Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Whaling Sheds & Banjo Music

Merry Christmas from Japan! After trips to Hong Kong (to meet Fearless Husband) and to the US (to see my family) for me, and a deployment that included stops in Hong Kong and Cambodia for FH, we're both back home, very happily settling in to spend a little time together for the holidays. It's finally cold here in Sasebo, much to my relief and pleasure, and we've got the kerosene heater going. FH's settled in to play his computer game, and I figure it's finally time to finish writing about my adventures with MM (from last March!) As always, click on the images for larger versions.

The day after our trip to Huis Ten Bosch, MM and I headed to the porcelain town of Arita. MM braved the rainy streets in his rain suit -- a waterproof shirt and pants of white Tyvek (I think) that he unfolded from the tiniest little pouch. It was astonishing, and kept him dry as he explored, looking like a slender Michelin Man (no, that's not what MM stands for!) I was terrible company, very boring, staying in the car to catch up on a backlog of work. (More about Arita in another post!) Sunday, MM headed out to Nagasaki overnight, and I collected him the next evening at the JR (Japan Rail) station, where we enjoyed tonkatsu and conversation.

The next morning, March 27, dawned with grey skies and drizzling spring rain, but that didn't stop us! My work finally done, we headed out, armed with directions to Hirado Island and Ikitsuki (pronounced "ih-kit-ski") Island, about an hour and a half to two hours away by car. This was my first long drive (not that I let MM know that!) Along the way, I saw a little sign by the side of the road, with an arrow pointing to Senryu Falls. I asked Mike what he thought, and he was game, so I made a U-turn and off the route we went! I'd never heard of Senryu Falls, but I love waterfalls, and it seemed like a good idea to at least check it out. Mist shredded against the surrounding hills as we drove up a twisty road through what looked at first like a residential area, then seemed to be more like steep farmland. A few precocious cherry trees had begun to bloom a pale and misty pink, delicate and ethereal against the other trees, either dark evergreens or leafless and bare.

I was just about at the point of suggesting we turn back around and continue on to Hirado, when the road suddenly ended in a tiny parking area, big enough for perhaps four or five cars. A sign in Japanese (no English) hinted that perhaps we'd arrived at our destination....we hoped! A wide footbridge with vivid red rails arched over a busy stream in a small ravine, and we crossed the bridge and headed up the path. As we crossed the bridge, a second car pulled up behind us, and a businessman, in suit and tie, hopped out and hurried past us, heading up the steep little path like a man with a mission. MM and I took our time, wandering up slowly past a landscaped area with rocks and plantings and a little picnic area. The path split in two, but investigation proved that the two routes came back together again a little further direction took a meandering route past the picnic gazebo, the other simply a more direct route.

As we made our way up the increasingly steep path, the businessman hurried past us, headed back to his car. MM and I looked at each other, a little puzzled, and kept going, curiosity piqued now! The uphill path became stairs, and after a very short climb, we arrived at a funny, slightly ramshackle little shrine building. A row of shoes on the thick wooden step was evidence of other humans, but we'd seen no other cars in the lot, and we couldn't see any people, even now! The shrine itself was open on one side, doors thrown back to display offerings before a cluttered altar as well as the ubiquitous wooden box with wooden grille top, specifically for coins. Tattered ropes hung down from a couple of rusty bells, so one could alert the spirits to one's prayers. Fresh incense burned, explaining the mystery of the businessman, who must have felt the need for prayer before a big presentation or meeting. There was a whiff of kerosene on the air, and we figured there were priests or a caretaker and family in the attached wooden structure. Across the "landing" from the shrine was a clean, empty wooden building with three walls and a roof...perhaps for prayers or gatherings? In front of the open building was a big rectangular trough of a sink, with a metal pipe stretched across it. Holes had been punched in the pipe, and chopsticks stuffed in some of the holes to plug them. Other holes were open, and a few constant, very thin streams of water squirted into the mossy basin. I think the pipe was spring- or stream-fed...the stream, after all, was right beside us, rushing down the hill, and there didn't seem to be any evidence of serious plumbing.

Past the two buildings was an open concrete area, sort of a balcony or viewing area, where one could stand (or sit) to contemplate the rushing water. To one side of this space were more stairs, headed further up the hill/mountain in a dripping green tunnel. Two stone temple dogs flanked the stairway, and studding both sides of the path as we went up were statues and figures and stone lanterns, large and small and of many different styles. Some were carved stone, some were cement, some were glazed porcelain. Each had a little collection of small coins, sake glasses, and plastic cups -- offerings -- placed before it. O
ne glazed porcelain dragon particularly caught my eye, as did a large stone "guardian" statue, with a background piece that had once been colored red, and a little cloaked figure on a base of faded glazed tile. Other little statues were surprises (including a serene little bald buddha who made me smile!) mostly hidden on rocks and ledges within the vegetation. I was thrilled to see some Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which I'd never seen growing wild before.

The falls growled and rumbled beside the path...though there were several rather large
cascades, there wasn't one big, roaring portion that would cause one to say "oh, THAT'S the falls." Instead, the stream leapt and foamed and sprayed its way down the mountainside, with a different view at each "landing" and each new perspective. I think we both really enjoyed our unexpected side trip to Senryu Falls...and as we headed back to the car, the drizzling rain lifted. The wetness and mist had lent an otherworldly quality to our adventure, and it seemed just perfect to have the rain stop and a few bits of blue sky peek through the overcast as we finished!

MM and I continued on our way to Hirado Island as the sun played hide and seek, and we both enjoyed watching the passing countryside, shops, and residences. Once across the lovely red bridge to Hirado Island, I drove as slowly as I dared so MM and I could gawk.
Hirado was a trading port, welcoming the Chinese and the Dutch (who were later moved to Dejima in Nagasaki during the Edo period). There's a beautiful castle in the main town of Hirado on the island, though most of it is a restoration rather than the original. MM and I chose not to stop, and headed on, driving the length of the island to cross the next beautiful bridge (blue this time -- the longest continuous truss bridge in the world, measuring in at 1312 ft.) Ikitsuki Island was even more beautiful, and more remote, than Hirado. It's primarily known for whaling and hidden Christians, oddly enough. See,9171,925197,00.html for a fascinating article about the "crypto-Christians" of Ikitsuki Island. The main industry is fishing (whales, squid and flying fish), though there is also quite a bit of agriculture (rice and beef cattle...and honestly, the cattle surprised me. Rice paddies? No surprise. A herd of cattle? Startling, in that very Japanese landscape!) We drove past lots and lots of fishing vessels, and relatively small harbor enclosures, each with a very large, open-fronted shed right at the water, for butchering whales. Part of me was appalled, and part of me was fascinated. MM and I explored the island, driving completely around it, stopping occasionally to explore interesting paths.

We stopped for lunch on Ikitski Island at the Cafe Payala, an adventure in itself! We entered with a little trepidation, past the dog tied to his doghouse just outside the front door. Inside, half was a restaurant, with mismatched tables and chairs, the other half a mish-mash of seating (a couch, some folding chairs, a bench seat from a Volkswagon van, etc.) and a small stage cluttered with a bewildering array of musical instruments (guitars, an Irish harp, various Asian instruments from Okinawa, Vietnam, etc., a full drum kit, and so forth). Beatles memorabilia decorated every surface. The menu was very short, and listed two pizzas (meat or seafood), minestrone soup, a BLT, or Japanese chicken curry. The ponytailed, Graeful-Dead-groupie-type owner/chef/waiter paused to show MM the freestanding woodstove (one of MM's companies makes most of the world's woodstove thermometers, and MM was fascinated!). The pizza, complete with clamshells, was delicious, and our new friend played a bit on the banjo for our entertainment, singing "On the Bayou" phonetically, as it was pretty clear he spoke very little English. What an odd experience that little place was! Before we left, MM and I purchased a couple of the guy's CDs as souvenirs of our visit.

On we went to the lighthouse perched high on a headland at the tip of the island. The views were astonishing, down hundreds of feet into amazingly clear blue water, and across the water dotted with little islets to a coastline with gigantic windmills. We drove back down the opposite side of Ikitsuki Island, stopping here and there to wander down interesting paths.
We drove home in the golden light of the setting sun, to meet Miyuki at a local izakaya, where we had more sashimi (including whale meat!) and seafood than I've ever eaten at one time in my entire life. We'd had squid jerky and ginger chips to snack on during the afternoon, but by nightfall, we were starving. I'd told MM about my first visit to an izakaya, where Miyuki and Yuri tried to get me to eat the fish eyes, so the minute a fierce-looking, whole hobon fish was placed before him, MM plucked one of the eyes out and popped it in his mouth. "Hmmmm....chewy," he declared, before helping me demolish the rest of the fish's delicious flesh. No one can say MM's not adventurous! We sampled various kinds of chu-hi, a "wine cooler" sort of drink made with shochu (where sake is fermented like beer, shochu is distilled like whiskey, and exponentiall stronger!) mixed with various fruit juices. We tried mango, ume (sour plum), and yuzu (a sour citrus fruit), but my favorite was lychee.

Stay tuned for our trip to Unzen and Shimabara the next day -- see below for a few more photos and a video!