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: Minamata

banner minamataWell hello there, it’s been a while! Time to bring Nippaku back to life and disclose what I have been up to during these blog-less months. On September 14th, I started my internship journey in Minamata 水俣市, Kumamoto prefecture in central Kyushu (in the South of Japan). As a Japanologist doing an advanced Master’s program in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies, it was only natural that I chose Japan as my destination for a two-month internship with a local organization. Since one of my other interests is sustainability, I sank my teeth into the sustainable development of rural Japanese areas. I started looking for possible topics, et voilà, I came across jimotogaku 地元学, or ‘local learning’ in translation. I promise to tell you all about jimotogaku once my research is more or less wrapped up (aka when I have finished my thesis), but for now I will provide some pictures and explanation about Minamata. 


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Susubaru view

I arrived on September 15th in Fukuoka, from where I took the shinkansen to Minamata and was picked up by my host and his granddaughter. The host family I stayed with is located in Susubaru 薄原, a small village in the mountains of Minamata with a decreasing population of around 100 inhabitants at the moment. Farmland in Japan is located on hills and mountains while urban areas are developed on plains. This is the complete opposite in Belgium: farmland, literally “flat land” (platteland in Dutch) encloses densely populated cities. It became a running joke when I told them that the highest Belgian mountain, Signal de Botrange, barely reaches 700 metres – a height they would not even consider worthy of the term “mountain”.

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Takeyama 竹山, “bamboo mountain”, property of my host family. I regularly helped out by cutting and chopping trees, burning wood and repairing the fence.

In Susubaru, we were surrounded by a mixed forest of cypress and chestnut trees amidst sky-scraping bamboo, and everything was still lush green at that time. Due to heavy rainfall and the subtropical climate, nature is difficult to keep under control, and locals could spend a great deal of their time trimming weeds, chopping wood or clearing the roads. The forests and fields are regularly trampled by wild boar, who come down from higher up in the mountains every night and snack on fallen fruit such as persimmons and chestnuts. Farmers protect their fields with electrified fences. Apparently, these animals also hate the color pink, so occasionally I could spot flashy pink wires. Besides wild boar, there are also deer (I could hear their cry from time to time) and raccoon dogs, and the air is always  buzzing with insect sounds. Luckily, I brought my ear plugs to guarantee a quiet night of  sleep.

The city of Minamata itself has a troubled history, which was partly the reason why I went there. Starting out as a fairly insignificant coastal but mountainous village, the city’s population boomed with the arrival of Chisso, a chemical company, in 1908. At the time it all went wrong, Chisso employed or indirectly affected the livelihoods of 25% of Minamata’s inhabitants: the exponential population growth (twice the size of today’s population) paralleled Chisso’s increasing output. This was one of the reasons authorities were reluctant to stop the disaster at once: it was a dilemma of helping a few victims or helping all people in the city to make a decent living.

So what happened? Between 1932 and 1968, Chisso – consciously – dumped toxic waste water containing mercury in the Minamata bay and the inland Shiranui sea. Bacteria in the water transformed it into methylmercury when they came into contact with the toxic substance. Once consumed in large doses, directly or by eating the fish that had ingested the methylmercury, the substance causes neurological damage, going from muscle weakness to paralysis and death. The disease is also congenital, which means that unborn children can be exposed to methylmercury poisoning in the womb. Until this day, there is no cure, only drug therapy to reduce symptoms and the pain. For more in-depth information, watch this movie by SciHow [English] and original footage here [Japanese].

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Mother bathing her daughter Tomoko who suffered from Minamata disease, photographed by Eugene Smith – Wikimedia commons

The first signs of mercury poisoning were observed in “dancing” cats and birds who couldn’t fly, and dead fish that washed ashore. In 1956, a girl with strange symptoms was brought to the factory hospital. Many more would follow, with an alarming high mortality rate. It was discovered that the mercury had accumulated in fish and shellfish, the main source of nutrition for  fishing communities in Minamata. The condition was coined “Minamata disease”. Despite the fact that it became pretty clear it was Chisso that had caused so many living beings to suffer at the end of the 1950s, the company did anything it could to not be held responsible – and was helped in doing so by the authorities out of economic interests. They started discharging wastewater directly into the Minamata river instead of the Hyakken harbour, which led to even more pollution, and they did not cooperate with the research. Finally, in 1968, they stopped poisoning and killing people, but not before hiring yakuza to beat up protesting victims. In the end, Chisso paid hundreds of millions of Yen in compensation money. But yes, the factory is still there, renamed as JNC, among the many other branch plants they hold around the country.

Minamata’s dark history is linked with how the jimotogaku movement came into existence, but later more on that. At the time of the pollution scandal, Minamata was in full chaos. Victims’ families were enraged with Chisso, Chisso employees were enraged with patients (this contradiction occurred even within families), city people thought patients were faking it to get compensation, the mountain communities held a grudge because they could not sell their products anymore due to stigma…Today, the stained image of Minamata might still affect how people think about the city. In the aftermath of the pollution scandal, inhabitants of Minamata were strongly discriminated against: somehow, people thought the disease was contagious or that they had brought it upon themselves. They could not sell products, work outside of the city or marry non-Minamata citizens. When the train passed Minamata, travelers closed the windows. The staff at a hotel was ordered to throw away the linen of a group of Minamata school kids on a trip. One man told me that he went with his team to Fukuoka to play a baseball match, and that the arena was empty because not one supporter wanted to be in the vicinity of Minamata residents.

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recycling station in Susubaru

From the 1980s on, tremendous efforts have been made to clean up Minamata’s image, leading to great results. Minamata profiled itself as an environment-friendly city when they adopted the ISO 14001 environmental management standard and became an Ecotown in 2001. Remarkable actions are the establishment of a strict 21-item recycle system, the Meister Program for local producers of healthy, safe and organic products, an eco-shop certification for craftsman and the reduction of waste in general. Knowing that Japanese people love food and deeply value safety, I noticed that people especially appreciate organic products since these are safe and healthy to eat. The Meister Program recognizes 32 “Meisters” of which I had the pleasure to meet and even befriend some.

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Matsumoto Kazuya serving tea in his tea field

The Matsumoto family (桜野園 Sakura noen) and the Amano family (天の製茶園 Amano no seichaen) are two producers of organic tea in Minamata. Both housing three generations in their homes, they produce a rather rare kind of tea, Japanese black tea (和紅茶 wakōcha), among the more generic green and roasted tea. As a matter of fact, Amano Hiroshi and Matsumoto Kazuya are two of the four Japanese black tea “kings” in Japan, and they sell worldwide. I was so lucky to try Matsumoto teas on several occasions and received a guided tour around their tea fields. I was also welcomed for four days at the Amano tea farm in Ishitobi, a hamlet located 600 meters high, where I helped the family out with sorting bancha tea leaves. I learned that the reason for only producing naturally grown tea there is because of the position of the Amano’s farm on top of the mountain. Due to the pollution scandal, awareness had been raised that contaminating something as precious as water is the worst thing you could do to yourself and other people since you are responsible for the source of the irrigation that flows into other people’s wells and fields. It was also very interesting to see how the drink is made from plant till cup. Bringing back home literally tens of tea packages, I must admit I drink more tea than ever (tea related blog posts here and here). Better than too much coffee or soda, right?

Minamata people also eat lots of white small fish from the bay (safe to eat now), mikan-oranges that are grown more upward the hills (organic mikan jam in the picture left below) and local specialities like kuri 栗 (chestnuts), satoimo 里芋 (village potato), akebi  アケビ (chocolate vine, right picture) and take no ko 竹の子 (bamboo shoots). I ate several portions of chestnuts for dessert, they are delicious when boiled till soft and sweetened with sugar and red bean paste. Below in the middle you see a picture of cooked chestnuts, also great as an afternoon snack. Those who are familiar with Japanese culture, know how fascinated/obsessed the Japanese are about food. Hence, the local cuisine was a topic that came up multiple times a day. Locals are really proud of the healthy, traditional meals they serve with home-grown ingredients.

Another (organic) asset for Minamata is rice. Being the staple food of Japan, it is unthinkable that the mountains of Minamata would lack the numerous rice fields and terraces a rural area is characterized by. Traditionally, every household has their own rice paddy, which produces enough rice to provide for the whole family plus a little extra that can be sold on the local market. Farmers who specialize in rice are rather rare. Nevertheless, familial rice fields are increasingly abandoned due to depopulation, draught of the irrigation system and lack of labor force. When I arrived in Minamata, the rice plants were already bright yellow. Once they turn this shade and drop their “heads”, they are ready for harvest. If necessary, the locals call friends and family to the countryside to help out because sowing and harvesting is some labor-intensive work. They cut the rice stalks with a machine or a sickle, bind them together into sheaves and let them dry in the sun on a wooden construction. After ten days, the stalks are dehulled.   

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Harvested rice stalks

Normally, harvesters use a machine to cut and bind most of the rice stalks, but I got acquainted with someone who not only grew his rice without fertilizers but also cut all stalks manually. The work is notorious for causing severe back ache. One of the reasons elder Japanese ladies shuffle around with an extremely bent back is said to be because of cutting and binding rice stalks. 20170926_173820Toiling in the heat sure is exhausting, and I talk from experience since I helped out with the harvest on the collectively owned rice paddy of Minamaru Kitchen, a community restaurant that only uses local and seasonal ingredients. After dehulling, the produced rice – between 60 and 90 kilos –  was bagged and taken to the kitchen. Speaking of Minamaru Kitchen,  I really liked the idea of its collective ownership, the many activities that were held there and the entrepreneurial spirit of the co-owners. The main forces behind the Kitchen are pastry chef Sasehara, optician Kawata and Mrs. Matsumoto, the wife of the tea farmer I wrote about earlier. The Kitchen tiess together a network of people with a shared interest in the sustainable development of the community and its small economy. I also attended a couple of lectures there and found myself inspired by new ideas and examples.

The picture in the middle shows a bottle of cider (which is a non-alcoholic sparkling lemonade drink in Japan), produced with natural spring water from Kagumeishi hamlet. On one of my last days I went along to tap some fresh water from the source. It is free from any charge and extremely clean, since the water is filtered through untouched mountain land. It is said that the people residing around the source live a long and healthy life – the current inhabitants were centenarians. I met some locals and visitors who came to fill their bottles regularly at such spots because of the taste, high quality and spiritual meaning of the water. In fact, you can often find a place of veneration close to the water source, like a small shrine from stone with gifts in it, to honor the water spirits. Bigger shrines can similarly feature a stream with spring water. I was told there are seven natural water sources in Minamata alone. Besides, there is a residential area called Yu no tsuru 湯の鶴 “crane from hot water” in Minamata with onsen 温泉, or hot springs.

Water is so important it dictates the rules of agricultural life. Irrigation is essential to a succesful rice harvest: that is why all paddies are located next to a river while at the same time water flows from the mountains in the direction of this river, creating an abundant supply of liquid for the rice plants. Behind the paddies are vegetable fields that need less water and then there are the houses, closer to the hills for wood logging and fruit picking. Concerning the climate, Minamata’s is kind of wet. Farmers do not work outside on rainy days, so they plan from day-to-day, disregarding fixed schedules for days off like weekends. On rainy days, relatives are visited and work inside the house is done. Locals also like to catch fish or play in the river in their free time. Due to its history of pollution, water is even more valued as an asset in Minamata. I was surprised by how clean water bodies are over there, certainly compared to the rivers in my home country (you can regularly spot rusty bikes and garbage floating on the surface)…

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Mountains, rivers, forests, villages… Minamata has it all.

In short, nature in Minamata is impressive, a view that locals might be used to, but spectacular for Belgian eyes. Life on the countryside is also very distinct from city life, and interesting to dive into. I must admit that this time I experienced quite a culture shock, something that was not the case when I studied in Kobe for a year!


I hope this post informed you a little bit about the city of Minamata and life in rural Japan. In the next part, I will describe the things I did and learned during my trips around Kyushu. Till next time!

[all pictures are mine, unless stated otherwise]