Tag - Oita

School: Oita Sofukan High School

By At by At - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27952276

Oita Sofukan High School

October 2015 – January 2016

Oita Sofukan is a strange school, even by Japanese standards, much more like UK college than anything else here. Classes run for 90 minutes, from around 8am to 8pm and students attend if/when they can/want. There’s no uniform, there’s a canteen, you wear outdoor shoes indoors and you have your own personalised timetable.

So really, only similarity is the language and that there’s a teacher!

My understanding is that the school is a mix of kids who couldn’t attend regular high school, either for family reasons, financial reasons or behavioural reasons.

Despite having full size classrooms, classes rarely number more than 6-8, which the students generally spread out all over, and their attendances can be so infrequent that they don’t even know each other’s name – a little embarrassing when you’re playing an ice breaker game where you have to remember everyone’s name!

Oita Sofukan High School

View from Oita Sofukan High School

The level of English I found no different to that of Mie Sogo, perhaps the small class sizes facilitating learning, though equally, many classes I only taught once, never getting past self introduction, with only a few classes on WInter Vacation and two on Valentine’s Day – so not necessarily treading much new ground.

Oita Sofukan was also my only experience as a true Assistant Language Teacher, wherein I was told what the plan was, and contributed my voice and talked a little about my experiences. It made class far more improvised, and exciting, but I could see how quickly the novelty could turn into apathy, as you really didn’t need to prepare much for the class, especially compared to planning an entire class!

Even though classes were 90 minutes, I enjoyed the ad hoc nature of sometimes turning up and having to improvise a whole class, but the only downside was the hour and 20 minute or so commute in the mornings, but at least I could get a Starbucks en route and pretend to be important!

All in all, I enjoyed visiting this school. It had less pressure than Mie Sogo since I felt more like a visitor, and the teaching more laid back since I was in addition to their learning, rather than being a part of their learning.

Head Image by At by AtOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, here

豊後大野市: The Bungo-ono Guide

Situated in the southern part of Oita prefecture, in March of 2015 the city celebrated its 10 year anniversary since combining 7 small towns and villages: Mie, Ono, Asaji, Inukai, Ogata, Kiyokawa, and Chitose. While they have combined to form one “city,” they each retain their own identities as towns, including their addresses and tourist destinations.

Bungo-ono has rolling mountains covered in dense forestation, between which golden fields of rice fill the flatlands from August through September. A short ride away from Oita city by car or train, it feels like a lifetime away from the harsh concrete and business of the bigger city.

Bungo-ono really lacks a definite ‘city centre’, but Mie is the base for the JETs in the area. Most of the town is situated along the route 326/502. The northern part is home to the larger chain stores and shops, which turns into a restaurant/snack bar/entertainment district around the station area, before you pop back into the countryside.

Transport

Miemachi Station

Miemachi Station

The Bungo-ono area is connected to Oita city by train, with trains running about twice an hour. They are cute, little, local trains. Trains run from Oita to Miemachi, or Oita to Bungo-Taketa (Taketa).  There are also some local buses that run between the former towns.  A car is the best for travelling between the tourist spots, and for travel in general.​

Points of Interest

Olle Hike, Asaji – Taketa

Kyushu is home to a number of easy access hiking routes, one of which begins at Asaji Station and follows a 12 km route into Taketa. It offers beautiful views of the land, especially during fall when the leaves are turning red. Check out the routes here and here.

Izumi Stone Caves (稲積水中鍾乳洞)

This place has a series of caves that don’t really change temperature – they put that gem all over the advertisements! Has a few other bits and pieces, including a trippy, ‘back in time’ exhibition.

Harajiri Falls

Harajiri Falls

The view from the bottom of Harajiri Falls

A video posted by James Molkenthin (@jmolkie) on

“The Niagara Falls of Japan” is a common name for Harajiri falls. About a 20 minute drive from Miemachi, it’s the #1 thing to see if in the area. Conveniently, next to it sits the #3 thing to do in Bungo-ono (as on Tripadvisor) – the Harajiri road side station – which sells an array of omiyage and seasonal ice cream.

Harajiri Falls

The suspension bride across the Harajiri Falls

 

Chinda Falls

Two waterfalls with stories attached, and the ruins of old electrical power stations.

Eating, Shopping and Entertainment

 

Yumeya Curry

Yumeya Curry

The Dream, the Yumeya set

Disputably the best curry in Oita, it’s not to be missed. They offer a fine selection of curries, drinks and naans, as well as great value set menus. You can even choose your spice level. Try 10-15 on your first go, you should be fine! Facebook page here.

Cafe Paper Moon (カフェ ペーパー ムーン)

A small pizzeria cafe, you get the sense the owners have spent some serious time in Europe. It’s a great little spot for a pizza and drink in a nice, atmospheric, quirky place. Check it out here.

Random Pizza Place

Great for Friday night pizza! Offers thin crust with weird toppings, but after a while, you don’t even notice. Does take away, not delivery, though why you’d want to miss the quaint ski-lodge-like interior I don’t know! Menu is in Japanese (on the wall, on wooden planks) Address: 白木屋〒879-7125大分県豊後大野市三重町内田372−1

Peace Bar

A spirited snack bar, about 20m, in front and to the left of Miemachi station. Though there are many in Miemachi, this one is spacious with a large seating area for groups. Carries the latest songs, a few locals, and the owners always seem happy to have us visit. Rates in 2015 are 2,000円 for under 2 hours, 3,000円for 3+ if there until closing.

Kiku

A popular choice for group dinners, Kiku offers a set menu and nomihoudai for 3000円(2015). Over a number of courses you’ll get a mix of familiar and weirder dishes, with presentation from exotic to eccentric. The owner’s style is eclectic and surprising, so be sure to ask for some after dinner entertainment. Address: 喜久〒879-7111 大分県豊後大野市三重町赤嶺

Festivals

 

Obon

 

A video posted by James Molkenthin (@jmolkie) on

Normally in the second week August, Obon (the festival for the dead) is celebrated with a big carnival in Miemachi town including floats and food stalls – good fun!

A video posted by James Molkenthin (@jmolkie) on

Okonomiyaka

Okonomiyaka at Obon/Raiden Festival

Harajiri Falls Lantern Festival

Keep a lookout for this – I can’t remember where it is, but it’s some point in late summer or early fall. All the roads are illuminated with lanterns, and there’s music around the falls.

JET Life in Bungo-ono

Hoyo Hotel, Miemachi

The view from Hoyo Hotel, Miemachi

As of 2015, there are 5 JETs covering the Bungo-Ono area, all of which live in Miemachi.

Hoyo Hotel Miemachi

Hoyo Hotel Beer Garden in Miemachi, during Summer

Four ALTs support Elementary Schools and Junior High Schools across the region, and are contracted by the Bungo-ono Board of Education. There is also one High School ALT at Mie Sogo High school, who visits schools in Oita and Taketa.​

Miemachi

North end of Miemachi

JETs can choose their own accommodation, though usually inherit their predecessors. BOE JETs require a car to travel between schools, though Mie town is spread out such that all JETs have cars regardless.

Miemachi

From MBox apartments, you can see Moody-machi!

 

大分市: The Oita City Guide

Oita City. The name has a certain grandeur to it. But to for all intents and purposes, Oita city is a city by name, and not much else, when compared to its neighbour Fukuoka.

But nevertheless, being my home for 18 months, I’ve decided to pull together a Molkie-Specific guide on how to pass your days in Oita.

Scroll to the bottom to read about my ‘Escape the Room’ experience!

By Day…

Amu Plaza

2015 saw the final upgrade to Oita station which has brought it kicking and screaming into the 21st century and rivals the quality stations like Fukuoka and Osaka, though a little smaller. This addition was 3 or 4 floored shopping mall, including food court and cinema, as well as roof top garden and a fancy new hotel and onsen.

Oita Station 2016

The revamped North side to Oita Station 2016

From bakeries to wineries, clothes to stationery, Amu plaza has certainly added a lot of convenience and life to the area.

City Spa Tenku

For the days when you feel more like treating yourself, the rooftop onsen of the Blossom hotel attached to the station should suffice. After slipping your shoes into the lockers, receiving your bag of linen and wrist dongle, you enter a world of premium onsen, high above the city. Both indoor and outdoor pools offer a bizarre, but pleasant, oily-soft water, whilst the carbonated pool grows tiny little bubbles all over your body! The sauna, steam room and cool pool are also worth a visit for the brave!

When you’re done, use your wrist dongle to purchase a nice milk, and feel free to blow dry your hair, or clean out your ears with cotton buds.

Holt Hall

A modern city hall complex, it offers meeting spaces, as well as gym and dance studio and most importantly for my experiences – a large kitchen space! I’ve had JET meetings, dance classes and 2 Turkey Day/Thanksgiving Dinners, which have been super delicious, thanks to JT and pals.

Atami Onsen – A local onsen, for local people

Onsen is a fantastic quirk of Japan, and super convenient for the party lifestyler, wherein one may need, at short notice, a place to spruce up and clean off the memories of the night before. One is therefore always advised to have knowledge of a few in the area’s one frequents.

A short 3-5 minute walk west out of the North side of the station, this no frills onsen offer the basics. A man and woman doors which lead straight into the changing area, and beyond that, a few lines of showers and 2 piping hot baths, one of which nobody could sit in. At a few hundred yen it fulfills purpose without showing off.

The Arcade

Leading from the North side of the station is main arcade. Before the station upgrade, this was Oita. A covered arcade with a number of shops, from 100 yen stores, to designer boutiques, to cafes and restaurants, it must push a kilometre in length, and provides great rain cover on an otherwise sodden walk to PEI.

Purikura Oita city

Purikura Pals!

Along its length, starting from the station is an arcade (great for dates), which has purikura, Dance mats and air hockey! A cafe which sells super kawaii coffee cups with steam-milk art, the Starbucks, the 100 Yen shop, a bar where you can buy a drink, a Family Mart and a chicken wing restaurant that offers nomihoudai and steins of umeshu (Japanese plum wine). As you can probably tell, there isn’t much for me here, but it’s well worth exploring, especially some of the offshoots that are home to a number of small restaurants and hangouts, such as MilkBoy, which does French toast breahfast and some other, wouldn’t-look-out-of-place-in-the-trendier-parts-of-North-London/Hipster cafes.

It is also home to Forus, which was THE mall in central Oita, which consists of mostly clothes shops, Starbucks, a record shop in the basement and I think I’ve heard rumours of a bookshop!

The Castle

Oita Castle Funai

In the middle of the city, lives Oita Castle

Funai castle ruins are right in the centre of the city and unlike most castle ruins (of which nearly every castle is one in Japan) there aren’t really any ruins. From the outside, an impressive moat gives way to an impressive white wall, built on a high, sloping boulder base. Alas, inside is mostly a wide, open, gravelled courtyard, occasionally used for hosting Expos (I went to a health/gardening and home one once!).

The area’s saving grace is the beautiful cherry blossom park along one side of the moat, often used for wedding photos and is exceptionally busy during the wonderful 花見/hanami/cherry blossom viewing period (which really is the best time to visit Japan!).

Don Quixote

A magic shop. Not a 100 yen shop, not quite an electrical shop, it sells ALOT of shit. Foods, personal products, thousands of electronics, seasonal goods, watches, and even has an adult only part, if ya know what I mean 😉

It’s all pretty cheap, ranging from known brands, to chinese imports, you can probably fid it here. Check it out for a limited range of import beers, or their special music DVDs set – Billboard 100 from 1995-2015 really set off my NYE party!

Ethnic Bros – $$$

Ethnic Bros Oita

Birthday merriment! They love to get you to pose! – Shalley Duarte

Our resident Mexican restaurant, its biggest selling point? A picture menu, alway welcome when you’re not 100% on the what Mexican names for things are anyway! Worth booking ahead as it get busy, or pre ordering food if you’re big group, it’s a small, quirky restaurant, with a lot of Mexican themed dressings! It’s portions should leave you filled and with an extensive array of cocktails, a wide menu choice, it’s good for when you really have a craving, but perhaps not a place you would highly recommend if it was back in your home country.

Redwood – $$$

Nothing like the taste of homegrown, American classics… Redwood is an American-food restaurant, offering burgers, steaks and even Mexican food. It’s a tad expensive, but the extensive menu means I haven’t gotten to try to much of it yet! The vanilla shake is a definite highlight, but my suggestion is to stay clear of the ribs. The mexican food was delightful, I wish there had been more. Once again, it’s kind of small and gets busy, so book ahead.

Park place

The opening of the mall at the station must have really impacted the Park Place and Wasada Town retail parks.

Nevertheless, I still enjoy a good trip to Park Place, perhaps because it’s in between Mie and central Oita.

A very modern complex, the indoor mall opens out into an external area with numerous water features and pools, around the edge of which feature a number of prominent international brands – Gap, H&M, Uniqlo (Admittedly Japanese) and Zara – yes! A Zara!

Watch out for Niko and… if you’re watching your wallet, as it sells awesome home furnishings. Village Vanguard offers a range of strange, popular Japanese culture and design pieces – good for Xmas presents – as is チャイハネ/Cayhane which sells, dare I short-hand it…. Alternative, hippy clothes and wares, which is similar to Marika, which sells a lot Arab and Indian influenced wares and accessories.

The pet store on the 3rd floors has many cute puppies and kittens to yearn for, and is also where you’ll find the cinema – always read the poster to check the language/subtitles!

Surprisingly, there’s an HMV still going strong and a Lush body shop. ABC mart overs a range of shoes, some which go up to a UK size 10, and the massive Sports shop sells all sorts of sports equipment, and you can buy Oita Trinita FC shirts!

Wasada

So close to the fictional African nation of Wakanda from the Marvel Universe 🙁

Having only been here once, my knowledge is somewhat limited. It is definitely an older, more run down retail park, offering similar shops to Park Place. It definitely has a sports shop, and that my friends, is my knowledge.

…by Night.

Bistro Shun

Judging by Google Streetview, Bistro Shun was being built in Dec 2015 – so I was lucky to find it at the end of January 2016! Really close to the station, in the same building as Hotel Smart Sleep, it’s located under the stairs and maybe could host 10 people at a push! He only sells Heineken and wine, and in his little cubbie he has a kitchen – hence the Bistro!

Very friendly, reasonably priced, it makes a cool little place for a quick beer, or maybe a date!

Bar Brown

The only place I know in Oita that has Guinness on draught! And thus is well worth a visit for this alone. An underground bar, it has, to me, the air of what would make a cool Jazz venue. The bar offers other import drinks like Blue Moon, but Guinness, so why bother? What’s nice is you can go in just for a drink, rather than the izakaya-style food & drink menu, but it also serves some hot nibbles and food, allowing you to develop a thirst from some salty, salty, fries.

The Prince Edward Island Bar (PEI)

PEI Trivia Winners

Hey Hey We’re the Molkies – Winning Trivia March 2015

If there’s one place you’re guaranteed to find ALTs, foreign students and Japanese people who can speak English, it’s PEI. A great, ‘Canadian’ bar, North of the station in Miyako-machi, it’s a melting pot of people from all over the world.

PEI Oita

Pyuko’s Birthday at PEI – Yuko Tashiro

On a quiet night, Meg and Richie are real easy to chat to, both being native speakers of Japanese and English. The food is super delicious, my recommendation is the nachos and Oreo milkshake, and they frequently have nomihoudai offers.

Trivia Winners PEI

Moviepalooza Trivia – Winners 2016

Once a month they have a themed trivia night which always brings out the competitive spirit, and the last saturday of the month is Haze, a nomihoudai banaza, with dancing, which a huge mix of expats, University students and Japanese people – it gets messy!

PEI Trivia Winners

Around the World in 80 Minutes – Winners Sep 2015

Be sure to ask for a shot from the snake bottle!

Hotel Smart Sleep

Hotel Sleep Smart sign

Hotel Sleep Smart sign

For Y3000 a night, you get half hotel/half capsule. Though you get your own room, the doors don’t lock, nor do the walls reach to the ceiling, instead, having curtains for the top foot or so. Alongside your TV is a computer you can pay to use. The bathroom facilities have individual showers, this blew my mind! It’s 1 block from the North side of the station and allows hour access, with check-in from 1700 and check out at 1000.

It offers male and female dorms, so is one up on New Gloria (see below), however, it is further from PEI!

Hotel Area One

Either new, or under redevelopment, this place is a real hotel, so great for friends sharing. We booked a triple room for Y9750 – Y3250pppn. As small as any Japanese hotel, it offered comfy beds and a small private bathroom. It’s location is pretty central to all the nightlife and restaurants, and half way between the station and PEI, offering a quick trek back.

New Gloria (Capsule) Hotel

After a hard night partying, you may want/need/be taken to a bed in the nearby capsule hotel – so long as you have a penis, sorry girls.

If taken here, try not to panic.

Waking up in a coffin, to the sounds of invisible people snoring is terrifying. Having no memory, and the only clue being a key on a hair band around your wrist, is like waking up in the middle of an escape the room game.

“But at least I have my clothes on.” I thought to myself, “Time to get out of here… Argh shit my head”

Shuffling my arse closer to the illuminated edges of the curtain at the bottom of the bed, my legs reached out into thin air.

“For fuck sake” As I attempted to curve myself into a backwards C, so as to get my feet on the ladder, without smacking my head.

Grabbing the guide rail, I swung out, over shot, ricocheting off the bed next to me, and heavily dropping to the floor, like a hangover cat, after gnawing on the wine infused scraps of a good beef bourguignon.

This morgue of beige and brown had me trapped. I walked to one end, only to find further endless pods, like a 70s inspired, alien birth room. The other way lead to some stairs, and a number of mirrored automatic doors. With no windows, I had no idea if I was up or down.

Choosing the stairs, the hieroglyphics on the wall offered no information beyond that I was 3rd floor. There I was, with a key and a floor number.

Going down to floor 2, I found the stairs went no lower. At the end of the second floor corridor was another mirrored sliding door.

Panic set in, and I ran back up stairs.

What was this key for? What did the number mean?

I ventured towards the mirrored sliding door, at least I still looked handsome. Then it opened, the sight so abhorrent, as a naked man, caressed by gentle steams, walked out.

Walking, I sharply turned, not missing a beat, as if my aim was to walk in a ‘U’ shape all along.

Back down the stairs. But surely this door also lead to an onsen?

I ventured closer, when I an idea pushed itself forward from the back of my mind and made itself known.

Lockers.

There was a wall of lockers.

And I had a key.

Looking down, I had no shoes on!

Searching for 248, the key slid in and fitted.

Inside, were my shoes.

This had to be the entrance, so maybe it was the exit? Tentatively I made my way to mirrored door. It slide open to reveal a reception area I had once been to before, and across the room, a familar spiral staircase lead down to a exit to the streets of Oita.

I had escaped the room.

Oita Charity Bike Ride: Kitsuki to Aka

So having limited myself to two casual day cycles in about 24 years, I thought Japan would be the best place to tackle a 2-day, 190km round-route, bike race with friends – the 18th Oita Chairty Bike Ride event.

Day One: The Beginning of the Beginning

So despite the event not beginning until Saturday morning, my preparation began Friday night as I finished work, grabbed my gear and made my way towards Oita city to spend the night at a friends, and thus closer to the start point on Saturday morning, and so would begin the first on two nights spent on uncomfortable futons on tatami floors!

We're cycling HOW far? ©Rachael Booth

We’re cycling HOW far? ©Rachael Booth

Departing Saturday morning meant waking up at the regular school time, and taking a 45 minute doodling from South Oita, round Beppu and up to Kitsuki, our starting point.

Thankfully my hired road bike had been delivered to a fellow JETs house, and I even had the good fortune of a drinks holder! A god send since I hadn’t thought to bring a rucksack for carrying anything!

Having managed to scavenged a cycle helmet that had the style of a Mod riding a moped, I was fortunately lent a proper bike helmet with ventilation!

Despite its good looks, this helmet was really hot! ©Scott Kawaguchi

Despite its good looks, this helmet was really hot! ©Scott Kawaguchi

Once we set off, I had music in my ear, my friends at my front and rear and a feeling like nothing could stop me!

With the first kilometre, we hit road works on a small country lane, that forced us off the road and to carry our bikes through a field. Back on track, it wasn’t long until the groups spread out, we popped out from under a bridge, and had no idea where to go. After a few moments, we took a lucky gambled and found ourselves passing checkpoint one.

Not the most confident cyclist ©Scott Kawaguchi

Not the most confident cyclist ©Scott Kawaguchi

The first part of the journey followed a river as it meandered through the hills, and everything looked jolly. About 10 km in we hit the hill, and struggled up a continuous incline for a good 15 minutes, before hitting the delightful peak, and free-wheeling down, body dropped for maximum streamlining, and stopping at the first konbini an hour or so in.

The first of many konbini stops ©Rachael Booth

The first of many konbini stops ©Rachael Booth

Here we were informed that the biggest hill was now behind us, though there was the suppressed undercurrent of thought that it would be waiting there at the end of the 190km tomorrow…

Day 1 Pack ©Scott Kawaguchi

Day 1 Pack ©Scott Kawaguchi

Here we formed a fairly fixed front running group of about 12, though this would eventually drop down nearer to 9 as we approached the end.

In terms of description, I’m afraid this becomes a lot more vague and less interesting as we moved out from country roads onto the main route 10 highway, but being as we were passing through Kyushu, rest assured that there were mountains galore in the distance, and being Japan, a ton of konbinis to rest our weary bodies, and stock up with drinks!

At some point the penned directions disagreed with the planned directions, and around lunch time we found ourselves having passed through Usa, but a bit unsure of where we were suppose to head. Breaking for lunch at a roadside cafe, we eventually spoke to the volunteer team, and found we had taken a wrong branch of route 10, and would need to head back in towards Nakatsu city.

Being the hometown of long suffering friend Rachael, we even managed a photo opportunity outside of her school.

©Rachael Booth

©Rachael Booth

Riding through Nakatsu was a killer, hitting traffic lights every few blocks, and giving rise to a high risk of collision as our bikers sped up and slowed down, desperate not to get too separated from the group.

The straight, flat roads were perhaps the most difficult part of the journey. By now my hands were more than suffering from pins and needles, as were my toes, and the road seemed unending.

At least when there were hills you could pedal at a variety of speeds and difficulties, and get the free ride from coasting down the hill, but on the flat, as the peddling became harder, you knew the only thing that meant was that you were getting more tired.

Eventually we hit the infamous Cosmos shop we’d been hunting for, and pulled off the main highway, and began cycling on smaller, quieter streets – it felt like the beginning of the end.

It wasn’t. We probably ended up cycling for another hour and a half, or more, but psychologically it helped! Especially bumping into another group and knowing we were back on track!

From here the landscape began to thin out again, smalls hills reappeared and it felt like we were getting close.

The End is Nigh

Stopping at a konbini, rumour spread that this was the last konbini and that there was only 5km left to go!

Stocked up with booze, we headed out for the final 5km, cycling alongside a meandering river, and determined to be the first group there!

What nobody had cared to mention was that the second trickiest hill was still to come, and with only a couple of km left, we hit it. It was excruciating, our leading pack began to thin out, and I felt like this would never end.

With only a km left, the incline gave way to a decline, and we rode the final part with style, and arriving first to the camp site.

Being first in meant we had no idea where to go and milled about in the carpark, before spotting the cabins we’d stay in, and parking up the bikes. To kill time we spotted a river and headed out for a cool wade whilst waiting for the others.

Naturally, being Japan, the site had an onsen, and so eventually others turned up and we made our way to the onsen to loosen those tight muscles. Well, loosened until we found the pulsating, or more accurately, the electrocuting chairs, that zap and tenses your muscles into spasms.

Coming out of the onsen, and with some time on our hands, the boys headed into the curry restaurant for a beer, that turned into a quick, cheeky curry.

Dinner Disaster

By 1930 we had word no fire had been started in the camp, thus there was no food, so we stayed back for some more beers. Come 2000 some more of the team showed up announcing that that would be no dinner, and so they came for curry too! In the end about 16 of us we in the curry house and playing drinking games.

Returning to the camp, we discovered the kitchen area, only to be met with an icy reception. As it turns out, there was no cooking team, and it had been expected that everyone would come and help cook – oops! Some miscommunication there!

Settling into cabin J, the party cabin, we finished the night with a few drinks, before throwing in the towel at around 0000.

Day Two: The Long Way Home

With insufficient curtains, I was awake early, and out helping prepare breakfast before 7am (I’d learnt from the previous day’s lesson). Breakfast was an ensemble of scrambled egg, cheese, bread and leftover kebabs (which were delicious!).

With great efficiency, the group managed to all leave by about 9am! Hanging back with the Bungo Boys to clean the cabin, meant I ended up the group with the regular and fittest cyclists, and was apprehensive about getting left behind!

And they’re off!

After tackling the second most difficult hill, we reached the konbini and bumped into a group who had set of before us.  Keen on the sound of their slower pace, I sacrificed my break to cycle alongside the river with them. After a few more kilometers, we hit the hill that marked our leaving of Aka, and promptly overtook this slow-paced group – there’s nothing more painful than doing inclines at a ridiculously slow pace, and soon found myself in a speedy three-way with KJ and Bernie, with whom I would end up spending most of my ride with. We pushed on a mighty place, slowing occasionally when one of us would fall outside of sight from the lights.

Two hours in, we took a hearty rest at a konbini, catching up with our Japanese sisters Megu and Mai, and spotting two of the best cyclists overtaking us. Struggling with a hangover, KJ encouraged us to take a longer break, but within 20 minutes we were on our way, frozen sports drinks melting under the heat of the sun.

Usa Shrine

Passing through Nakatsu, I sighed as we passed the delicious restaurants I knew there, and soon we were approaching Usa and the continuing dreaded flats.

At one set of lights we agreed we’d stop for lunch at Usa shrine, which then turned out to be a lot further away than we imagined! We had a delightful lunch of toriten chicken, and megan getting messages through from Rachael, who was just passing through Usa.

We made the call to wait for her, and she was soon within our mitts, and we decided to explore Usa shrine, turning our lunch stop into an over hour long affair.

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©Bernadette Arthur

The grounds of Usa shrine far outshone the hyped shrine, especially since it had hideous white marquees erected in front of the shrine, but it was nice to walk under the trees, and looked at the various stone pieces and ponds. Maybe I’ll return again since we didn’t have time to explore the entire grounds.

©Bernadette Arthur

©Bernadette Arthur

Back on the road, we were two thirds the way there, but well aware that the hardest hill lay ahead of us.

The riding was pretty easy for the next 10 or so km, with our 4some taking a good spread out formation.

Suddenly we’d lost two of our group, and cycled back to find them stopped outside of a konbini with some of the guys we hadn’t seen since the morning!

The Beginning of the End

They were prepping for the big hill, and made a funny sight. Taylor had chosen to ride topless, and was busy applying sun cream, despite this, he had already again a rucksack shaped tan line. Sean had scuffed and bleeding knees, and Becca had an almighty red graze on her shoulder, cut up knees and legs, and a bleeding hip.

As it had transpired, a woman on a moped had turned without signalling, Martyn had braked, Becca, who was now on her third bike of the day pulled one brake, only on this bike it happened to corresponding to the front brake, and cartwheeled over the bike, causing Sean to brake head and come off too!

I’m glad I hadn’t been in that pack!

Departing from the konbini, we left Bernie behind in tangle of head phones. Next thing I knew I was passing Rachael as the incline began, and had my sights set on KJ in the distance.

Being an unconfident cyclist at best, I tackled the hills in a seated position, lowing my gears from the maximum 3-8 configuration, and by the apex was cycling around 2-2. This hill was exhausting, going on for about 15 minutes, cars passing within inches and I swayed slowly up the hill.

Then one turn around the corner, and the down hill began. I pushed my bike higher up the gears, but to my dismay, my bike would no longer get back up into 3rd gear, and I was capped at 2-8, but with KJ getting closer by the second thanks to my patented streamline position.

Thinking he was miles ahead, he pulled over to slow down as I passed him, and his face dropped as he had to get back up to speed.

The Final Countdown

Whilst I had hoped we only had 2-3 more miles to go, it would eventually turn out to be nearer to 6 miles, but we stuck together through the familiar winding mountain roads. A quick check on the sat-nav informed us we were only one left turn and 3 km away! Spurred on, we raced to back to the station, arriving in unison like true Bungo brothers, and becoming some of the first to make it back!

Between stretching and resting we cheered the other back, until we were all in!

Heading back with Savvy, we discussed how her saturday night hadn’t been so much fun since she had been the head cook :/

But by the time we were in Mie, we were on good enough times that she came and had curry with all the Bungo Boys to see out our weekend.

 

Beppu: To Hell(s) and Back

Another Japanese National Holiday – Coming of Age Day – so that can mean only one thing! A chance to travel, and try something new, with my usual partner in crime – Lachalu Buusu!

Saturday – In which we Learn the Value of Toes

Arriving at Oita station, I greeted Buusu with the sounds of her own people; Teddypicker by Arctic Monkeys and we were off to do gaijin shopping in Oita mall, Park Place. After a couple hours of shopping, and swooning over puppies we were in Beppu, on a desperate hunt for something unique, exciting and Japanese – sand baths.

Pulling up along to the beach and spotting such a spot, we quickly stripped down to our birthday suits and threw on yukatas, enabling us to hide our shames as we walked along the beach front and onto the hot sand beds.

In no time at we were being buried alive under several inches of warm, moist sand and not long after that, I was left blinded by the sweat that had scaled the fortresses that are my eyebrows, and invaded my eyes, much to the entertainment of Buusu!

Fresh from the pits of hell, sand needed removing from certain crevices!

As we walked around the beach, it was clearly kite weather as a swarm of youngsters took to desperately throwing up limp and aerodynamically unsound looking kites into trees the air. The occasionally box-kite soaring effortlessly above the mess of suicidal kites.

By now the day was growing weary and handing the mantle onto night, as we made our hunt around Beppu on a quest for a snack bar in which to consume and sing karaoke.

Life is about opening doors, and I lost count of how many snack bars we ventured towards that turned out to be shut, had nobody in them, or said “er… no English”, alas we persevered, and found a snack bar, willing to serve us, with a delightful poster of what was probably a transsexual on the door.

Whilst being empty, the bar was delightfully what I had hoped for, with soft furnishings and trims, and utilising our passable Japanese we even figured out the controls for the karaoke system. Over time, our singing began to pull in a crowd, but unfortunately our hour was coming to a close. The woman behind the bar I had to come realise was a man, this didn’t surprise me, what wrong footed me more was that the young, attractive, half nude woman photo hanging on the wall, would transpire to me the old gentleman next to me, who also happened to run the bar – a baggy jumper can hide all sorts of things it seems!

Sufficiently inebriated to think our luck was in, we headed haphazardly to the Hit Parade, the 1950s themed performance restaurant on every visitor’s list. On top of the all you can eat “Viking” banquet of hot dots, baguette and wedges, surpassing the all you can drink nomihoudai, were the 20 minute performances of the best of rock’n’roll songs of the 50s, with the entire room on their feet dancing along.

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Are you jive, turkey?

Needless to say, with a lethal concoction of hotdog, whiskey and vigorous jiving, I was unable to remain dancing for the entirety of a single set, and felt very off colour whilst those around more meagrely jingled to the music.

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A nice dancing and singing lady

Once over, we returned to the streets, on the hunt for the best Saturday night action Beppu had to offer.

Within the hour we had returned to the car, and gone to sleep.

Sunday – Mud, mud, MUD!

Turns out that winter’s pretty cold in Japan, especially in the morning.

Awaking to Buusu’s meek cry of,
“Is it bright outside yet?”

Let me know that she to had succumb to placing her coat over her heard in the vain hope of recycling her own warmth – it didn’t really work.

Walking on frozen, cramped feet, I had never been so grateful to see a Starbucks!

So we were off to Hoyoland, arguable the best mud onsen in Japan – and most importantly for our boy/girl duo – unsegrated.

Hoyoland, set in the rolling hills on the outskirts of Beppu, is a cute little place that hasn’t seen much of an update since at least the 90s. Reasonable rates and lockers for valuables, lead to a small meandering path down to the changing building, a number of indoor pools and out into the mixed onsen zone with several mud onsens.

The main pool provides access for females fully hidden from the site of males, with a covered walkway and hidden corner into which to get into the water. Across the middle if the main onsen is a bamboo barrier, that seperates the two sides, though it would seem perfectly acceptable for woman (at least gaijin women) to pass across freely.

For the more adventurous, there is a smaller onsen pool, a foot deep with mud behind the main onsen pool – adventurous as the only means to get into it for female bathers is around the outside of the pool, pass the mens’ section – though well worth it for the opulence the mud provides.

Now feeling totally mellow man, we floated effortly in the car to the legendary Beppu ropeway, offering unparalleled views of the entire Beppu bay area.

Arriving to only be battled and barged by ravenous winds, near ripping off the doors from the cars, throwing dirt into our eyes like tiny bullets, and causing the ropeway to visibly bounce by several feet – it was most definitely closed!

Having thoroughly defrosted our bodies, a feast of pizza and pasta warmed our bellies, and we head to the legendary MONKEY MOUNTAIN.

Objectively speaking, it was little more than a hill, though very pretty, with some nice stairs and playground for the monkeys, and HUNDREDs of monkeys, though naturally the school of baby monkeys took most of the attention!

Strolling across to the aquarium, the “what we could read to admission fee ratio” was too great, and so we didn’t venture any further him.

This didn’t dampen our afternoon as we headed up to Suginoi Hotel complex for an afternoon of entertainments.

Set atop the rolling hills of Beppu, it looks North up along the coast of Beppu, and overs a delightful rooftop onsen experience. But that was not for today, as instead we chose to visit the bowling alley!

Unsurprisingly, the finger holes in the balls, not cut for gaijin fingers, proved particularly painful, and what started off as a raging torrent of strikes and spares soon died down to a distinctly average performance. This was followed by some taiko drumming and a smidge of ice hockey.

Getting lost in the hotel was like being trapped in an inception-style nightmare, in which the whole places morphs seamlessly into itself, in a never ending tunnel of doors and striped carpets.

After nearly losing our toes the previous night, the executive decision was made to spend the night in a Beppu hostel, offering much needed warmth to our toes!

Monday – To Hell(s) and back

Japan and its love of national holiday! Another Monday off enabled Busu and I to check out the hostel and hit up the infamous Beppu Hells – eight crazy coloured pools, far too hot and/or toxic for people to bath in. Fortunately six of these hells sit upon the same hillside! Each offering its own treats;

Kamado Jigoku

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The heated seat experience – can I have it in my house, please?

Offers the touristiest experience, with heated seats, steam vents, footpath and restaurant.

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It’s so blue! That’s a grape fanta, not a beer

Oniyama Jigoku

Has crocodiles and alligators… No idea why…

Yama Jigoku

Grape ice cream, a number of large and small animals in small cages, and a steamy pool.

Umi Jigoku

Offers the brightest, bluest of the pools, with a lovely walk around it, and eggs cooked in the waters.

Oniishibozu Jigoku

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In Japanese, it’s name means, ‘bald monks head’, or something…

 

The muddy hell, from which gaseous bubbles erupt, giving the pools a tree-ring like appearance.

Further down the hill is the;

Shiraike Jigoku

A white pool, surrounded by housing and appartments, feating a lil, past its best aquarium (a generous name I feel…).

Then a few kilometres away, are the final two hells;

Chinoike Jigoku

Like a scene from Jurrassic park as the steam rises from the rust red pools – historically used for dying cloth.

And

Tatsumaki Jigoku

Has a showtime, every 30-40 minutes it spouts boiling water, for a 6-10 minute show. It’s one of the most reliable geysers in all the world!

Having finally got them under my belt, I feel I can leave Beppu finally satisfied.

And as if in conjunction with this momentous achievement, I found tortillas, tacos, salsa and quacamole in Beppu’s big mall – YouMe Town.

4// Mie Machi: My new home 三重町

This is how it starts… Today was going to be my arrival in my new home for the next year, in Mie, Oita Prefecture: I was so not ready!

Tackling Tokyo

Once again battling jetlag and lack of sleep after an incredible night in Tokyo, I headed down for breakfast.

Entering the dining room, there was a strange air: a palatable taste of fear and trepidation, as thoughts turned to the enormity of spending a year in a new place, with gargantuan unknowns, be that whether we would enjoy teaching, whether we brought enough money to tide us over, or how far is the nearest McDonalds to our house?

The initial energy and enthusiasm of the previous days had seemed to have melted to, at best, a luke-warm pool of excitement, with the harsh realisation that many of the friendships we had made would end here. The previous compulsion to discuss at great lengths our reasons for moving to Japan with total strangers reduced to little more than an unwilling head nod. From this point forward, we were alone in our adventure.

“…it seemed as if the air was so heavily saturated, that it condensated upon surrounding buildings causing water to pour from all the nearby roofs”

Of course it could have been everybody was on the come down from a night of drunken debauchery – it’s a moment I’ll never get to revisit and so neither you nor I shall ever truly know, my dear reader.

Joining the other Oita JETs for our onward journey, a jolt of fear surged through my being as I failed to spot an ‘Oita’ sign in the concourse and gambled on ‘Ohita’ being just as fun a way to spell it as any! Thankfully it was and we were on our way, racing along the high-rise motorways through the skyscrapers of Tokyo to Narita airport.

Waking up to the plane bumping down on the tarmac is not a habit I would recommend though, alas, a habit I indulge in regularly. Arriving groggy and confused at Oita airport, I was reminded of Nairobi airport, I think due to the sense of time having stood still in this place, a vague sense of having been built in the 70s and never having the investment to move on.

The oomph of the heat, and wading through the densely humid air of Oita, was not that dissimilar to Tokyo, but the heavy scent of the vegetation, carried on the visibly evaporating water from the surrounding rolling hills, instantly took my mind back to an amalgamation of a wet season’s sunny afternoon in Uganda, combined with wading through densely populated tropical forest.

The kind of heat that never laments, initially it seemed as if the air was so heavily saturated, that it condensated upon surrounding buildings causing water to pour from all the nearby roofs – as it so happened, it had only just finished raining and so this was in fact just normal run-off!

We’re on the road to Mie (aka Nowhere…)

Sitting aboard the coach, the prefectural ALTs, those teaching in Senior High Schools, were whisked away to the Board of Education in Oita city to sign their contracts.

Coming from Tokyo, what struck me the most was the sheer volume of green that raced by the window, and how incredibly high and steeply the surrounding hills/mountains lurched up over us – not too dissimilar to the lochs and hills of Scotland, when I travelled between Glasgow and Oban.

Passing Beppu resembled a scene from Lord of the Rings with mists rising from deep in the valley from multiple sources, as if under massive industrial development like that of the 19th century. In reality, the steaming city of Beppu is famed for its geologically heated baths, Onsen. Numerous in number, they are some of the best in the region, if not Japan, and upon closer inspection of Beppu, it resembled less of an industrial, orc-filled chasm, and more of a large town or city.

Travelling through Oita city, the place felt rather small, reminiscent in my head of Adelaide, or some expanisive town in the sticks in the US. Coming from Tokyo, the non-dominace of skyscrapers, of being able to see mountain and hill, gave the city a highly novel and cutsey feeling. Even more so as we passed through a street of American-style diners and restaurants – what had I let myself in for???

No sooner had we signed our contracts, than had our supervisors turned up (normally JTEs, Japanese Teachers of English, from your high school who help to set everything up with you) and we were selected, like puppies in a store, or evacuees in WWII and taken away from all that we had known.

Sitting in the car with Ogawa-sensei, I felt truly alone. As apartments gave way to houses, houses to farms, and trees came to be the dominant lifeform in the vicinity, I was two parts trepidation to one part excitement! Chatting with Ogawa-sensei was great, she had studied in Durham, so at least I had fallen on my feet with an excellent English speaker.

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Just down the street – Look at those hills! Beautiful!

Running behind schedule, my arrival into Mie was unceremonious. Within minutes of being told this was my town, I stood awkwardly in what can only be described as a newsagents-cum-estate agents’ shop. Sweating profusely, within minutes I was £600 pounds down and the proud owner of some keys!

Racing to the flat, the gas men were there, as was Briedi, my predessessor! Within the hour I was off to dinner with the local JETs, nine of us in total, though shortly it would drop down to eight, chomping though plates of traditional sushi – varieties of fish, all shades of pink, draped over beds of rice – miso soup, rice and all variety of things, each with a strong salty but tempting flavour.

My shoes sitting outside the paper sliding door room, myself sat on a tatami mat, my legs outstretched under the low rise table and a beer in hand surrounded by Japanese artwork, I had truly arrived in Japan!