My Internship in Japan: Kyushu Travels III

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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 III of the Kyushu travels posts (click for Part I and Part II). It is also the last part, and coincides neatly with the submission of my final thesis which was based on my internship and fieldwork in Kyushu. 


The first place I want to introduce you to is Hitoyoshi city 人吉市, although we basically just drove through it. Positioned on the border of Kumamoto prefecture, Miyazaki prefecture and Kagoshima prefecture in the South, Hitoyoshi is surrounded by mountains and forests, the natural borders. It houses a national treasure, the Aoi Aso shrine青井阿蘇神社. According to legend, the shrine was founded in 806. It is thanks to the powerful Sagara clan 相良氏, who ruled for 700 years, that the temple still stands: it was more or less common for daimyō 大名(feudal lords) to destroy everything that preceded their reign, and the culture-loving Sagara clan did not. We visited a Buddhist temple, the Shōrenji Amidado青蓮寺阿弥陀堂, built in 1295. This is all I know about Hitoyoshi, so let’s move on to the next location!

A 40-minute drive away lies Mizukami village 水上村. Only a little over 2,000 people live in Mizukami, and yet I was so lucky to meet two elderly residents and have a conversation over lunch at their place. To prepare for winter times, they had been pickling all sorts of vegetables and fruits in big plastic jars. Their house was impressive: it was traditionally built, with an enormous fireplace in the living room and some smaller ones in he kitchen – no need for air conditioning or central heating. Not surprisingly, the profession of the house master was fireplace builder, quite a unique specialization in these modern times. As a young boy, he excelled in baseball but gave up his dream to help out his family. We had a conversation about the rural lifestyle: he remembered that every family kept goats and chickens to eat away grass and leftovers. People ate wild boar’s meat with herbs to strengthen the body. In times of poverty, around 50 years ago, all types of animals were consumed: birds, deer, raccoon dogs, goats, dogs… On another note, I was told that the men in Mizukami are strong and can drink a lot of alcohol. Yet, in reality, they die on a younger age because of these expectations.

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Traditional fireplace in Mizukami

Mizukami is blessed with a sacred forest around mount Ichifusa, marked by a torii, a shinto gate. The trees, almost all cedars are enormous, very old and spectacular. Can you spot the twin tree? Some trees are over 1000 years old. They mark the path that people walk to visit the shrine.

I visited Itsuki village 五木村 on a rainy but beautiful fall day. With its mixed forest of colorful maples and evergreen trees, Itsuki is located high in the mountains, and is particularly famous for its lullaby, itsuki komoriuta 五木子守歌. In the past, many poor people lived here. Their children travelled through the mountains looking for a job to do, while singing sad songs. One of these songs, a lullaby sung by a babysitter, has been rediscovered in the 1930s and is a classic nowadays. When you pull up into the parking lot of the local specialities shop, you are welcomed by the sad sound of lullabies. Itsuki is also known for its tofu specialities such as inaka tōfu, tofu that tastes like cream cheese, and yamauni tōfu, tofu fermented with miso.

On the other side of the prefectural border lies Morotsuka village 諸塚村. The forests, covering 95% of Morotsuka, form a unique patchwork of broad-leaf trees, cedars, bamboo, tea plants… In 2015, the forest was acknowledged as World Agricultural Heritage. Most of these forests are private property and are sustainably managed by families. Locals cultivate shiitake シイタケ, a type of mushroom, on oaks and beeches, and the exquisite wood itself is logged and sold with an FSC label. Of the 1,700 inhabitants, only a couple of residences can occupy the higher grounds because the danger exists that they go down the slope like dominoes when too many houses are built there: the strong winds can create an unstable situation. I was in the passenger’s seat when we drove through the hills and I can tell you – it’s not the most relaxing drive, although the view is phenomenal.

Mushrooms are sold in the shopping street in all forms and shapes: fresh, dried, in powder form, still on a tree stump… Besides the mushrooms, different types of potatoes (such as the bright purple one in the picture above) are local specialities. Because of the many quality trees, bees also feel at home in Morotsuka. Locals eat honey including the comb as a snack. I had a little piece the next day, it really is sickening sweet! I don’t know if you would like to try it out, but another delicacy of Morotsuka is bee larvae. Apparently, these are yummy when fried on the stove.

Speaking about bees, did you know that one of my greatest fears during my internship were these striped creatures? Before you start laughing, I need to tell you that the Japanese countryside is home to the venomous Asian giant hornet. When you get stung, there is a high chance you get into anaphylactic shock, or suffer a cardiac arrest or multiple organ failure. Taking into consideration that the nearest hospital is 20 minutes away by car and that every year 30 people die from it, it was only normal that I  got terrified when I saw or heard one buzzing around. At one point, we were logging bamboo wood in the forest and saw a giant beehive between the trees. We returned home pretty quickly. Pro tip: you should stand very still until the monster moves on…

kobayashi frogs nojirikopia

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To assist at two lectures in Miyazaki prefecture, I visited the towns of Tōgo 東郷町 and Kobayashi 小林市 briefly. In Tōgo, I noticed some interesting specialities at the local shop. For example, you could buy rice bran in large quantities (used for cooking and cleaning purposes). They also had the biggest yuzu (citrus fruit) I have ever seen and corn rice and black rice. Kobayashi, on the other hand, is known for its fruits: melon, pear and grapes. The streetlights were shaped like melons, how cute is that? Kobayashi is also home to an amusement park called Nojirikopia 野尻湖ピア where you can find an enormous amount of – creepy – frog statues. A lady told me that this is an expression of the local’s quirky sense of humor: in Japanese, the word for ‘frog’ is pronounced the same as the verb ‘return home’ (kaeru). Kobayashi town struggles with depopulation, since many young people move to big cities (e.g. to Miyazaki for university studies) and never come back. With the frogs, they want to persuade the younger generation to stay in their home town.

Yatsushiro 八代市 is one of the largest cities in Kumamoto prefecture. When driving from Minamata to Yatsushiro, you might notice something very un-Japanese: the land close to the water, the Yatsushiro Sea, is completely flat, while mountains rise up on your right side. In the past, the sea level reached to those mountains. At some point in history, the area became wetland, and nowadays the sea level has lowered so much that the flat land can be used to live and work on. For centuries, Yatsushiro thrived as a port town, shipping to Nagasaki and beyond. The history center of Yatsushiro is located next to a small river. In the past there was a big castle, but now only a shinto shrine ( Yatsushiro-gū 八代宮 or myōken-gu 妙見宮) remains.

According to legend, the deity Myōken, god of the North Star, came to Yatsushiro on the back of a mythical sea creature called Kida. Kida, on the picture right above, is part turtle and part snake. During the shrine’s festival, a representation of Kida, weighing 200 kilo, is carried through the streets. The whole town dresses up in historical clothes and holds a procession, which also involves the controversial practice of getting horses drunk on sake and forcing them to run through the noisy crowd.  Besides sliced horse meat (馬刺し basashi), other specialities of the region are karashi renkon 辛しレンコン (lotus roots stuffed with spicy mustard) and pottery (Yatsushiro-yaki 八代焼).

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Ukiha city

Last but not least, we arrived in Ukiha city うきは市 on the day of my departure back to Belgium. This city in Fukuoka prefecture is particularly attractive because of its well-preserved white-washed walls, paper lanterns and traditional houses. These look even more lovely when decorated with dolls for the Hina doll festival. The place is also known as “Kingdom of Fruits”, giving locals and visitors the opportunity to pick fruits in the many orchards. We visited a traditional crafts store in Ukiha, where I bought some souvenirs (very timely, I know) and a present for myself – a glass necklace (picture below on the right). We looked around the shop and had a chat with the artisan himself. He had travelled to Spain to study the stained glass technique, and was now probably the only one in Japan who applied Japanese motives and themes to glass art objects. The necklace I got is a perfect combination of my love for stained glass (the prettiest part of European churches, in my opinion), my love for Japanese arts and crafts and my love for nature. The purple flower is a bell or balloon flower (桔梗 kikyō), native to East Asia. In ‘flower language’ (花言葉 hanakotoba), the bell-flower represents eternal love and faithfulness.

Now that I have guided you around Kyushu, I  will finish this series with sharing some fun and surprising things I experienced. For example:

  • That time when I was invited to the wedding of people I didn’t know. I was even ‘forced’ to be in the official wedding picture despite my objection – not in the back but in full sight on the second row, behind the parents of the bride. I imagine the happy couple going through their wedding pictures ten years from now and wondering what that foreigner with casual clothes was doing there… At least they were happy with my wedding gift: a box of Belgian chocolates!
  • That time when I had tea in a tea field, located 700m above sea level. Even better: the tea in my cup is the same tea as produced on that particular field. Also, I was gifted so much tea that a quarter of my luggage was filled with packs of tea. As you might remember from a previous post, I worked for 4 days on a tea farm and the farmer gifted me a bag of the tea leaves I had selected and labelled it “Ann’s 3 year Bancha tea”. Nothing is more satisfactory than enjoying something you made yourself.
  • Those times I looked my finest in Japanese granny clothes. I can’t stop giggling when I look at these pictures, can you? On the countryside, you need to be covered fully when going out to work in the field, because insects can do nasty things to you. In the picture left, I had already gotten rid of my gloves, sunglasses, fishing jacket, rubber boots and dirty socks. My red face is proof that it’s no fun working in this outfit, logging and burning bamboo wood in the forest, while it is 25 degrees Celsius outside. In the right picture, I am ready to make some traditional Japanese sweets. Most of the clothes I could borrow from the lady of the house, since I did not bring the appropriate work outfit.
  • That time I attended not one, but two sports festivals at local elementary schools on two consecutive days. I sat with the families, watched the games and even participated twice, once in hoop rolling and once in throwing balls. I had a great time! Of course, the bentos were spectacular. And the kids were cute (even though they surrounded me and yelled “American” and “foreigner” (gaijin – derogatory). When I talked back and they got quiet because they did not expect me to speak Japanese, I took the opportunity to lecture them not to say something like that again).
  • That time I saw Manneken Pis in Minamata, and that time Kumamon visited the Minamata public library, casually scanning books the children wanted to borrow. You can say what you want, I get why the Japanese are so found of Kumamon, he’s a charming fellow. Why Manneken Pis is somewhere on a street corner in Minamata, on the other hand, I do not get.
  • That time Japan was surprisingly vegan: my favorites were the colorful vegetable sushi I enjoyed in Hita and the plant-based curry dish I helped making in the community kitchen of Minamata (still not advising you to go unprepared to Japan as a vegan, though).
  • That time I screen printed a t-shirt and that time I was taught how to play the koto, both for the first time. My dad is wearing the deer t-shirt now and I can’t wait for another opportunity to play the koto. The score is totally different from what I read in orchestra, a real challenge.

As you can read, I learned a lot during these nine weeks of internship. On my own, I would have never been able to travel to so many places and to meet that many interesting people. I received the opportunity to participate in daily life on the Japanese countryside, and wish to extend my gratitude to everyone who made this possible! ありがとうございました。

All pictures are mine, unless stated otherwise.

1 thought on “My Internship in Japan: Kyushu Travels III

  1. Pingback: Fake ‘Mannekens’, Real Fries and Belgian Waffles in Japan – Chopstick Together

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