If you think I'm done with talking about Japan, well you're quite mistaken. I have left the country some time ago, but if there's one thing I wouldn't stop gushing about to tired ears it's my trip to Kyushu. It's the big island at the southern end of Japan, in case you were wondering. A mere two hours by plane from Tokyo.
Temple and Church: A clash of cultures in Hirado
I spent one of the days on an excursion to Hirado island in Nagasaki prefecture. It served as a port of call for the British, Portuguese and Dutch trading ships importing goods to Japan for several centuries. Needless to say, whenever the Europeans arrived, the missionaries were bound to follow. The first leader of the contingent was the Jesuit priest Frances Xavier - whose name can be found on churches all over Asia. Christianity flourished for decades, with the majority of the population in Nagasaki practicing the Catholic faith. Many churches can be found on the tiny island of Hirado alone, with distinct architectures in Portuguese and Gothic styles amongst some others.
Unfortunately the proselytism was discontinued in a violent manner. Three decades later, the Japanese warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi began to persecute Christians out of fear and suspicion of the growing European power in Asia. Soon after death of Hideyoshi, Christianity was banned outright at the turn of the seventeenth century by the Tokugawa shogunate. It was during this time that Japan closed its doors to the outside world. Foreign clergies and missionaries were expulsed, while the Japanese were forced to return to Buddhism to show loyalty to their rulers or face execution. In order to identify the practicing Catholics, a method called Fumi-e was employed, whereby people were required to trample on a carving of Jesus and Mary. Nasty things awaited those who were reluctant to do so as it implied one's belief in Catholicism.
One would think that people had the sensibility to deny their Catholic faith by learning from Peter but nope (then again what do I know I'm a just simple heathen). Twenty six were crucified. Many more were sent to Nagasaki to be tortured and executed - some thrown into a volcano no less. The remaining Christians found various ways to mask their faith and fake their affiliation with Buddhism. One such example can be found in the sculptures of Mother Mary and Child which were made to resemble the Buddhist goddess Kannon, commonly known in Chinese as Guan Yin.
As an apostate of the Catholic Church, I am terribly grateful to be born into the age and culture in which I can practice any faith of my own choosing - science and pursuit of knowledge in my case. I am fully aware that there are pockets of populations worldwide who still face persecution for their beliefs/non-beliefs. However having read what Steven Pinker has put succinctly in his amazing 800-page book, faith-related persecutions seems to be on a downward trend. One can only hope that as the rate of literacy grows, logic and religious acceptance will prevail.
Onwards to Kurokawa
The next day I took a three hour bus trip from Fukuoka to Kurokawa (Japanese for Black River) for my first onsen (hot spring) experience. It may sound tremendously long but the scenic view of the countryside along the way helped to pass the time rather quickly. Lush greenery and undulating hills bordered the road, occasionally giving way to a view of the sea in the distance. Despite approaching the middle of summer, the weather up the mountain was grey, chilly and damp but in a pleasant, non-English sort of way. Perfect for a good hot bath outdoors.
Have you ever been to a place so foreign to your own environment it's hard to believe they exist?
While Hirado impressed me with its clashing traditional architecture, Kurokawa trumped that with the attempt in balancing nature and human existence. Yes it is a tourist destination for the locals. No it is not gaudy. The form of luxury presented on this mountain is subdued, tranquil and rustic, surrounded by beautiful forests that provide perpetual fresh air.
I stayed in a beautiful ryokan called Shinmeikan, made possible thanks to a my Japanese-speaking friend who took great effort to arrange for the room (thank you again Cynthea, if you're reading this!). To get to the entrance one has to cross a bridge over a river. Fortunately I didn't have to hold my breath to pretend to be a spirit.
At this point I was traveling on my own. And frankly I doubt there was a better place to enjoy my solitude. As I sat by the window sipping a freshly made cup of green tea, with the comforting sounds of light drizzle hitting the ground and the deep yet gentle roar of the river as background music, I could actually feel all the nature-related, getting-away-from-the-city-life clichés washing over me.
Since this is my first time staying in a hot spring inn, I cannot speak for all ryokans. But I shall speak for this one.
And it's going to be gushy.
First there were the baths. There were a few types of them at this inn. I started off with the most common one found in most inns - the gendered indoor bath which opened at three pm. Since I was there on a weekday during non-peak season a little before three, I scored the entire place to myself. In keeping with the traditions of the Japanese hot spring etiquette, one has to scrub oneself squeaky clean at the washing area, then walk over to the bath with a towel covering one's modesty. Brazen stride is rather frowned upon. Noone needs to see your swinging junk even if you're blessed more than others. Then step into the bath gingerly without letting the towel touch the water. Every precaution should be taken to ensure that the waters are not contaminated by foreign chemicals other than the what's left clinging on your body.
But I was alone. So to hell with modesty.
Shinmeikan also has an outdoor bath which one can reserve all to oneself for a forty minutes slot (see photograph above). Two hours after my first soak, it was time for another private bath. If that indoor bath was already a ten out of ten experience, this one was ten times better. Surrounded by the green foliage in a damp weather while soaking in a very hot stone bath all by myself, I can only think of two experiences equally blissful to this. One of them isn't suitable for general reading. The other would be watching a beautiful sunset over the ocean with a loved one.
While Shinmeikan does have an outdoor co-ed bath, I chose to soak in the cave bath the next morning at six instead. It was certainly a novel concept, somewhat a strange ethereal experience which I would do again. If anything it would serve as a great environment to write a post-apocalyptic novel. Personally I still prefer the private outdoor bath but I could certainly appreciate the amount of work that has been taken to create this magnificent corridor-like pool.
One of the racial stereotypes I truly pander to would be my love for food. Good food gets me excited as much as great clothes. In many ryokans, a traditional kaiseki dinner (and equally delicious breakfast) is included in the lodging cost. In a typical kaiseki meal, food is served in small portions over many courses, such as the group of appetisers in the photo above. The main course itself, if one could call it that, consisted of different meats including horse which were served in piecemeal sizes. Despite the large variety of food, I was pleasantly full without feeling like I had overeaten. The staff attending to me was a chirpy girl who patiently described every single dish in unabashedly fluent English - a rarity in Japan, let alone in a rural area. I think I got a little bit more excited when she said I can ask for more rice and miso soup. If you found yourself staying in this inn I hope Shiori will be taking care of your meals.
There is something I absolutely must emphasise during my entire stay, and that is the level of service. While I am very much accustomed to the top notch standards of the Japanese service industry, there was apparently still room for me to be impressed. As soon as I removed my shoes at the entrance, someone stored them away in the cabinet, while placing the slippers by my feet. Clogs were provided if one wishes to explore the outdoors, again in a let-me-place-these-by-your-feet manner. When I went back to my room after dinner, I was rather amazed to find that my futon bed has been laid neatly on the tatami floor. And the next morning it was stashed away as I was having my breakfast. By then I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me house elves were real. Two staffs attended to my departure, Shiori included. I think I know what it feels like to be a dignitary now.
As my holiday in Japan came to its end I grew less concerned about #aesthetics. I had to haul luggages weighing almost sixty pounds in total so practicality took priority.
Before you judge they weren't just clothes because I was loading up on Japanese alcohol.
Before you judge again half of them wasn't for me.
The white coat was godsent in keeping my valuables within reach while my reeboks became a precursor to the ugly sneaker/athleisure/wavey garms trend I foresee myself delving into. You might like to know that I have bought three different models of Adidas tubulars recently. What with the various branches of aesthetics I have been exposed to these days it's only a matter of time before I put on some vintage Japanese garment with Comme des Garçons and 90s-looking sneakers.
I am rather certain that I will be back to this place. One day, one day.