We rocketed south to the province of Kyushu in our last bullet train with two goals in mind: to meet an old friend and set course for tropical Japan. Fukuoka city was our destination, located near the Saga region where Rob, the friend, resided.
Fukuoka is a modern coastal city that has strong international ties due to its proximity to Korea which is accessible by a few hours boat ride. Sadly, we didn’t get to make such a voyage – there was too much else to see in Nippon. The city’s appeal mainly lies in its nightlife, for it has a buzzing bar and red light district, as well as its yatai, or food stall area. We spent an evening among the city’s trendy residents munch-testing the yatai stalls positioned by the river and sipping mojitos. Mellow Japanese hip hop sounded through hidden speakers above the ambient chatter and distant karaoke. Meanwhile, heavily intoxicated salarymen stumbled out of taxis by the hundreds in search of their next vice, kimono-clad hostesses herding them with their matriarchal confidence.
We wanted to visit nearby Nagasaki, but inevitably my immune system conceded to the incessant climate change and sneezing of half the Japanese population, and so I was afflicted by the feared, devastating and endemic illness – man flu. The experience provided educational, however. Many are familiar with the image of an Asian citizen wearing a face mask. I’d always figured this was a preventative means of protecting oneself from pollution and germs. It turns out that in Japan, wearing a face mask is a considerate means of protecting others from catching your germs.
I didn’t wear a face mask…
With Fukuoka sussed out, it was time to meet Rob. A friend of a friend who I got to know through sporadic meetings, the odd conversation on MSN Messenger, as was the norm when we were teens, and eventually via the gym, Rob’s half Japanese and moved over a few years back to pursue a teaching career. A few, very fast years later, he’s a married man and has since moved from metropolitan Yokohama to settle in the Saga region with his lovely wife, Miho.
The original plan was to climb a volcano and marvel at how close we were to an explosive pore of the world. Conveniently, Mt. Aso erupted a few days prior and common sense dictated that we probably shouldn’t climb it. Instead, we would head on the path less travelled, for gaijin at least, and get a real taste of Japanese life in the country.
Pulling into Tosu train station and subsequently reuniting with Rob was a surreal experience. Finding a familiar face and shared Surrey accent in this foreign suburban town provided a jarring contrast to where we were and everything we’d done over the past weeks. Not only this, but being accompanied by my girlfriend and his new wife showed us very quickly that life had moved on since we last met.
Nonetheless, conversation flowed as soon as we jumped in his premium Toyota-brand car, covering the introductions and gaps in our lives as we drove into the green pastures of Saga. Rob would act as translator when necessary and I would probe Miho in questionable Japanese that sometimes worked, but mostly didn’t.
With the scenery turning to rice paddy fields, a call from Miho’s parents sparked the spontaneous decision to rendezvous for lunch. We were desperate to try more of the local cuisine and Miho’s family must have been curious about the foreigners that were being brought along. We stopped at a roadside udon restaurant, met by Miho’s extremely pleasant family, and enjoyed steaming bowls of thick noodles with crispy vegetable tempura. Altogether, the meal was an amusing affair. The bemused restaurateurs wondering how we got there was something, but watching Rob uphold himself among the in-laws was the main event.
Rewarding detour over, we were on the road again headed towards our main destination, the Yuutoku Inari shrine. I’d mentioned in the Kyoto blog that Japanese shrines have the disappointing tendency to attract hordes of tourists that completely detract from the zen-like ambience you expect to feel. It’s not difficult to head away from the headliners and find less visited ones, but the lack of information set up for foreign visitors means you rarely get to appreciate their significance. This shrine, however, was promised to deliver without the gawking crowds.
Located in Kashima, Miho’s hometown, Yuutoku Inari is a towering complex of individual shrines, ponds and gardens that rests on bold, criss-cross red supports. Surrounded by forest, it was the ideal place to catch Japan’s autumnal transition with the leaves turning to shades of mauve and yellow. And best of all, it was quiet but for the sweeping of white and orange robed attendees. This was the zen I wanted from Japanese temples.
The magic of the place was further reinforced when Miho explained a local legend in which a certain golden koi carp located there was said to be a god. I’d not seen a golden koi before, and was expecting to find a flat yellow fish. But as we looked into the pond, past the hundreds of spotted and black carp that followed us with their expectant gaping mouths, we found him. Hovering alone, past a miniature arched bridge, was the very same fish that Miho had met as a child. His colouring was something to behold, pale golden scales that reflected back the light of the surface. The fact that he grandly swam in an exclusive part of the pond gave him this superior aura, and my mind was left whirring, wondering just what if he was some sort of Shinto deity. Mystique aside, koi carp are impressive in among themselves, for they have been known to live for 225 years!
It was the approach to the shrine that lingers most in my memory, however.
As we walked, we passed through a parade of stalls that sold souvenirs and local delicacies. Miho was pulled to one side by one of the stall’s shopkeepers and she engaged in conversation. Naturally I couldn’t follow everything, but the smiles and laughs from the elderly couple made sense when Miho explained that she’d known them growing up. One of their products was satsumas, and they gave us a whole plastic bag at no charge to commemorate Rob and Miho’s wedding. Usually you would have to live in an area to get a sense of community when travelling, but thanks to our hosts, we’d gotten to interact with the locals in a more intimate sense.
Eventually, a unanimous decision was made that a group of twenty-somethings shouldn’t devote an entire day to culture and yet neglect another universally cultural pastime: drinking. We jumped in the car (Miho designated driver) for the nearby town’s sake street.
This potent liquid should be familiar, but sake is a wine produced from fermented rice that has been cleaned of its bran. Drank warm or cold, it was the cause of a fair few headaches throughout my voyage through Japan.
With various outlets to choose from and having no idea what I was ordering (I’m not exactly a connoisseur) I selected our brew based solely on the craftsmanship of the bottle, for it was blue. My cluelessness must have sent SOS ripples into the cups of the other custodians, for it was then that a clearly intoxicated soul with ruffled hair, bulging belly and artistic scarf stumbled over uninvited and insisted on paying for our drinks.
Refusal was not an option for this kind soul, for his generosity continued. Slurring incomprehensibly, this mystery drunkard grabbed my forearm with one arm and placed the other’s palm over my sake cup. He stood there, contently glazed eyes fixed on mine. Suddenly, the palm started circling, and as it did so, he finally revealed that he had the secret power to change the flavour of my sake.
Little did he know, I had no idea what it was supposed to taste like in the first place.
Eventually he relented and asked that I taste the liquid. I sipped and as expected, winced as the liquid burned the back of my throat. I humoured him, but this was unnecessary for the sake guru, magician, Jesus had started on the rest of the group. According to him, there are only five people in the world with this ability. According to him, this power can cure cancer.
So there it was, thanks to Rob and Miho’s hospitality, not only did we get under the surface of Japanese society, but we experienced the unknowable, mystical energies that surround sake brewing. Hey, a free drink’s a free drink.
A special thank you to Rob and Miho for taking Elise and I out for the day in rural Japan. While we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to eat the live squid, your hospitality knew no bounds and the rice crackers served us well on our flight to Okinawa. We hope to meet again in the very near future.