Nearer the Smoke (Travelogue Part 2: Hiroshima- Aso- Kumamoto)

It started with a homecoming. Familiar city streets. Streets I’ve walked a hundred times before, where I can trace the road crossings and vending machines. Hiroshima is close to my heart.

Life in Full Flower, or Sneaking Refills

I met my friend Vasilyy from summer camp at midnight on the last day of summer, having skipped Miyajima because, y’know. It would have been my fifth time. Plus, last time I was there I got in a fight with a deer that wanted to eat my empty plastic bag, and he said next time he’d be back with friends. And bigger antlers.

The bamboo forest above Mitaki-dera.

During my half-arsed tour guide routine from the Peace Park to Shukkei-en and Mitaki-dera, I was struck by how ordinary a city Hiroshima is in all ways but one. It has a pleasure garden, a castle, a main shopping arcade, an art museum, some parks, a local dish (fried oysters- eccch). If it hadn’t been levelled in seconds in 1945, it would be the epitome of Japanese civic normality. Anyway, Shukkeien was bursting with life like I’d never seen it before, with huge swarms of carp, baby turtles swimming in their wake, cranes perched on rocks and crabs scuttling between them. It’s been a long, warm, abundant summer. Up above Mitaki-dera, definitely one of my three favourite temples*, we walked into the dense bamboo forest and I did a photo shoot for my future career as a depressed, marginally successful folk singer.

We met up with some of my former work friends, and drank umezaki in Fukuromachi Park where people play catch and hone their baseball skills. On this particular Sunday, nobody was practicing baseball, but an some enthusiastic young blokes were showing off their rap flow, and two women were lighting sparklers. If you think you know what I’m saying, you don’t. Japanese sparklers don’t just sparkle, they fizz, burn and smoke, and they are hypnotic to watch. They are brief and intense and resonant, and it’s no accident that one of Japan’s most quietly devastating movies is called Hana-bi (Fireworks). Over the summer: Harry grew a new beard which suits him; Chris booked a trip to Taiwan; Yurika met somebody; Brett’s in Korea at another music festival. Otherwise, life rolls on at the same pace.


155846ee-a71b-404c-8a29-5a4f9504fcf1.jpegAfter dinner, we retired to Round One, a colossal arcade which again shows the limits of language in intercultural communication. Round One isn’t like any arcade I’ve seen in England- it has eleven floors, with Mario Kart and basketball and flight simulators and fucking horse racing simulators, and a bowling alley wedged in the middle of it. I took what I initially thought was a free drink, and quickly realised that if I refilled with confidence, nobody would ask questions. Life is full of people doing this- blustering round rooms with false confidence, and somehow getting what they want. Most of the current British Parliament are scared middle aged men sneaking refills at a bowling alley, spiritually speaking. But I was middle of the pack in bowling, and slunk off to karaoke to try my hand at A Tribe Called Quest and Enter Shikari.

I wasn’t joking about the horse racing.

Smoke of the Mountain

Aboard the Shinkansen then, against all my travel rules. and onward to Kumamoto. That’s fifteen prefectures, if you’re keeping count. I am. In the sullen grey cloud, Kumamoto seemed bland; indeterminate; half-sketched. Dozens of elderly couples spilled out of a conference centre in the heart of the city, for no obvious reason. Swingers, perhaps. That’s my theory, anyway.

But we weren’t here for the city. We were only catching a bus east to Aso National Park, a desolate mountainous grassland ruled over by a katsukazan, or active volcano. Mount Aso was visibly billowing smoke when we arrived, and a thin layer of black ash settled on all of the meadow plants. Huge, muscular horses stomped around in the field near us- have I ever mentioned I’m a bit scared of horses? Cause these Cobain-mopped gymfreaks didn’t help.


The whole landscape is determined by the volcano- the very land itself is created by it. Trees won’t grow on these ashen slopes, so what you get is an ecosystem utterly different from anywhere else in Japan, rich brown mountains and thick clumps of long green grass. As we climbed, we saw a few ‘rivers’ of rock that were once lava from previous eruptions, and a small animal similar to a mink darted across our paths. In the background, a green dome of a hill loomed, calling us forward.


Our path kept drawing us closer to the volcano, as I pointed out to Vasilyy with increasing alarm. But V had a route, and anyway he’s not put off by little things like eruptions. Eventually we changed direction and landed on a high mountain road. Somewhere, a disembodied megaphone shouted in Chinese at somebody, but I couldn’t see any people.


Vasilyy wanted to go further, to reach the peak of Kitasenri or another local summit. But I’ve been pushing myself all summer, and my tolerance for suffering is shot. We climbed a hundred meters or so further, to an outcrop where we could see over the whole valley. The sun was shining on the most distant mountains, and Mount Aso itself was only getting angrier, plumes of smoke wafting towards us on the clouds. It was time to go back.


As the light dimmed, the place took on a different vibe- some land before time, a prehistoric wilderness where saber-toothed tigers might lurk in wait. I was startled to see a deer bounce through the tall grass in front of me, and then be gone in a moment. I don’t think there’s another place like Aso in Japan, or maybe anywhere.


Any City, Anywhere

Kumamoto- a super-typical Japanese cityscape.

I suppose it’s not the place’s fault. By the time we woke up the next morning, we were both weary of walking, grumpy and distracted. Still, I can’t help but feel Kumamoto lacked personality. Suizenji, the city’s celebrated garden, set me back 400 yen but was kind of ordinary, if painstakingly cared-for. The town centre was Japan generica, a medley of the same chain stores and restaurants. The castle wasn’t open for access due to the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake, which caved in a part of the castle wall and several turrets.

If you grew up somewhere like the U.K., where earthquakes killed a handful of people** ever, it’s hard to understand the social and psychological impact of earthquakes on a country like Japan. Earthquake-proofing is a key component of architecture. Whole anime series have been written about earthquakes. The entire country is waiting for ‘the big one’ to strike Osaka or Tokyo, both cities bring overdue for a major seismic event soon. And in 2016, fifty people died here, in central Kyushu. This is what earthquakes do. So maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on Kumamoto.

Damage from the 2016 earthquake.

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I’m writing this to you from the deck of the Camellia ferry, in transit from Fukuoka to Busan in South Korea. Next time I write to you, hopefully, will be from the beach. ‘Til then, I’ll leave you with this clearly wired bear, the coked-up cuddly mascot of Kumamoto.


* because Japanese people are wary of making definite statements about ‘the best’ of anything, you will often see famous places described as ‘one of the three best […] in Japan’. My other two are Hase-dera in Kamakura and Kofukuji in Nara.

** perhaps eleven, although the list I found reckoned at least two of those people died of shock.




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