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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lunar New Year: Fukuoka

Early morning street scene near our hotel

In retrospect, it might've been better to have spent our last night in Kagoshima 鹿児島 rather than going to Fukuoka 福岡. I'd been to Fukuoka a couple of times before, and while the city, with its many restaurants, department stores and nightlife spots, would be a great place to live and work, in terms of sightseeing attractions there isn't a whole lot to see (though the metropolis makes an excellent base for traveling around Kyūshū 九州). Our flight back to Shànghăi wasn't until the late afternoon on Monday, meaning we could've stayed longer in Kagoshima to see more of the city. But the girls had never been to Fukuoka (and for my daughter, this was only her second trip to Japan), and so we decided to spend our last night and day of our Lunar New Year break there. 

A short walk from our hotel is Fukuoka's oldest Shintō shrine, Kushida-jinja 櫛田神社, founded in 757. Though the grounds are small, the shrine contains a number of buildings and other things to look at:

A ceremony for a large group of visiting students was being held at the main hall:

Kishida-jinja is the home of Fukuoka's Hakata GionYamakasa 博多祇園山笠 festival, held every July 1-15. During the festival, seven teams careen through the streets pulling one-ton floats while being doused with water by spectators. After the festival is over, all but one of the floats are destroyed; the survivor is displayed for a year at the shrine:

Another veteran float from the Gion Yamakasa Festival can be seen in the Kami-Kawabata-Dōri 上川端通り covered shopping arcade, which we strolled through after exiting the shrine. As it was still only mid-morning on a Monday, the covered, pedestrian-only street was still quiet:

Across the road from the arcade is the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum 福岡アジア美術館, located on the 7th and 8th floors of the Hakata Riverain shopping complex. The collection is small but contains interesting works of contemporary art from 23 countries and regions from across Asia. Unlike most museums in Japan, this one is open on Mondays:

I Love Tienanmen Square, Beijing by the Luo Brothers (China), 1996-97

Study for Little Bird by Dhruva Mistry (India), 1984

Calendar Poster for Cosmetics Company, Kwona Sana Hona Ltd. by Hang Zhiying/Zhiying Studio (China), 1920-30's

Amber and Pamela try out a fully-kitted Bangladeshi rickshaw:

My daughter in particular enjoyed the museum as there were several interactive displays, plus opportunities to do some coloring. Here she is manipulating a couple of keyboard pads to change the movements of patterns on the dishes in the display cabinet. The commands she input also altered the lighting and sound:

The view from the 8th floor of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum

Feeling hungry after visiting the museum, we returned to Kami-Kawabata-Dori, which was now busy with lunchtime patrons. Lunch for me was a yakiniku set 焼肉:

The three of us split up after lunch - Amber and Pamela returned to Canal City キャナルシティ to do some window shopping, while I took a walk through Fukuoka's somewhat sleazy but always interesting (at night) Nakasu 中洲 district, though a dead zone on a Monday afternoon. After meeting up again back at the hotel, we retrieved our bags, took the subway to Fukuoka Airport 福岡空港 and watched with bemusement while the Chinese passengers tried to find space in the overhead luggage bins for all the electric rice cookers they'd purchased in Fukuoka. Despite numerous articles in the press in recent months on Ugly Chinese traveling overseas, the Japanese police didn't need to board the plane and take away any passengers, and we returned to Shanghai on time.

Throughout our brief stay in Kyushu, I was reminded over and over again of the importance to the regional economy of tourists from China, South Korea and Taiwan. Many of the sightseeing attractions we visited offered information in Korean and Mandarin Chinese (simplified characters for the Chinese tourists, traditional ones for the Taiwanese visitors), while many shops posted multilingual signs offering discounts and tax rebates for foreign-passport holders. We encountered Mandarin-speaking visitors in many places, though fortunately we did not witness any bad behavior, most likely due to the fact that a.) most of the tourists were traveling in small groups of families or friends and not in large tour group herds; and b.) judging from the way they were speaking Mandarin, many appeared to have come from Taiwan. Kyushu has gone out of its way to make these visitors feel welcome; last Sunday evening, when the strap broke on Pamela's old suitcase and my wife went into Canal City to buy a new one, she was attended to by a Chinese clerk who had grown up in Japan. The visitors return the favor by buying tons of stuff; at the airport we saw Chinese checking in lots of large boxes (as well as carrying on the aforementioned rice cookers). Westerners like to complain of the high cost of visiting Japan, which is something of a myth as it's no more expensive to get around the archipelago than it is to do the same in North America or Western Europe; we found eating out in Belgium last September to be far more costly than it was in Kagoshima or Fukuoka, for example. For those from China, however, where the taxes on imported luxury items are often prohibitive, Japan is a relative bargain.

As for me, I didn't do much shopping, but I did get to see some new areas of the country as well has enjoy some unusual experiences, such as witnessing a volcano erupt and getting buried in hot sand at a beach. The joys of driving were such that I hope to rent cars again on future trips and venture even further into the provinces. My next assignment will take me away from Asia, but as long as there's the family link to Taiwan, I think I'll be able to stop in Japan as well.

Sign for an entertainment establishment in Nakasu

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Lunar New Year: Kagoshima

Sengan-en 仙巌園

Kagoshima 鹿児島 may be dominated by the always-fuming volcano Sakurajima 桜島, but the city offers a handful of other sights for the traveling connoisseur. Unfortunately for us, time was limited, so on Sunday we decided to concentrate on Sengan-en, a beautiful garden-villa by the sea established by the Shimazu clan 島津氏, the feudal rulers of the Satsuma Domain 薩摩藩 and one of the driving forces behind the Meiji Restoration 明治維新. After checking out of our hotel, we walked in the rain to Kagoshima-Chūō Station 鹿児島中央駅 to catch the City View bus. Many Japanese cities have similar bus services, which stop off at the main sightseeing spots and are thus quicker than normal buses.

In front of Kagoshima-Chuo Station is a statue dedicated to a group of young students sent by the Shimazu rulers on a tour of the West as Japan's feudal era was coming to an end.

My daughter waits for the bus as a tram passes by. Kagoshima has an excellent streetcar system. 

Sengan-en is located about three kilometers from the city center, and it took us about 25 minutes to get there on the bus. Like many attractions in Kyūshū 九州, information was able in languages other than Japanese and English, such as Korean. My wife had a choice of pamphlets in either traditional or simplified Chinese characters, and being from Taiwan naturally opted for the former. Tourists from China, South Korea, Taiwan and other Asian countries are playing an increasingly important role in the regional economy. 

Tickets secured, the three of us entered Sengan-en and made our way toward the garden area. Amber stopped to admire some examples of daikon 大根 radishes, their gigantic sizes the result of the rich volcanic soil produced by Sakurajima:

Jambo-mochi 満模餅 are pounded rice cakes on sticks, and are coated with a choice of soy sauce しょう油 or miso 味噌 (or you can have both, as we did):

The garden is a delight, but the best reason to visit Sengan-en is to go on a guided tour of the former villa of the Shimazu family, an absolutely gorgeous example of a traditional Japanese home (think sliding paper screen doors and tatami 畳 mat floors), but with a couple of rooms containing Western-style furniture including armchairs and a dining room table (the villa once entertained a visiting Russian prince). The tour concluded with the provision of Japanese green tea 抹茶 and sweets, to be enjoyed in one of the tatami-mat rooms. Photography wasn't permitted indoors, so I could only get shots of the outside:

After the tour, we walked around the garden. While typical of many traditional Japanese gardens...

...Sengan-en also has a number of unique touches, such as palms (the climate in Kyushu is generally warmer than in other parts of Japan save for Okinawa 沖縄, though it was still pretty cold at times while we were there)...:

...a large stream running through it...:

...and, in addition to its seaside location, probably the greatest use of "borrowed scenery" anywhere in Japan, the Sakurajima volcano:

A grove of bamboo trees

Oniwa-jinja shrine 御庭神社

While the girls browsed in some souvenir shops, I made the 15-minute walk uphill to check out views of a waterfall...:

...Kagoshima (note the train passing by)...:

...and, of course, Sakurajima, the top obscured by low clouds:

Satsuma Kiriko cut glass 薩摩切子 - beautiful, but expensive:

Rāmen noodles ラーメン for lunch:

What with the garden, the villa tour, lunch, shopping and a visit to the adjacent Shōko Shūseikan 尚古集成館 (included in the admission price to Sengan-en), an interesting museum dedicated to the Shimazu family and the early industrial history of Japan (and housed in the country's first factory, dating from the 1850's), there was precious little time to see any other attractions in Kagoshima. Which was a shame, because I would've liked to have seen the Reimeikan museum 黎明館 of local culture and history, the Museum of the Meiji Restoration 維新ふるさと館, Terukuni-jinja 照る国神 and the views from atop Shiroyama 城山. But our Lunar New Year holiday break was a short one (four nights), and we'd already done a lot - driving around Sakurajima, visiting the samurai house gardens of Chiran 知覧 and having ourselves buried up to our necks in hot volcanic sand on the beach in Ibusuki 指宿. It was time to move on, so we boarded the Kyushu Shinkansen 九州新幹線 at Kagoshima-Chuo Station for the approximately 100-minute ride on the bullet train to Hakata Station 博多駅 in Fukuoka 福岡:

I did bring a little piece of Kagoshima with me in the form of a bottle of Satsuma-imo さつまいも craft beer 地ビール called Satsuma 薩摩 Gold, made from sweet potatoes:

It was a ten-minute walk from Hakata Station (see photo below) to our lodgings for Sunday night, the Canal City Fukuoka Washington Hotel キャなるシティ・福岡ワシントンホテル, located within the Canal City shopping complex. While the hotel and room were perfectly fine (I've stayed at other Washington hotels in Japan), it wasn't my first choice for our one night in Fukuoka. I had a tatami-mat room in a minshuku 民宿 lined up, before Pamela learned that the bathroom and toilet facilities would be communal. With visions of having to be seen by other guests in her pajamas while walking down the corridor, she insisted we stay in something more..."faceless" or "sterile" were the first adjectives that came to my mind, but let's just say the Washington in Canal City was more "standard", and leave it at that (except that my daughter was disappointed to learn she wouldn't be sleeping on the floor in a futon 布団):

Feeling pretty hungry, we went looking through Canal City for a place to eat. Amber decided on a Moomin-themed restaurant for dinner. After being seated, a large Moomin was brought to our table to sit with us, while promos for Moomin movies played on the screen behind us. At least they had beer, probably for suffering fathers like myself. It was a uniquely Japanese female kawaii かわいい dining experience. For the few boyfriends in attendance at the restaurant that night, I hope they were rewarded later that evening (somehow, I doubt it, though):

My daughter enjoyed the fountains at Canal City. Every hour there is a performance, with the water jets going through various movements set to music. The one below was done to the theme from Peter Gunn:

Fukuoka is famous throughout Japan for its yatai 屋台, covered stands set up along the riverbank and offering ramen, yakitori 焼き鳥 and other treats, to be washed down, of course, with beer, sake 酒 or shōchū 焼酎, the latter being the traditional alcoholic drink of choice in Kyushu (though personally I don't care for it much). I've had the pleasure of sitting down in a Fukuoka yatai and talking baseball with the owner, but at this point the three of us were full from dinner and all the stands were crowded, so we contented ourselves with a stroll around the area:

The view from our hotel room


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lunar New Year: Chiran and Ibusuki

Chiran 知覧

All that driving around on Sakurajima 桜島 the day before must've had an effect on me, because that evening, back at the hotel and before going to bed, I decided that instead of using buses and trains to get around the next day as originally planned, we would rent another vehicle and drive to Chiran and Ibusuki 指宿, our intended day trip destinations. And so it came to pass that following breakfast on Friday morning, we strolled over to a nearby car rental agency, and for just ¥7020 (less than $60) we found ourselves behind the wheel of a Nissan. With an easy-to-program GPS (just enter the phone number of your destination, choose a route and off you go), it was easy drive out of Kagoshima 鹿児島 and to the small town of Chiran

A Doll Festival 雛祭り display at Chiran tourist information center

Chiran was the site of an airfield that served as a base for the kamikaze 神風 suicide pilots during the last phases of the Second World War. There's now a museum commemorating the young men whose lives were so tragically wasted, but as much as I wanted to visit it, with a nine year-old in tow it probably wouldn't have been the best choice for a family outing:

Instead we took advantage of the fact that Chiran is also home to a cluster of samurai houses 武家屋敷 dating back to the 18th century. The houses are still occupied and thus can't be entered, but seven of them have opened up their gardens for the public to come in and have a look. Most of them consist of plants and rocks designed to conjure up images of Chinese landscape paintings, with the Japanese twist of using nearby hills as "borrowed scenery". All seven are evocative of a time before Japan was forced to open up to the Western world in the mid-19th century:

No. 1 - the garden of Saigō Keiichirō 西郷恵一郎:

No. 2 - the garden of Hirayma Katsumi 平山克己:

No. 3 - the garden of Hirayama Ryōichi 平山亮一:

No. 4 - the garden of Sata Mifune 佐多実舟:

No. 5 - the garden of Sata Tamiko 佐多民子:

No. 6 - the garden of Sata Naotada 佐多直忠:

No. 7 - the garden of Mori Shigemitsu 森重堅:

All that garden appreciation soon worked up an appetite, so the three of us had lunch at a restaurant specializing in soba そば and udon うどん noodle dishes:

On this trip Amber carried a monkey on her back in the form of Calpis Soda カルピスソーダ:

Back in the car and eschewing the coast road, we drove inland, stopping at one point to admire the view looking down on Ibusuki...:

...and the familiar shape of Kaimon-dake 開聞岳, a 922 meter-high mountain that I would've hiked had I been going solo on this trip:

At Pamela's suggestion, we made a brief stop at Lake Ikeda 池田湖, the largest lake in Kyūshū 九州 and home to Japan's own version of the Loch Ness Monster, Issie イッシー. Amber checked out one unconfirmed sighting of the creature:

It was mid-afternoon when we rolled into Ibusuki, a seaside/hot spring resort town that was unsurprisingly quiet on a chilly day in late February. 

Ibusuki is most famous in Japan for sand baths 砂むし. How it works is that you buy a ticket and change into a yukata 浴衣, then walk down to the beach, where attendants bury you up to your neck in hot (over 50°C), black volcanic sand. As we couldn't take pictures, here is what it ideally looks like:

Despite an initial bout of nerves, the experience proved to rather enjoyable. At first it felt like being entombed in concrete, but once I established that I would be able to move my arms and legs, I could lie back and let the warmth sink in. Because of the cold weather and the threat of rain, all the sand bathing took place under cover, with bathers lining up and waiting for a spot to become free:

After the suggested ten minutes were up (though you can lie there for as long as you like), we trooped back into the Saraku 砂楽 bathhouse to wash of the sand, and then relax in the hot spring. All is right with the world when soaking in a Japanese onsen 温泉:

We followed the coast for the return trip to Kagoshima, stopping at one point to admire the view of Sakurajima, still puffing away in the dimming daylight:

I spent the Nineties living in Tōkyō 東京, and it was that intense urban experience that first defined what life in Japan meant for me. In 2004-2005, however, my wife and I lived in Yokkaichi 四日市, a suburban city within commuting distance of Nagoya 名古屋, where most people got around by car and did their shopping at large (by Japanese standards) shopping malls with plenty of parking spaces. In many of my travels throughout Japan in the years since, I've spent time in a number of similar small cities and large towns, and the drive back to Kagoshima was a familiar one, as I recognized many of the shops and restaurants that lined the highway as we approached the city (some of which would be unfamiliar to residents of Tokyo, Ōsaka 大阪 and other major metropolises). 

Back in Kagoshima, we filled up the Nissan at a gas station and returned it to the car rental agency, then walked over to the shopping plaza connected to Kagoshima-Chūō Station 鹿児島中央駅. Dinner was tonkatsu とんかつ, a favorite of Amber's and mine:

At the end of an enjoyable day we returned to our home for the three nights we stayed in Kagoshima, the Hotel Gasthof ホテルガストフ. The triple room could barely contain the three of us and our things, but it was comfortable, and only five minutes' walk from Kagoshima-Chuo Station. Plus the hallways had a funky period ambiance to them:

One of the products for which Kagoshima is noted is sweet potatoes, known in Japan as Satsuma-imo サツマイモ (Satsuma 薩摩藩 being the name of the former feudal domain that included Kagoshima). While on our drive around Sakurajima the day before we purchased two Satsuma-imo products, one a jam (sweet, sticky and delicious) and the other a craft beer 地ビール, the latter serving as a nightcap for this Friday: