New Blog!

Hey there! I've decided to continue blogging at a different blog. The MEXT archives and some of my travel posts will remain here, but I'll be moving some stuff over. Hope to see you there!

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! 


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

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Book Review: Religion in Contemporary Japan by Ian Reader

So, this is one of the books that I'm reading for my Ghibli class (it's so much cooler [and shorter!] to say 'Ghibli class' than Hayao Miyazaki's World class). It's not one of the assigned readings, but it was very helpful for the first paper: Spirituality in Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro.

Now, although this book says "contemporary", it was published in 1991, meaning that it's probably written about the time My Neighbour Totoro was being made (the film came out in 1988). So I guess another title we can give it was "Religion in the time of My Neighbour Totoro".

This book is broken into eight chapters, covering not only the two 'main' religions - Shintoism and Buddhism, but also 'newer' religions like Agonshu, as well as the situations in which the Japanese turn to religious practices, as well as how they view religion.

One thing that I thought was interesting was that the author looked at how the Japanese seem to view religion differently from those in Western societies. He made the point that the word 宗教 (shukyou - religion) is a "derived word that came into prominence in the nineteenth century as a result of Japanese encounters with the West and particularly with Christian missionaries, to denote a concept and view of religion commonplace in the realms of nineteenth-century Christian theology but at that time not found in Japan, of religion as a specific, belief-framed entity."

What I understood from this is that all those people going "Japanese people are irreligious" are, to put it simply, using the wrong interpretation of 'religious'. It seems that Japan (and possibly Asia), sees religion differently. Of course, being Christian, I can't actually cite first-hand experience, but I went around asking my Buddhist friends, and it turns out that Vietnam, Indonesia and Japanese Buddhist seem to do things the same way. They go to the temple before events like exams, during occasions like Chinese New Year, etc.

Another, more relevant to Totoro aspect that caught my eye was the possibility of 宗教遊び (Shukyou Asobi) as a tradition in Japan. My teacher gave us a paper on Shukyou Asobi, which basically means the section where religion and entertainment merge. The book mentions that Japan has taken religious festivals such as O-bon and New Year's hatsumode and turned them into entertainment (or festivals). If so, it's interesting to wonder if the spiritual symbols in My Neighbour Totoro (IF there are any, because this is a film set in Japan, so we can't be sure that Miyazaki put in all these stuff on purpose), is merely a continuation of the shukyou asobi tradition.

So is this book going to prove that My Neighbour Totoro has a religious/spiritual agenda? No. No one's going to be able to prove that, because we are essentially imposing an interpretation on the film (I personally don't see the film as a spiritual experience in any way, let alone a religious one, but my teacher did assign the topic, so I just go with the flow). But, it is an interesting look at how religion was viewed in Japan some 20 odd years ago (this year being 2014, so all those looking at this a few years later, just add the numbers up).

If you want to buy this book from, you should totally use this affiliate link. The price doesn't increase, but I'll get a cut of the money.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Animals, Cute Animals Everywhere!

Other title of this blog post:

My cousin comes to visit! 

But no matter how I thought about it, all I wanted to share were cute photos of the animals. After all, I've already written about Nokonoshima and the owl cafe many times (links lead to search results) and there are only so many times I can review the place within the span of two and a half years.

The only thing that was different about these trips was that I finally got my iPhone with me. Do you know how great it is to not have to bring my DSLR anywhere? I know there are nice Android phone cameras out there, but my last phone was not one of those. So this post will be a first for me. All the photos and videos are going to be from my iPhone.

First up, the owl cafe:

Is this not the cutest thing ever?
Apparently, we were treated to a rare sight. These two owls are good friends (despite being different breeds), and they were grooming one another. Look at the contentment on the smaller owl's face! Soooo cute!

This one isn't impressed though. 
I'm not too sure how many times I've been to the shop, but I'm never going to get tired of these owls (then again, I'm not responsible for their upkeep so...)

One nice thing about using a smartphone to take pictures is that people can actually take the pictures for you. For some reason, a lot of people here don't know how to use my DSLR :/

Ok, so not all the photos will be about animals. This one is the Halloween donuts from Krispy Kreme! For some reason, I waited until the last day to go and get them. But, they were good!

Berry and um, the normal custard-chocolate donut, but with a
spider's web drawn on it. 
The next day, we went to Nokonoshima Island. It was raining when we set out, but thankfully it wasn't raining at Nokonoshima!

Cosmos flower still in bloom.
Luckily for us, the late blooming Cosmos flowers were really beautiful! It's a pity we couldn't see the sunset, but the different flowers were so pretty!

Not sure what this is, but I love how it has so many colours!
 And of course, a panorama photo just because I can.

And as you may have noticed, there were rain clouds over us the whole time. It made for some pretty dramatic pictures. Personally, I don't really care as long as it doesn't rain on us.

Unlike the previous time, the rabbit enclosure has been changed to let you actually pet the rabbits while you feed them! It's so much better than dropping the food down and watching the rabbits get them (or ignore you, if they wish).

And what we realised about the abbits there is that their affection is for hire. As long as we had food, they'd keep coming, and even let us pet them, but once the food is gone, bye bye!

My cousin introduced me to the slow-motion video function on the iPhone, and we found that it made the rabbit videos really amusing. I managed to upload it to Youtube, so here's a playlist of all six videos! (Each video is really short, the longest is 30something seconds, and most are about 10 seconds).

Another thing that we got to do for the first time is to paint a plate! Actually, my cousin painted while I took photos. 

This is why you should travel with a designer. Art anywhere!
This shop is near the sweet shop and the cafe and the udon shop (it's on that lane!) and since all the shops are supposedly connected to each other via a parent company, if there's no one there, all you need to do is pop your head in somewhere and tell the staff you wish to paint.

Unfortunately, you'll need an address in Japan to be able to paint. They'll cast (glaze?) the plate and mail it to you later, so this is definitely not a last-minute activity. My cousin had the plate sent to me, where it will stand in a place of honour (near the ground, because there's no way I'm going to risk having it broken).

Artist at work.
The end result is a really beautiful plate! Love the nature theme! If you like the style, you should totally check out my cousin's site: Ellustrate. She uploads quite a lot of her work there.

Such a fun trip! I'm really glad my cousin took all the trouble (and trust me, a lot of trouble was taken) just to visit. Love you so much!

P.s. I'm doing NaNoWriMo this month, so if you care to follow my posts, you can read them here. I'm no longer posting my updates to this blog because this is really more for Japan-related stuff.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Changing Phone Carriers in Japan

Aaand, I'm not now longer with Softbank. Or have an Android phone. I'm now using an iPhone!

If you remember my old post about my first handphone, I mentioned I chose it because the specs seemed better. *rant ahead, feel free to skip to the next paragraph* But, my phone ended giving me a lot of problems. After a while (probably 6 months?) It started to crash randomly, and its battery life was horrendous. I mean horrendous in the "I put it on airplane mode at 90% at night, and when I wake up at 2am randomly it's completely flat* horrendous. AIRPLANE MODE. And I could never figure out how to update the software. So, I switched over to Apple, which is simple to use (I can forgo to customisation stuff), and I can control app permissions better.

But this post isn't going to be an Apple vs Android post. I want to share how to change phone carriers in Japan. I found it to be really tough, and for some reason, with very little advice for students (unless you're willing to go search through all the forums).

Do I want to change phone carrier?

According to my senpai, the reason why all the foreign students went to Softbank was because the first few students went there, and then it was cheaper for everyone to use the same provider. Because sms was free and calls were cheaper. But now, we have LINE and Whatsapp and all that other stuff, so it's no longer a concern.

I decided to change carriers because it was too difficult to renew my contract with Softbank. They wanted at least 2 years left on my visa. The first time I tried to renew the contract/buy a new phone, they did all the paperwork, then told me that they couldn't sell me anything because I only have 6 months of my visa left. This was despite me telling them that I was staying there till graduation and giving them my university card as proof.

AU, on the other hand, only needs 5 months. So that means I can get a new phone anytime before six months before my visa expires. Wheeee!

Another reason was the transfer discounts. There was absolutely no financial incentive to stay on with Softbank. But, if I changed over to AU, the different discounts would have let me save 1100 yen a month, which adds up to a fair amount over the years (I wonder how the telcos here ensure customer loyalty).

Ok, so what do I do?

This was easy. If you don't need to reserve a phone (like me), I think you can get things done on the same day. Apart from the normal documentation like gaijin card, passport, credit card/bank account, what you need is something called a MNP 要約番号 (youyaku bangou):

Apparently, I'm not supposed to have the MNP number out in the open.
Please enjoy my failed attempt to troll (another) hacker.
Did I mention I can take screenshots now? WHEEEE
All you have to do is go to the shop (that you currently have a contract with) and say "すみません、乗り換えたいので、要約番号が欲しいです"and that should do the trick. If that seems obvious, I'm writing it down because I really had no idea what to do. I was told to get a number (the youyaku bangou), but I wasn't sure what to do. I asked my classmates and we were googling in Japanese, but we just got confused ><

Bear in mind, the number only lasts for two weeks (and if you cancel your contract midway, you may incur charges), so make sure you can get a handphone within two weeks before you get this number.

Everything else from there is a snap. Enjoy your new phone!

I'm like YAY! Panorama on demand!