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Ladies and Gentlemen feast your eyes upon this.

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Although I usually write about the seasonal specialty Kit-Kats on this blog there is another major variety of special Kit-Kats; area based flavours. These are Kit-Kat flavours that can only be bought from one specific place in Japan. Usually these come in a very nice presentation box and take the form of the two fingered Kit-Kat mini. What they’re perfect for is Omiyage. Omiyage is a Japanese practice wherein when one goes on holiday one has to bring back presents from that vacation for all your co-workers as a kind of apology for having been away and left them to do all the hard work. Since you have to get Omiyage for everyone in your office these usually need to be small individually wrapped presents, usually cakes or biscuits, which you can just leave on their desk.

Omiyage usually has something do with the specialty food of the region as well, which is another big Japanese cultural idea, food tourism. Japanese people strongly associate certain foods with certain areas in Japan. Hokkaido is famous for lamb, potatoes, butter and corn, Hiroshima with fresh seafood and a kind of okonomiyaki called Hiroshimayaki, Kobe, where I lived is famous for beef, Awaji which is nearby, is famous for onions, and so on and so forth. Japanese people think nothing of going to these places specifically to eat these foods, indeed there are special tours set up to do nothing but take busloads of gourmet tourists to some special area of Japan to eat the local delicacy and drive back again. In fact I’d go as far as to say that if you went someplace like Kinosaki and didn’t eat crab there Japanese people would stare at you like you’d been to Pisa and not seen the leaning tower. To them eating the local delicacy is the main reason for the trip in the first place.

Japanese culture is really focused on food guys; you’ll notice it fairly quickly if you ever visit.

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As part of its on-going effort to become the most successful western import since baseball, trains and beer Kit-Kat is firmly placed to exploit the intersection between Omiyage, food tourism and laziness. Go to Niigata, what’s that famous for, pears? Well you can hardly bring back 40 odd pears on the bus. Ah but you can bring back pear flavoured Kit-Kats for your colleagues. And thus a whole new thing to collect was born, the area specific Kit-Kat.

Indeed I’ve written about such things before on this site. We’ve had strawberry cheesecake and wasabi  and we’ve also had hot red pepper and apples.

Also I notice one of those posts is entitled Kit-Kats the Final Chapter. Oh how little you knew 2010 Mummyboon, how little you knew.

Enter a new player into the game though, people like me, aka sad lonely people with little going on in their lives who like to collect Kit-Kat flavours. I will grab every variety I see and stopped just short of planning journeys to places to get new Kit-Kat varieties (in that I never travelled to a city especially to get a flavour, I have been to special train stations and places within cities I know you need to go to get a flavour. I’m sad, not insane.)

Alas I thought I would never get all the regional varieties, I certainly would never have cause to travel to someplace like Niigata or Tohoku if I returned to Japan. Thus I felt I would never sample all the regional specialty Kit-Kats a nagging, gnawing thought that would keep me up at night and haunt me in my darkest hours. The dark break time of the soul if you will.

But…

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Just for people like me Nestle came out with one single box containing all of them, all 15 regional specialties!

Finding out about this was one of the happiest and most depressing moments of my life. Happy because I was overjoyed that such a beauteous thing could exist in this world, depressing because I  knew I would never be free of my debilitating addiction to buying new Kit-Kats.

It’s a mental illness people, does nobody realise this blog is just an elaborate cry for help!?

Do you know how much this cost me to buy? £50.00, that’s about $75.00. When I showed this to my fiancee I pleaded with her to stop me buying it. The conversation went something like this.

“Sweetheart have you seen this?!”

“Oh wow, that’s awesome, are you going to buy it?”

“It’s £50.00.”

“Really?! That’s a lot of money.”

“I know but I kind of have to buy it don’t I? I mean I can blog about it and Kit-Kats are kind of my thing.”

“But £50.00?”

“But I have to right?”

“You do what you think is best darling.”

So I bought them, posted the fact that I had bought them on a popular social networking site and heard this from the other room.

“You actually bought them!”

She was clearly less than pleased with my monetary expenditure on 30 bars of chocolate. Evidently giving me choices and free will is some kind of test to determine if I will make the correct choices.

Which I did not. I suspect some of my ability to choose things will be curtailed in the future.

But she didn’t realise that I have no free will where Kit-Kats are concerned. I am a slave to my compulsions and she needed to stop me by telling me no, I was not allowed to spend money on chocolate bars from Japan.

This relationship needs a lot less mutual trust and a lot more her telling me what to do.

So I bought it, and it arrived, and I jumped up and down and ran round the house like a 5 year old on amphetamines because it is glorious.

There’s so much to talk about here I can’t do it justice in a single blog post so I’m going to start today by describing the overall display box it comes in and then dealing with the individual flavours one by one as quickly as I’m able. Daily, if all goes to plan.

So let’s look at the box, and what a box it is.

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The outer cover is gloriously monochromatic, red and white. The colours of Kit-Kat, the colours of the Japanese flag, the colours of glory!  We have a nice big Kit-Kat logo but surprisingly most of the box is more concerned with selling this as a Japanese thing. We have Mt Fuji, sakura blossoms, maple leaves and patterns similar to origami paper. The only stereotypical Japanese things we’re missing are samurai, robots and tentacle porn. I guess that’s because the real target market for this is people visiting Japan or living outside of Japan and they’re selling this as a souvenir for the whole country.

Except in that case why is almost all the text in Japanese? Are translators really that expensive? Does the Japanese hide numerous jokes about the pathetic weirdos willing to shell out for such a product? Sadly my own Japanese skills don’t extend that far and when I tried to make my live in translator (see fiancee above) she just smirked, looked at me funny and walked away laughing. I’m not entirely sure what she meant by that.

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The actual lay out is a bit of a kludge, the logo in the top left and Fuji in the bottom right make sense but we have a weirdly bare part in the middle right and a weirdly busy layout in the top left. Also we have a box explaining where the Kit-Kats are hiding, because apparently Nestle thinks most people can’t figure out what perforations might mean. Thanks Nestle, I sure can’t guess that I’m supposed to open them up to get my chocolate. If you hadn’t explained I would have just stared at the box in mute fury that there clearly aren’t any Kit-Kats in it.

Although thinking on maybe people prepared to pay £50.00 for 30 chocolate bars can be assumed to be quite stupid.

The real magic happens though when you open the box and unveil these contents.

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Again everything here is selling an image of Japan first and foremost with the Kit-Kat brand really subservient to the idea of Japan as a brand and of Kit-Kat’s being a Japanese thing (which they’re not, they’re British). The only big Kit-Kat thing we get is another logo and even that is tucked out of the way, instead all the elements here are intended to evoke a certain Japanese feel. I mean it’s a map of Japan guys; it’s hardly going to evoke Bud Leigh Salterton.

But that map has loads of little symbols and other Japanese iconography, we get the famous bear from Hokkaido catching a fish, two dudes sharing a bath together, Mt Fuji, Shisa dogs from Kyushu, lots and lots of Japanese things and…

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wait…

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Is that a camel? In Japan? Are, are camels a Japanese thing?

To the internet…

Sooooo according to this guy  and a few others camels are not native to Japan but there is a small desert area in Japan called Tottori and camels are kept there for the benefit of tourists.

So it’s a non-native animal in a tiny area known mostly for the fact that it differs from the eco-system in the rest of Japan. Hardly representative guys, maybe some tanuki would be better? Are the Nestle Japan offices located in Tottori or something? No apparently they’re in Kobe.

Wait, Kobe! Oh man! I lived there for three years, I never knew that! I could have gone on a pilgrimage and met the guy responsible for the new flavours! What a waste! Oh man now I feel depressed.

I’d better eat some chocolate to cheer me up.

Not a Kit-Kat though, I’m starting to go off them a bit.

Ha, had you fooled. No, I’m hopelessly addicted, to my eternal shame. No fear of me giving up on the Kat. As the kids call it.

No, no they don’t. The kids don’t call them that. I think I’m just rambling now.

Two last things about the packet I’d like to draw your attention to. Firstly I like the use of the golden clouds. Here they’re only meant to fill up negative space and make the packet more aesthetically pleasing but they also convey a certain sense of ancient Japan and harken back to a Japanese drawing technique I’ve always liked.

Check out this image from Christie’s for a sense

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http://www.christies.com/lotfinderimages/d51804/d5180459l.jpg

Although that’s a small image you can see that we have lots of images surrounded by golden clouds. In a sense this is an early form of sequential art (or comics if you’re not a pretentious arty type person like myself) with the clouds serving the separate individual scenes in a story, in the image above the story is the tale of Genji. Of course modern Japanese sequential art (or Manga if you prefer) uses standard panel borders, just white lines but I’ve always liked golden clouds, they add an air of fantasy and an atmosphere of history and elegance to a piece. They’re something uniquely Japanese and they really set a tone.

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Last cool thing about the box it’s kind of like an advent calendar with several boxes, each containing two Kit-Kat minis and also with a picture in each box building up a new picture of Japan once you’ve opened every box. If your country doesn’t know what an advent calendar is they’re calendars with an image on the front and several windows, one for each day of advent or more normally these days one for every day in December. People use them to count down to Christmas. When you open the window you get a different picture of a traditionally Christmassy thing (angels, bells, snowmen, holly, etc) and usually some chocolate.

This is similar in that you open a window, get some chocolate and see another picture only without the Christmas theme.

Oh man Kit-Kat advent calendar, I need to pitch that one. Man why did I not realise the offices were in Kobe all along. So many wasted opportunities.

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So let’s try our first flavour. Let’s start at the top right and work our way down to the bottom left, Japanese reading style. So we start with Tohoku and Edamame.

Edamame is an increasingly common snack outside of Japan but not so common I don’t feel the need to show off my superior foreign cultural knowledge to you. Ha ha, I have been to a foreign land and you have not peasant, come let me explain these strange green beans to you.

Edamame are soy beans boiled and salted in their pods. They have a nice savoury taste and go very nicely with a beer, making these possibly the first Kit-Kats intended to be eaten with a beer than with tea.

I heartily endorse this approach, indeed I want beer flavoured Kit-Kats as soon as possible and on my next trip to Kobe I will be making a special visit to the offices to explain my ideas (it can have sherbet so it’s fizzy and everything).

The packet confuses me because although the English on the back of the box promises me that this is an edamame Kit-Kat the picture on the front is clearly not some edamame.

Here is some edamame

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Here is what we have a picture of

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The Japanese says zunda edamame and some goggling mostly returned references to zunda Kit-Kats but I did eventually discover that zunda is a kind of cake made from a paste of ground up edamame

So it is a cake, and thus, not intended to be eaten with beer at all.

Awwwwww

Before we move on can I point out how disgusting that stuff looks? I’m sure it is delicious but it looks like someone already ate it once and it didn’t agree with them. That particularly shade of baby poo green has to be one of the least appetising colours a chef can achieve. It’s almost artistic how gross that looks. Not helping, the fact that its pasty and glistening, it really helps sell the vomit comparisons in my brain.

Anyway moving on…

Also this means the English is lying to you guys either maliciously or possibly because translators are even more expensive than I thought.

Design wise the packet is basic but fine. The Kit-Kat logo is still too big and, par for the course with minis, the design is far too cluttered. I do like that the name of the flavour is shaped like a soybean, that’s a cute touch, I also like the Japanese font used which is kind of fresh feeling.

So soy bean cake flavoured Kit-Kat, how does it taste?

Like bland sweetness.

This Kit-Kat tastes of something, it doesn’t taste like white chocolate, it also doesn’t have the usual waxy or soapy taste of a coloured chocolate Kit-Kat but it emphatically does not taste of edamame and I couldn’t tell you what it does taste like. It’s not unpleasant though, it’s a nice clean flavour reminiscent of a melon almost. It also has almost no aftertaste and wipes your palate clean straight away. That makes it quite refreshing in a way which is unusual for chocolate. I’d compare it to eating sugar then drinking a glass of water, sweet without any particular flavour and then gone.

So that’s it today guys. We’re working our ways through these Kit-Kats over the next few weeks so come back next Saturday and see what bizarre flavours Nestle has ready for us.

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Our last day in Nagasaki and the hottest day yet. It was a real scorcher and we could feel ourselves burn with every step we went. Considering every other day of the holiday had veered wildly between muggy and humid and torrential rain it was at least nice to know we wouldn’t be rained on.

Hot, dusty and sweaty we went for a walk and decided to tour the Peace Park, a series of monuments dedicated to peace and in memory of the damage the atomic bomb did to the city.

Now I haven’t mentioned the atomic bombing of Nagasaki much in my write up of this trip and that’s because it nowhere near pervades the feeling of the city as much as it does in Hiroshima. Hiroshima was practically wiped out; the city centre was just gone in an instant destroying much of the historical character of the city along with many lives. In rebuilding it Hiroshima developed a feeling that is almost unique in Japan, very modern and almost European with wide roads and street cafes.

Nagasaki suffered a lot of damage too and almost as much loss of life but the area affected was not the city centre because, well because it doesn’t really have one. There is the port and the train station but beyond that everything is built up the side of a mountain. Nagasaki is more a city of small distinct areas almost falling into the sea.

Consequently much of the old historical areas are intact, the old Dutch settlement, the Chinatown, many of the temples, Glover Garden. Different parts of Nagasaki are like different windows into history. Wandering through the city is like time travelling through some corridor; behind every door a different century and a new story.

But whilst the city has minimised the impact of the bomb to some extent it did still leave a big gash in the place and in its place they have erected a park.

The park is frankly not very nice and not a patch on the one in Hiroshima. It is too wide, flat and featureless with few trees, few flower beds and little to break up the vista (or offer protection from a scorching sun).

What it does have is a series of statues donated by various countries from around the world and all on the theme of peace.

Being themed around peace this consequently meant that there were quite a lot of women, babies and women holding babies upwards in gestures of hope and new life. Some of these were quite well done but there are only so many variations on the theme of women holding babies that I can look at before your eyes want to leap out your head and go do something less boring.

There were a few oddball ones though like this abstract piece that represents the destruction of the city.

This piece demonstrates the 7 continents as people interconnected. I like this a lot, I like symbolic art and this has some wonderful symbolism to it as well as well constructed human figures.

This work, riffing on the idea of the human shadows left behind in the bomb blast, was especially good.

Brazil didn’t seem to get what the theme of the park was.

“Hey we need to submit a sculpture suggesting peace”

“How about a bird?”

“Fantastic but how will they know we have sent them it?”

“The bird will be standing on a massive stone map of Brazil”

“I love it! Nothing says peace like a giant stone map of Brazil”

“And a bird”

“Oh yes right, the bird”

This is the Dutch entry. No idea, do you have any ideas? Because I have no idea.

The centrepiece of the whole park was this enormous and highly symbolic statue. Apparently his left arm is pointing to where the bomb blast occurred whilst his right is gesturing upwards wishing for peace. He is powerful to help the needy but has a kind face. He is sitting relaxed and comfortable but with a leg on the floor ready to spring into action. And he’s massive and blue and frankly doesn’t appear to have been sculpted very well. Now I certainly can’t sculpt for toffee and don’t claim to be an expert on sculpture but something about that face just seems terribly off to me. There’s something not right about it; right? It’s not just me is it?

and he reminds me of Dr. Manhattan, which is not apprpriate for a statue in the Peace Park.

We didn’t go to the Atomic Bomb Museum as we figured it would be more of the same that we saw in Hiroshima but we did go to the hut and accompanying museum of Dr. Nagai Takashi.

Nagai Takashi was a scientist and doctor researching the effects of radiation on the human body, particularly with regards to leukaemia. In this capacity he took part in important medical research that ultimately would help save many lives. In his capacity as a regular surgeon during the war he directly saved the lives of many wounded Japanese soldiers and civilians alike.

In a cruelly ironic twist Dr. Nagai eventually contracted leukaemia, a known risk for someone in his line of work as he necessarily exposed himself to radiation on a daily basis. He was diagnosed in 1945 aged 37 just a few short months before the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Both Nagai and his wife were deeply committed Christians and though they sought comfort in God this was obviously difficult for both of them. Nagai began to face up to the fact that he was dying and his wife prepared herself to raise their children alone and live a life without her husband.

When the bomb was dropped Nagai was working in a University hospital. Despite suffering an injury from broken glass that severed his temporal artery he stayed behind to assist and help deal with the flood of patients seeking treatment there.

That evening he returned to the ruins of his house to find most of it burnt to the ground. Of his wife all that remained were ashes and a twisted and melted rosary. Having steeled himself for his own death the time he had remaining with his wife was also cruelly snatched away from him.

Although now having every right to sink into bitterness and despair Nagai continued to work with patients until he himself was eventually bedridden later that year. Initially he stayed in a small hut he had built from the remains of his house, along with his two children, mother in law and two other relatives.

Although bedridden, Nagai continued teaching and began to write. This writing was prolific and often profound musing upon god, war, sickness and death but always returning to a message of hope and optimism. Often he contemplated the future that lay ahead for his children with a mixture of sadness but always with a positive feeling that after the brutality of the Second World War peace was surely not far. Nagai wrote around 15 books and all were bestsellers in Japan earning Nagai enough money to see for his children’s future. However much of his earnings were donated to local charities and once famously to plant cherry trees where they had been destroyed by the bomb.

This synbolic act, bringing beauty and serenity back to a city that had known horrible destruction speaks more about the character of Nagai than any other to me.

Nagai used very little money from his earnings at all to improve his own circumstances. Indeed when a Christian charity offered to build him a new house he asked for them to build a slight extension for the 6 tatami hut he was living in for his brother’s family and to be moved into a new hut that was merely 2 tatami in size. To put that in some perspective lie down. His hut was approaximately as long as you are now lying down and maybe 2 or 3 times wider.

This hut, which he styled Nyoko-do (based on the Japanese translation of Jesus’ expression “love your neighbour as yourself”) was where he lived the rest of his days until he died in 1951.

And this is that hut.

It is one of the most profoundly, sad, humble and inspiring images I have ever seen. I freely admit to crying as I walked round the museum and thinking about Nagai’s story again as I write this I find myself almost crying now.

The Peace Park and Nyoko-do lie a short distance away from the actual epicentre of the blast which, oddly, was above a Christian cathedral. The epicentre has been marked by this monolith which looks vaguely like something out of 2001 a space odyssey. I will admit to humming “Thus Spoke Zarathrusta” and pretending to be a monkey as we walked past it.

The remains of the cathedral can also be viewed along with this statue of a suspiciously Japanese looking Jesus.

Our final atomic bomb themed point of interest is the famous “one legged torii”. Torii are arched gates at the entrance to Japanese temples and shrines. As well as being a handsome architectural feature they are also spiritually important and signify entry into the purified place of the shrine.
This gate had one of its legs knocked down by the atomic blast leaving the other standing. Read whatever values into that symbol that you choose. Is it Japan defiantly standing up to the bomb? Is it peace and purity conquering war? Or did the blast just come from that way? Either way it was cool looking so I took a photo.

Right, enough sadness and bombs now. Fran and I were horribly depressed, hot, tired and sweaty. However we still had one sight left to see, the Confucian Shrine.

Before we got there though we had to ride a tram, along with 3 German tourists. 2 of them were perfectly fine backpacker types if a bit old and flabby for your average back packer. However the third was one of the most enormous men I have ever seen in my entire life. And I have been to Florida. He was obscenely huge, like a cartoon fat man. I expected oom pam pah music to follow him everywhere he went. He literally took up two seats on the tram, and not a little spilling either. Each cheek got one seat with a little bit extra at that meaning he probably took up 4 spaces in total. And you know how I mentioned that it was hot, and sweaty? Well he was obviously having a difficult time of it because he stank to high heaven. And he had a rubbish ginger neck beard. Watching the impassive faces of the Japanese struggle not to curl into grimaces of horror would have been hilarious had I not been suffocating on the stench of fat German too.

Ugh, horrible.

Anyway.

Confucian Shrine.

We all know who Confucius is right? Well short version, Chinese philosopher who developed a world view that prized hierarchy, patriarchy and the pursuit of self improvement through becoming a rounded person and seeking excellence in everything one does. He basically influenced all Chinese aesthetic, political, moral, social and cultural thought for, well until Mao showed up really. And since Japan just nicked all their culture from China (with the greatest possible respect for Japan whilst that was a facetious exaggeration there is some truth to it) he influenced Japanese culture too.

Yet nobody in Japan has heard of him it seems, at least judging by my students and the teachers I work with.

So great was Confucius’ influence and in such respect was he held that a whole religion sprang up around him, Confucianism. Well I say religion, it’s more of a moral philosophy and lacking in the metaphysics one would expect from a religion. But then of course some bright spark married the moral philosophy of Confucianism with the metaphysics of Buddhism (which at its core is all metaphysics and no morals) and hey presto we have Buddhism as it is practiced over much of East Asia.

So Confucianism has shrines to Confucius and their basically the same as Buddhist temples or Japanese shrines to Kami since they were copying the Confucian ones. Except the Confucian ones are just so much more incredible.

Admittedly I have only seen one but if it’s anything to go by then Confucian Shrines everywhere must be absolutely spectacular. Not an inch of this place wasn’t covered in some kind of ornate carving. Ceilings, floors, doors, bars, the gate around a flower bed, the edges of tiles, pillars, beams literally everything had some kind of magnificent carving.

And the colours! The colours were everywhere, incredibly vibrant and of a vast array of hues. The shrine looks like the kind of palace a 5 year old kid dreams about, all flash and sensation everywhere.

It was visually overwhelming. Everywhere you looked there was something new to see, some animal or painting or statue.

It was absolutely amazing, I was rendered literally speechless.

The most interesting feature for me were the human statues that surrounded the main shrine of Confucius. Apparently these are also shrines. Within the main building are Confucius and the 12 primary philosophers of Confucianism. Outside the building are statues of Confucius’ students, all who possess different skills and abilities a man must strive in to make the world a better place.

Interestingly the land that the shrine was built on is not actually Japan. Technically it is owned by the Chinese embassy and so we had taken a little mini trip to China. Historically this is because the shrine was built in front of a Confucian school (as all Confucian shrines were) teaching the children of Chinese expats. The school has long since been moved but the arrangement still stands and this is Chinese soil.

The shrine is the only one built to proper standards in Japan (although technically, I guess it isn’t since it’s in China). There are a few others but none are said to be as impressive as this one.

Nowadays the school has become a museum which had many wonderfully decorated china pots I was forbidden to take photos of. There was also some video called “China in space” which sounded a bit scary but turned out to be some kind of travelogue thing that was intensely dull.

Confucian shrine all finished with we swung by our hotel, grabbed our bags and made for the bus and our final stop, Fukuoka.

We arrived there late at night and made for a very cheap and very lovely hotel the Hotel New Simple. It was a bit of a bugger to find though even if it was close to the station.

Exhausted, hot and hungry we made out to do the main thing I had come to Fukuoka for.

Eat Ramen!

Fukuoka, as any Japanese person will tell you, is very famous for Ramen. Ramen, for the uninitiated, is thin Chinese noodles in a soup or broth with some meat or vegetables added to it.

It may not sound like much but it is a magical food. Indeed it may be my favourite food in the world. Perfectly filling, amazingly tasty, a breadth of textures, quick and above all dirt cheap. There are tastier foods but no food is as simply perfect as ramen. I love it and I eat it every chance that I get. Indeed if it is offered to me no matter how hungry I am or am not I feel compelled to eat it.

Fukuoka is famous for its own particular variety of ramen, tonkotsu ramen, which is made from pork bones and is white. Eager to try this delectable delicacy we willed our tiring limbs over to Fukuoka’s main attraction, Canal City, a massive shopping centre and onto the floor they call…

Ramen Stadium.

A whole floor containing nothing but ramen restaurants.

Truly if heaven is a place on earth, this is it.

And how was my ramen? Why it was salty, creamy, thick, spicy, gooey, warm, delicious and utterly sublime thank you for asking.

Full and profoundly satisfied we left Ramen Stadium and had a wander around the
shopping centre.

Canal City is a pretty cool place. The layout is very innovative with a river running through the middle of it and a sort of a three-dimensional amphitheatre in the middle i.e. rather than an ever expanding bowl it was a sphere of balconies overlooking a stage. There was also a regularly timed musical fountain display and this thing.

A curtain of water using a computer and some hoses to create shapes in mid air. This was mesmerising and we sat watching it, and digesting ramen, for a good 20 minutes until we were sure we had seen every display.

At which point it began to rain. And it was so sunny in Nagasaki too.

Yeah, it rained quite a lot. At first we tried to shelter it out but it was quickly apparent that it wasn’t going to let up fast. Having learned our lesson in Nagasaki we did not try and walk back the way we came but hailed a cab and were soon in bed happily sleeping and dreaming of more Ramen.

Fukuoka Day 2, Kyushu Day 7

We got up bright and early and took a train out of Fukuoka to the nearby village of Kyudai Gakuentoshi, which was a little odd as I live in Gakuentoshi in Kobe. We were looking forward to visiting a restored folk village and witnessing some traditional crafts. I shall quite from Lonely Planet Japan 2008 .

This history theme village gathers over 30 working potters, weavers and paper
makers, plus a souvenir shop to sell their wares.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Well turns out it has been shut for two years.

We arrived at the station, went outside, realised we had no idea where we were or where the village was, went back inside for a sign or a brochure or something and eventually asked the man in the ticket gates if he knew how to get there. At which point he puts up a hand written sign in English that says the place has been shut for two years.

I suspect he got asked the question a lot and had a friend help him write it because otherwise he spoke no English.

I was not best pleased Lonely Planet!

Ah but here is that recurring theme of Kyushu, nice old people. The guy in the ticket booth felt bad that we had come all this way only to go home again so he offered to call his friend to take us up to go look at the village anyway even if it was closed. And by offered I mean kind of insisted in a manner that made it impossible to refuse even though I didn’t especially want to go.

So before we knew it we were soon whisked away in a stranger’s car to go bouncing up a mountain to a mysterious village.

It turns out that since closing down the history theme village has been bought by a load of antique merchants. The restored buildings are still there (and they’re very lovely) but now they are all full of old junk mixed in with a few genuinely gorgeous antiques.

There was also going to be an auction that afternoon but we couldn’t stay to watch it because there are no public auctions in Japan, you have to be invited. This was news to me and after I expressed my surprise the man who told me proceeded to give me a history lesson which I did not understand a word of.

The village and many of the wares were properly strange and the whole place had a faintly creepy vibe to it. It didn’t help that we were the only people there not running a shop and that the old fashioned style of the buildings made it feel vaguely like some kind of ghost story.

Ah yes, and the first thing we saw when we got there was a horrifying dummy of a man with a face that is pure nightmare fuel.

Amongst the stranger things we saw were;

This unidentified animal head (we couldn’t decide if it was wolf or pig).

A tanuki made of straw.

The most racist statue I have ever seen.

As the creepiness grew and grew and was soon only matched by our boredom we decided to leave and after a short but terrifying search for our ride (we couldn’t find him and feared we were stranded) we got back to civilisation in one piece.

Next stop Hawks Town, another shopping centre but one with a giant indoor jungle.

Ah, or not, turns out that place is shut too. Lonely Planet was getting on my nerves by this stage. Still we did some shopping and had more ramen (it was delicious, as ramen always is) before going back to Canal City. For more shopping, and a beer.

And that was it really. Fukuoaka in summary, everything interesting is shut but they have a very nice shopping centre.

And that, bar a train ride home, was our vacation.

Overall Kyushu was easily the best trip I have done in Japan. With the possible exception of Fukuoaka everything about it just clicked. From the lovely relaxing onsen in Beppu to the fantastic food in Fukuoka to the quirky temples of Nagasaki, everything was exactly what we expected and often surpassed those expectations. Nothing disappointed and often things surprised us, like the quirky café in Nagasaki or the taxi driver leading us to the private onsen in Beppu.

What will stay with me about Kyushu most of all though is how friendly everyone was to us. I have never been treated so nicely by perfect strangers in my life. Whether it was giving of their time and expertise or giving us a free cab ride people put themselves out for us for no reward. It was humbling but very much appreciated. I don’t think Fran and I will ever forget it.

Our day was started bright and early with a failed trip to find a famous coffee house. Which made me sad.

That failure aside though we set off towards teramachi or temple row to look at, what else, temples.

We started with a temple whose name I absolutely do not know. I didn’t note it down and it isn’t my guidebook so…whoops. But I do know that it is on teramachi and it is bright red and done in a largely Chinese style.

It also had a nice Chinese lady inside who was making beads and who seemed rather disappointed at the poor turnout. She explained that the temple doesn’t usually get a lot of foreign visitors but mostly Japanese and Chinese ones. When I suggested that the poor turn out was probably because the Japanese were all spending time with their families for Obon she told me the opposite was true. Usually Obon was their busiest time of year as families are supposed to visit shrines together. This was quite sad news for me. I have been hearing stories for years about how the Buddhist temples are struggling to keep their income high enough to maintain the temples. Although the big and famous places draw a lot of attention from tourists, if perfectly pleasant but small temples like this one are in danger of closing that is a real shame.

Continuing the theme of the trip our old lady was only too happy to show us around the temple and explain some of the features to us. The most striking of these was a male and female dolphin fish pictured above (male) and below (female). I see male dolphin fish very often in Japanese architecture but this is the first time I have ever seen a female version. Apparently the ball in the mouth of the male represents male desire whilst the female is supposed to bring fertility and easy pregnancy. Both examples shown here are actually drums used in ceremonies at the temple.

Can I just point out how weird it is that every source translates this animal’s name as a dolphin fish? It shares not one characteristic with a dolphin at all. Dolphins have no scales, their tails are horizontal not vertical, they have different heads and bodies and the dolphin fish lacks a dorsal fin. At least the female version looks a little bit like a malformed whale but the male one looks like nothing so much as a dragon fish. What on earth it has to do with dolphins I will never understand.

By far the finest feature of this particular temple was its lovely gardens a few pictures of which are shown here.

Moving on from our mystery temple we moved onto a separate street to have a look at the famous “Meganebashi” or “Spectacles Bridge;” so called because the reflections in the water make it look like a pair of glasses. Apparently it is one of the oldest examples of an arched stone bridge in Japan. Sadly it is nowhere near as impressive as that fact sounds.

Here is Fran, pointing at her spectacles on Spectacles Bridge.

Moving back onto teramachi our next location was Sofukji (not to be confused with Shofuku-ji) one of the more spectacular, unusual and famous temples in Nagasaki.

Shofuku-ji was another Chinese temple that adopted the official Japanese form of Buddhism but it still has many examples of its Chinese heritage left behind such as the Ming style gate in spectacular red colours.

The main attraction of this temple is this giant pot in the courtyard. Nagasaki was once ravaged by a great famine that left many of the poor citizenry starving. The head of the temple along with a pioneering female philanthropist (pictured below) collected donations every day to make a gigantic cauldron of porridge that they would distribute to the poor. During one particularly bad winter this food aid was feeding more than a 1000 people a day and helping them stay alive.

Again, with such history and such an important social role it really is a shame that Buddhist temples are beginning to die out in Japan.

One of the things I noticed about the temple which struck me as unusual was the decorative bats that I spotted in a few places. Apparently bats are something of a symbol of good luck in Nagasaki, and nowhere else in Japan, for reasons that were not explained to me.

Our next two temples were Yasakusa and Kiyomizu which aren’t interesting in the slightest except that they bare the names of two much more famous temples in Kyoto which are also close together. This was another theme of travelling in Kyushu. In Kansai it is very rare for a name to be duplicated for two or more places but on the island there were all kinds of places with names we recognized from Kobe, Kyoto or Tokyo.

Lunchtime and we moved off temple row and into a more city like part of the city.

But first a quick stop in Shian-bashi area. Shian-bashi was, and still is to a lesser extent the red light or “pleasure” district of Nagasaki. In former times it was separated from the main city by a bridge. This bridge, known as the bridge of pondering gave its name to the area. Why the bridge of pondering? Well apparently in days of old men would pause for a second on the bridge and debate whether to press on or return to their wives at home. Seized by the spirit of the ages I also decided to ponder for a moment before pressing on in search of food, drink and cake.

Cake! Yes, cake. In fact not just any cake but the infamous Castella at the even more infamous Fukusaya Castella cake shop. Castella is a kind of sweet sponge cake introduced to Japan by the Portuguese. The origins of the name are widely debated but are believe to come from an area of Portugal with the similar sounding name of Castile. However confusingly Castile was then a part of Spain and in Castile they don’t make Castella.

Fukusaya Castella has being making this cake and operating as a shop continuously since 1624! That is an astonishingly long time for any shop to operate, let alone in one location and in the same building (albeit heavily renovated inside). I would be interested to know if anything in the U.K. even comes close but I doubt it. To put that in perspective imagine a Tudor building being used for its original purposes continuously for nearly 400years!

The shop is somewhat small and Spartan inside but that is because it basically consists of a counter and three stools. All of the activity goes on in the bakery itself, all they need the shop for is to sell you their one and only product, cake.

And what a cake it is. Honestly it may be the most perfect cake I have ever eaten. This is the platonic ideal of cake. There is no decoration, no icing or butter or any messing around, it is just pure sponge. But it is the nicest sponge I have ever eaten and I suspect it is impossible to make a sponge cake taste any better. It was moist, fluffy, sweet but not too sweet, with a deliciously complex after taste. It was just perfect. Utterly perfect.

Oh and look, more bats. I wonder what they are all about.

Full of cake and properly rested we decided to climb to Suwa-jinja.

It was a long climb. If nothing else a trip to Nagasaki will help you keep fit as there is simply no way to avoid climbing hundreds and thousands of steps.

Suwa-jinja lacked the cool Chinese influenced architecture of most Nagasaki temples and shrines but made up for it with its own unique attraction. Komainu, or prayer dogs.

These dogs are features of pretty much any Asian temple. They always stand in pairs, one with his mouth closed and the other with his mouth open. One is taking a breath and the other is breathing out but this breathing is in sync, as if they are taking the same breath. This concept of harmony so perfect that one breathes in while the other breathes out is known as “wa” and is a central idea in Japanese culture.

Furthermore one dog is always female whilst the other is male. Usually the male breathes in, an act of life and the female breathes out, an act of death symbolising the cyclical nature of life due to resurrection.

Komainu are descended from Chinese foo dogs or lion dogs which had the same purpose and are also displayed at temples but do not have the associations with wa.

Suwa-jinja is covered in hundreds of these dogs all over the place with radically different artistic styles and designs.

Some of the dogs even have special features such as this one, the kappa komainu.

And barring a failed trip to a temple we eventually got to later on (I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow), a bath and a delicious dinner at an Izakaya that specialised in pork was all we did that day.

Once again apologies for the lack of updates. I have had the busiest two weeks of my entire stay in Japan so far at work and they have just ended. Also this post was a little bit of a mini-epic as you can see. I hope you all enjoy it anyway.

Nagasaki Day 1

The first part of our wonderful stay in Nagasaki involved getting there. Sadly Kyushu is not mainland Japan. There are no lovely super rapids that bisect the island and let you cross from one side to the other in a hour. Instead your options are ride all the way around the edge of the island or take a bus through the middle.

Being both cheaper and quicker bus it was. And it was a really, really nice bus too. Big comfortable seats and a TV screen at the front. Of course the telly was in Japanese but it was playing the weirdly fascinating “20th Century Boys” which one of these days I’m going to have to read/watch.

A slightly odd start to the trip though was this statue of some kind of zombie nurse that I snapped just as we passed by it. Apparently it was advertising some kind of bandage/trauma clinic thing. There is no way in hell you’d be able to get away with displaying that on the street in England; and with good reason. I was freaked out by it and I am hardly squeamish.

Just before lunchtime we pulled into Nagasaki and I got my first impression of the place.

It is hot and it is bloody hilly.

I mean that applies to everywhere in Japan but to Kyushu even moreso. The city seems to consist of a harbour, the area around the main station and then nothing but hills, hills and more hills. And steep ones at that.

Gamely trenching up the first of many hills we emerged, sweating, tired, hot and hungry at our hotel. A traditional Japanese ryokan run by a lovely and enthusiastic little man who spoke not one single word of English. Not even hello.

Divesting ourselves of bags we set off in search of food and stumbled upon this place.

Yes, that is a suit of armour and no; that isn’t even remotely the weirdest thing associated with this café. On the outside it was decorated with suits of armour, masks, fake fruit, statues and Buddhas. On the inside it was festooned with dozens of statues and antique plates, cups, pots and kettles. It was a real Aladdin’s cave, a mix of dozens of different things with no attempt whatsoever to match styles or features. It was in short awesome.

The people running it were even better. The main guy in charge was really friendly and talked to us about all the antiques he’d gathered. How he likes to go out to antique fairs to collect them, etc. He was showing off some bargains, some especially old things he’d grabbed and one or two particularly pricy pieces. A bit all over my head I’m afraid but it was nice to just listen to a man talk about something he was passionate about.

He was also passionate about tea! Something which will serve a man in good standing in my book. Most places here serve basic “kocha” but he had an honest to god tea menu, with different blends, leaves and countries represented. I just plumped for a standard British blend but it was really nice. Easily the best cup of tea I’ve had in Japan that I didn’t make myself.

The rest of his family were all in the café too. At the counter his son or possibly grandson was sat doing his school homework. His wife was doing the cooking and chatting occasionally and she was a marvellous cook (if a touch slow for the café crowd). I had a spicy pork and rice stir-fry that was basic but good. Chinese food is rightly famous in Nagasaki because it absolutely delicious. Not greasy, not slimy, not covered in MSG just tasty and wondrous.

All in all it was the perfect first impression of people in Nagasaki and it was yet another reminder that people in Kyushu are unbelievably friendly.

Full up of spicy ginger stir fry we made our way up the mountain to check out some of the many temples in Nagasaki.

First up was Kanzen-ji, which had a big tree.

Not to disparage the tree, which is pretty damn big, and right smack dab in an urban area to boot. But well, trees can only hold my interest for so long so off we toddled to Shofuku-ji.

Shofuku-ji was really quite lovely, although our enjoyment of it was hampered a bit by rain which suddenly sprang from nowhere and forced us to shelter under the arches of the temple.

Shofuku-ji, like many temples in Nagasaki, displays a mixture of Chinese and Japanese architectural styles. I’m no expert on architecture and I would be hard pressed to explain to you what this means in practise but I have seen enough temples on the main land to know that something about Shofuku-ji was very different to a regular temple. Small touches such as a geometric wooden pattern on the gates or a slightly different style of arched roof might not seem like much but they gave the temple a feeling of novelty that made going to look at temples interesting again.

Yes, after three years in Japan it is possible to become bored of looking at temples. Heck, it took my brother about two days when he visited.

It doesn’t hurt that Shofuku-ji is extremely handsome, with beautifully laid out gardens and wonderful views of the city below. It also had some beautifully detailed gargoyles, including a wall covered in nothing but ogre and gargoyle designs (the onigawara).

However my main memory of Shofuku-ji is of the very nice gentleman who decided to explain the history of the temple to us. I have mentioned in earlier posts that we visited Kyushu during Obon. Traditionally during this time Japanese families go and visit their parents and grandparents and then visit temples and shrines. Obviously this elderly gentleman was out visiting temples with his family. Equally obviously he was bored to tears with them because he decided to abandon them and instead talk to two foreigners. Whilst he explained in Japanese I had no hope at all of understanding about the history of the temple his family watched us suspiciously from some distance. At some point a small child was entrusted to come over and summon Grandad away to stop bothering the poor people. But he was having none of it and continued to regale us with stories and ask questions about England.

Eventually we convinced him to rejoin his family and with a somewhat sad expression he trundled off and we made our way elsewhere. People, especially old people, in Kyushu are awesome.

Next up on our tour was Fukusai-ji Kannon. A temple built, I kid you not, in the shape of a giant turtle with a Buddha standing on its back.

No, seriously, giant turtle. Here are some pictures.

I know I talk about Gamera a lot on this blog* but come on. That thing looks like its about to rear up and fight Godzilla. Maybe the next time America tries to bomb Nagasaki it will.

*Gamera is a giant turtle with tusks that can fly and breathe fire. He is also “a friend to children” which is perfectly logical.

Awesome turtle aside, we were a bit disappointed to find out that the temple was shut. We had a shufty around the outside of it all but we couldn’t find a door that wasn’t locked. Oh well we thought, at least we got to see the giant turtle.
Just as we were leaving, however, an incredibly old, but surprisingly spry woman started sprinting towards us. Turns out she was the caretaker and she was happy to show us around.

So we ended up with our own personal tour of the temple. Since we were the only people there we were treated to some extra special benefits, such as;

Getting to bang the drum used for services.

Posing with the big bell outside that is used to call in the faithful.

Whilst the turtle was fantastic the inside of the temple was full of some really cool touches as well. Our guide took us through many of them demonstrating such things as secret cabinets built into the walls and altars where Chinese residents used to hide things during the war.

Best of all was a massive Foucault’s pendulum underneath the temple. The string reaches right up into the Buddha’s head and is connected to a ball pendulum which measures the rate of rotation of the earth. It is one of the biggest such pendulums in the whole world, only beaten by three others. However I think it may need resetting a little bit as the intervals between the rods falling down were not regular.

Fukusai-ji was followed up by the Ouranda (Holland) Cathedral and the 26 Martyrs Memorial.

Nagasaki is a somewhat unique city in Japan due to the wide mix of different cultures that coexist here. Primarily it is the most Chinese influenced city in Japan but there is also a strong influence of Portuguese and Dutch culture. This is because for a long time Nagasaki was the only port in the country that was open for westerners, principally those from Portugal and the Netherlands, to trade in. The Dutch settled here on the “Dutch slopes” and in a small city within a city which initially represented the only place they were legally free to move around in. With their settlement they brought sunflowers and tulips, coffee, different kinds of cake, tobacco and a whole range of goods.

They also imported Christianity (although actually the first missionaries had arrived sometime earlier), and that’s where the problems began. Buddhism and particularly the Shinto variant practised in Japan places an emphasis on venerating authority figures and paying respect to them. Every man, woman and child in the land was legally obliged to attend Buddhist ceremonies. Through the temples and the shrines the Shogunate extended quite a lot of their power. Anything that was a threat to this order would have to be controlled and Christianity presented a definite threat.

So it was then that Christianity became illegal in Japan. This ban didn’t apply to the foreigners who lived and traded in Nagasaki but it did apply to the Japanese residents of the city. However due to their contact with the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish many Japanese residents began to convert to Christianity.

So it was that on February 5th 1597 Toyotomi Hideoyshi executed 26 Christian priests, 2 of them children, 20 of them Japanese, 4 Spanish, 1 Mexican and 1 Indian by crucifixion.

The memorial that stands here commemorates the site at which they were crucified.

Whilst an interesting history lesson the whole area made me sick to my stomach with anger at what madness and barbarism man does to his fellow man all because of religion.

Ugh.

It was a nicely done memorial though. And the church with its crazy mosaics and abstract angels was a striking and impressive sight.

Our final tourist attraction that evening was Glover Garden. This is a garden (surprisingly) and a series of old houses in a western style dating back to the Victorian era/ Meiji-restoration. It’s situated up a hill (also surprisingly) overlooking the harbour below.

Being westerners and westerners that have seen plenty of Victorian architecture at that we weren’t too interested in visiting Glover Gardens. What attracted us there was an advertisement for a Beer Garden. Beer Gardens in Japan aren’t the back bit of a pub but rather a short lived attraction in the summer offering all you can drink booze and all you can eat buffet food in an open air environment. Stuffing ourselves in a Victorian garden with fantastic views of the harbour definitely appealed to Fran and I. Sadly the beer garden was cancelled for the day due to rain, although whilst we were there it was a balmy summer night and never rained once.

I am glad we went there though because the buildings served as an excellent and very informative museum about Glover Garden and the area around it. Basically this was the area where all the expats used to live back in the Meiji-era when expat meant Victorian industrialist. What I had no idea about was how influential and important these British industrialists were to the development of Japan. Thomas Glover, whom the area is named for brought the first steam locomotive to Japan and built the first steam ship. In fact the company he founded to manufacture steam ships eventually became the Mitsubishi Corporation. Even better then that Glover was the founder of the first ever brewery in Japan, a brewery that eventually underwent a name change and became Kirin Breweries; the makers of Kirin beer.

See the moustache on that horse, supposedly that is a little tribute to glover and his own quite iconic moustache.

Glover wasn’t alone in his endeavours either. The area around him was full of western style houses all the former abodes of industrialists that built ships, founded breweries, imported tea back to England (god bless those men, sniff, it makes me tear up a little) and worked tirelessly to bring Japanese culture to the west and vice versa.

The fact that they all clung together, had clubs together and built houses that tried to recapture home really spoke to me. These people had no internet, no television and no British radio. They were in a properly alien culture which they clearly loved but they missed home in ways I can only imagine. The strange compromise of half one lifestyle and half another will resonate with anyone who has ever been an expatriate. It was quite touching to realise that I had something in common with these people and quite fascinating to see what British comforts seemed to be important to them (fireplaces, beds and baths seemed to be the main ones and I can sympathise with all three).

Glover Garden also had some small curiosities such as this statue of Puccini and another statue of the famous heroine of his opera “Madam Butterfly”. Apparently the Soprano it was based on lived and worked in Nagasaki.

Oh yes and this brilliant monument marking the place where bowling was first introduced to Japan. I think that may be the best historical plaque I have yet seen. Particularly the stained glass bowling pins.

Finally one of the best things about going to Glover Garden was getting to meet these guys, Jan and Steven. Fran had spotted them talking at the entrance to the Garden in Dutch. Now Fran used to live in the Netherlands and speaks Dutch pretty much fluently. She thus likes to point out to me when she notices people speaking Dutch.

Can I just say that for a small nation, and a language that is only spoken in that one nation, Dutch speakers really get around. I have heard them (or rather had them pointed out to me) in Italy, nearly every major city in Japan and Newcastle. Dutch folks like to travel it seems.

Jan and Steven asked us a question about directions which we were happy to help them with, Fran pointed out the Dutch connection (the cheesier sequel…see what I did there) we got to chatting and we ended up hanging out for the rest of the evening.

Nice guys. They were in Japan with their company as part of a project. The project was over and they were headed on a whirlwind tour of Japanese destinations they had missed before they had to return home. It was fun introducing them to things they didn’t know and swapping ex-pat stories.

We wandered around the garden with them and then eventually into a small museum which contained replica boats. These are used in Nagasaki’s major festival. I particularly like the evil looking whale.

We also headed out to dinner with them. I had been itching to try out some Nagasaki Chinese food since it was supposed to be the best Chinese food in Japan. In particular I wanted to try some Champon, a kind of ramen made with a very salty soup and loaded up with literally every kind of topping imaginable. Fishcakes, carrots, cabbage, beansprouts, mushrooms, etc, etc.

At first we tried a Chinese restaurant that was recommended by our guidebook. No luck, it closed at 9 o’clock. So off we trudged to Chinatown.

Shut, shut, shut, shut. It seemed that every restaurant we tried was shut at 9 o’clock. What was that all about? Do people in Nagasaki not eat late? In most Japanese cities restaurants are full up until midnight with salaraymen leaving work and grabbing a quick bite. I personally have eaten at 4 in the morning in 2 major Japanese cities in quite nice cafes. Are there no salarymen in Nagasaki? What was going on?

Eventually we found a restaurant that was open and dug into 4 bowls of Champon and 3 massive beers.

The champon was good too. There were so many conflicting flavours that it was basically a flavour mess, although a predominantly salty flavour mess. But it was greasy, salty, loaded with MSG and went down nice and easy with a cold beer. Real comfort food and just what I needed.

Finally, bidding Jan and Steven “sayonara” and full up of Chinese we set off home. At which point the rain we had been promised started.

As you can see, it was quite a heavy rain.

Three things you must know about Kyushu. The old people are awesome. It is very hilly and hot. When it rains, you absolutely know that it has been raining.

Day 3. Beppu.

Beppu, for all its quirkiness, the HELLS and the lovely onsen is still not the most thrilling town in the whole world. We had allocated ourselves two days to explore it and we quickly discovered that this was going to be more than sufficient to see everything we wanted to.

So a quick scour of the lonely planet suggested a few less popular tourist options. Fran, being an arsy crafty type immediately seized upon the bamboo crafts museum. I, being a bloke who likes a quiet life and who enjoys seeing his girlfriend being happy, acquiesced.

First we had all the fun of figuring out a bus schedule, attempting to get there and walking past it a few times as it was so non-descript.

Then we had all the joy of the bamboo crafts museum.

Yay!

I’ll be honest with you, it is very impressive stuff. Some of the things people can do using only bamboo and simple hand tools is absolutely astonishing. There are patterns of incredible complexity here. I certainly couldn’t hope to ever produce anything this beautiful and I did seriously admire the craftwork.

But there is only so long that you can look at bamboo sculptures and things made from bamboo before your brain starts to engage in a kind of trial separation. Part of you is taking in all the patterns and making the appropriate cooing noises and part of you has wandered off to think about something more interesting. Like what’s for dinner?

I did like the hats though. I think I look very stylish.

Probably the most interesting thing about the museum was a display about all the different kinds of bamboo there are and which varieties grow where.

Although there were some very impressive individual pieces; many of which are posted here without comment.

The museum did offer a few bamboo craft lessons. On the day we went there they were offering a class in how to make a charm. Fran had a go and was very pleased with the result.

Sick of bamboo and hungry we flagged down a cab to get one of the so called “hidden” onsen of Beppu. In this case Ichinoide-kaikan. Ichinoide-kaikan is not actually an onsen but rather it is a restaurant. However, the owner of the restaurant loves onsen so much that he dug two onsen of his own behind the restaurant. A lunch or dinner comes with a ticket to the onsen. Diners go take a refreshing bath outside and then come in to eat their lunch fully refreshed and cleaned up.

We arrived just after the lunchtime rush and as a result I had the entire onsen to myself. It was an outdoor onsen (or rotemburo) and had a decidedly homemade feel to it that seems to be common with Beppu onsen. It was filled with sulphur again so it smelled of eggs but being outside the smell was dispersed somewhat and didn’t bother me quite so much. And smell aside it was glorious. The restaurant is situated high on the mountain and from the onsen I had a glorious view of Beppu and the ocean stretched out before me and surroundings of a forest of dark ancient looking trees. It was blissful. It was quiet; and silence is such a rarity here that one really does grow to appreciate it.

As well as the main bath the owner has dug a steam room. And yes I mean dug. Rather than using artificial steam he has basically dug a hole directly into the volcano itself until he got steam issuing from it. Then he put a shed on top of the hole and called it a steam room. It was far from the most pleasant onsen experience I’ve ever had but it was at least novel. The shed was really muddy, slimy wet hot mud coated every surface and undid most of the good of the bath. Plus it was incredibly hot, much hotter than a normal steam room or sauna. However my abiding memory is just how scary it was. I was sitting inches from a hole that delved into a volcano. I had close to me a connection to the very bowels of the earth itself. It was issuing forth angry steam and occasionally made a noise. Nightmare inducing stuff if ever there was one.

After my bath I sat, feeling refreshed and cleaned with an ice cold beer and a good book, occasionally enjoying the view and waiting for Fran to arrive so we could have dinner.

Shortly after she did a waitress came over to say we had had a call.

Eh? From who?

The taxi company apparently. Had we left something in the cab?

A quick check revealed nothing. No sunglasses, hats, keys, wallets, phones, bags or anything else seemed to be absent.

It was only as I checked the inside of my bag that I realised I had left the guidebook behind, which had all our maps and the addresses and names of everywhere we intended to go.

Bugger!

We called the waitress over and she informed us that the cab driver was actually waiting outside with the book and he’d take us back down the mountain when we were finished.

How fantastic is that?! I’ve left things in cabs before, mostly CD’s weirdly, but also the odd bag or article of clothing. Never have I seen any of them again. In England the cabby would note we’d left something, drop it off at the dispatch office when he got a moment and go on his merry way. Here not only had the cabbie done the detective work to call the restaurant we were eating in but he came to give us our book back and he stayed and waited for us to finish.
In fact we got a message halfway through dinner to say that he was going to go pick up someone else but afterwards he would come back and wait for us again.

This started a long trend of people in Kyushu being incredibly nice to us, and especially cab drivers. By far the most resonant memory I have of Kyushu is of acts of kindness and thoughtfulness that make me smile just to remember them.

Dinner done and cab taken we did what pretty much everyone does on an onsen holiday. We had another bath.

This time we bathed at Kitahama Termas Onsen. Situated next to the beach, this onsen was the swishiest and most professional of the onsen we used in Beppu. This was far more like what I was accustomed to. Polished floors, rental towels, several different features of bath and more were in evidence. Basically, imagine a big municipal swimming pool but where the end goal is bathing, not swimming. Although it did feel even more like a swimming pool in that the outside pool overlooking the beach was a mixed gender bath that required you to wear a swimming costume. With my trunks on and kids splashing about it felt much more like a warm swimming pool than an onsen. The inside was a proper bath, however, and after all that swimming and pruning up I needed another one. Plus there was a sauna and an ice cold bath and I love the mix of hot to cold, hot to cold one can achieve with that combination. It makes your skin feel all tingly and does wonders for blackheads.

Tired of onsen but having exhausted Beppu we did a little shopping, had dinner at a horrible diner (People may be friendlier in Beppu but the cooking is miles better in Kansai) and then, well, went to another onsen.

Our planned destination was Mugen-no-Sato; a collection of private rotemburo nestled deep within a forest and way up the mountain. The prospect of a small private bath we could share together seemed too good to pass up and Mugen-no-Sato was probably the place we were most looking forward to attending.

We had problems getting there right from the start. It was very difficult to figure out the bus timetable and we ended up riding a bus with the same number as the one we desired but which was actually run by an entirely separate company and which went nowhere near where we wished to go.

When we finally figured out which bus we needed it turned out that we had missed the last one of the night by about 15 minutes.

So of course we took a cab. But the cab driver seems worried. He thinks that Mugen-no-Sato might be closed down. This is the first we’ve heard of this and are quite distraught by the news. Seeing our faces he goes for a chat with his mate. Good news, apparently it isn’t closed down and he’ll take us there.

So begins a journey up a mountain, on winding roads, without a crash barrier, in utter pitch blackness! Seriously, no cats eyes or anything. The only light was from the headlights so we only saw curves in the road seconds before we had to turn.

I have something of a phobia of heights. Weirdly if it something safe like a rollercoaster or if I’m under my own power I’m fine. However cars on mountain roads absolutely terrify me. I don’t mind telling you that I was (metaphorically) wetting myself.

Eventually we pull into Mugen-no-Sato which is dark and barely lit. There is nobody around and the place is utterly silent but for the idling of the engine. The driver decides to have a look around. Now at this point fear has become mingled with paranoia. I don’t know where I am, I’m in the middle of nowhere, with a man I don’t know, in the dark and far from civilisation. Frankly anything could happen and I’m having quiet hysterics in some dark corner of my mind.

The driver comes back and lets us have the bad news. Mugen-no-Sato is closed for the O-bon festival (a festival of remembrance of the dead) and we’ve driven all this way for nothing.

Weirdly this seemed to upset the driver possibly more than it did us. He kept muttering in Japanese about how it was all such a shame, how we had travelled so far and even taken a cab to come here. He offered to take us to another onsen; one which he promised was the best in Beppu.

By this point Fran and I were just tired and having none of it. Neither of us had heard of his supposed “best” onsen so I think we figured it was some kind of scam he had going with the owner. Plus we had our hearts set on Mugen-no-Sato and didn’t want to pay to go to an onsen we weren’t keen on in the first place.

However he was really insistent. No, no, it’s the best onsen in Beppu. And it’s such a shame that you came all this way. Really I’ll take you there, for free.

Excuse me?

Was this a cab driver offering to take us somewhere…for free?

Indeed he was. He charged us to go to Mugen-no-Sato but took us to this other onsen for absolutely no charge whatsoever.

And do you know what? It was lovely. The onsen was also a series or privately rented baths. Admittedly they weren’t rotemburo but instead we rented a little thatched hut which had a bath inside sunk into the floor. It was lovely, really romantic, quaint and a lot of fun.

And that about wraps it up for Beppu. Tomorrow/ Whenever I post it, we begin a long bus journey to the famous and infamous Nagasaki.

Kyushu Day 1

Very late I know but I’m finally going to get around to talking about my summer vacation in Kyushu. When this is finished I aim to take you on a tour of Tokyo and then it should be more kit-kat reviews.

For those not in the know Japan is comprised of 4 main islands (Honshu, Kyushu, Hokkaido and Shikoku) as well as many smaller ones. Kyushu is the southernmost of the main islands.

Consequently it is the hottest and balmiest. Not the smartest of choices for a summer trip.

Oh and the island possesses several active volcanoes.

The whole trip was somewhat unplanned on the spur of the moment. Fran and I had planned to go to Aomori and Matsushima in the north of the country. However after a friend of ours visited for three weeks our finances were not looking particularly healthy. Consequently we couldn’t afford to fly up to Aomori and pay for the hotels there.

However we were so disappointed at not getting a holiday this summer that we decided to look at other options. Kyushu popped up and a little digging proved that 6 days in Kyushu in 3 different cities was cheaper than just 3 days in Aomori during the festival time we wanted to go see.

And so in less than three days we booked it, packed it and completed a Peter Kay gag.

The general randomness of the genesis of the holiday would permeate the whole vibe of the trip. Everywhere we went strange, odd and somewhat random events would happen to us. It was a very ramshackle vacation but a very fun one.

The first of the strange detours was taking the bus to the ferry port. A special shuttle bus had been laid on and Fran and I boarded quite happily and sat down. As did a few other couples.

Then an entire football team with multiple squads tried to get on. All told about 30 high school kids, all with massive bags of gear and their coach were trying to squeeze onto a tiny bus.

For the better part of twenty minutes kids piled onto the bus squeezing into every available inch of space but no matter how far they moved up there seemed to be no way they would all fit. Surely the coach could take the next bus with some of the kids right? Nope, he was determined to send the whole team at once.

Finally, miraculously the whole team managed to fit on, leaving little room for breathing or moving for the rest of us and we set off; passing many other bus stops with long lines of people with bags that looked excited and then subsequently more disappointed than a child whose just been informed its hamster had died as we zoomed past without stopping.

The ferry was a bargain. 8,800 Yen for an overnight trip from Kobe to Beppu in Kyushu. That 8,800 Yen bought you space in a room. The room was about sized for 20 people with a tatami mat floor and every person got a futon, a pillow and sheets. The journey was about 12 hours long arriving at about 7:30 in Beppu after a good nights sleep. I can think of no more agreeable way to travel. I’m sure if this was Britain then people would stay up all night being noisy or drunk and if this was another Asian nation that set up would be excuse to have everything you own stolen. However being Japan everyone was courteous, honest and reserved. There was even a little television on the wall displaying the weather.

What was the forecast?

Thunderstorms…for the whole week.

Arse.

Oh well.

Sadly the only thing the ferry lacked was anything entertaining in the slightest little bit so after a not amazing dinner and a best of 7 game of connect 4 (which Fran won) we went to bed.

Day 2, Beppu.

After awaking and refreshing the Ferry drew into the port and took the train onto Beppu.

Beppu is a smallish town at the base of the active volcano Aso. Tourism and bamboo are its main industries and what it mostly has going for it is lots of varied and very traditional onsen.

It is also the quirkiest place I have ever visited in Japan. Japan is usually considered to be weird and odd by outsiders but live here long enough and you start to take most of that in your stride. Crucially most places in Japan are not odd by Japanese standards, they are fairly homogenous. The Japanese don’t like quirky, they like conformity. Beppu though was quirky and very proud of it. The first inkling of this I got was the announcement the lady on the train made as we approached the station. Normally announcers mumble a place monotonally in the bored way you would if you had to say the same place names for hours everyday. Instead this woman pronounced it in a rising inflection like someone calling suh-wee to a pig. Bep-pooooooo Bep-poooooooo. Fran and I had to immediately pause in our conversation to check what we had heard.

The second wondrously quirky thing was our hotel which was a gleaming art deco and chrome monstrosity transported wholesale from the middle of the 50’s.

The third thing was probably this statue. I say probably because whilst it is definitely odd I don’t know if it is quirky of downright bizarre. It is, as the base of the statue says.

“The man called Shiny Uncle who loved Children.”

Another inscription describes how he pioneered tourism to Beppu from the main land.

Now clearly this guy is something of a local hero who probably cared deeply and genuinely about kids like a nice grandparent. However the statue makes him look like some kind of paedophile super-hero. The expression on his face is one of a cackling Mr Burns look-alike. The cape makes him look like some kind of mental case. The pose is borrowed from the child catcher from “chitty chitty bang bang” and there is a genuine child hanging from his cape. He properly looks like he is going to sweep down from the sky and kidnap children whilst cackling menacingly. It is the most horrifyingly unflattering portrait I have ever seen.

Stopping to drop our bags off Fran and I went off to take a trip.

TO HELL!

As I mentioned above Kyushu is full of active volcanoes and Beppu sits on the slope of one of them, Asoyama. Consequently Beppu is something of an onsen town with dozens of hot springs making use of the volcanic sulphur and natural hot springs.

However a few of these hot springs are far, far too hot for people to actually bathe in. Not to be outdone the enterprising people of Beppu have cobbled together a tourist attraction out of them, dubbing these hot onsen “hells” and tarting them up a bit with some statues and signs.

Most of them seemed unutterably naff. Particularly a pair that had small zoos which reportedly kept animals in very poor condition. A few were just pools of water with some statues by the side. However three of the hells were genuinely quite interesting.

Water spout hell has a geyser which erupts at regular intervals of about half an hour. A few pictures in Japanese explained how it works and Fran and I waited for about five minutes to watch it erupt and then go oooh and ah. It was bloody hot and very steamy and all this steam is used to grow a tropical garden. Fran and I had a quick wander round the garden and then fled the humidity by standing in the gift shop until the ac freeze dried the sweat to our bodies.

Monks hell is full of bubbling mud pools which apparently resemble the bald head of a monk. Although these were pretty cool to look at what most impressed me is how the sides of the pools had built up. Layers and layers of mud had formed little baths about three foot high filled with boiling and bubbling mud.

Finally blood pool hell is easily the most impressive out of the whole set. Iron in the mud at the bottom has mixed with the water to give it a bright red hue that looks like a lake of steaming boiling blood. Hell seems an apt description, although actually it was rather pleasant, if a bit hot, and had a lovely foot bath.

I even indulged myself in eating an egg….FROM HELL!!! I.e. boiled in the onsen water,

It tasted…of egg. And it didn’t half stink too.

Having visited hell we set about trying out Beppu’s other famous attraction, the sex museum.

My apologies guys but for obvious reasons there will be no pictures from the sex museum.

I have visited the sex museum in Amsterdam and my main memory of that was being overwhelmed to the point of desensitisation with cocks. From the first room right until the end the entire edifice seems all too obsessed with transforming any object you can imagine (hairbrush, jug, chair, vase, smoking pipe, etc) into some kind of phallus. This is at first shocking, then funny, then quite interesting and finally utterly boring. “Oh look,” one drearily moans “yet more cocks, this time arranged to form an entire chez lounge.”

Gratifyingly the sex museum in Beppu is much more balanced in terms of gender and gives equal opportunities to transform common household objects into phallic and yonic (which is apparently the female equivalent of phallic I was pleased to discover) sculptures. It’s also much smaller then the one in Amsterdam and so you’re still square in the funny stage of the experience by the time you leave. One particularly enlightening section devoted to the relative size of animal genitalia was particularly enlightening, although the sculpture of a Whale’s vagina will haunt my nightmares for many years to come I fear.

There were a few problems with it. Many of the exhibits were broken and in need of repair (that poor zebra) and of course in Japan it is illegal to show uncensored images of human genitalia which somewhat puts the kibosh on the whole museum really. They rather neatly got around this by displaying all their antique Japanese erotica in glass cases with a little frosted bit about 6” in front of the actual print. If you look at the print straight on it is censored however if you are not yet a complete and utter drooling buffoon you can take a step to the right and look at it completely unhindered from an angle.

Since we were now so hot and sweaty (from all the steam you perverts) Fran and I decided to try out the thing Beppu is really famous for; Onsen.

Beppu is one of the premier Onsen towns in Japan sporting some of the best and most unusual Onsen in the country, many of them completely free. Fran and I set off to Kannawa, just up the mountain to try some of them out.

Kannawa was a very cool place to have a wander around. It is a tiny little village and almost all the buildings have traditional thatched roves. Even better some of the old buildings were a kind of traditional bath salt farm. Basically a pipe is dug into the earth from which steam and sulphur can emerge. Above this is built a thatched roof that is set directly into the floor kind of like a wooden tent. Steam rises and floats out through the roof but the sulphur stays behind and settles on the floor. Eventually the local people scrape all the sulphur up and use it to make bath salts which they flog to tourists who wish to smell of eggs.

And in fact pretty much the entire town stinks, horribly, of eggs. The stench of sulphur is omnipresent and choking. As much as I enjoyed the scenery and just wandering around; it was almost impossible to stay that long because the smell was so awful.

So we quickly scuttled down the hill and made our way to a lonely planet approved “mud bath.”

Unlike the swish and organised onsen I’m use to in Kansai this was a decidedly home made and ramshackle affair. Much of the baths had a rough and ready quality to them as if they were made on the cheap a few weekends ago.

The onsen itself was split into four stages. First we had to shower and clean ourselves. Secondly we got into a lovely hot sulphur bath. This made us smell of eggs (why people would want this, I do not know) but was wonderfully relaxing on our tired limbs. Kyushu is very hilly and after trudging up and down a mountain all day a nice bath really does a world of good. Thirdly there was an indoor mud bath. The bath itself was mostly more sulphur water but with a layer of soft, silty mud at the bottom like some kind of velvet cushion. This was squelchy and felt awesome to run through your fingers but the bath was so poorly designed, and the mud so slippery that I kept sinking in.

Finally there is an outside mud bath which is mixed gender. There is a wall of towels in the middle protecting modesty but both boys and girls can come up to the wall to have a chat.

I say protecting modesty, protecting female modesty at least. There was no male modesty to protect. Women can enter the outside bath from their inside bath simply by rounding a corner. This means that as they approach the wall all the relevant bits are nicely underwater. In contrast the men have to stroll across the courtyard, in full view of the ladies, with tackle flopping around in the breeze.

Fran had gotten to the outside bath before me and was waiting at the towels for me to arrive. All the other women were sitting around the corner out of sight meaning Fran looked like some kind of massive pervert sitting and staring at all the naked boys as they emerged one by one. Not that she isn’t a massive pervert; but she doesn’t like to look like one in public.

And on that note I shall bid you sayonara. Next time we will explore Beppu further. If you like bamboo, you’ll love it.

Fushimi Inari in Kyoto is one of the shrines I have most wanted to visit since I arrived in Japan.

You may know it from its appearance in the film “Memoirs of a Geisha,” where it played the part of a shrine with thousands of torii gates snaking up and down a mountainside. Also it had a cameo role in Seven Samurai as a villager and I think it might be showing up in the re-make of Duel.

Seriously though; it is a breathtakingly beautiful place.

Fushimi Inari is famous for two things. Torii gates and foxes. In fact this is where the name “inari” comes from. Inari is a kind of fried tofu which apparently is beloved of Japanese foxes. I’m not sure why as foxes are carnivores but I’m chalking that one up to the “don’t attempt to understand the Japanese” pile.

The Fushimi part of the name is in dedication to a Japanese goddess of grain. Consequently not only is the shrine complex dotted with thousands upon thousands of torii gates but also thousands of foxes, mostly in pairs with one holding some grain in his mouth and the other holding the key to the granary.

Japanese foxes, or kitsune, are said to have a number of magical powers. As they get older their tail splits into two, three, and eventually nine separate tails. A 9 tailed fox is a powerful demon indeed (as any fan of Naruto knows) but even a regular fox is fond of disguising herself as a human woman, marrying a human man, carrying his child to term and then buggering off again to go be a fox and leave him holding the baby.

Yet they are simultaneously venerated as guardian spirits. Another one for the “I don’t really understand Japan” pile.

My parents and I arrived in Fushimi early of the morning of my birthday! Straight away I got a little birthday treat as the shrine was in the midst of performing a ceremony.

There was much drumming chanting and playing of instruments and a complicated dance involving ribbons and sticks. It was all very professionally done with smooth confident movements but, well, it wasn’t really my cup of tea. It is always nice to see a shrine actually do something though. Far too often they are simply interesting buildings with very tacky shops attached. I like my ancient religions to have a bit of ceremony to them you know; particularly if they feature ridiculous costumes and very ridiculous hats.

Our morning dancing completed we set off up the mountain to begin our hike.

And what a hike!

Seriously, Fushimi is a simply amazing place to go for a walk. The forest alone is a perfect setting for a stroll. Tall, imposing, old trees grow very close to each other so very quickly you seem cut off from the world and wander into somewhere that feels more natural, more ancient, more dangerous and even a little bit magical.  

The thousands of torii doubtless help in creating this impression too. The contrast between these shiny bright orange gates and the greens and browns of the forest could not be more striking. Yet, they seem to fit perfectly into the setting. Maybe it is a feature of the architecture but rather than sticking out like a sore thumb the gates seem like they are naturally suited to the forest. They enhance the feeling of wandering backwards in time, of venturing into historical Japan.

They also seem to evoke an otherworldly, mystical feeling. Glimpsing patches of bright orange in the trees up ahead can cause your breath to catch. Perhaps it is because they are gates that they suggest this dreamlike quality, for gates suggest entering somewhere different and if you wander under a thousand gates you must be wandering through a thousand different tiny worlds.

On a more practical level they also make it really easy to plot a path through the mountain trails, and although the sun was beating down very hard for an April day they also provided a lot of shade for the weary traveller.

I have no idea what impulse caused the priests of Fushimi to erect so many torii gates but I thank them for it because it has helped to construct one of the most pleasant walks I have ever done.

The gates are all donations from people. On the right hand side of the gate the date it was installed is written in Kanji. On the left hand side is the name of the donor and sometimes a small dedication. Most of these names are in Kanji so I couldn’t tell you what kinds of people donate the torii gates but a few were in Katakana (mostly foreign names) and even some Romaji.

Some of the smaller temples in the complex also had cool things to donate. A common feature of Japanese shrines are wooden panels that you can buy, write a wish or an inscription on and then tie to a gate to make your wish come true. At Fushimi they had small replica torii gates for the same purpose.

They also had wooden panels shaped like foxes and people seemed to have taken the opportunity to draw a picture rather than make a wish. Amongst some of the offerings were:

a creepy eye fox

a hairy monster fox

a too cool for school fox

a dorae-fox

and my favourite, a Gundam fox.

Fushimi is more of a shrine complex than one dedicated shrine with many smaller ones dotted all around the mountain. One of the more diverting ones offered a chance to lift one of the holy stones. Apparently they weigh as much as your sins. I can report that may rock was not too heavy to lift but heavy enough that I wouldn’t want to carry it back from the supermarket.

Although I’ve done much worse hikes in Japan it was pretty hard going for my Dad as he had recently injured his knee. Stairs were a particular problem for him and Fushimi had an endless supply of them. Worse, they didn’t just go up and up but tried to trick us by going up until to plunge down for a bit and suddenly go up again. Consequently it took us the whole morning to reach the top where we stopped for a lunch in one of only about two options for food on the entire mountain.

This was unheard of! It is nigh on impossible to go more than 30 yards in Japan without being offered food, what was a touristy place like Fushimi playing at.

Regardless we were grateful for our pretty terrible soba noodles but more grateful for the restaurants wonderful view which took in pretty much the whole of Kyoto.

Once you reach the top there is a circular walk around the top of the mountain before you have to trek back down again. This was more of the same but since same in this instance meant a really enjoyable beautiful trek we weren’t complaining.

We made it down the mountain much quicker than our ascent and went home to get all ready for my birthday party.

Which, sadly, dear reader is a secret from you. Suffice it to say it was very nice to see my family again after nearly two years apart and wonderful to spend my birthday with them.

Next time we’re going to take a break from all this touristy stuff to talk about the real meat and potatoes of this blog. Kit-Kat reviews.

 

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