Along the river in Kitakyushu. This was first first day I’d stumbled upon the cherry blossoms (さくら) lining the river. I wish I’d found it a few days earlier. The trees were starting to go green and the petals had been falling. Still, it looked fantastic, and it made for a lovely walk. 7.4.14
Travelling in Japan is, in general, very expensive. However, if you are a foreigner, you are eligible to purchase a JR rail pass, or Japan Bus Pass, exclusively available to those outside the country. I had purchased the latter; the 3 day pass that had cost 10,000 yen (around £60, 4300php). The pass allowed me to travel three journeys on Willer Express busses on non-consecutive days within two months of purchase. I only ended up using two, travelling to and from Kyoto. Nevertheless, the pass saved me around 5000 yen (around £30, 2150php), so it was obviously worth the money.
The bus to Kyoto reminded me of my flight to Japan, as I was uncomfortable for most of the journey. This time it wasn’t necessarily the seat’s fault. The etiquette for the bus stated that passengers should notify the person behind them if they plan on reclining, but since I didn’t know the Japanese for it, I felt uncomfortable asking. My chair remained mostly upright. I gradually reclined over the course of the journey, in tiny increments so that the person behind me might not notice. It wasn’t enough.
I drifted in an out of sleep during the journey, jolting back to reality every time the bus turned on the interior lights and pulled up at a rest stop. three hours into the journey, I really needed to use the toilet, but since the person next to me wasn’t getting off, I didn’t’ want to bother him while he slept. I held it in for pretty much the whole journey, hoping to sleep so that I wouldn’t have to think about my desperation.
After the people behind me alighted the bus in Osaka, I reclined my chair all the way back, which allowed me a level of comfort I had not known the past few days. I stretched my arms and legs out, and finally managed to relax. As it was a night-bus, the curtains were closed to allow people to sleep. Since I had reclined, I was able to unhook the curtain and peer out a gap to catch glimpses of Kyoto. The bright light of morning stung my eyes. I alternated between trying to get some final moments of sleep, and trying to catch small glimpses of Japan. I couldn’t decide which option was more important. In the end I decided to try and rest.
The bus arrived almost exactly at the time advertised (it felt great to be in a country where public transport is so efficient). I collected my luggage, thanked the drivers, then crossed the road and entered Kyoto station. My first port of call was obviously the toilets.
I decided my wandering could end. It was only an hour and a half until my bus, and my feet were aching so much that each step I took felt like treading on stones. I got back to the hostel and collapsed in to a chair at the bar. I ordered a plate of yaki soba for the second night in a row, and ate it slowly while exchanging a few lines of conversation with the woman who served me. Her English was decent, and I was able to understand most of the Japanese she spoke when she switched to it. She told me she had lived in Germany not long ago and asked where I was heading while in Japan. I told her I was travelling to Kyoto, tonight in fact.
I needed to kill time and rest before having to head out again and walk to the station again, this time dragging my suitcase with me. A few seats down from me was a man who I had seen in the bar yesterday. He had beer in front of him and was smoking a cigarette. I figured he must be a regular at the bar, but not someone who was staying in the hostel. After finishing my food I slowly drank the rest of my water while turning my attention to the TV. I couldn’t understand much of the actual program, but it was the adverts I found most fascinating. Adverts are simple. You can always understand the ‘plot’. And it’s interesting to see how different countries market to their people. With half an hour to go before my bus, I paid my bill and collected my suitcase. I walked back to the station the way I had come on my first day in Japan. It wasn’t the quickest route, but it was a route I knew.
The bus stop was on the other side of the station. I stood outside the building where the bus was supposed to pull up. I had passed a woman in a Willer Express jacket which reassured me that I was on the right track. She had been saying something about the bus in Japanese, but I couldn’t understand what it was. I also couldn’t understand why I seemed to be the only one waiting there. After ten minutes the bus appeared around the corner. Finally, I’d be able to sit down. But it passed where I was standing and stopped a hundred meters up the road. So that‘s what she was talking about. Grabbing my suitcase, I rushed up the road to the actual bus stop. I was glad I’d got there early. If not, I might not have found the bus.
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I decided to head to the arcade above the bus terminal in Hakata station. I had been wandering around for hours and needed a nice sit down. The arcade seemed like the best place. I could rest my feet but exercise my fingers playing Super Street Fighter 4.
It had been a while since I‘d played the game, and my diminished skills became apparent when new challengers appeared. Disappointingly, I lost to everyone I played. This wouldn’t have happened a year ago, no sir. I had a really good match with a person who was sitting right next to me. I was two rounds down, but managed to pull it back to two all, before ultimately losing. It was an exciting showodnw, and I looked to my right to see if my opponent had also acknowledged it. His expression was blank and his eyes were aimed straight forward. A little disappointed, I left the machines and went to buy a capsule toy.
I was going to head back to the hostel early, but upon exiting the arcade I saw that the trees in the plaza in front of the station had all been illuminated with pink lights, creating a beautiful, glowing cherry blossom display. Descending the escalator, I could see numerous people with smart phones and cameras taking selfies, or photographing their friends and family under the pink glow of the trees. Other commuters, either with little time or interest, walked past, giving a cursory glance to those reveling under the trees.
Above the ‘Hakata Station’ sign at the front of the building, a wall display depicting cherry blossoms had been pasted on, surrounding the clock. I reached the bottom of the escalator and withdrew my camera.
Parents stood their children in front of the trees to take their picture, but the energetic children were not always compliant. Couples, linking arms or holding hands, photographed themselves under the pink glow of the manufactured sakura (さくら; cherry blossom).
I also saw one or two photographers. An elderly man was kneeling down with a tripod, aiming his camera along a row of trees, focussing on the clock. A young child, carried by her mother, exclaimed ‘kirei’ (きれい; pretty). She wasn’t wrong.
I lingered around the plaza, taking photos and people-watching. Half an hour later, I felt like I’d taken enough photographs and decided it was time to head back to the hostel. Thanks to the distraction, I’d gone from being early to being bang on schedule.
One the walk up to Kokura Castle, Kitakushu. 1.4.14
"The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education." - Martin Luther King Jr.
On my second day in Japan, there was a moment where I saturated myself in embarrassment. A man approached me brandishing his camera phone, of course speaking in Japanese. I was taken off guard, and couldn’t quite make out all he was saying to me, but I heard the word shashin (しゃしん), which means ‘photo’. Wait, does he want me to take a photo with him? Surprised by the fact I was being spoken to, let alone the request, I quickly spun the roulette wheel of Japanese responses I had in my had, and for some stupid reason, it landed on ’eh, nandeeeee?’(え、なんで？), elongating the last syllable like a fucking contrary school girl. Damn. Even as I was saying it I felt like an idiot. Why was this thing the first thing that came to my head? Come on, you’re so much better than this, I thought.
The man and his two friends giggled. I didn‘t blame them. He repeated his question and motioned to his friends. Oooohhh. It was then I realised that he wanted me to take a photo OF him, not WITH him. Feeling like a cretin, I explained that my Japanese was not very good . They understood. I think they realised that as soon as the first few syllables started pouring fro my mouth. I took their photo and handed him back his camera. He thanked me, and in English wished me a nice day. In English I wished the same for him. His friends giggled again.
We parted ways. I walked off, mentally kicking myself. I was glad they took my response as humorous, rather than rude. Now whenever they see that photo they will think of the silly, camp-sounding kid who took it. Ah, well. Nothing to be done. At least I gave them a laugh. I walked on to Canal City, determined not to make another mistake for the rest of my journey (a futile idea when in a foreign land).
Sakura along the river in Kitakyushu. 9.4.14
Whilst in the food hall of Hakata Station I wandered around. Each stall was stocked with one appealing dish after another; each shop keeper greeting me with irasshaimase (いらっしゃいませ) as I walked passed. I gave a gentle bow of the head to each one.
I was still nervous about speaking to people. I had been leaning Japanese for two months prior to my trip, and I felt that I should be able to understand basic shop-keeper conversation. But of course, not everything brought up in general conversation is taught in textbooks. Nevertheless, I felt I should have been better than I was, and this guilty feeling made me apprehensive about talking to people making mistakes. However, I was hungry, and I needed to find something easy to eat and easy to pronounce.
I stopped by a stall selling various pieces of meat on large cocktail sticks, and bought a piece of momo (もも), as it was the easiest name to read. As I walked back through the halls to the entrance I took a bite of my purchase. I wasn’t sure what I ad actually bought, but it tasted like chicken (and I found out later that it was, indeed, chicken). I looked up and noticed an oncoming man giving me a little glare. I’d forgotten, the Japanese don’t often eat and walk. Feeling that I’d made a faux pas, I quickly finished off the rest of the meat and stuffed the stick back in the plastic container, and the container in to my backpack.
The momo wasn’t enough. I decided to go into a shop selling bento and buy more food. Still not feeling comfortable with my Japanese, and not wanting to hold up the line, I lingered around the fridges, slowly deciding what to buy and observing the ordering procedure. In the end I decided to buy some karaage and a couple of onigiri, then left the station to find somewhere to sit and eat. I walked up to a local sightseeing map and noticed a park not too far from where I was. Thinking that sitting and eating in a nicely landscaped area would be a lovely way to kill time, so I set off and found it after a ten minute walk.
Japanese maps really should mark all parks in green, especially when the ones they are mapping are completely comprised of a dirt field, like the one I arrived at. A group of teenagers in sportswear were having a kick about on the pitch. Nearer the road, people sat on benches eating their lunch or reading a newspaper. Disappointed as I was with the lack of any vegetation, I decided to follow suit and took my place on one side of a small, stone ampetheatre.
Doraemon statues outside Hakata Station. 10.4.14.