Japan 2010: 8 - Where I am Attacked by Squid

My comfy Kagoshima bed. What a luxurious difference it made from the acceptable but decidedly plain bottom bunk in my Okinawa room. I had set the travel alarm nice and early the previous night but looking blearily at it in the darkened room, it was silent and without a pulse. I took the battery out and gave it a tap but nothing brought it back to life. Bloody thing, I'd just bought it.

Fortunately it was only 7am, and there was a long journey ahead of me, worthy of one of the days on my first outing. I would be leaving Kagoshima as soon as I could for Miyazaki, and after spending as much time there as I dare, taking the train up the coast to Nobeoka, where my next hotel awaited.

I got hold of a ham and egg sandwich (erroneously sold as a BLT!) with western tea from the nearby Doutor, a coffee store chain that you find pretty much everywhere that Starbucks hasn't colonised yet, and then got back on the streetcar. Something must have gone wrong in the night because I found myself mixing east and west and going the wrong way, but after a quick change (and a second ticket, grr) I finally made it to the station at about 10am.

Kagoshima station is huge, and as I would find out in all the westside cities in Kyushu, it was playing up the Shinkansen message. The long awaited Kyushu Shinkansen route, which connects the existing track at Fukuoka will eventually end at Kagoshima station with a spur to Nagasaki, meaning high-speed journeys that can take you all the way up to Sapporo, if you so fancied. Unfortunately, only part of the track is currently up and running and it won't be completed until midway through 2011, 20 years after the first soil was shifted. Just inside the entrance, a large cube with a cartoon man in a robe and a train counted down the days until completion.

It was time to get back on the JR network and justify the pass I had got at a very unfavourable exchange rate. The next train to Miyazaki was only a local one, meaning the journey time would be about two hours. Skipping the tickets I went down to the platform and waited. Even though the local train would be stopping several times it seemed like the best option rather than waiting for the next limited express, which wasn't due in for another hour. It was getting uncomfortably close to departure time with no sign of train before I had the good sense to look all the way to the end of the track behind me, where the train was waiting patiently. A few minutes more and it would have passed me by, leaving me looking a bit stupid.

As the train made its way slowly around the southern coastline, occasionally getting close enough to see Kagoshima Bay and the picturesque Sakurajima a little way off. Heading inland, the beautiful Japanese countryside was gouged out to make way for our single track. Heading through a pleasant valley one minute would be spoilt by a claustrophobic concrete lined basin the next, with only the peaks way above our heads showing any signs of natural life. Unfortunately this is the price paid by the Japanese for their envied rail systems; something has to be sacrificed and all too often it would be the wilderness. I thought about the road building in Okinawa and the miles of track being laid for the Shinkansen and sighed.

For the early part of the journey I stood with my bags at my feet, as the train was quite full, but over the course of the ten or so stops on the way enough people got off to grab a double seat of my own. Just as I had, a band of schoolchildren with their teachers got on and swarmed up the aisle, devouring every spare space they could. A few of them around my seat regarded me with curiosity, looking away with shyness when I turned to them. One of them managed an English 'Hello' and responded with happy surprise that I replied in Japanese.

The journey carried on through several stops, and happily the concrete abated in favour of some wide open, fairly untouched natural beauty. Eventually we all made it into Miyazaki station at about midday. It was time for an old-style rush job to make the most of my time here. I stuck my bags in the nearest available locker and got hold of a map from the tourist office. A quick scan and an obvious path from the station, south out of the west exit to the Oyodo river and back down the main street and loop back to the station would cover several of the highlighted attractions and take the next few hours, which was all I had. The station boards showed limited express trains to Nobeoka at 4.30 and 5.30, an hours ride. My map of the route to the hotel from Nobeoka station was vague but it did seem like quite a hike, so getting there late wasn't a good idea.

I trotted off to the first attraction - the Miyazaki Science Center (also) was just round the corner and is easily distinguished by a big shiny dome and a dirty great full-size rocket stuck outside. Also outside was a large group of schoolchildren, many of them sat impatiently cross-legged on the ground, a few more excitable ones running about and generally giving the handful of teachers something to do. At least some of them had been on the train but there were several schools worth of kids ready to swarm on the poor staff with sticky fingers and clipboard questions.

I moved through the crowd as anonymously as I could, although I was inevitably watched by a hundred little eyes as I passed down the middle of the group. Inside, it was the calm before the storm, so I got my ticket quickly (520yen) and started out on the ground floor.
It's a circular, open space populated by large exhibits, such as a full-size Apollo 11 moon lander right in the middle of the room, a smaller space pod in the old style that you could strap yourself in, and the fenced-off 'classroom' of Dr. Cosmo, which I initially mistook for a real person, but was actually a lifelike simile of a cuddly scientific old granddad, lip-syncing to a recorded voice as his arms gestured enthusiastically about his experiments and discoveries. Round the sides, again, were a set of study rooms filled with books and desks, again empty.

Natural progression took me to a small building within the museum, where a woman in a starched airline-style uniform was helping a couple out of a door at the side. From the posters, it became clear this was one of those mini film theatres where the seats are on hydraulics. I'm guessing that normally they wait until there are enough people for a full seating before letting people in, but since it was so quiet, I was ushered straight in. It's fair to say that the seats were a little small for a frame such as mine, and the stepladder used to get people up to the height of the seating area (a good 6 feet off the ground) meant that a dignified entrance/exit was less than assured, although fortunately it was just me.

The film started, and as the lady said, it was all in Japanese, but I got the gist of things. I was accompanying a gruff-voiced scientist on a research submarine deep into the murky depths of the ocean (which I told myself would make up for the lack of scuba diving earlier when I was asked to choose which film to see). Suddenly, we're attacked! The slight bobbing movements of the seat platform used to suggest descent were thrown out of the window and were replaced by being thrown wildly around the room, save for my seat belt. A giant squid had wrapped itself around us and was not letting go, the mouth ready for a bit of unexpected European cuisine.

Fortunately, like all research subs, we were able to give it a massive electric shock, which it didn't like up it, allowing us to flee. A few minutes worth of surveying deep sea crabs and volcanic vents are interrupted by a spine-rearranging earthquake, forcing the expedition to come to an end and us to rise back to the surface. The film ended and the door opened. With a slightly wobbly jump back to ground level that slightly startled the attendant, I thanked her and went on my way.

By the time I emerged, the schoolchildren had been let loose, and were now running around the place, excitedly prodding at any interaction buttons, wheels or levers they could find. Now was a good time to head upstairs to the next floor. Unfortunately I had been beaten to it.

The second floor included a ringed balcony that looked down on the exhibits below, with recessed areas all around containing a variety of 'have a go' experiments in a similar vein to Eureka in the UK.
Thankful that only a few children had made their way up thus far, I could choose a quiet corner and make a fool of myself on the experiments. My aim fell short at the 'throwing balls at targets' game, and failed me again with the experiment where you had to move a ring along a metal pole without touching it, the classic game brought up to date because you were being timed against a robotic arm doing the same thing. Needless to say I came a distant second.

The third floor was a full-sized screening room, and at the top of the steps, a set of double-doors led to the large film room beyond. There were a half-dozen posters - all animations of various styles - with a discovery theme. Of particular interest was Ginga no Katasumi, a Ghibli-styled film about a boy and his sheepdog with nothing but the night sky for company, and 'Journey to the Stars', an intriguing looking film narrated by Whoopi Goldberg (in the English version at least).

Generally they all sounded interesting to watch, even the crazy-assed slapstick looking ones, although one poster managed to irk me a little; a film called Fantasy Railroad in the Stars (released in English as The Celestial Railroad) looked nice (and the Kagaya film studio website has some beautiful imagery), but stuck slap bang in the middle of the poster was a glowing Christian cross. Having seen the trailer (which seems to be for a very pleasant zen-style cgi journey), there seems to be no reason for it to be there, so why was it? It was probably unnoticed or heeded by anyone viewing it and wasn't a problem for them, but again, western religion was creeping in where I personally don't think it should be, and it was becoming increasingly noticeable on my journey.

Anyway, it was all moot. The theatre would not open for the next film until an hour or so later, meaning that the science museum would be about it for my time in Miyazaki, so I headed back down the steps, took a quick look around (by now things were getting pretty busy) and headed out.

Moving into the suburbs towards the Oyodo river, the sights were pretty slim, but the general look of the place was quiet and pleasant. Little parks sat on the side of quiet roads, and neat, meticulously kept but individual houses lined each side of the spotless road.
I had the idea of going to the free hot springs down the road. It took a little while to find, not least because it was bloody small, and the map I had got hold of was a little bit misleading as to distances, but I finally found it, helped slightly by it's bright yellow flags outside. The spring was open-air, and seemed to be a small, free offering to passers-by on the back of a full-blown onsen just behind. It consisted of a small bench at the side of a quiet back road, over a small pool of water, constantly overflowing and refreshed by a spring that bubbled down a rocky channel.

Within a few minutes of losing my socks and shoes, and plunging my feet into the hot but bearable water, I was treated to a selection of the local community going about their business. Some people wearing yellow bibs and carrying clipboards came past intermittently; some in pairs, some alone, and some on bikes for a bit of variety. I wondered whether some Japanese Alan Sugar was somewhere setting a stupid task for his hopeful apprentices. A middle-aged lady came over, and smiling took off her sandals and sat next to me. I smiled and said hello and we exchanged a few words. An elderly man passed by sometime later, and given that there was limited room in the spring, I decided it was time to move on, so I got out and perched on the edge of the bench to let my feet dry in the warm sun. The old man smiled and went back to his bike, and rummaging in the basket came back with a handful of satsumas, which he placed in my hands. They looked a bit bruised and slightly warm, but I said thanks and put them in my pockets.

I finally found the river a little way on; a wide stretch of water with the occasional bridge. A high breaking wall had a set of steps, and at the top, I had the choice of following along the top of the wall or heading down to the waters edge. I took the chance to be closer to some nature, relatively speaking, so descended the other side onto the grassed verge. The walk was quite pleasant, and I ate a couple of the satsumas as I strolled along.
The grassed path slowly turned into a course rockery as it neared the waters' edge and was populated by the occasional crane, one of which was a little less timid than the ones back home, allowing me to get surprisingly near before it decided I was going to eat it. I followed the river around a sweeping bend, until I neared what the map termed an 'event space' on the pathway above, but turned out at this time, to have no such events.

The path had graduated into a proper riverside way by this point so I decided to stay on top. A decent view of the river on one side, and a row of matured palm plants on the other, many of them heavy with the weight of massive seed spurs, their delicate growing tips protected from ensuing winter cold by a symbiotic relationship with a fern, that could be seen on each tree which wore it like a scarf. To make the walk a little more pleasurable, the pathway was also lined with bushes, dotted with large evening primrose type trumpet flowers, of a fiery pink colour.

Before long, the Tachibana main road appeared, and according to the guide book it was where I should be going to complete the loop. The rather wide road sloped down into a shopping district containing a few municipal buildings with nice views over the riverside. According to the guide there was a temple - the Tokuzenji - hidden cheekily behind some of the frontage buildings. As I headed round them, the sight of a temple roof peeked out now and again from between the modern buildings, but it seemed penned in with no way for the average tourist to gain access.
Well off the beaten track, I hear sqwawking and chirruping from a nearby house, which on inspection is filled with cages. My love of parrots encouraged me to sneak a little closer to see what was being kept, but this was a bad idea - the cages went silent, and one parrot in particular fixed it's stare on me - and started shrieking at the top of it's voice like a car alarm mixed with a guard dog. A harassed looking woman stuck her head through the beaded doorway and I quickly went on my way. Sometime later, the squawking stopped and my face regained it's un-luminous qualities.

Eventually, after doing a circuit of the block and finding no way in, I gave up, but as I was heading down the alleyway back to the main road, a woman pushing a bike directed my attention to a little tiny shrine nestled between the buildings. I stopped, and by coincidence so did the lady. Now, if you find yourself talking with someone, don't try to bluff that you know what they are saying when you don't speak the language like I did, or you will get a lot of words said at you with an expectation of understanding in return. Only so much smiling and nodding will work. Eventually, she got the message that I hadn't a clue what she was saying, and instead invited me to pay respects with her at the shrine, which we both did.

Kencho-kasunanomiki street was across the road, and on the map looked vaguely interesting a little further down, the street was lined with green trees, pleasantly dappling the pathway and the busy road.
A couple of blocks down was a small Japanese garden. It seemed to be part of the fronting of a large hotel or conference building, although it was open for free to the public. A compact layout of a twisting path arching over the pond a couple of times. In the pond predictably were a large amount of koi, and it was clear why there were so many - they were frisky as hell gathering in large groups and writhing over each other, rising as far out of the water as they could manage and splashing back down into the group. It was certainly sexytime in koi land that day.

Passing the grand government office at a major crossroads I changed my direction back to the main road, and again I was bothered at the sight of not one, but several churches. One had a sign outside that told the story, in dual language of the missionary cause being fulfilled, bringing the Christian religion to those who need it most, the Japanese, whose own religions must be condemning them to hell as we speak. Grumbling and imagining how I would have given the chubby, friendly looking pastor a good talking to if I saw him, I went on my way.
I was feeling a bit peckish by now, so had been keeping my eye out for somewhere to get something. A French restaurant near the churches piqued my curiosity, but I was on the lookout in particular for a Miyazaki delicacy - Chicken Nanban, a variation of Yōshoku that the guide said was on sale in a few select eateries. I took a guess at a large Udon restaurant, mainly because of it's bright and airy interior, and one wall decorated with easy to point out dishes. On the other wall was a mural of several traditional Japanese folk dancing and looking generally a bit mad.
The counter was as fast-food like as you could make something like this, a number of chefs behind the counter beavering away with vegetables and large vats of steaming miso soup. The nanban was off the menu, but I was committed now, so I quickly chose an udon dish from the board and phonetically read out the symbols. The Kitsune Udon consisted of a bowl of thick Udon noodles in miso soup with some beansprouts and other veg, topped with two strange triangular fritters. My limited vocabulary recalled Kitsune meaning 'fox', and I hoped that referred to the fritters resembling fox ears, rather than being made from one of them (edit: no). Regardless, it tasted pretty good and udon is always a cheap way to get a full tum.

Waddling out, I picked up my pace a little so I could catch the earlier train as I was running out of things within reach to see. There was a covered market down one of the side streets, with a few flower stalls pleasantly welcoming people in. Unfortunately that was about it aside from a few stalls of knick knacks. The map highlighted a nearby place a little further in called 'Giants Plaza' which turned out to be a baseball shop, so past that I went, and into a model shop.
Inside the fusty fluorescent-lit shop, there was little room to move, the long, close aisles overflowing with models of robots, aircraft, superheroes and trains. A large proportion of the back of the shop was given over to model cars, and there were boxes piled high with recognisable and obscure offerings, including the Knight Rider car. Although I'm not much of a model fan, there were some pretty cool models you weren't going to find in many other places here, and if space wasn't an issue, I'd maybe have brought one back.

Exiting north, I found myself on Takachiho street, one of the main artery roads which although pretty devoid of sights, conveniently took me right back to the station. Tall trees and small pools containing waterlilies separated the pavements from the road, and every now and then large winged butterflies flitted from the trees to the warm pavement. In a lovely moment one landed on my hand as I outstretched it, and I boosted it back up to the treetops with a swish.

I returned in good time at 4pm, and got a ticket for the half past to Nobeoka. The platform was busy with commuters but at least this time I had a ticket, and therefore a seat.
According to Japan by Rail, the views up the coast between Tsuno and Hyugashi were meant to be some of the most scenic in Kyushu, and early on there were some great sights as the sun began to get low in the sky, but unfortunately at this time of year there were large swathes of wildlife overgrown and wilting, blocking out the views of the shore and everything else.

By the time I reached Nobeoka it was starting to get dark, and I had to find the hotel. The bus station that I would need to use was next to the station, so I took the opportunity to get hold of a timetable. A very helpful bloke brought me inside the now closed bus terminal and helped me find the right one from a shelf of several dozen, which I was very thankful for as there wasn't a letter of English on them. He circled the words for Nobeoka and Takachiho, and with much thanks I left for the hotel.

Nobeoka has a main street that seems to go on for ever. According to the map I should join it at the station, turn left and keep walking until I see it. Which I did. As the light faded entirely and my backpacks made each step more noticeable, I had worries that I might have missed it. 20 minutes of walking later (the map suggested about 5) and I gave up and asked a nearby taxi driver. I was pretty close, and as the road lifted up to cross the Gokase river, the hotel made itself known subtly by it's small neon sign in an almost completely darkened building.

Hotel Review: Hotel Merieges Nobeoka (6440 yen/night, 1 night)
The price was a bit high, but there weren't many pickings for places to stay near Nobeoka station, this was the best I could get balancing price and convenience. It's about 20 minutes from the station, and very nice indeed. It overlooks the river for some nice views, it has free internet, the staff are good English speakers and very enthusiastic to help, and the rooms are luxurious with comfy beds. On some of their non-room floors they have their own restaurants of various themes. I had Chinese on my night (very nice) but they also had Indian, Japanese and Italian. In my dishevelled and care-worn clothes, I felt quite out of place in the poshness. 9/10

After checking in, I asked if I could use their computers, and an enthusiastic receptionist bounded over to the terminals, logging in for me rather than expecting me to do it myself; I'm guessing from the posh, shiny lobby that the place tends to attract people who don't (or can't) do things for themselves. I caught up on some emails, and then after dropping my bags off in the room, gorged on some food in the Mandarin Chinese restaurant (1850 yen). I took a stroll at the riverside to walk things off, and then got myself some sleep. I had travelled far but there was just as much again tomorrow.

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