Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Usuki 臼杵

Usuki is located in Oita Prefecture, in Kyushu, and it is a very nice day trip from the hotspring sanctuary of Beppu. The main attraction of the town is the stone buddhas, some buddhas carved in the rock in one ravine in the middle of the countryside.

The location is really beautiful. It is in a very undeveloped area, which is rare in Japan. It really looks and feels like ancient Japan.

The stone buddhas themselves are a nice sight and worth the trip if you are in the region.

There are three sets of Buddhas and they all look pretty interesting and different from each other.

In some of them, paint can still be seen, and their natural colors appreciated.

Some of them are covered in moss.

The bamboo forest in those hills is also good for a stroll after visiting the buddhas.

Some more photos of this interesting place!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Beppu 別府

After visiting Nagasaki and Fukuoka on the Northwest coast of Kyushu, I crossed the island and went to indulge myself in the hotspring town of Beppu, on the Northeast coast. Beppu is sometimes named "the hotspring capital of Japan", and believe me... that is quite a lot in this country which is actually boiling underground!

Since I arrived in town, the references to hotsprings were continuous. Have a look at this funny demon enjoying his hot bath! ;)

On my way to some hotsprings, I was really surprised that there are fumes at boiling temperatures coming directly from the ground and from everywhere! Sometimes, it was like walking in hell!

Actually, apart from the typical onsen (Japanese bath / 温泉 ), there are many "hells" (jigoku / 地獄 ), hotsprings just to look at them, kind of the ones I found last year in Yellowstone NP in the USA. I just went to visit one known as Umi jigoku (海地獄), and turned out to be nice. But Yellowstone had been just too impressive...

Kyushu is warmer than Honshu, the main island of Japan, and many trees were blooming at that time:

Back on the streets, fumes from everywhere...

Locals actually used those fumes and boiling water to boil food and sell it to tourists. Do you fancy a hotspring boiled egg??

I was in Beppu only one day, but had time to go to several hotsprings. These are the nicest. The second one has been opened since the Meiji era (end of 19th century!) and looked pretty old... but really cool! So traditional!!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Nagasaki 長崎

It is already one month since I visited Kyushu! Time flies... and it does much more now, that I am busy at work. I just talked about Fukuoka, which was the first city I visited in that trip.

Today, it is the turn for Nagasaki, one of the most interesting destinations in Japan in my opinion. I did not know much apart from the fact Nagasaki was the only point of contact of Japan with China and Europe for centuries and that the US army chose it as one of its infamous nuclear bombs targets.

The city has so much to offer it is difficult to know where to start. I will just follow the order in which I visited the places. In the morning, I visited the atomic bomb epicenter area. As you can imagine, the area is full of memorials (parks, a museum, etc) and explanations about the damage the bomb inflicted to the city. It actually killed a large percentage of its population... It also destroyed some of Nagasaki's cultural heritage, partly of which has been restored.

This is the Peace Memorial Park:

And this is the epicenter area. Around 65 years ago, the second atomic bomb used against Japan in WWII exploded here.

Around one km away from the epicenter, I found a very interesting sight: the second Torii in Sanno Jinja. A torii is a typical Japanese gate you can see at any shrine in Japan. The particularity of this one is that the atomic explosion blew away half of it, whilst the other half is still standing today. An intriguing sight.

Time for real history now. In 1542, the first European arrived at Japan. A Portuguese boat accidentally arrived in Nagasaki and some Spanish and the Dutch followed. The Portuguese and Spanish were banned from Japan because they tried to convert Japanese to Christianity and that was not welcome by the governors of Japan at that time. Only the Dutch, only interested in commercial transactions, were allowed to stay. However, they had to live in a small artificial island just off the shore. Consecutive Dutch expeditions came there and lived in crowded houses which where a mix of western and japanese architectures.

Nagasaki's exposure to Christianity was brief but very influencial. Up to 25000 Japanese remained being Christians hiddenly until Meiji restauration (end of XIXth century), when Christianity was legal again. A nice church was built at that time: Oura Church.

Nearby, in the top of one of the hills, the former foreigners settlement during Meiji era. Now, that area is known about Glover Garden and it is a nice stroll.

The views over the city and the harbor are just amazing!

This is the house where Mr Glover used to live... a nice western style house! In Japan!

Another nice house up in the hills!!

On the other part of town, the typical Japanese shinto stuff ;) in the famous Suwa Jinja.

Nagasaki also had (has) a pretty large Chinese population living in China town. When I visited, it was Nagasaki Lantern Festival and the streets around Chinatown where decorated with Chinese lanterns. The influence of China was also clear in the architecture of temples.

This temple, Sofuku-ji, is the only temple in Japan which is 100% Chinese. A really exotic place to relax for a while after an intense day!!

At night, I went to the heart of Chinatown and enjoyed the dragon and lion dance performances in the streets.

Some lanterns were really elaborated!

Nagasaki has been one of the cities I have enjoyed the most in Japan and I highly recommend to everybody to go there if possible!! It is not so hard to get to Kyushy after all if you have a JR pass and you are traveling Japan!!!! You wont regret it!!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

This weekend, Kansai

This is a long weekend (Monday is National Holiday) in Japan, and I decided to make the most of my time (as usual!!). So... here I am, in Kansai.

Today I visited the most sacred of Japanese shrines, Ise-jingu, place of pilgrimage since the 5th century BC and dedicated to Amaterasu. She is the goddess of the Sun and one of the most important deities in Shintoism.

Then, I visited the married rocks in Futami, called Meotoiwa. I saw them on TV and since that moment I wanted to come and see them. They look pretty cool!

Then, sunset in the pearl cultivation area in the furthest part of Ise Shima National Park, at Ago wan.

And to finish the day... okonomiyaki dinner in Osaka!! Not bad for the first day.

Tomorrow, I will go to Aso san, a sacred place for Buddhism in Japan and UNESCO World Heritage. I will sleep in a temple there!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

村上龍 Ryu Murakami

Ryu Murakami is a Japanese writer and movie director. His writing style is really impressive, it really makes an impact on you. He talks about really harsh topics (extreme sexual violence, drugs, chaos...) and makes you feel unconfortable many times. But the way he writes it is what makes a difference. He can find beauty even in the deepest of human misery. That's remarkable.

I am writing about him, because I just finished reading "Almost transparent blue", his first novel. This novel won the Akutagawa prize, the most prestigious prize in Japan for new writers. He wrote this book when he was just 23 and the result is shocking.

So far, I have read three of his novels and I have liked all of them. My ranking for his novels so far is as follows (in case you want to give it a try!): 1. Coin Locker Babies; 2. Almost Transparent Blue; 3. In the Miso Soup.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Kokoro 夏目 漱石- こゝろ

Last weekend, I finished reading "Kokoro" by Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石), a Japanese writer from the Meiji era (aka when Japan opened its borders to the world). I had had that novel in my bookshelf for several months now, just accumulating dust and I decided to give it a chance on Saturday. The result is I have discovered a great work. From the moment I started reading the first page, it was difficult to part with this book. I'd put it down and take it again immediately.

The novel is not long, around 250 pages in my English translation, but it is one of those books very close to philosophy which requres some time to be fully enjoyed. You should not rush through it.

It analyzes human nature from a very deep point of view and there are quotes worth remembering in almost every single page. Highly recommended!!

Besides, I found the author was living for one year very near where I live now and I could pass by his house a couple times this weekend. Also, most of the areas he describes are around my neighborhood!! Pretty cool ;)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sunday Lunch in Tokyo

Some things never change...

Posted by Picasa

Fukuoka 福岡

As I told you some posts ago, I spent the last week of February in Kyushu, the southernmost of the 4 main islands that compose Japan. Kyushu has always been a crossroad of cultures and the gateway through which Japan communicated with the world until the Meiji restauration (end of 19th century). The Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish arrived here in the 18th century. Most contact with China happened from here, and there are important Chinatowns in the biggest cities. Even Hideyoshi tried to conquer Korea from here in the 16th century! The result is an open minded region, with lots of foreign influence and amazing cities like Nagasaki, real crossroads of cultures.

My first stop was Fukuoka, the largest city in Kyushu. Fukuoka is specially famous in Japan for ramen (chinese noodles), and I must say the fame is well deserved!! ;)

Fukuoka is a very modern city and I liked it pretty much at that time. I still did not know what Kyushu had to offer!! The city was created after the union of two other cities: the castle town of Fukuoka/Tenjin and the nearby urban center of Hakata. Now, the city has two clearly divided centers: Tenjin and Hakata. Tenjin is the most urban area, where the upmarket shops and restaurants are. Hakata has the main train station and most of temples. The district called Gion, just a few minutes from the train station is really nice to get lost. Lots of temples and narrow streets with many temples.

The border between Hakata and Tenjin is a river that creates a small island, house to the red-light district...

Next to the river, on Hakata's side, there is a very famous shrine (famous in Kyushu). It was pretty nice and there were many opportunities to take nice photos.

Fukuoka, as most of modern cities in Japan, is a continuous contrast of modernity and old times. A ultra modern nation with deep Asian roots.

Kyushu was the gateway for ideas coming from the West and old Western buildings can be found around the city. This is the Old Prefectural House.

As soon as you get a bit further from the city centers, you notice there is quite some street culture. Many food stalls selling everything from dried fish to many kinds of oranges. At night, Fukuoka is famous for street food stalls. That was very similar to Pusan, in Korea. After all, they are just a few hours away by boat!!

Fukuoka also has a nice beach, with many islands in the horizon, which makes it really special. It was a pitty it was cloudy when I got there... Next to the beach, a nice piece of architecture: Fukuoka Tower.

Next stop, Nagasaki.