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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Takyoi Light Festival in Usuki

こんにちはみなさん!Hello everyone, let me tell you about a wonderful experience I had while studying in Japan so far. Me and my girlfriend Yuki heard about this light festival that happens every October to celebrate a bountiful harvest. During this festival people in the small village of Usuki light up thousands of carved bamboo shoots. There is a old story about the return a ghostly princess who returns every year at this festival and the local people reenact this event.  The bamboo shoots are meant to ensure the ghost princess can find her way home. People on the main street also set up market stalls that sell local handicrafts and foods like fugu sake. For those of you who don’t know, fugu is the deadly pufferfish which the Japanese had found a way to clean in a particular way as to make it safe to eat. On the train to Usuki from Oita we fortunately ran into two of Yuki’s friends Hiroki and Take. Take is actually a local of Usuki and has worked as a tour guide there. Luckily for us she offered to show us her village and was eager to explain to us the local traditions.

First we went to the most prominent temple where legend holds that a dragon is imprisioned  within the main pagoda. Take explained to us that several of the demon statues called Oni guard the dragon and keep it from escaping. We also visited her family’s baking stall and bought some delicious english tea cake. After following the trail of lit bamboo shoots we scaled Usuki Castle to get a great view of the whole town. I learned that the famous Sengoku period daimyo, Otomo had constructed this castle which was formerly situated on an island. My inner nerd came out and I couldn’t help but imagining this town with samurais and women in their traditional kimono’s strolling around. Luckily for me my fantasy was about to come true as the locals were going to reenact the “return of the ghost princess”.  We witnessed the a procession of flute players dressed as ancient court attendants and the princess dressed in a pale white kimono being carried on top of an ornate litter. We could all feel the peaceful serenity of the moment and I’m pretty sure everyone had goose bumps from hearing the soothing flute music. We also were able to see traditional harp playing and wadaiko (drum dancing).

Throughout my travels I have realized that certain culture festivals seem more like shows put on more for the tourists than the locals. In the Takeyoi festival I was one of the very few foreigners and got the sense that the night was sacred to the people of Usuki and not a show for tourists. It is incredible to me how Japan has so many contrasts between old and new customs. Many people think of samurai and the medieval period when they picture Japan, others picture robots and anime. It is interesting and admirable to me how Japanese society is constantly evolving but also successfully maintains it’s rich cultural heritage and identity.

 

 

 

Not In Kansas Anymore

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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.

History of Japan: Christians in Oita and Nagasaki

 Geography and History are linked very strongly and often can help to explain why cultures develop in certain ways. We can also analyse traditions, philosophy, religion and political structures of the past to better understand the present. I wanted to develop my understanding of the religious makeup of Oita and Beppu. As we learned in class among many Northeast Asian Countries there “is a shared moral philosophy derived from Confucianism”. During my research of this region I discovered that Oita was under the control of a famous Daimyo named Otomo Sorin. It is rather interesting to me that these Daimyos from the Sengoku period live onward in the imaginations of their former subjects and are often venerated in festivals, literature, and pop culture. I wanted to attend a festival to see this for myself during my visit to Oita city I saw Otomo Sorin depicted with a Christian Cross. I also noticed that the Portuguese missionary and founder of the Jesuits, Francis Xavier has a statue directly adjacent to a statue of Otomo. These monuments are situated prominently outside the train station in the city square. I became interested in how the influences of Christianity had shaped this region and political developments of the past. In my research I will describe the historical developments of Otomo’s conversion, instances of conflict arising from religious differences and the current distribution of churches in comparison to the native Japanese Shinto and Buddhism. I will also attempt to describe and list locations of particular historical significance in relation to the Christianization of Beppu and Oita City.

  I found in my research that Kyushu was one of the main points of contact with European traders. In fact Dejima island is an artificially created island in the bay of Nagasaki where European traders were allowed to stay and trade their goods. I discovered that the antiquated term for the European traders is “nanban” or “southern barbarians”. Europeans arrived with advanced technologies such as matchlock guns and powerful ships. The Europeans accidentally stumbled upon Japan when a typhoon washed up a ship of Portuguese traders on Tanegashima Island. Unbeknownst to the Japanese the world had been split into two spheres in the Treaty of Tordesillas which the Pope mediated between the Catholic powers of Spain and Portugal. Due to this treaty the Portuguese were given permission to exploit Japan for the famous three g’s god, glory and gold. Otomo himself most likely saw the advanced “nanban” technologies and saw converting to Christianity as more of a strategic move, rather than a religious revelation. Otomo was also the most prominent of all the sengoku period Daimyos to convert to Christianity and one of the few to meet with Francis Xavier directly.

 Francis Xavier was already an experienced missionary whose main focus had been converting Goa and Southern India. Xavier found significantly less fortune in Japan where he struggled significantly to understand the language. Eventually Xavier alongside three Japanese converts were able to spread Christianity where it gained its initial foothold in South West Japan. The main sects of Christianity that appeared was Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and much later Protestantism. Beppu known as Bungo during the Sengoku period was allowed religious tolerance under Otomo who allowed his people to continue to practice shintoism or convert to the new and foreign religion of Christianity.

   After his conversion in 1578 Otomo used his favor with the Europeans to exploit them for guns, financial gain and assistance in his civil war against the other major Western clans the Shimazu and Mori. Eventually however Shimazu was assisted by the unifier of Japan Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the Otomo clan was destroyed. Despite the pacification of Otomo Christianity remained entrenched in Kyushu particularly in Nagasaki and islands in the West.

  Toyotomi Hideyoshi banned the arrival of new Jesuit monks and outlawed Christianity seeing the popularity of the religion as a personal threat to his power. Under Tokugawa and the Edo Bakufu Christianity was completely outlawed. Famously 26 Japanese Christians were martyred by crucifixion on a hill outside of Nagasaki. Christian missionaries were banned for 250 years and Japanese Christians were forced to go into hiding. “Kakure Kristians” developed, meaning literally “shadow christians”. Congregations were forced to hold services inside people’s homes. This period was similar to the period when Christians were persecuted by Roman Emperors. Finally in the 1850’s the ban on Christianity was lifted in the Meiji restoration and Churches were free to appear publicly. Several beautiful churches sprang up in Nagasaki and the surrounding islands.

  Let us now evaluate the present day implications of these historical facts. According to the World Value Survey there “may be up to three million Japanese Christians”. Most Japanese Christians live in the Western part of Kyushu because this was one of the main meeting points between Europeans and Japanese. After World War II many protestant preachers from the United States also protletyzed in Japan and protestant sects such as Lutherans and Methodists appeared in Japan. Even now I discovered Mormon missionaries in Beppu. Christians do not really hold any political power in Japan because japan prides itself on having a secular government.

 I wanted to investigate clearly the comparison between christian churches and shinto temples in Beppu. I used google maps to find the location of several of these churches and temples. I also took several pictures of various locations I traveled to that helped me to understand my research. I will differentiate pictures that I took myself and photos I found on the internet. I will show some of the important sites around Oita.

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Photo I took of Otomo Sorin Statue in Oita City

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Photo I took of a float in a festival depicting Otomo Sorin with a cross on his chest to show his Christianity

 

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Me at the Festival among the floats (dashi)       Visiting a Shinto shrine in Beppu with Jizos

 

 

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Beppu Churches (12)                                                                                 Beppu Temples (15)

 

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Higashi Beppu Temples                                              Higashi Beppu Churches (6)

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Thanks to these maps I can see that the amount of Churches and Temples is roughly equal in Beppu. There are 12 Churches and 15 Temples. The distribution of the temples are somewhat unequal and most of the temples to be in the Northern part of Beppu and further away from the sea. I also compared Higashi Beppu and there was a strong concentration of churches in one area. I hypothesize that perhaps in the 1600’s there may have been trade with Europeans in the inner city close to the main port. This may have affected demographics and caused more Christians to live in urban areas. Often times religion is hereditary and passed down through generations perhaps these current day christians are descendants of the “hidden christians” from the Edo Periods.

  To supplement my research I also discussed the conversion of Otomo Sorin with my Japanese History professor Hasuda sensei. I asked professor Hasuda what were some of the implications of Christianity’s arrival in the 1500’s he explained to me that the lower caste people were more likely to convert because they would receive welfare and a better sense of community. Hasuda also shared with me that almost all of the missionaries came from either Spain or Portugal and the Jesuits and Dominicans were the most active in Asia. He discussed how the Jesuits found even more success in converting the Vietnamese to Christianity partly because they were a French Colony. It is also well known that the Philippines is a very Catholic country mostly due to its Spanish Colonial period.

  I also discovered an interesting anecdote about issues that faced Christians in Nagasaki after the Atomic bombing. Due to weather issues the crew of the Boxcar the USAF crew that dropped the Fat Man bomb diverted its course from downtown Nagasaki to the Urakami district. The Urakami district had been one of the cities districts which housed many of the social outcasts and lower caste peoples. Despite the fact that the Japanese caste system was banned in the Edo period the burakumin caste still suffered discrimination. Christians and burakumin were often grouped together in impoverished areas. After the bomb fell some Japanese who were shinto said that the gods were punishing the Christian population in Urakami and blamed them.

 

Photo from the Japan Times Article “Nagasaki’s ‘Providential’ Nightmare Shaped by Religious, Ethnic Undercurrents.”

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Urakami Cathedral after the Bomb

 

Conclusions

Christians went through a period of growth in Japan upon contact with Europeans who mostly hailed from Portugal. Trade with Europeans was mostly concentrated in Kyushu specifically Nagasaki. Otomo Sorin Daimyo of Bungo (modern day Oita) Converted in order to receive guns and financial support from European powers. Under Otomo his subjects were allowed religious freedom and Christianity in Oita grew. During the Edo Bukufu (Tokugawa Period) Christians were banned due to isolationist and xenophobic policies. During this time Christians were persecuted and even crucified. Finally in the 19th century Christianity was allowed once more and several churches sprung up especially in Nagasaki and Western Kyushu. Otomo retains a legacy as the most prominent Daimyo ever to convert to Christianity.

 

Sources:

Google Search, Google, www.google.com/maps.

“Nagasaki’s ‘Providential’ Nightmare Shaped by Religious, Ethnic Undercurrents.” The Japan Times, www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/08/07/national/history/nagasakis-providential-nightmare-shaped-religious-ethnic-undercurrents/#.W_EvQZMzZmA.

“Once Hidden, the History of Japanese Christianity Gains UN Recognition.” Crux, 3 July 2018, cruxnow.com/global-church/2018/07/03/once-hidden-the-history-of-japanese-christianity-gains-un-recognition/.

Ledford, Adam. “Christians in Kyushu: A History.” Tofugu, Tofugu, 8 Jan. 2015, http://www.tofugu.com/japan/history-of-christianity/.