Over a recent three day weekend, Soeng and I decided to hit the road and explore a new chunk of Japan. The region of Kyushu is the westernmost area and is often left off of the average tourist’s itinerary due in part to inaccessibility and especially for being well out of the way. While Soeng had seen just the northern bit of it before, we both recognized that there was no better time than us actually living in Japan to make the trip. So with that in mind, we left immediately after work on a Friday, drove an hour to our equidistant rendezvous point, stashed my car, and made a hasty break for the ferry port about two and a half hours away. We were really strapped for time, since to miss our ferry would have us paying a penalty and twiddling our thumbs for three hours as we waited for the next one. We made it though, and with enough time to grab some McDonalds in the most redneck place of Japan I’ve ever seen.
Ready to ride
After a nice three hour break from driving, we arrived around midnight in the city of Beppu. The primary goal at this point was to get to the lodge I had reserved for us. We struggled to navigate our way through the winding streets filled with billowing gasses, but when we finally reached the place, we were overjoyed to find that I made the reservation for the following weekend. Oops. Despite the late hour, we were able to make another booking for that same night and everything worked out just fine. After a very late Joyful dinner of katsu curry and a lot of melon soda, it was time for some much deserved sleep.
Gaseous smoke like this. It was everywhere.
The next morning we awoke with ambitions of conquering the city by noon and moving on to the next one. The city of Beppu is a hot spot for geothermal activity and is home to countless onsens. The two of us aren’t all that big on spas though, and since they aren’t the reason we came here, we stuck to the other tourism opportunities – namely, Hell. In Beppu, there are eight different geothermal pools that are quite unique and are referred to as the Eight Hells. We didn’t want to go to all of them, so in an effort to save time we adhered to the advice of some other tourists about which ones were actually worthwhile.
Our first brought us to some blurbeling mud pits. While the whole region stunk of eggs, this place was particularly pungent. I’m a sucker for these natural phenomenon though, and having never seen anything of the sort before had me quite impressed. The whole spot only took a few minutes to work our way through before heading to the next, which was called Sea Hell. This one was a robin’s egg blue pool of water that was belching out enormous pillars of smoke, to the extent that the surface was almost completely obscured.
From here, there was another grouping of Hells down the road, so after a short drive we caught a couple more. Here we saw another impressive blue pool, this time more easily visible. There were some foot baths and such, but we blew past them in favor of some black pepper ‘Hell’ ice cream. The final grouping we visited included a ‘Blood Hell’, which was a large though average red pool, and then another that had a geyser. The geyser was pretty underwhelming too, and we decided to leave about 20 seconds into the eruption. After some Hell burgers, we hit the road for our next destination, Fukuoka.
The smaller, though more impressively orange pool than the one at Blood Hell
And the aforementioned superior blue one
For this leg of the journey, I took a much needed nap while Soeng commanded the wheel into the unknown land. I was very grateful for this, though, she was not. Once we arrived in Fukuoka, we just decided to walk around a bit. We didn’t really have a whole lot planned for here; despite it being a large city, there weren’t a lot of ‘can’t miss’ tourist spots. The primary reason for coming was to catch up with my buddy Spencer and his girlfriend Aya. The four of us had had a great time meeting for Mexican and some sake the last time they came ’round my place, so we wanted to make something happen again. Soeng and I killed some time sauntering about a temple, and then met up with Spencer for a feast of gyoza and beer.
Once dinner wrapped up, we dropped by the arcade to meet our purikura quota for the trip, and also play a couple of games. Once his girlfriend was freed up from her own obligations, we all met in a nice park and then dropped by a bar or two. Another highlight was eating Hakata Ramen, a local variation on the staple dish eaten all over Japan. Though Soeng would say this particular restaurant was average and below her expectations, I thought it was quite acceptable. The evening was very much a success and we all had a nice time catching up on our lives.
The next morning, we reunited with the pair and drove down towards Nagasaki. Spencer hand’t been before either, so with nothing better to do over the long holiday the four of us were on our way. We arrived in the late afternoon to a persistent and chilling rain, and in the end did almost nothing on the sightseeing Docket. The one stop we did make was at another of Japan’s notoriously bad Chinatowns, which only serve overpriced crap far less authentic than even our sweet and sour chicken. We didn’t put up with more than a few minutes of this before leaving to gorge on kaiten sushi and prance like ninnies in the puddles. Finally, we went to an izakaya for two hours of snacks and bottomless drinks. We picked up where the last night left off, and agreed that we enjoyed each other’s company largely on account of us all being normal and drama free. Following that, the two of them hopped right on a bus back north and we retired in hopes of an early start for the last day of the trip.
Spencer had a few problems at the ramen shop.
On the final day of our road trip, we had all of Nagasaki left to see. After our timely checkout, we pounded a few doughnuts and made a beeline for the atomic bomb museum. I’ve probably been to the one in Hiroshima five times now, but that didn’t make seeing this half of the tragedy any less an interest to me. We weaved through the exhibits of death and destruction, all painting very much the same gruesome scenes as those in Hiroshima. Though Nagasaki was a smaller city and as such suffered fewer casualties, the devastation that the ‘Fat Man’ brought was no less sobering. After about an hour at the museum, we also stopped by the epicenter of where the bomb exploded. Nagasaki had a park built to mark to spot, which was a bit more impressive then the knee-high monument in Hiroshima.
With the difficult stuff behind us, we continued the tour of the area by going up to a mountain which looked out over the entire port city. From this high perch, we could see what a remarkably beautiful city Nagasaki was. The port is nestled in by mountains on three sides, and many of the houses climb up their slopes. The interesting topography and the water’s edge combined to make what was certainly the nicest setting for any city I’ve yet seen in this country.
In addition to the sad history of the city, Nagasaki also has an international presence that stretches back hundreds of years. This was the first Japanese port that opened up to foreign ships and as a result has plenty of unique architecture and other foreign influences. In this sense it is not unlike Kobe, but I quite like this city better. We spent a bit of time power walking through some of the old foreigner districts and I felt quite at home on the Hollander’s Slope. One of the stops that we made was at Spectacles Bridge, which is the oldest stone bridge in the country and a great example of the foreign influence on architecture. It wasn’t overly impressive or anything, but there were scads of women in kimonos posing for pictures on it. This day, the reason for our long weekend, was the Coming of Age Day. This always means a ceremony for the 20 year old adults and they always dress up for it. There were also a frightening number of old men bombarding the girls with candid and not so candid photos.
The bridge takes its name from its reflection
Once we finished up here, we packed and got ready for our return to Beppu to catch the ferry back to Shikoku. About three hours later we managed to arrived on time at the ferry port. It was nice to take a couple of boat hours to relax before getting behind the wheel again. Once on the other side, we had a bit more driving before returning to my abandoned car. I was relieved to find that it was still there though, since I had received a call from the police earlier about how unauthorized parking in that lot was against the rules. I got that call on the first day of the trip and the lot manager seemed pretty unhappy about my return being a couple days later. He taped a note that demanded I pay some fine to my window, but as there was no sign at the lot dictating such penalties, I just tossed it. The difference is that a Japanese person would have surely paid it.
A beautiful landscape while driving back to Beppu. Part dune, part mountain. The white is a line of snow protected by the trees.
All in all, the trip was great, and although we really had to spread ourselves thin by doing each city in a day or less, we were definitely able to see and do a lot. I crossed a few more things off of my Japanese Bucket List, and added three more prefectures to my explored list. It is really easy to sit around over a long weekend and relax, but I find it much more worthwhile to get out and see something new with the time.