Saturday, September 29, 2007

Living Green

I never paid much attention to it until recently, but I've actually been living quite a green lifestyle in Kagoshima. With the inconvenience of obtaining a Japanese driver's license (let alone the costs of a car and insurance), I usually rely on my bicycle to get to work. When I do travel, it's always using public transportation, if not under my own power - bus, ferry, train. I'm never at home on the weekends, so minimal electricity and gas is used. There's even a great deal of water conservation, as I tend to use public onsen more often than my own bath. Unfortunately my small contribution will do little to delay the gradual consumption of resources.

This week I'll be making a brief excursion home for a wedding, so don't expect too many postings after Wednesday.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Foreigner, Heal Thyself



A lot of people contact me with various questions regarding living in Japan (especially now that my Truth About AEON posts have gotten so many hits). A few that keep cropping up are:

What's the American sentiment like in Japan? How do the Japanese feel about Americans as a result of WWII?

Let me follow those questions with a commonly occurring situation for me in Japan, among foreigners and Japanese alike. I am an American. I am from Texas.

"Ahhh... Bush!"
"Oh, isn't that where Bush is from?"
"Dubya!"

I think we can all agree with this flawless logic: if an American happens to be from the same state as a current unpopular president, he should have to justify it. Because, after all, he must be the living embodiment of everything unpopularly American.

At least, that's what goes through my mind when the first response to "Texas" is always "Bush". In actuality, I don't have any problems being an American and a Texan in Japan. Nor is this exclusively Japanese; Texas is such a cultural (and large) state that it's reasonably well known around the world. It's worth pointing out, however, that I associate myself more with Austin, the only good city in Texas, with the best university, "Keep Austin Weird", Chuy's Mexican food, and of course, Leslie.

But I digress... if the Japanese have any anti-American sentiment, I can say with reasonable confidence it stems more from current events than those surrounding Nagasaki and Hiroshima. If you'd have talked to a Japanese between August 9th and 15th, 1945 (the dates of the last major bombing, on Nagasaki, and the Emperor's radio broadcast, respectively), that would most likely have been the height of their hatred of Americans. When the country was still believing itself to be righteous under the Son of Heaven, and any opposing country that would launch such a "dirty" attack must be, well, pure evil.

Since August 15th, the mindset of most Japanese slowly turned around, seeing how arrogant they were to believe they could conquer the world under the banner of the Emperor, turning those feelings of hatred towards the government and high officials that had "tricked and deceived" them. There's no doubt that many feared and suffered at the hands of the American occupation, but considering what could have happened (open rebellion, continued armed conflict), the Japanese reaction to the occupying force was, well, accepting. MacArthur himself, the overlord of the American forces, received numerous gifts, offers of marriage, and letters of concern over his health during his time in Japan (though he rarely travelled outside of the few blocks required for his office).

Although there are many exceptions, it's important to understand that the entire country essentially turned those feelings brought on by the war, and culminated in two atomic blasts, not against Americans, but the Japanese government (one reason for such radical reforms in the 1950's).

When I first came to Japan, I lived in Hiroshima. Not once during my time there did I experience any racism as an American (or as a foreigner, really) by a Japanese. I never saw hate hidden behind people's eyes as I walked down the street. I could jog through Peace Park (though perhaps feeling a bit hypocritical myself). I could attend the lantern ceremony on August 6th, joining other Japanese and foreigners for the same cause. Quite the contrary, I was accepted and doted on.

The little discrimination I have experienced is not a result of anything that happened sixty years ago, but in the last five years in Iraq. And more often that not, the most pointed remarks come from fellow foreigners rather than Japanese. Naturally, this isn't isolated to Japan.

If you believe the Japanese are racist against Americans, you should hear what other nationalities say about each other while in Japan: Texans (well, we were a nation once) all ride horses, own guns, and support the war; Americans are fat, arrogant, wasteful, and inconsiderate; Australians do nothing but get drunk and fight... it goes on. You see it on the blogosphere as well; if a YouTube video crops up on Japan Probe showing foreigners behaving badly in Japan, some of the first comments that come up by NJ (non-Japanese) are "F$#&ng Americans".

It is for reasons like these that there is such significant pressure on expats to be dutiful representatives of their native countries, to expel the stereotypes. Even if you know you're not an arrogant, uncultured, intolerant foreigner, you tend to walk on needles a lot in sensitive situations, to stop yourself from exhibiting any behavior that might prove otherwise.

Guess what? The Japanese may have more cause for their hate, but discrimination is not exclusive to this country, nor has it ever been. Although I personally haven't seen too many examples of blantant racism by the Japanese (Debito's sources as exceptions, of course), I believe all this pressure on expats to be true representatives of their own respective countries heightens existing stereotypes, causing them to really look down on those not behaving in a similar manner.

People see a video of some foreigners jumping a JR ticket taker, laughing and screaming: "They must be Americans. Look how arrogant they are as guests in such a wonderful country. They're ruining it for the rest of us."

An Australian is beat up after getting drunk and damaging a truck: "Damn Australians. Can't they stay sober? They're ruining it for the rest of us."

Out of line? Send me your thoughts.

Update 3/11/08: Here's a good article called "Traveling While Texan"

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

More News on NOVA



More news on English language school NOVA. None of it good, I'm afraid. Japan Times articles...

Is it all over for Nova?

Advice for teachers


But perhaps most interesting was a personal letter sent to Trans-Pacific Radio from a NOVA teacher who very recently arrived in Japan. She was brought over less than a month ago, and now faces a financially uncertain future (without steady monthly payments and a guaranteed flight back home).

This brought to light the reality that NOVA is still actively recruiting teachers abroad. They can't pay them on time, they're closing 200 schools, and they're still recruiting. Although I haven't been able to find any postings on Craigslist worldwide, there are a few recently added promotions on SEEK, an Australian job website; this did not go unnoticed in New Zealand as well.

Anyone back in the states currently being interviewed by NOVA? What are they saying?

Interview with Blogs on Japan

My interview with Blogs on Japan is now up. Strategery. If you're unfamiliar, try a Google search.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Cyclist's Paradise



There's a set of stone steps by the river where many of the locals in Nejime (根占) go.

The children ride their bikes through the adjacent park, then quickly cast them down in favor of eating a favorite snack and looking at the sun set over Kaimondake (開聞岳).

The men use the attached port to launch their small fishing boats, or, if they have none, quietly stand over the closeness of the water and cast towards the jumping sakana.

What goes through their minds? Although they seem to be idly engaging in everyday tasks, the children and adults share the same affinity for this location. The river. The boat. The need to travel, escape, let their imagination conjure what could be if this river swept them out of this small town in rural Kyushu as easily as one girl brushes a mosquito off the face of her friend. Escape for the mind, escape for the soul. They have happy lives, no doubt, but my presence seems to remind them yet again there's more out there, beyond that river, past those mountains.

And that's why I can't share this feeling with them. This river has already carried me away, from America, to Hiroshima, to Kagoshima, to all over Japan. It is my escape in reality, has been my escape. For the boy who takes one last hard look at my foreign features, it exists only as a dream.

I don't remember as much as I thought I did about my trip across the Shimanami Kaido; the skies were blue, the wind light, and my impressions of Japan were still rather primitive, even though I took advantage of many sightseeing opportunities.

I'm glad I chanced the rain and explored more of southern Kyushu.

...



The wind is playing me a song from atop the observation post at Cape Sata (佐多岬). At first I think it must be a wandering homeless musician perched by the absolution basin of the nearby Buddhist temple: the pitch and tone are so irregular, seemingly impossible by nature. Then my eyes slowly turn to the west, towards Kaimondake. There are two small rocky islands with a narrow crevasse bridging them, allowing the breeze to flow through the space much like a wind instrument. But it's still impossible...

The answer is one of both man and nature. The metal pipes propping up the chain link barrier preventing kids from acting like Superman have two small holes cut into them, a manufacturing detail unnecessary for their present job.

The wind picks up, and the song begins anew. I'm reminded of the way willows' music hastens to one's ears across the surface of a pond. A study in contrast. Here I am, hundreds of kilometers from any major city at the southernmost tip in mainland Japan, and yet I am still on a bus route, a tourist destination, a civilized area of the country. Although I see the majesty of the ocean and the distant islands of Ioujima (硫黄島) and Takeshima (竹島), it is nothing other than scrap metal that provides the background music for this adventure. Beauty comes in many forms.






...

I often have these quiet moments in ferry waiting rooms to stop and reflect on journey's end.

Sata Misaki was touristy - no better word for it. Even over 100 km and a bay separating it from a large city (Kagoshima), it still manages to be a notable stop for tour buses, caravanning families, and cyclists.

Incidentally, I must have been insane to cycle this far south. It's within my abilities, but I have a feeling even Lance Armstrong would need to stop and walk the bike every so often.

Going down to Sata from Sakurajima (桜島) is nothing less than paradise at every angle. The smoke plume from the shadowing volcano. The outline of Satsuma Fuji becoming more clearly defined across Kinko Bay. The palm trees along the coast. The volcanic rocky shores slowly transitioning to tropical sandy beaches of blue water. The sounds of the few wild monkeys (Macaques) wandering through the wilderness surrounding the coastal road (if you're lucky, you'll come across a few).

The cape itself means absolutely nothing to me, a short footnote in the adventure novel. It's beautiful, and it's worth seeing, but don't let it become your goal. Your goal lies all around the area. Watching the high school boys taking time from their Sunday holiday to practice for this year's Dragon Boat Race. Catching a little girl in a pink-spotted dress tug on the jeans of her exhausted mother, squealing with delight. The fishermen driving 20 km down the road to find a vantage point that is theirs alone. And perhaps most peculiar, noticing several middle-aged women playing a strange variation of catch to the theme of Phantom of the Opera. If the pain in my quadriceps had died down a little, I might have joined them... maybe.






...

Tonight, for the first time, I felt completely comfortable stepping into a neighborhood izakaya (居酒屋) that had little in the way of wax models or pictures, discussing different types of sashimi with the sole waitress, and dining on boiled snails as an appetizer. Life is funny. Snails. Raw fish. Cold pasta garnished with seaweed. I took it all in, my cells crying out for any nourishment I could provide. Well done mouth, attached to the head that has successfully groped its way through an all-Japanese eating environment. And it was delicious, without even thinking about it. I could even discuss vacation plans with the aging couple from Osaka sitting to my left, perfectly natural and casual.

Thus I adapt, as people are meant to in a foreign environment with enough time. If only I could develop a taste for mayonnaise... but there are some cultural gaps I prefer to leave intact.

Again, back to this work hard/play hard mentality. But working hard doesn't mean (for me, at least) sitting in an office for 9, 12, 16 hours a day staring at a computer screen, checking facts and writing emails; that may sustain your bank account and what you consider "essentials", but it leaves a little to be desired in other areas.

I'm no exception, just as bad as any cubicle worker at Apple, supporting my income to buy things for my apartment that I'll never really need. No one should reach that level of comfort in his life; we'd all be happier, if not stable, on the lamb, living day-by-day, truly working hard and playing hard: in a Japanese hot springs (say after a long day of cycling), partying with friends in NYC, base jumping off the CN Tower... what I need to believe, what we all need to believe, is that it is possible, very possible, to live day-by-day rather than weekend-by-weekend. No regrets. No wasted time. No TPS reports. No looking back. Live for the moment.




Route to Cape Sata
More pictures


Travel Information

Sakurajima (桜島)

Sakurajima <-> Kagoshima Ferry
Furusato Onsen


Nejime (根占)

Minamiosumi Town
Nejime Onsen
South Road Youth Hostel
Dragon Boat Festival (ドラゴンボートフェスティバル)


Cape Sata (佐多岬)

Tourism website

¥300 entrance fee, ¥200 more for the observation deck

Sata Day Go (glass bottom boat tour, さたでい号)

3.7 km before you reach Cape Sata
¥2000/person
Departing at 9:00, 9:50, 10:40, 11:30, 13:00, 13:50, 14:40, 15:20


Ferries from Osumi to Satsuma

Ibusuki (指宿) <-> Onejime (大根占)
Yamakawa (山川) <-> Nejime (根占)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Mayonnaise Truly is the Devil's Work

Stephen Colbert understands. A disturbing new restaurant has just opened in Tokyo offering a special kind of drink...

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Interview with Daily J

The first part of my interview with the website Daily J is now up.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

New Hope for JAXA

Following up on the building space race between Japan and China, Japan's space program may go through a different type of transformation.

On October 4th, 2004, $10 million was awarded to Burt Rutan for his project SpaceShipOne, created by a non-government organization and designed to be a reusable vehicle capable of reaching low Earth orbit twice within a two week period. This was known as the Ansari X-Prize

On September 14th, 2007, Google announced they will offer $20 million to the first private company that can successfully land a spacecraft on the lunar surface, in what has become known as the Lunar X-Prize. Setting a 2012 deadline, Google is no doubt hoping to accomplish what the X-Prize sponsors successfully did: renewing interest in space travel, promoting new technological breakthroughs, and encouraging the development of the private industry. If the Google founders are reading this, I wouldn't mind a small grant to support my travel writing.

With JAXA recently launching their first lunar probe, there has been speculation in the blogosphere as to whether the space organization will attempt to completely cut off governmental funding in an attempt to make itself a contender for the $20 million.

"..the government is now following a policy of privatization of the space industry; for example, JAXA is outsourcing some of its maintenance activities to private companies and is trying also to increase revenues through its operations. Such trends, however, could become actually a great opportunity for future collaborations. Although Japan is very proud to carry out indigenous space programs and has a very ambitious and independent vision of its future role, it will have to choose its priorities and concede with more international programs."
Source

I normally think of JAXA and NASA as entities so closely affiliated with their respective governments that they couldn't survive otherwise. Then I remember I actually know very little about JAXA. If they can successfully break the ties without any huge losses in property or support, more power to them; the future of space exploration resides in the private industry, not the administrative roadblocks caused by governmental involvement.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Upcoming Adventures



This three day weekend is the first chance I've had to just relax around the city for a while. I still might go visit the Samurai houses in Chiran and explore some more of the history of Saigo Takamori (incidentally, The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori is a great read), but we shall see...

In the meantime, I've got some other adventures lined up. Almost exactly one year after my Shimanami Kaido cycling trip, I'm planning a similar excursion in southern Kyushu. This time to the southernmost point of the main islands, Cape Sata (佐多岬).

Itinerary

Day One
- Take the ferry from Kagoshima to Sakurajima
- Start riding
- Early lunch and a quick soak at Furusato Onsen, famous for it's seaside baths
- Ride to the small town of Nejime (根占) on the east side of Kinko Bay, following the coastline

South Road Youth Hostel in Nejime

- Soak in the nearby onsen (テイエム牧場温泉)

Apparently Nejime, in addition to Beppu, hosts an onsen matsuri during the month of November. I may have to stop by again. There's also a unique moonlight dance that is held the 3rd Saturday in September (but I believe they're skipping it this year).

Day Two
- Ride to Cape Sata
- If time, take the glass-bottom boat tour
- Ride back to Nejime
- Ferry across to Ibusuki (Schedule)
- Stay in Tamaya Youth Hostel in Ibusuki, adjacent to the sand baths
- Leisurely sand bath

Day Three
- Depending on the weather and my mood, abandon bicycle and take the train back to Kagoshima

Map to Sata Misaki (佐多岬)


After a successful exploration of one of the islands in the Mishima (三島) group, I will be continuing farther south to the Tokara islands.

Nakanoshima (中之島) is similar to Ioujima (硫黄島) in size and population, but offers a lot more in the way of beaches and diving. As I don't have a scuba diving license, however, I'll settle for a snorkeling kit, some blue waters, and clear skies. Onsen, an observatory (I doubt there can be any light pollution whatsoever), and horse breeding (let's see if they'll let a Texan take the reins)... there's a reason people choose to live here.

Access to Tokara Islands


And speaking of adventure, this is an inspiring story. I might be heading back to Aso-san in Kumamoto Prefecture in the near future to work on a story for Matador Travel. In the meantime, the outlook is positive, and the future is bright, even with the cusp of a typhoon raging outside my window. I get complacent here sometimes, but whenever I'm home, or in any contrasting situation, I just have to realize... Japan is an amazing place to live if you let it be.

Friday, September 14, 2007

More Trouble for NOVA

Update 9/19: Foreign Teachers Dudded in Japan

After scattered reports of late paychecks last month, NOVA has apparently decided to extend these practices around the island for the month of September; many teachers were not paid on time, and have only to wait to see if the promised transfer will go through.

Japan Probe story

NOVA is on the decline. They already had to sell 170,000 new shares last month to cover expenses. I'm going to have to side with TPR's opinion on this one and come right out and say it: get out now. Find another job in Japan while you still can. 618 branch schools, with an average of two foreign teachers...? You do the math. Either way, it's enough to say a large group will be entering the job market en masse if this pattern continues.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Shinzo Abe Has Resigned

The Prime Minister of Japan has stepped down. Read the full story here at Trans-Pacific Radio.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Nagasaki Bayside Half Marathon



Nagasaki Bayside Marathon & Walk
長崎ベイサイドマラソン&ウオーク

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Running Events
Half marathon, 10K, 2K

Walking Events
20K, 7K

Registration Fee
3,000 yen for the half

Event Website

Registration

There are actually a lot more options for registering for running races in Japan; the biggest qualm I have is not having the freedom to register on race day (for marathons I guess it's understandable, but even the small races here do it). This event does seems to allow this, but the cap is 1,500 people.

- The day before race day from 13:00~17:00.
- Race day from 7:30~ 8:50 (10:00 for walkers)
- Online at RUNTES
- Online at Sports Entry
- If you get the proper form from a distributor, you can use a postal transfer
- There's a sports convention the day before the race; you can register there

The Course

Looks like a good one, right over the Megami Bridge.



Elevation




がんばってね.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Sino-Japanese Space Race

As an aerospace engineer, I understand man's desire to explore space. To reach beyond his current boundaries, to seek the unknown, to discover what was thought undiscoverable. I admire it, and I want to be a part of it. And yet, I don't entirely understand Japan's reasoning here...

Japan, China in Moon Race

(TOKYO) — Japan claims its project is the biggest since Apollo. China says it is readying its probes to study the lunar surface to plan a landing.

With Asia's biggest powers set to launch their first unmanned lunar missions — possibly as early as next month — the countdown has begun in the hottest space race since the United States beat the Soviet Union to the moon nearly four decades ago.

Japan's space agency said last week that its SELENE lunar satellite is on track for a Sept. 13 launch, following years of delay as engineers struggled to fix mechanical problems. China, meanwhile, is rumored to be planning a September blastoff for its Chang'e 1 probe, but is coy as to the date.

The Chinese satellite and its Changzheng 3 rocket have passed all tests, and construction of the launch pad is finished, according to the National Space Administration's Web site. Last month, China's minister of defense technology told CCTV that all was ready for a launch "by the end of the year."

Officials have tried to play down the importance of beating each other off the pad, but their regional rivalry is never far below the surface.

"I don't want to make this an issue of win or lose. But I believe whoever launches first, Japan's mission is technologically superior," said Yasunori Motogawa, an executive at JAXA, Japan's space agency. "We'll see which mission leads to the scientific breakthroughs."

China's military-run space program has taken a great leap forward in recent years, and the country sent shock waves through the region in 2003, when it became the first Asian country to put its own astronauts into space.

China also blasted an old satellite into oblivion with a land-based anti-satellite missile, the first such test ever conducted by any nation, including the United States and Russia. But Japan is right behind China.

After a decade of work, Tokyo in February completed a network of four spy satellites that can monitor any spot on the globe, every day — a program spurred by the 1998 North Korean test of a Taepodong ballistic missile, which flew over Japan's main island and into the Pacific.

One of the spy satellites has since failed, however, throwing the network's effectiveness into doubt. Tokyo spends about $500 million a year on the program.

Regional powers India, South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan all have satellites in orbit. North Korea says it sent one up with its 1998 ballistic missile launch and to have used it to broadcast hymns about its leader, Kim Jong Il, although the claim has never been substantiated.

The planned lunar missions by China and Japan are among the most ambitious space programs yet.

Japanese space officials have said their $276 million SELENE project is the largest lunar mission since the Apollo program in terms of overall scope and ambition, outpacing the former Soviet Union's Luna program and NASA's Clementine and Lunar Prospector projects.

SELENE involves placing a main satellite in orbit around the moon and deploying two smaller satellites in polar orbits to study the moon's origin and evolution. Japan launched a lunar probe in 1990, but that was a flyby mission, unlike SELENE, which is intended to orbit the moon.

China's Chang'e 1 orbiter will use stereo cameras and X-ray spectrometers to map three-dimensional images of the lunar surface and study its dust. The country has already spent $185 million on it, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Beijing hopes to retrieve samples from the moon in later missions, according to the project's Web page, and Xinhua has reported that a manned probe could come within 15 years. Japan is also considering a manned mission by 2025.

"It's the race for the South Pole all over again," said Hideo Nagasu, former research head of JAXA's predecessor organization, the National Aerospace Laboratory. "In the interest of furthering Asia's space technology, cooperating would be the best option. But I don't think either side wants to do that just yet."


And I quote:

"...to map three-dimensional images of the lunar surface and study its dust. The country has already spent $185 million on it..."

I, for one, believe that the world doesn't spend enough on its space programs. And that which we do spend (although it is in the billions), is used inefficiently, even squandered. If we wanted to establish a base on the moon, we could. If we wanted to send a team to Mars, we could; the technology exists, we just have to get past the administrative roadblocks.

But what Japan seems to be doing is more of a show of national pride (perhaps competitiveness with China) rather than in the genuine spirit of exploring the unknown.

April 12th, 1961: the Russians send the first man into space

July 20th, 1969: the first man steps on the moon

December 14th, 1972: the last man in history steps on the moon (little did he know at the time)

2003: China sends a man into space, becoming the third country to enter the playing field of manned space travel (although several nations sent representatives and specialists to join NASA missions)

Why the forty-year gap? What possible advantage did China have in sending one of their citizens into low orbit? A show of national pride, perhaps, but there was hardly the need to express ability; the technology to send humans into Earth orbit had been around for decades. In fact, it has since been improved upon tremendously with the boom of the private space industry.

At this day in age, it makes more economic sense to base your national space programs around satellite launches [surveillance, communications, defense (China was able to shoot down a satellite from a surface launch)] rather than manned missions; although the experiments conducted aboard the space shuttle and station are invaluable and incapable of being conducted elsewhere, the benefits just aren't at the magnitude we had expected to see when Neil Armstrong first touched down.

I strongly suspect that's exactly what both Japan and China are attempting to do, to bring the romantic aspect of lunar exploration back into the public spotlight, to extol the possibilities, in much the same way that we saw back in '69. The fact that they're both relative newbies to manned space travel must make it even more enticing: two other countries in a heated race, who knows what kind of technology will crop up as a result?

Unfortunately, I don't really think it will work the way both of them intend; granted, they still have plenty of funding to keep both programs going, but what they don't have is the same level of public support and interest. People in general are very bored with space: the administrative hassles, the baseness of the missions (e.g. repairing satellites, studying a flame in microgravity)...

In my opinion, the only event that will entice humanity (or at the very least, the populations of Japan and China) in the way they want is a manned mission to Mars - truly reaching out into the void yet again, with all the perils and promises. Everything else, including this initiative for lunar missions, is inconsequential.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Closer than Vegas

There's been a lot of activity in Macau recently with the opening of the world's largest casino (2.4 billion dollars, 3000 rooms) in what was once a mere stopover for international travel and business.

Now, with gambling more accessible to the Chinese and Japanese populations in a Vegas-like atmosphere, we may start to see more direct flights available from Kyushu in the near future to this luxurious getaway. Presently, there are nonstop flights from Tokyo and Osaka (as to be expected from huge international hubs), but there was once a charter from Nagasaki discontinued in 2001; clearly Macau sees the potential of Japanese businessmen taking weekend excursions.

Considering the distance involved and the recent opening of the casino, I don't think it's unreasonable to assume a weekly Fukuoka<->Macau flight will be established in the next year or so. Set some money aside for Golden Week just in case.

Incidentally, Macau also has a direct flight to one of the most expensive and beautiful places on earth - the Maldives islands in the Indian Ocean. Apparently the fanciest touristy places on Earth really like to shuttle millionaires from one to the next; can't say I blame them.

Monday, September 03, 2007

More than Sulfur, a Peaceful Getaway



I had forgotten what it was like to be able to see a satellite pass across the blackness, to see stars as they were intended to be seen - white penetrating flickers of light, the only disturbances in a sea of darkness.

I don't even have to try to find an observation point - even the light from the neighboring street lamp isn't enough to compensate for the overwhelming nothingness: no city lights, no car noises, no footsteps, no cats or dogs meowing and barking. Just the gentle hum of locusts and the sky laid out before me, as if I could pick a star out of it as easily as a piece of fresh fruit from a tree.

These are the things I see on Ioujima (硫黄島). The things on which so many travelers miss out. And why? This isn't Tokyo. We're far from Vegas. Even adventurers might prefer someplace larger. But these places exist, and while they do, everyone should explore them.

...

I find myself walking down a typical, if small, country road, greeting an elderly woman protecting her head from the sunlight with a slight bow. There's something different about the air here, a very subtle change I don't notice right away, but it seems heavier, slightly smoky, even sulfuric. But only on occasion when the wind shifts. A huge bamboo forest sits to my left, another approaching on the right. The wind catches the stalks just right, and I listen. I hear the bamboo swaying. I hear locusts, dragonflies preying. Even the infrequent peacock crow, which sounds different when they're wild: a strange, straggled yell.



But what get my attention are the drums. In the distance, with a regular beat, I almost feel as though I'm about to be overrun by ancient native islanders bearing spears. Instead, I feel content knowing, for the moment anyway, my life has its own theme music. The quickening of my steps, the banging of the drums. Louder. Softer. Stop. Start. And again, till the island learns my pace, or I its rhythm.

After a few kilometers, the forest thickens. The sun is now my neighbor, trapped behind the fence of a western mountaintop. And I trudge.

To the east, where the Heike Castle once stood. But where the rest of Nippon might have a wooden gate, stone walls, or at least a foundation, nothing remains on Ioujima. The only reward for your perseverance is the view of the ever-smoking volcano Ioudake (硫黄岳), piles of sulfur clearly burning beyond the borders of the bamboo population.



To the west, where a descent leads you right to a natural hot springs on the rocky shores of the small Mishima (三島) island. The waters of Sakamoto Onsen (坂本温泉) can be dangerous if not cooled by the rising ocean tide, the pool slimy from lack of use. But in its prime, it's clear this attraction will beckon you. Lie and soak. Listen to the waves crashing. There is nothing else in this world but that which exists for you, and only you.



And if it's possible to feel even more relaxed, make your way southeast, in the narrow valley between Ioudake and Inamuradake (稲村岳). Take the road through a sea of bamboo until you hear water in the distance, the sea looming before you. Higashi Onsen (東温泉). A more natural hot springs there could not be, the only reminders of civilization a concrete walking path and a long-derelict stone structure. But the baths, the minerals, the sulfur, coursing through your skin, diving into every crevasse, purifying your very essence. All from three onsen baths, each hotter than the next. Arrive at sunrise. Look between the sheer rock faces less than a hundred meters away. Let your body give in to the absolution of the water, your ears comforted by the soothing sounds of sea foam. Japan at its finest. Onsen at its best.



Before I know it, the horn warning of an approaching ship is sounding, the passenger gangway is mounted, and my feet force themselves to walk towards the means back to "civilization". But this is not before a kind stranger, seeing me parched, offers me a drink of the local Djembe Tea, my hostess comes to bid her guests farewell, and the Osaka real estate agents on vacation load up their diving gear for the last time. It's all too familiar to one who truly lives for the weekend getaways.

There were children, just as happy and wide-eyed as could be, staring back at me from the shores of Takeshima (竹島) as I returned on that sunny day. I never thought... these islands seem like the places small-town people come to get away, but even here, where the population consists of fewer than two hundred people, there are families, children, elderly... all content within the confines of a few kilometers roaming space. Incredible.

So what about Ioujima? It's accessible, it's cheap, and it's small. But more than convenience, it has culture, sights, sounds, smells, tastes that should not go untouched. Visit this island not just of sulfur, but of wonders.




Notable Events

These islands are particularly famous for diving opportunities, but various yachting races occur as well, the largest of which is the Mishima Cup (ミシマカップヨットレース), which was held on August 4th this year.

Other Interesting Facts

I wasn't just imagining those drum sounds in some hallucinogenic state. Ioujima is home to the Tam Tam Mandingue Japan Djembe School (ジャンベスクール).



Accommodation

Miyuki-so (みゆき荘), 09913-2-2116
Minshuku Ioujima (民宿硫黄島), 09913-2-2155
Ryoso Hondo (島宿本田), 09913-2-2102
Minshuku Gajyumaru (民宿ガジュマル), 09913-2-2105
Marine House (マリンハウス孔雀の里), 09913-2-2169



Access

From the South Pier in Kagoshima, take the 9:30 AM ferry to the Mishima islands, leaving on select days. It takes two hours fifty minutes to reach Takeshima, another forty-five minutes and you'll be on Ioujima.  ¥7,000 round trip.




Mishima Website
More pictures of Ioujima

Sunday, September 02, 2007

World Championships in Athletics

In case you haven't been watching TV, the 11th IAAF World Championships in Athletics ended yesterday after having been held in Osaka this year.

Race Results

2:15:59 winning marathon time from Luke Kibet of Kenya.