Chuseok 2012 – Jollies in Japan – Fukuoka Part 1
From Saturday 29th September to October 3rd this year most people across Korea were celebrating Chuseok – Korean thanksgiving. This meant that all native English teachers had a five day weekend. Ash and I originally planned to stay in Korea and go to Seoul for a few days. However at the beginning of September when Ash had jetted off to the Phillipines train tickets went on sale and everyone was acting like it was impossible to get a Seoul ticket (later found out it wasn’t). The Friday and Saturday are some of the busiest days of the year due to people travelling home to visit their families. After a bit of a panic and searching around for cheap flights – as we’d left it to the last minute), I made the executive decision to avoid Seoul and book a flight to Fukuoka in Japan.
Fukuoka is the seventh biggest city in Japan but due to its location at the very bottom of the country on the island of Kyushu it’s also actually closer to Seoul than Tokyo (and really close to Busan). Through my friend John who works in business travel I booked a flight to Fukuoka and started getting excited!
We caught an early train to Busan on the Saturday which left us plenty of time to deal with any unforeseen travel issues. After an all-you-can eat buffet at VIPs restaurant near Busan Station and a subway ride we finally arrived at Busan airport. As we left the subway I realised what a nice location it would be to fly from due to the airport being surrounded by beautiful mountains. Beats Birmingham International that’s for sure!
Can you imagine my horror though when at the check-in the Korean air assistant pointed out that we were supposed to have flown the day before! My heart sank and for about twenty seconds I was internally panicking that we were going to be stuck in Busan or have to pay loads for a flight transfer. Luckily the lovely assistant moved us on to the flight we’d thought we were catching for FREE. I think that’s the last time Ash lets me organise a flight without him checking the confirmation. DOH.
To get over our shock we shared some Machoelli (tasty rice wine) before going through departures and boarding our flight.
Arrivals and culture shock revisited
The flight to Fukuoka was the shortest ever! We were only flying for about twenty minutes before we descended and before we knew it we were in Japan. Fukuoka airport is very conveniently located on the subway line only two stops from where we were staying, near Hakata station. Hakata station is a great base for buses, the subway and train so was a handy place to stay. Our hotel was also only a 5 minute walk from the train station and was reasonably priced for Japan at around £200 for four nights.
It’s amazing how every day Korea still feels so new and sometimes still a bit alien. Arriving in Japan and having to navigate our way around showed us just how much we’ve settled in and adapted to life in Korea. Granted our Korean is limited but we can read the Hanguel alphabet and some words are a mixture of English and Korean so it is comforting. In Japan there were less English signs and of course we had no bloody idea what any of the Japanese signs said. This made it feel really new, exciting, a little bit daunting and bought back memories of how we felt when first arriving to Seoul eight months ago.
It was 7.30pm by the time we got to our hotel but we’d heard that the bars and nightlife in Fukuoka are really good and were itching for some nice beer (sorry Korea I love you but your beer is crap), so we headed downtown and actually bumped in to two other teachers Emma and Shawn on the way. We arranged to meet up later and they went off for food. However public Wifi in Japan is whack and almost impossible to access in our experience so we never got to meet up that night.
As soon as we looked at the drinks menu in the first bar we understood how expensive Japan was going to be. Two bottles of beer were the equivalent of £12! We’ve been used to drinking beer for £1.50 a pint so despite lots of people warning us it was still a big shock. We tried to find some hidden away places but that was a bad choice. The next one was off a back street in a building full of cool looking arty restaurants and bars. Two beers there came to £18 because we had to pay approx £3 each as a cover charge to sit in the bar! Although we were worried about frittering away too much money we decided just for Saturday that we wanted to enjoy the nightlife so would suck it up. We found some really nice places including a basement bar with a fantastic bar man who fed us smoked soy cheese (heaven), gave us a nice japanese postcard one of his customers had designed and gave Ash a free taste of some very expensive whiskey. We found more cool places by wandering around but drank far too much and didn’t get home until about 5am!
The best toilets in the world
Before I move on I feel I have to quickly pay homage to the Japanese toilet. Every single one came with a heated seat and bum washing/drying facilities, were amazingly clean and had lots and lots of toilet roll (Koreans put one big shared roll outside the cubicle which is a bit tricky). In most toilets when you sat down to wee, in order to hide those embarrassing toilet noises – not that I make any of course, speakers played nature sounds such as waterfalls and bird song in to the toilet cubicle. Amazing! There were also some great designs including a mock Victorian toilet in the basement bar. I reckon they could be the best toilets in the world.
Hungover day of culture and ramen
Our first full day was slightly marred by my stinking hangover. Before facing the world we relaxed in the morning and watched some Japanese TV, again feeling alien as we couldn’t begin to guess what was going on. A typhoon was hitting Japan at that point, although Fukuoka wasn’t affected too much other than it being rather windy and cloudy. It did mean anything too outdoorsy had to be avoided though just in case. We wanted to find our way around the main downtown area so after a pastry breakfast we got the subway to Nakasu Kawasaka station to visit the Fukuoka art gallery. The gallery sits on the riverside inside a building called ‘eeny meeny miny mo’ – strange name for a building huh? Anyway, I really like Asian art so it was great to spend a nice hour or two wandering around there.
As we left the gallery the winds really started to pick up and police were out diverting traffic. We were pretty hungry so rather than walking around in gales we started looking for somewhere to eat. I’d heard of a famous Japanese ramen noodle chain called Ichiran and as luck would have it, it was close by. Ichiran is quite a unique experience because before you enter the restaurant you select exactly what you want from a vending machine. Ash and I both chose Ramen and an extra boiled egg. When you enter it’s dark and you are guided through a curtain in to one of the rooms. Each room has a row of stools and individual booths to sit at. There is a tiny bit of room big enough for your bowl and a bamboo blind covering the ordering hatch. Socialising is not considered an important part of this dining experience as it’s all about blocking off other distractions and focusing totally on the tasty ramen noodles you’re going to get. When you sit down you’re given a ‘questionnaire’ (they have English ones too phew) and you have to decide how you like your ramen: how hot you want it, how rich, If you want pork, how much garlic, how oily, right down to how firm you want your noodles. You then pass the questionnaire through the hatch to the staff who’s face you never see. Having made our choices we ate our eggs, poured ourselves a glass of water from our own little taps and waited. The ramen we’d ordered were really tasty although Ash’s was nicer than mine as he chose to have it really spicy. On the menu they recommend to choose medium for westerners but if you like a bit of kick then you should choose lots of spiciness.
The crazy canine shop
Right next door to Ichiran we found the craziest dog shop ever. Inside there were some cute dogs to buy, row after row of dog clothes – there were seasonal displays, dresses, pyjamas, halloween costumes and a bargain bucket, a dog pampering area, a dog clinic, a dog hotel and Ash even found a pair of doggles – you know, goggles for dogs! It was hilarious.
We crossed over the river to a nearby shrine which was very small but beautiful. Although it was right in the middle of the city the atmosphere was serene and the shrine, which was nestled between sky scrapers was vibrant red . There were also lots of enormous carp swimming around in the pond. From the shrine we could hear loud music so followed the sound to Tenjin Park and found that there was a free rock concert on. There was some girl squealing at the top of her voice which was not what we wanted with a hangover so we moved on. The ACROS building is right next to the park and I was really impressed by it because it’s an eco-building and has plants and trees growing out the side of it. We went for a wander down the side streets in search of any quirky shops and saw lots of cute narrow restaurants and bars. We decided to go in to one and have a beer and I’m so glad we did.
I’m not sure of the bars name and I’m not certain that I would be able to find it again but the atmosphere was so warm and welcoming it has really made an impression on me with regards to how friendly and welcoming Japanese people are. We sat down and ordered a beer and within 15 minutes one of the other regulars was sat next to us buying us beer and playing a funny version of paper scissors stone whilst the owner had given us FREE chicken wings tasters, delicate tuna salad and marinaded tofu with ginger. We spent about an hour there trying to mime and talk to the friendly bar man and other customers and we also got to drink shochu together with them. Everyone was so warm and welcoming I felt like we had experienced something very special purely by chance.
We were really shattered so headed back to the hotel afterwards for an early night.
I’ve written loads here so I’ll put the second half of our journey up tomorrow!