Kade kneels next to a stream formed by the San Francisco Glacier, about two hours outside Santiago, Chile.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Fukuoka, Japan

Ai (pronounced 'eye') is a young lady I have blogged about before.  She is from Fukuoka, the same city I recently just found out a really dear friend of mine - Kyoko!!! -is from.  But back to Ai.  Kade and I met her in Hanoi, Vietnam, and we've all stayed in touch since then.  Ai was my contact person, tour guide and lunch partner had I been able to make it to Japan in February.  My goal was to "bullet train" from Kyoto to Nagasaki, and then from Nagasaki travel by bus to Fukuoka, where I would spend a couple of nights before flying out to Bangkok.  As far I'm concerned, Ai and I are kindred spirits.  She too loves great adventures, as you can see from a couple of attached images.  Incidentally, her work actually brought her to Mobile, AL about two years ago.  She stayed there a couple of weeks, I think.  Unfortunately, we weren't able to see her, but I did put her in touch with a long-time friend and his family.  From my own experiences, I know the value of having reliable contacts wherever you go.
In Agra, India.  The Taj Mahal.

In Spain.

Since I've yet to visit Fukuoka, and since it's often a good thing to get an outsider's first-hand take on travel destinations, I am humbly deferring to a friend and fellow traveler (from upstate New York), who has actually traveled to Fukuoka.  Mick was one of my colleagues at The AUA English Institute in Bangkok.  As an aside, I have to give him credit for two memorable things:  First, when we were having my "farewell lunch" in Bangkok, he shared the Gandhi quote about "being the change you want to see."  I had not heard it before.  Since then, it's been a quote that has inspired me.  Second, Mick was the one who planted the seed in my mind for moving to Asheville, NC.  He had not been there himself, but had a friend who thought it was a fabulous place - a lovely, liberal, artsy city surrounded by incredible mountains and small, scenic, conservative towns. Mick also left AUA for other prospects.  He taught English in South Korea for year.  And, during a break, he took a trip to Japan, a place he said he fell instantly in love with.  This is an e-mail he sent out in 2006, describing Fukuoka.  His writing skills are so good (Cornell and UC Berkley paid off!), later I intend to post his impressions of Seoul!


My first visit to Japan proved to be lovely. Though a short trip, my three days in Fukuoka were intriguing enough to lead me to consider teaching there (or at least in Japan) early next year. I plan to return for a longer trip later this year to see some of the rest of the country. Some random travel thoughts:

Fukuoka, on the southernmost island of Kyushu, north of Nagasaki, is one of the most beautiful and livable cities I have ever visited, ringed by beaches and full of green spaces and bike trails. And the bikes! The sidewalks are nearly avenue-wide in places and shared by pedestrians and hundreds of cyclists; if the Japanese weren't such polite cyclists this might be a recipe for disaster, but as it is only once or twice did I feel I might be snared between the spokes of an oncoming out-of-control bike. There were also bikes for trustworthy rent in places: simply put in a coin and take the bike away, returning it later when finished. Such a scheme, as another foreigner and I cynically but accurately discussed while standing there scratching our heads, would last a day in New York City before the bikes were gone, stripped down, repainted and sold! Fukuoka is extremely neat and clean, rivaling Singapore in my book; I saw nary a scrap of paper and very few cigarette butts. The city is, I read, making a bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, and I wish it well in its bid.

As an English teacher these past 5 years, I have had ample time to reflect on the English-as-the-global-language phenom (which is certainly real enough), but here at least, though there is certainly a great deal of English visible (road signs are bilingual, for instance, as are the subway stops, not to mention of course the ever ubiquitous advertising English- Wendy's! McDonald's! Starbuck's! Nike! Mickey Mouse!- English feels less prominent than in many other countries I've visited. That said, people were almost always willing, and at times enthusiastic, to have a go at me in English, even stopping whatever they were doing and physically escorting me to places like the subway. This was all lucky for me, since my Japanese is unfortunately limited to "sushi," "kamikaze," "sumo," and slightly more daring, "sashimi," and "miso soup." I did, though, manage to learn my first Japanese "character", the symbol for the Japanese currency, the yen.

In Thailand, if you don't speak Thai or have memorized a ready menu of dishes to order on the street (and if you feel like getting away from the tourist hotels with English menus) you can usually readily point to trays of food and eat easily and well. Or you can always make a fool of yourself (and Thais are certainly used to foreigners doing exactly that!) and point to what other people are eating. In Korea it is a little tougher, though many of the menus have pictures you can point to. But in Japan eating out has been made easiest of all: simply walk into a restaurant, put your money in a vending machine contraption, press the picture of the meal you want, and hand your ticket to the waitress. Not a word of Japanese required, though once, since the pictures are sometimes eye-squintingly small, I thought I was ordering squid and ended up with beef.

I believe I have traveled enough now to conclude that coffee shops and cafes are a truly global Asian explosion. In Fukuoka there are little coffee shops everywhere (as in Seoul and Daegu and Bangkok), and vending machine coffee is wildly popular, if not exactly high-quality. There were surprisingly very few Starbuck's, though I managed to sniff out three or four.

Taxi drivers wear starched shirts, ties, and white gloves, and their taxis are hung with little lacy curtains; just a little different than a cab you might pick up in New York!

Subway fares are around $2, which is comparable to Manhattan.

On a rainy Friday I went to a traditional Japanese onsen, or hot spring, this one in the city center, the water coming up from a 2,000 meter drill core. Fifty or sixty naked Japnese men and boys and one naked foreigner-- me-- shared the wondrous pools of steaming water and dry and wet saunas. There is a large and visible expat community in this city, and so though I got my fair share of looks (well, I was buck naked after all), I was treated most politely. I stayed about 4 hours until my body melted into the clay I think God originally made it from.

Not that it matters, but for some reason or other, Fukuoka has been the adolescent glue-sniffing capital of Japan the last 7 years running.
Fukuoka Tower, on the seaside and beach, looks almost exactly like the planned Freedom Tower for New York's World Trade Center site.
More travel news in the future! Until then I wish you all the best...Mick

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