As things start winding down on my time on JET here in Japan, it's time to start saying my goodbyes. And as the JET returner's guide says, it's important to not only work on your goodbyes to your friends, but to your favorite places as well. Bars, restaurants, local haunts, they're all important to make one last visit to.
For me, Aoshima will be the first of these goodbyes.
A small, sleepy town a short bus ride south of the city of Miyazaki, Aoshima is one of Kyushu's best secrets. More like Hawaii than Japan, when you step off the bus, it feels... different. The air is noticeably warmer and heavier. The sun is brighter and stronger. And the vibe is surprisingly chill.
Unlike some fashionistas in Fukuoka, the locals in Aoshima look remarkably more relaxed. High heels are traded in for sandals. And those annoying umbrellas to block the sun are instead replaced by spaghetti straps and halter tops? This is still Kyushu?
This stark contrast in culture can be attributed to one popular, local pastime:
Let's not get into how many attempts it took to get a photogenic picture of me actually surfing...
It's not like any resort town. Sure, it still has busloads of tourists that make the visit to the shrine or check out こどものくに. Yet, because they stay in their own all-inclusive resort/hotel and don't stray out of their own neighborhood, it doesn't feel like Aoshima's sold out. The beach, and more importantly, the waves, are still for the locals. While Japanese tourists from elsewhere rest in the shade, the locals are out in the water. Men, women, children, it's anyone's sport.
Another, perhaps the most shocking characteristic of Aoshima--there's no party. There are no bars outside of the big hotels. Definitely no clubs. Restaurants are hard to come by after 5PM. Stores will have been closed by then as well. People hit the water before work, open early, close early, and repeat the next day.
That's not to say the locals can't throw a party--the few times we managed to stumble on one, whether it was at an International Beer Festival or a concert/fashion show/fireworks, it was true celebration. Less like a drunken Spring Break mess, it was more like a block party. The whole town came out to celebrate. And in true, small town feel, everyone was friendly--we met locals and made friends with Aoshima-ites and would continue to see them each time we went.
We stayed at the same guest house each time--the Aoshima Pension. Instead of feeling like a hotel, it was like visiting Grandma. The owner would fuss over us each time, making sure we knew where to go, got enough sleep, and didn't go hungry. Even though we didn't pay for the meal plan, she would provide snacks when we arrived, rice balls for the trip home, おつまみ with our drinks, and even would give us back some of the money we spent for our room to buy ice cream and drinks for our return trip.
August 2011 - Aoshima, Miyazaki
In total, I've been to Aoshima 5 times within the past year, each time with a different group of people. This weekend, trip number 6, will be my last for a while. And while bittersweet, I can safely say that it's only a matter of time before I go a seventh. It may take 2 years or 20, but I will definitely be back.
But at least for now, it's time to say goodbye.