Mojiko, the last railway stop on Kyushu, used to be a major international trading port. As a result it is full of beautiful old neo-renaissance buildings, such as this railway station, built in 1914.


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Hanami: Partying Japanese Style

In the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom, Japanese people flock en mass to fields with cherry blossom trees, lay down a blanket, bust out the BBQ and enjoy Hanami – or cherry blossom viewing parties.

On Saturday the JET program had a social Hanami party at Kokura castle, in Kitakyushu.

At the bathroom we met some Japanese people who invited us to join their party. Since they had really cute children in Anpanman sweaters and a magician, we couldn’t say no.

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Dazaifu Tenman-gu

The most famous shrine in Fukuoka is Dazaifu’s Tenman-gu shrine – dedicated to the God of learning and built on his grave. Ever year thousands of students come to rub the horns of a lucky bull, buy omamori, good luck charms, and pray for good studying and good grades. We went to visit just as the plum blossoms, Fukuoka’s prefectural flower, were blooming. Beautiful!

Plum blossoms at Dazaifu

As you approach the shrine you cross a pond built in the shape of the Japanese character for heart. The two bridges signify past and future, and you apparently shouldn’t walk over them with your current boy or girlfriend, as it leads to the end of relationships. Whoops.

Dazaifu is also home to the Kyushu national museum, where we saw the visiting exhibit on Van-Gogh.


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Where in the world…

Part 2. Kyushu!

Japan has four main Islands: Hokkaido – with lots of snow, Honshu – with Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima, Shikoku – with not much, and Kyushu – with us! Kyushu, the most southern main island, means ‘9 prefectures’, but they amalgamated one somewhere, and now it’s left with 8: Fukuoka, Oita, Nagasaki, Kagoshima, Miyazaki, Kumamoto, Saga and Okinawa.

Map of Kyushu

Map of Kyushu

Okinawa is actually a set of smaller islands far to the south of Kyushu, so it doesn’t really count either.

Fukuoka has the largest city and is the one closest to Honshu. Fukuoka city was voted in the top twenty ‘livable cities’ in the word in 2010, so not too shabby. It is also famous for Ramen and a weird food product, Mentaiko, which is marinated pollock roe. I tried it for the first time this weekend, and it will not be something I am trying again.

Below us is Kumamoto, which has a large and famous castle, and below that is Kagoshima, famous for its volcano. To the left we have Saga, which has a balloon fiesta every year, and Nagasaki, which is known for not only being the site of the second A-bomb dropping, but for it’s Chinese and Dutch settlement and extremely large hamburgers. On the right is Oita, famous for hot springs and Miyazaki, which has really nice beaches, and used to have the worlds largest indoor swimming pool.

Kumamoto Castle

Kumamoto Castle

So far Scott and I have been to Saga for Balloon Fiesta 2010, Nagasaki to see the Chinatown, Oita, where we visited the nine hells of Beppu, and Kumamoto for the castle and a beautiful garden. We plan on hitting up Miyazaki and Kagoshima this spring to complete the Kyushu set.

Scott and Aya at the Balloon Festival

I am very happy to be living here. It’s full of beautiful natural sites, history and culture, and an area of Japan I would have missed out on had I been a tourist.

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Where in the world…

do Heather and Scott live?

Often Japanese people ask me “what do foreigners know about Japan?” They usually guess Samurai, Tokyo, Ninjas and Sushi. Which I suppose is mostly correct, if you add “Domo Arrigato Mr. Roboto!”

Scott Arrives!

So I assume most people don’t know where we actually are. When we were placed by the JET program they gave us our second choice prefecture, Fukuoka. Of course, when we choose it as a second choice, way back in November 2009, we didn’t know much, or anything, about it. I think my reasons were as follows: south Japan must have nice weather, I hear the mountains are nice, and Fukuoka is a big city.

Japan with Fukuoka in Pink!

When we landed in Fukuoka, I couldn’t look out the window at our new town because the airport is located directly in the city, and I was terrified we were going to hit the buildings. Yeah, I am a bit of a nervous flier. Fukuoka does indeed have a big city, 3 million people, but it turns out that there are mountains everywhere in Japan, and the weather here is not that great after all. In the summer it was hotter and more humid than any other place I’ve ever been, and now in the winter it is really cold, with no insulation or central heating in our buildings. I hear the rainy season is next…


Despite the weather issues, we love Fukuoka. The city is new and clean and full of Karaoke joints and good restaurants. Scott lives in the city, or at least on the subway line, and I live about an hour away from the city in the countryside. Or at least as countryside as Fukuoka gets. My city is called Chikugo, and has a population of about 40,000 people. I commute every day by bike or train to Omuta – a former mining town, and Setaka – a town famous for nothing and Scott takes the bus to his school in the mountains near the city.

Map of Fukuoka City

Fukuoka is also conveniently close to South Korea – only 3 hours by ferry, and on the Shinkansen line – 3 hours to Kyoto. So while we are not basking in the southern sun as I hope we might be, it turns out it’s a pretty nice place to be!

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Kurume Fireworks Festival

On the day I arrived in Fukuoka, my supervisor and Vice Principal picked me up from the airport. After taking me to the school to meet the Principal and staff while I was still soaked in sweat, they brought me to my apartment for the first time.  The apartment, or Jutakku, as we call it, is a large cinder block building located next to a junkyard of some sort. My first impression was… a year? here?

Luckily, there are 8 other ALT’s living in my building and I was not forced to suffer alone. Four of them are in their second year and immediately they took us under their wing and brought us to a festival in the nearest town. A fireworks festival. One of the largest fireworks festivals in western Japan.

Japan is obsessed with quantifying statements about tourist or other attractions. I have seen ‘one of the three best castles in Japan’, ‘one of the three best views in Japan’ and ‘one of the largest sake festivals in western Japan’. It reminds me of the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival ‘the world’s largest outdoor, one day, maple syrup festival.

Anyway, the Kurume fireworks festival was an excellent introduction to the festival culture of Japan. We’ve been to a lot of festivals now, but the first was something special. Rows and rows of food I actually recognized as Japanese food, which was not the case at the grocery store, festival games, and beautiful, gigantic fireworks. Women and men were wearing yukata, or summer kimonos, and pensioners were showing us to seats along the river bank.

Festival Stalls

When the fireworks began, we Japan newbies were astounded by their length and beauty.  The show had two central points along the river, so people around the bend could also see. It went on for an hour and a half, and the finale was spectacular. Of course, on the way home I got completely lost trying to find that cinder block apartment, and wandered around my new town for over an hour. By that point I was glad to see the building and I have been happily, mostly, living there since. Just don’t get me started on the bugs…

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