Rain, cicadas and confusion in Kumamoto

Our Kyoto hostel hadn’t been especially restful, and we were gritty-eyed and slow in the morning, which is why we had our big train screw-up. We were meant to be meeting Sayaka in Kumamoto, on the island of Kyushu practically at the other end of the country. She was planning to take an overnight bus from Tokyo, spend some time with a friend of hers and meet up with us that evening.

It would have been a fairly simple exercise: one short train from Kyoto to Shin-Osaka, hop onto the shinkansen and ride to Hakata at the end of the line, and then take a third train to Kumamoto. We had reservations for the second and third trains, but there hadn’t been any point in reserving for the train to Shin-Osaka - they leave constantly.

The problem was, see, we forgot about the first train. We saw that we had reservation slips for a train at 9:15 and it completely slipped our minds that those reservations were really from Shin-Osaka, not to Shin-Osaka. So we showed up at Kyoto station just past 9, in good time for the train that was leaving in ten minutes forty kilometers away at Shin-Osaka. We were too tired to feel stupid, but we should have. Damn good thing we had the rail pass (I’ve said that half a dozen times already and it’s only the beginning of the third day) because we had to toss all the reservations we had and make new ones. I don’t often feel like the clueless idiot that foreigners are usually assumed to be, here in Japan - but today I certainly did.

A side benefit of our stupidity was that we didn’t have to travel in the smoking car all the way to Hakata. It’s all we were able to get, back when we were making the initial round of reservations, but apparently the next train had more space. I’m not sorry to miss out on that experience.

After that it was easy travelling to Kumamoto. The train from Shin-Osaka to Hakata was a beautiful Hikari Rail Star bullet train that topped out at 285kph. Until then I hadn’t really felt the speed of these trains - the scenery whizzed by in a blur outside, but it was like watching a screen. The acceleration of the Hikari, though, pushed me into my seat like a rocket lifting off.

We had a place booked to stay in Kumamoto. It was modeled after a traditional ryokan inn - and I suspect it may really have been one in a former life, but now it was a cut-rate, foreigner-friendly version. It was still a nice place and more than we’d usually spend, but Sayaka was coming and we wanted to celebrate with a nice place to stay. We’d called ahead to let the owner know about new arrival time and he met us at the station in Kumamoto. We hardly had a chance to catch our breath before he hustled us to the tourist-information counter and made them translate for him (although his English was quite good enough for us).

He wanted us to leave our packs with him so that he could take them to the guesthouse while we took off to see the sights, getting on to afternoon as it was. We weren’t prepared for that and hadn’t yet thought about where we were going, but it sounded like a good idea to us - especially since to get to the most likely place, the Suizenji Garden, we’d have to take a train from the very spot we were standing. Having taken this long to get up to speed, there were only a few minutes left before the train. We tore through our packs taking what we’d need for the day and leaving what we wouldn’t, and then ran for the ticket booth.

It was raining again as we walked to the Suizenji Gardens. I think we bring bad weather with us wherever we go. The gardens were lovely, but odd. There was a scale-model Mount Fuji covered with green grass, 20 meters high, and a big central pond with herons and dinosaur carp. In the north part of the park was a shrine to Inari - much smaller than Fushimi Shrine in Kyoto, but with the same red ceremonial torii gates leading up to it. The rain had brought out the evil Japanese zebra mosquitoes and I (not Sheryl, naturally) was soon covered in bites.

Oh, and the cidadas. The air was alive with their sound. There were thousands. The droning buzz was so loud that it filled my skull and made it impossible to think. At first I couldn’t see them, but then, in a trompe-l’œil trick their shapes resolved out of the tree bark and I realized that the trees were covered with them. From that point on I saw them wherever I looked. They seemed only to like a certain kind of tree, though - others had no cicadas at all. Don’t ask me what the difference was, they were all trees to me. As we were leaving we came across a few trees by the shrine covered with their cast-off skins, perfectly detailed translucent sepia shells split down the middle, still clinging to the bark. The ground underneath was littered with their delicate, veined wings, discarded by the birds that came to feed on the vulnerable, newly-molted insects.

A damp and strange evening followed. We knew Sayaka was somewhere in town with her friend Eri, and we called as we left the gardens to try and make arrangements to meet, and got very confused directions to meet at Kumamoto Castle. Neither she nor we knew the city very well, so the whole enterprise was ill-advised. We took the tram - filled with damp business-people with furled umbrellas and windows steamed to complete opacity - from the gardens to the foot of the castle hill, and walked around like fools looking for something that even vaguely matched Sayaka’s description. A couple of hours of confused wandering and even more confused phone calls followed before we finally managed to catch sight of each other, and we never did get to see the castle - it had closed while we were searching.

We’d eaten a cheap dinner from the supermarket in the meantime, but Sayaka and her friend Eri were falling over from hunger. They wanted to go to a yakitori place that Eri said she knew, so we followed them around for half an hour while they looked for it, couldn’t find it, and finally gave up. At this point I began to wonder if buildings actually moved around in Kumamoto.

They finally settled for a bar-restaurant with a name that translated to “Crazy for Pig”, according to Sayaka. We camped out there with beer and various crunchy or slimy pig parts for a few hours. It had only been a few days since we’d seen Sayaka but it seemed like longer. Her friend Eri was a funny, quirkily animated sweetheart and fun to talk with. We were joined later on by Rocky, another friend from Sayaka’s university days. He didn’t say much, but what he did say was quiet, polite and terribly respectful.

It got late before we realized it, and we still had to get back to the guesthouse. Sayaka, it turned out, had already been in contact with the owner and dropped her own bags off, and he’d offered a ride from the station whenever we were ready. It was so late, though - around eleven o’clock - that I thought it would be rude to call and demand to be picked up. Sayaka thought not and called anyway.

The inn was time-worn and creaky, but warm and welcoming. Our rooms had traditional futons and tatami mats with stiff, starchy yukatas laid out for after our baths. And of course, indoor slippers everywhere. I will never get the hang of the bloody slippers. The rules aren’t complicated - you wear them in the hallways and you take them off before you step inside a room onto the tatami mats. The exception is the toilet - there’s a special set of toilet slippers for the toilet (often helpfully labeled toilet on the toes). But I’m not a slipper person, I never have been. I always forget to put them on when I leave a room, or if I do remember to put them on, I forget to take them off when I come back into the room. It all seems so unnecessarily complicated, to me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Japanese, though, it’s that they love things to be complicated. The more a custom is impenetrably complex and governed by unspoken rules, the better they like it. At least I never wore the toilet slippers anywhere else - that’s the height of gaucherie.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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