A more detailed post is forthcoming, but I wanted to post a couple of pictures from around the area.
A few days ago we went to visit Yamaga, about 60 km north of Kumamoto. We did a bit of sightseeing around the town, which has a small "old" section with traditional wood houses, rikshaws, and an old theater. We took a tour of the theater and also went to a museum that showcases the unique lantern hats that women don during the annual bon festival to celebrate ancestors.
The hats look like ornate, metal lanterns, but are completely made of paper and glue. Women attach them to their heads, flick a switch to turn on the light (in the past, the lights were candles), and then dance around in a huge circle. There were some time elapsed exposures that were quite reminiscent of pictures of pilgrims circling the Kaaba in Mecca.
After wandering around the town a while, we went to an onsen (hot spring) a short distance away. For about 7 bucks, we soaked in a hot, slightly sulfuric spring and just relaxed for an hour. It was the first time I'd been to one since living here, and was a pretty interesting experience. Here's how it went...
1. First, one buys a ticket. There were a few options, and the Y700 one got you an hour in the tub, and some time in the "relaxing" room.
2. You find the right room (i.e., don't wander into the girls side if you're a guy).
3. Put your stuff in an available locker. Take it all off...fold it neatly, and stuff it in. Grab it quickly as it "jack-in-the-boxes" out because it is not designed for big, American clothes. Wad it up and stuff it in because 4 nekkid guys are are waiting for you to get out of the way so they can get to their locker.
4. Avert your eyes because anywhere you look there are other nekkid dudes standing around. Try not to be uncomfortable.
5. Find an open spigot along the wall and give yourself a good washing. Use the little bucket that you pick up on the way in and the available soap and shampoo. Once good and clean, rinse the bucket and the little stool you sat on and find an open spot in the big tub.
6. Put one toe in the water to test how hot it is. Resist the urge to scream, as this will cause your stoic Japanese comrades nearby to snicker at your weak American pain threshold. Take it out and walk around like you forgot something.
7. Casually walk from tub to tub until you find one that is not the temperature of lava from the volcano that is heating the spring. SSSSSlllllllllloooooooowwwwwwwwwllllllllllyyyyyyy lower yourself into the water, again grimly bearing the searing away of the nerve endings in your skin. Express no surprise at the layer of skin that has separated itself and now sits next to you like some homunculus.
8. Eventually, after gettin your Y700 worth of sitting in boiling water, hop out, and rinse yourself off with cool water to reduce your core temperature back to normal.
9. Go to the relaxing room and faint.
It was a pretty good time, and is one of the defining experiences of Japan. In days before indoor plumbing, people would go to public baths. In towns with hot springs, onsens naturally sprung up. It was a big social activity as well. Wikipedia has a pretty good article on onsens HERE.
After the soak, we got some supper...Y1000 for pretty much all we could eat. We had, among other things, tempura, sushi, sashimi, basashi (raw horse), salad and soup. We also got to watch the final match of the January sumo basho up in Tokyo, an upset by Tochiozuma over Asashoryu. Go to http://www.banzuke.com/~movies/hatsu2006/150106mov.html for the last days matches.
Lanterns in the theater
It was a great day, though, with a nice mix of sightseeing and relaxation. I highly recommend it.