Why a Flashback?
What has prompted me to write an entry about a three day trip to Japan I took over four years ago now? My brief visit to Fukuoka on a Korean visa run wasn’t exactly eventful. Hell, save for a half day spent amidst the beauty of Sumiyoshi temple at the heart of the city – it was little more than Family Mart bought junk food and entirely too much time in a PC room.
I spotted this video on YouTube the other day and it reminded me why Japan continues to rocket up the ladder in my estimation when it comes to places I’d love to visit.
Watching this made me think of how my first visit went and how much more I could have done with my time. It also got me thinking about what I’d like to do when I do eventually visit Japan. I’ll have an entry on that in a few days time.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll indulge me as I revisit my brief trip to Fukuoka way back in 2009.
February 2009 and a younger, more naive Aussie on the Road steps from the Busan to Fukuoka ferry and into the fading light of afternoon. Japan becomes the third country I’ve visited as I hand over my passport, collect my backpack, and make my way out into a largely abandoned car-park to find a bus.
Two days ago I’d been blissfully unaware that I’d be making a whirlwind tour to Japan. I’d been doodling at my desk in the office when my boss had strode in and informed me I’d need to do a visa run or be deported. At least he’d had the decency to tell me he’d pay for the trip.
And so it was that I’d taken a 5am bus to Busan (four hours from Gwangju) and then the three hour fast ferry from Busan across to Fukuoka. In the days before I’d owned a smart phone, I’d had to make do with printing off a small novel’s worth of directions and advice for doing a visa run.
It was my first time traveling alone and I’ll freely admit that I was just a wee bit frightened.
My first challenge was in finding the correct bus to take to get me to the hotel I’d booked. While the idea of leaping onto public transport in a foreign country sounds like a fun little adventure to me these days, 2009 Chris was more than a little nervous he’d end up in the hands of the Yakuza or stumble into the countless haunted houses that Japanese horror had informed me of the existence of.
Disaster didn’t strike, and I soon found myself on a bus. Rather than paying as I got in, I instead collected a ticket and watched an overhead board. I’d need to pay the amount indicated up there when I got off. It mustn’t have been a particularly popular route, as I found myself largely alone save for the company of my girlfriend’s kindle.
Finding a Bed
My next challenge after figuring out Japanese money and paying for my trip was finding my hotel. Thankfully, I’d had the foresight to print out a map.
Unfortunately, I’m hopeless at reading maps. I ended up wandering up and down a covered walking street for a good half an hour before I spotted the grandly named ‘Hakata Riverside Hotel’ tucked away between a few nondescript shops. Checking in took me up to a modest room complete with insanely small bathroom, comfortable bed, and coin operated TV.
Being both male and curious, I may or may not have inserted a few Yen to watch ten minutes of grainy Japanese porn. More than enough time.
With my belongings safely ensconced in my room and nowhere to be until I headed to the Korean embassy the next day, I ventured out in search of food and something to do. Daydreams of freshly made sushi were soon abandoned as I discovered a street of overpriced eateries without so much as a mention of Japan’s signature dish.
I made do with greasy fast food outside a large arcade that I was too scared to enter. Oh 2009 Chris, you sucked so hard.
I did manage to muster some bravery for exploration, at least. Fukuoka by night proved one of the prettier experiences I’ve had in a city. With its canals reflecting the lights of skyscrapers and traffic and a sea breeze blowing over the city, I was reminded of how much cleaner Japan felt than Korea.
Finding a ‘Night Life’
If I wasn’t brave enough to enter a brightly lit arcade, you know I wasn’t brave enough to venture out into a bar or club in search of expats. No, 2009 Chris opted to split his time between reading Glen Cook’s hard-boiled fantasy detective series, Garrett PI; and finding a PC room in which to spend a few hours on Skype with his girlfriend.
Seriously, 2009 Chris, you’ve got a lot to answer for.
A Photographic Interlude
While the bulk of my time was (somewhat sadly) spent alternating between a dark PC room, reading in my hotel room, and running back and forth between the hotel & my embassy handing in paperwork and then collecting it – I did manage to do something the slightest bit cultural.
It was on my bus ride back from the embassy that I got chatting with a local businessman. Ten or so years my senior, he proudly boasted about the many reasons he loved Japan and particularly his city.
“There is a temple near here, actually,” he informed me as we wound our way through the city, “You should visit it”.
With little else to do, I hastily thanked the man and hopped off the bus to check out Sumiyoshi. To find such an island of serenity and natural beauty in the heart of a bustling city was easily the highlight of the trip. As I wandered sun-dappled paths that lay beneath leafy green boughs, I was touched by the utter calm that washed over me.
The city noise gave way to the solemn chiming of a gong, the rustling of trees, and the gentle murmur of fellow tourists. I whipped out my trusty point and shoots and snapped a few pictures. Enjoy!
Oh yeah, I promised you some first impressions! Let’s see…
- I was struck by just how much cleaner Japan was than Korea. The mounds of garbage cooking in the sun that give Korea a very particular odor were gone!
- You can get food delivered to your PC room! There’s even menus by the PCs.
- The standard of English spoken was fantastic. I had no trouble at all getting around even when I managed to get hopelessly lost and took a train to nowhere.
- No sign of sushi, karaoke bars, or Japanese schoolgirls giggling on street corners. Much to my chagrin.
- Even in Japan, they blur the best parts of porn.
The most lasting impression I took from my visit to Japan was that it was a country I sorely needed to revisit. I can’t believe it’s been four years (two of them living within a short flight of Japan) and I’ve not even dipped my toes back into the water yet.
If that video above doesn’t have you thinking that Japan warrants a visit, I don’t know what will. Hell, maybe my upcoming May vacation…
Ever been to Japan? What did you like or dislike? Where should a first time traveler go to really experience Japanese culture?
Or have you ever had a transcendental moment of tranquility at the heart of a city’s hustle and bustle?