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.

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!

My Internship in Japan: Kyushu travels I

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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.

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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.