Japan, the first three days

by Grungi

So, this is it. Finally, after all those years wanting to go, I’m finally – with my sister of course, you know how inseparable we are – in Japan.

I’ll try to blog about our trip here for the next three weeks, and you see I’m already on the right track : a single post for the first two-and-a-half days. But nevermind, you’ll see WHY this is. That is, if you decide to continue reading. What a way to tease you, huh ?

Fukuoka has streets. This is one of them.

Day 0 -[Travellin’]-
The first “day” was of course dedicated to us getting to Japan, which sounds like a pretty good way to start off a trip to Japan. So after saying good-bye to our parents at Zaventem, in Brussels, we flew all the way to… Francfort. In that faraway german land, we discovered that yes, airport CAN be big. Or at least very big along one direction. And of course when that’s the case you land at one side and need to go exactly at the farthest point of it. But without fear, we went to find Gate 49, where we would be boarding our next plane. There we felt like in the first Harry Potter, you know that bit where he has to find the 9 3/4th platform ? Well it was just like that. Gate 48 ? Check. Gate 50 ? Check. Gate 49 ? Of course not.

But we were saved by a helpful employee that saw we were puzzled and came to help us, because you know, he was, like, helpful. And that’s what helpful people do, they help. Turns out we were looking for the wrong gate, of course. Door 46 was more like it. Maybe the little 6 in our head was badly fixed and fell, like in those movies where someone swings a hotel room’s door and the numbers turn around, hanging by only one nail.

Then it was mostly “smooth sailing”, except for little details like the on-board movies : we had to suffer through Dragon Ball Evolution (though another one, Monster vs. Aliens, was pretty funny). And the meals. The “Japanese” meals.

You know, I’m not even sure everything on that plate was even food.

I’ll let you know : that was bad. As in REALLY bad. The meat was tolerable, but everything else was really not good. So far, my fears of Japanese food seemed justified. But the next day would be the real test… How did it go ? You’ll have to wait for the next episode to know that. Hang in there, it’s a whole title away !

Day 1 -[First Train Home]-

After a very short night, and a glorious, glorious sunrise (if you get the chance, try listening to some post-rock, or songs like “Still Alive” or “City of Blinding Lights” as you’re watching the sun come up above the clouds, it’s mesmerizing), we’re finally coming to our destination. Japan !

Our first view of Japan. Look at this mountaintop : it’s just so typical !

After landing in Narita, we had to face our first real challenge. The customs. Thing is, Pascale has a student visa, but we learned in the plane that those were incompatible with the “Japan Rail Pass”, the 300-euros ticket we were to use for our two first weeks. So we were a bit stressed out. But amazingly, the custom officer agreed to let Pascale through not on her student visa, but as a regular tourist ! Awesome first contact, and everything was to continue this way. We got our seats in the shinkansen (the japanese high-speed train) reserved (nice surprise again, we thought we would have to try and get a non-reserved seat, in a packed train it often means no seat at all), and detailled instruction where to go when. Easy enough, isn’t it ?

But no. We managed to miss our correspondance in Tokyo… We were penniless – or rather yenless – so we had to find some money. Easy, just go to a post office, they have international withdrawal machines that accept Maestro cards. Guess what ? It turns out it isn’t the case. And with the time it took me to go look for one of those post offices near Shinagawa station and see that our cards wouldn’t work, we were late. And you cannot count on Japanese trains to be late. They’re NEVER EVER late, it’s almost frightening when you’re used to the Belgian way of handling train schedules – that is to say don’t handle anything, at least trains are running.

But we took the next shinkansen, again with reserved seats – I LOVE those rail passes. Then it was time for another 6.5 hours of train, and we had a glimpse of Japan’s panoramas. A funny thing is the way the cities look ‘chaotic’. The buildings seem arranged in no particular order and you get as many colors as there are houses. And with the afternoon coming to an end, we arrived at Hakata Station, Fukuoka.

And then there was the heat. And its friend, humidity. We were told Japanese summers were hot, but gosh, it’s incredible. Although the sun had set when we arrived, it was still somewhere near 30°C when we stepped out of the train. But inside the station, it was pretty cool. What was also pretty cool (oh my, lame pun) was the fact that despite us being near an hour late, there we met some of our Japanese friends : Ayumi and Ayu were waiting for us there, and we were so happy to see them again ! And two other joined us before we got to the exit of the station. Daiki and Misa, the two main ‘organisators’ of our next days were there too. It was a very very nice moment, meeting them all back after all those months.

And they even went as far as taking us to our hotel. Not having to concentrate on finding the way, we had the chance to let the atmosphere sink in. It was all we anticipated, and then some. The big advertising screens, the music, the people, the school uniforms, the vending machines, the salarymen… Sounds cliché, but seeing the real deal really was something. Waiting for us at the hotel was our second challenge. Remember how we couldn’t withdraw money earlier ? Well we still had none, we were hungry, and more importantly we had a room to pay… But once again, we were pleasantly surprised when the owner told us we could pay the next morning. Really, Japanese people are nice. Though we didn’t have much time to ponder about that, because we had to be taken to our first real Japanese meal. And, boy, was I anxious…

Good food, which is usually served between tasty food and succulent food.

Good first surprise: another friend, Ikue, was there! Second one : it was a really beautiful place, complete with a low table (there was a hole underneath though, so it was like sitting on a bench. And third, BIG one : I liked almost every single thing I ate. And that is saying a lot. Usually, I dislike pretty much everything that’s even remotely ‘refined’. But there, in that über-long-ten-thousand-courses meal, so many good things. I even loved the shashimi and the suchi (me ? RAW FOOD ? Raw fish, even ? No way !). And I wouldn’t put everything on account of the psychological effect. It was extremely fresh, and just plain delicious. And copious. And funny : seeing Pascale break a sushi in two just after saying she was afraid she would, and even as she’s usually the most gifted with chopsticks in the family was fun. 😉 Also, even if it was into a very very beautiful restaurant, and even as we ate a whole lot of many different stuff, it was still pretty cheap, amazing ! We also received awesome gifts : Pascale got a yukata (summer kimono), and I got the man version. We were left speecheless by those presents. It was just too nice.

From left to right : Ikue, Ayumi, yours truly, Daiki, Misa

And then we though we would get to sleep. But they had other plan, namely taking us to a ‘purikura’, some kind of Japanese photo booth that is design to make your eyes melt and break your sanity with some kind of supposedly ‘cute’ music played to loud. Also it’s kitsch. Wait, no, not only kitsch. JAPANESE KITSCH.

I swear I was slowly but surely becoming insane in there.

The idea behind those ugly things is that you take your friends, you cram yourselves into the photo booth, and make a bunch of photographs. Then you get the chance to edit and write stuff on the pictures, which are heavily-processed shoots trying – no kidding – to make your eyelashes look longer and stuff. Then if you’re a Japanese with a cell phone (that is to say everyone) you get the pictures sent to you via infrared, and you get a printout of the pictures on adhesive paper. So even though every bit of the experience is a threat to your senses, you’re left with some really nice mementos.

So after this little foray into frantic grounds, we finally got to crash into our (small, but nice) room and sleep… Pfew, what a day…

Day 2 -[Just Cruisin’]-

The second day started off with us finally finding a way to get some cash (thank you credit card) and then wander around for a breakfast. We went into a Starbucks, and I assure you, they will never see me take another of their ‘asparagus-salmon rolls’. We went with the day’s current breakfast option, but god it was awful. Even for Pascale… After this brief bad experience, we went around looking for an adapter for our electric thingies. Because, of course we bought not one, but two before leaving, and they work great, except for the computer… So we entered a really big, BIG electronic store : Yodobashi Camera.

And it was again some kind of maddening experience. A very vicious thing is the background music. At times you can’t hear it well, but it’s there. And the playlist consists of only one song : the store’s theme song. That is again something I’ve never seen before. I mean, a whole song about a store ? Played continuously ?

But we found what we needed and escaped before our minds were broken. We forgot to take some pictures though, so we’ll probably need to go there again to let the world see (and yes, it’s really impressive…).

We then met again with Daiki and Misa (and Mayu, it’s cool, in the end we’ll be seeing almost everyone !) that rented a car to take us around to… do stuff, basically. We didn’t knew the program beforehand, so we let them guide us first through the countryside until we got to a waterfall. And there, fun was to be had !

Chifumi, Misa, Pascale, Mayu and Daiki and a boy and a guy having fun at the waterfall.

The fun was not only made up of striking poses in front of a camera, putting our feet in the water or debating wheter cicadas or the waterfall made the loudest sound though. It was also in eating nagashi somen. Did your mother tell you it was bad to play with your food ? Well, here it’s not, and it’s awesome ! Basically, nagashi somen is noodles and some sort of soup to give them some more taste. But that wouldn’t be very fun, so you have to stand next to a long bamboo cut in half in which water is flowing. Then you put the noodles at the top, and they slide along until someone catches them with his or her chopsticks. It sound weird and/or silly, but believe me it’s really fun. And need I say it’s good too ?

Man I’d love to try that with bolognese and spagghetti. Just how messy would it get ?

We also tasted some snacks, like fish-on-a-stick, or yakitoris. All in all, this was again very good, honestly it was still surprising. After that, we went to a beach, near a little shrine and a big cliff.

Don’t be fooled, the cliff was actually much taller than Pascale.

Then, because one beach isn’t enough, we went to another one, and ate something that I forgot the name of, but was refreshing as hell : it’s some piled ice with fruit juice. Oishiiii !!

Seems like Japanese people love to build impressive-looking stuff on beaches, but no one really knows why…

Then it was time to get back to Fukuoka, and get dressed for the evening. Because we couldn’t let our new yukatas in their boxes, they planned a ‘dressed-up’ supper. At first we were a little wary of putting them on, but once we took the plunge it was fun. Pascale had shoes that were too small, so her feet hurt, and I thought I had forgotten my sandals, so I was wearing my ugly baskets (and no, that doesn’t work well, and yes, Pascale found them sandals the very moment we got back to our room). But as we saw that we weren’t looking like dumb tourists trying to ‘play Japanese’, it was good fun. Not to mention that yukatas are very very beautiful attires (for girls that is, the men ones are more plain).

Misa, me, Pascale, Ryo and Daiki all dressed up. And see, I told you those shoes didn’t work well with the rest 😀

It was another fun supper, with some more friends joining us (Keiko and Ryo, to cite them) and also a nice french friend of Keiko ! It was interesting for Pascale to get some advices for when she’ll come back here. It was also another hundreds-of-plates supper, and it was again incredibly good. Especially the udon (a kind of noodles, a little like ramen). My legs weren’t having much fun though, sleeping there under the low table the whole time, lazy bunch…

I must also say I was a little embarassed, because each time I had emptied something, Ryo, whom I was sitting next to, would take it and serve me something else. As an end result, I think I only filled my plate once or twice :s

And after that, guess what ? Time for purikura again. Fortunately, the booth they chose had a music that was a little less horrifying, and again we’ve got some pretty fun mementos.

Our merry group : (up) Pascale, Daiki looking cool, Jérome trying to make bunny ears to Mayu or something, Keiko (down) me who is leaning to the right for no particular reason, Mayu who does it more though, Misa and Ryo. Also features a pretty common elevator door.

So that was it, we’re ready for what’s to come (I think) : tomorrow we’re going to a big (probably more huge than big though) mall, then to Dazaifu, a town near Fukuoka. Thanks for putting up with this mega-post and choosing to ride with us !

Yes, I confess, that last sentence was a lame way to introduce this picture. But I’m doing what I can 😀