Sunday, 28 December 2014

Aso by Train Part 3: To Shirakawa Spring, Kumamoto Castle and Back to Hakata

Ok, last post of the year, let's see if I can finish my Aso by Train series. If you didn't see the earlier posts, I talked about getting from Hakata to Aso Farmland, and from Aso Farmland to Mount Aso earlier. Today, I'm going to talk about getting from Aso Farmland to Shirakawa Spring, from the spring to Kumamoto Castle, and then back to Hakata.

When I first asked my friend from Kumamoto about getting to Shirakawa spring, she told me we had to use a taxi. Thankfully, there's a nearby train (I think the train isn't very well known). So after we checked out of Aso Farmland, we grabbed out bags and made our way to Akamizu station.

Train to Shirakawa
From Akamizu station, take to Tateno station. From there, transfer to Minamiasoshirakawasuigen (南阿蘇白川水源). There are signs from the station, so you should be able to walk there. It's about a five minute walk.

If, like us, you're traveling with baggage, you could ask the first shop on the road to Shirakawa spring if you can place your bags there. They took care of our bags for free (of course, do not leave your valuables in there).


There is a small fee to enter the spring, but it's really worth it. Remember to bring a bottle of water along because you can bottle the water and bring it back. If you don't have a bottle, the shops on the way to the spring do sell empty bottles.
 
Bottling water
 Now, because the stream does flow down, you may be tempted to just take the water in the "free" area. DO NOT TAKE THE WATER THERE. It's not drinkable water, and while it may be safe, you may also come down with food poisoning or something. Don't risk it.



The station is beautiful! 
 I think there's a train between the station and Tateno every hour, so if you don't want to spend loads of time waiting around, take a photo of the train schedule.

Now, for the more complicated part, Shirakawa to Kumamoto Castle. It's also possible to go from Aso Farm Village to Kumamoto castle using these directions, just follow them from Tateno Station.

From Minamiasoshirakawasuigen (南阿蘇白川水源), take the train to Tateno station. Change at Tateno to the JR line towards Kumamoto (熊本行き) and take train to Shinsuizenjieki (新水前寺駅). From Shinsuizenjiekimae (新水前寺駅), go to Shinsuizenjiekimae (新水前寺駅前) and take the train to Kumamotojyou Shiyakusho mae (熊本城・市役所前). You can walk to Kumamoto castle from there.
We're there!
There are huge lockers at the information center if you need to place your baggage somewhere. There are smaller lockers at all the entrances. But go to the information center - there's this market there, so yes, FOOD. FOOOOOOD. FOOOOOOOD.
This is not food. 
The castle is a reconstructed one (it was burnt down),  but it's really big and pretty and worth it! You can spend a whole day there, and be prepared to walk a lot. There are also a lot of really steep steps there, so if you can't climb, you may not to visit the whole castle.

ACTORS.
There are also actors in costume there. Most of them were pretty nice, although we ran into the one grumpy guy. Then again, I did tell him I didn't understand Japanese (actually, it was just his Japanese, I thought it was a dialect of sort) in Japanese. Oh well.

From the castle, go back to the same station and take the tram all the way to Kumamoto station. From there, you can take the Shinkansen back to Hakata.


And there you have it, a quick trip in Kumamoto by train :D

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Boxing Day 2014

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these" (Matthew 19:14)
My next story about my brother has to start with a confession from me. When it was first proposed that we spend the later part of Boxing Day cooking and feeding the homeless, I was reluctant to go. It's not so much because of Boxing Day (remember, I have no presents to unbox), but because I hate staying out late in the winter. Like, when the sun goes down, my desire to go home intensifies. But, my little brother was so excited that I couldn't voice my objections. What sort of selfish person would I be to tell my brother not to help others?

The trip did not start well. We were late, and I got carsick on the way there. But, it was endearing to see my brother so enthusiastic. He did a lot of chores that he normally would go out of his way to avoid. That's not to say his attitude was the best - he came very close to trouble because he was upset he couldn't help enough. He wanted to mix and stir in the miso, but he could only mix it because the stirring was done while we were part of an assembly line to create bags of food and hand warmers.

One of the bags - it contains onigiri, a boiled egg,
sweets, hand warmers and a handout talking about
this organisation and giving pertinent information
like weather forecasts. 
All throughout this, I was slowly warming up to the fact that I wasn't going to go home early. By the time we finished cooking (which was about three hours later), I was looking forward to the trip. We were split into groups, and my family and I were supposed to tag along with the group going to Tenjin.

It was cold, but that just emphasised how important this was. After a few instructions, my brother was happily handing out soup with both hands. I'm not sure how to describe it, but this is really a side of Japan that I've never seen before. I've always thought of Japan as a prosperous country, but there is still poverty and suffering here.

One man in particular stuck out. He was the last person we visited, and he was lying, head towards the river, on some pieces of cardboard. Unlike the others, he didn't even sit up when we greeted him. We tried to pass him some soup, but he didn't want it. After talking further, we found that he was in pain. Apparently, he had been hit. Next to his belongings was a wheelchair from a hospital. His blankets were new and he had a neatly packed bag with him (the ID in the bag was of a lady though). All this was very worrying. We wanted to call an ambulance, but he didn't want us too.

My poor brother was so worried. He desperately wanted to know what was going on, but the language barrier meant that he didn't understand what was said, and no one was translating. There was nothing we could do, except wait. We tried to cover him up, the social worker promised to send someone in the morning, and we stood at one side to pray for him. On the way home, my brother asked if we could visit him the next day, but to be honest, my mom and I don't know if he'll even be there. The social workers might bring him to a hospital, he might decide to move, a lot of things can happen. And I worry about the conclusions my brother might jump to if he doesn't see that man.

So please, pray for this man and all others like him. If you're not the praying type, send some good thoughts or something. And more importantly, if you can, go out and do something to help. We who have plenty should share with those who have none.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Encouragement

Tis the season to hear from Kouhai's. I've been so so happy (and flattered) that some of you new MEXT scholars have emailed me to tell me you got in! Every time I get the email, it makes my day. And since we're well into Christmas season, I thought it was time for a more reflective post.

Here's a pretty but completely unrelated painting to start. 
Recently, I got a comment from +Zahratul Amanah my Post-Exam Wrap-Up post. If you don't remember the post, basically, I was sad because my results were not as good as I wanted them to be, and I was feeling a lot of pressure about what to choose for my university.

Of course, two years down the road, you all can see that I'm absolutely happy with my choice of Kyudai, because I have awesome classes (Studio Ghibli class anyone?), good class, and loads of chances to travel. And wear pretty kimonos.

I'm not saying this to rub salt in anyone's wound, but I'm trying to encourage you guys. It might seem like a big deal, but it's really not the end of the world. Tani-sensei has said this before, that we foreign students come here thinking only of Todai. We think the only good university is Todai (and maybe Kyodai). But actually, it's this gradually sliding scale. There are loads of good universities. Hokkaido University, Kyushu University, Osaka University, Hitotsubashi University... there is more to life than Tokyo University. Plus, move out of Tokyo and your living costs go way down - that means more money for things like fun and traveling.

And remember, MEXT chose you to get the scholarship for a reason. You may not understand why, in fact, I still don't understand why I got the scholarship. Especially when it seems that everyone else are much smarter than you. But the fact is, there's something special about you that stood out. Don't you ever forget that.

So yes, study hard, don't even think about cheating and choose your university wisely. But please please please, don't stress about it too much. And if you guys ever need to talk about university applications or stress or whatever, feel free to comment/email me. I'm always here to support you guys. 一緒に頑張ろう!

Here's a pretty picture from Mount Aso - PLEASE CONSIDER KYUDAI! 


Sunday, 14 December 2014

Kimono Fashion Show 2014

So, even though NaNoWriMo is over, I've been MIA. And as always, I've got really good reasons for that. One is that my mom and bro came over this week, and between lost luggage (which seems to occur to China Eastern passengers who transit at Shanghai) and general getting-used-to-the-cold, and eat-all-the-food stuff, I haven't had much time to get on the computer.

And of course, there is the Kimono Fashion Show. Y'all might remember the kimono shop from that one-time baito and the Yukata wearing stuff. So, more-or-less the same stuff, except I have to pay quite a bit. Even though the Kimono (mine's a 訪問着 - houmongi) itself was free (and apparently worth 300 000 yen), the customisation to my size was about 80 000 yen. But I asked around and asked the mighty Google, and it appears that if the customisation is done within Japan, like mine was, then it's still ok. A little on the high side, but not yet a rip-off.

Yesterday, we had a rehearsal! There were supposed to be eight of us, but two didn't come, including my partner. Needless to say, I was really really worried today.

The stage
I was told to come at 9:00 today, and woah, there were a lot of people. We were all herded into one huge room where people who are way better at these things than me helped me put on my kimono, and then to another big room where someone did my hair. As always, it's really fun to talk to the people who are helping me dress up - they've always got interesting things to say!

Since I came at 9, and started at about 9:30, I was done by 10:30. Maybe 11. Did I mention that I was only supposed to report at the place at 2:20 pm?

They very helpfully had all the reporting times at the back. 
 So, it was really a lot of walking around. And walking around. And walking around.

And now, walking back to the event hall.
For a while, I thought that my partner wasn't here (at least, that was what I was told). But yay, when I actually went to the reporting place I found her! Of course, she had no idea what to do, so I gave her a quick run-down, and then there was one final run through on a tiny mock-stage, and THEN we went to.... line up.

Outside waiting room. Not the official waiting room waiting room. 
Even though I was in Scene 2b (Grace), we still waited a really long time. Perhaps an hour? Not too sure, since I couldn't see a clock and didn't have my phone or a watch. I just know it was long enough that we were told we could sit down.

See! Scene 2, number 76
Oh, and I found it cool that there were makeup people standing around. We were told to do our own makeup when we came (hence my panda eyes in all photos that I will appear in), but they had people ready for touch ups. Mostly things like lipstick (that's what most of us got), but I did manage to borrow some of their eye makeup to try and look less panda-like!

You might recognise this photo from Google+, but yes, panda eyes. 
 My group was actually really fun though! There were only 7 of us, and after a while, we started talking. There's one girl from Okinawa, one from Tokyo, and I think the rest are from Fukuoka. One of them was even a mother of a 3 year old, and she's only 24! Woah.

Me with a group-mate
I actually got tickets for my mom and bro, but after my turn, my brother was making enough noise that they had to go outside. I wanted to leave early, but permission was not granted. Apparently, I had to be back in about an hour for the closing ceremony.

So... when in doubt what to do, EAT. 

It's called a fruit crepe, but it's basically a vanilla ice-cream
crepe with fruits on the side. 
After my first meal/snack of the day, I went back, and my mom and bro went to explore Tenjin. My mom got this Fukuoka tourism booklet, so she has many many places she wants to go now (which I honestly don't know about).

The ending ceremony was actually not that bad. There was some prize-presentation (I didn't even know this was a competition of sorts!) which was meh, but then they read this letter by one of the participants on why she wanted to participate. It was really moving, and I honestly wanted to cry a little. Then a closing speech, which was thankfully short, a loud bang and streamers which made most of us jump, and finally, it was over.

お疲れ様です〜
All in all, it was fun. My mom enjoyed looking at the different kimonos, especially the way they tied the obi and the various hairstyles. My brother... wasn't that interested, but started reading a book that I really love and recommended, so I consider the day a success. I had a lot of fun wearing a pretty kimono, and meeting new people. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Aso by Train Part 2: Aso Farmland to Mount Aso

Time for part 2 of my travel series! While I could quite happily spend all my time at Aso, I had to bring my relatives around the Aso area as well. Ok, I also wanted to go to Mount Aso (retracing my ROCS3 steps!).

Day 2: Aso Farmland - Mount Aso (and back!)

We had originally planned to go to Mount Aso and Shirakawa Spring on the same day, but my aunt and uncle forgot their Rail Pass, so we decided just to head to Aso and go to Shirakawa the next day.

There are, as far as I know, three ways to get to Mount Aso:

1. Take a round-trip taxi (1.5 hours, if I remember correctly). It was so expensive I blocked the price from my memory.

2. Take a taxi there. It's about 30 minutes, but I think the price wasn't as bad as the round trip taxi (it's not even half, so I'm not sure what's going on).

3. Take a taxi to Akamizu station (a little more than 1000 yen), then take the train to Aso station.

Obviously, we chose option 3, the cheapest and most time-consuming method. By the way, if you have internet (and even if you don't, go ask the front staff), check the train timings so you don't end up waiting forty minutes for the train.

View from Akamizu station
Akamizu station is a really inaka (countryside) station. There's a station master, but it took a few minutes of knocking on the window to get his attention. We could have literally just walked in without tickets (don't do that, it's not right and anyway, Aso station checks your tickets when you get off).

Country road, take me home.
Wait, I never lived in the countryside. Oh well, I still used that line 
From Akamizu station, we took the train to Aso Station, and then a bus to Mount Aso. You can buy the bus tickets from the vending machine in the building on the right (on the right as you exit the station).

Since there was heightened volcanic activity (Mount Aso has since had its first eruption in 22 years), we couldn't go all the way to the top. So, like 5 years before (I'm starting to think Mount Aso doesn't want me to see its crater), we only went as high as the volcano museum.

But this time, we also took a little hike up to take a look at the active caldera.

That hill-like thing you can see people walking towards
It was breathtaking!

View from that hill in the previous picture - you can see the smoke right?
Apart from the views, you can also ride horses here. Be warned, the horses stink.

This picture is for the bestie, Raychel. YOU KNOW WHY.
There's also a Japanese-language-only museum, which is worth going, even if you don't speak Japanese. Well, my aunt and uncle managed to guess most of the meanings, but that's probably because of the kanji.

Still, there's a pretty interesting, if dated, movie about the four seasons in Aso, as well as two floors about Aso and volcanoes in general. And a live feed. I wish I was there to see the live feed when the volcano erupted!

We wanted to take a taxi back to Aso Farmland (according to the taxi driver, it's about 30 minutes away, versus the one-and-a-half-hours by train and bus), but there are no taxis. I see why the round-trip taxis are so expensive now =.=

Thankfully, we finished the museum five minutes before the bus to the station came. Sadly, that's when it started raining.

Depending on the time you board the train back, you might have to get off at Akamizu station to take a taxi (which isn't that expensive). But, we were lucky and managed to catch the 3:30 bus back to Aso Farmland.

Next post: To Shirakawa Spring and (if there's time) Kumamoto castle!

You can see Part 1, from Hakata to Aso Farmland here.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Aso by Train Part 1: Aso Farmland

NaNoWriMo is over, I've won and I went on a really awesome trip with my aunt and uncle! We went back to Aso, Kumamoto, and since I can't drive, we basically had to rely on the train. Since I was told that you basically need a car to get around Kumamoto, I figured that I'd write a little guide on how to use a train (and if necessary, bus or taxi) to get around.

First, you need to get the JR Kyushu Railway Pass. It's 7200 for a 3-day Northern Kyushu pass, and includes unlimited rides on the Shinkansen and other JR lines. Just the shinkansen to Kumamoto will make it worthwhile.

Day 1: Hakata to Aso Farmland

Eki-ben~
 Ok, before I even get on the train, I'm posting pictures of food. Why? Because this was my first time eating Eki-ben (Train station bento). Found at Hakata station (you can find them in the Shinkansen station as well), these are beautiful and delicious bento. Here's mine:


It's probably between 1000-1500yen for one, depending on what you get.

My Aunt and Uncle's. The beef was fantastic!
So, back to trains. Take the Shinkansen from Hakata to Kumamoto. At Kumamoto, change to the Hohi Line. If I remember correctly, the platform is 0A, but do check with the station masters when you get there.

From there, we want to get to either Tateno or Akamizu. Either way, we're going to have to get off at Higoozu and change trains. So, Tateno or Akamizu? Ok, as of 2014 November (I don't know if the information will change, so please check!), there's a bus from Tateno station to Aso Farmland at 9:45am, 11:25 am and 3:30pm. If you're not arriving at those times, you will have to take the train to Akamizu (one station after Tateno) and take a taxi from there.

Tateno Station. Remember this station, it's pretty important.
Thankfully, we arrived there at 3:20, which means we managed to take the last bus! It's a 17 minute bus ride, and it costs 150 yen per person. So yes, much cheaper than taking a taxi.

Tateno Bus Stop
The bus will bring you all the way to Aso Farmland, although the bus stop is on the opposite side of the lobby. But, I'm not going to complain, since even if you take the taxi, you'll have to get out in the parking lot and walk about 5 mins anyway.

So, Aso Farmland photos!

Morning time, with us in the clouds!
We were really luck to be able to catch the sunset on the first day! Upon looking at the map, we realised that there's a platform for viewing the sunset - all the way down. See the pictures above and below? You'll have to walk all the way down. Or you know, ask the bus driver that drives people to the more distant houses to let you sit in the bus there.


The platform has this cute heart thing, and about three places you can stand to take photos. Definitely worth it, if you want to get great photos. 

A lock for eternal love?
I think that's Mount Aso in the background! With the smoke from the one active crater (which recently erupted)


But really, beautiful.

For more information about Aso Farmland take a look at this post. My experience was very much the same, but with less snow. And I went to the spa and onsens a lot more (My relatives are here to relax so... spa!).

Funny story: My aunt and uncle first went to onsen here at Aso Farmland. Before we even went to onsen, we already spent about two hours at this spa place, where you seat in heated domes made of different materials, supposedly with different house benefits. Since onsens are hot, and the night air is cold, my aunt wanted to get out after about 45 minutes. We got out, drank our milk, and waited for my uncle. And waited. And waited. And in the end, we had to call him over the intercom twice. "(name) COME OUT NOW. COME OUT NOW" There was even another person who used the intercom after us. "(name) WE AGREED TO MEET AT THE LOBBY WHERE ARE YOU?" (I think that guy was Singaporean too, because of the accent) Now that I've typed it out, it doesn't seem so funny to me, but I guess you had to be there. I was laughing like crazy.

Coming up next: Aso Farmland to Mount Aso. Stay tuned!