From Tokyo, we caught a Pokemon-themed plane to the southernmost tip of the main islands: Kagoshima-shi, the city center of my home prefecture. We checked in to JR Kyushu, a suave business hotel set inside the train station itself.
Then I conducted my sister on a twenty-four hour tour of Kagoshima’s culinary champions: tonkatsu (the Japanese version of schnitzel, or breaded pork), cherry blossom pastries, chestnut cakes, and – of course – shirokuma: the iconic shaved ice of the region. Drenched in sweetened condensed milk, studded with fruit, it had topped my list since November 2021 for treats to delight guests. My sister opted for the red beans variation, while I bought the classic.
We scooted downtown for a late night stint at the nearest onsen, a public bath with piping hot mineral waters, powered by the city’s neighboring volcano. On the way home, we paused to purchase a bulk pack of frozen dumplings from a vending machine (a vending machine!) before retiring for a long-awaited rest.
Sunday morning brought us amidst a relentless downpour to my first English church home in Japan, the dauntless Calvary Chapel. As ever, the congregation welcomed us warmly – with a hearty brunch and many invitations to return soon. The assistant pastor’s wife even accompanied us back to the station, where she saw us safely aboard the bus to the airport for our final flight of the week: home to Tokunoshima.
We invested in recovering for most of the day following our Disney extravaganza. Stephanie foraged for breakfast at the FamilyMart convenience store around the corner, returning with a bag bulging with salmon rice balls and melon pastries. I tapped through maps and metro schedules, charting our course for the time remaining in Tokyo.
I had deliberately decided to revisit my tour of the year before, at the same time of year to minimize surprises, with many of the same destinations at mind. It didn’t try my imagination much to consider places I would willingly wander again, and SkyTree topped the list. A fabulously elongated mall, it attracts most for its city view, but that afternoon we sought its mix of unique treats and quirky shops.
After a day of grazing on vendor snacks in DisneySea, we decided on more substantive fare and booked seats at the Sherwood Gardens breakfast buffet. “Breakfast” seemed like a misnomer – besides the usual selection of pastries, eggs, and bacon (from the West) and rice, miso soup, and salad (from the East), the endless countertops offered noodles and canapes, egg salad decorated with a tomato rose, hamburgers and fries for littler guests, not to mention enough fish, meat, and cakes for lunch and dinner besides.
We launched into our tour of the flagship park with a few eclectic rides: Star Tours, a drone-populated airport terminal so realistic that it roused unpleasant flashbacks to hectic travel; and the Pirates of the Caribbean. This water-based ride utterly immersed us in a bayou-like landscape as we drifted past candlelit tables — other DisneyLand guests, in fact, dining at the attached restaurant. Next we sailed right through a exchange of cannon fire, with a pirate captain to our left firing on the beleagured town to our right.
My sister adores classic Disney even more than I do, which propelled the Tokyo theme parks to the top of our sightseeing wishlist. Expecting massive crowds for the national holidays later in the week, we arranged tickets for Monday and Tuesday — including a stay at the exquisite, art nouveau style Disneyland Hotel.
As I enthused extensively about DisneySea last year, I’ll recap only briefly before focusing on our maiden voyage to DisneyLand: a vintage park celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The first morning of our adventure, we rose early to savor a surprisingly gourmet buffet — never before has a breakfast menu offered me sashimi! We splurged on a taxi to the park, where the staff conducted us through the well-oiled machinery of depositing luggage and purchasing passes.
Emerging at last into the Renaissance harbor that so beguiled me, my sister and I plunged into the park’s kaleidoscope of imagined worlds.
In my 18 months of island hopping and jetting all over Japan, I have dropped in on half a dozen different churches here. Invariably, the congregations have showered me with affection and hospitality — inviting me to lunch, offering to guide my sightseeing, urging me to come again.
Our friend’s family church fit the pattern in all respects except one: it dwarfed every other Japanese church I have attended. Multiple services, Sunday school divided by age group, even a bookshop — we marveled at the ministry built up over the decades. During the service, we sang hymns accompanied by organ and pored over an English transcript of the sermon. Afterwards, I rejoiced at joining an English Bible study in person, for the first time in months.
We broke our fast with a bountiful buffet at our elegant hotel. The view from our window lured us into an exquisitely arranged garden, a tiny oasis separating the guests from a divided highway just beyond. The subtle infinity loop design deceived the eye; we wandered it happily, retracing our steps without feeling enclosed.
Golden Week kicks off with a visit from one of my most favorite people: my sister is spending the next three weeks with me in Japan!
After tracking each other down in Tokyo last night, we collapsed gratefully into our beds at a hotel strategically situated near the airport. A buffet breakfast, featuring a build-your-own-miso-soup station, fortified us for the train ride north to Tsukuba.
“Japan’s science center,” as the travel guides deem it, attracts few tourists. Outside a commuter town with a sprawling university, Tsukuba hosts rice paddies and the only mountains within striking range of Tokyo. We trekked there to meet with a Christian friend of a friend, who has hosted us bountifully for my sister’s first full day in Japan.
That’s not a spelling mistake – “tako” is Japanese for “octopus.” This week my friend Gabrielle trekked across the Pacific and down from Tokyo to share my island home. It struck me as the perfect occasion to claim an invitation from the friendly computer teacher here, Rena-san. Several weeks ago, she urged me to partake of a Japanese tradition: the “tako party.”
With curious anticipation, we accompanied my neighbor Shiho-san (our school nurse) across town to Rena-san’s tidy and warmly lit abode. A table decked with mysterious packages awaited us, like the ingredients for a magician’s potion.
My friends Petra and Eloise transformed a four hour trek from Vleesbaai to the airport, from a chore to a bonus. We set out early in the morning, bidding the beach farewell as the highway unwound across plains and mountains, carrying us west towards the city of Cape Town.
Our road trip ranged from a rest stop petting farm to a local farmer’s market. The enterprising rest stop featured a picnic area, obstacle course, and selfie stations. I sampled a ‘roosterkoek‘ – a pastry whose baffling name initially led me to tentatively inquire why only male chickens featured.
When I first met Petra in 2018, weeks after arriving in KwaZulu-Natal to begin teaching with the Peace Corps, she invited me to visit her home on Western Cape. This Christmas, I finally took Petra up on her invitation. After a long layover in Singapore, then a short domestic flight, I rode with Petra’s sister and family for four hours from Cape Town, across the mountains, back to the coast.
We arrived in Vleesbaai late Monday, just in time for Christmas dinner. Petra and her husband Preben outdid themselves with lamb and steak grilled in the fireplace, alongside a spread of salads, savoury sides, and cherry cake. We watched twilight creep over the water as I dusted off my Afrikaans to greet old friends and new acquaintances.
After months of manic planning, with over eight different connections lined up by bus, train, and plane (all booked one-way), the day arrived for my departure from Tokunoshima for the Christmas holidays.
Though my nerves stretched taut as violin strings, I had to smile when the Lord granted me an auspicious beginning in a reminder of his covenant-keeping: A rainbow brightened the clouds as I waited for my first leg of transport, a bus to the island airport.
For the first time in three years, our southernmost town Isen-cho celebrated a summer festival. (When you live on a semi-tropical island, November is the perfect season for summer festivals.) As Isen is the smallest of Tokunoshima’s three towns, we weren’t expecting much.
Instead, people turned out in force for an extravaganza. Lines for cotton candy and chicken skewers rapidly outstripped the foodstalls’ supplies, leaving ample opportunity to admire the ladies attired in yukata (summer kimonos). After marveling at this scene in countless animes, now I found myself living it.
Silhouetted against the ocean, the stage boasted a parade of traditional and contemporary music from drummer martial artists to a hip hop trio from Osaka. One of my fellow JET teachers performed with a group on the shamisen, a stringed instrument traditionally bound in snakeskin. The night ended with a bang: lasers painted fantastical landscapes across windswept smoke, a mesmerizing prelude to the fireworks concert. Synchronized bursts of color and sound drew shouts of delight from the crowd.
As we regretfully gathered ourselves to go, everyone agreed: Isen wins first place in festivals.
In the chain of islands between the bulk of Japan and Okinawa, the ferry passes twice a day: once on its way north, and once on its way south. Affordably priced and unrestricted by baggage allowances, ferries offer a convenient means of travel – if you’re headed in the right direction. I had hoped to make myself at home with our nearest neighbor to the north, Amami, but the red-eye arrival and departure times have dampened my enthusiasm.
As for Okinoerebu in the south, I had only heard of it in passing — literally — over the loudspeakers en route to teaching on Yoron. It was high time to visit.
Three typhoons swept by our little island in the past two weeks. Despite the raised alarms, it’s come as something of a relief. The fierce winds cool down the heat, and the downpours can’t rival a stretch in June or July when I sloshed into school every morning in a sodden raincoat, only to contemplate the same prospect every afternoon.
JET group chats assemble in advance to instruct us on emergency preparation: stocking up on shelf-stable foods, rolling out the storm shutters, and filling the bathtub with water. One of our veteran JETs on the island endured two days without water and five without electricity during his first year on the island, but we’ve yet to face anything so severe. Besides the hardship of reduced grocery stock (without the ferry’s twice-daily visit, the dairy and aisles dwindle to nearly nothing), life continues apace. My church gathers as usual, in spite of the typhoons timing their maximum impact repeatedly for Sunday mornings.