Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Another Update

Work and school continues, and as I wrote last time I am very busy.

I think I am adjusting somewhat. At the very least I'm having a few days a week where I feel good. And then the next day I'll be back to feeling crap again.

I continue to have pounding headaches in the afternoon. I continue to be paranoid about my car.

Most days I am enjoying myself however. I enjoy being back at school and enjoy learning again. And I also enjoy the social aspect. I'm beginning to get to know my classmates, exchange jokes with them between classes, go out for lunch, and even develop circles of friends.

I've also managed to acquire a small fan club of about 7 Korean females. They're a couple levels below me, so they're not in the same classroom, but I see them occasionally between classes. They're always very eager to talk to me and compliment me repeatedly on how cool I look. They give me small gifts of chocolate and candy. Last week they asked if I wanted to walk down to the convenience store with them during lunch break. When I said yes, they gave out such a loud cry of joy that some of the teachers came out of the office lounge to see what had happened.

This is of course the old "Charisma Man" factor coming into play again: the sudden and undeserved popularity we Westerners experience in Asia because of
1). Our relative rarity out here and
2). the popularity of American movies worldwide, which has created the impression that all Westerners are like movie stars.

This is a common story out here and, since writing about how popular I am tends to be one of my favorite subjects, it has popped up many times on this blog before now.
Still, it's interesting to note the differences between countries. The amount of intense attention I'm receiving from these Korean girls is even a further step up than what I'm used to in Japan. Assuming the factors that create Charisma Man syndrome are the same in both countries, why should there be a difference? An interesting question for sociologists to explore, no doubt.
(I wonder what my life would have been like if I had spent the past 6 years in Korea instead of Japan? Ah, the road not taken.)

In order not to get in any trouble, I worked into the conversation that I was living with my fiancee as soon as possible. (I figured I was getting a little bit old to play the game of concealing her existence.) They were initially devestated, but they still seem very eager to get a chance to talk to me between classes.
Well, as Richard Nixon once said, "I like to be liked". At any rate, it's nice to know that even as an old man of 30, my years of popularity are not completely behind me.

Speaking of the old 30th Birthday...
It passed quietly here, as most Birthdays do in Japan. I usually try and keep a low profile on these days anyway.
The previous week I had mentioned to some of my classmates that I was on the verge of turning 30 (it was the start of classes and we were introducing ourselves to each other). They wanted to throw me a birthday party, but I was horrified at the idea and quickly squashed it.
I didn't mention anything to Shoko to see if she would remember on her own, and she didn't do too well. I had a feeling if our positions had been reversed, I would have never heard the end of it. But I let it go. I did point out to her that I had always remembered her birthdays, but she responded, "Yes, but what's the point? You remember them, but you never do anything special for them. You just wish me a happy birthday, and I still have to do all the cooking."

The following week however, Shoko made me a big birthday dinner and cake. And took a couple pictures of me at 30.

Because of my work schedule, I have trouble keeping up with the homework for my Japanese classes.

The first test I scored a 91 %, which was the best score in the class. I was quite proud of this, until I remembered that I had originally tested into the advanced class, and then dropped myself down to the intermediate class. So this already was an unfair advantage over my classmates.
Plus, lest I forget, I have lived in Japan for 6 years now. My classmates have been in Japan for one month, or at most half a year. The fact that we're even in the same classroom studying the same material should be an embarrassment to me.
I could plausibly argue that Chinese students have a background in Kanji characters, which helps them out a lot. But that still doesn't explain away why the French, Vietnamese, and Korean students are also about the same level as me.

...Well, it's embarrassing. What can I say? I've become the poster child for the ignorant American who lives several years abroad and still can't speak the language. My only defense is that I have been living in Japan as an English teacher, whereas my classmates have all come to Japan on student visas and have been able to throw themselves fully into the language study. Hopefully after completing this course, I'll finally have a decent level of Japanese where I can hold my head up high again. Although even now I'm finding it difficult to study while splitting my time as an English teacher.

Last update I was feeling sorry for myself because most of my Chinese classmates didn't have part time jobs, but it turns out I might have just been talking to the wrong Chinese students. The other day I was talking to a different classmate who gave me quite a different perspective.
"Most of us have part time jobs," he said. "And we have to work a lot. I work from 7 to 11 every night, and then have to do my homework afterwards. And we're constantly being yelled at by our Japanese bosses because we don't know the Japanese customs or make mistakes speaking Japanese."

...Point taken. With all the crap I have to put up with at my job, at least I don't have someone coming in and yelling at me constantly. And as a teacher, I have a lot more enjoyable job than a restaurant or convenience store employee (which is what most of the Chinese students are doing). Not to mention that I get paid a lot more that they do.

...On the other hand, at least the Chinese students have jobs that allow them to practice their Japanese. I'm forbidden from using Japanese inside the classroom, so my job has absolutely no studying benefits for me. (In fact because of the simple English I always have to use in class, I often complain that my English is deteriorating, and my Japanese isn't improving. The worst of both worlds.)

And lastly, speaking of work...
This Monday I was glancing at the work schedule for the following day, and noticed that my name wasn't on it. Instead, teaching all of my classes was someone listed as John Brooks. I asked the staff about this. "Oh, that's just a computer error," they said. "John Brooks is a teacher in Fukuoka. His name got put on your schedule, and your name was put on his, but don't worry about it. Just come in and teach tomorrow as always."

And so I did. I walked into the office as always, and my (long suffering) Australian co-worker called out, "Hey Swagy, how are ya?"

I slapped him (lightly) across the face. "My name is John Brooks, Damn you!" The rest of the day I refused to answer to my proper name. The Japanese staff thought it was amusing, but my co-worker just seemed to get more and more frustrated throughout the day.

Finally at the end of the day he said to me, "Are you going to tell me what this is all about, or what?" I thought it was self evident, and pointed to the schedule, but this only confused him more. Finally I realized he hadn't bothered to look at the schedule all day, and didn't realize the switch up in names.

Link of the Day
This Modern World
Chickens coming home to roost”

The context behind that endlessly recycled sound bite:

And Via Whisky Prajer
I would like to say more about King, but I am still wrestling with what he represents -- unlike, say, the North American media, which still does not hesitate to put a black preacher "in his place." From Jon Trott, who remembers.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hitch Hike Video Part 1: Summer 2003


After having converted my old videos onto DVD, here is another retrospection video. This is the tape of the hitch hiking trip Greg and I did up to Hokkaido in the summer of 2003. It's a long tape so I'm splitting it into several parts (with commentary). This is the tape up through our first ride. (Also available on youtube here, if google video is giving you any trouble.)


*We started out from Greg's town in Kusu. The night before Eion, Greg and myself went out to "D-styles", a karaoke bar in Kusu, where we stayed until the early hours of the morning. Then we came back and slept on Greg's floor. Because we spent the night at Greg's apartment, it had been necessary for me to do all my packing the day before. Greg however had to wake up early in the morning to do his packing (we were committed to getting an early start on that day). He turned the video camera on Eion and I while we were still sleeping, and you can see me sleepily sit up, and mumble a few nonsense words of Japanese.

*As you can see from the video, it was a very rainy morning and an ominous start to the hitch hiking trip. Fortunately most of that cleared up by the time we actually started.
The red car outside in the rain was my car at the time. I later sold it to my successor, and he in turn had it crushed down when it cost more to upkeep than it was worth. At any rate it was still a lot nicer than the car I'm driving now :(.

*I said on the camera that my previous hitch-hiking experience was once hitching a ride home from University. This is a slightly mispoken.

--First of all I used the word University because I was talking to two Brits, and in British English I've discovered "College" means a kind of high school. My own Alma Mater, however, can be safely considered a small college by American standards

--Secondly I didn't hitch hike from college to home. I hitch hiked from my teacher aiding experience back to the college dormitories.

This was back during sophomore year. As a pre-requisite to get into the education program, I had to spend two semesters doing volunteer tutoring.
Because this was back before I was lucky enough to have access to a car on campus, I used to take Calvin's taxi service to get there and back every week. (What did they call that service again?)

On my last day, I ran overtime tutoring. And then as I was trying to hurriedly get out the door, my supervising teacher came over to give me a farewell speech to tell me how much they had appreciated my help that semester. And then she gave me some gifts (a coffee mug with the schools name on it).

By the time I got out the door, I was about 20 minutes late, and the Calvin car had long since left.

I thought about calling Calvin taxi service to let them know I was still there. But then first I would get chewed out by them for not being ready and waiting at the given time. And then it would be who knows how long before they got a break in their schedule and were able to come pick me up. And during that time I would have to sit around twiddling my thumbs by the school doors, and everyone would be asking me if was alright and if I had a ride home. And then I would have had to explain that I missed my ride back to Calvin because of their good-bye speech to me, and that would just be awkward all around.

So, I started walking down the East-Beltline with my thumb stuck out. After about 10-15 minutes, an old guy stopped his car and picked me up. He brought me back to Calvin, and I gave him the school's coffee cup in gratitude.

*Eion gave us our first ride to the highway rest stop, and then left Greg and I from there.
Eion and Greg had experience hitch hiking in Japan before, and had figured out that the way to do this was to stick to the high way rest stops. That way people already had their cars stopped anyway. Besides it gave them time to look you over and think about if they wanted to give you a ride. (Otherwise if you're just standing on the side of the road, by the time they decide they realize you're there, they're already driving past you. )

As long as we kept to the highway rest areas, we seldom had to wait more than 10 minutes. (The one big exception would be when we got near the Tokyo area).

* Although ultimately we were headed to Hokkaido, Greg and Eion again drew on their previous hitch hiking experience to tell me that it was no good asking for a ride to a destination too far away. So we would ask for rides in increments throughout the trip. Our first sign was for Honshu. I was given the task of making this sign while Greg finished up his packing, but in the end my sign was deemed too sloppy and unsatisfactory by Greg, so he redid it himself. (Greg had procured a bunch of old cardboard from the local supermarket the night before for the purposes of making signs.)

* The cheesy TV documentary style part, in which Greg invites the viewer to come along on the trip, was all my idea. Greg was a good enough sport to go along with it.
I in turn of course got the idea from Brett, who used to use this kind of thing all the time in our old Calvin era videos. (In fact you can still see Brett's influence in some of my videos these days).

* As Greg says in the video, we had made a brief stop at a Photo booth (or "Purikura", as it's called in Japlish) to take photos of ourselves, which we intended to give out as gifts to people who gave us rides. It may be a bit narcissistic I guess, but we wanted to give out small gifts in lieu of offering to chip in for the gas, and Purikura is about as small and cheap as you can get.

* Through out the trip, in between car rides Greg and I would try and guess how long it would be before we got our next ride. Greg, being the optimist, usually took the shorter time. I usually took the more conservative estimate.
We almost always got picked up faster than we anticipated, and so Greg won the guessing game every time. If memory serves, I didn't win once.

*Shoko was watching this video and commented, "Wow, you're Japanese was really bad in those days. I had forgotten how bad it was when we first met." (This video was taken a few months before I met Shoko).
Actually I like to think my Japanese was slightly better than is indicated on this video, even in those days. I think it was just the pressure of the camera that made me nervous and caused me to flub a lot of it.

Link of the Day
Pentagon Caught Infiltrating the Media with Pro-war Propaganda

Monday, April 21, 2008

30th Birthday

So, 30 years old today (April 21st).

I'm a bit busy these days (see previous post) so I don't have time to write one of my usual long rambling birthday blogs. Despite this being "The Big One".

Actually these big number birthdays you can see coming from such a long way away, that by the time they actually arrive there's not much left to say. Good-bye youth. Hello middle age. et cetera. (Besides, to the extent that the readership of this blog is made up mostly of old school friends, most of you are around the same age anyway).

So, I'll just make the announcement with out comment.

In the meantime, if anyone is feeling nostolgic, here's some past birthday blogging.
and, if we're counting retrospections, 23rd Birthday

Link of the Day
Busy in Iraq, US Faces Surging Violence in Afghanistan

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Update on School, Work, et cetera

A friend e-mailed:
Well, it sounds like you will be Mr. Busy come April...I suspect (hope?) your prodigious web output will be diminished in the coming months as you focus on your studies and work.

Indeed, as I am now working full time and attending Japanese school full time, I am very busy these days. And no doubt probably the wisest thing to do would be to put this blog to rest for a few months until summer vacation .....But after being addicted to blogging for so long, I can't bring myself to give it up completely cold turkey. Maybe I'll gradually wean myself off.
For now I'll try and sneak in about one post a week. And probably continuing to work my way through the retrospections (I've got a bunch of those pre-written anyway).

I was going to write a long post recounting the reasons why I've ended up enrolling in this school, and all my ambivalence about where this is headed and how useful this will end up being for my future. I don't have time to write that post now, and besides much of that information was already included in this post I did back in January anyway.
I also had it in mind to write a post about my history of studying Japanese; my ups and downs and why I'm still struggling at a lower intermediate level after 6 years. But that also I don't have time to write, and besides much of that information was included in this post back here.
For now I'll just plunge right into describing my life as it is now, and leave aside the big picture questions for later.

So, yeah,...Where to start?
While, for starters, I am extremely busy. Here is my schedule for a typical day:
* 6:30--Wake up, shower, shave, breakfast, etc
*7:15--Due my best to get out of the house by about 7:15.
*8:30 It's about an hour and 15 minutes commute to the school in Beppu.
*9:00-3:10 School
*3:10--Get into my car as quick as I can and drive back to Nakatsu for work.
*4:30--With any luck, get into work at around 4:30. Have a half an hour to try and prepare a few lessons and grab dinner on the run
*5-9 Work
9:30. Get home. Eat something. Try and do some homework. Sleep.

You know, it looked fine on paper, but it's proving to be a very hard schedule in real life. For example the stress of having to wolf down just about all my meals on the run. Or having to always rush at full speed from one city to another. Or never having time for simple things like a bit of exercise in the day. Also I was told by the school I should be doing 3 hours of studying every night, and I don't really have time for that.

The weekends are not much better, because when I re-arranged my schedule with Nova I agreed to move my afternoon classes to the weekends.

I have been suffering from a huge headache when I get into work every evening. I'm not entirely sure why. It's probably just a result of studying all day, added to motion sickness in the car from zooming through mountain roads to make it back in time for work. But being of a rather paranoid disposition, I worry that it's because my aging car is spewing out too much carbon fumes or something, and I'm losing brain cells with every long drive.

I am also tired and feel sick all the time.

I've already had a couple conversations with Shoko about quitting my job, and she is strongly against it. So I promised to soldier on for another couple weeks before I brought the topic up again. I've been told by a number of people that there is a period of adjustment to a new schedule, after which your body starts to feel better and you can hack it easier....We'll see I guess.

The school I'm attending is a subdivision of Beppu University, designed for foreign students who want to be able to attend a Japanese college. The idea is that the school takes them in at whatever level they are at, and after one year of intensive study they have enough Japanese to be able to function in an academic setting. Needless to say the pace of the course is very intense.

My fellow students are mostly around 18 or 19 years old. And 90 percent of them are Chinese. They speak Japanese to the teacher of course, (and to me when they want to communicate), but among themselves there's all sorts of Chinese flying around the classroom. A Vietnamese student joked that she heard more Chinese than Japanese in her Japanese classes, and it's not far from the truth.

It's a bit disconcerting to have spent so much time and energy studying Japanese, only to find myself in a room full of Chinese students and back to square one linguistically. Especially when they're looking in my direction and chatting away excitedly and I get the distinct impression they're talking about me. (I had years ago past the point where I developed enough Japanese to listen in whenever I realized someone was talking about me, and usually get the jist of it. I had forgotten how unnerving it is not to understand at all.)

The other students are made up of a mixture of Koreans, Vietnamese, and from the Indian subcontinent. They range in ages. (Most of the Koreans I met, for example, are in their mid 20s, and I even met one student so far who was older than I am.)

I am not only the sole American, but the only native English speaker full stop. And with the exception of 2 French students, the only Westerner.

As is always the case in these international settings there are a lot of interesting people and a lot of interesting discussions take place between classes and after classes. I've met a lot of great people, and I really wish I had time to socialize with my fellow students more than I do. But because I don't have time to study at night, I spend most of the class breaks and lunch breaks doing my homework. :(...

I was talking to some Chinese students the other day, and confiding to them that I didn't have a lot of time to study outside of class, and I asked how many hours they usually studied every day. They answered they rarely studied at all, and just spend every afternoon goofing off and enjoying student life in the dormitories or around the city. At which point I really became envious of them.
...But as Shoko repeatedly pointed out to me, I already had my carefree student days once in my life, so I can't complain.
(And in fact truth be told, I've led a rather privileged life and have had more than my share of goofing off time up until now. For example the summer Japanese course I took up in Hokkaido a few years ago was during school summer vacation, and we had every afternoon we had free to explore the city and then go out to bars at night. (And that school also had a very diverse and interesting student body).)
...But alas, I always find the knowledge of having played in the past is a slight consolation for having to work hard in the present.

At the beginning of school we all took a placement test, and I managed to test into the highest class. (I guess 6 years of living in Japan haven't all been in vain). Two days later I had to drop out and go down to the intermediate class. The advanced class was a bit too difficult for me. I think I could have done it if I had my evenings free, but with no time to study at night there was just no way I could have kept up with that class.

After having tested into it, I was resentful of having to drop out of the top class just because of my stupid job. But the intermediate class moves at a fast enough clip to keep me challenged.
Indeed it is somewhat hard to gauge my level comparatively, because my Chinese classmates have a huge advantage in reading Kanji characters over me (Japanese Kanji characters originally came from China). But at the same time they are all recently arrived in Japan, and many struggle to put together even basic sentences when speaking.

My classmates in the advanced class had been reluctant to lose me, and tried to encourage me to stay in their class. I suspect this was because as the only non-Chinese student in the advanced class, I added a bit of color in the classroom for them.
In fact the conversations I have with the my fellow students are often the same sort of conversations I have with local Japanese people. "Wow, aren't you tall?" "Isn't it great that you have blue eyes?" "Can you use chopsticks?" et cetera. I guess this is all part of being a Westerner in Aisa whether you're dealing with Japanese, Chinese or Koreans.
They have also taken an unusual interest in my nutrition, and criticize my habit of always eating at lunch fast food bought at the convenience store.

Link of the Day
Amy Goodman to Speak in Grand Rapids at Fundraiser on May 10th
...Wow, first Christopher Hitchens and now this. What's with all the big names suddenly coming to town? Looks like I left Grand Rapids at the wrong time. Hope some of you still in the area take advantage of this.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Yabakei / 耶馬溪

(Better Know a City)

I know I just got saying that my outing in Beppu would be my last free day for a while, but it turns out there's a couple days in between registration and classes , so I was able to squeeze in one more "Better Know a City".

Besides being my last free day for a while, this was my only chance to get out and see the Japanese cherry blossoms this spring (they're in bloom now). So I thought I would go out to Yabakei.

Not to be confused with Honyabakei....even though everyone always does. After all, just one syllable separates the names of the two towns. And they're right next to each other. And they're both very rural towns with similar topography right along the yamakuni river. It's easy to get them mixed up and forget which mountain is in which town. For example, the wikipedia entry on Yabakei, as of this writing, falsely claims that Yabakei "is home to the Aonodōmon, a legendary tunnel said to have been dug through solid rock by a single man over 30 years, and Rakanji, a famous mountain temple." Both Aonodomon and Rakanji are actually in Honyabakei.

Expecting a big day of hiking (what else is there to do in a country town up in the mountains) I put in a hearty breakfast. Two slices of buttered toast, a big bowl of oatmeal, half a cup of coffee, and a pack of tofu (this being Japan). Then I got in my car and drove on past the mountains of Honyabakei, and entered into the boarders of Yabakei town.
The first thing I did was stop at a convenience store to buy a notebook and pen (which I had forgotten to take with me.) Then I noticed right across the street was a nice stone bridge, and a path along the Yamakuni river, so I left my car parked at the convenience store and walked down along by the Yamakuni.

The main road through both Honyabakei and Yabakei follows along the Yamakuni river, and it is an absolutely beautiful drive. The river is amazing. I took a couple of shots of it while I was walking along beside it.

Although I had driven down this main road countless times before,whenever you stop the car and actual walk around you begin to see things you never noticed before. And so it was with me now. Once I was on the other side of the river, I noticed on a nearby hilltop there was some sort of a shrine surrounded by cherry trees. I hiked up there and it was great. I got a great view of the surrounding area from the hill and the cherry trees were everywhere.

As anyone who has been in Japan knows, the cherry trees may only be in bloom for 2 weeks of the year, but when they're in bloom they're really in bloom. The Japanese grow these trees absolutely everywhere just for the two weeks of blossoms.

(About the pictures on this post: I'll just say it once to get it off my chest and then won't repeat myself for the rest of this entry, but the whole town of Yabakei is really stunning in person. None of the pictures or grainy video footage I uploaded here do it any sort of justice).

Next it was off to the Yabakei Waterfall.
Over the years I've spent a lot of time on this blog talking about the Yabakei Waterfall. And with good reason. It's a great spot, and every summer we spend a lot of time there. (It's too hot to do much of anything else during the muggy Japanese summers). It might not be quite as tall or as visually impressive as the Waterfalls in Ajimu, but you can slide down it like a waterslide. Can you beat that?
The most descriptive post I wrote about this waterfall is here. And this one is also pretty detailed. And once Amy came along with her camera I was finally able to get some photos of the waterfall posted here.

Because I spend so much time at this waterfall, I thought I'd give it the complete video treatment, and video tape the whole walk down to the waterfall from the car park. Or if you don't have the patience for that, I took a picture as well.

Surprisingly, this waterfall seems to be one of the best kept secrets in Oita prefecture. Most of the JETs and other foreigners know about it, and it keeps getting passed down from one generation of JETs to the next. But very few Japanese people visit this waterfall. And none of my students in Nakatsu (only two towns up) seem to have even heard of it. Strange.

While I was over here in this area, I noticed there were signs for another waterfall nearby, so I drove down in the direction of the arrows. And there was another waterfall located just a short distance away. And it was pretty impressive. I'm not sure why I've never bothered to check it out before.

Once back in the car, I made my way into what passes for downtown Yabakei. As this is off the main road, I had driven by here many times before on my way to through the town, but never stopped the car and had a look around. So I pulled into the parking lot for the town hall, and had a walk up and down the streets of downtown Yabakei.

There wasn't much to see. As I suspected. I had vaguely hoped that by walking around I might find all sorts of cool little shops or diners hidden away, but there was pretty much nothing. There was one coffee shop, a couple general stores, a few temples, one book store, a clothing store that didn't look open, a dentist, and other mostly uninteresting things. All of the down town area could be walked across in about ten minutes.

It was, if nothing else, a beautiful location for a downtown, with mountains on all sides and beside the Yamakuni river. There was also a cycling road which follows the length of the Yamakuni river (from Nakatsu all the way to Hita). Looking at the great scenery these bikers got to enjoy on their ride along the Yamakuni river made me wish I had a working bike in Japan again. (Unfortunately in Japan I have trouble finding a good bike for my size, and then also keeping it from rusting during rainy season. I've more or less given up for the moment).

I went into the town cultural center hoping I might find some pamphlets on sightseeing in Yabakei, but there was nothing. In the town library, however, I saw something that really warmed my heart. Someone had written up a little essay about the importance of working for Peace in the world, and hung it up on the library's bulletin board.

Isn't that great? Doesn't that just re-affirm your faith in humanity? I mean it would have been so easy to be cynical about this, and say no one cares what the people in Yabakei think about world peace, but instead someone put a lot of time and effort writing their opinion on world peace, with the full knowledge that it would just be posted here in a small town library.
(Actually a closer examination of the Kanji reveals that this was done by a Yabakei junior high school student. Possibly as a school assignment. But I'm going to keep my optimistic view of human nature anyway. And besides, at the Yabakei bookstore I saw a poster for international peace day on March 3rd).

Next, it was off to Yabakei dam.

I mentioned this before in my write-up of Matama, but once when I was an ALT in the elementary schools I remember sitting in on a class about environmental conservation. At the end, the children were given booklets about all the natural beauty spots in Oita prefecture. I was appalled to discover that a few dams had snuck there way into this list of "natural beauties."

This indicates that the true conservation consciousness is a bit behind in Japan. One the other hand, because of Japan's mountainous topography all the water usually runs straight down the mountains and into the ocean, and aside from the dams there are hardly any freshwater lakes in Japan (at least in Oita prefecture). As such, most of the lakes created by dams are turned into nature parks or scenic sight seeing areas.

There were several wild flowers and cherry blossom trees on the drive up to the dam, so I stopped the car to take some video.

There was also a park at the base of the dam which I walked over to. It was obviously man made, but very nice. It had a couple ponds, a waterfall, a covered bridge, and lots and lots of cherry trees. The only problem was that as I approached it I found that it was all fenced off with the gates padlocked shut. I went around to another entrance and found the same thing. Finally up around the other side there was a restaurant, behind which it was possible to sneak into the park.

It was a nice park, but I did feel the whole time like I wasn't really supposed to be there. Was this a public park, or was I supposed to pay admission somewhere? Was it open now, or was this the off season? Was this some sort of garden reserved for customers of the restaurant?
I walked around and took some video and figured someone would yell at me if they really didn't want me there. And no one bothered me at all. But I never really felt relaxed in the place either.

Next, time for a brief look at the map to see where we've been so far. (Sorry about the focus and shaky camera.)

And continuing on to the top of Yabakei dam.
Yabakei dam is one of those locally famous places that pops up in conversation often enough that I was sure I had been there loads of times before. Now driving up to it, and realizing that it was off the main road and not something I would have gone to unless I made the effort, I wasn't sure. Even when I got to the top it was hard to tell, because there are a few of these types of dams in Oita prefecture with similar scenery.
At any rate, I was disappointed to see there wasn't really a foot path around the lake, just a scenic outlook at the top of the dam where you could look over the fence and take some pictures.

(I knew someone who runs a business in Yabakei dam lake taking people out on his boat for waterskiing and wakeboarding. As far as I know Yabakei dam is the only place in Oita prefecture where you can do these things. But I didn't see him or his boats out today. Probably still too early in the season).

Around this time I was beginning to see a lot of signs for an area called "Shinyabakei." To the best of my recollection I had never been there before, but the signs seemed to be pointing it out as an important destination. You can, of course, never trust these signs. More than once (in fact usually ever time I set out to a town) I find myself following road signs to scenic points that don't exist or tourist attractions that shut down years ago. Still, for lack of any better plan I thought I might as well head out and see what Shinyabakei had to offer.

I started following the street signs towards Shinyabakei. I had a rough time getting there. First of all there was some sort of big construction project going on around the dam, so the road going towards Shinyabakei had been closed down and instead there were the usual confusing signs for a detour. This took me a while to figure out.

Then at last I got on what I thought was the right road, and headed through about 10 minutes of nothing but mountains and rice fields, wondering whether or not,I was headed in the right direction, or if I'd even realize I was in Shinyabakei when I got there.

Then big bright colorful signs popped up announcing "Maple Farm Scenic Road: Turn Here". Automatically I obeyed the signs and turned the car down the road.
The road took me up into the mountains and before I knew it, it was taking me down again. It was, I suppose, a scenic drive if it comes to it, but I was hoping for something more than just a drive. I wanted the road to lead somewhere, like to a park where I could see the maple leaves. Or at least a small parking lot where I could have parked the car and gotten out and walked around a bit and enjoyed the view.
Instead it was a small windy mountain road, and I didn't really find a decent shoulder where I felt comfortable stopping the car until I was out of the mountain and in the valley below.
It was still beautiful scenery. The river ran through the valley, with forest on either side and a few rice fields and orange tree orchids. Yellow wild flowers were all over the ground and cherry blossom trees in full bloom. And all around where the stunningly shaped mountains of Yabakei, famous for all their interesting cliff formations.

I got back in the car, drove on, and then discovered to my dismay that "Maple Farm Scenic Road" dropped me right back off on the main through road in Yabakei by the Yamakuni river.

Of course, when you're driving through a town you don't know perfectly and taking experimental detours, you've got to expect these kind of things are there's no use getting upset about it.
At the same time I was kind of thinking in the back of my mind about all the gas I had just used. And because I was driving an old car that always sounded like it was on it's last legs at the best of times, and really clunked and strained when I took it around the mountain roads, I did kind of feel guilty about putting my car through all those mountains just to end up back where I started from. And then of course there's the whole environmental aspect of it to make me feel even more guilty. The fact that our world is going to hell in a handbasket, and here I am just tooling around burning gas and spitting out carbon emissions on roads that go nowhere.

"Well, nuts to it," I declared. "I didn't want to go to Shinyabakei anyway. Probably nothing down there worth seeing. I'll just keep going down the main road."

But after driving down the main road, and then back again, and not seeing anything in particular (it was beautiful scenery the whole way, but nothing I felt was really worth stopping the car) I gave a sigh and turned off towards Shinyabakei again. And went up to the dam again. And around the construction detour again. And followed the signs to Shinyabakei again. This time, however, when I saw the sign for Maple Farm scenic road, I just kept right on going.

About five minutes later, I passed a sign saying, "Welcome to Shinyabakei." (Shinyabakei is an area within Yabakei, but the road signs treat it as if it were it's own town. This always throws me off). I slowed down and tried to figure out what exactly Shinyabakei was. There were a lot of tourist signs pointing in all directions, but when I looked around I couldn't see anything to stop at.

At this point the 3 cars unfortunate enough to have been behind me this whole time were beginning to honk furiously, so I pulled off on one of the side streets and parked my car in a hot spring parking lot. There seemed to be a lot of hot springs around this area. Maybe that's what Shinyabakei is famous for. I thought about going in one, but I'm not really that much of a hot spring person. There pretty boring without a friend to talk to. You can make conversation with the locals, but it's always the same conversation: "Where are you from? You're very tall. Do you like Japanese food? You speak Japanese very well." (This last one is a standard phrase said to every foreigner no matter if they can speak Japanese or not).

So I just left my car parked and decided to walk down the streets of Shinyabakei to see if I could see anything walking that I hadn't noticed driving. There were some hotels set up (actually more in the style of bed and breakfast type lodgings) that didn't look open, a number of hot spring baths, and a few ma and pa type Japanese restaurants. Most of the signs advertised scenic places to see the red leaves, and at that point I began to realize that this was a tourist area for people coming in from the big city to view the fall leaves. (Yabakei is famous for it's fall leaves). As I was here in the off season, it wasn't very busy at all, and had the air of a ghost town.

As I walked down the road, a picture of a waterfall in front of someone's house. As I got a little closer, I was able to the sign that said, "The Entrance right here. Come on over and have a look." It looked like the entrance was right through someone's driveway and into their backyard, but having been invited by the sign I thought I would take a look.
"Nice of them to put up a sign like this to invite strangers through their yard," I thought.

The family dog, however, was not into the same welcoming spirit. As he saw me approach he began barking furiously and lunged at me. Fortunately his chain held him back.
We've all encountered barking dogs before, and we all know that some dogs bark at you because they just want you to come over and pay attention to them, and some dogs would really like to sink their teeth into you, and you can usually tell which is which by looking in their eyes. This was one of the mean dogs. And although he was on a chain, his chain looked like it might just be long enough to stretch the width of the driveway. I decided to risk it and put my back against the house as I cautiously inched by. He strained against his chain, and I was just a couple of feet from his mouth, but I was able to get by.

And it was a nice view of the waterfall. It looked like there might even be a path leading up the mountain, but as I walked forward I encountered a closed. After all the drama of getting past the dog, I was reluctant to turn around after just a quick look at the waterfall. So when I noticed the gate had no lock on it, I wondered if it wasn't so much to block the trail, as just to indicate the official opening to the trail. I chose to interpret this in my favor, opened the gate, and started hiking up the mountain.

I was never really sure if there was an actual trail going up the mountain, or if I was just imagining it. It started out walking through someone's garden, where there were rose bushes and orange trees and a little footpath going in between. Soon the footpath became overgrown. And then shortly afterwards I was just following a muddy dirt trail which might have been a path or might have been erosion from the waterfall. As I got further and further along I was more and more convinced there wasn't really a path, but once you get more than halfway up you might as well keep on going to the top. Even though when I did finally get all the way up to the waterfall, there wasn't anything particularly special about the view.

The mud trail was pretty slippery. And there were also an annoying amount of thorn bushes and thorny trees along the way. More than once I reached out to a tree for support, only to recoil painfully and then pull the thorns out of my hands.
And going down was even worse. By the end of it I was pretty dirty, and a little bit blooded.

Along the way I did pick up a pretty hefty walking stick, which, in addition to helping me on the trail, I also intended to use against the dog as an incentive for him to stay a comfortable distance away. I had gotten passed him once, but I figured a little extra insurance never hurt.
Just as I was nearing the bottom, and the dog was beginning to bay for my blood and I was getting my walking stick ready, the owner, a middle aged lady who worked in the resturant across the street, ran over and led the dog away. I thanked her and went past.

I walked up the street a ways, but I never felt very safe on the road. There was no shoulder for pedestrians to walk on, and although the cars were few on this mountain road, the cars that did came along usually came at full speed around the corner. So I turned back before too long.

Around now I was beginning to get pretty hungry by now. It was after 2 and my big breakfast was a long time ago in the past. I had been thinking of food for a couple hours now, but had been holding out on the off chance that I might come across a place that served hamburgers and cokes, or some other semi-Western food. (It can happen. Even in the Japanese countryside sometimes you find these little diners in the oddest places).

There was actually a little tea and lunch place I walked past. It was designed to look like a little European cottage, so I figured they might have Western food, and I was tempted to go in there. But on walking up to the door, I decided someone had put just a little bit too much effort into making this place look cute. There was the bright red color of the outside, and the black tiled roof, and the potted flowers all along the walkway, and the lacy curtains. It looked like an overgrown doll house, and was probably not the kind of place a man can eat by himself without raising a few eyebrows. Especially not looking like I did. I hadn't shaved for a couple days because it was my day off. I was covered with dirt, and a little bit of blood, from the hike. I could not simply throw down my walking stick, come through the door, sit in one of the tiny little chairs, and order an overpriced tea and cookie set. Not with my dignity in tact anyway.

So I walked back down the road, where the only shop that looked open was the one right across from the waterfall. The one where the proprieter had just previously ran out to save me from her dog.

There was absolutely no one else in the shop, and I wasn't even sure they were open for business, but I poked my head in and asked and she told me they were. I asked for a menu, and she just pointed to the wall where all the food was written down. But she added the only things they served were Soba and Udon.
Both are a type of Japanese noodle soup. Both are acceptable in a pinch, but to my a little bland tasting and not really the hearty solid type lunch I felt I had earned after an afternoon of hiking around.

But, you can't be picky out in these parts, so I ordered one of the sobas. I could read most of the Kanji on the wall, but I wasn't sure what any of it meant, so I just picked "Mountain style soba". I waited at the table and read my book while she went into the kitchen. About ten minutes later, she came out with the soba.
It looked disgusting. It was covered with a slimy gooey substance, which to my ignorant Western mind reminded me of saliva and mucus. And I suddenly began to wonder if the lady who ran the shop had anything against me. After all I did just excite her dog, go through her gate, trampling up and down her garden to get to the waterfall. And maybe she saw had seen it in my eyes that I had been considering using the walking stick against her dog.

I don't really think she spit in my Soba. I can't prove a negative, but at the very least I'm sure she couldn't possibly have had enough saliva in her mouth to account for all the goo that was on the top of my bowl. And I had eaten Japanese dishes before (like Natto) which had a similarly slimy texture.
Nevertheless, once the thought had entered my mind, my appetite was gone. I ate most of the Soba just to be polite, but didn't enjoy any of it. Right as I was getting up to leave, a much older woman (probably close to 90) came out to refill my tea and give me some Japanese pickles. So I sat back down and ate those just to be polite. Then I paid and left.

There was a vending machine outside, so I bought a coke to try and wash away the lingering goo in my mouth, and drank it as I walked down the road to my car. After which I felt even worse. I probably drank it too fast. Plus, although coke maybe a great beverage for sitting at home watching TV, it's never really meant to be mixed with exercise. As I continued walking down the road, I could feel all the carbonated bubbles swishing around in my stomach with each step.

I got back in my car and continued down the road further into Shinyabakei. Once I got around the turn in the road I realized that I had simply stopped my car too soon. Just a little bit down the road was Shinyabakei in all it's tourist tackiness. There were all sorts of soba resturants and ...well, mostly it was just the soba resturants, but there were a lot of them.
Once I got this far, I remembered that I had been out this way once before. Way back in spring 2003. A few other JETs were going out for a hot spring bath out this way, and I had come along. I remember being rather unimpressed by the hot spring bath (it was advertised as a great nature view, and then the whole thing turned out to be inside). I also remember one of my JET friends Ron telling me that this whole area is packed with bumper to bumper traffic on a weekend day in the fall. It sure didn't look that way now though.

Along the road there was a path overlooking the river. Most of the parking lots here charged money, so I kept driving down the road until the walking path ended, then parked my car on the road shoulder, and took the walking path back towards the tourist area. (In addition to getting free parking, I would have had a lingering feeling of missing out if I hadn't of walked the whole length of the path along the river anyway).

Once I got towards the tourist areas, there was a sign for a hiking trail. For a whole network of hiking trails actually, and maps of where they went, and even photographs of the various sights you could see along the way.
Real hiking on actual trails! I had hit the goldmine.
Unfortunately by this time it was getting late in the day. It was 3:30, and I knew the sun set early up in the mountains. Already it was looking a bit gray out. I cursed myself for all the screwing around I had done earlier in the day. If only I had known there were proper, cultivated, marked out hiking trails awaiting me over here.

The first trail started out very promising with an official looking bridge crossing the river.

However no sooner had I crossed this bridge then the trail disappeared. I wandered around in confusion for a while trying to figure out which direction the trail was supposed to pick up in. Ran pack and double checked the map at the trail head again. Wandered around some more. Found parts of what looked like it may have been a trail at one time, tried to follow it until it got gradually more and more overgrown, and then just gave up.

When I returned to the trail head, I noticed a little ways over that there was an even bigger bridge leading to an even more official trail.

Now this really looked like the real deal. In fact after I crossed the bridge, someone had even built steps into the mountain. I climbed up until the trail became level again, and then for the next kilometer or so it was beautiful. For the first half a kilometer it was even paved (no doubt extra money in the city construction budget that year), but they had managed to pave it in a conservative way without tearing up all of the trees and plants around it.

The path followed alongside the river. Occassionally there would be steps up and down the mountain, but there was always a chain linked fence so you didn't fall down into the river below.

Whenever you crossed the river there was a wooden ramp acting as a bridge.

And of course, what would a Japanese nature trail be without a scenic view of a dam?

After about half a kilometer, it became just a dirt trail, but that was no problem at all for me.

And then, gradually the trail began to fade out, until I wasn't even sure I was still on a trail. I walked around for a while, and then I noticed there was an official looking trail and wooden steps on the other side of the river.

After having such a nice trail for the first kilometer, it seemed a bit of a shock now to have to cross the river without any assistance, but it did at least bring back memories of backpacking through the Smokey Mountains Sophmore year. (We had noticed on the map that the trail crisscrossed the river several times, but we had naively assumed there would be foot bridges at each of these crossings. When we actually began hiking we had instead discovered we were on our own to figure out a way across at each intersection.)

There were enough rocks that I could hop skip and jump my way across, but they were just far enough from each other, and just slippery enough, that there were a couple times I was sure I was going to fall off and drop my video camera, digital camera, and assorted eletrical sight seeing equiptment into the river. Fortunately I made it across.

The trail picked up again. And then faded out again. I kept bushwacking forward for a little while and it picked up again. And then it came back to the river and abruptly stopped.

There was a sign saying another 2 kilometers to the scenic view, but I reluctantly turned to go back. With the sun heading down, I decided it was too late in the day to mess around with a trail that wasn't going to cooperate with me.

There was one more trail I headed off on. The sign claimed it was a 15 minute hike around the mountain.

And it was an alright hike for what it was, but 15 minutes was a very generous estimate. The trail went up a small ways, abruptly cut over, and then brought me back to where I had started all in what couldn't have been more than 5 minutes.

And thus ended my hiking experiences in Shinyabakei. I did have the lingering feeling that there was probably a decent hiking trail out there somewhere, but I never found it.

I walked down the tourist strip. I was keeping my eyes open for a nice little place where I could get a cup of coffee, but they appeared to be all Soba shops. And half of the places appeared closed down.

This being Spring break time in Japan, there were some University students around the same area. 3 guys on a motorcycles stopped by, and were wandering around just as confused as me about what there was to do in this area. They went down to the river, admired how clear and beautiful the water was (and it was pretty clear and beautiful) and then got back on their motorcycles and sped on. There was another couple of University students on a date who got ice cream and ate it overlooking the river. They starred at me as I walked past them, so I gave them a smile and a nod.

And then I went back to my car, and started heading for home.

Since I never did find a coffee shop or any non-soba food in Shinyabakei, on my second trip through downtown Yabakei, I stopped at a coffee shop for some coffee and cake.
"We're closing at 6," the lady behind the counter said to me.

"Oh," I said. "What time is it now?"

"It's 6."

"Oh. Sorry to bother you then," I was turning to head for the door, when she called out, "But you can have some coffee if you want. You just can't stay too long. Is a half hour fine?"

"Yes," I said. "That's more than enough time."

She was very nice, and served me a cup of coffee and a big piece of chocolate cake. I apologized several times about showing up late, and in typical Japanese fashion she told me not to worry about it, and then she apologized in turn to me for making me feel rushed. I finished my coffee and cake in about 20 minutes, and stood up to leave, but she told me I didn't have to leave just quite yet so awkwardly I sat down in my seat to wait out the last 10 minutes.

I had brought in my notebook and intended to jot down a few thoughts from the day, but instead I found myself listening in on the conversation from the old man at the counter who was talking to the owner. "Those were the days," he was saying. "Back when we were involved with the student movement, I felt really alive. Life was exciting. There was danger. We had to be on our guard all the time not to be caught by the police. Life these days just seems so boring."

Now of course long time readers of this blog know that one of my pet historical interests is the Japanese Student movement. So you can imagine my ears perked up a little bit when I heard this conversation. I carefully listened in to see if there would be any interesting details or stories.

He continued talking, turning onto that favorite subject of all old people everywhere: complaining about the young. "Back then we were really living," he said. "These days young people spend all their times with video games and the internet, and they don't even know what it's like to be truly alive."
(I might be turning into a bit of an old man before my time, but this is a concern I also share about my generation, and indeed sometimes about my own life).

The old man then began talking about how he had lost contact with all of his family, and had never even once met his various nieces and nephews. It sounded a bit sad really.

I thought about speaking up and asking him what his experiences in the student movement had been. I would have had to admit I had been evesdropping of course, but in a coffee shop as small as this it could not have been helped.

Actually it would hardly have been the first time I asked someone about their experience with the student movement. As you can imagine, there are no lack of aging baby boomers in Japan, and the subject has come up from time to time. When I first came to Japan I talked to my supervisor and his wife about it. Over the course of the next few years it has come up in conversation occassionally with the Japanese teachers at the schools I worked at. Now that I'm at Nova, occassionally one of my older adult students will share a few thoughts or recollections.

These conversations are interesting, but almost always a disappointment when I press for details. Most people talk about the period in generalizations, instead of being able to give me specific stories. Maybe the average person just isn't that good at telling stories. Or maybe after 40 years your memory fades a little. (I'm sometimes alarmed at how many gaps there are in my own memory at 29. Who knows what I'll be like at 60).

When I finally stood up to pay my bill, the old man began asking me the usual questions. ("Where are you from?" "How tall are you?") And I thought I might as well ask him about his student days and see if I could get any interesting stories out of him.

He was more than eager to talk to me. I was guessing he might be, given how he had been rambling on to the waitress. (I should probably have taken this as my first warning sign that I was about to get stuck in a long one-sided conversation.) "This coffee shop is closing up," he said, "but I'm staying at the cycling center across the road. We can relax there and I'll tell you all about it."

We went over to the cycling center (which I think was sort of a rest stop for cyclers headed down the road.) There was a lobby where we sat down at a table. One of the curators of the place even served us coffee.
I asked if it was okay if I could write down notes as he talked (mainly for the purpose of having something to do instead of stare forward blankly and nodding) and he began his story.

"I was born in 1948 in Kitakyushu," he said. "That's 3 years after the war ended. There were 3 groups of people back then. There were the people who had actually gone and fought in the war. There were the people who hadn't been old enough to fight, but had grown up in the war years with the shadow of the war hanging over them. And then there were those of us born after the war. Each of these groups had such a different outlook on life, that they were bound to have conflict sooner or later."

He came to a pause after that and looked at me expecting the next question. So I said, "The first big protests were in 1960, right?"

"Yes, that's right," he said. "I was still a junior high school student at the time, but I remember seeing it on the news. I didn't really understand the significance of it at the time, but I remember all the newspaper articles about Michiko Kanba being killed. That was a big shock to everyone because her father was a Tokyo University professor."

"Was he really?" I knew about Michiko Kanba, but I didn't know her father had been at Tokyo University.

"I think so. Now that protest occured 15 years after the end of the war, and at that time Japanese politics were a lot more polarized than they are today. You had the LDP, the Socialist party, and the Communist party, and they all took strong positions on various issues and clashed with eachother often. The student movement grew out of that climate."

"There was another reason that we didn't know at the time, but it's come out in the years since. The police were getting ready for The Beatle's visit to Japan. At that time the Japanese police had no experience in massive crowd control, so they wanted to provoke the demonstrators into a riot to see if they could be able to contain them, as kind of a test run for when the Beatles visited Japan."

Now this I knew for a fact wasn't true. First of all as a long time Beatles fan, I knew that in 1960 The Beatles hadn't even signed a record contract yet, so it was extremely unlikely the Japanese riot police were already preparing for their visit to Japan. Secondly the protestors in the 1960 Anpo demonstrations turned out in such massive numbers that no one could control them, they broke into the Prime Minister's residence and smashed up cars, and embarrassed the Japanese government by forcing them to canel President Eisenhower's planned visit. I doubt the police were trying to provoke the situation.
With an inward sigh, I wondered if this meant I would have to take everything he said with a grain of salt now.

"When did you get involved?" I asked him.

"From 1970 to 1971," he answered.


"Well, I in my case it was mostly for the money. I respect people who got involved because of their ideals you understand, but for me it was the money."

"The money?"

"And a gauranteed place to sleep. That was important too."

"You got paid for being a protestor?"

"The communist and socialist parties were funneling money into the student protests at the time. Not directly of course. They would have gotten into all sorts of legal trouble if they had been giving money directly. But the money made its way to the students in round about ways. At any rate, there was money coming into these student groups from somewhere, and word got around.
"I came from a poor family. My father went bankrupt when I was a child and ran off. After that my siblings in I all lived in different houses. I had to work my own way through high school by working during the day and going to school at night. Then for college I just went to a 2 year technical school in Kitakyushu. After that I didn't know what I was going to do with myself, so the money in the student movement looked really good to me. And they always had a place for you to sleep in the student dorms. And they looked after their own, so you had all these built in friends."

He continued his story, telling me how he and his friends would be called in to various parts of the country whenever there was a big demonstration planned. His job was to steal empty glass coke bottles, and gasoline, and manufacture molotov cocktails for the protests. But he never actually threw any himself. His job was just to make them, after which they would be passed on to others who would use them in the protests.

Since he had been talking in the coffee shop about escaping from the police, I asked him if he had any run ins, but he said he had been told early on to avoid trouble with the police at all costs. "If the Japanese police caught you they took you into a back room and beat you until you named names, and then all those names would be put into their register and hunted down. So when I first entered the movement the older students told me never to get caught by the police, and I was very careful to avoid them. I suspected some of the policemen in my hometown might have known what he was up to, but I made sure I was never in a place where they could easily get to me."

All in all it was a relatively interesting conversation. And, as we had been talking in Japanese the whole time, it was also one of those moments where I could give myself a little pat on the back and feel proud at how much I could understand. (He lost me a couple times, but I was able to understand most of what he was saying). How nice it would have been if I could have wrapped up the conversation there, said good-bye, and continued on my way home.

Alas he kept me for another hour. Everytime I would try and say something like, "Well, listen, this has been great, thanks a lot," he would suddenly start into a new topic, and I listened to his philosophy of life and his theory of the Japanese mind. He obviously just wanted someone to talk to, and in the end I was too polite to leave abruptly, so I heard him out on all his topics. Although half the time when he was talking, I was just watching his mouth move and thinking to myself, "Why do I always get myself into these kind of conversations? Would other people still be sitting here listening, or would the average person have found a way to escape this conversation by now? Am I being too polite?" And all that kind of internal dialogue that goes on through your head when your in a social situation you're beginning to tire of.

Occassionally he would return to the subject of the student movement, and he did have some interesting observations. "It might be tempting to watch the footage of the protests and think that's all there was to the era," he said. "But really that was just the tip of the ice berg. There was a lot more going on that didn't make for dramatic news footage. Young people today have a lot of freedom, but they have that freedom because of my generation. When I was growing up we couldn't listen to rock music. And if we got caught playing an electric guitar, that was it. Our academic career was over, we were expelled from school. We couldn't use any English words at school. If I said something like "Pink" or "Blue" the teacher would hit me. You'd never believe it now-adays. Young people use Japonized English for everything. Most Japanese people don't even know how to say pink in their native language. And in my day if we were caught eating burgers or drinking coffee, or having any western food, we'd be in huge trouble. Young people today have all sorts of freedom. and they have it because people in my generation were willing to fight and be hit over the head by the police."

Eventually, after several more attempts to leave, I was finally able to wrap up the conversation and make my way out the door. The whole thing had gone on for about an hour longer than I had intended to, but that's what you get for asking an old man to tell you about his life, right? In the end, I got some interesting information out of him, and he obviously enjoyed telling it, so it probably worked out well for both of us.

After that, I got in the car, and drove home.

Additional Yabakei Photos:

Link of the Day
According to Media Mouse, there was a Hitchens Vs. Hitchens debate in my hometown last week.
I would have liked to have seen this. Christopher Hitchens is completely off base on Iraq of course, but he's an engaging speaker and I always enjoy listening to him whether I agree with him or not. Fortunately the video is on-line at the media mouse website

...and if you're not sick of MLK links yet:
40 Years After the Lynching of Dr. King,
Martin Luther King's Death: 40 Years On
and American conflict

Monday, April 07, 2008

Journal March 17, 2000

(With apologies to issues of style and clarity, this entry follows my rules on full names)

Bosch (Ribs) and were I walking to class when we saw Vanderboom (Boom) and Chris M (Pasta). Bosch complained to me about how much Boom is always complaining. (Boom had been over at our apartment last night while I was playing video games, complaining to Bosch about various things). Just for fun, we got really quiet and walked behind Boom and Pasta to see how long it would take them to notice we were there. When they didn't notice us after a while, Bosch finally said something.

It was my turn to sit at the SJC (Social Justice Committee) table again that day and collect signatures. While I was doing this some guy who introduced himself as Peter came up to the table and asked me questions about the mission of the SJC. I talked to him for a while.

I was actually signed up to cover the table for 3 different periods that day, but actually Hillary ended up covering for me for 2 out of the 3 times. (She had nothing better to do and she said she didn't mind doing it, so I was more than happy to let her take over).

While getting lunch in Johnny's cafe, I talked to Mr.Bork and Mr.Buma. I told them about the news I had had seen on TV regarding H. Rap Brown's arrest, and we also talked about Bobby Seale. Buma had an article that was running the Chimes crossroads that day, and I told him about some of the comments I had heard about it. There had been a conversation about Buma's article on national health care in my political science class. Most people, including Mr. Vanderklippe, had favored Buma's article over the Giessel's opposition piece).

After class, went to EMS camping store with Matt S. (Bear), Luke B. (Prodigy), and Mr. Hoort, where we bought some camping supplies for our upcoming hiking trip. (Hoort was going on a different camping trip with a different bunch of guys, but he had heard we were going to EMS store and wanted to tag along and stock up himself).

Later we went with Brett N., Rob P., Bear and Prodigy to Meijers. With as large a group as we had, it took forever to get everyone in and out of there. On leaving Meijers however, Brett and I witnessed a funny site. Rob was running full speed across the parking lot, with Bear and Prodigy behind trying to catch up. They must have decided to race back to the car or something.

Bear and Prodigy were going to Mr. Shultz's Party that night, and they graciously took me along with them too. We all rode there in Bear's car, but when Bear got to the party, for some reason he decided to leave again in what couldn't have been much longer than 5 minutes after we had arrived.

Prodigy and I said we would stick around at the party and just catch a ride back to Calvin with someone else (not knowing the next ride wouldn't be until 1 AM. This was slightly later than we had intended to stay, because Brett wanted to depart from Calvin at 5 AM the next morning for our Spring Break trip).

While at the party, we played a variation of scrabble in which Prodigy and I assisted Mr. Adema. Mr. Schultz and Mr. Adema acted as the party's DJs at various points. Mr. Schultz was also very generous with his food. Free steaks were being handed out to everyone. He also made little drawings for everyone.

This was a different group than I usually hung out with (lots of people from my sister's class in high school--two years behind) so there were lots of people I didn't know at the party. I did however recognize a few people, (like Ms. Braez).

Finally, Prodigy and I got were able to get a ride back to Calvin from Klaus H. (accompanied by his girlfriend Ms. Boerman).

Link of the Day
Via This Modern World: Oy
And 40 Years Later, (The Late) Martin Luther King Still Silenced

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Beppu / 別府

(Better Know a City)

This was one of my last days off before I start going to school full time and working full time and won't have any days off until summer vacation. So I decided that, my usual laziness aside, I should get out there and get in one more "Better Know a City".

I decided that since I would be commuting into Beppu everyday for school, it would be a neat idea to do some exploring around Beppu, get to know it a bit better, do my usual write up, and knock it off my list before I start classes there.
Shoko, who's never really understood the point of this whole project, took a somewhat opposite view. "If you're going to be driving in there everyday from now on, wouldn't you rather go somewhere else on your last day off?" she asked. But as she had the day off of work as well, she agreed to go with me. Partly because it would be one of our last days off together, and partly because, when I asked her what she wanted to do, she couldn't think of any alternatives.

Beppu is of course a city that I've been to many times in the past. It shares a boarder with Ajimu (where I lived as a JET for 3 years), although there is a set of mountains dividing the two towns so that it is not quite as quick and easy to get from one to the other as it may look on the map. Nevertheless back in the day I used to commute into Beppu city at least once a week for Japanese lessons, which I took with a couple other JETs on Tuesday nights near Beppu University).

Beppu is the second largest city in Oita prefecture after Oita city. And it's a tourist town famous for its hotsprings. According to wikipedia, it is the hot spring capital of Japan, and has the largest volume of hot water in the world aside from Yellowstone in the USA and the largest number of hot spring sources in Japan.

However the past few years most of the tourists have been heading into the quaint little mountain village in Yufuin instead, and Beppu has been on the decline. A few years ago a friend who lived in Beppu told me that it was a dying tourist town, and as such was a very depressing place to live. I've never felt particularly depressed in Beppu, but I guess living there you might get a different feel for the place than just driving through.

Beppu also has a very large foreign population. In fact it's rumored to have either the largest foreign population in Japan outside of Tokyo, or the most foreigners per capita outside of Tokyo. (Statistics seem to vary depending on who you talk to. I'm having a hard time nailing down hard facts). At any rate, it's pretty surprising given that Beppu is way out in the boondocks in the unremarkable place of Oita prefecture, but it is largely because of the international universities here like Asian Pacific University and Beppu school of languages (where I'll be attending from next week).

Last, but not least, Beppu was the site of the JET orientation. We would have some workshops in the day, everyone would retire to the hotel, and then at night we would go out to hot sand baths and the infamous "Hit Parade" a Japanese club that features a rather bizarre, but fun 1950s cover group.
[Or at least that was the case back in my day. A couple years later the JET organization was banned from the hotels in Beppu because of loud drunken behavior late into the night. This is a depressingly common occurrence. In my first couple months on the JET program back in 2001 we were banned as an organization from two different camping grounds in Oita prefecture after raucous parties. The JET program participants, mostly young people fresh out of college, don't always mesh well with the conservative aging Japanese population in the countryside prefectures. (I was, by the way, present at both of these parties, but I like to think that my personal behavior wasn't excessively wild. I was just barely getting to know these people at the time, and I have a reserved personality among people I don't know well).]

Anyway, back to my Beppu tour...
I originally wanted to take the train into downtown Beppu, and do Beppu entirely as a walking tour, thus:
A) giving me some much needed exercise and
B) saving me the headache of trying to find parking in Beppu.

Unfortunately the day's forecast called for rain, so in the end I decided it would be nice to keep a car near me if I got caught in a downpour.
I considered postponing the whole outing because of the bad weather forecast, but this was one of my last free days to go out and do this. And plus I thought about all the times in the past I had stayed in because my cell phone weather forecast predicted bad weather, only to be mocked by a gloriously sunny day.

It was supposed to rain from about noon, so I wanted to get an early start on the day. I've been trying to get in the habit lately of waking up at 6:30 in the morning to prepare for the start of school so that it doesn't come as too much of a shock to my system when classes start. It's a bit difficult for me given that up until now I slept till noon most days, but I dragged myself out of bed bright and early anyway.

Shoko wanted to sleep a bit longer, so I agreed to delay our departure until 8. At 7:15, I woke her up so she could start getting ready, but she begged for another half hour of sleep. But at 7:45, she was still reluctant to get up.

"Come on, lets wake up now," I said gently. "It's always tough waking up at first, but once you get out of bed and walk around a little bit the worst part is over."

"I'm going to sleep for one more hour," Shoko said.

"An hour!" My voice immediately changed from a soft gentle whisper to a loud exclamation. "An hour? You're kidding."

"Actually, let's only go in the afternoon," Shoko said. "We don't really need to go for the whole day, and it will just tire me out."

Add to my list of reasons #53 why I've been making such poor progress on this "Better know a city" project. Trying to coordinate outings with Shoko, and then losing first the morning, and then the rest of the day, as our combined laziness pushes things further and further back.
Not today though, I decided. "Okay, I'm going by myself. Can I use your car?" (Her car is much nicer and faster than mine, you see.) She rolled over and let out a sigh, which I chose to interpret as a yes. I jumped in her car and sped off.

On the normal roads it's about an hour from Nakatsu to Beppu. So as soon as I crossed over the city line, I pulled my car over to the first parking zone along the ocean and got out to stretch my legs and walk around a bit.

As someone born and raised in the Midwest, I share every Midwesterner's fascination with the Ocean, and even after all these years in Japan still view it as something exotic. I walked along the ocean shore a bit and up and down the streets of the neighborhoods nearby.

Unfortunately in Japan, the ocean view is not always as scenic as you might hope for...

It's almost impossible to find an access to the ocean that's not concreted over. Which is why, despite being surrounded by ocean, people around here have to drive down 6 hours south to Miyazaki just to get a decent beach.

In some places these concrete tetrapods are necessary to act as wave breakers. In other parts its rumored they are just an unfortunate result of Japan's addiction to pork barrel public works projects, the concrete lobby, and government corruption. As a layman I don't claim to know which ones are necessary and which ones aren't, but I can say with complete confidence that it makes for absolutely terrible scenery.

A little ways further down there was a nice ocean front park. The concrete was still there, but at least there was some green grass here, plus palm trees and a nice little brick path that you could follow up along the coast for half a kilometer or so.

Shortly after I took this picture a group of pre-school children on a field trip arrived, and the park became a whole lot livelier with small children running all over and chasing the pigeons.

Around this time I was starting to get pretty hungry. (In my impatience to leave the house I had neglected breakfast). Fortunately in Beppu there are plenty of eating options open to me, and I decided to dine at one of the many Joyfulls.

Joyfull [sic] is an interesting place. It's a Japanese restaurant which serves Japanese food as if an American was making it (lots of deep fried vegetables, and grilled pork served over rice) and American fast food in a Japanese style (hamburger patties served up like steaks, and omelets filled with rice). These restaurants are all over Oita prefecture. In Ajimu it was one of the only restaurants in the whole town, and absolutely the only restaurant that served food that was in anyway recognizable to me, so I practically lived out of the Joyfull for the 3 years I was there. (I shudder to think what the long term health effects of that will be).

I thought Joyfull would be an especially appropriate choice in Beppu, because rumor has it the restaurant chain originated in Beppu. There's no doubt it's based somewhere in Kyushu. There everywhere down here, and when you get up to mainland Japan like say in Gifu there's nary a Joyfull to be seen. But I was never sure if it had started specifically in Beppu, or if that was just one of these urban legends that gets passed around among JETs.

And then it occurred to me I could just ask the waitress and find out. "This company Joyfull," I asked once I had sat down, "where did it begin?"

"Right here in Oita," she said.

"Do you mean Oita prefecture, or Oita city?"

"Oita city."

"Some people say it was Beppu,"

"No, it was Oita."

And so with that question definitively answered, I set about ordering some food. I got the rice omelet with hamburger steak, plus a side of fried mashed potatoes. And I ordered the all you can drink coffee and soda bar.

It's an odd thing. I know from years of repeated experience that the Joyfull coffee is absolute crap, and will often do weird things to my insides, and yet I can't seem to resist ordering it every time I come in. Something about the concept of "all you can drink" is just very hard for me to resist.

Anyway, I had the meal, and it was delicious (and the coffee was even acceptable). One the way up for a coffee refill, I accidentally made eye contact with another foreigner in the restaurant. And instinctively I gave her the old awkward foreign nod. The old, "I don't know you, and you don't know me, but we're both foreigners here in Japan, so, hey."

And in return I got the ever popular foreign glare. The old, "We have absolutely no relationship to each other so don't waste my time."

It's always awkward running into another foreigner in Japan. Some people think it is only common courtesy to give a friendly nod to your other ex-patriots. Other people think it is the height of arrogance to assume a relationship where there is none just because you might share a common country of origin. I've talked to people with strong feelings on both side of the divide, and as a result I'm never quite sure what to do when I pass another foreigner on the street.

After brunch I got back in the car and headed up the road. I stopped at the first big parking lot tourist attraction I saw, which was one of Beppu's 9 hells. In Beppu city there are several steaming hot bubbling springs called hell along which different themed tourist attractions have been built. There is, for example, the blood hell, in which the hot spring water naturally assumes a deep red color. Or the crocodile hell, in which the hot spring water is used to keep imported crocodiles, even though they are not native to the area.
I had been to these hells before. I went once when my family came up to visit me, and another time when Brett came over to visit. They may be tourist traps, but they are after all part of the Beppu experience.

The hot springs also contain a very strong sulfur smell, which is very noticeable driving through many parts of Beppu. It's not always a pleasant smell either. It's the kind of smell where you think to yourself "Whoa, maybe I shouldn't have had that egg and steak breakfast after all. Oh wait, that's not me, it's just Beppu."

I went up to the ticket booth to ask about admission. There were several hells adjoining the same parking lot, but unfortunately they all had separate admission prices, at 400 yen each ($4, roughly). Or, I could get a ticket for all the hells at 2000 yen.

I looked in my wallet and noticed I was a bit low on funds so I thought I'd walk along the street a bit and see if I could find an ATM machine. I got about halfway through the block, and then thought, "What am I doing?" These Beppu hells were tourist traps, and I knew they were tourist traps because I've been there before. Sure, they may be part of the Beppu experience, but that doesn't mean I need to go to all of them. A couple will be more than fine.

I returned and bought a ticket to the "sea hell". It was a bubbling hot spring naturally colored blue, with a garden, a temple, and a pond built around it. I wandered around and took some pictures. There was a small green house included in the price of admission, so I wandered through there as well.

Although there was not a full hot spring bath, there was a small pool where you could stick your feet in. I did this just for the hell of it, although it is somewhat of a limited excitement just swishing your feet around in hot water. There were towels you could buy for 200 yen afterwards to dry your feet, but being cheap I chose to walk around a bit to let most of the water drip off, and then put my socks back on over still semi damp feet.
(The foot pool was labelled in English, "Hot Spring of a leg", which I thought was cute. But having said that, I'm going to have to stop there. If I get started on all the Japanese English I found in Beppu, I'll be writing here all day.)

After that I went across the parking lot where I paid yet another 400 yen to enter the "mountain hell" which was kind of like a miniature zoo. Lots of exotic animals from warm places were being kept here, with the justification that the hot spring keeps the air around them warm enough to keep them comfortable.

I'm not sure if this comes through on the video tape or not, but what really struck me was how huge the hippopotamus was. When you see them on nature shows in TV, I guess you don't always realize how big they actually are. It wasn't quite as big as the elephant, but it wasn't that far off.

After that, I decided to take advantage of the fact that I was already parked (and reasonably sure I wouldn't get a ticket) to do some walking around the streets of Beppu.
Beppu is one of those Japanese cities where the mountain goes right up to the ocean, and so all the whole city is built on the side of the mountain slope. It's so crowded and covered with tourist tack that it can be pretty cluttered when you're driving through the middle of it, but when ever you get to any sort of an overlook point it's really beautiful to see the big picture of the city running down the mountain towards the sea.

Many of the buildings in Beppu seem like they were built in the 1950s, which is another reason why it's fun to walk through the city. It kind of makes you feel like you're in a time warp. (Plain white washed walls, with the paint flaking away. block style apartment buildings and hospitals. Windows that have a plain rectangle shape, and then a small arch at the top. And other various things that are hard for me to put my finger on, but all give the impression of architecture that went out of style a long time ago).

There was a huge white castle on top of a hill off in the distance, so I headed vaguely in that direction, taking time to go down any side streets that looked interesting. I figured the castle was as good a destination as any.

When I finally reached the castle, I wanted to look around first. I had been in enough Japanese castles to know that they are pretty much all the same, and that almost none of them are authentic (they were all burned down during the saturation bombing in the war, and then later rebuilt in the 1950s and 60s). So I fully intended to scout out the place before deciding if I wanted to spend money on an entrance ticket.

This plan was foiled when the told lady behind the ticket counter flagged me down energetically, shouting, "Over here, over here, you need to come over here to buy your ticket first."

Somewhat annoyed at being accosted before I had a chance to check the place out, I went over to the ticket booth to ask a few questions "What is this place?" I asked.

"A castle," she answered, as if I were stupid.

"But what castle? Is this very famous?"

"It gathers artifacts from all over Japan."

"Do you have any pamphlets or explanations in English?"


"When was it built?"

"Showa 30" (1955).

I was fully expecting her to say that it had been rebuilt around this time, but built for the first time in 1955?
"That recently?" I asked.

"It was over 50 years ago," she added sniffily.
There was an air of impatience from the old woman and her colleagues in the ticket booth. I got the impression they were not used to having people ask a lot of questions. In fact I even thought I overheard someone in the back of the ticket booth say, "He should either pay the money, or go away." But it could have just been my bad Japanese.

"Why was it built?"

"For the tourists," she answered. And then, perhaps sensing my reluctance to buy a ticket, perhaps eager to get ride of me, she added, "But if you want to just walk around the outside of the castle, you're welcome to do that for free."

And so I did. At 350 yen, the ticket to the castle was reasonably priced, but I didn't feel like spending the money or the time. Besides it was starting to rain now, so I thought I should start heading back to the car before I got caught in a downpour.

I don't usually mind getting a bit wet. (In fact, under the right circumstances, I've been known to quite enjoy the feeling of the spring rain on my face.) However just then I had with me all the electronic equipment that comes with modern day sight seeing (video camera, digital camera, and cell phone) and I wasn't sure how well they would hold up to being out in the rain, and I didn't particularly want to find out.

Fortunately, having seen the weather forecast, I had come prepared for this possibility. I had all my electronic equipment wrapped in plastic bags, inside another plastic bag. And now, as an added precaution, I took off my coat and wrapped that around the bag as well. (I had worked up a sweat walking up to the castle anyway.)

I headed back for the car. This time I took a direct route back instead of doing all the wandering down side streets I had done on the way here. But it still took me about 40 minutes to get back.

And as soon as I got back, got in the car, and shut the door, wouldn't you know it--the rain stopped.
Actually being a firm believer in Murphy's law, I had imagined the whole time that this would be how it would happen. So at least I saved myself the shock and the cursing at the sky that usually accompanies these moments. I just got in my car and calmly drove off.

I wanted to turn right out of the parking lot, but there didn't appear to be a right turn. (Japan drives on the other side of the road, so here right turns are where you are turning against traffic). So instead I went left, and then turned around in the first opposite parking lot I could find.

This turned out to be the botanical research center. They had some gardens open to the public, so as I was already in their parking lot anyway, and as there didn't appear to be any sort of charge, I got out of the car and walked around and took a few pictures.

Next I got back in the car and head over to Beppu park (largely because I knew there was cheap parking nearby.
Usually you have to drive in by the little ticket booth and get a receipt for the time you come in. Today, however, when one of the other closer entrances was open, I just drove in there without thinking. I noticed all the police cars around, and wondered if they were having a meeting.

The ticket booth man ran out to flag me down. "You can't go in over there," he said. "That's the police man's entrance."

"What?" I said.

"There out there flagging down drivers that don't have seat belts or are using cell phones and giving them traffic tickets."

I was briefly worried about whether driving in the ticketing entrance would be a ticketable offence, but the old man told me it was no problem and next time just use the main entrance.
Once I had been assured of this, I began to enjoy watching the cops in action. They had one man down the road with a pen, clipboard, and walky-talky. He would give the information about the offending cars, and down the road his colleagues would jump out into the street with a red stop sign and a whistle, and then direct the car into the parking lot where they could be ticketed and processed. I had a little bit of a chuckle to myself as I watched all those poor saps get flagged down by the police and ticketed.

(Shoko always gets caught by these things. Just last week she got another ticket. She initially tried to keep it from me, but she got found out when I recieved a letter from the police department telling me it was time to renew my license. I asked her what it was about, and she blurted out her whole confession before realizing the letter was addressed to me.)

Beppu park was closer to the station, so I thought I would tour some of central Beppu. But before I did that, I got out my cell phone and decided to make a few phone calls.
I have several friends in Beppu (what with the high foreign population and all) and I had been trying to get ahold of a couple of them all day without success. Before setting out again I decided now would be a good time to call some of them again and see if they awake now.

I got a hold of Justin. He and Steph were eating Sushi at a sushi bar, and preparing to go in a hot spring. They were all the way back in the part of town I had just left, but I got into my car and set off to meet up with them.
Justin and Steph are both former JETs. They're both great guys who I know a little, but don't know as well as I'd like to because they were starting the JET program when I was already heading off to Gifu, so I would only see them briefly when I was back in the area for Summer break or something.

And now they've both moved on. Justin has a new job in Beppu, and Steph has gone back home to England, and is only back to visit this week for Spring break. (You know you've been in Japan too long when not only your colleagues from the JET program have finished and gone on, but all the people who came after you are now finished and gone.)

Justin, as a former Ajimu JET, has a post comparing Ajimu and Beppu, if anyone is interested.

The boys were just finishing up their sushi lunch as I arrived, and they wanted to go to a special hot spring. I didn't know where the place was, so they gave me basic directions and then I just followed their car as we drove up.

Once we got there, I realized I actually had been to this particular hot spring once several years ago.
It was I think the winter of 2003. Me and a bunch of other guys and girls had spent the afternoon skiing at a Ski resort in the mountains of Oita. (Which was an unbelievably crappy ski resort, but that's another story). On the way back, we stopped at this hot spring. It was highly anticipated by many in our group because it was one of the few hot springs in the area that featured mixed naked bathing.

I've written a couple times on this blog before about the Japanese phenomon of onsen (public baths) and the big culture shock it was to me at first. But that was just among other men. Mixed bathing is a whole different can of worms all together.

Tourist guide books will occassionally mention mixed bathing, and usually say something like this: "Although we in the West have grown up with a puritanical tradition and are ashamed of nakedness, the hot spring bathing is an important part of Japanese culture. Even though men and woman occassionally bath together in co-ed baths, it is for them a cleanliness ritual, and they do not see anything sexual about it."

LIES lies and more lies. The mixed bath, it turned out, was cholked full of horny Japanese men.

There were two different changing rooms for men and women. Then there was a seperate bathing area on each side, and a common bathing area outside. On the women's side, there was a tunnel made of bamboo and straw that led out into the common bathing area, where they were greeted by a whole bunch of naked men standing right next to the end of the tunnel and eagerly awaiting any women who dared to come out.

Not surprisingly, no women were coming out. Almost all of them took one look at the welcoming committee, and rushed back to the safety of the women's side. The only women who were brave enough to come out into the common area were a couple octogenarians who were clearly passed the point where being ogled by men was a worry to them.

Really, putting aside for the moment how disgusting this whole spectacle was, you've got to wonder just how stupid these guys are! Doesn't it occur to anyone of them that they are scaring all the girls off? Does the idea to play it cool ever pass through their head?

Anyway, once I realized where we were, I began to tell my stories to the others. Steph had also been to this particular hot spring before, and had a similar experience. Justin and Ollie (Steph's friend) were coming here for the first time, although once I mentioned that it was filled with male perverts, Ollie commented, "I've never been to a mixed bath that wasn't." (Tour guide books be damned!)

We paid 1050 yen at the front desk. (Since I had come into Beppu without a hot spring kit, I paid another 200 yen for a small modesty towel. The big drying off towels didn't seem to be available, so I had to drip dry again). We walked through a long hallway to another room, and right before we entered the hotspring an old man behind the desk yelled at us in broken English. "heyheyheyhey hey HEY HEY. Watch, wallet, put in locker. Now!" It appeared you weren't supposed to take your valuables into the changing room, but rent out a coin locker in the lobby. Added to my experience at the castle earlier though it was interesting though how the traditional Japanese customer service politeness seemed to disappear around the tourist areas in Beppu.

The facilities at the hot spring were very spartan. None of the usual soaps and shampoos were laid out. In fact there weren't even any showers to wash off with before hand, just a spiget in the wall that let out a dribble of cold water. These primitive facilities were probably more in line with the traditional old fashioned Japanese hot spring, although given how much we had paid for admission I did comment that never have I paid so much for a hot spring and gotten so little in return.

When we got to the outside pool there were, surprisingly, some women already there. In fact the number of women outnumbered the number of men. This was probably due to the fact that it was a week day, and all the Japanese business men were at the office. But there were also some changes made to the pool since Steph or I had last been here. After the women emerged out of their tunnel into the main pool, there was a small women's area corodoned off where they could be in the main pool, but still keep their breathing space from all the guys.

The hot spring itself was known as a mud hot spring. Not to say the whole thing was thick mud but there was a layer of very squishy mud at the bottom. (As a result all of the water was a murky grey color, which is no doubt one of the reasons it was a co-ed facility, as this obscured the view of anything underwater).

The mud was so soft and squishy your whole foot practically sank into it. The water was shallow enough to sit down, in which case all of your legs became covered in it. After a while we all started spreading the mud around on our arms and chest. We weren't sure if we were supposed to do this or not, but after sitting in the mud for a while it's one of those things you just naturally start to do out of boredom.

We were reasonably sure however that we weren't supposed to put mud on our head, because there was a sign reading, "Don't put mud on the head." This seemed to me to be an odd prohibition. I had no intention of putting mud on my head you understand, but wouldn't this ultimately be a matter of personal choice? We idly wondered what the punishment would be for putting mud on the head. Would someone blow a whistle, a guard run out, and you would be asked to leave the hot spring?

The other thing we thought was funny was all the signs informing us to make sure and wash all the mud off before we left the hot spring. As if we were idiots. We toyed with the idea of trying to walk casually out of the lobby and back to our cars still covered in mud to see what the reaction of the staff would be. But needless to say we never put this into action.

Since I hadn't seen Justin for a couple months, hadn't seen Steph for a couple years, and didn't know Ollie at all, the conversation had the usual disjointed flow when you're trying to catch up with people on large segments of their life in a short time, mixed in with other inane facts and observations. (Among the interesting facts I gleaned, Justin told me that most of Beppu's tourism boom was in the 1950s, which explains the architecture).

It began raining when we were in the hot spring as well, causing us to shiver and feel cold on our upper body, while at the same time feeling too warm from the water in our body. We continued to cover our upper body with mud to stay warm.

On leaving, there was once again no soap to wash off with, but there was a shower that at least got the mud off. The smell of sulfer stuck with us though. The shower water smelled as much of sulfer as the hot spring did. I spent the rest of the day smelling strongly of sulfer, which I guess was okay because I was by myself for the rest of the afternoon.

(What irritated me somewhat more was that the rest of the week, despite several showers and vigirous scrubbing, I still smelled faintly of sulfer. And then my clothes began to take on the smell. Shoko told me that the Japanese people don't consider hot springs to be a bad smell, but her confidence in this assertion waned as the week progressed and I continued to sleep next to her smelling like a rotten egg).

Justin wrote his own description of the outing on his blog here. If you read his account, you'll note he was also plagued by a lingering smell for many days after.

I said good-bye to Steph, Justin, and Ollie, and continued onto my original plan, which was Beppu park. I returned to the parking lot (the police and their sting operation had moved on by this time, which was slightly disappointing).

I thought I remembered someone saying that if you use the parking lot for Beppu Park, you're supposed to go to the park. Otherwise there's some sort of a fine or something. Or maybe I was just imagining that and had dreamed up the whole conversation. At any rate, once I parked my car I faked going to the park just in case, and then once I was out of view of the parking attendant I moved on.

Beppu park is nice enough, but I had spent more than enough time there in the past. The fall of 2003 I had joined the DreamBall dance competition with the Earthmen group from Oita City. (Just for the social experience and not because of my dancing skills). The competition was held at Beppu park, and we used to practice there for weeks ahead of time. (All those weeks of practice paid off because we didn't do too badly that year. We even got some prize money out of the whole thing).

Once out of Beppu park (through a side entrance) I saw signs for Beppu central sports park a few blocks North East. I couldn't remember ever having gone there before, but it seemed as good a destination as any, so I set off.

In the end I never made it to the park, but I had a lovely walk through the streets of Beppu.
To start with, as I was walking down the road I came across a large cemetary off to my left. It's a bit morbid to spend a lot of time in a cemetary, but this one had a real lovely lay out. The flowers and cherry trees were beginning to blossom. And besides, I wasn't the only one walking through. It was shortly before 5 now, so lots of people were cutting through here on their way back from work. Although they all walked with a purposeful stride that was a lot different than my slow wandering.

Getting out of the cemetery, I ended up in a small canal following a little river. It was a city river, and so completely encased in concrete, but when you're in a Japanese city you can't be purist about nature and expect to have a good time. You just take what you get, and it was nice enough to follow the river along. Every meters there would be a small wooden bridge to cross form one part of the river to another.

This small canal ending up feeding into a much larger river that cut right through Beppu city. And this really was very beautiful. And also had a path that went alongside it.

Before coming across this river, I had vague plans of exploring down town Beppu and looking in at shops or getting a cup of coffee at Starbucks or something. But once I realized I could follow the river all the way along the path, I was hooked.
I'm a complete sucker for a walk along a river. Really. Give me a river, and a nice path alongside it, and that's all I ask out of life. I'm happy for the rest of the day.

And it was absolutely gorgeous. Sure it was a Japanese river, and the banks on both sides had been cruelly concreted over. But there was plenty of green alongside the path. And the spring wild flowers were in bloom, so yellow and purple flowers were every direction you looked.

And best of all was the fact that all of Beppu is on the mountainside, so as you look up the river you see the mountain top, and as you look down the river you see the ocean.
I followed the river up for a couple hours until it became dark, and then I reluctantly turned and went back down. (I wonder how long the path would have gone on for?) Every time I turned the bend I would see a view that I thought I absolutely had to get a picture of, only to find (like you always do) that what looked so magnificent in person looked so tiny and cramped on the viewscreen.

Take for example this video clip. I had a hard time even being able to get the mountain and the ocean into focus, but you'll have to take my word for it that in person it was perfectly in focus and very easy to see clearly.

The path along the river took many different forms. At sometimes it was asphalt, at times it was concrete, at times tile, and sometimes only a dirt trail. But it was always there and always clearly marked. At times it would end on one side, and I would have to cross the river on concrete steps.

The surrounding city also went through phases, sometimes keeping a respectful distance from the river, sometimes closing right in next to it. Once, when a drug store parking lot was visible from the river, I decided to break off and get something to eat. It had been several hours since my brunch at Joyfull and I was beginning to get peckish again.

Given my atrocious nutrition habits, I started for the drug store firmly telling myself I was only going to get healthy food. And then I thought, "Who am I kidding?" It was a drug store. Did I expect to find a salad and freshly squeezed orange juice?
And so, predictably, I loaded up on candy bars and quick energy drinks for my 5 o'clock meal. But I promised myself this was absolutely the last time I would do this.

Once it got dark, and I went back to my car, I realized I still had a couple of hours before the Beppu Park parking lot closed, so I decided I might as well walk on down to Beppu train station. Just to say I did. I got a cup of coffee at a restaurant by the station, and then headed back to my car.

And then I headed out of Beppu city. But the day wasn't over quite yet. On the way back, on the road through the mountains, there was still a scenic view parking lot where you can get a good view of the city lights of Beppu.

And it was a great view. Unfortunately this was yet another view I had difficulty capturing on film though. This picture turned out terrible and the video not much better. I guess you'll just have to trust me.

Link of the Day
From the Washington Post
When the Bush administration decided recently to terminate federal protection for wolves throughout the northern Rocky Mountains by the end of this month, one Interior Department official said it was because the animals have become so numerous that they no longer need Uncle Sam to watch over them. In fact, the decision had nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with politics. Transferring the responsibility for managing wolves to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming now is a farewell gift from the outgoing president to his staunch supporters in a part of the country where hating wolves is the code of the hills.

Together, the three states are determined to whack back the 1,500 wolves currently occupying the Rocky Mountain region by as much as 80 percent, to a barely sustainable minimum of 300, even though dozens of distinguished scientists believe that assuring the future of this still-recovering species would require a population of somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000.

Sigh. If I wasn't convinced before that George Bush was pure evil, I am now. Is there anything the man won't screw up?