Japan… Where do I even begin to write about this unique and wonderfully weird gem of a country? The beginning of our journey to Japan is probably a good place to start. We wanted the beginning to be the ferry terminal of Fukuoka. However, fate (and the weather) decided to relocate our start to the airport of Fukuoka.
Chances are, you have never heard about Fukuoka before (if you have never heard about Japan before, you might want to change that before reading on). Japan mainly consists of three big islands (and many more smaller ones). Fukuoka is the biggest city on the south-western of the three islands (Kyushu). And while it has a lot of things worth visiting, it is not really one of Japan biggest tourist destinations.
I would absolutely recommend everyone to visit Japan at least once in their life. Words and pictures can’t really communicate how wonderfully weird and unique this country is. Japan has to be experienced! But if you don’t include Fukuoka on your first visit, don’t feel bad. Fukuoka is a really nice area with a lot to see and do, but I wouldn’t call it a “must see before you die”.
Out with the new, in with the old
The main reason we decided to stay in Fukuoka for a bit over a week, is a good friend of mine, F. He used to live there for many years. We timed our stay in Japan such that he was there as well, visiting family and friends (other friends beside us).
After meeting so many new people on our journey (and making a few new friends along the way), it was really pleasant to meet some old friends for a change.
F. was kind enough to pick us up from the airport and give us some company on the way to our AirBnB. Afterward, we had some first impressions of Japanese cuisine and sake together.
And even though F. Had quite a busy time juggling friends and family, we frequently enjoyed food or drinks together. This was especially nice as he explained to us many of the things that were puzzling or downright confusing about Japan. And that is a lot…
This is not the first time, I’ve visited F. in Fukuoka, so I had a rough idea of what I was getting into. It was, however, Katja’s first visit to Japan. I envied her a bit. I still remember my first Japan-trip many years ago. So much to discover, so much to get confused about.
Many aspects of Japan look and feel very similar to other first world countries at first glance. Upon closer inspection though, they turn out to be fundamentally and wonderful weirdly different. As the saying goes: Same, same – but different.
We could easily (and probably will soon) write a whole blog post about just some of the crazy, weird and unique things we enjoyed in Japan. This post, however, is focussing more on what we did and visited in Fukuoka. Some of it is unique to Fukuoka, others you can find in any bigger Japanese city.
Temples and Shrines
Japan is the only first world country (I’m aware of) where animistic beliefs are a major part of the culture. Animism is the belief that places or objects are inhabited by spirits.
Even though most Japanese people would probably consider themselves non-religious, their culture is strongly influenced by Shinto (the belief in spirits) and Buddhism. Many of those “non-religious” Japanese follow some Shinto rituals very much in the same way as most “non-religious” westerners still celebrate the birth of Jesus (Christmas).
As a result of this, wherever you go in Japan, you’ll find numerous shrines (Shinto) and temples (Buddhism). Sometimes even mixing both in the same location. Some are big, some are tiny, but all of them are cared for lovingly and visited frequently. It is not uncommon for a Japanese to visit a shrine after a good day and say a quick “thank you” to the Kami (spirit) living there.
All this is to say, both the temples and the shrines are usually well worth a visit and you should absolutely go to a few when you are in Japan. Of course, Fukuoka has some beautiful Temples and Shrines as well.
Temples and shrines aren’t the only places to find some calm and tranquility in the frequently busy and hectic cities of Japan. From time to time, you will find small to mid-sized gardens that offer little islands of peacefulness. Those Japanese gardens are usually laid out in a way to make them feel bigger than they. To achieve that, they use curved ways to stroll through them or integrate scenery from outside the garden into the views. Even though those gardens require you to buy a ticket for entry, it is absolutely worth it if you feel the need to escape from the craziness for an hour or two.
All the gardens, we’ve visited also feature a tea house that serves matcha (the green-tea equivalent of an espresso) and a Japanese sweet. It’s not a full-blown tea-ceremony, but enjoying a cup of matcha, overseeing the gardens is pure peace of mind.
I wish there would be more gardens like this back home. I’d be willing to pay a small fee to quickly escape the city once in a while.
If you really need to escape Fukuoka though, there is another option. A bit south of Fukuoka is a small city called Dazaifu. Dazaifu is easily reachable by train and if you are in the area, make sure to visit. Dazaifu is home to a magnificent shrine and one the most peaceful zen-gardens I’ve ever been to.
Sadly though, it was raining a lot while we were there. Even though a bit annoying, Japan usually “works” pretty well in the rain. It adds a kind of melancholic atmosphere that fits very well with the shrines and gardens. Even the Japanese seem to enjoy this atmosphere.
One more thing about Japan and rain. There is a kind of weird, unofficial umbrella-sharing-system in place. There is a kind of dirt-cheap, clear plastic umbrella. When you enter a shop or basically any place, you’ll find an umbrella holder outside. After the rain stopped, many Japanese seem to completely forget about their umbrella and leave it there. The result of this is an abundance of those clear plastic umbrellas outside of many shops. It is usually ok (and not considered stealing) to just grab one of those (but only the cheap-looking clear plastic ones). The finer details of when it’s ok to grab one are still beyond us – so don’t blame us when someone gets angry, though.
After a long day of temple exploration, you are naturally hungry. If you’ve ever heard about Fukuoka before, chances are, it was because of ramen. The Fukuoka region is famous for Tonkotsu ramen, a bowl of noodles with a creamy, thick soup based on pork bones. This is also known as Hakata-style ramen, named after an area of Fukuoka.
There are many different, regional styles of ramen in Japan. There is a huge shopping mall in Fukuoka (Canal City) that has a food court called “Ramen Stadium”, where you can try many different varieties. But when you are in Fukuoka and you want some proper Hakata ramen, you should wait until the evening. When the sun goes down, little food stalls (called Yatai) start to appear out of nowhere along the more busy roads and canals of Hakata, many of them selling some really great noodle soup (and sake).
Another weird and wonderful place worth checking out is Ichiran. They want you to be able to focus completely on your bowl of ramen without any unnecessary distractions. You decide on your meal and pay for it outside at a vending machine that will dispense a ticket. Armed with that ticket, you go inside and get seated in a little kind of stall. In there you’ll find a short questionnaire about your ramen preferences (broth thickness, noodle firmness, garlic, with or without meat, etc). A small window opens in front of you, but not wide enough that you could see inside. You pass your ticket and the questionnaire through the window and it closes again.
A few minutes later, someone slides your ramen through the window and you are ready to enjoy your bowl of ramen in complete solitude and calm. Well… You can also fold away the door to the next stall such that you can enjoy your ramen together with someone else. But you won’t see or interact with any waiter during the experience. Everything is weirdly anonymous. Apart from the bizarre experience, the ramen is also quite tasty. So make sure to check Ichiran out if you have a chance.
Before we left Fukuoka, we were blessed with a few sunny days. What’s best on a sunny day? I hear you scream! I scream as well: ice-cream!
First problem, the Japanese really don’t like to sit outside. Don’t ask me why, but there are no, none, zero options for sitting in the sun and having a cup of ice or coffee. Bummer.
But there are good ice cream places inside. For example on the 6th floor of the mall on top of the Hakata train station. Did I mention some things are weird in Japan?
We went inside and were handed the menu. It was all Japanese with some pictures that all looked identical. The friendly staff didn’t speak enough English to be of any help. Difficult situation. In the end, we chose an ice at random – at least we were hoping it was ice. It was neither the cheapest nor the most expensive cup but the price made us order only one for sharing. A good intuition…
What we finally received was a gigantic mountain of shaved ice (basically snow) served in a miniature cup. It was huge. Sitting on top a tiny bowl. And it was soaked in green tea (like most things in Japan), covered with sweet condensed milk and topped off with a massive swirl of matcha-soft ice. Our struggle was two-fold. How to eat this thing without dropping huge chunks of snow on the table? And how to finish this, even among the two of us? We did a lot better in the second struggle than in the first one. It helped a lot that it was a delicious mountain.
Bye bye Fukuoka
This article is already long enough, even though it only covers part of what we saw and experienced in Fukuoka. To sum it up, we had a great time, enjoyed a lot of beautiful places and discovered interesting (and mostly delicious) aspects of the Japanese cuisine. Sometimes on our own, sometimes with friends.
Nonetheless, it was time to move on. We said good-bye to Fukuoka, snatched F. away for a few days and the three of us boarded a night bus towards Kyoto. After a few night bus journeys in other countries, we were maybe expecting a bit too much from Japan.
The bus-ride was bumpy, a bit noisy and the leg-room on the bus not really sufficient for me to find a decent sleeping position. In the end, we arrived very tiredly and worn-out in Kyoto. More about the anagram lovers Tokyo in the next post…