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As you may know from the previous post, Thursday the 19th I took a trip down to the city of Hitoyoshi in neighboring Kumamoto Prefecture.  My main goal was to ride on Steam Locomotive Hitoyoshi, but I got to enjoy some other things as well.  If you haven’t already seen the video, scroll down to watch it eh.

Did you watch it? ^o^

DAY 1

Anyway, I left at 10 in the morning for Hitoyoshi via Kumamoto Station.  On the way there I rode regular (electric) trains.  I guess it’s not too often that people ride down that far, since on the train from Kumamoto to Hitoyoshi, on the Trans-Kyuushuu Limited Express (九州横断特急), one of the attendants went around with a poster board with a picture of the train for people to take a photo with.

Anyone else feel like bumpin' some Kraftwerk? >o<

At Hitoyoshi Station I went to the information center to get a map of the area.  The attendant also gave me a few pages explaining important local sites in English.  After getting the map and info I hopped on a cab to the ryokan (旅館 a traditional style inn) I’d be staying at, Suiranrou (翠嵐楼).  Since I got there too early I chilled in the lobby for an hour going over the map and making a plan since I hadn’t really made one other than “get on the choo-choo at all costs!!!” ^o^;  I also got to enjoy kakigoori (かき氷), which is shaved ice, that was made with water from the onsen (温泉 hot springs).

Once the room was ready I pulled out the futon and conked out for two hours.  When I woke up, I went for a stroll alongside the Kuma River.  I saw many interesting butterflies on the walk, but they wouldn’t stop long enough for me to photograph them.

Compositionally one of the best photos I took, but thematically...I feel like I've seen this before. Probably on a motivational poster.

I also came across this little shrine to the God of the Hot Springs.

After that I went back to the ryokan and chilled in my room till dinner was brought up.  It was a FEAST.  First course:

Nom nom nom

There’s sashimi, shrimp, tofu, and the little cup is umeshuu (plum wine).  The pot with SL Hitoyoshi drawn on it was “SL Nabe.”  You’ll get it a few photos down. ^o^ Then, second course:

Ayu! But not Hamasaki. *Rimshot*

Ayu is a fish from the Kuma River.  The big one in the photo was still cooking when it was brought up (there’s hot coals in that thing it’s on), but the little ones were done.  The woman told me to eat the little ones entirely, from head to tail.  I asked about the big one, but was told that the head would be too bitter to eat.  They were very, very tasty!

Now, the dish called “SL Nabe” is naberyouri, which is a stew cooked at the table, usually in a regular looking pot.  But since it’s SL Nabe:

Get it? It's steaming! ^o^ ♡

Once it was ready, it looked like this:

*Mouth waters*

It…was…OH MY GOD DELICIOUS.  Especially the pork.  Kumamoto pork.  So tender and juicy! Mmmmmm!

In the same photo you can see the miso soup (it’s covered ^_^;) and to the right of that, some purin (flan).  This was brought up after the ayu, along with rice which I was told was particularly delicious since it was cooked with water from the hot spring–I think it really did taste particularly good, and not as mushy as rice elsewhere–and a poached egg cooled off in cold harusame (clear noodles).

Afterward, when an attendant cleared the dishes she asked if I had gone into the onsen yet.  I told her no and confessed that while I wanted to go, I was a bit embarrassed by the thought.  I’d been debating with myself whether I should go or not before the attendant asked.  On the one hand I thought it’d be wasteful not to, plus I would feel bad if the attendants later asked what I had thought of the onsen, and also I thought that I should try onsen at least once while in Japan but…on the other hand going to the onsen meant I had to shower in front of other people and walk from the shower to the onsen bath with nothing but a puny towel some 10 x 20 inches.  In the end what made me go was the thought that I always tell my kids to have courage in class, so how could I run away from entering the onsen?  There’s two things I’ve always tried not to be: a bother and a hypocrite.

Before she left, the attendant said, “Well, tonight will be your onsen debut.” XDDDD

So I put on the provided yukata and headed down to the 露天風呂 – rotenburo, which means “open air bath.” I heard voices coming from the bath below that one, which I’d been told was the most popular.  But luckily, when I entered the rotenburo…

…there was no one else there! *Victory Fanfare* XDDD

It was wonderful!  I like the feeling of water nudging at me, and this particular bath had a soft fragrance. While it was a rotenburo, it wasn’t completely exposed. It had bamboo walls about 10 feet high, but no roof.  Unfortunately it was a cloudy night so I could only see one bright star.  Still, it was so relaxing. The temperature in this onsen was 50℃ (122°F).

I soaked for about 20 minutes.  I got up, rinsed off, dried off, and was putting the yukata back on when I thought, “how likely is it that I’ll get the chance to enjoy onsen by myself ever again?” Yeah, you know what happened next. Back in for another 15 minutes!

When I got back to my room I was hoping I could do some 月見 (tsukimi – moon viewing) and star gazing, but the clouds persisted.  I wanted to enjoy the night air at least, so I turned off the AC and opened the window, turned out the lights, and put trippy music on. Miguel Bose’s “Agua Clara” to start things off. ^o^ Fittingly enough for staring at a river. Well, good things come to those who wait, and eventually the clouds started moving out, giving me glimpses of an orange waxing moon.  After 30 minutes the clouds were gone entirely.

DAY 2

In the morning, I went down to the ryokan’s restaurant for breakfast.  That morning I’d seen the news about the egg recall in the States, and what should be in the breakfast?  Raw egg. ^o^; It didn’t taste bad, but I don’t see the appeal.  Dipping the toast into it was pretty good, but…not something I’ll go out of my way to eat again.  The best part of breakfast was definitely the 湯豆腐 (yudoufu – boiled tofu).

While I ate, an attendant said to me, “When I heard we’d be having a foreign guest I tried to brush up on my English, but I can’t remember anything after all.”   I said to her, “Oh, surely you remember your self-introduction?” Of course…she did. ^o^; </ALT humor> Also, the attendant who’d brought me my dinner the previous night told me, “you should go to the onsen again before you check out if you have time.” Since I’d requested my breakfast early (because I had a mind fart when I picked the unholy hour of 7:30AM) I had plenty of time before the 10AM check-out.

I decided to try the aforementioned popular onsen, the “retro” onsen.  It was the first onsen to open in Hitoyoshi City, back in 1910.  It looks today the same way it did back then.  It was also very good, and thanks to the somewhat strange hour for bathing, 8AM, completely empty! More WIN. I took two 15-minute soaks.

When it was time to go, I was driven to the train station in one of the ryokan’s cars.  I put the messenger bag with my clothes into a coin locker and set off to look around.

First up: National Treasure Aoi Aso Shrine.

Aoi Aso has a unique style featuring these weird little heads/masks up in the eaves.

At Aoi Aso I got an omamori that I’d never seen before: an 足腰健康御守, that is, a good luck charm for leg health. How appropriate!  It’s in the shape of sandals. Maybe it’s for old people, not young people who slip on ice and break themselves.  Oh yeah, also the sidewalk in front of the shrine tried to kill me, so I figured it’d be a good charm to get. ^o^;

Entrance to Eikokuji. I like this gate better than the main hall. ^_^;

Next I went to Eikokuji, a Buddhist temple.  It has a very old painting of a ghost. According to materials I got in English at Hitoyoshi Station’s information desk, the story goes that a man’s beautiful mistress committed suicide but became a ghost who haunted the man’s wife.  The wife went to the priest of Eikokuji for help.  When the ghost appeared before the priest, he made a painting of her, and she was shocked to see that she’d become an ugly ghost.  The priest then gave her some edifying spiritual lessons and a memorial service, which made her go away.

I didn’t see the painting in person because there were several people praying up in the main hall, and I didn’t want to distract them with my foreigness.

After that I went to the Ruins of Hitoyoshi Castle.  All that’s left of it is its stone foundation.  The castle proper, completed in the 1600s, was dismantled in 1871 when feudal domains were abolished. The materials were sold.  While the information I got doesn’t make this clear, it seems to me that the castle suffered this fate because nearly a decade earlier it had been damaged in a fire that had nearly consumed the whole city.

Part of a rampart, I think.

Trees growing where there used to be castle.

Because I thought I wouldn’t have enough time, I didn’t go to the Castle Museum.  I wish I had.  Oh well.

Next I headed to a soba restaurant that was recommended in the travel brochure for this trip package.  It was pretty tasty and affordable.  Right when I left, it started to rain.  It only lasted about 10 minutes but it was hard so I got soaked.  Blergh. With feet wet, I went to one omiyage store and bought all the gifts for the school, killed another hour by going to a little store with a mini-cafe, then watched the automaton clock.  Killed some more time, and finally, it was time to get on SL Hitoyoshi!

It ended up being that the seat next to my aisle seat belonged to one of a family of four.  The family must’ve got their tickets late because their seats were scattered throughout the one car. They looked at the situation and after some 10 minutes the father came up to me and said, “You can understand Japanese right? Go ahead and sit by the window, since we’ll all just sit in the observation deck.”  I was glad and said thank you, but I wondered if they’d really be comfortable back there since the seats were narrower and they were traveling with small children. But oh well, their call right?

Getting ready to pull out.

Car 1 is actually the last one.

Now, the trip to Kumamoto Station takes 3 hours, twice as long as a usual Limited Express train. Partly because the train goes slower, but also because it stays at each station it stops at longer.  One of the first stations we stopped at was Shiroishi. It’s been around in essentially the same building for over 100 years.

You can see into the observation deck a bit in this photo.

Now, shortly before stopping at this station, the mother of the one family came and sat in my aisle seat as I was in their window seat, carrying her youngest son, who was asleep in her arms.  I wasn’t going to get off to look around the station to not disturb them, but she asked me if I wanted to go look.  I took it as an opportunity to give them back the window seat, so I got out and told her to please sit by the window.  Before coming to Japan I knew that it wasn’t uncommon to use kinship terms with strangers, but I didn’t know you could even use ‘mother’ and ‘father’ until recently. So I addressed her as お母さん (okaa-san – used for someone else’s mother).  I think this helped break the ice a bit.

After about 8 minutes at Shiroishi, we started chugging along again.

The glass of the windows wasn't as clear as on newer trains, so...

We stopped at another station, Isshouchi, were I bought some pears.

Back on the train, I went to sit in the observation deck for a while so the family could be together.  I stayed back there for about half an hour, when the elder son came to ask me if I’d gotten my commemorative stamp yet.  I guess since I left the card you get the stamp on on the table at the seat he saw that it was blank.  I asked him to show me where to get it and he led me to the front of the train in a little kid rush to get the stamp. ^o^

Then it was time for one of the highlights of the trip.  Along the way, there’s an old man named Hachirou who lives on the riverside opposite the tracks. Every time he hears Hitoyoshi’s steam whistle, he goes out on his deck and waves a white towel at the train.  Once we spotted him, everyone became very animated and waved back, though it’s unlikely he could see the people in the train.  But given that the attendants announce his presence, I’m sure he knows everyone’s waving back at him. ^o^

Besides Hachirou, there were people at several points who waved at the train.  It was obvious some were waiting for it to pass.  There were also plenty of train enthusiasts with their cameras up anticipating the train’s approach.  Every group of rafters on the Kuma River we passed also waved their oars at us.  The mother said to me, “Kumamoto’s people are warm.” (The family was from Shimane Prefecture.)

When the little boy woke up, the family went back to the observation deck, and I went back to my seat.  The mother called me “onee-san” (older sister, but not as her sister, rather the sister of her kids) which made me feel warm and squishy inside. I bought some chuuhai-flavored ice cream on the train as we approached Yatsushiro. When we stopped there I took some photos of the train and bought yakisaba (fried mackerel) sushi.

"I just gotta let off some steam, man."

You think you're hot in the summer? Do this man's job!

Filled with the "locals' love," as the attendant said.

Once we were about an hour from Kumamoto, a family who’d had 2 consecutive benches got off, so the family I’d been sitting with moved into those benches, so I got to sit by the window again.

As we pulled in to Kumamoto Station, another train, likewise a special sightseeing train, coming in from Aso if I remember correctly, was pulling in simultaneously a couple of tracks away. The passengers were holding signs in the windows that spelled out a message, but I don’t know what it said and neither did the family from Shimane.  (They said, “What’s that mean?  Must be a local word.” ^o^;) At the same time in our train an attendant came by and gave the people sitting at the window seats laminated sheets with a single character on them to hold up to the window and make a message.  I got the number “6” so I thought the message must’ve said something about “58645” which is the number on SL Hitoyoshi, but the people to my sides didn’t have “8” and “4” so I’ve no idea what our message spelled out. ^_^;

Then it was time to get off.  The trip was over.  The Relay Tsubame I was riding back to Fukuoka happened to be on the track next to the one Hitoyoshi was on, so I filmed as we pulled away from it and said goodbye to the choo-choo in my mind. ^o^

Well, to anyone who read this whole post without skipping around, お疲れさまでした!

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