This is an account from Japan, August 2014.
We arrived in Nara, Japan after a few days of gallivanting around Osaka and Kyoto. With stuffed backpacks, we squeezed through the exit at the subway to be greeted by a smiling Lukas, our CouchSurfing host. We got connected from my high school gymnastics friend who was also living in Nara, but she recently left for Europe. Lukas was kind enough to accept us to stay with him. Plans changed around a bit, but we ultimately agreed to attend the annual Kumano fireworks show.
Lukas has been teaching with the JET Programme for the past two years. He accumulated so much knowledge about Japan as well as language skills since the birth of his interest in Japanese culture in his youth. Being an exchange student in high school also helped. During the short walk to his apartment, we picked his brain with questions as we got to know each other before calling it a night his tatami mat floor. All three of us spread along the floor, savoring each moment the fan turned in our direction. Floridian and Korean summers did not prepare me well enough to endure Japan’s sweltering August.
We woke up earlier than usual and hurried out to catch the train. With convenient stores splattered around the whole country, we quickly grabbed yogurt and fruit to fuel up on the go. Along the way, we collected his friend, Dorothy, a fellow JET teacher and UK citizen. We sat in the quiet subway for another hour before reaching our destination where more friends were waiting.
There, we met Yukari and Tomoka, some of the sweetest, most smiley people I’ve encountered. These Japanese girls had good English and were eager to welcome us to their country. We hopped in Tomoka’s car and began the three-hour journey to the middle of nowhere, AKA where another JET teacher lives.
Our first experience driving through Japan proved to be a positive one. We rode through the curvy narrow roads of the Nara province, only occasionally seeing other cars. The drive was magnificently serene, but our friends reminded us that mudslides are not uncommon during typhoon season. Even when it rained, the mountainous terrain was exquisite.
A few hours later, we pulled into a high school where Jonathan greeted us. Yes, he lives at an apartment right next to his high school. There seems to be nothing else in the area except mountains and spiders the size of my hand. He said the closest store was a convenient store located an inconvenient 45 minutes away. It’s no wonder his school provided him a car. Jonathan just moved there after spending time in Australia, so he it was quite the change for him. He seemed perky and excited to be in Japan though.
We ate lunch in his spacious apartment while discussing Pokemon and other important topics. Adventures continued when we were taken to a zipline crossing above a lake. Hanging from the wire was a tiny house, enough for one and a half persons to fit. Intrigued, Adam and I squeezed in and were pushed three quarters of the way across the lake until the momentum died out. We (Adam) had to reel us back in by pulling on the rope. After a fit of giggles as each person zipped across in a sketchy box, we soaked our feet in the outdoor bathtub full of hot spring mineral water.
The next pit stop was to view the luscious rice fields. The overpowering sun accentuated the green hues of the rolling hills, giving me flashbacks from our recent trip to Indonesia.
We wanted to get to the beach early to get decent seats for the fireworks, so we set off in the cars again. The drive must have been two or three hours of even more winding mountainous roads before finally reaching the coast where thousands of people gathered. After driving through uncivilized regions all day, it was unexpected to find such a crowd.
The beach was not covered in sand; rather, it was blanketed with smooth black rocks. I picked them up one at a time and marveled at the smoothness. I wanted to take each one home to our rock collection because they were so perfect, but I restrained myself and only took one or two.
We took a stroll through the crowds to buy some street food. Stall after stall had long lines waiting for okonomiyaki, takoyaki, cucumbers on sticks, corn dogs, skewers, and other Japanese snacks. With so many choices, it was difficult to decide, but I ultimately settle on okonomiyaki, a savory pancake-like snack. No mayo, please.
Fully equipped with snacks and beers, we laid on the blankets and shared guacamole chips and conversation. Then, the fireworks began. It didn’t take long to shock us with beautiful displays of exploding lights in the sky. Each set of fireworks lasted a few minutes with breaks in between each session. They were launched from boats floating in the ocean. During one session, two displays of fireworks blasted into the sky as the boats simultaneously moved closer to each other, as if the beautiful fireworks were gravitated toward each other.
The two hour fantastic displays of sky glitter had everyone’s necks bent, eyes and mouth wide open, consistently letting out oh’s and ah’s. There were the fruit shaped fireworks of watermelon, apples and strawberries. The willow tree fireworks drifted in the sky and the glittery ones danced amongst the stars. Some of the displays were so bright, one could be fooled into believing it was daytime for a moment.
Since there were breaks between each set of phenomenal fireworks, it was difficult to know when it ended. It could have finished after any set because each one was awe-inspiring enough to be a finale. Really. Imagine every fireworks finale you’ve ever seen. Now put them all together and multiply it by twenty. You’ll see what I saw that August night.
As the show came to a close, enormous crowds were leaving at the same time, so we got caught in traffic for quite some time. Our drivers, however, were positive troopers and got us back to Jonathan’s safely. We were greeted again by his gigantic spider neighbor before all of us crashed on his floor to sleep for the night. Slumber party with lovely people I just met that day. Love it.
Driving through the Japanese countryside and making my brain explode just like those fireworks were some of the highlights of my trip to Japan. These experiences would not be possible without the generosity and community of CouchSurfing.