The Nation



Strange Southern comforts

Kumamoto Castle, one of Japan

Kumamoto Castle, one of Japan



The yawning Aso caldera.

The yawning Aso caldera.

Umijigoku, or Hell of Beppu.

Umijigoku, or Hell of Beppu.

Raw horse, samurai and a roommate spouting Haiku - four days of heaven on Kyushu

As we sit down for lunch in the restaurant near Kumamoto Castle on Japan's Kyushu Island, horses couldn't be further from our minds. After a minimal set of steamed rice, tofu, steamed egg, fish, vegetable and miso soup, I'm looking for pudding and thinking about a double espresso to wash everything down.

"Basashi," says our waitress excitedly as she places a small plate in front of me.

The waitress, whose English is about at the same level as my Japanese, joins me in turning to my guide Mi for translation.

"Horse sashimi," Mi, a Thai who lives in Fukuoka, announces with a grin.

Back home in Bangkok we don't eat horse and even if we did, I doubt if it would be raw.

I look at the slices of red meat with their white line of intramuscular fat. They're garnished with spring onion, crushed ginger, sliced red onion and wasabi - that knock out Japanese horseradish. A small bowl of soy sauce sits to one side of the dish.

We're having horse for dessert.

In fact, it's not bad. It's better than the bored-looking boiled horsemeat I had in Khasakhstan, and much, much nicer than the diced horsemeat with instant noodle I've eaten in North Vietnam's isolated hilltribe villages. The basashi, dipped in soy sauce with Japanese horseradish, is juicy and sweet and wonderfully tender.

"Oishi desu ka?" asks the waitress.

"Neeeeeeeigh!" I flash a big smile, smiling at the waitress as if she were a beautiful mare. After a few bites of horse, you turn into a stallion.

Tucked away on the southern tip of Japan, Kyushu is the nation's third largest island and home to towns like Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, Oita, Miyazaki and Kagoshima. The island might draw Japanese visitors for its basashi but Kyushu has plenty more to share with the visitor.

You can pose in front of the Black Castle of Kumamoto and reenact the battle scene from the movie "The Last Samerai" before taking the high road to top of Mt Aso to peek at the mysterious volcanic crater. You can also shop 'til you drop or make a gastronomic pilgrimage from one food stall to another.

During our four days in the southern island, sponsored by Thai Airways International and Kyushu Tourism Board, we want to make the most out of Kyushu, even if that means moving at Sebastian Vettel speed.

"We have five minutes for the castle," says the KTB representative as he herds us around the Black Castle.

Dominating Kumamoto's skyline, the 400-year-old castle is the city landmark and played an important role in Japan's history at the time when the country was westernising and becoming modern Japan.

The new imperial government in Tokyo replaced the powerful and privilege "Samurai Class" with a modern army and in the winter of 1877 thousands of samurai, led by Saigo Takamori, seized the Kumamoto Castle before burning it down to the ground. The battle among the Japanese was very emotional and movie buffs will probably remember watching it being played our by Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe in "The Last Samurai". Samurai, with swords, bows and arrows, fell like leaves, slain by the machine guns of the more modern soldiers.

The castle was reconstructed with massive curved stone walls in 1960. It has 13 photogenic buildings and turrets guaranteed to delight the shutterbug. If you have more than five minutes to spare, you might climb the main building to the sixth floor for the outlook.

From the castle, we move to the hilly countryside of Aso-san. A picturesque and peaceful retreat, Aso is also Japan's hottest place, sitting as it does on the country's most active volcano. We take a chair lift to the summit to see the volcanic caldera, which is billed as the world's largest and is so big than it goes beyond any sense of scale.

We stay at Aso Plaza Hotel, which turns out to be a Ryokan or traditional Japanese inn. I'm sharing with Tui, a creative writer and journalist, and we both admire the basic and neat accommodation with sleeping and living room partitioned by traditional a Japanese sliding blind. We're puzzled at first at the lack of beds but quickly realise that we'll be sleeping on futons.

"Kyushu, Kyushu, rebellious samurai, black castle, horse sashimi," recites Tui later that night, in a Sake-inspired attempt to write haiku. I'd like to hear more but pass our before he finishes his first stanza.

The following day we visit Yufuin - a lovely town in eastern Kyushu. Like Pai in Mae Hong Son province in Thailand, Yufuin sits in a ring of mountains and the twin peaks of Yufu-dake are particularly notable. It's a tourist town full of restaurants, charming Ryokan inns and small boutiques offering art works, ceramics, clothing, woodworking and crafts. We don't have much time for shopping though as the enthusiastic KTB representative rounds us up for a trip to the best bakery in town - Be Speak.

In the afternoon, we head up to Beppo - a "hot spot" 25 kilometres from Yufuin. Beppu, the guidebook tells me, is a town located between the sea and the mountains, though it fails to add "above a giant hotpot". Steam and smoke pour from the earth around the small town explaining why Beppu is popular with Japanese onsen fans. We stop at Umijigoku, or the Hell of Beppu, one of Japan's three great hot springs. Brimming with white smoke and volcanic gas, this hell is positively stunning in light blue.

We finish our trip in Fukuoka in true Kyushu style - folksy and friendly - at "yatai" or a mobile food stall. Lining the city canal and streets, the stalls are unique in Japanese food culture since the Japanese are generally too shy to eat in the street. The folks in Fukuoka are not so shy, and they love their street food culture. The yatai is favourite hangout after office hours when the salary men eat, drink and make merry before heading home. Although ramen and oden are the norm, you can find anything from yakitori to Italian cuisine. We order the Tonkotsu ramen, the pride of Fukuoka, some fish dishes and Asahi.

"Kyushu, Kyushu, hell of hotpots, yatai," Tui's creativity is again fired up that night. This time I manage the first stanza before falling into an Asahi dream of a heaven in light blue.

_ The writer travelled to Kyushu as a guest of Thai Aiways International and Kyushu Tourism Board. The airline operates daily flights on Airbus A330-300 between Fukuoka and Bangkok. The flight takes about five hours.

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