In Japan people flock to the countryside to enjoy the splendid selection of autumn foliage. This is called ‘momijigari’ which basically means red leaves hunting. I love autumn and adore red maple leaves so it’s an exciting time for me!
I’d read about a very unusual autumn phenomenon close-by in a place called Obara. It’s famous for Obara Shikizakura cherry trees. Whilst standard cherry trees only bloom in the Spring the Obara Shikizakura also bloom in autumn and are at their best at the end of November and start of December.
The cherry blossoms are interspersed with other trees including maples. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see something so rare, so despite being full of a cold, Ash and I got up early and set off on an autumn leaves and cherry blossom hunt!
We went to Toyotashi station to catch a bus (outside the front of the station by the roundabout) and found that lots of other people had had the same idea as us. We managed to squeeze ourselves on to the jam-packed bus and an hour and a half later (due to traffic) arrived in the scenic village of Obara Okusa.
There are a few different areas dotted around for viewing the sakura (cherry blossoms) and maples together and you can walk at your leisure, drive between the spots or catch a shuttle bus.
Here is a map for anyone interested in going (you can also pick these up at the site):We started at Fureai park, which was host to lots of food stalls and a woman singing in a Kimono, and quickly met up with our friend Alison who had already driven around the site. We got our first taste of Autumn Sakura and found a pretty shrine.
Being bunged up with a cold I wasn’t feeling too hot, so from the park we caught the tiny but extremely busy old fashioned shuttle bus up to Senmi Shikizakura no sato, which boasts some of the most spectacular displays. There were two pretty bridges, a temple nestled in the trees and some traditional food stalls. The main feature was the hillside covered in cherry blossoms and maples. It was breathtakingly beautiful so I took lots of pictures:
As well as Sakura (cherry blossoms) we saw lots of other vivid coloured leaves on the surrounding trees.We decided to follow the map and walk the scenic one hour journey back to the bus stop. We followed the road and walked past farms and small roadside shops. At one point the roadside was covered in lots of cool scarecrows whose job it seemed to be to attract passersby in to a road side stall.
We got back to the bus stop with plenty of time to spare so sat outside eating cup ramens and then caught the bus back in to town. It was a really beautiful area and I’d highly recommend anyone in the Aichi area to visit Obara and enjoy the Autumn Sakura phenomenon.
A few weeks ago Ash and I got up at the crack of dawn to visit my friend Mitch who lives in Matsumoto.
Japan is famous for its speedy public transport but unfortunately with speed comes ticket prices that are too high for your standard English teachers to afford. Therefore we opted to take the cheap and slow but incredibly scenic route with a few train changes. We didn’t mind at all as it meant we got to see lots of gorgeous Japanese mountains as we chugged through Nagano prefecture.
We arrived in to Matsumoto just before lunchtime and spent a few hours walking around taking in the sights. Matsumoto is a beautiful city nestled in the Japanese alps and is popular with tourists. We took some obligatory tourist photos so here they are!
June and July are rainy season in Japan so it was overcast that day. However the low hanging clouds just added to the beauty of the mountains and scenery. We walked around areas with traditional buildings and visited Matsumoto’s main attraction, Matsumoto castle.
Mitch was working during the day so we met up with him in the early evening and went for yummy barbecue. We then went to a rowdy Japanese bar, drank beer and ate bar snacks (including tuna jaw bone meat). He then took us to a bar where he is a regular.
Finally Mitch went home but shipped us off to another place where we met some lovely people from the Phillipines and Brazil and spent the final hour of the evening.
It was a whirlwind trip but we loved the area so much we’ve made plans to go camping and hiking in Kamikochi as soon as possible!
Finally! Three months after leaving Korea I have home internet and am able to update this blog!
In that time a lot has happened including a lovely relaxing holiday in The Phillipines and relocating to Japan to start the latest chapter of our teaching and travelling adventure.
We arrived in Japan on Friday evening March 14th and flew in to Osaka. We needed to travel to Tokyo and we’d found flying to Osaka and then catching an overnight bus to be the cheapest option. This had seemed like a great idea at the time but when actually put in to practice it was a nightmare. We had almost 100kg of luggage between us and had bought a large pull along holdall that wouldn’t move properly (and ended up taking a chunk of Ash’s leg off!). So yeah travelling across Osaka city centre was pretty stressful.
We caught an overnight bus from Osaka to Tokyo that arrived at 7am and then tried to traverse Tokyo’s confusing subway network at rush hour to find our hotel (with the luggage from hell).
The hostel was the cheapest in Tokyo (there is a money saving theme going on here) and was a nice tiny traditional Japanese house. Again we hadn’t thought about the volume of luggage we had when booking and weren’t expecting to find so many other travellers in such a tiny space! Our room was literally like a cupboard with two bunk beds in it! It’s hard to actually describe how small it was but basically only one of us could be getting changed in there at a time and if both of us were in there stood up we couldn’t move!
We wandered around the area, did some laundry, drank coffee and ended up snoozing in the afternoon because we were so tired. In the evening we visited Shinjuku and ate a delicious dumpling ramen before wandering the streets aimlessly for a while.
Day 2 – Sightseeing mission
After an exhausting first day in Tokyo we decided to make the most of our time before starting our new job orientation the next day.
Our first sight for the day was Yanaka, a residential area which has kept an old town traditional ambience in modern day Tokyo. We walked up narrow roads lined with traditional Japanese houses and shops, as well as visiting small temples, shrines and traditional graveyards. It was a really relaxing way to spend the first part of the day and was in total contrast to what we were to experience next!
Our next destination was Akihabara, famous for being an area full of electronics shops, game arcades, comic shops and maid cafes. It is renowned as the center of Japanese Otaku (diehard fans/geek) culture. It was absolutely rammed (mostly with men), full of tall brightly coloured buildings decorated with lots of signage, neon and animations. Here are some pictures as they can do a better job of describing it than me.
We spent ages wandering around the buzzing streets taking in the atmosphere. It was so different to anything you’d encounter in England so was a great experience!
We were pretty hungry after hours of walking around so went for a sushi dinner and then sat in Ueno Park to watch the sunset.
The next day we had to spend at the office of our recruiter signing documents and getting registered at City Hall so nothing of much note happened then.
The following day we left our hostel and lugged our bags out of Tokyo to our orientation. It was held in the middle of nowhere in a teacher training centre which was also being used by a university band camp for rehearsals.
Okay so I won’t write much about the orientation because although we met some very nice people it was all quite tame due to be being out in the sticks and having a 9:30pm curfew! Also Ash and I had to share dorm style with other teachers and weren’t allowed to share a room. Something which made me feel distinctly like an untrusted teenager, not a thirty year old woman!
Anyway, we basically spent the next few days waiting to find out whereabouts we were going to be placed. Our company owned contracts to place ALT’s (Assistant Language Teachers) in schools in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, Kanto and Chiba Region so we had no idea where we were going to be (but were really really hoping for Tokyo!)
On the third evening we were all summoned and told our placements. Ash and I had been placed in Futtsu City. A tiny super super rural area at the bottom of Chiba prefecture. This meant that we would be quite isolated and not easily able to travel around. In addition our Japanese language skills were probably the lowest in the group so the prospect of living somewhere so rural was daunting. I wasn’t very happy but went to bed trying to be positive and accept things.
The next day got worse! We found out that between us we were working at 16 schools and would be working across elementary and junior high which would mean a lot more lesson planning. On top of this we were expected to use our travel expenses which were actually part of our rather low wage on one car and car pool to work each day. Our schools weren’t always near each other and some days we had to attend two schools. Upon hearing this news I got a bit upset and felt that we were being taken the piss out of a bit in expecting to accept the placement. It hit home that we were in Japan in a bit of a weird situation.
We spent the next couple of days avoiding signing any contracts whilst staying in this weird place and being put under a bit of pressure so it was quite stressful.
A change of plans
Luckily once we left the orientation (promising to go back to the office and discuss our placement again) we managed to get in touch with another recruiter we’d previously interviewed with and they told us they still had positions in another part of Japan and offered us a job! We were over the moon! We went back to our previous recruiter and broke the news and it actually went as well as could be expected because they appreciated that we didn’t just do a runner and came in to explain our situation to them.
We now had to move across the country in time to start ANOTHER orientation the following week and would then be living in Toyota City (yup, where the car originated!) near to Nagoya. We decided in the meantime to enjoy more of Tokyo’s sights for a few more days. This was easier said than done!
No room at any of the inns
We began searching for hostels and guesthouses to stay in for the rest of our time in Tokyo and to our surprise it was impossible to find one place to stay for the rest of our journey. Cherry Blossom season was looming in Tokyo, which brought tourists from all over Japan and the world wanting to experience the beautiful blossoms. This meant that most hotels were booked.
We ended up in four different places:
- Going back to the smallest hostel in the world for one night.
- Staying a night in a dodgy AirBNB in a totally different part of Tokyo and having to leave at 7am in the morning because the guy who owned the apartment was going to work
- Staying two nights in a boarding house in an area full of day labourer boarding houses
- Visiting all boarding houses and hotels in the area to try to find somewhere for our last night. Finally we found a hotel near to our previous one.
I couldn’t believe that in such an enormous city it would be so hard to find accommodation. I’ve since been warned that during peak festival seasons this is common.
We spent the next few days:
Eating lots of yummy food.
Enjoying an Andy Warhol exhibition and magnificent city scape views in an art gallery on the 50th floor in Roppongi Hills.
Shopping in Shibuya and watching the infamous Shibuya Station crossing.
After a few days it was time to catch another cross country bus to Nagoya to start our new job!
Since then we’ve been settling in to Japanese life and adjusting to the differences between the UK and Korea. But that’s a whole new post!
In Korea your school’s birthday is a big deal and all students and teachers have a day off to celebrate (if it falls on a week day). My friend Claire and I were lucky enough to have the same school birthday and this year it fell the day before the Korean thanksgiving holiday of Chuseok. A few friends and I had decided to visit Osaka during the holiday this year, so we decided to go out a day earlier together. We caught the train to Seoul on Monday evening and stayed at my favourite place ever – Siloam jimjilbang. We were up very early the next morning to catch the airport railroad to Incheon airport.
Our plane arrived in Japan mid-morning and we mistakenly got on the slowest train ever from Kansai airport to Osaka. Luckily about 40 minutes in to our journey at one of the millions of stations our train stopped at, one of the station conductors told us to get on a faster train and we got there in quick flash time.
Upon arrival our first task was to find our accommodation for that night. We caught the subway (which was really retro and I loved it – apart from the price) to Shinsaibashi train station and then walked around the streets. On the first night we were staying in a capsule hotel, something I have always wanted to do so was pretty blooming excited about!
For the rest of the day we wandered around Amerikamura, an area with a lot of independent and vintage shops and a very relaxed feel. We also had a little walk around Namba which was close by and found lots of interesting streets and shops, saw a shrine down a tiny back alley with a moss covered Buddha and walked down tiny traditional streets. It felt quite unnerving to not be able to understand any Japanese writing as I’m so used to at least being able to phonetically read Korean even if I don’t always know the meaning! With this in mind we went in to the first restaurant with a picture menu and ate there. In the evening we sat in the main square in Amerikamura for a while chatting before heading back for a night in our capsules.
The capsule hotel wasn’t actually that far removed from a jimjilbang in that there was a shared locker room, changing room, toilets and sauna area for all the women. I found out afterwards that these actually usually just cater to business men and it can be difficult to find women’s capsules. Our actual sleeping areas were compartments with a pull down blind. I thought they were pretty comfortable although I did feel like I was in a space ship.
The next morning we were up and out early for a western breakfast (this doesn’t really happen in Korea much!) and to find our hostel where the others would be joining us later. We then caught the JR line (which is like an overland loop train) to Tennoji and visited Shitennoji temple. It was really beautiful and because it was a weekday was fairly quiet. There was a lovely view across the graveyard of the skyline and Osaka’s famous Hitachi tower.
Next we headed back to Namba to meet my UK friend Mitch who now lives in Matsumoto and had come to catch up for a day or two. The three of us then went to Osaka castle, which is very pretty on the outside but not that thrilling inside. Afterwards we went back to our hostel to meet everyone, get changed, have a quick beer in the bonsai garden on the roof and then went out to meet Mitch in Namba again. He wanted to show us around Ebisu bridge and Dotombori, two of Osaka’s most famous sights.
The neon lights on Ebisu bridge were pretty amazing! The area was jam-packed and the streets behind the river featured lots of animatronic animals hanging above restaurants in the area. We were starving so decided on a restaurant and ordered lots of delicious Okonomiyaki, delicious pancakes with lots of fillings and cheese. We spent the rest of the night drinking beer in a tiny corridor bar and a rather strange shisha bar before heading home in the wee hours.
We had a bit of a lie in the next day as we were feeling a little delicate and had already decided to spend a chilled out day in Nara, about an hour away by train. Nara used to be a historic capital in Japan so features lots of famous sights. It is also famous for the tame deer that wander around the park and temple areas of the city.
The first sight we encountered as we entered the historic area was a picturesque pond with lots of turtles swimming in it. There was to be a lake-side festival taking place that evening so lanterns were being set up on the water. We saw our first of many deer here! She came over and nabbed Emily’s (unwanted) sandwich out of its wrapper and wandered off whilst we all squealed (and Keir WWOOOOOYYYEEEDD) and tried to stroke her.
The next hour or so was spent buying special biscuits and feeding them to lots of quite brazen deer as we walked through Nara Park. We visited a couple more shrines, had coffee and then headed off for one of the main sights. Todaji temple holds claim to being the world’s biggest wooden building and oh my goodness it was absolutely enormous! The pictures unfortunately don’t do it justice. It took my breath away. What’s even crazier is that this temple had to be rebuilt after a fire and is apparently 1/3 smaller than the original! Inside the building is an enormous gorgeous bronze Buddha.
After staring at the Buddha (mouth open in awe) for a while, we followed Keir on his mission to find a geocache. Up a hill nestled amongst the trees behind Todaji temple we found another hillside temple with stunning views of the sunset. There was hardly anyone around so the atmosphere was lovely and serene.
We were pretty tired after sightseeing but we wanted to see the lantern festival by the water so went and sat on the grass for a little while as it was really beautiful. After maybe half an hour nothing happened so we went in search of dinner. We decided upon a restaurant which served a traditional set meal. Lots of small courses were delivered after each other. We weren’t entirely sure how we were supposed to eat it but an old couple opposite us had the same set so we copied them. It was yummy and included raw fish, miso soup, variations of tofu dishes and rice.
Full of food and worn out, we headed back to Osaka on an evening train and chilled out in the hostel.
Kyoto – a glance in to the past
We woke up early the next morning to catch a train to Kyoto for another busy day. Not far from the train station we found a bike rental shop and decided to travel around by bike all day. Our first destination was Kiyomizudera temple. We had to walk our bikes up a really steep alleyway to get to the temple. There were beautiful women walking around the temple grounds in gorgeous kimonos and the temple itself which was stunning, was situated up on the hill amongst trees and overlooked the city.
Next we cycled down to Gion, in the vague hope of finding a geisha. However it was blisteringly hot and we didn’t go to a teahouse, so we were obviously unsuccessful. We didn’t mind though because this area was very pretty, traditional and filled with kimono and souvenir shops. The buildings were all really narrow and made of dark wood. We decided to splurge and eat a traditional lunch in this area. This time the food was served up almost like a bento box but inside a beautifully intricate bowl. Cue all of us taking pictures of our food!
After lunch we cycled around a little and visited a few more vibrant red shrines and temples on our travels. We cycled up the philosophers’ path, a pretty cherry tree lined path and found a really cute café so sat with coffee and cakes soaking up the nice relaxed atmosphere. We were heading for another temple but by the time we had cycled there it was unfortunately closed. We started making our way back to the station, riding our pretty bikes along the riverside looking at all the attractive riverside restaurants and bars. I felt like I never wanted to leave Kyoto but it was getting dark, all the temples were closed and we were staying in Osaka so caught the train back.
Once in Osaka we tried to decide where to spend the next few hours before bed and randomly ended up getting off the JR at Kyobashi, a random stop, because everyone thought it looked ‘fun’! The streets around the station were full of neon lights and it was pretty busy (it was Friday evening). There were row upon row of tiny bar/restaurants known as Izakaya, full to the brim with suited and booted Japanese businessmen letting their hair down. We chose a bar and ordered LOADS of side dishes. I can safely say that every single thing they put down in front of us (apart from the mushrooms because I don’t like them) was mouth-wateringly delicious! There were 5 of us and usually the plate had 6 pieces of whatever dish we’d ordered on it. We all loved them so much that we had to pay ‘rock, scissors, paper’ to choose who got the extra piece. I never won!
A day in Osaka
Our final day was spent in Osaka so we took our time having breakfast. Claire had read about a bakery which apparently sold British style cakes only one JR stop away so we decided to walk and follow the train line because it was a lovely day.This wander gave us a chance to see everyday Osaka life. We saw lots of very nice bikes, a variety of different shops, people’s houses (most of which were decorated with plant pots outside) and more ornate looking food and drink establishments. The area leading up to and around Tsuruhashi station was really interesting and full of exciting looking alleyways. The bakery was in an upmarket area and the owner was from Leicester. He’d designed it with a mod theme which we weren’t too sure about. We weren’t too sure about the cakes either, apart from an amazing apple pie.
Afterwards we caught the subway to Namba AGAIN as Keir had read about a craft beer festival being held in the area, which we quite frankly couldn’t resist (apart from poor Claire who doesn’t drink any beer whatsoever)!
After a lot of searching we found the festival being held by the river and boy were there lots of tasty beer selections from all over the world, including the UK. I thought my holiday couldn’t get any better when Ash noticed someone eating blue cheese! After a short search we discovered a stall selling LOTS of cheese so bought some brie and some stilton with crackers and sat nomming them and drinking tasty ale with grins on our faces.
We split up for dinner that day because Ash, Emily and I wanted sushi, Keir wanted Octopus balls and to find a geocache and Claire wanted a bento box. Emily and I had seen a sushi restaurant nearby earlier in the day so went there. It was reasonably priced and we got to watch the sushi chef make our masterpiece of a dinner. The fish melted in our mouths and we all sat pulling faces and making noises of joy whilst eating.
We went back to the hostel and Keir, Emily, Ash and I decided to pay one of the local tiny cupboard bars a visit for a final drink in Osaka. We had a lovely evening with a very hospitable barman before returning to our hostel to get some sleep in preparation for our flights home to Korea the next day.
Needless to say, this trip to Japan further cemented my love for this amazing and vibrant country. So much so that Ash and I are now looking for employment in Japan when we leave Korea at the end of February. Fingers crossed eh!?
For Fukuoka Part 1 blog please check the side navigation and click:)
Day 2 Parks, castles, sushi and getting drunk again
After a good nights sleep we woke up early enough to have the hotel breakfast. It was only butter/jam and toast with drinks but was better than nowt!
We headed out and went on a mission to find a discount store close to Hakata station. It turned out to be Daiso – a Japanese chain popular in Korea. We bought some cheap souvenirs before getting the subway to Ohori Park in central Fukuoka. The sky was still a bit overcast but we wondered around there for a while. To be honest the Park is nice enough with a piece of shrubby land in the middle of a large pond and a pretty pagoda but is nothing that special. The ruins of Fukuoka castle are close by too so we checked them out. There are hardly any ruins left but it was nice, quiet (eep I’m getting old) and the skyline view from the top of the turret was pretty so Ash got some nice photos.
Next we wandered over to the harbour in search of something Fukuoka is famous for: street ramen stalls. However when we got there it was too early so they werent open. We were starving by this point so were on the hunt for food.
Close by we found a sushi restaurant, being sushi fans and so close to the sea we couldnt resist it so ordered a lunch set. A tip for eating nice food in Japan when on a budget is to have your main meal at lunch because most restaurants have a cheaper lunch set meal. For £12 we each got two salads, a bowl of soup, a plate of sushi, dessert and a cup of coffee which was a good deal I think. The sushi was super super fresh and melted in the mouth so I was sad to finish it.
After wandering around for a few more hours we realised that Fukuoka city centre is pretty small and recognised lots of places from previous days. We went back to the hotel to change and then went out in the evening in the search of nice ale and more food.
Warning: The bars are not where they seem.
We spent a long time trying to find a number of bars recommended on the internet and it was only by chance that we managed to. Similar to Korea a lot of bars were hidden in tall buildings and often there weren’t even signs outside. We ended up finding a reggae and rock bar purely by accident having seen a sign for a different bar outside. Our favourite bar of the night was without a doubt the Craic and Porter. It’s a tiny irish themed bar above a flower shop in Tenjin. There are ok directions for this on the internet if anyone wants to go. Anyway we ended up staying there so long drinking scrummy ale and lager and chatting away to other expats that we totally forgot about eating. On the way home we realised how much we needed food and found a street ramen stall. These are called Yatai and are what we had searched for earlier in the day. People sit around portable stalls slurping steaming ramen and drinking beer late in to the night. We got involved and I have to say this ramen was the best I’ve ever had, as was the cheesey eggy omelette delight that Ash and I shared. The staff were really friendly as were the other patrons so we had another great social and culinary experience before dragging our drunken butts back to the hotel.
Day 3 -Alarm bells and Nokoshima island
The next morning we were woken by someone speaking in Japanese through the loud speaker in to our hotel room, wtf? I started panicking because I remembered us coming back late and singing The Smiths walking up the road (pissheads) so in my delirious half asleep mind I thought they were telling us off. We realised 10 minutes later when the ridiculously loud sirens were going off that it was just a natural disaster drill. It went on for AGES which was annoying but made us hurry up to get out of the hotel.
We’d seen quite a lot of Fukuoka itself so wanted to get away and experience something different on our final day. We chose to catch a ferry to Nokonoshima island. We got an extortionate bus journey from Hakata station to the ferry dock (it cost 500yen so just under a fiver) we caught the ferry to Noko Island which only took ten minutes. Nokonoshima island is famous for a huge flower park, being a nature reserve and having a cool campsite and traditional village.
Once we arrived at the island we thought we had missed the bus, so we grabbed a map and started walking to the island park not really knowing how far away things were. After ten minutes we found a deserted temple and some ancient mongol warrior graves. It was pretty special because there was no one else around but me, Ash and a few butterflies fluttering around the statues and graves. It was still possible to see the ocean and other islands through the bushes and there was no other sound than the breeze rustling through the trees – bliss.
We took some pictures and then carried on walking for what felt like ages. After a while we saw a sign warning of wild boar which gave me the fear slightly. Realising it was 3.30pm and we were only half way there I was worried that we wouldn’t get to the park in time to have a good look around. Luckily as if by magic the first bus we’d seen arrived five minutes later and took us the rest of the way.
The island park was also really quiet because it was a weekday. There were pretty manicured flower gardens, oriental style trees, an animal corner with rabbits, chickens and goats sitting on rocks looking out at the sea. Women were farming a small field close by and behind them we could see dozens of islands dotting the ocean. We wandered around for a while, had a bowl of udon noodles with beef and then headed back on the bus.
That evening we went to Canal city to try to find food. We wanted to have a nice meal on the last night but other than super expensive restaurants in the basement of the Hyatt hotel (we looked like total scruff bags) there wasn’t much. We looked around Hakata staton but felt a bit overwhelmed due to the amount of choice and a lack of prices outside restaurants. We ended up at a bar/restaurant next to our hotel and I shit you not all we ordered were some small side dishes and two beers each and it came to £50! I was a bit gutted about that as it would have been nice to eat something delicious that night.
Next morning we were up early and flew home exhausted but happy that we’d been able to visit Fukuoka as it was a nice little city. Japan has a really nice atmosphere to it despite being expensive and I really want to go back next Chuseok to Tokyo or Osaka.
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!