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!

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Guest Post by Joanna: Beppu - Welcome to hell

Hey everyone! Sorry for being even more MIA than usual. NaNoWriMo has me in its thrall, and I took a five day holiday last week sooooo rushing to catch up on word count now. On the bright side, I have a whole series of travel posts coming up. There's this guest post by my oh-so-awesome cousin, and then there's my Aso travel post(s) that I will write after November.

Background: Before summer break, my cousin came to stay with me for a week. She's fluent in Japanese and has been to Japan many many times, so while I was at school, she was out exploring parts of Kyushu that I haven't had the chance to visit yet. One of them was Beppu, and she very kindly wrote a guest post, complete with pictures. After reading it, I really want to go there! 

Enjoy~


About 2-3 hours away from Hakata, Beppu is an onsen paradise famous for its healing and beautifying hot springs and scenic Eight Hells. I’ll be writing about some useful tips that would save you time and money while you’re there, and about what you would expect from some of the attractions!

One of the first things I would recommend upon arrival is to visit the tourist information bureau within the JR Beppu station. Do drop by there to get discount coupon books for a variety of tourist attractions, hot springs, and restaurants, maps, bus routes and timings, and so on and so forth ☺ They have English speaking staff to help out as well! They also sell an all-you-can-ride daily bus ticket, and you get a discount if you can produce student identification. Priced at 600 yen for students, it is definitely worth it if you spend the day there, as a one way bus ride already starts at 200+ yen. Buying an unlimited ride ticket also made me feel more adventurous!

The Eight Hells close rather early at 5pm, so do make sure to get there early! It should take about 3 hours to view all eight at a moderate pace ☺ Do allocate more time if you would like to slowly savor the onsen cuisine as well! As a chronic oversleeper, I only arrived at Beppu at 3pm so I viewed 6 out of 8 Hells. The 6 I viewed were:
Yama Jigoku, Oniishibozu Jigoku, Umi Jigoku, Shiraike Jigoku, Kamado Jigoku, Oniyama Jigoku.

First up, I’ll talk about the Yama Jigoku (“mountain hell”)!



The Yama Jigoku area had brown waters and a small collection of animals including flamingoes and horses, nestled in a hilly area. On the day I went, the steam was impressive (I managed to take the below shot there):

I couldn't resist the touristy caption!

If you like a more extreme view of animals, you would enjoy Oniyama Jigoku (“Demon Mountain” Hell) as well! It was teeming with an assortment of crocodiles! (There is fencing for safety don’t worry~) Striking statues of demons were also present, making for an impressive sight!




Amongst the Hells that I visited, the Oniishibozu Jigoku (“demon rock monks” Hell) had the most curious waters. The bubbling mud with bubbles that resemble the shaved heads of monks are what inspired the name of the Hell. Do look out for the free foot onsen bath in the area, which would make a good pit stop in your journey ☺




One of the Hells that I found most interactive was the Kamado Jigoku (“Cooking Pot” Hell). The area was colorful, with bright red fences and boldly colored demon statues. There, you can taste actual onsen water (it tasted rather metallic due to the high concentration of minerals), and sample onsen cuisine at a scenic resting area. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves!




Tried an authentic onsen egg, one of the must-eat foods of Beppu.
Yuzu chilli flavored soy sauce. The tanginess really brings out the flavor of the egg!

Next, the Umi Jigoku (“Sea” Hell). In my opinion, the most scenic Hell that I visited as I really loved the intense colbalt blue waters! In the photos I’ve provided, no touching up was done – the waters really are that blue! Really wish that I could take a dip there!



The scenery of Shiraike Jigoku (“White Pond” Hell) closely rivals that of the Umi Jigoku. With milky white ponds, and a Japanese-style garden with statues nearby, the place exuded an elegant atmosphere.



After the Eight Hells, I dropped by Beppu Onsen Hoyoland.

Entry costs 1,100 yen for adults (100 yen discount for those using the tourist coupon book, which I received from the tourist information centre at JR Beppu Station).

While the facilities are aged, the abundant mud in the onsen is the main attraction – I fell in love with the beautifying effects of the onsen mud! I also overheard a few other ladies in the onsen commenting on the impressive effects of the mud on the skin – seems like everyone else also experienced it! Well I think photos would help my explanation. No filters were used in the photos I took below :D I don’t have before-onsen photos, but my skin is usually yellow based and not very pale. After the onsen, well that’s a different story! :p My skin became pink-based and gave off a soft glow, and my skin felt very smooth and moisturized. Could not resist poking at my bouncy skin now and then after the onsen! The effect lasted until around noon of the next day (so effectively one day), but pretty impressive considering it was a once-off soak. No wonder there’s a saying that the onsens of Japan are one of the secrets of Japanese beauty!


These two photos were taken right after leaving Hoyoland, my skin was amazingly pink and glowy!

Even after a few hours, my skin was still very white and translucent looking! #nofilter ahaha

Some pointers I learnt that would be useful for first-timers:

Towels are not provided within the bathing area, so do bring your own towels, or rent them from the front counter. Note that the outside baths are mixed gender, but with the opaque waters, less revealing than usual mixed baths. The good news is that there is a blocked off area near the entrance whereby those who feel uncomfortable with mixed baths can still enjoy the fresh air and outdoors onsen.

After a good long soak at Hoyoland, I returned to Beppu Station and had dinner nearby at Toyotsune. The ambiance is relaxing and cosy, and the food is fresh and priced affordably (set meals start from below 1000 yen)! Complimentary free-flow houjicha is also provided with your food. The dishes that I particularly enjoyed were the tempura and jidori chicken (“chicken of the earth”). The assorted tempura were all lightly battered and perfectly crunchy without any oily taste. In fact, the signature dish of the restaurant is their tendon (tempura rice bowl), with many excellent reviews! As for jidori chicken, it refers to a type of domestic free-range, hormone-free chicken bred within Japan and is known for its rich flavor and springy meat. The grilled jidori dish was pure bliss – savoury, lean, firm yet tender chicken was paired with a tart ponzu sauce to bring out the fragrance of the chicken.



Next up, Takegawara Hot Spring!

Takegawara Hot Spring is not only affordable (100yen for the normal bath), but also closes later than other public hot springs. It closes at 1030 and is just a 5-10 minute walk away from the station, so I dropped by for a quick soak before my train arrived. The onsen provides free washbowls, but towels, soap, hair dryers, and coin-operated lockers are chargeable. Still, the prices are affordable, with locker rental at 100yen a go and body soap at 50 yen. The woman’s bath is a sodium-hydrogen carbonate base, and is claimed to relieve anything from injuries (bruises, sprains, cuts) to chronic conditions such as stiff joints and hermorrhoids (!). The women’s bath is unembellished and a bit small, but facilities are well maintained. For the price and location, it’s worth it for a quick half an hour – one hour soak!

After the relaxing bath, I definitely felt warmed up and more energized! It was time to return to the train station, and look for a cold drink for a comfortable train ride back :D

Kyuushuu is known for its trains with beautiful themes and I was lucky to get tickets for the 800 Series Tsubame Train. According to the JR Kyuushuu Railway Company, traditional craftsmanship developed by the people living in thr Kyuushuu area has been incorporated in the Shinkansen’s interior design. For example, the rope curtains in the washrooms have been crafted with igusa rush grown in Yatsushiro. Below are some photos of the classy and romantic interior! I marveled at how even the ordinary carriages had private booths equipped with tables and reading lights!



Managed to catch the Tsubame 800 again after a quick onsen pit-stop at Beppu on another day!

All in all, it was a relaxing and scenic day! Would definitely love to go back to visit the Chinoike (“blood hell pond”) Hell, as well as revisit Hoyuland again!

More information (Click on the links):
Toyotsune (restaurant)
Takegawara Onsen