Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Japan, April 7: Fukuoka and Karatsu area

April 7: Fukuoka

The flap of a bat,
drip drip of monsoon waters.
Ancient image stares.

Nihon-ryoori ga dai-suki desu

I love Japanese food

Pictures captions (some day I will figure out how to put captions below pictures):
- Cherry blossoms along canal near our hotel
- Step Garden
- Tommie Lee Jones replaces Bill Murray as spokesman: It's Suntory Time. These vending machines are all over, serving hot and cold drinks
- Float (think Rose Parade) from Karatsu annual festival
- Inside of K-san's car, complete with seat doilies
- K-san and KSAN listener
- Magic carpet ride house
- Garden of a 1000 peonies (all one plant!)
- DB finds a national treasure
- Squid as sashimi and pre-tempura

We start with the buffet breakfast where the only item of attire that jumps out at me is the guy wearing an Oakland A’s t-shirt. Does he notice I am wearing an A’s hat? I doubt it.

Breakfast is a large selection of Japanese salads, fish smoked, fried, and marinated, cold cuts, pastries, miso soup, porridge (juke), cereals (semi-familiar, includes muesli), bacon, sausage, potatoes, a guy making omelets and eggs, and I have left stuff out. I do a small sampling and can categorically state that the Danes are leading the pastry competition by a safe margin. However, it looks like the green tea yogurt is scoring well in its category. Included in the room price.

After breakfast we take a little stroll of the hood and find a very unusual garden: it is planted on the side of a building that is stepping down in terraces from about 10 stories up to the ground. The entire set of terraces appears overgrown. A modern “forest” in the inner city; very impressive! It’s called the Step Garden (see pictures).

We also note that the local bike system is a modified Berlin version: a double yellow line down the sidewalk separates the walkers from the bikers. We can’t quite figure which side of the line to walk on, finally guess the narrow third must be safer. They also use a small lock, like half a pair of handcuffs, don’t seem too worried about locking bikes to a rack.

Back at the hotel, we decide to check out the fitness center. So starts the first of many shoe exchanges: off come ours, on go generic slippers. This is the last time today I will get a pair of slippers made for someone other than a size 3 shoe. We walk through the spa/pool area to the aerobic equipment to find that you now exchange your slippers for a pair of exercise shoes and socks provided by the hotel. A double switch, who knew! Seems odd, since most of us will spend more time trying to find an athletic shoe that fits comfortably than a comfortable regular pair of shoes.

At 8:30, we get picked up by Komatsu-san, a trim guy in his early 60s who spent time in the US during the Viet Nam era while serving in the Japanese military. English is fair, demeanor is pleasant, and first thing he pulls out an i-phone and starts showing us the route for the day. Off we go for a day of sight-seeing and chasing the dreams of DB from her trip here 19 years ago.

We notice that the forests are much more diverse than those we see in the US: the tree canopy is at different levels and often there are bamboo and cherry trees lower down on the slope.

Next we notice the Komatsu-san (from this point on I will just abbreviate to K-san, not to be confused with KSAN and Tom Donahue) likes to listen to oldies station on the radio: Eagles, Madonna and Blondie. And, disco…

Our first visit of the day is to a local ceramicist who is fairly well known, and teaches in the US several months a year. His son and daughter have work on display as well. We buy a small “bowl” by dad for around $100. Later in the morning we visit his brother’s gallery and find out the brother, now dead for about a year, was one of Japan’s national treasurers. The good news: we like the still-alive brother’s work a lot better. The even better news: being a dead national treasurer means that the work left behind is now inflated dramatically in value, probably 50-100 times what we just paid for a similar bowl by the living bro!

We take a moment and test our new phone. Rather than pay exorbitant roaming charges, we decided to pay a one-time exorbitant fee and rent a phone for 3 weeks ($105). We have a number of days where we are with local guides and at least one day with a local jewelry artist, so this gives us a bit of flexibility in making connections. K-san boots up the i-phone and after figuring out our number needs a leading zero, our phone rings, and we chat in the car. (There are some of you who are now wondering how I ended up in charge of this phone…me too! Does an extremely limited understanding of Japanese and cell phones disqualify me? It should!)

Next up: we visit a house now turned into a museum, built by a local mining magnate. Here instead of hobbling around in size 3 slippers, we go in our socks. Most of the rooms are totally devoid of furniture and just have tatami mats wall to wall. The wind is howling outside, it is a very blustery day, and the house is frigid. We find they have figured out how to make some of the rooms tolerable to stand in: an electric carpet (more the size of a large bath towel) is plugged in, and we quickly realize the goal is to huddle on the carpet and let the bottoms of our feet warm up.

As we meander, it appears that around 1 in maybe 40 or 50 people is wearing a nose/mouth mask to prevent catching something, sometimes a mother is wearing one and not the kids. Sars or swine flu worries? Pollution? A strange cult?
We head to lunch, to eat at the infamous squid restaurant that DB and LB ate at 19 years ago with friends who were spending a year near here teaching English. On the way, we stop to see some “rocks” on the side of a gorgeous cove full of rolling waves, very reminiscent of the beach off the town on the west side at the base of Haleakala: the water has that turquoise mixed with rolling white water waves (see pictures).

We get to the restaurant and it is not the same one that DB and LB ate at. Much discussion and K-san figures out which restaurant we want to be at and we move 15 minutes further along the coast. This is the place! It is a floating restaurant; you eat at short tables below water level, looking at fish swimming past your porthole. DB even remembers the table they sat at…er, rather the table they sat on the floor at. THB is struggling as his legs do NOT lay folded flat on the floor. However, since food is involved and it is near 2pm, compromises are made and chopsticks reach far enough. This meal is all squid, all the time: sashimi squid, tempura squid, shu mei squid, squid collagen (gelatin like properties) green tea dessert, along with soup, seaweed in vinegar broth (soup-like), pickled vegetables and a large beer. The beer, even with K-san translating, is a bit odd: we think we are ordering a large bottle and then splitting two ways. Out comes a giant stein that would make a German nervous and two small glasses, into which old shaky hands proceeds to pour. Good news: it is Kirin on tap and pretty decent. Even better, most of the beer transfers to the smaller glasses because my ability to contort myself over and lick the table is not gonna happen. Total for three: $87 (we think a bargain).

(Second) Dessert is a stop at the local train station for café au lait mochi: mochi filled with some paste that tastes just like coffee. This is a winner, big time, and Japan is moving up in the dessert race.

Back to the hotel to figure out how to ship our bags ahead. Several times on the trip we will be sending our bags to stops after the next one because it will be a lot easier to maneuver during the day without our bags and because we will be staying at places where clothes are pretty much optional: they give us robes and towels, and that’s about all you are expected to use.

Then to dinner, we are eating street food. Next to the river across the street from the hotel, there are a set of about 6 or 7 stands wrapped in plastic tarps selling ramen, yakitori (skewers of grilled meats and veggies), and gyoza (half grilled dumplings), and a variety of other items. We decide on ramen with a bit of pork, pork and chicken yakitori. We clearly aren’t enjoying our meal as much as the others because we aren’t making loud enough slurping sounds (the guy next to us is having a great meal). The pork yakitori is closer to bacon (hey, fat and salt, a great combo) and the chicken is spiced up with wasabi. $30 total. I can tell we will be repeating this meal in other towns!

Back to the room to sort into ship-ahead and stay-with piles and seemingly to get on local time after only one day, a minor miracle!


  1. you can get delicious mochiwrapped ice cream balls (tastes like haagen dazs) at t joe's. the dessert eater, mrs p

  2. Giants 3 and 0, baby!!

  3. Did u call Madonna oldies???

    That picture is just how I remember it.

  4. Lauren suggested I post a comment!

    This is from an American living in Japan:

    You could visit the " koto-playing sand" at Kotobikihama Beach, which sings as you walk on it, or find a "Melody Road" that plays music as your car drives over lines dug into the road surface.

    There's even a desert of sorts, the Tottori Sand Dune, a 16 km stretch of sand which looks like it could have come straight out of Tunisia -- the local tourist board has even imported a camel for you to ride. Or you could visit Gunkan-jima near Nagasaki, the eerily beautiful "Battleship Island" that was a miniature city housing coal miners and their families from 1887 to 1974. When the mines became unprofitable, everyone left overnight, leaving one of the most striking examples of haikyo (modern ruins) in the world.

    I hope you have fun!


  5. A Bay Bridge WS is coming soon to a town near you.

    KayVee: thanks for the tips...where is Koto Beach again?

    Mrs P: we continue on the road to authentic ice cream mochi!