Set the controls for the heart of Kyushu
Going on a trip to Japan is like putting on your favorite record — or records, for that matter, since there are many sides to the Land of the Rising Sun. It can be frenetic, wild, pulsing with dancing neon riffs like King Crimson or The Flaming Lips (Tokyo). It can be serene, stripped down and impressionistic like Bill Evans on a Sunday afternoon in the Village (Nikko). It can be haunted by history and at the same time bearing shapes of things to come like those New Direction LPs by Miles (Hiroshima). My latest trip to Japan can be considered a medley, a mix tape, or an audio cocktail of the idyllic, the robotic, sobering, ecstatic, sumptuous, intoxicating, faith-affirming, and darn well enthralling (imagine Daft Punk and Vivaldi on one piece of vinyl or cassette). That was my experience when I joined a trip to Japan’s Kyushu Region upon the invitation of the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) — going from Fukuoka to Nagasaki to Yufuin to Beppu and then back to Fukuoka on a first class bus. From the modern to the historical and then back to modernity. “A journey through space and time,” as Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan would say.
Yosuke Togezaki, JNTO senior representative for the Philippines, sees it differently.
He says, “You go to Japan expecting a 180-degree difference (in terms of culture) from the Philippines. But when you go to a place such as Nagasaki, you see things that you value the most in your home country.” For one, there is the strong Christian belief, according to our tour guide Masumi Umeno, as started by the Hidden Christians during the Edo period. Oura Cathedral with its gothic architecture and Urakami Cathedral rebuilt in 1959 are testimonies of this piousness. When people sifted through the ruins of Urakami Cathedral destroyed during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, they found the head of the wooden statue of the Virgin Mary as well as the bell tower — intact. The survivors of the atomic blast reportedly rang that bell they dug out of the devastation on Christmas Eve. This will make any visitor mull over the mysteries of faith.
Much later in our JNTO tour, there will be sake-drinking, outlet store-hopping, cable-car-climbing and onsen-soaking. What did I tell you about this region being multi-faceted?
Let us begin this Kyushu chronicle in The Netherlands.
Wait… it is actually a Dutch-themed amusement park in Sasebo, Nagasaki called Huis Ten Bosch (House in the Woods).
We (meaning representatives from travel agencies in Manila plus this lone journalist) arrive at the park, take a walk on the famed Flower Road, and are promptly greeted by a windmill. Around the bend is a full-scale nine-meter-tall Patlabor robot. An animatronic T-Rex is also on hand. Somewhere in the amusement park stand the Mansion of Japanese Ghost Stories, House of Love and Horror, as well as a fully functioning Horror Toilet complete with fake blood (we do hope so) and severed mannequin heads. Toto, I’ve a feeling we are not in Amsterdam anymore. We take our lunch at — where else? — a “robot-staffed” establishment called Hen Na Resutoranto Robot (or Weird Robot Restaurant). Try the okonomiyaki prepared robotically to perfection. My seatmate whispers to me her thoughts on a Will Smith movie where robots turn rogue. Well, who is going to flip those Japanese pancakes then?
It will take visitors a whole day to experience half of what’s going on in Huis Ten Bosch. Wear comfy walking shoes and a Yoko Ono hat. And don’t be a scaredy-cat when you answer the call of nature once you’re in Thriller City.
Afterwards, our tour bus makes its way to Nagasaki proper and to the aforementioned churches, the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum on Nishizaka Hill, as well as sprawling Peace Park. The park statue, informs Yosuke, was modeled by sculptor Seibo Kitamura after a sumo wrestler.
Also worth mentioning is Fukuoka Tower which we visited on the day we arrived in Japan. Its illuminated colors vary depending on the season (with color codes namely “Cherry Blossom” in spring, “Milky Way” in summer, “Viewing the Moon” in autumn and “Christmas Tree” in winter). Oh, there’s a lover’s sanctuary in the 234-meter-tall tower and a 3D floor art area where visitors can take selfies to create the illusion they are atop a bowl of noodles. Our companions Steward and Kat promptly did a rumba over ramen.
Another one is the night view from Mt. Inasa Observatory in Nagasaki (beads of light down below, couples with interlocked arms uphill) to be rivaled only by the next ropeway trip up the Aso-Kuju National Park to Mt. Tsurumi in Beppu with shrines and statues of the Seven Deities of Good Luck dotting the area. The view from the ridge is priceless. You could just imagine how picturesque it is during sakura season.
Yufuin, 10 kilometers from Beppu, deserves a visit on its own: head straight for Yunotsubo Kaido Street area and the breathtaking Lake Kinrinko which mirrors the sky, the trees and those posh inns. Along the highway is a view of the twin-peaked Mt. Yufu jutting over farmhouses and rice paddies. Ryokans are everywhere for a relaxing onsen experience.
No wonder Japan produces a legendary roster of storytellers, what with places such as Beppu’s Eight Hells (or jigoku). These “hells” are actually multi-colored hot springs (for viewing purposes only, not for bathing unless you want to be yakinikued) and a geyser. We manage to see a handful of these hells and are promptly impressed: Umi-Jigoku (Sea Hell, bluish and beautiful) and Yama-Jigoku (Mountain Hell), nearby is the Oniishibozu-Jigoku (Shaven Monk’s Head Hell), which was aptly named since the bubbles that sprout resemble monks who happen to be skinheads (imagine being both Buddhist and diehard fan of 2 Tone records).
The creepiest is Chinoike-Jigoku or Blood Pond Hell, which — as the name suggests — bears a similarity to a river of blood. This particular jigoku hot spring was used in torturing people in the olden days and then boiling them to death. The storyteller in you would quickly conjure tales of netherworld figures with iron clubs and in Tiger-skin loincloths rising from the bloody depths to walk among the living, going full-tilt Takashi Miike. The logician in you would quickly find out that the spring’s reddish color is due to its iron-rich mineral content (the reveal: it is due to hematite, peeps). But you have to admit that the tenants-from-hell angle is much more seductive.
Just when you thought you’d become all too familiar with ye ole Japan and its tourist spots and cultural makeup, you discover new places to find new wonders, meet new characters, and to give those old stories a brand new spin.
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For information, visit the Japan National Tourism Organization website (https://www.jnto.go.jp). For details on tour packages, call Islands Travel & Tours at 536-8826 (firstname.lastname@example.org), Sparkle Holidays & Travel at 328-3700 (email@example.com), Fast Five Travel & Tours at 725-4936 (firstname.lastname@example.org), Golden Sky Travel & Tours at 559-8018 (email@example.com), Rakso Travel at 651-9045 (firstname.lastname@example.org), and Arfel Travel & Tours at 821-6851 (email@example.com), Pan Malayan Express at 844-1259 (firstname.lastname@example.org), Friendship Tours and Resorts at 893 8180 (email@example.com), Wanderstruck Travel & Tours at 422-0785 (firstname.lastname@example.org), and Skynet Travel at 400-0509 (email@example.com).