Trip to Mount Aso

The Journey to Aso San 阿蘇産

Me and my college buddies are in school in Beppu, Oita and we all desperately needed a break from our busy student lives. Luckily, our college APU (Asia Pacific University) was about to have quarter break. I did some basic research and found out Mount Aso is the biggest volcano in Kyushu and second largest after Mount Fuji in all of Japan. What better way to release some college stress than go on a road trip to look at a smoldering mountain? I had gotten my international license so went and rented a car in Beppu. Me and my buddies hopped in and we began the two hour journey to Kumamoto Prefecture.

the drive:

Typical of Japan we passed by serene rice paddies and curved up several narrow mountain roads. We eventually landed at some random monument that none of us could read because it was written in ancient kanji. We were sitting on the edge of a mountain so we figured it was a good place to snap some photos.

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We took this gem of a photo at that location unfortunately it was a little rainy. Notice the clouds in the background (because we are so high up)

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Arriving in Aso Town 阿蘇町

Aso is a tourist town, that gets it’s income off the travelers who come to visit and hike the beautiful volcano. There are many eco-lodges and spa resorts, I was surprised how thriving the town seemed to be. You also can’t help but notice all the Horse meat signs. Aso is renowned for it’s Horse sashimi, thats right raw horse sushi! Personally I’m from Texas and I’m more accustomed to riding horses than eating them. But the locals assure me it’s very tasty…

The Crater

There are several different craters around Aso san and 7 main peaks. The Volcano is still active and if you know anything about Japan you know Japan is one of the most active earthquake and volcanic zones on earth. All this seismic activity makes for some pretty dramatic landscapes (some of the most beautiful I’ve seen). Aso also has an azalea bloom every may which leads to the volcano being covered with lush purple flowers every Spring.

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The center of the crater offers tourist activities like horse back riding (an activity I found odd since Aso town is famous for Horse meat) and a museum that explains the natural phenomena in the local area. I also learned that there are several connected volcanos including the volcano in my city, Tsurumidake and also Mount Yufu in Yufuin. My buddies were in a rush because they had to get to their part time jobs by 5 so we decided to rush up to see the main crater. You can take a shuttle bus and go close to the crater but all you can see is smoke. (no lava viewing unfortunately)

Yummy Horsey… oh this one is for riding 🙂

The way home

On the way back we stopped and got juicy burgers from an American themed biker bar in Aso. The owner was an old Japanese biker guy with a thick ZZ top beard. We looked on the walls and he had pictures with various famous musicians including Micheal Jackson and the Carpenters. The bar had really cool wooden architecture (log cabin みたいな). Me and my American buddy, Micah were pretty happy to get our hands on some proper ground beef burgers and Hero enjoyed it too!IMG_4422.JPG

Micah enjoying the tasty burger at Strong Boss Burger in Aso City

We then had to go down some pretty gnarly one lane two way roads. Japanese roads are extremely curvy and narrow. Also I’m not used to driving on the left side of the road so it was a bit tricky. We all got home in one piece and had a wonderful day trip in Aso! I strongly recommend Mount Aso for anyone who appreciates stunning mountain views, hiking and/or Horse meat!

Cultural notes:

Japanese people call mountains “san” just like people… For example to say Mr. Sato in Japanese you would say Sato san to denote respect. It is a sign of familiarity between well know acquaintances or friends to stop saying “san” after several meetings. But Mountains are pretty important spiritually in Japan so denote respect they sometimes add “san”. So mount Fuji can be called Fuji san(富士山)and Aso can be called Aso san(阿蘇山)

Mountains also tend to be the location of holy sites such as shinto shrines see my earlier post about Mount Tsurumi Dake to learn more!

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The Japanese Navy Caves

Okinawa is littered with vast cave systems that were created underneath the island. During the Battle of Okinawa Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians caught in the crossfire took refuge from the constant artillery bombardment in these caves.  Okinawans call these caves “gama” and they have become infamous as the places where many people committed suicide during the war. In the heart of Naha there is one such cave system situated directly under a large hill. When the Japanese military learned of the imminent American invasion of Okinawa they attempted to convert this cave system into a bunker that would act as the Imperial Navy Headquarters. They quickly amassed a troop of Okinawan laborers to excavate this cave and reinforce the roof with steel and concrete. As the situation became increasingly desperate more civilians and soldiers became clumped together in this cramped and soggy cave. The Imperial Navy Headquarters museum in Naha attempts to tell the tragic stories of those in the cave as the inevitable Japanese defeat loomed and the battle waged on.

This Museum as with all museums in Japan that focus on the topic of WWII, emphasize the importance of peace and how war is catastrophic to all those involved. I have noticed that war is always handled very delicately in all Japanese museums and they are careful in their wording never to demonize either side. This is directly opposite of my experiences in Vietnam where museums are very biased and occasionally reflect hatred that is still perceived at the “enemy”. Museums in Japan are not meant to display any sort of propaganda but instead memorialize the victims and factually display the atrocities of war committed by all sides. Every time I visit a “peace museum” I am increasingly impressed with the care and attention that goes into the wording and overall feeling of the exhibits. I always leave a peace museum with the solemn reminder that “war is hell”.

 

*The following information contains historical details of war that may not be suitable for all readers (Contains gruesome details collected within the museum)

My Experience:

Yuki, her brother Shintaro and myself climbed the seemingly beautiful mountain on a bright summers day to the entrance of the museum. As we entered we were shown a small exhibit that explained the chronology of the Battle of Okinawa and some personal stories of the navy officers in the cave. We saw several artifacts such as rifles and canteens that had been recovered from the cave. There is also information regarding how the caves were built and how soldiers and civilians survived on rats while hiding in the cave. Once we finished reading the brief information we entered the dark stuffy tunnel with stairs that led us deeper into the cave. Once you’re in there you can easily imagine the horror of those trapped in this cave while bombs were dropping off directly above. They must have been terrified that the cave would collapse upon them and kill them instantly, but perhaps that would have been a more humane end than their actual deaths.

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Shintaro entering the Navy Caves

As you proceed the cave becomes a maze of corridors and antechambers. At various locations, there are markers that explain what the room was such as “medical chamber” or “officers quarter”. In some particularly important rooms markers show illustrations of how life was during the war. One room that particularly left an impression on me is one in which faded stains and chipped concrete from shrapnel covers the walls. On a nearby plaque Yuki read to me that several officers had used grenades to blow themselves up to avoid surrendering. The Commander of the base Minoru Ōta had commanded all 175 soldiers to commit suicide rather than surrender he himself died via seppuku. We also learned that civilians were also sometimes “forced to commit suicide” and in turn murdered by the soldiers that were meant to be protecting them. All of these facts lead me to the conclusion that the Japanese soldiers often had sentiments of extremist nationalism and would rather have died than surrender. It also displays how the propaganda of the time had so successfully brainwashed the soldiers. Above all it is a testament to how horrific and brutal this war had become in it’s final stages.

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The room where General Ujishima and Navy  Commander Ota committed seppuku

Towards the end of the battle American troops stormed the caves and killed or imprisoned the remaining soldiers. I’m sure they were astonished by the gruesome scenes that awaited them deeper within. This site is an important testament to the human costs of any conflict and remains one of the most visceral experiences I have ever had in a museum. As I have said before it is an absolute miracle that me and my Okinawan girlfriend can visit these memorials together a mere seventy years after these horrible events. It was at this sight that I also realized that almost every part of Okinawa had at one point been a battle ground where people brutally died. While a vacation to Okinawa is certainly fun and enjoyable I think it also important to recognize the tragic history of the island. It is truly amazing that the Okinawans were able to rebuild after such devastation and is a testament to the resilience of the Okinawan people.

Other information contained at the museum:

 

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map of the caves

We learned how U.S. troops would often lob grenades into caves with the intention of clearing out soldiers but civilians were often killed because they were too afraid to come out.

This is the location where General Ushijima died and has biographical information about him.

Minoru_Ota.jpg image from Wikipedia

Minoru Ōta was the last commander of Imperial navy who committed seppuku alongside Ushijima. He wrote a telegram to the emperor asking that special considerations be given in the future to the prefecture of Okinawa because of the Okinawans staunch defense and loyalty the “the Motherland”.

“Born as a man, nothing fulfills my life more than to die in the name of the Emperor.” Ōta’s death poem

If you’re interested in learning more about Okinawa please see my other posts about Okinawa

 

Not In Kansas Anymore

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Plain Text View

One of the more shocking moments I experienced was that in my class titled “Culture and Society of the Asia Pacific”, we were having a debate over female circumcision. Which many in Western societies including myself find abhorrent and cruel. I was shocked to discover that many Indonesian students had actually undergone female circumcision and advocate for the practice. This was one of the first moments I felt that I had a vastly different world view than some of my fellow classmates. After living in Dubai during my High school years and in japan during college I have come to realize that cultural relativism and ethnocentrism is a huge aspect of how people behave. Once an individual can break away from these constraints sociological behaviors and differences in cultures can become more easy to understand. One of the personal things that has happened to me is becoming more and more secular throughout my travels. Personally I have realized that the reason I am a white christian from Texas is no more than mere happenstance. I could have just as easily been born into a Tibetan Buddhist family. I choose to maintain my cultural affinity for the Baptist sect of Christianity but view it more of a philosophy and cultural habit than a religion.

I believe that ethnocentrism and religious zealotry are some of the biggest problems facing societies today. If any individual form the Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist groups is willing to commit violence in the name of their religion then certainly they have a very ignorant and selfish world view. Respect for differences and tolerance towards all peoples regardless of race or creed is essential for a harmonious world.

Particularly in Japan I have found that I enjoy the study of Buddhist philosophy. I enjoy pondering the parables and thinking how each anecdote or lesson can apply to my experience. The Buddhist ideas about reincarnation also reinforce my assertion that concepts like racism, ethnocentrism and religious zealotry are tribalistic and ignorant ideals. Unfortunately, I have found that humans as a species are tribalistic but through deep contemplation, education and travel these unfavorable traits can be broken. Going back to my previous point about female circumcision, I would hope that after education about the importance of the clitoris to female sexual pleasure and contemplation about how this ritual developed based on sexist preconceptions I believe that rational individuals could be swayed. However it is also important to remember my place and remember my own cultural relativism.

Occasionally, unfortunate sociological rituals and behaviors must take time to be rooted out of a society. Also in relation to the host culture, Japan has undergone a period of intense fascism and militarization during WWII. I am currently reading a very interesting book written by a member of the British occupying force who collected various war propaganda and advertisements to highlight life during Showa Japan. I find it incredible fascinating how the experience of extreme misery after the WWII has transformed Japan into a country that advocates for pacifism. The experience of the War has also led Japan to embrace one of the most mature outlooks on violence and warfare I have ever seen. Japan does not glorify modern violence at all (excluding pop culture and samurai history) and museums about WWII do not focus on who was right or wrong but mostly on the horrors of warfare in general. I am impressed by the Japanese outlook on the importance of peace and the suffering that war can cause.

It is very special indeed to be at a place like APU where all cultures can easily intermingle and exchange ideas. I told Yuki that APU reminds me of Singapore because there are people gathered here from all over the world. Sadly I have discovered that these groups also tend to stick together for example Indians hang out in the Indian group and Chinese stick to other Chinese. Being at such an interesting a diverse university I would hope that individuals can branch out and define themselves. With people and cultures whom they are unfamiliar with.

Comparing Cultural Norms Between Japan and the U.S.A.

One of the many cultural differences between the United States and Japan is that Japan has very homogenous society and most people who identify as Japanese have the same ethnicity. Many Japanese also seem to be more financially similar than in the United States. The U.S. is very heterogeneous and there are many races religions and ethnicities who identify as Americans. Also foreigners or “gaijin” in Japanese are fairly rare outside of urban centers in Japan. I am a large redheaded man so many people stare at me while I’m on public transportation or walking down the road. I’ve had many people ask me if I dye my hair. I try my best to understand their curiosity and try to greet them with a smile and phrase from my rudimentary Japanese.

One of my expectations of being a Texan is that people enjoy friendly chit chat while waiting in line or for transportation. Many people in Japan are quite shy and reserved. I have said good evening “konbonwa” to many strangers and occasionally received confused stares. I have also learned that a common stereotype many Japanese have about American people is that “we are always happy”. I suppose this stereotype must have to do with our friendliness or loudness. I was also quite startled with how many media sources and businesses objectify women. Of course, the U.S. has the same problem but not on the scale or openness that it is used here. I was surprised to see signs featuring completely nude women. This is quite different for me especially after spending my high school years in Dubai where women are supposed to dress modestly under Islamic custom. Speaking of nudity one of my most interesting cultural experiences was visiting an onsen (hot spring) where people are expected to get completely nude and bathe together. Being American I was quite unnerved by this at first but relaxed once I realized nobody seemed to care. I then enjoyed my warm soak in the sulfur rich water.

I have a keen interest in Japanese History especially concerning WWII and I have met an older Japanese gentleman who was able to tell me about the bombing of a rail train he witnessed when he was a child here in Japan. I am also very interested in the Battle of Okinawa and the last stand of the imperial army on that little island. I find it inspiring and intriguing how japan was able to thoroughly reinvent itself after its defeat in WWII and become a cultural and economic powerhouse.

Before coming here, I took Japanese lessons for two years at St. Edwards. My mother and grandfather also lived in Japan during their twenties so I was able to hear many stories about Japan. My grandfather was stationed at an air force base in Morioka and my mother was a model in Iwate. I am currently taking Japanese lessons and a Japanese history course. I also intend to travel extensively while I’m in Japan. I am very excited to get a firm grip on the language because I believe that will provide a steady platform to continue my study of the culture, society, and region. Like other East Asian cultures such as Korea and China Japanese society is based on buddhist and Confucian structures. I am studying these belief systems more closely and currently reading several books on the matter.