I was the first one up and out the door the next morning. The other three were headed to a small town at the base of Mt. Aso which is known for it’s hot springs and onsen (public baths). However, that’s not really my kind of fun, so I split from the group and headed to Kumamoto ahead of them. Kumamoto is a prefecture on the other side of the island. There are several trains running from Oita to Kumamoto every day, but most of them are (incredibly expensive) bullet trains. There appear to be exactly two express trains (not bullet, but still faster than a local, of which there were none) that could take me from Oita to Kumamoto. One at 8 in the morning and one in the evening. I purchased my ticket and headed up to the platform.
The day before I had posted on Facebook asking for suggestions of things to do to kill time in Kumamoto for a day. I got very lucky that my former Japanese teacher/ native speaker, Takada-sensei, saw my post. I kept forgetting to message her in the weeks before my trip and by the time I remembered, it was the day before. I assumed she would have other plans. Luckily, I was wrong. And I couldn’t have been more happy at being wrong. Not only was she in Kumamoto and free, but she wanted to be my host for the day. I was ecstatic.
While I was waiting at the train station, an old woman approached me and held out a bottle of green tea (you can cold green tea in every vending machine here ever). She explained (with some pantomiming) that she couldn’t open it. I said I was happy to help and twisted it open for her.
And that’s the story of how we became best friends.
Ok, so there’s more to it than that. While we were waiting and she went through the normal questions (where are you from, why are you here, etc) she started to tell me her whole life philosophy. This philosophy covered everything from politics to what kind of man I should date. Granted, I only understood half of it at most, but she didn’t really seem to require much of my input. She seemed content to just continue talking so long as I continued to smile and nod.
Finally there was a moment of silence and I asked her if I was on the right platform for sure (because this is my first time taking a train from Oita). That’s when we discovered that we were going to be on the same train. I also explained that I was visiting my former teacher in Kumamoto. That’s why I was carrying a big box of omiyage (A special kind present that is available all over Japan. It’s boxed and wrapped up in special paper. Typically it’s some sort of prefectural specialty). That’s when she said, “You have a good heart. I knew it when I asked you to help me.” And then I was all, “Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww.” But in my head. What I actually said was that she was too kind and I was happy to help.
When the train pulled up I helped carry one of her bags onto the train and found her a seat across the aisle from me. We chatted for the next 20 minutes or so until we reached her stop. During that time she gave me pocky, a bag of tea to give to Takada-sensei, and showed me her grandchildren. She was returning from a trip from somewhere and was hauling a ridiculous amount of gifts with her for them.
She gave me her name and address, then told me to visit her whenever I was in the area again. I gave her my name and she snapped a picture of me (presumably to show off, given that I’m awesome).
And then we parted ways. She was one of the sweetest people I’ve met so far.
I continued the rest of the ride by myself, reading and staring out the window. I love mountains, but I have to say, I think the train rides along the coast are infinitely more interesting than: tunnel, grass, tunnel, oh look, another tunnel, some more grass. It was definitely pretty though.
Anyway, I met Takada-sensei at the train station and she gave me the biggest hug. I can’t believe it had been two years since I last saw her. She then took me to her parents’ house where we chatted for over an hour. Her mom was amazing and made lunch for us. There was chicken and soup and just incredibly stuff that she somehow managed to whip up with what was in the house. (She kept insisting that there wasn’t much.)
Takada-sensei (I realize as I’m typing this that I’m not sure how to refer to her. She was and will always be my Japanese teacher, but after hanging out with her for the day, she’s a friend too. But just Yoko, her first name, seems too casually. So…Yoko-sensei? That’s a happy medium, right?) Yoko-sensei took me to Kumamoto Castle.
As we were approaching the castle she said, “I want you to imagine that you’re an assassin coming to kill the lord of the castle.” And I found myself wishing I had hung out more with her while we were in Iowa. It was a little difficult because she was technically my teacher, but she would have been an awesome friend too.
She was an amazing tour guide. The whole time we walked through the castle she had a seemingly endless supply of facts and interesting things to go along with what we were seeing.
At the castle there’s also a small rest area where you can order some traditionally prepared match. Yoko-sensei had never actually had tea like that before (I asked her if she was really Japanese) and so I was in charge of showing her how to drink it properly.
Once we were done touring the castle, we headed back toward the shopping area. After a bit we had to part ways. Yoko-sensei had to get to work. We said goodbye and I headed to Starbucks.
I was there waiting until the rest of the group met me there. I think in total I was there for about three hours, though it really didn’t feel like that long. I was reading and sort of lost to the world. Finally we all met up and headed to the hotel.