I'm living in Kusatsu-shi, Shiga-ken for an undetermined amount of time and teaching English as a second language at a local high school. This journal is to document my experiences, thoughts, and to stay connected with others at home and abroad.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Golden Week 2008: Kyushu 九州

Many people back home may not know that the Japanese school year begins in April. Like America's tax cycle, March and beginning of April bring tears to the eyes of many as graduating 18 year-olds and teachers receiving intra-prefectural transfers pack up their bags and move on to their next destination. While the former is a natural transition, a 'rite of passage', the latter is a senseless displacement that often forces veteran teachers into unqualified positions at their new schools, for example the basketball coach at School A will become a tennis coach at School B, despite having no knowledge or experience with a racket. "Maybe sports don't require as much expertise," you say, "surely they wouldn't do the same thing in the classroom." Unfortunately sports are not the exception. I have often talked to a teacher whose expertise is in Japanese History, yet because the faculty has 4 staff member proficient in the area, she was asked to prepare lessons for World History, which she knew little about. I know this often happens in The States as well; infamously dull and dimwitted soccer and football coaches/history teachers are a cliché to any high school student. But to lack competency in all areas smacks of institutionalized miseducation.

The inefficiency of this rhyme and reasonless teacher swapping also costs the education system losses in the billions (in yen or dollars). That same teacher at School A used to live a 5 minute bike ride from work. But come April 1st, she could find herself driving up to 45~90 minutes to School B. So now not only is the Prefecture losing money by putting their teachers in situations that do not allow them to use their training effectively, they are handicapping the students by failing to provide adequate, inspiring education, polluting our environment, and losing countless hours to the brain-draining "commute" virus. This may seem like an exaggeration, but I can assure you, it is an annual practice, like ritualistic slaughter, and I'll leave it to you to figure out who represents the lamb.

Needless to say, the end of April, beginning of May is a time we ALT like to get the hell out of school for a glorious escape known as Golden Week.

The pictures do a more succinct job, so I'll leave most of the work to them. Basically, we went to Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands (others being Hokkaido, Honshu, and Shikoku, north to south). Kyushu is a land of ancient volcanoes, many of which are still active. Like this one here, the Minamidake (South Peak) on Sakurajima, the first stop on our tour of Kyushu. This volcano has actually wiped out the island's eastern towns several times in its history, as well as created a land bridge between the island an Kyushu's main land.

And where there are volcanoes in Japan, there are certain to be onsen (hot springs = 温泉). There's no better way to end a day of riding around Sakurajima (an island 40km in circumfrence) on gearless bikes. This particular onsen, Furusato Onsen, was also a shrine, so any visitors had to wear a robe, or yukata, into the water as they bathed. It was the first time I had experienced this in Japan. Usually onsen means getting nek'd in front of a lot of strangers, and for someone who went to a high school without a locker room (that you for sheltering me, Paideia, seriously!) this can be shocking. But after being here for two years now, I found the yukata style somewhat awkward--while my body has adjusted to being clothless in the onsen water, my brain knew that nudity equaled sacrilige, so I did my best to keep everything on, at least for the camera.

Sakurajima also treated Katie and I to another wonderful, though strange, first: chiken sushi. Many of you who know I have become a hypocritical part-time vegetarian may be hissing at the news, I do eat meat under certain conditions: 1) it's organic, or as close as anything can be nowadays, and it's local, 2) it's been ordered accidentally due to communication errors, 3) it's my birthday, 4) I'm at a guest's house and free food plus manners persuade me otherwise. Well, I should move to Sakurajima because it satisfied my 1st and most important standard: it's grain fed, free-range, locally slaughtered (i.e. 20 feet away from your table) and prepared on site by Mr. Tashiro. My conscience and I couldn't have been happier. Katie and I ate, drank, took a siesta on the tatami at the Tashiro residence/restaurant, all for $25--quite possibly one of the best meals I've ever experienced. When we awoke, we were given a personal tour of the farm and grounds by Mr. Tashiro, and eventually made our way around the island, back to the hotel.

While there's no possible was to forget the immense hospitality shown by the Tashiro family, juxtaposed with the haven of their free-range farm were the notorious tetrapods. On any given coastline in Japan, there is no escaping these concrete monstrosities. Even the bay inland of Sakurajima island (which faces the mainland on the inside of a bay where waves are incredibly minimal, practically non-existent), the tetrapods prevail. I provide multiple views to show that my account is not exaggerated in its detail of the cement quadriplegia that paralyzes gorgeous coastlines. I've read statistics that quote the production of these lifeless clunks as consisting of as much to 10% of the national construction budget. Along with the paving of river beds and unnecessary damming of creaks thinner than my piss stream, these man-made disaster protection devices are more detrimental that the changes that would occur were they not impeding the natural processes in place. Take a look at these blockheads--really, are they worth the cost?

Fun as it was, we eventually had to leave Sakurajima and the dinosaur park (a tribute to "life size" dinosaur playground structures we conquered our final night). From there, Yakushima, another island 2 hours south by the "Rocket" Ferry.

Yakushima (屋久島) was also certainly not lacking in beauty. About 50% of the island functions on hydropower, provided by Yakushima's countless pristine clear-flowing streams and rivers.
The water here is certainly something the brag about; it rains a total of "35 times a month" according to locals, and actually accumulates some of the highest amount of rainfall per year in the world. The height of the mountains adds a unique boreal layer to the forests at high altitudes, such as the famous Yakusugi (Yakushima Cedar)

According to Japanese records, Yakushima holds the World's Oldest Tree: Jomonsugi (縄文杉), around 2,000 years old. The picture is a bit weak I know, but apparently due to the cold climate high in Yakushima's forests, the rings on Yakusugi trees are incredibly thin, therefore deceptively small compared to California Redwoods, and other trees that date back centuries. For what it's worth though, this account is what I've gathered from my Japanese sources and poor photography skills.

So we camped and hiked for 3 days up to the highest point in Yakushima, Miyanouradake (宮之浦岳). On the way we met two friends, Torou and Yumi, a brother and sister who live there on Yakushima, and they invited us over the night after we descended the mountain to join them for dinner and to stay the night (more details to come at a later date).

But the hiking, playing, and scenery were things I will never forget about the trip. I have many more photos up on my Flickr account, if anyone is interested in taking a peek.

Other than that, I think I've reached a good stopping point for now on the Kyushu trip. I will of course be updating as memories fly (hopefully) belatedly back into the forefront.


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