Overlooking a volcano

Meet Yoshi. One of the unfortunate things about visiting a place far away is that there are always things you regret not doing. Below is the best photo of Yoshi I have. Like so many other wonderful people we’ve met in our travels, we didn’t take enough pictures of or with him. Viewed in a positive light, it’s one of the millions of reasons to see these people again.  Notwithstanding there are qualities within this photo I’d never have captured had I known I would forget to take a few more. 

I like the following photo of Yoshi. But before you look at it I want to try and describe the man himself. I understand you never fully know a person, however a some you can learn a lot from someone that is willing to open their doors and let it all hang out so to speak. Sure, in Japan it’s a culturally significant act. If you’re going to be a host, you’re going to be the best damn host there is and that means opening up your life just a little bit.

But people will surprise you when you least expect it. In Japan, the level of hospitality that we experienced, its something that will make you feel like you’ve never felt before. Here in the states we’re all so afraid of letting people in, letting people get close. And the Japanese, in our films and books and history, have this reputation of being stand-offish. There oceans of books about the closed society that is Japan. Some would say the glimmer that Yoshi shared with us was more to show that the Japanese are extraordinary and unique, but I would argue he did it to show us how similar we are and how culturally unique we all are.

There is much to be gained in letting your guard down and opening up your trust. I’m still learning. Hopefully by the time I lay to rest for good, I’ll understand how all this works mostly. Yoshi brought me and I think us both closer towards opening our hearts fully. We spent a little over four days with Yoshi and I grew to respect and love him as a friend and wise soul. It’s not just that he took in complete strangers and hosted them in such a welcoming and open manner, it’s that he did it with pride and caring. Hospitality with no-expectation of anything in return.

It wouldn’t be such a big deal and I don’t think I’d go on about it so much if I felt I could encounter it a little more here in the states. But I remain a skeptic, an un-trusting, fearful, questioning American at heart. But this man let us into his life, his home and showed us the beauty, joy and delight that can be lived in a very unique culture that began hundreds of generations before ours. In turn, he shared with us his respect and value of some of our very own cultural values that are questioned and frowned upon by people within our very own borders and shared with us his delight for the exceptional nature of our own country and that its position in the history of the world isn’t something to be taken lightly or belittled as much as we do.He taught us respect. Respect is not something that is permanent. It’s hard gained and a long and winding road. The potholes are huge sometimes and it could use a good paving. He showed us we could be the pavers or the ones driving over without slowing down. That was in our hands.

Yoshi is man that stands tall at around 5 foot 7. Every move seems deliberate, unsentimental and unwavering. Here he stands in front of a roadside egg vending machine. They aren’t the eggs he usually buys, but something of a novelty that he wanted to share with us. Us being interested in food. The sun in Kyushu is unrelenting at times and Yoshi is always prepared. Khaki safari shorts, cut just above the knee hung loosely over his energetic, seeming, thirty’ish frame. His golf shirt, collars thankfully cuffed where they belong, curled and resting on his tense shoulders, his sunglasses firmly concealing his glimmering eyes. His corporate hat pulled just over his brow, brim slightly curled from moderate wear. Gold bespectacled sunglasses flash the likeliness that the Kyushu day will blast us with its direct sun and dehydrate us with its steamy sea breeze. Skin a tanned hide of restful exertion in the South Japanese sun. Kagoshima like the Florida of his dreams. Snow falls infrequent and for brief moments at best.

When Nafumi originally introduced us over email to Yoshi and she mentioned that he’s be willing to host us she had hinted that he loved food and cooking and probably would love to have me cook. Yea, right, let me in his kitchen? Not in this lifetime. Our first email from Yoshi was short and sweet and from it he gathered and collected his thoughts for an entire itinerary for his guests. It started at lunch and continued during his dental appointment, through dinner and just up until we retired to these lovely beds.

He built our itinerary from our short answer to these questions:

Dear Tracie:
Your flight schedule was noted. Please let me know;
1) How many days you are planning to spend in Kagoshima,
2) your strongest interest in Kagoshima (food, local history, nature, arts etc), and
3) food that you don’t like or cannot eat.
I look forward to seeing you at the airport.

Our answers.

Dear Yoshi,
We are thinking of staying in Kagoshima until the morning of the 11th.
We’ve done a bit of reading about Kagoshima and it sounds like there is so much to see and learn.As far as Nature goes, we would really like to go hiking/seeing a bit of the countryside and the volcanoes. Are there any onsen in the area? We would definitely like to experience one. We’ve spent some time on farms on this trip, with more planned, and are completely open to any suggestions you have.We are interested in some of the more famous foods that Kagoshima prefecture is famous for, such as anything you know or can share about Shochu (Imojochu), Kurobuta , Kuroushi, Satsuma-age, and also any other local traditional foods that are from the area .
We are really excited to eat the food, we eat most everything, no allergies. Also, are there are any good produce or meat markets to visit? And if you’re interested Wayne (with my help 🙂 ) could cook a meal or two, he’s been missing the kitchen since we’ve been traveling (although he is probably pretty rusty having been eating out nearly the entire trip 😦   ).
Basically, we are looking for a local perspective on your hometown, every place we’ve traveled since we started back in March, we’ve been fortunate enough to meet up with or spend a few days with people that really know the place. We love to hear and see what others know about their slices of the world. We look forward to yours and to meeting you.
If you have any further questions, we’ll be checking our email sporadically this evening after our last dinner here.

Wayne and Tracie

That first evening we headed to his mountain house. Yea, he has a river house and a mountain house. It sounds more extravagant than it really is. Yoshi spent 30 years in the states in New York and San Francisco working for investment firms, so while money probably isn’t something he worries too much about, generally he live pretty simply if not ascetically, that is excluding his taste for art, music, beer, good food every now and again and Shochu. As he explained it, when he was looking for a city to retire to, he was thinking about a good place to grow old. One that could meet all his basic needs and provide an amenable climate. He didn’t want to be shoveling snow when he was 80 and I don’t blame him. Who the hell would? He was still living in NY when he was deciding on a city to live and took a short trip back to visit the countryside, a lot had changed since he lived here years ago. He knew his country, he visited often enough, but he wanted to get a good idea of which cities were best. He’d settled on a list of three cities. He visited one other before Kagoshima, and he never visited the last. When he stayed in Kagoshima, he knew it was it. Like a man picking out socks in a department store, it met most of the requirements and had plenty of activities to keep him lively for the decades to come.

His river house was the first house he bought and lived in in Kagoshima. Later on some opportunity presented itself, he knew someone with a piece of land to sell, he took the opportunity and much later came upon some inspiration while visiting a local sculpture museum. He had an idea in his mind for the ultimate one-man home with space for visiting family. He didn’t talk much about his family, but he proudly explained he had sons and one had recently visited just before us, with wife and grandchildren as well. As we were winding through his neighborhood down a street I saw this crazy looking house.

I thought,  “Jesus, that looks like a spaceship from Star Wars. It looks like the Emperor’s ship.” I’m glad I didn’t say it out loud.

We pulled right into the driveway. We were home.

We went inside, set our stuff down and took a brief tour before heading up to unload our stuff, rest a bit and come down to take a bath. Our new pre-dinner ritual during our stay with Yoshi. And why the hell wouldn’t you want to take a bath in this?

As with everything in Japan, Yoshi’s attention to detail was wrapped up into the nature of the culture itself, centered around hospitality, generosity and sharing. We had no idea the level that people will go. Now we do, and now we know who’s setting the bar. The Japanese. So, we soaked our travel weary sack of skin, truly just a bag of bones encased in hot flesh, we felt as we individually took our turn wincing into the volcanic heated sulfurous water that spewed from a faucet jutting out of his house. Tapped precariously deep somewhere out of sight hidden under brush perhaps in the mountains of Japan. Every evening he does this, looks out on Kagoshima Bay. The house is somewhere near the border of Kagoshima and Kirishima. It sits somewhere north by northeast of Sakurajima as seen below.

We sat in Yoshi’s own personal Onsen, ticking a mark on our list of ‘things we want to do’. Check, onsen, done. No, not really. You don’t think about lists siting in an onsen, on shallow deck, that rests on a shallow wooden deck, pitched up on a mountainside, overlooking Kagoshima Bay, just above the clouds that hang and stick to the craggy sides of Sakurajima. You don’t think about anything but the heat, the water, your heart pounding and the sounds of the breeze, the birds, the insects, your thoughts saying.

“Yea, I could get used to this.”

Your body melts into the fumes and core of the earth softened water, slightly basic, gently scraping at your skin. Aged cells float to the surface and tug at your skin that peeks out of the gentle waves created by your unintentional shivering flesh. You look out at this.

We dry off, slip into new clothes and head to the feast awaiting us every evening. Despite my daily attempts to lend a hand in the kitchen. Yoshi is unyielding in his gentle control over our experience. We settle down that first evening to Sapporo Premium to start, one glass for me (Yoshi’s already on his second). We take a look at the spread.

Ok, so let’s just reflect a little on what he’s done in one day with us. Look back at our email. Is there anything that is left to do, taste see? He’s about to pour us Shochu in the Southern Kyushu Style, mixed with hot springs water. On the spread there is: Kagoshima Kuroushi (Wagyu Beef), Kibi (the silvery fish, a traditional delicacy) and sushi galore. And need I remind you, we are still steaming from our baths in the healing waters of a Japanese hot springs personal onsen. Plus, we got to walk in and around the temple grounds of one of the most auspicious temples of the entire country. We’d been on a quick visit to the local farmer’s market just before heading up the mountain from the river valley that is Kagoshima city.

Whenever someone sends us an email, letting us know that they are coming to town, maybe they’ll meet up with us or stay with us for a bit. We have a new understanding of what it means to be a good and welcoming host. Yoshi’s home and life are his own personal museum in a way. He opened his doors and gave us a glimpse of what he has inside. Walking through his home, much like our own, tells a story, sometimes a hidden story. Sometimes it takes a few questions to gain enough understanding to appreciate what’s you are seeing. He welcomed the questions and took us into his daily adventure.

Exploring Yoshi’s House

Yoshi’s spaceship of a mountain house as Tracie said to me one day, is something out of an architectural magazine. It’s a good place to stop, and ponder what goes on inside the mind of our host. One day, Yoshi drove us up to a sculpture museum, it’s called ‘Kagoshima Open-Air Museum‘. He gave us a brief story about his mountain house, the one I’ve already shared, how he came upon his inspiration for his house here. I’ve never met someone that was able to directly show me their inspiration for their home before. I know people who have these ideas in their heads and have seen those become drawings, but I’ve never seen the seed. Yoshi took us to his seed, he shared his inspiration with pride and now whenever I look back at the images of his house, I get a little smile, if not on my face, it rests inside, keeps me warm.

If I had ventured upon that iron sculpture on my own. I would have simply been entertained and intrigued at the audacity of the artist. But when I look back at the light and the way it casts, I begin to see beyond the object and towards to moment that opened, an opportunity to think outside the box. Not only was Yoshi sharing his pride in his home and his inspiration, he was sharing his pride and respect of the creative mind, something he feels is vibrant and ever-present in the United States, something he’s hoping to re-kindle in Japan.  One idea at a time is shaping the world everyday.



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