For my 2011 National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) project, I decided to write a story about small-town Japan. I had written a story set in Tokyo for a previous year, and I wanted to go in a different direction, even though I had very little experience with small-town life. (〇〇 City is not exactly the size of Osaka, but it's very, very far from being inaka.)
I enjoy research - I'm the sort of person who will get caught up for hours on a winding path of Wikipedia articles. I particularly like learning about urban development, and trains. (I probably have a massive article due in the near future about our train journey from Hokkaido to Kyushu taken in February.) So for me, not knowing much beyond the JET Journal perspective on inaka life was not a deterrent, but a challenge!
While preparing for NaNo this time, I decided to choose a place I was interested in, and then do the research to make the setting plausible. I had of course lived in Osaka and I had written extensively about Tokyo the previous year, so it was time to go further afield, and there was an obvious first choice. I'd recently re-read Ash by Holly Thompson (set partially in Kumamoto), and also discovered the blog nipponDAZE, which chronicles JET life in Oita-ken in the 90s. Kyushu was right up my alley, and I was sure there had to be a town somewhere near Beppu - where Emily and I spent New Year's in 2010 - that a disillusioned exchange student might find her calling in. A few Google searches of JET blogs in Oita turned up a match in the town of Ajimu, recently merged into the greater city of Usa, with a population short of 8,000 people and no train station of its own. At the time, it was not available on Google Street View. (It is now, if you want to have a look.) I made email contact with a JET alumni who had a fabulous website - I'm sure Joel never expected anyone would try to write a novel based only on his blog's descriptions of Ajimu - and started from there.
As with any NaNo project, of course, November ended and then I was slammed with the JLPT, prepping for Christmas, nengajo, and the usual writer's burnout that comes when you devote 30,000 words to a topic and then realize you don't know where the story is going. So I never quite finished the tale, though I intend to go back and revisit it for NaNo 2015.
|Brother Google watches over our travels.|
With that said, Ajimu was at the forefront of my mind when I planned my two weeks in Japan this past February. In 2011, I often daydreamed about quitting my telephone job and moving to Kyushu to write the great Japan-set YA novel, living at Khaosan Beppu and trading cleaning services for room and board. Or, if I had some savings, in a little one-room apartment with a tatami floor, because I'm still not over that. By 2015, though, I was at a different point in my life, and there wasn't much chance of getting a lot of time for creativity while travelling. I decided to somehow fit Ajimu - even though I had never driven a car in Japan, and our primary destination was Hokkaido - into the trip. My travelling companion had little interest in hot springs, but Kyushu was close to my heart now, and she obliged me, for whatever reason. I applied for an international drivers' license and booked us two nights in a ryokan, following our day in Kyoto. We worked an almost-nonstop pace from Sapporo to Beppu, via blue train and shinkansen, in three days.
Alighting in Beppu, Cassie and I spent the night, then rented a car the following morning for my "research trip." (She manned the camera and is responsible for most of the photos below.) We spent four hours wandering and driving in the area without any direction at all, just exploring. At first, I really thought I was imposing, because we could have been at the Hells in Beppu by that point, or - so I imagined Cass would prefer - way back in Nakano Broadway, working the gatchapon machines. Somehow, though, Ajimu became a grand adventure. The tiny, run-down shrine on the cliffs, the bronze turtle statues, the quest to find some restaurant - any restaurant - to eat at - we were soon laughing and snapping photos of everything, getting lost, running away from adults who we thought might be suspicious of gaijin taking pictures of the school, and slowly navigating hairpin curves in the road while the super-confident local drivers leaned on their horns behind us. Oh yeah, and going through the ETC toll lane by accident and bringing all toll operations to a halt while we tried to sort out what was going on. (The rental car had an ETC broadcaster, but no card in it.) We were actually very sad to leave Ajimu without seeing it all, but had another appointment to keep in Beppu that afternoon.
It was a gorgeous, sunny day and the highlight of the trip, particularly for Kyushu - the rain would start pouring that evening and chase us all the way back to Kansai. And a good memory. I hope if you've been to Ajimu town, you'll enjoy our photo memories of the day.
|Arriving from the highway|
|Cassie mans the camera while I drive down what we think is the main road|
|We're keeping an eye out for places characters might visit|
|These apartment buildings look like someplace a JET might live!|
|We asked the GPS to take us to the post office, and so we pulled in here to decide where next|
|...as it turned out, we were RIGHT beside the school!|
|A peek inside the baseball clubhouse (?)|
|School from the opposite side|
|Ajimu's famous for its wine, and turtle soup. Grapes are everywhere!|
|I thought this was very striking|
|Great mansion name!|
|Decided to drive over this bridge and see what was on the other side|
|Turtles on the bridge|
|Neither of us can resist torii gates|
|Not the same gate. This one appeared on the other side of the tunnel you see above, and leads up the mountain. We decided to climb the stairs; see what we could find|
|I was not expecting to find a Peace Pole here|
|Had we come six weeks later, this place would undoubtedly be flush with sakura|
|Stone tablets at Sanjo shrine|
|Seems to be falling into disrepair. We didn't see anyone else at all, either|
|Strolling on the shrine grounds|
|Sanjo shrine grounds|
|A weathered path|
|This river borders the town in the northwest|
|Back in the car to continue adventuring|
|A winery? Or could it be something like the Town Hall?|
|We drove to the next town by accident|
|This was a fun-looking spot!|
|"Walking in Ajimu."|
|On the outskirts of town, now; ready to return to Beppu|
|But first, lunch at the Konoiwanoshō|
|I really wanted ice cream...|
|Plenty of the Ajimu special; turtle soup (I just had the dangojiru)|
|Thanks, Ajimu! See you again!|