Kumamoto, Part 3: Aso 熊本の第三部:阿蘇

29 Mar

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After breakfast in Kurokawa, we took another lovely bath, then packed up and left for our next stop: Aso. Our perpetually pleasant innkeeper drove us to the bus stop, and just a few minutes after he dropped us off, he was back again, to give us a complimentary tourist map of Aso! What a guy.

Then we were on our way. The bus ride was uneventful, as bus rides tend to be, but the view from the winding mountain road into the sprawling Aso caldera, green with agriculture and encompassed by high, volcanic mountains, was gorgeous. I suppose it’s a shame I don’t have a picture, but I figured one taken through a shaky bus window wouldn’t turn out very well, so I just relaxed in my comfy coach seat and enjoyed the moment.

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We had booked a stay at another onsen resort, but before checking in we headed to Moo Moo Farm (formerly Friendly Farm), an establishment that offers hands-on encounters with the rural idyll (plus lots of dogs, for some reason). I don’t remember how I found out about this place – I think it might have been through the official Aso tourism website – but I’m glad I did. They have a restaurant and a rather sad souvenir shop, but Moo Moo Farm’s main draw for me was a series of fun, farmy workshops and experiences (taiken 体験) such as butter making, pony rides, and bread making. Also, there were ostriches, just for good measure. Anyway, we chose to do three activities – calf nursing, cow milking, and sausage making – which we had to reserve ahead of time by phone. (In the summer months, reservations are required only for the food workshops.)

First up was cow-milking. Our coach was a kindly young woman who explained, with wisdom and respect in her voice, the finer points of mother cows and their delicate dispositions. She reminded us that the cow (named Bell, or possibly Belle) is an animal, just like ourselves, and as an animal, we should treat her with respect, and also watch out for sudden… uh, evacuations. Then she showed us the milking technique, which took a lot more finesse than I expected. Then again, I expected it to look something like this:

Here’s what it looked like in reality:

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Bear in mind that I’m from Wisconsin, born and raised in America’s dairyland (it says so on our license plates). And when I grasped that squishy pink udder in my hand, I felt I had grasped something important; no, something elemental, something at the very core of my being. At that moment, I thought to myself, “This is me!” It was like holding my own heritage in my hand.

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Actually, I didn’t feel like that at all. I was mostly just focusing on the matter at hand: trying to coerce some milk out of the large mammal before me. However, upon reflection, the whole situation does strike me as somewhat strange. I spent all of college and most of high school wanting to live in Japan after growing up in Wisconsin. And what do I do now that I’m here? Milk a cow. I mean, WTF?

Anyway, we were done milking in a matter of minutes, at which point we tossed the spoils to a pair of hungry pugs, who wedged their heads into the bucket and began pushing it along the floor in a panicked attempt to lick up as much of the fresh milk as they could. Then we headed for the barn, where we were to nurse calves with warm milk in big baby bottles. It turned out to be a feeding frenzy. The calves became unmanageably unruly as they scrambled for the warm milk; the whole thing was over in about sixty messy seconds. I only got one picture out of the experience.

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Then we played with the dogs, ate soft cream, and made sausages in our final workshop of the day. Considering it was our first time, I think the sausages turned out pretty good! However, I do think our coach overcooked them and they tasted a little dry in the end. But they were still palatable, though their porky aroma was somewhat overwhelming on the bus ride to Sozankyō 蘇山郷, our hotel.

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I have more exciting things to write about than our lodgings on this leg of the trip, but I must say that it was a fantastic deal at only ¥14,000 per night. It included a nice little private bath, a sizable breakfast, and some of the best service I’ve ever received – and I live in Japan! The bar’s shochu collection was quite impressive, too. Highly recommended if you’re in Aso.

We spent just an hour or so relaxing at the hotel, and then we set off to what would be the highlight of the trip: the hifuri kamiwaza 火振り神事 at Aso Shrine, one of many fire festivals held around this time of years in and around Aso. Because of its somewhat alarming volcanic activity, the Aso area, and sometimes the whole of Kumamoto Prefecture, is known as hi no kuni, or the country of fire. At the festival, which loosely translated means “divine fire throwing,” the nickname proved to be more than just poetic.

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I knew that the festival’s main attractions was some sort of spectacle involving people throwing fire; what I didn’t know is that this spectacle would be performed by whoever the hell wanted to give it a go! Here’s how it works: festival leaders light two or three big stacks of hay on fire, in the center of a long, narrow courtyard in front of the shrine. Then, eager members of the crowd rush to grab small bales of hay bound with rope (about one foot in diameter, and about two feet long) from large piles in various places throughout the courtyard. They unwind the rope, dip their bale into the flaming haystacks, and whirl it around their heads like crazy people.

It was like a culture of pyromaniacs. There was no dearth of volunteers for this, despite the fact that nobody had been trained or briefed on the dangers of swinging large fireballs around. It was not at all rare for a rope to burn through, sending flaming hay flying into other participants, into reporters, or into the wide-eyed crowd. It was madness. And it was awesome.

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Needless to say, I had to give it a try.

I have had a lot of fun in Japan, and I have done a lot of really interesting, exciting things. But I’m afraid I can’t think of any other experience I’ve had, in Japan or any other country, that comes close to the thrill of wrangling a flaming bale of hay above my head, in close proximity to others doing the same thing. It is really very dangerous, and yet nobody seemed to get hurt over the course of the hour-and-a-half-long fire-flinging free-for-all.

There was also something going on about a goddess princess’s wedding ceremony. As good an excuse to play with fire as one could probably come up with, I suppose.

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After that big, explosive climax, the rest of the trip consisted of much-needed falling action: a couple baths, a few beers, a ¥1000 glass of shochu, a big Japanese breakfast, and a pleasant denouement atop Mount Aso. Mount Aso is apparently the largest active volcano in Japan, and one of the largest in the world. We got up there by bus and by ropeway, and at the summit, the air was brisk and tinged with the smell of sulfur. On the way up, I wishfully half-expected to see bubbling streams of magma and barely-solidified black rock. Instead, there was the almost equally striking view of a steaming-hot, bright turquoise pool of mineral-dense liquid (I hesitate to call it water, because it didn’t look like any water I’ve seen before) in the volcano’s deep crater.

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That’s about it. It was an amazing trip. Granted I haven’t been to Oita or Miyazaki yet, but I’m pretty sure after this long weekend that Kumamoto is my favorite prefecture in Kyushu. I will miss Kumamoto quite a bit when I leave Japan this summer.

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4 Responses to “Kumamoto, Part 3: Aso 熊本の第三部:阿蘇”

  1. Dad Monday, April 14, 2008 at 09:18 #

    Wow, what fun! I hope the fire department was standing by.

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