Greetings from the Land of Higashikokubaru 東国原の国へようこそ

Since he was elected in January 2007, the governor of Miyazaki has unleashed a marketing blitzkrieg to inform the rest of Japan (especially the rest of Kyushu) about the southern prefecture’s gorgeous coastline, delicious chicken, and mysterious connection to Easter Island. His unwieldly name is Hideo Higashikokubaru, but most Japanese know him better as former comedian Sonomanma Higashi. Like most Japanese prefectures, Mr. Higashikokubaru employed a charming little mascot to promote tourism in Miyazaki; the twist is that he employed himself as that character, cleverly cashing in on his own celebrity.

So far, it has worked brilliantly. Mr. Higashikokubaru’s toothy grin is everywhere: on onigiri wrappers, adorning mangoes in supermarkets, on JR and JTB posters, in conbini windows, on bottles of shochu, and on countless bags of limited-edution junk food made in flavors of Miyazaki meibutsu. In Tokyo a couple weeks ago, his likeness was flying on a flag outside a curry shop – I’m not sure why. Just by sheer ubiquity of this weird little man’s infectiously happy countenance, my interest was piqued.

Of course, there were a few other factors that played into my decision to take a trip down there – and I went during my frenzied ramen-binging, apartment-cleaning, guidebook-designing, perfectly-useful-kitchenware-discarding final week in Japan, no less. In March, a close friend of mine rode his bike there to visit his family and participate in the Miyazaki Marathon – in which he ran next to Mr. Higashikokubaru himself! He had a fine time and made Miyazaki sound pretty sweet. So naturally I was excited to go to the Miyazaki JET beach party held in late May; but that fell through due to rain. And finally, I dipped into Oita for the first weekend in July, so by that time I had been to every prefecture in Kyushu – except Miyazaki. I felt that it just would have been such a shame not to go.

And I felt that way even more so after actually going there. But before I get into the awesomeness of Miyazaki itself, I want to talk about the awesomeness of the bus I took down there. It was an overnight bus called the Phoenix, operated by Miyazaki Kōtsū from Fukuoka to Miyazaki. I expected it to be a typical coach: bumpy, loud, uncomfortable, and cramped. But I was wrong. There were only three seats in each row, with an aisle between each seat; the seats themselves were quite wide, and they unfolded and reclined in a variety of delightfully sleep-inducing ways. Thick curtains blocked out any trace of light, and the ride was so smooth and quiet that when I awoke, I thought the bus had come to a stop. And not only was it awesome, it was a bargain! I reserved my tickets with the SunQ Pass, which cost only ¥10,000 and allowed me to ride any bus in Kyushu for three days! So that’s my osusume if you’re day-tripping to Miyazaki from Fukuoka.

I got in at about 7:00 in the morning, so I had lots of time to enjoy myself before my return bus left at 11:00 that night. After picking up a dry, chewy breakfast of famous Miyazaki smoked chicken (again, with Mr. Higashikokubaru’s face on them), I hopped on a bus to Aoshima, site of the Miyazaki JET beach party and the Devil’s Washboard 鬼の洗濯板, a bizarre, visually striking formation of volcanic rocks lined up into neat parallel rows by the movement of the waves.

The beach was beautiful, but shortly after I got there, it started to rain. I took cover under a palm tree and watched cute little crabs scuttle by, clicking across a confetti of sand, stone, and crushed shells. It reminded me of Thailand.

Soon I had had enough of the rain, and took refuge in an omiyage stand. Just as I was about to board the bus again, the rain stopped – a good thing, because my next destination was outdoors, as well. In the now-sunny skies, I took in beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean, puncuated by fishing boats, rock formations like that of the Devil’s Washboard, and inns advertising lobster dinners. After about 30 minutes, I had arrived at Sun Messe Nichinan サンメッセ日南, home to the famous Miyazaki Moai.

It was cool to see the Moai. It was ridiculous, yes, but it was also cool. If the informational placards told the truth, then they are the only life-size Moai replicas that the government of Easter Island has allowed to be built outside the island itself. And it will be quite a while before I make it to Easter Island, so I just basked in the uniqueness of it all and gleefully took photos like any good tourist would. It was a beautiful day.

It was a hot day, too, so I ducked into the air-conditioned Moai museum, then had some hyūganatsu kakigōri, and then left a bit earlier than I planned because I wanted to get away from the weird guy from Hiroshima who kept following me around. On the way out, I snapped a photo of a Higashikokubaru Moai on my keitai and sent it to a friend, who replied that it was “kimoi” (creepy).

As I was waiting for the bus back to Miyazaki City, a woman pulled over and offered me a ride. I wasn’t even hitchhiking! I was reminded of the hospitality I received on my first visits to Tokyo and Kumamoto. I declined, however, because I was looking forward to listening to my special Miyazaki playlist on the hour-long bus ride back. When I got in, I grabbed a quick lunch of chicken nanban チキン南蛮 – a local specialty of fried chicken topped with a vinegar-based dressing and tartar sauce. The name literally means “barbarian chicken,” and I wonder if the prototype for it was originally introduced by European missionaries and traders, who were originally called barbarians and were known for eating a lot of fried food and vinegar. Anyway, it was delicious – fresh from the fryer with a tempura crunch, juicy with vinegar to counteract the oil, and slathered with tartar sauce to counteract the vinegar. Certainly several notches above the sodden mess I was used to from Hokka Hokka Tei (though I like theirs, too).

After that I settled in for another sixty-minute bus excursion to Shusen no Mori 酒泉の杜 (literally “forest of liquor springs”) – a glorious tourist complex near Miyazaki’s border with Kagoshima in a rural town called Aya. Shusen no Mori was built by the adjacent Unkai buckwheat shochu distillery, but the fun does not stop there; on the multi-acre land there is a hotel, an onsen, a winery, a brewery, a one-stop shop for Miyazaki omiyage, and a shochu gallery, where customers are given free reign to sample any number of dozens of varieties of shochu – plus sake, liqueur, and truly awful attempts at wine.

The onsen was fantastic, offering a smörgåsbord of different kinds of baths; my favorites were the sake bath, which really had a nice smell of booze, and the electric bath, which delivered the somewhat disconcerting and somewhat wonderful sensation of a low-voltage electric current passing through your body.

After rehydrating myself and cutting my foot on the corner of a step, I moseyed over to the shochu gallery, where I tried four kinds of wine (all of them undrinkable or borderline-undrinkable), a few tasty sakes and liqueurs (including one made from hyūganatsu!), and fifteen or so different shochu. I got to sample one variety that had always intrigued me: Mayan no Tsubuyaki, or “Mumblings of an Old Man.” I didn’t like it very much – it was a bit too rough, I thought, like something a mumbliing old man might drink – but I’m glad I got to try it.

I then stumbled across to the omiyage center, where I picked up some hyūganatsu sweets and Miyazaki chicken chips for my taiko group. After that I had a few beers from the on-site brewery – much better than the wine – and then went back to Miyazaki City, hungry for dinner.

I ate at a place called Dogenka Sentoi-kan どげんせんとい館, which I chose more or less because they offered a free pint of Hideji lager if you mention their website. The name of the place means something in Miyazaki dialect that I don’t understand, befitting their dedication to local food and culture. I ordered the Miyazaki jidokko omakase course, which, among many other things, included famous Miyazaki grilled chicken. The method of preparation was as inscrutable to me as the name of the restaurant, but I understand that Miyazaki chicken is grilled in a basket, and the texture is meant to be springy – or even crunchy. Springy it was – but it was also ebulliently juicy and tender at the same time. Its flavor was thick with charcoal smoke, and I was sad when I discovered I had eaten it all.

By this time I was pretty drunk on shochu and Miyazaki craft beer, and pretty sated with chicken (I just realized now that I had chicken for all three meals that day). So I walked around what appeared to be the remnants of a festival downtown, then headed back to the bus center. Inevitably, I got lost on the way there; the cabbie who eventually picked me up was friendly, though he insisted that I have a piece of gum after I initially declined his offer. “I offer it to everybody,” he explained, as if aware that I was worried that I had bad breath.

Then It was back on the Phoenix for another restful trip. Back in Kurosaki, I stopped at a conbini for something to drink, and I spotted Mr. Higashikokubaru’s balding, jovial face yet again on a packet of candy. This time, I smiled knowingly back at him.


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