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有明町 Ariake cho (ah-ree-ah-kay) is a rural town by Japanese standards. It is located on the southern island of Kyushu, in Nagasaki prefecture. It lies on the northern shore of the Shimabara Peninsula facing Kumamoto across the Ariake-sea. With a local population of 12 000 and a foreign presence of one, it is anything but a thriving metropolis. It is, however, a wonderful oasis of calm and quiet amidst all the madness of this very crowded nation.

Ariake cho is reputedly one of the wealthiest towns on the peninsula. The town has a modern 25 meter pool, a fully equiped gym, a beautiful onsen and a cultural center furbished with a 750 person theater, all of which have been built in the last 3 years. The majority of the residents are fishermen and farmers. The most popular crops, other than rice of course, include strawberries, watermelon, eggplant, potato and radish. Poultry and hog farming is also present and many residents awake to the cry of a rooster. The Ariake Sea, to the north of the town is famous for seaweed throughout Japan and cultivation also contributes to the town's economy.

Like all the other towns on the peninsula, Ariake cho lies in the shadow of Mount Unzen, a rather beautiful yet ominous volcano. Unzen has played a big part in the region's history, periodically erupting and killing thousands. It's most recent hiccup of lava in 1991 spared the people of Ariake cho, but did make it to the outskirts of neighbouring Shimabara. Driving south along the main road, and up the slope of the mountain, one can see the lava and mud slide barriers that have been built to protect the town below.

Most visitors to the peninsula skip Ariake cho altogether and head instead to neighbouring Shimabara or to the heights of Unzen-Amakusa National Park. There are, however, several interesting sites worth visiting in this small town. Ariake-cho is home to the 8888 steps, opened on August 8th, 1988. The steps lead up the gentle northern slope of Mount Unzen to a quiet Shrine and beautiful views of the area. There is also a vibrant flower garden, which makes for a great picnic spot. Adjacent to the garden is an enclosure with four ostrichs, which I have been told, are very much loved by the townspeople. The Mayor of Ariake-cho himself often visits and feeds the four birds.

Next to the ostrichs is a poultry zoo, which houses a vast collection of chickens, turkeys and peacocks of different breeds. A must see and there is no admission! Another free attraction is the Ariake Town Historical Museum in the basement of the Cultural Center which displays artifacts and pottery found in the area, some of which are over 4000 years old. The museum lacks English translations, but it does have a very entertaining video presentation that requires no skills in the language.

Ariake cho, like many towns on the Shimabara penisula, boasts its own mineral springs. These are open year round, day and night and visitors can collect as much of the water as they please free of charge. According to some, the springs are the healthiest in all of Kyushu and people come from as far as Fukuoka to get their fill. The path leading up to the spring, as well as the spring itself, is watched over by giant stone frogs, which welcome the visitor.

Ariake cho is 60 km from the city of Nagasaki to the West. It is connected by the privately owned Shimatetsu railway line to Isahaya where transfers to Fukuoka, Nagasaki and other destinations can be made. The Shimabara train is rarely longer than 2 cars and is known as the extortion anti-express. It's relatively expensive by Japanese standards and incredibly slow, taking 20 minutes to reach the neighbouring town of Shimabara, only 10 kilometers away. It also stops running early in the evenings and its schedule is anything but convenient.

Ariake cho is a beautiful place, and a quiet contrast to the madness of urban Japan. It's representative of a very different side of Japanese culture, one in which tradition and community play a more vital role. At the same time, it is also much more relaxed and slow paced. The townspeople have not had the opportunity to meet many foreigners and when one appears, they are full of smiles and curiosity. Not a day has gone by since my arrival where I haven't been made to feel welcome.

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