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April 21, 2016

Azalea Valley, Tsutsuji no Tani: Mifuneyama, Saga

With things as they are in Kyushu this week as a result of the Kumamoto earthquakes, I have been trying to think about what to say - and how to post a set of bright and happy flower photographs when it honestly just makes me feel guilty that I am able to do so. How can we go about daily life in Fukuoka unscathed, routine unchanged, when so many lives have been lost and displaced so close to home? Not to mention the houses, castle, shrines and infrastructure damaged and destroyed. So before I show you photos of the gorgeous azalea valley we saw on Wednesday, I feel like I should address things briefly.
It has been weighing heavy on my heart since we felt the first jolts last Friday night - or rather, since we started to understand the extent of the damage which those jolts had caused to our neighbours in Kumamoto. In the first moments there were concerns for personal safety: frightening iPhone earthquake alarms in the middle of the night had us hiding under our little kotatsu table two nights in a row, taking precautions such as packing passports, flashlights and first aid supplies into a backpack and putting our shoes near the front door just incase another, bigger shake was on the way. Aftershocks continued. Needless to say, sleeping was impossible.

Then came the sickening feeling on the following mornings, when we turned on our TV to learn the effect of those jolts. The April 14th earthquake in Kumamoto was a number 7 on the Japanese scale, which was proclaimed to be "Kyushu's strongest earthquake" until the second and even stronger quake hit in the early hours of April 16th. As new footage and information emerged, we couldn't turn off the television. It was (and remains) surreal, shocking, and difficult to process. The weekend passed in a daze.

Kumamoto is one of our neighbouring prefectures here in Fukuoka, and Kamil and I have experienced the beauty and hospitality of the area and its citizens too many times to count. We've hiked to the top of the Mt. Aso (the volcano which was in danger of erupting after the earthquakes), camped in Aso, taken our Australian friends (Hi Izzy & Dan!) driving around the green, hilly countryside of Kumamoto and to wonderful Kumamoto Castle (which sadly suffered some real damage from the quakes). We've stayed multiple times in the most picturesque onsen village I've ever seen (Kurokawa), enjoyed the autumn foliage at Mt. Kuju. Kumamoto is really dear to my heart, as is Oita (and really, all of Kyushu) so this tragedy has woken me up. It has taught me that earthquakes are not an abstract concept when you live in Japan, they can strike anytime, anywhere. We feel safe, we feel like nothing bad will happen to us, but this week has shown how indiscriminate a disaster like this is. We felt strong jolts and aftershocks in Fukuoka, but we have been lucky. And it doesn't feel fair that so many people close-by were not lucky. 

So now, we will do our best to give back to Kumamoto and the effected areas through donation and hopefully volunteering in the area. Normal life goes on, but something feels changed inside me. Our thoughts remain with everybody effected by the Kumamoto earthquakes as they recover. They will recover❤️.

Now, onto lighter topics.

御船山のつつじ谷 Azalea Valley, Mifuneyama (Saga Pref.)  
If you follow anybody on social media who lives in Japan, you're probably recovering from a recent onslaught of sakura photographs. We can't help it - they are so pretty! They banish winter! They fall to the floor like pink snow! But sakura are truly only the beginning of Japan's magical spring flowers, and now that their branches have been emptied of blossoms and replaced with leaves it's time for everything else to start blooming. On good days the sky is blue, the breeze no longer holds enough chill to dampen the spring sunshine and brand-new green leaves are popping up everywhere you look. Now is surely "the time of the season" that The Zombies were singing about. A few of my favourite flowers are on their way over the next few months so I'm planning the best spots go flower-watching; kicking things off with a trip to this spectacular azalea (つつじ) garden in Takeo City, Saga.

It was our fourth (or fifth?! I've lost count!) time in Takeo, and this time we went to Mifuneyama to celebrate our second wedding anniversary amongst flowers and fresh air. The little city of Takeo has become a favourite of ours over the years. The drive there from Fukuoka is an easy, breezy 1.5 hours up the coast, through textbook Japanese countryside scenery in Saga Prefecture. Following this amazing azalea expedition, we made a beeline for our favourite Takeo establishment - the public library.

Having seen outta-this-world photographs of the azalea garden in full bloom over the years, my hopes were high but I was trying to contain my anticipation on the drive there in case of disappointment; maybe we would be too early (or even too late). So I rejoiced when we entered the park and rounded the bend which revealed the stunning sight of 200 thousand azalea in bloom, an explosion of pinks and whites nestled in the valley below the handsome peak of Mt. Mifune. It looked just like the photos, except the scale of it was far more immense than I could have imagined. 

Thanks for reading x

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