderly ladies are called “sister” (neechan, neesan, oneesama) instead of “granny” (baachan, obaasan, obaasama), how cute is that? 3) The onsen contain radium (in a small-not-so-radioactive degree), which makes them more rare.

The next day, we drove further East to Tokiwa Park in Ube city 宇部市. Ube has a questionable reputation as an industrial coal city. In the past, this created so much air pollution that white laundry drying outside turned black instantly – and I can only imagine how badly the smog affected the residents’ health. Because of the passive attitude of the authorities in the 90s, a bottom-up movement took matters into their own hands: they wanted to transform Ube into a city of flowers, greenery and sculptures. Its showpiece is Tokiwa park ときわ公園 where all three elements are represented. I attended a meeting with a group of volunteers, who maintain the flower beds every Sunday. You can also enjoy interactive modern art sculptures in the park.

Further on the road, we made a brief stop in Yamaguchi to check out the vertical garden at the Shinyamaguchi shinkansen station. this vertical garden was designed by the French botanist Patrick Blanc. He researched over 100 local plants in the surrounding mountains. The plants were put into pockets of felt and attached to the wall. You can watch this making-of video [in Japanese], because my picture has particularly bad lighting.

Our last stop before heading back to Minamata was Hisayama 久山町, a town nearby Fukuoka. In Hisayama, koi fish swim in the ditches. In a popular local store, they sell ice cream with soy sauce flavor. You can imagine I was impressed. Food-wise, the area is also known for its dashi, or soup stock. Normally dashi is made from fish and kelp, but here you could choose from a variety of vegetable, mushroom, meat and fish stocks. Another fun feature of Hisayama is its scarecrows. Instead of boring straw puppets, the Hisayama residents bring it to a whole new level. They dress up their scarecrows and create a story around them. As is to be expected in a country with thousands of festivals, there is an annual scarecrow matsuri in Northern Hisayama during Fall. I have no pictures, but I googled it here for you. Go check it out, it’s highly amusing (and slightly creepy).

That’s it for this time! In the next post, we will continue our journey to other rural destinations across Kyushu. See you then!

3 thoughts on “My Internship in Japan: Kyushu Travels II

  1. Pingback: My Internship in Japan: Kyushu travels I | nippaku

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

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