Saturday, August 23, 2008


I've always wanted to travel around Japan, but either time or money has prevented me from leaving the Tokyo area. I'd been trying my best to save money, and near the end of the semester, it was clear that I had enough for a trip (partially due to the fact that I pay about $200 less a month for rent than most of my friends) and I had an open invitation to go to Fukuoka by a friend.

For those of who who don't know, Fukuoka is in Southern Japan, on the Southern large island. Japan has 4 main islands and a bunch of tiny tiny islands. Most of Japan lives in Honshu, the main island. This has Osaka, Tokyo, Kobe, Kyoto, Nara, and, well, almost every big city in the country. Up north is Hokkaido, which is the home to Sapporo and not a whole lot else. The third island isn't all that far from Fukuoka and is the smallest of the big islands. The fourth island is Kyushu, which is where Fukuoka is.

I knew that Kyushu was different than Tokyo. My friend who I was visiting also saw me shortly after I moved to Tokyo. She was saying how life is more relaxed, food was better, and people were friendlier. I never had a problem with Tokyo food, but I could understand the other two complaints easily. I wouldn't describe Tokyo people as mean at all, but 'friendly' is not a word I would use either.

I could get to Fukuoka from Tokyo by train, but it would take several several hours and actually be more expensive than flying. A word about flying domestic in Japan... Awesome! Security is what it SHOULD be. There are metal detectors, you put your things through a scanner, a device to tell you if liquids are explosive or not, and that's it. My shoes stayed on, I didn't get yelled at, I was allowed to bring liquid on the plane, I didn't have to wait in line... It was the way it should be.

Anyways, when I got to Fukuoka, it was raining and night. It was actually quite a poor introduction to the city. I did not take any pictures for fear of getting my camera wet, also, it was a bit of a struggle to see in general. My friend was my guide, so we went back to her house, unpacked, and had some dinner at this GREAT yakitori joint. This place was classic. The chairs were wooden, the grill was quite dirty and full of the grease (and flavor) of many, many sticks of grilled chicken, and there was this giant pile of salt because every time they put salt on the freshly grilled meat, they threw it in the same spot. It was really good, and it wasn't even my friend's favorite yakitori place. Just her favorite near her house. I'd LOVE to see the best one, but as I'll tell you, we didn't really have time.

So, what's Fukuoka all about?

I know it's warmer and a bit more tropical than Tokyo, but not a whole lot. It's significantly smaller than Tokyo, but so is everywhere else in the world. I also know it's closer to Seoul, the capital of South Korea than Tokyo (and actually the capital of North Korea too), but what else about it? Looking at the facts, there are about 2.5 million people (As I stated before, 3.3 million people use Shinjuku station a day). It's also considered the oldest city in Japan, which makes sense because the first inhabitants of Japan came from Korea, which is quite close. I was told that on a clear day, you can hear North Korean radio, but I was too busy having fun to remember this while I was there, so I couldn't test it.

So, enough writing, here's some pictures:

This is the main river running through Fukuoka. Summer is rainy season so it's not a big surprise that it's fairly dried out, as it was late April.

There's a big shopping center up ahead, but I'll get to that a bit later.

First it's lunch time! Fukuoka is famous for Hakata ramen (I'll explain Hakata later). Hakata style is made with pork bone (tonkotsu) soup base instead of pork meat or fish bone. Since I made it clear before that I love ramen, I wanted to try the real deal in Fukuoka. I was blown away the entire trip by how many ramen shops there were in Japan. It was quite inconceivable. Imagine, in America, all the fast food places, coffee shops, and gas stations were replaced with ramen shops. That's what it was like. It may sound like I'm exaggerating, but I really think I'm understating the magnitude of ramen shops.

The shop I went to was a local chain and well known for being fantastic. It was clearly a shop for businessmen. There were vending machines up front, a staff member to point you the right direction to an empty seat, and private booths. You were handed a sheet of paper to circle your preferences (Noodles hard or soft, how spicy you wanted, how much garlic you like, etc.) which, along with your ticket from the vending machine, you put in front of a red curtain. After a bit, your ramen was slid in front of you and the curtain was dropped.

You never saw the person making the food and you never needed to talk to them. There was a tap for water at each booth and if you wanted something more, you pushed a button and marked on your chopsticks wrapper what you wanted and placed it, along with money, in front of the curtain. For a tired businessman, this was quite ideal and the ambiance was fantastic. Occasionally you'd hear a bell which sounded like it was being played off of a 40 year old tape machine, the back wall was lined with promotional tissues for your usage, and it was quiet, private, and very quiet. A terrible place to go with a friend, but a wonderful place to go if you want some peace and quiet along with a rare dose of privacy.

So, how was the ramen?

Well, to be honest, debatably the best I've had. It was stinky (more on that later), tasty, and the noodles were thin, slightly crunchy (the way I like it) and fantastic. I say 'debatably' because it's Hakata style and VERY different from miso or shoyu (soy sauce) ramen and sometimes I want miso, and sometimes I want tonkotsu. But, this place was by any measure fantastic.

Just yesterday, I found out they have a branch in Ueno, which is the other side of town from me, but still a LOT closer than Fukuoka, so I'm really excited to go there.

So, after lunch, I wanted to go to that crazy building I saw earlier, so off we went.

The place is called Canal City, and it's a really crazy shopping center/entertainment place/hotel in central Fukuoka. It had a very early 90's feel, but besides that, the architecture and design were amazing.

I know that Fukuoka has fewer earthquakes than most of Japan, so I don't know if that's why they could get away with such amazing architecture or not, but it was truly a sight to behold. Through the center, there was a canal (hence the name), and currently there were plenty of plants and interesting things in there.

In the picture below, you can see these glass circles. In the center is a little hole and water would shoot up there in a pattern or at random. A little kid was really entertained by this and was having the time of their life.

We took a look at the shops. Most of them were fairly typical of any fancy area of Japan, but a couple were worth noting. One was this shop that sold old-style candy and snacks. Another was one devoted mainly to Ultraman.

It was a pretty crazy shop.

Also in canal city was this 'helpful' robot riding around. I'd heard about this as being the wave of the future several years ago, I just didn't realize this is where it was.

It had a touch panel that would help you navigate the shops, offer a horoscope, and tell you about the place and general trivia. It was in English, Japanese, and Chinese, sort of. Only shop info was available in other languages besides Japanese.

I found this guy humorous, but a bit obnoxious. As you can see from the picture below which was taken at eye level, he's quite a bit shorter than me, so to view the screen properly, I either had to awkwardly crouch down or take a step back. Whenever I took a step away, he could sense there was no one in front of him and moved a bit closer. While trying to read the screen, it was really annoying. I was also annoyed that it had options for "horoscope" and "Information" in English and Chinese, but when you went there, it directed you to the Japanese page. Personally I would have preferred he didn't give me the option at all.

While it was cute, it really was just a novelty. I saw him go back to his station to charge his own battery, which was impressive, but other than that, I don't see them replacing help desk personnel anytime soon.

And yes, I know I kept saying 'he' and 'him'. I also saw a 'she' robot that was in pink and slightly more feminine of a shape.

Another thing that caught my eye was an amazingly large amount of TVs.

They were playing really strange random images. It didn't make any sense, but it looked neat.

Some of them were playing the same things, other's weren't. I'm curious how they were linked up. But the strangest thing about them, they were all Daewoo TVs, which is a Korean brand.

Here are some more architecture pictures. I was quite impressed.

The whole color scheme seemed quite dated, but the design was really fantastic and interesting.

There was an arcade near the top which had something that I'd only heard of...

A "Typing of the Dead" arcade game! Typing of the dead is exactly what it sounds like, a typing game with zombies. It was originally for Dreamcast (and arcade apparently) and then later came out, barely modified, on a PC. This was really just a Dreamcast in an arcade cabinet with two keyboards (with the Dreamcast logo on them) glued down. It wasn't any different than the home version, but it was still cool to see and play.

Also on this floor was a place called "Ramen Stadium" There were several ramen shops that competed every month and the one with the fewest votes would have to leave. I didn't take pictures, but I should have.

We crossed over to another part and went to the "dessert museum", which really was just a strip of dessert shops. We went to an ice cream place and I had one of the biggest "Why didn't I think of this?" moments in my life. They were selling scoops of ice cream with a shot of espresso on top. I got black sesame ice cream with a shot on top, and my friend had caramel. Mine was fantastic, but hers was better.

I also saw the strangest escalator (?) ever. It was long and there were no steps. It was just an angled rubber walkway.

This whole complex was right next to the major river that I posted pictures of earlier.

I was really taken back by the architecture and the use of plants.

After this, we decided to go for a little change of pace. Within walking distance of this complex was a bunch of old temples and shrines all fairly close to eachother so we headed that direction. As you can see, there were plenty of shops but they were much more old-world than Canal City.

And here's a food stall being hand carted to it's destination. More on that later.

A stone gate.

Another gate. I like gates for some reason.

This was the first shrine we went to, Kushida shrine.

It had good security.

If you're a regular reader of my posts or someone who knows about Japan, you might know about portable shrines they carry around at festivals. There were a few gold ones in a glass room.

But what Kushida had was, without a question the biggest portable shrine I've seen in my life.

Mind you, those people are life-size, if not larger.

According to my friend, once a year residents carry this around town for hours and it's considered an honor and duty to due such a task, but people can pass out due to exhaustion.

It was really detailed and well made. I can't imagine how heavy it was.

Here are some other shots around the shrine.

After a nice time walking around there, we headed to another bunch of shrines. This is where I learned all about Hakata/Fukuoka.

Originally there were two cities. The larger merchant city of Hakata and the smaller Samurai town of Fukuoka. When they went to merge the city, they originally were going to call it Hakata, but since the Samurai had swords and threatened the merchants. Now it's called Fukuoka, but Hakata station is the biggest in the city, Hakata is the main ward of Fukuoka, and the ramen is referred to as "Hakata style", as are several other things.

This whole street was full of history. It was kind of touristy, but that didn't bother me too much.

Inside one of these buildings, there was a guy using an old sewing machine to make what I believe were parts of a kimono.

While he was talking (In Japanese), I couldn't help but feel I've seen something similar to this before. My hunch was right. This machine was apparently imported from France a long time ago. That must have been some hardcore shipment. This sewing machine was NOT small.

There was also a little display of old crafts. It was quite cozy and lovely. It kind of had the feel of someone's home, but you could walk around and take pictures if you wanted to.

Here is a stone wall outside.

And a nice tree.

And around the corner was a recreation of an old style post box. These are still used around Japan rarely, but they seem to bring back a feeling of nostalgia for a bygone era for a lot of people. It's kind of like seeing a working phone booth (not stand) in America or something like that.

But, right around the corner from the recreation was a REAL old post box still in use. There's even a time table and a JP Post sticker. For those who don't know, the post is now run by a private company, not the government. This shift happened late last year, so that is evidence this is still in use.

After that, we headed some temple. I don't remember the name, but it was guarded fiercely.

There was some contrast between old and new, as is typical for this country.

The grounds were quite nice.

And this was old.

806? Really? That's hardcore.

Here is the cemetery mentioned. It's weird to think that these stones were here over 1200 years ago.

I really liked the architecture of this place.

There was quite a large area of old temples and shrines and some old residences. I didn't really know what I was looking at, but it was a really lovely and peaceful area.

You'd think that by now I'd be sick of rock gardens, but I've never seen any in Tokyo.

There were some turtles in this lake, but I didn't get a good picture of them.

Not quite sure what was up with this vase, but it looked impressive and old.

The subways of Fukuoka are really different than Tokyo. For starters, they all look like they were redesigned in 1979, they aren't crowded at all, and they just feel different. This station had an enormous underground passageway. I have no idea how far it went, but it was long.

Even with my 6x camera zoomed in all the way I don't think I could see the end of it. Pardon my shaky hands.

After riding for a bit, I saw this curious site:

You can't really see it in the picture, but there are TWO ferris wheels. One is much bigger than the other and they look really close to eachother. Why two?

But, really, THIS is what I came to see:

The Fukuoka dome.

If you've read my posts, you might know my fondness towards monster movies, particularly the 90's Gamera movies. Well, in the first one, people tried to trap monsters in this dome and Gamera ended up punching a hole in the roof.

Maybe there's no hole in the roof, but it is owned by Yahoo, I guess.

And the building next to it looked like it had a sideways christmas tree on it.

And there were a ton of bikes.

There was a shopping center right next to the dome. It was quite creepy, as it didn't feel like Japan at all. I could have been in any city in America and it would have looked exactly the same.

Here's a nice scenery shot:

On our way out, I saw this lovely sign:

It essentially means "Be careful of the water. It can be dangerous", but it shows a Kappa (a river sprite that likes to play tricks on people) pulling a kid under.
After a snack, we headed to meet some friends of hers downtown. Here was a cool looking train station stairway:

And here's an artsy picture of a ramen stall. I like how it turned out.

Here is the main river in Fukuoka. You can see Canal City all lit up.

And here is the row of those famous Fukuoka food stands. Earlier there was nothing here.

More night shots:

After some drinks and good times, we headed home. In this one quiet neighborhood, there were a lot of metal gates that were nicely painted.

The next day, we headed out to Dazaifu. Dazaifu is a historical city outside of Fukuoka and it used to the capital of the region from the 8th to 12th centuries. There are a bunch of lovely historical shrines and temples and it's a 'must see' place of Fukuoka.

The main area is down a main road. This place, while fun and interesting, really codified what I would describe as "touristy" areas in Japan. A nice street lined with shops selling the local specialties, restaurants serving fairly generic Japanese food, souvenir shops, and things of this like.

As much as I'm not a fan of touristy stuff, I have to at least respect this place, as it's been touristy for a very long time, and is really just continuing the tradition.

The area around the main shrine was really lovely nice. There was a lot of nature around.

There were a lot of small shrines and temples.

I'll be the first to say I know next to nothing about Shinto, but I certainly like the architecture.

The main shrine was really large and colorful.

There were plenty of smaller shrines and temples in the same area.

This supposedly contains the spirit of the Shinto god of education. People from all over the region come here before big tests and prior to applying to schools. Rumor has it that the son of the shrine master failed his college entrance exam. Oops.

There was a statue of a Lion-Dog on the grounds. It was really impressive and I believe quite old.

It may sound strange, but I learned about this creature from a video game. A lot of my knowledge old Japanese culture was learned from Legend of the Mystical Ninja. More analysis on the lion-dog can be found on this page near the bottom.

Also, there was a really cute owl statue next to this fearsome and detailed creature.

It's worth noting that Temple University's mascot is an owl.

Again another small shrine:

In this area, there was a quite unusual lake.

I don't understand it, but I liked it. It was very soothing to look at.

Recently, they opened a giant history museum near all these old historic sites. I was impressed at how well it blended with the surroundings.

I didn't want to stop in because the weather was too good to waste indoors. If I lived in Fukuoka, I'd make it a point to go sometime.

Here are a few animal shots:

In front of the entrance to the temples and shrines was a bronze cow statue. Rumor has it that if you grab it's horns, you will be granted with financial luck. I can't say if it's true, but the horns were worn down from people doing that.

When I first saw the cow, there was a pile of Korean middle-aged women on top of it giggling and having fun. I wish I could have gotten a picture of that.

On the other side of the cow were several rock gardens and yet more shrines.

Here's the rest of the museum, seen on the other side of the mountain.

There was this gorgeous place that looked like a large old residence. I don't know if it had any historical value, but it was a great place to stop and visit.

Part of it was under construction and we had to take off our shoes to enter (which isn't too abnormal). It was interesting to consider what life was like for the original owners. I wish I had a house like that.

It had a rock garden in the back and the front.

And there was a really old looking statue in the corner of the garden.

We headed back to the tourist road. There we saw some wild birds.

And there was some old-fashioned Japanese sweets being made. Apparently, it's rarely done with such archaic machinery. It was nice to watch the process, though.

Of course we ate some after watching. They were quite tasty.

We also had what is supposed to be Japan's best croquette. It was quite good. Japan's best? I'm not sure, but I did enjoy it.

Every time I leave Tokyo, I'm always surprised how different trains are.

I was in for a delightful surprise. I was going to Yanagawa. It was an amazing city.

The whole city had these beautiful canals. Now they're just for tourists, but back in the day, they actually used them as transportation.

Apparently, these canals used to be really polluted but in the 80's, they put a lot of effort into cleaning them up.

Here is a lovely flower-covered building.

There was also a giant building that used to be the Governor's mansion....

And a really cute area near where you could get on the boats.

We were actually too late for the last boat, but somebody (possibly the boat operator's manager) drove us from the normal place we board to where the boat was. It was quite generous, as it was obviously a personal car, not a company vehicle.

We were aboard with a Japanese couple and the guide. Our guide was quite funny and made the delightful even better. We were propelled Venice style, with him standing on back with a long pole pushing against the bottom of the riverbed.

As I began writing this, I found out there was a documentary about this area and it's canals done by studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki.

Apparently, after making Nausicaä, Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki visited this area and thought it would be a good setting for another movie. Instead of making an animated fiction, they ended making a documentary about the city. I haven't seen it, but now I really want to.

You have to duck under the bridges.

Here is that flower covered building form a different angle.

It was a really fascinating place. I want to go back some day.

Our boat driver was telling us he was just on TV a few weeks ago. They did an interview with him and he told everyone about the area. He also mentioned that he got $20 for doing the interview. Apparently his manager got a lot of money for allowing them to film there.

This is the most photographed part of the tour.

Sometimes trees were quite low and dangerous, but that's all part of the experience.

Back on dry land, you could see the town and a large shrine.

We had to meet some friends, so we took a cab back to the station.

The town, while enjoying their tourist dollars, was not really a tourist town. It didn't feel at all touristy and I felt a genuine warmth in the city that you can't fake. It seemed like a nice place to live.

The town was also famous for it's grilled eel, supposedly the best in Japan. We didn't have to try it, but I really wanted to.

Here's some train shots. I love taking pictures from trains.

Looking out the window of a train is a glimpse into what this country is really like. With old style architecture and driving ranges, Japan is neither in the past or the future. It is now.

In the distance, we saw a giant Buddha statue. Apparently, it's one of the biggest in the region. It was really hard to photograph because the train was going really fast and it was quite far away.

Back in Fukuoka, I noticed this statue inside the train station.

Looks like they really like their kappa. Also, what is it with gorilla statues in Japan?

I think that was for a karaoke place.

The main event had nothing to do with kappa or gorillas. It was my chance to eat at one of the famous food stalls.

And, it was great. The first stall we went to was the only place that sold chicken wings stuffed with mentaiko (spicy marinated roe). For those that know me, I really don't like roe at all, but I do love spicy and mentaiko in a grilled chicken wing was absolutely amazing.

Then we ate at the most famous ramen stall in Fukuoka.

Man, it was tasty. I know this place is just for tourists, though. We had a nice chat with some people from Osaka. If I lived in this town, I'm sure I'd frequent these stalls. Good ramen in a relaxed atmosphere is a winning combination. Especially Hakata style, which I now crave from time to time.

As we left, I saw a really odd handrail while running to catch last train.

It was quite uncomfortable.

I also saw an odd site. An upside-down ramen place.

The word ラーメン(ramen) is written upside-down. It really confused me, but apparently, it's the second best ramen shop in Fukuoka and they're really proud of that.

On our way back to my friend's place, I saw a giant statue that seemed quite out of place.

Apparently it's a shop that sells portable shrines. It was pretty large and didn't seem to fit it's modern urban surroundings.

Here are some shots from a bus.

Sadly, it was coming time to leave. We were going to grab some lunch, and I spotted this creature.

Quite dramatic. Fukuoka cares a lot about their food, and it shows. Everything, and I mean everything, I ate was delicious. I miss Hakata food.

There was also a lot of construction at Hakata station. It's kind of a reminder that what was old isn't always there any more, and sometimes that's a bad thing and sometimes it's a good thing.

In 2011, when they re-open, they will have more room and a much more modern facility. For now, it's a mess.

In the airport, this guy was here to greet people coming in and leaving.

And this could be seen while waiting for my flight.

So, really, what is Fukuoka like?

After a few days, it's still hard to say. It was not the nicest place in Japan, but it was far from the worst. It was historical and modern, it was fast-paced and very relaxed. Fukuoka people are not Tokyo people and southern Japan is about as different from the Tokyo area as New York is different from San Francisco. To compare it to anywhere else would be an analogy that just wouldn't work, as it's not like anything I've ever seen.

I sincerely hope this is not my last trip to Fukuoka.


Michelle said...

Awesome. Looks like a great place to visit.

I really wish that I had traveled more during the year I spent in Wales.

Keith said...

Traveling is great. Soon I really hope to spend some time going new places, but I either have time or money, never both.