Dateline: Japan, 2004. My second visit to the Land Of The Rising Sun, as The Belated Birthday Girl and I run around Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Kagoshima, Matsuyama, Takamatsu and Hiroshima in fourteen days: an undertaking so mammoth it requires two pages to cover it. Part One: Fukuoka to Matsuyama.
Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/03/2005
1. Saturday 6th - Monday 8th November 2004 – Fukuoka
Here's a useful tip for British people for next Bonfire Night - try to be on a plane at around 8pm. You'll get to be in the air looking down on all the firework displays in your town going off at once, tiny bursts of light erupting below you as far as the eye can see. It doesn't matter where the plane's going to - but in our case, it's going via Osaka to Fukuoka in the West of Japan, for the start of a somewhat overambitious two week holiday. We're scheduled to up sticks and move to another city every two days, working our way in a big anticlockwise loop round the west of the country: starting and ending in Fukuoka, and taking in five other cities along the way. Still, the journey there (via Japan Airlines) is enjoyable enough, except for the domestic Osaka - Fukuoka flight, where The Belated Birthday Girl notices that all the Caucasians on the plane have been put in the seats by the emergency exits. Either they're being nice and giving us legroom, or they're treating us as expendable.
By the time we arrive at the Kashima Honkan inn in Fukuoka, it's nearly 10pm, meaning we only have time for a quick izakaya meal before we crash out. The next morning is a first for me, as the only bathing facilities are communal: so I grit my teeth and prepare to spend time with naked men I've never met before. As it turns out, there's only one in the bath when I get there. But as I have a pre-bath shower, my nose suddenly starts bleeding. This is a social nightmare for many reasons, not least because in manga comics nosebleeds are a symbol of sexual arousal, meaning that as well as looking disgusting I'm about to share a bath with a naked man while displaying the symbolic equivalent of a hard-on. Luckily, he's left by the time I've cleaned up in the shower, and the rest of the bath passes without incident.
We only have time for a day's worth of sightseeing on this leg, so we make it count. First to Tochoji Temple, famous for a huge Buddha statue (with some great photos of its construction) and a lovely exhibition which shows you pictures of the various hells before a journey through a pitch-black tunnel that leads you to, literally, the light of Buddha at the far end. Next is the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum, which has lots of items of local interest - there's a heavy focus on the fifteen-day Yamakasa Festival, with a video showing huge numbers of men carrying enormous floats while everyone else chucks water at them to cool them off. Just over the road from there is the Kushida Shrine, most notable at this festival time for the children aged three, five and seven that come here in traditional costumes to get their picture taken. Lots of photogenic buildings and statues, and that whole shrine maiden look is, frankly, pretty hot.
Lunch at Curry Honpo, which is a yakicurry restaurant - curry dishes with rice, egg and pickles all baked in a pot - and then to the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. There are so many exhibitions taking place, it's hard to keep track. The standard collection follows the history of modern Asian art quite closely, pointing out that in the early days artists were showcasing the more exotic elements of their culture for western buyers: the turning point came when they started making art for themselves instead. An exhibition of modern Thai pieces is interesting but too diverse to make any impact - though I did like the automated religious statue where the top of its head comes off as it bows. There's also a digital art fair with some amusing noise-making machines and the latest in games and video technology.
The rest of the afternoon is spent on a shopping binge. Robosquare is dedicated to robotic toys and the like - the scariest thing on display is a Hello Kitty robot, with voice recognition, USB 2.0 and colour-changing whiskers, officially on sale Monday for nearly half a million yen. We hit Tower Records for some browsing and a couple of DVD purchases, then off to manga superstore Mandarake, where I pick up a wee plastic Steamboy toy from a slot machine for two hundred yen. (It's compensation for missing Katsuhiro Otomo's new movie on the flight over - it was only showing in Business Class.) Dinner at chain restaurant Tenmujin is a slight disappointment, but a quick nibble at one of the riverside stalls acts as a happy bonus (especially as tourist information seemed to think that all of them would be closed on Sundays).
2. Monday 8th - Wednesday 10th November 2004 - Nagasaki
The train to Nagasaki is the usual scarily reliable journey you expect from Japan Rail. Looking for lunch when we arrive, we end up at a reasonable little place in one of the backstreets just over the road from the station, as suggested in one of the guidebooks. We have champon, the local speciality: a soup with noodles, seafood and all manner of other goodies floating in it. From there it's on to the Nishikiso, which is a perfectly fine inn apart from being at the top of an enormous stone staircase.
After an hour or so to recover, we get the streetcar to Glover Garden, a beautifully kitsch collection of old houses that used to be owned by a number of Brits, still with all the exotic Western furniture inside. It's quite fun, and the views of Nagasaki from the top are breathtaking. Back in town, we find that - especially in Chinatown - Monday appears to be the night off. We get dinner at one of the few Chinatown restaurants that's open (Kairakuen), and even that closes behind us when we leave at nine. A wander round the less salubrious parts of our area shows they're just coming to life, with dubious young women hanging around every street corner. (At some point I need to find out what 'snack' really means when you see it on bar signs.) Instead, we go home for an early bath and observe the splendid view from our window, dominated by streams of taxis coming in and out of the red light district. The BBG insists I'm too observant and too cynical at the same time.
Next day, we're off for a morning's temple strolling. We take in the traditional route that starts at Sofukoji and finishes at Kofukoji, with several minor ones in between (which don't charge for entry, which is presumably why only the first and last ones tend to be mentioned in guide books). It's all very pretty and enlightening and all, but I suspect that all the stone steps we're climbing kick off the first in a series of bad back episodes I have throughout the day. After a quick swing by the Spectacles Bridge (which luckily has enough water running under it today to live up to its name), we plan to have lunch at Gohan, a hip-sounding restaurant recommended in Frommers, which is run by an English-speaking musician. Unfortunately, Frommers forgot to mention that Tuesday is their day off. However, the Hustle Heart cafe down the road proves to be a good alternative, with a cool-looking proprietor who's impressed by The BBG's Japanese-speaking skills.
After that, the obligatory trip to the various sites commemorating what Nagasaki is, sadly, most famous for. The Peace Park is a slightly tacky collection of peace monuments from around the world, but there's no denying the impact of the huge statue at its centre. Touchingly, a choir of schoolchildren is performing a song in front of it as we get there, the effect only slightly marred by their taped backing cutting out every ten seconds or so. It's a short walk from there to the hypocentre, where no amount of rubble or photos can get across the sheer level of devastation that took place in 1945. To get that, you need the Atomic Bomb museum, which has three main sections - documentary evidence of the history of the city up to the dropping of the bomb, a shocking collection of artefacts and photos relating to the aftermath, and a look at the history of the peace movement since then. There's almost too much to take in, even with what looks like the entire population of Japan's schools standing in front of us the whole time. The simple water and glass memorial to the dead proves to be a suitably reflective finale to this visit.
In the evening we head out to the Ropeway, a seven-minute cable-car ride up a mountain that has fabulous views across nighttime Nagasaki, with an almost Blade Runner feel. The BBG says it's one of the key things she wanted to show me here, and I don't blame her - it's terrific. But by now I've had three or four occasions where my bad back has caused me to stand around for ten seconds or so in public places pulling funny faces, so we decide on a relatively relaxed evening schedule. Dinner is at Kaze, a restaurant in the shopping centre at the top of Nagasaki station, specialising in things cooked on skewers. We both sit at the counter and order set meals: The BBG's is a selection pack of six types of fish, mine is a more prosaic collection of six lumps of beef, both are excellent. Then it's home to immerse my spine in hot water for half an hour or so.
3. Wednesday 10th - Friday 12th November 2004 – Kagoshima
A reasonable night's sleep seems to have sorted out the back problems at least temporarily, though not to the extent that I could emulate the guy from the ryokan who carries my suitcase on his head down two flights of stone steps to his car. We get to the station over an hour early, leaving time to down a slow coffee before heading out on an epic three stage journey by rail - normal train to Tosu, then a feeder train accompanied by a bento lunch, then the all-new Shinkansen for the final leg to Kagoshima. It has to be said that the latter is da shit, tearing through new tunnels to get us into the south of the country in no time. We head to the front of the train on arrival to take pictures of it, and are pleased to see at least four other Japanese people have had exactly the same idea.
We check in at the Nakazono Ryokan. Mr Nakazono is perfectly at home with westerners, and can even write things on the guide map upside down while he's explaining them to you. Our original plan to take an open-air bath at Furasato Onsen is scuppered by bad weather, but we take a boat trip out to Sakurajima island anyway to check out the lay of the land in preparation for the next day. From a distance it just looks like another hill with clouds on the top - it's only as you approach it via the ferry that you notice the clouds are coming directly out of the top, and are volcanic smoke. My first active volcano. Woo.
Dinner is at a terrific place called Tokyo Shokudou On The Table. A hip little joint with cool ambient sounds, a menu that steals from all over the place - I had the local black pork done Milanese style - and a genuinely friendly vibe, even when I smashed a glass on the table with my usual world-renowned hand-eye co-ordination. We even got to sit outside with a free drink at the end: not sure if the boss wanted to lure passers-by in with gaijin coolness, or if he thought it would be easier to clean up outside if I broke anything else.
An early start is required on Thursday for some volcano watching, so by 8.30am we're having a breakfast set in a splendid little coffee shop called Kahizanmai, where every wall is covered in shelves full of manga. Then we take the ferry over to Sakurajima again, and the organised bus tour of the island - it's pretty much the same as every other bus tour I've been on, with frequent stops for both photographic and shopping opportunities. In this case, most of them involve either big lumps of volcanic lava or giant radishes, the latter being one of Sakurajima's key exports. This is the first tour bus I've ever been on where the commentary mike has a karaoke function, allowing the tour guide to suddenly break into traditional songs of the area with untraditional amounts of reverb.
Then to the Rainbow Onsen, which is my first proper public bath experience. Actually, it's not bad at all. My main concern has always been, inevitably, what to do with my genitals - the guide books give conflicting advice. Based on the control group of four Japanese men I, er, studied during my forty minutes or so in there, it would appear that the younger men keep a washcloth clamped in front of them during every single moment that they're not waist deep in water, while the old guys just let 'em dangle. Me? I'm 41. My one minor faux pas is not taking advantage of the cold shower at the end to cool down, because I'm sweating like Jonathan King in Mothercare all the way through lunch at the Rainbow afterwards.
We catch the ferry back to Kagoshima, and then on to the Museum of the Meiji Restoration. After two weeks at the London Film Festival, it's a nice change to hear about a restoration that doesn't involve the Meiji dynasty being scanned into a big computer and then fixed up frame by frame. The highlight is a glorious son et lumiere show featuring robot versions of all the key players in this historical period, with a scarily mobile Saigo Takamori in the lead - he flaps his hands around on the ends of his arms, and has to turn his whole body whenever any other character speaks so we know we have to look at them. The rest of the museum actually has some genuinely good stuff, mostly driven by Kagoshima's pride in making contact with the West long before the rest of Japan, and the many innovations that resulted from that - Christianity, guns, koalas and so on.
Then back to Kagoshima-Chuo station, with delights including a giant Xmas tree (the first week of November appears to be the official start of Christmas here), an enjoyable big wheel ride, and a cinema. We see Blood And Bones, a new film starring our old chum Takeshi Kitano. Thankfully, screaming over-the-top family melodrama is one of those genres that works without subtitles. Though Kitano frequently plays morally suspect characters, it's rare to see him being such an out-and-out bastard as he is here. He beats up men, he rapes women, he can shove a red-hot coal into a man's face without picking up a scratch himself (which is handy, because in at least three or four cases the film uses facial disfigurements to help us keep track of who's who during the sixty year span of the narrative). Watchable, I guess - it certainly doesn't feel its 145 minute length overall - but there are several scenes that just go on far too long. One strange note: there's quite a lot of frontal nudity in the film, all of which has been covered up by the Japanese censor with clumsy grey blobs over the naughty bits. Maybe I should get one of those blobs for my next public bath.
4. Friday 12th - Sunday 14th November 2004 – Matsuyama
This morning's journey was always going to be the unknown quantity of the tour, but it actually works out sweet as a nut. We get the bus to Kagoshima Airport after no more than a ten minute wait, and find that the plane tickets that The BBG ordered by phone from England in Japanese are waiting for us, all spelt correctly and everything. She's cool. The flight to Matsuyama is on one of those rickety twin-propeller jobs that makes you think long and hard about the physics of flying, but the lovely weather and spectacular mountain views more than make up for it. From there it's a bus and streetcar ride to Dogo Onsen, which we reach just in time for our four pm check-in. The Hotel Patio Dogo belies the quaint amateurishness of its website by being a ruthlessly efficient nine-storey western-style hotel, where all the staff speak excellent English. From our room we can see directly into the communal areas of the Dogo Onsen bathhouse over the road, which is a little disturbing.
And after a quick stroll round the area, taking in the delightful mechanical town clock - based on scenes from Soseki Natsume's Bocchan, a book so closely associated with the town that it's left in hotel rooms like the Gideon Bible - we make our first visit to the bathhouse. After yesterday's experience, it isn't too much of a shock, apart from some confusion about how our higher-priced ticket works - it gets us a hired yukata and some relaxation time with tea and bickies afterwards. I take a washcloth in with me as recommended, and try balancing it on my head like the pros do, only to find that I haven't got quite enough hair to keep it up there. So I keep the washcloth by the side of the bath and everyone's happy. There are some smiles and nods at the token gaijin from the other bathers, but apart from that we don't really communicate. And the balance between coverers and danglers still appears to be 50-50, but not as age-defined as I first thought. Fiendishly, the local brewery has set up a beer restaurant over the road to catch bathers as they exit. It's stereotypical drinkers' food - I go for the Madonna set, which consists of chicken abused in four or five different ways - but really well done, and the beer is excellent.
There are only really two reasons to visit Matsuyama - the bathhouse, and the castle. With one of them ticked off the list, Saturday morning is dedicated to sorting out the other one. The castle is impressive in the standard way that Japanese castles tend to be, and (as is traditional) huge sections of it aren't even the original castle, but restorations undertaken in the late 20th century. The main point of interest - apart from the naughty young chap who yells out what sounds like a Hokkaido terrace chant from the topmost tower - is the uphill approach to the castle. We take the cable car up, and I make a mental note of picturesque sections to take photos of on the way down. The downward journey, however, is by chairlift - and any thoughts I may have had of using a free hand to take some pictures quickly disappear when I realise I don't really have a free hand, as it's spending too much time clutching for dear life to the chair pole. It's fun to see the old hands treating it as just a casual ride, though: smoking an illegal fag, scratching their ankles, loading film into cameras to get those pictures I was too much of a wuss to take.
We hit the Okaido arcade for lunch, and spend some time in Duke on what turns out to be the major CD buying binge of the tour. I pick up singles from old favourites Ringo Shiina and Yuki, and the Japanese edition of Eminem's Encore, but all my other purchases are guesswork. Nicotine are a noisier version of Busted who think that using the phrase "punk rock" in half their song titles will somehow give them Attitude: sadly, a high budget LA production job on their new album Session has removed any rough edges that may once have been there. More authentic scary noise can be found on a splendid compilation called Rock 'N' Roll Summit, featuring some familiar names like The 5678s and Guitar Wolf. Meanwhile, the shop's billing of the compilation 100 Flowers In Bloom 2 as "girly pop!!!" turns out to be joyously justified.
A circular trip round the city by tram (fascinating to see the tiny routes round the backs of the houses, and the way the level crossing gates go down no more than two seconds before the tram roars through), watching the sun go down over Dogo Park, and then it's back to the bathhouse. This time we go for the top price deal, and by God it's worth it: at the end of this session I'm so absurdly relaxed it's hard to believe. We have our own little private dressing room, access to a smaller, less crowded bath, free tea and rice ball snacks after, plus the chance to visit the special rooms formerly used by Soseki Natsume and the Emperor. The latter is rather fun, particularly as it transpires that the Emperor only ever used the bath a couple of times, and never used his personal lavatory at all. We go for a swift beer at the brewery restaurant, and The BBG is presented with some free Dogo bath salts, to celebrate our visiting there twice. It almost seems churlish to leave there and go to Oidenka down the road for dinner, but we do, and it's a very enjoyable tatami mat affair, though the food never really gets above the level of 'pretty good'.