Friday, March 21, 2008

The Kyushu Trip: Bed Tales

I made it back from my trip to Kyushu. For those who forgot to take a course on Japanese geography, Kyushu is the large island just south of the main island of Honshu. Happily, I had a lot of help planning how to travel, where to stay, and what to see. Have I mentioned lately that the staff here is incredible?

My trip began with a bus/train/subway/tram ride to the port of Osaka. Along the way, I saw a tallish, heavyset guy in a kimono with a top knot. From what I've read, that's the basic outfit that sumo wrestlers are supposed to wear, even around town. And since there's a sumo tournament in Osaka, I'm willing to guess that I saw a sumo wrestler on the tram. Cool, eh?

Why the port you ask? Because that's where I caught an overnight ferry to Beppu, a city on the eastern coast of Kyushu. I was in economy class, which meant 32 futon things on the floor in a big room. There were numbers of rooms; happily, I was in an all women's room, and people were helpful and quiet.

The sleeping area is a slightly raised platform, with a folded futon, blanket, and plastic pillow for each numbered place. There were some empty spaces in our room, but not near me. It's weird to sleep closely with strangers, but that's what you do in economy class.

In the morning, people started stirring about 5 am, including me. I went out to the deck part and the fresh air made me realize how stale the air in the sleeping room had gotten. But the sunrise was beautiful, and we arrived at Kyushu pretty quickly, just before 7am.

At the other end of my sleeping experiences were the Japanese style inns, or ryokan. This is what my room in Beppu looked like when I checked in. Look, Ma, no bed! But a beautiful table, and a seat on the floor. As you can see, the room has tatami mats, which mean you wear only your socks or bare feet, no shoes or slippers, even. The tatami is smooth and cool.

Unfortunately, I didn't sleep much on the ferry, so I was ready for a nap when I checked in (about 4pm), so I found a problem with the room. No place to nap. I didn't care; I was so tired I just conked out right on the tatami, using my pack for a pillow, and slept for an hour. Then I asked at the desk and was directed to a small restaurant with some fantastically yummy (and HOT) tempura over rice.

When I got back, the room looked like this, with a futon on the floor and the table moved back out of the way. I slept VERY well that night, on a cozy futon with a lush duvet type cover.

From Beppu, I traveled to Kumamoto, my favorite city of the whole trip. It's one of those cities with a really good tram system, so I could figure out how to get here and there, and lots to see.

The next night's ryokan in Kumamoto was even more luxurious. Look, there's a sitting area there!

I really liked Kumamoto; I saw the most beautiful temple garden area (pictures of that another day), and also an absolutely incredible castle (which I only saw from the outside, because that's how the travel timing worked out; I had a choice of going to the castle in the morning, or going to see Mount Aso, and I chose the mountain).

They served me dinner in my room, and I have to say, it was one of the most beautiful dinners I've ever seen. (It tasted quite good, too.) But I'm uncomfortable being served in a one on one sort of way, especially by a woman who's significantly older than I am. It just feels awkward to me.

At breakfast the next morning, which was in a large room with individual tray stands, the food was just as lovely. Most people don't travel alone and stay in a ryokan, I gather. So my little tray area was alone, while most people were in pairs facing each other or in small groups of rows facing each other.

As I was eating, two women were seated near me, also eating. And as we finished up, they motioned to me, a message that I took to mean that I used hashi (chopsticks) well. Either that, or they were offering to cut my hair? (Finger movements, thumbs up, pointing at the tray where my hashi were resting on the little ceramic rest thing.) (More about these two women later, when I tell you about Mount Aso.)

I'm what I'll call an obvious westerner. No one would mistake me as having non-European ancestry. When I lived in South America, I stood out, and if the bus got stopped for a passenger check, I was inevitably motioned off to show my passport and fill out a form. I stand out just as much here. So the hashi thing was sort of weird. I'm sure they meant well, but normally, you wouldn't tell an adult how well they used a fork, right?

The evening before, I went up to the ryokan bath, which was split into a women's side and a men's side. (I went to the women's side, thanks to having asked how to recognize the kanji for woman!) The bath area has a row of shower seats against one wall, where you wash up, and then a big hot tub thing where you soak once you're good and clean. I've read a little bit, so I knew I was supposed to wash and rinse before getting into the tub, so I went over to one of the shower seats. And fiddled with the water knob thing trying to turn the shower on. After a moment, another woman came and showed me how to work it.

Nice, no? Yes, very nice. But also, it's sort of like they were watching me. I can't blame them. I'm VERY white, especially with no clothes. But still, weird to know I'm being watched in that way, when I'm washing up (or trying to wash up). (And because I'm just a tad self-conscious about my body.) But, she was kind and helpful, and smiled at me when I joined the tub crowd.

The last three nights, in Nagasaki and Hakata, I was in western style hotels. Practical and comfortable enough, but way less fun!

ps. No not that sort of bed tale!

I think I've caught myself another stupid cold. This time, complete with that "my throat feels like it's going to get sore thing." /whine off!


  1. How hot was Kumamoto? We visited around this time last year and it was VERY hot. I think the ohashi thing is part of that Japanese exceptionalism thing about their language and culture--they assume their ways are ever-so-difficult for foreigners to get....

    Would love to hear more about Nagasaki and Fukuoka. The latter was home for almost a year. Missing it still.

  2. Anonymous12:14 PM

    I'm glad you had a fun trip - I also really enjoyed my visit to Kyushu a few years ago. I was in Japan for a couple of years and the chopsticks compliment was a regular occurrence. I know it was meant well but it was annoying sometimes (as was being stared at in the bath, and the time when I had my haircut and everyone in the salon had to come and touch my Western hair!). Thanks for sharing your adventures.cocofxq

  3. Your travel tales are inspiring me to want to go to Japan one day. :) I'm sure it won't be quite as great as living there for a while, but I can be a pretty good visitor once I put my mind to it.

  4. Bardiac,

    I am enjoying reading about all of your adventures in Japan. I find the sleeping arrangements on the ferry and hotel fascinating. How strange it would be to check into a hotel room with a place to sleep if you did not know that the futon would appear later!

    I hope at some point you write about the Japanese perceptions of our current elections. I've always found it interesting to be in another country during the US election cycle, though it is much more difficult to catch the nuances when there is a language barrier.

  5. Oops -- that was suppose to be 'without a place to sleep'

  6. Constructivist, Kumamoto was perfection weather-wise (and in other ways). It was comfortable with a light shirt and either sweater or light jacket.

    More to come about Nagasaki; I didn't spend much time in Fukuoka/Hakata. I could have spent a couple more hours, but the information folks at the terminal weren't encouraging about what I could see in a couple of hours. I DID have some great ramen at Ichi Ran (sp?) near the terminal, though. DARN! I wish I'd picked your brain about what to see there!

    Fifi, I guess I should be grateful that no one's wanted to touch my hair, eh?

    MWAK, Even a visit is wonderful! You can only do what you can do, right? Come on over now!

    Cam, Right! Happily, I'd been told about the futon and stuff, so I had a basic clue. I don't read or understand enough to really get a sense of how different folks here perceive the US election cycle. When I lived in SA, I read the paper every day, and could talk to folks, so I had a much better sense of the ways people felt about the US.

  7. I am having total ryokan envy.

  8. loving the reports, too! all the travel you have been able to do is wonderful.

    we stayed in a ryokan only once, in nikko; it was lovely, but did we ever stand out. on the one hand: clumsy gaijin. on the other: with two cute babies -- elderly women on bus tours kept wanting photos, especially of our very pale, blue-eyed infant daughter.

    daughter is now studying japanese and hoping for a year abroad, year after next.