Tuesday, March 22, 2011
My first visit to Japan was with my hometown friend, Josette, who I pretty came to Korea with. Well, she came a couple months earlier, but knowing that I'd be joining her soon.
We took a late train from Daegu to Busan, found a couple rooms in a cheap, downtown motel, then first thing in the morning, boarded a ferry to Fukuoka.
Fukuoka is more a destination of convenience than anything. The ferry cheaper than a flight to Osaka, or Tokyo, and there's a Korean embassy where most people going to pick up a new visa for working in Korea. Josette and I chose it for the first reason, it was an affordable opportunity to visit Japan, and ended up being a really nice intro to the country. It's small size kept it from being intimidating, but it had everything you'd hope for on a visit to Japan; beautiful Zen temples, a big Buddha, lots of style, and even lots more shopping (and a few tanukis to boot!).
The first thing we noticed that was new was when we left the terminal and got into the taxi. The driver only had to push a button, and the backdoor swung open for us. The next thing we noticed was that the meter started at $6.40, and went up quick!
We checked into the Central Hotel and chilled out a bit.
The hotel itself was almost an attraction for us... It had a sauna on the top floor, with tinted windows around the bath, overlooking the city. From the room, later that night, we called reception and within a few minutes, two masseuses came to the door. In the bathroom, a spot on the mirror, over the sink, was heated so that there was a space to look at your face that wasn't fogged up.
The first thing we did, once we left the hotel, was head to a small japanese diner. Nothing about it was particularly special, except that it was Japanese! It was fun looking at all the bottles lined up on a shelf above the table, looking at the fellow diners, even the news paper looked interesting. There was an older man sitting behind us whose style Josette liked. She particularly enjoyed his pink cuff links, so I snuck a shot of him for her.
We spent most of the day wandering the alleys in the northern end of town, weaving our way to where the map showed a small cluster of temples and shrines. I was surprised by home many cemeteries there were squeezed between the houses and shops.
The first temple we found was Tocho-ji, the head temple of Kyushu. Inside is a 10.8 meter seated Amita Buddha, the largest wooden statue in Japan.
A few blocks further north, through more small side-alleys and cemeteries, was Shofuku-ji a beautiful, peaceful temple, with a small stream leading to a pond in front of the temple, and winding around the rest of the grounds. Finished in 1195, it is the oldest Zen temple in Japan.
Once we got our temple fix, we balanced things out by heading into the shopping district. We found Tenzin Core, one of the main department stores in the city and explored. The highlight for me was a fusion Japanese pasta restaurant where I had one of the best plates of spaghetti in my life, wish isn't easy to admit, being Italian. Garnished with chopped green onion, thin strips of roasted seaweed, roe, and sesame seeds, it was a lot more Japanese than it was Italian, but it was good! After eating, we wandered through the thrift shops which seemed to be the resting place of every toy America didn't buy since the 80's.
To top the off, we headed to Canal City. Even just the named sounded fun, and once we made our way around the corner, it was like stepping into Funky Town. I don't think it would have been possible to squeeze any more fun into a half city block of space. There wasn't a single place to rest your eyes that wasn't exciting. The buildings wrapped around you, bent over you, and popped in and out of every direction. Watching from above was Sonic the Hedgehog, standing a top a pagoda of red neon coils. The small canal that wove through the courtyard had a musical dancing fountain, like in Las Vegas. My favorite song it did was the Pink Panther! We enjoyed it so much, the next morning we walked straight back to it, then spent the evening there as well.
In the afternoon, we walked along the real canal, that passed beside Canal City. We stayed away from the men's district, just across the water, but kept going into a more traditional sort of market, with restaurants and shops strung along the canal. It was here that we stumbled across Kushida-jinja, a great little Shinto shrine complex, that housed some giant floats that are taken out each year during one of the festivals. Sitting in front of a carp pond, taking photos, I accidentally crashed a wedding that came out from the hall. They were really cool about it though, and their style was great! One of them came and grabbed my camera while another one stuck me right between the bride and groom and took my picture. I told them how beautiful they looked together and congratulated them, I'm pretty sure they understood. I thought of them at my own wedding a few years later, when I got married at the Korean Folk Village and there must have been about a hundred Japanese tourists there, waving, taking photos, and congratulating me after the wedding when I was paraded around the village on horseback...
That pretty sums up my first trip to Japan. I ended up going back to Fukuoka a couple more times, for visas. In most countries I've visited, there ends up being one town or city that I've returned to a few times, for one reason or another, until it becomes intimate. There are still a few corners of the city I haven't explored, but Fukuoka is that place for me in Japan.