volcanic cycle

From Hiroshima, I took the shinkansen down to Fukuoka, the largest city on Japan’s southernmost main island of Kyushu. I had never ventured this far south before, and was hoping for sun and palm trees, but April weather is changeable - it was quite chilly and rainy throughout my stay, which maybe dampened my impression of Fukuoka a bit. I was staying in a hostel located inside a shopping arcade, squeezed between the historical town centre of Hakata and the nightlife district of Nakasu.

To acquaint myself with the city, I went on a long walk. I didn’t find Fukuoka to be particularly alluring by day, although I’m sure it would have been more glittery in the sun. I holed myself up in a multi-storey bookstore during a rainy spell and bought some politics books to brush up on academic vocabulary.

After emerging back to the street, a bit dazed with lines of text still running through my eyes, I started noticing lots of lit-up little food stalls around town. These stalls (yatai) are kind of peculiar to Fukuoka. Food vendors are a fixture of all kinds of festivals in Japan, and trucks selling baked sweet potatoes are still a common sight in winter. But these kinds of year-round food stalls have practically disappeared from other Japanese cities. When in Fukuoka, it only feels natural to have dinner in one of these stands.

I spent a good half-hour walking up and down the streets of Nakasu, trying to scope out a yatai that seemed friendly and not too crowded. Visiting food stalls or izakaya is one of the situations where I can often really feel the gaps in my Japanese ability - it’s one thing to read neatly printed restaurant menus and another to make sense of messily hand-written lists of obscure local dishes. It seems that some yatai owners are also a bit wary of foreigners, because in the absence of translated or readily translatable menus, ordering food and drink can get awkward for both parties. I had to promise I speak Japanese to be welcomed into a stall, and after sitting down and looking at the menus posted on the wall, I felt a momentary impostor panic of not actually being able to decipher most of it.

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I ended up just ordering whatever the customers in my neighbouring seats were having, which turned out to be oden, some kind of a sea slug and a few cuts of spicy mentaiko, ‘cod ovum slowly marinated in chili pepper sauce’, actually one of Fukuoka’s signature dishes. I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t the most enjoyable meal to my tastebuds, but I was happy to try something different, wash it down with chuu-hai and chat with the people sitting next to me - a couple of middle-school social studies teachers living in Nagoya, one of whom was originally from Fukuoka. All in all, it was a nice end to a lukewarm day. On my way home, I wandered around the neon-lit streets of Nakasu, gazing at hostess club signs and admiring the steely resolve of girls wearing miniskirts on such a chilly night.

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Perhaps a bit frightened by my encounter with the sea slugs, I decided to stick with plants and bought a vegan bento from the train station the next morning. This chain had quite a few outlets throughout Fukuoka - it’s no match for T’s Tantan (the best part of going through Tokyo or Sendai stations), but it’s nice to see vegan food becoming more accessible. I needed a substantial meal to start my day, because I was heading down to Kagoshima with the plan to cycle around Sakurajima. Sakurajima is an active volcano iconically looming over the town of Kagoshima near the southern tip of Kyushu. I’ve always wanted to see it with my own eyes, and now that it was finally just a 1-hour shinkansen trip away, I seized the opportunity. I’d also heard it’s a really nice bicycling destination (perhaps a bit paradoxically, being a volcano that erupts daily, albeit on a small scale), so I wanted to hire a bike and ride the 40km loop surrounding it.

Disembarking from the train around noon, I found Kagoshima to be a bit more like the Kyushu of my imagination. The air was balmy, there were rows of palm trees lining the streets, and some kind of an energetic dance event was happening right outside the station. Because it wasn’t that early in the day, I decided to head straight to Sakurajima, lest it would be too late to hire a bike. Sakurajima used to be an island - its name literally has 島 (island) in it, and it’s only accessible by sea from Kagoshima town - but a massive eruption created a land connection to the Osumi peninsula on the other side in 1914, so it technically shouldn’t be called an island anymore. Regardless, I had to take a tram to the port followed by a ferry to access the non-island. During the journey, I got progressively more excited, as the volcano loomed larger and larger in the horizon.

Once on Sakurajima, I walked to the Sakurajima Visitor Centre near the ferry terminal and hired a bike. It cost 2000 yen to hire a good bike for the afternoon, which I thought was very reasonable. However, I was cutting it a bit close time-wise, because it was about 1pm, the visitor centre closed at 5pm, and the bike needed to be returned by closing time or I’d need to pay a 10,000 yen late fee. The guy at the centre assured me I could complete the whole loop in 4 hours, but I have never really been a very active or ‘good’ cyclist (my experience of cycling is just riding to school at a snail’s pace on a heavy bike), so I had no idea if I could go at all fast. The bike itself, a sleek streamlined thing with thin tires, was a bit scary to me. In any case, I really wanted to do the cycle, so I just got on the bike and decided to do my best.

It turned out I could actually go quite fast, because the bike was so streamlined, and the road was very good. There is one main road looping around the edges of the “island”, and it’s shared by cars and cyclists but not very busy at all. There’s no risk of getting lost, and the views are very impressive, particularly when riding anti-clockwise from the port. There were many steep twisty hills, some of which I just gave up on and walked with my bike.

Aside from the punishing hills, I was trying to push myself to go fast, so I didn’t stop for pictures that often - but I was constantly awed by the sight of the volcano so near by, raising billowing clouds of white ash towards the sky (but luckily no tiny rocks falling on the road, which the visitor centre staff had specifically warned me about). In many places, the erupting Shouwa crater is directly visible from the ring road. Apparently this crater appeared in 1939, kept erupting and destroyed one village over the 1940s, and then went completely silent for almost 60 years. In 2006, it re-activated, and in 2016, a record-high 5000-metre column of ash erupted from the crater.

Despite this great unpredictable volcano within close striking distance, there is still a sizeable number of people living on this island. Apparently, laundry and even graves need to be covered to prevent them being constantly covered in volcanic ash. Eruption shelters have been placed at every 1km interval along the ring road. Even still, it’s always going to be a fickle living environment - a prominent reminder of that is the torii buried in ash, a remnant of the old Kurokami village, which was mostly buried in the month-long 1914 eruption.

After the halfway point of the anti-clockwise loop, the scenery became slightly less dramatic and cars more prevalent, as the stretch of road between the Oosumi peninsula and the port for Kagoshima-bound ferries is quite busy. The name of the nearest town on the peninsula, Tarumizu, sounded familiar to me because of the recent news (April 22) that a female politician had been elected to the municipal assembly for the first time ever. Apparently Tarumizu was, before this April, the only city in Japan that had never had an assemblywoman. I suppose the pace of social change in rural areas like this tends to be very slow.

On my ride back towards the visitor centre, I passed by some dilapidated buildings that used to house hotels or pachinko parlours. Running a business here must be tough, particularly in times of high volcanic activity. There are plenty of visitors to Sakurajima - it has achieved geopark status, and there are detailed maps of natural sights around the island, as well as the very good visitor centre with its exhibitions. For people interested in volcanology, geology or just dramatic scenery, it’s a magical place to visit. But I guess fewer people want to come for a relaxing extended holiday, or to stay overnight at all, hence all these ghosts of hotels.

In the end, I made it back to the visitor centre with about 20 minutes to spare till 5pm. Although I couldn’t make it up all the hills, I still felt glad I’d been able to complete the 40km cycle relatively painlessly. Hopping off the saddle, I staggered to a bench by the bay and ate the meal I’d bought from the village supermarket some hours ago (simple omelette rice). Thankfully, there was also a very good public bath-house near the ferry port. Called the “Magma Hot Spring”, it featured a murky-brown geothermal mineral bath.

I soaked in the onsen and sweated in the sauna very thoroughly, listening to old ladies talk in the local dialect (it was the most unique local dialect I’ve encountered in Japan so far - I could understand almost nothing of the conversations going on around me). It seems that Kagoshima dialect is also known as “Kagomma” (かごっまべん), which I guess stems from the phonological quirks of this area. Out of curiosity, I read a bit about this dialect, and it has a lot of peculiar vocabulary. Just to name a couple of small examples, node/kara (because) becomes “jadde” and umai (delicious) becomes “unmaka”. The pronunciation is also significantly different from ‘standard’ Japanese, so I was feeling very confused trying to listen in.

In general, this onsen experience reminded me that I’ve had very little exposure to regional dialects in Japan - living and studying in Tokyo, I got used to everyone around me speaking in standard Japanese, regardless of their home region. Switching to the standard dialect in Tokyo really seems to be the default option. In the UK or Finland, it’s not that uncommon to hear people speak in their local dialects in the capital (or wherever they happen to be), but there seems to be a stronger tendency to use the standard dialect in Japan. Of course, it’s also possible that I just can’t detect more subtle regional differences because I’m not a native speaker, but I don’t remember talking to anyone with a noticeably strong regional accent in Tokyo. The only time I really encountered a strong dialect was when I participated in a butoh workshop as part of a course on art and countercultures in the 60s, and the teacher played us a recording of Hijikata Tatsumi speaking in his thick Akita-ben. Two of my Japanese language teachers at the university were from Osaka, but they never slipped into Kansai-ben in the classroom. So I essentially feel like there’s a whole world of Japanese dialects I haven’t even really begun to study. I am very interested in dialects and the interplay of regional and status aspects embedded in them. In the UK, accents are strongly connected with social class - which is one reason why I’ve kind of refused to ‘pick’ an accent. I just speak in my own pretty idiosyncratic Finnish-English accent, because I feel choosing an accent to adopt is an impossible task with all this baggage of both local and class identities embedded in each of them and the absence of a true ‘standard’ English.. In Finland, conversely, dialects are predominantly a regional thing and aren’t generally associated with social class. I should really read up on this in the Japanese context as well.

Occasionally I ask Japanese friends to teach me some phrase in their local dialect if they have one, and the difference with their standardised speech patterns is often like night and day. Most recently, I asked someone from Nagoya to say something in their dialect, and fortunately they obliged me. I completely forgot what they said exactly, but you can get an idea from this list - there’s lots of ending copulas like “dagyaa” and “myaa”. I do know that Nagoya-ben tends to be the butt of language jokes in Japan. My friend compared it to the ‘redneck’ accents in the US, with associations of being rough and working class - indicating that the status-dialect connection definitely exists in Japan as well. At least in Japanese, as in Finnish, I believe there exists enough of a standardised language that it’s possible to speak in a ‘neutral’ way, without tying yourself to a specific regional/class context just by opening your mouth, as is the case in English.

Anyways, to get back to my travel diary! All showered and changed, I took the ferry back to Kagoshima and walked to the station. The Kyushu shinkansen makes the journey across the island feel incredibly short, but there is so much to see around here. I would love to come back and spend more time travelling around Kyushu, but at least I got to fulfil my dream of seeing Sakurajima. The following day was already my last in Fukuoka, and the weather was rainy again, so I decided to go visit the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. The permanent collection was quite interesting, with a wide range of art from different Asian countries and periods.

After exploring the museum library as well, I went for one last wander around the Hakata district, which contains some of Fukuoka’s oldest temples. I visited Kushida shrine, founded in 757, which had a very impressive festival float in display. In the rain, everything seemed subdued.