Even if you have my lack of hand-eye coordination, an elementary school sports day is a good time. It's more performative and artsy than American field days. And as a foreign visitor in the teeny rural town of Misato, your job is to be stared at by the children and enjoy the awesome display of Japanese stereotypes....Like orderly children wearing matching outfits with funny caps.
And synchronized dance and gymnastic displays to a musical medley including 2001 A Space Odyssey and Rocky.
And of course, goofy relays that bring to mind those Japanese obstacle course shows you would watch on insomniac nights of college.
But the goofiest event is the one you have to participate in - an English language-relay combo. Surprise! This means you and your 3 other foreigner friends get in the center of the track and sing a song about fast food chains with the English teachers. These are the only words: Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds. This is what the children need to know about Americans. And don't worry, there's a dance that goes with it. The children sing and dance too, but sometimes they can't because they are doing the mini sprint or rice sack race or three-legged race. They're busy.
2. Pretty things: Nature, shrines, sometimes combined
Drive an hour or two from Kumamoto up into Aso - home to cows, an active volcano and the world's largest caldera.
Enjoy the smelly and probably dangerous gases and crazy blue-green pool below.
Mini roadtrip to the next prefecture: beachy, laid back Miyazaki. Think Japanese Hawaii. Drive down the coast from Miyazaki city to Udo-jingu - a gorgeous shrine that's nestled in a cliffside cave.
Or shrine it up on an island (Aoshima) next to the rocks that look like a washboard.
This is the kind of place where your camera will go wild, and suddenly there are 50 pictures that are totally unneccessary. So here are two more, just to make me feel better:Or do a daytrip up to the town of Tamana to visit an incredibly serene Buddist temple up in the hills, Rengein Tanjyoji. Learn how to pray from a monk...or rather, what you're supposed to do with the little white candles and incense you've been seeing everywhere. Become slightly less awkward at bowing. Think something spiritual or peaceful while you enjoy this view of Nagasaki.
Then forget you're at a Buddhist temple and almost kill some ants for crawling too close to you. Whoooops!
3. Onsen - for the cleanest clean
Where there's pretty nature, there are quality onsens (public hot spring baths). Perfect for all these daytrips out in the country - you can wash off that yucky car feeling whenever you feel like it! Tsukasa No Yu in Tamana is buried in a sort of country club complex including: a tatami mat room for TV watching, food court, booth to get amazing fake nails put on, and a place to get your feet cleaned by tiny fish that are pretty much eating your dead skin. Gross.
Get used to showering next to random old naked ladies while sitting on tiny wooden stools and only carrying around a teeny towel. But it's all worth it. Besides the standard indoor and outdoor pools of varied temperatures, this one has a range of individual lie down tubs with jets and one with a slight electrical current. Don't worry about the safety or cleanliness. This place is a palace. Now a standard shower is just a disappointment.
4. Mini festival
Stumble on a little mini festival when you're in Takachiho for a different shrine in a cave (with little stacks of rocks and pebbles scattered around the entrance). Apparently it's in honor of the full moon, but it looks like a standard small town fair with un-winnable games, trashy fried food, and teenagers gathered in little gender segregated clumps. Watch people make takoyaki and fall even more in love. Of course it's delicious, it's more fried batter and sauce than octopus.
Who can say no to a castle? You can pretend you're a samurai or whatever is actually historically accurate at Kumamoto-Jo - smack in the middle of Kumamoto city. There are odd but helpful English translated placards and mini models of the castle inside for a nerdy good time. Mmmm placards.