Ancestral Homecoming

I hauled myself out of bed — well, ok, off the floor — and my bags down to the Miyajima ferry terminal. On the JR ferry back to Miyajima-guchi I ran into Todd and Kristine from yesterday. Todd apparently thought I was putting one over on him, and had to check the score himself when he got back to his hotel that night. It turned out they were staying at the Jukeiso, same as me.) “It was even worse than I imagined!” he exclaimed. I smiled sadistically. “3-0! I’m glad I’m not in Boston!” Once again it was hard to muster a lot of sympathy, given what happened to my Mariners this season. I did, however, resist the urge to bug him about the Nomah trade.

Jukeiso is, by the way, exceptionally nice. It’s a good example of the “new/old” style of ryokan — a concrete building with solid floors and walls, individual bathrooms and bath tubs, and that austere look you mentally associate with staying in a ryokan. I liked the place, even if I found the front desk clerk a little bit on the standoffish side, and I can’t stand the fact that the maid practically offers to iron your socks. (I hate being doted on.) It was really nice to come back from my photographic expedition last night to discover my bedding laid out on the floor, a reading lamp installed near my head (something more ryokan need, in my view), and a pot of tea left on. Also, they put out a sign welcoming me by name, and stuck a Canadian flag in the flag holder on the front desk counter to recognize the diversity.

Todd and Kristine dragged our too-heavy lugage across the JR station to the appropriate track to catch the train back to Hiroshima. “Don’t pack what you won’t carry,” Kristine said, huffing. “Yeah,” I puffed back, “but the problem is that for some reason I keep accreting stuff as I go along!” She sighed. Apparently not content to suffer the woes of being Red Sox fans, they decided to hurt themselves physically by having a bad schedule. “We’re carrying presents for friends of ours in Tokyo. They’re heavy. We’re going to Tokyo last.”

They picked an interesting way to do and see Japan — they flew into Narita, but almost immediately thereafter flew to Okinawa and got acclimatized there, taking advantage of JAL’s “rail pass for airplanes,” as Todd put it. I was insanely jealous of them, especially after Todd describes the snorkling opportunities down there. “It seems to me like the best way to get over the travel shock is to do it in, say, Kyoto,” I said, “but Okinawa sounds like a much better idea.” Note to self: Do this next time. Why didn’t I think about going to Okinawa? Oh, right — the issue with public exhibitionism found at beaches. Also, cheapness.

We rode the train back to Hiroshima. I taught Kristine some basic survival Japanese phrases. Every time I think my Japanese is bad and awful and totally inadequate to get around, I am reminded — usually by talking to other foreign tourists — how much of an advantage I have simply because I speak some. “All I know is “gomenasai,”” Kristine said. “It seems to be useful.” (It is.) I taught her how to say “do you speak English,” “do you have an English menu,” “does this train/bus/streetcar/tram go to (wherever),” that kind of thing. I also explained the finer points of, um, pointing to the things you want to buy, including the ever useful, “I want that (point for emphasis).” They didn’t have a small, pocket guide to the language, so I gave them my back-up Lonely Planet book, for which they were grateful. I was grateful too — it’s 225g I don’t have to carry around anymore.

Todd and Kristine were going to the Mazda plant for a tour, which sounded like fun, but I decided I’d rather hang around Hiroshima for the day. My train to Hakata wasn’t until 16:34, and we made it back to the city at 11:20. We parted ways, and I went looking for a locker to dump my stuff in. For Y600, I was able to get everything — everything! — into a giant locker at Hiroshima station and wander the city carrying nothing on my back for the first time in.. a long time, I realized, because I discovered how many accessory muscles hurt now that I didn’t have weight on my shoulders. Pectorals, deltoids, triceps, biceps, intercostals.. it was unbelievable. Everything hurt. Everything. I was half-assedly thinking about availing myself to my hotel’s massage services once I got to Narita on Thursday afternoon; on the basis of today’s experience, I’m thinking about it a lot more seriously.

So I wandered around Hiroshima for a while, had lunch, got bored. Sat in a park and read the Japan Times cover to cover (learned about a photo contest I’ll be entering as soon as I get home), and ate oranges. Went back to the station and meandered through the Asse department store. (Seriously: Best. Name. Ever. Though it’s a testament to the length of time I’ve been here that I didn’t even think about this being pronounced as anything other than “ah-say.”)

Caught Hikari 367 to Hakata. There’s something about the shinkansen that makes me very sleepy. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m willing to bet it has something to do with the gentle rocking motion of the train. Granted, I didn’t sleep all that well last night, so maybe I was just tired, but I think there’s something to this theory, since every train I’ve taken has seemed to feature at least 1/4 of my car fast asleep. We pulled through some frighteningly industrial parts of Japan — Tokuyama, for instance, doesn’t seem to be anything other than a giant chemical plant. I’m serious! I couldn’t see anything other than industry, industry, industry, and in particular industry of the type that makes environmentalists go bonkers simply because it looks so damned polluting. Tokuyama’s factories — well, factory, I guess — was one of those maze-of-pipes deals, with stacks and a flare and enough tall columns that made me think I was looking at some kind of refinery. (So to be fair, I’m sure that Tokuyama’s industry probably is very polluting.) I must have missed the part about the underwater tunnel from Honshu to Kyushu, or else it got lost in the myriad of tunnels you pass through on that segment of rail line.

Arriving in Hakata was kind of anticlimactic. It was pretty dark by the time we got to the station, and I was underwhelmed. The funny thing is that this is ancestral ground for me — my dad’s mother’s family comes from this neck of the woods. Granted, the last one immediately related to me left in 1914 or so, so the connecton is tenuous at best, but still. Amusingly, I did not come to Fukuoka for that reason — I came to Fukuoka because it’s the end of the line for the shinkansen, and I thought it might be interesting to stop here for a night rather than just push straight on to Nagasaki.

By the time I made it to my ryokan, it was raining. Are you surprised? I got my four good days of weather, and I got a killer sunset last night on Miyajima, and the deal I made was “stay nice until Sunday, and then you can go to pot.” And that’s more or less exactly what happened. Which is too bad, because Fukuoka is supposed to be a hell of a party town, though frankly I don’t know if I had the energy to do anything other than collapse. Needing food, I asked the ryokan-keep for suggestions. “Try Canal City,” he said, referring to the giant mall complex a couple blocks away. “Walk to end of block, turn reft, and rook for rasers.” Look for what? Lasers? “Can’t miss.”

“Yeah, but –”

“Can’t miss it. Raser right.” I know it’s mean to snicker about this kind of thing, and after two weeks you’d think I’d be pretty inured to it, but it was a funny conversation.

He wasn’t kidding. Canal City has managed to fashion itself into something of Fukuoka’s main tourist attraction, which strikes me as a little strange given that it’s nothing but a really big mall. It’s like, if you went to Vancouver, and asked someone for recreational or sightseeing activities, and they said, “Oh, why don’t you head out to Metrotown?” (Whoops! Did that one already!) The effect overall is very North American — kind of like Vegas, and I’m not just saying that because of the (a) SEGA “gaming” parlor (really a thinly veiled casnio, but without the legalized gambling, only you can gamble) and (b) Bellagio-esque water fountain displays. Glen Miller and Peter Gunn. Can’t beat it.

Blew a couple hundred yen playing Japanese video games that don’t make any sense and yet were strangely fun anyway; my favorite, I think, was the one where you have to bang on a taiko drum in synch with dots on the screen. I have no idea what the point is, but if you do it right there’s a nifty beat that emerges. (You can see this game in Lost in Translation.) Several younger Japanese youths were taking their turn on a boxing simulator (put on a glove, throw a punch, and.. well, I don’t know what happens next, since they all got three punches and lost). Finally broke down, after two weeks of seeing signs advertising “Pachincko and Slot” places, and played a little pachincko — the appeal of which, I’m sorry, is totally lost on me. Except for the illegal gambling aspect of it, I mean. How and why an otherwise interesting bunch of people will sit, lab-rat-like at a pachincko terminal for hours is a total mystery. I don’t get it.

I had dinner at a teppan place that also specialized in okonomiyaki, which has been described as the Japanese version of pizza. This is a stupid description. It’s much more like a pancake with a lot of stuff thrown in for good measure. Mine had shrip, squid, shellfish, and something else in it along with the staples of cabbage and other vegetables, and it was very, very good. My last exposure to okonomiyaki came years ago, when I was very young, and I remember it as being way too savory for my tastes back then; either it was badly done, I misremember, or my tastes have changed, because this was awesome. I’m going to have to learn how to make it myself.

Note for potential visitors to Japan: If you really want to impress your waitress and the guy who cooked your food, make a point of telling them, “Kore wa oishii deshita!” before you leave. The waitress’ eyes got about the size of dinner plates, and she bowed very, very deeply. I don’t know why — did they spit in it? Was it supposed to be gross? This puzzles me. (This was also maybe only the second time I’ve wished that you can tip in this country. Which made me realize that back home I tip because I’m expected to, not because I think the service is all that spectacular. The attitude here seems to be “this is my job, and I’m going to do it in as excellent a manner as I can, and I get paid for it so I don’t expect anything extra.” I’m not going to say “in stark contrast to Canada, where…” but by all means feel free to think it. The service is superb, and the food is universally good, so I’ll let you wonder what might warrant special recognition. (Yes, the okonomiyaki was that good. Wow.)

After searching for the better part of a year, I finally found a pair of red shoes. Yes, I had to come halfway around the world, but I found them. I have, for those of you who didn’t know, been looking for a pair of red leather shoes, and when I say “red,” I don’t mean “burgundy.” I mean “red.” Shut up. Anyway, I finally found a pair that were exactly what I wanted, so I went into the shoe store, and pointed. “Uhhh.. shoes o kudasai,” I said, unable to remember the word for shoes. (Which turns out to be kutsu.) “Hai, hai,” the salesdude said. A string of rapid-fire Japanese followed, wherein he probably extolled the features of the shoes, and the viritues of owning them, but that’s just a guess. Then he looked at my feet. His eyes went wide. “Ohhhh! Ashi wa totte mo okii desu yo!” I was pretty sure I knew what he was saying, but felt I needed to make certain, so I gave him a blank look. “Feet!” he managed. “Too big! Not fit too big feet!” He gestured, making the international sign for “huge” with his hands.


Here are some random things I’ve been meaning to write about for a while:

  • In Hiroshima I encountered a species of rice boy even more pathetic than the ones we have in Canada. I’m sure you’re familiar with the kids who buy Civics and whatnot and then add 25 pounds of vinyl tape, 8-inch exhaust tail pipes, cut their springs, and generally spend more time making their car look good than worrying about performance. Well, the kind I ran into here is a bike rice boy. He rides a motorbike that looks an awful lot like the crotch-rockets many of my MVA patients seem to ride, except.. there’s something weird about the engine noise. It sounds like it’s coming through a coffee-can muffl–hey, wait a minute, that’s a 50cc engine noise! I have no idea whether this was a 50cc engine or not, but there’s no way it was more than about 150. None at all. I know what those things sound like; this was not it. And then I looked a little more closely and realized that everything on the bike was aftermarket accessory, and moreover didn’t really do anything. (Here’s a tip: I’m pretty sure that having rivets on your exhaust pipe doesn’t help your performance.)
  • I’m totally shocked by the amount of weird muzak here. At Hiroshima station I encountered a muzak version of Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground. What the hell? The Japanese seem to be very heavily into lounge music right now; I’ve run into a lot of Sinatra and Tony Bennett, as well as a great deal of 1950s rock hits. One corner of Hiroshima station seems to play a muzaked “Stand By Me” over and over again (that can’t possibly get irritating at all). “Eruvis,” as he is known around here, is also very popular. This confuses me: You’d think they’re going to figure out Jesus Jones next week, but then you realize that it’s not because they’re behind on their music imports — this is a choice.
  • Canal City has this thing called “Raumen Stadium” which sounds a lot more like Iron Chef than it is in real life. Seriously, it’s eight ramen noodle stands within about a 50 foot radius of each other, and I would have had dinner there except that the whole place had an awful smell, kind of like simmering pork stock crossed with bleach. I can’t stand the smell of pork stock (which is why I don’t make it) and when you throw bleach into the mix.. yecch. Instant appetite killer. (Later, while wandering around Nagasaki, I encountered the same smell around ramen joints, which makes me think it’s a property of the noodle joints themselves rather than the locale.)
  • Something I’m going to miss when I get home: The amount of neon and strobe lighting they have here. I’m sure that if I were epileptic I’d feel differently about this, but the number of stores that use strobes as part of their advertising is great. It’s sparkly! It’s pretty! It’s not nearly as awful as it seems!
  • Something else I’m going to miss: Nobody here seems to care if you drink in public. Beer, I mean. There also doesn’t seem to be a prohibition on drinking early in the day — try ordering a beer before noon back home, and see how many dirty looks you get. (I have not, however, tried to publicly drink beer in the morning.) It’s a non-issue here, which is kind of nice, as opposed to a sign of a problem. Even when it’s very clear you’ve been up all night, and have been waiting since you came off-shift at 06:30 for the pub to open at 11:00 so you can have a few before going to bed. Yeah, that explanation doesn’t go over very well. They still think you’re a drunk.