At 9:20 in the morning we are first vertically-packed Shinkansen green beans, then kings with power outlets, grabbing free seats all opportunistic, and in my seat is where I crack the first beer of the trip, gulping it so excitedly that I swallow handfuls of air and pay for it, kanpai! As the can drains we scream across the rails of Japan through the snow. It whips in February swirls off us like cream in coffee, tumbling around above the metal strings. I exit JR Hakata station in Fukuoka after a two-hour-and-change trip from Kobe and see a man waiting to catch us just outside the gates.
I figure he is a homeless guy who speaks a little English and is going to accost us for money, based primarily on his Winnie the Pooh stocking cap and slightly haggard appearance, but mostly it is the Winnie the Pooh stocking cap. But then he asks if we are Jessica from USA and it’s either a lucky guess or he runs the hostel we’ve booked. We follow him to his car, rain turning to snow and back right on the cusp of either. I sidle into the back seat of the two-door and come to realize it has been recently upholstered at Oily Rags Car Interior and Detail. In the side pocket I spot a manual called Introduction to Islam. The man runs a recently-opened guest house near downtown, which, he tells me, was rejected from being opened thirty-two times because of a “difficult to deal with” woman from the city health department. I am instilled with confidence. He has lived in the United States he tells me, in “Hawaii,” which I have since come to understand is indeed a United State. Such love he has for English and the Home of the Brave that he tells us his name is Ken, which he chose because he was tired of his “difficult” Japanese name, Kazuo. I want to suggest he just run with Kaz, but he seems to have enough to do.
He accompanies us to a local ramen shop, which is Priority One on our to-do list, a one-item chronicle that looks something like this:
It’s not that we’re not interested in tourism so much as we aren’t interested in Tourism, or what the city has identified as its totally unique things that are in fact so unique as to not represent the place they are located in at all.
After we park off-street, illegally, I watch Ken scavenge for change and consider offering to pick up his meal but don’t want to insult the guy. His insistence on driving us all over tarnation borders on the fanatical as it is.
Before we enter, we are treated to the rich history of this particular ramen shop and the few that surround it, all with exactly the same name: in the harsh, vanguard days of yore there was an “worker mutiny” which resulted in a mass exodus of employees leaving, new employees joining, other stores being started, and three literally identical ramen shops within less than a city block of each other. It was, apparently, “big news in Fukuoka,” a city which is passionate about nothing if not their Hakata ramen: chewy, straight ramen noodles in an almost opaque, creamy soup called tonkotsu, made from the heavy, extended boiling of crushed pork bones and collagen all thick and delicious.
The place we go to is family-style, and we’re seated around large tables like Arthur and his knights, or perhaps the annual church soup supper, heaping bowls brought out, topped with coin-sized chopped onions and thick, rich slices of dissolving pork. If you want more noodles–and this, the locals are quick to point out, is a Fukuoka original–you just shout “kaedama” and plunk down another buck: here comes another serving of noodles for your soup. The broth is rich and flavorful, and tableside you can add sesame seeds, strong red-colored pickled ginger–benishouga–or condensed soup mix. We eat what would end up being the first of four bowls of ramen, and I am surprised that even though I’m full I find myself shouting kaedama, freshly beset with nearly an entirely new bowl, squirreling it away into expanses of my stomach I barely knew existed but would become quite familiar with by the time I departed.
Our room at the guest house is an “extra” one, meaning that this section of the guest house used to be used as a sort of spare room and is not intended to harbor guests. Tonight Ken is three over capacity, which is a statistic I derive by applying some social hacking: we have learned that one of the health violations was because guest houses in Japan require one toilet for five people so he had to install a second one. We have also learned that tonight there are thirteen people in the guest house. Out of a seeming feeling of guilt our rate is cut by 20% and we are given enough futons to smother a large dog. I find nothing wrong with the arrangement. Peculiarly enough, however, the toilet situation necessitated the removal of the men’s toilet seat due to lack of space and when asked how, presumably, a man might sit on the toilet I can only come up with the answer “he can’t” and commit myself to toilet use requiring sitting being conducted elsewhere.
In the evening we find ourselves winding through the back-streets of Tenjin, a wet, post-rain residential Japan, occasionally crossing paths with a stray biker, couple walking somewhere, or small dog being taken for a walk. The infrequent yellow streetlights eventually give way to neon reflections in spare puddles as we approach Canal City, one of Japan’s bizarre monuments to lavish excess and perpetual construction. According to the official English website,
“The concept of Canal City is ‘a city theatre’. The leading actor of this theatre called Canal City is not the buildings or its functions, but ‘people’. The visitors here may find themselves watching a show as an audience or performing as an actor. Various stories are created by people visiting here for different purposes.”
What it actually is is the largest private development in the history of Japan, costing over 1.4 billion dollars, and looking totally visually unlike anything else in Fukuoka. It is called “the city within the city,” which it is, and it is also the city within the building, as it is almost totally enclosed save for a series of connecting exterior pathways and fountains, many of which were being reconstructed and repaired at the time of our visit (as was the upper dining section called “Ramen Stadium” where you can sample ramen from eight different restaurants). At any rate it has brought massive amounts of positive cashflow and growth to the area, which is most apparent to a traveler like myself because they have a store entirely devoted to Ultraman products, and it is right across the hallway from a store devoted entirely to Pokemon products.
Canal City also boasts an art installation which is an entire wall of television screens. Allow me, again, to let the website explain:
“‘Fuku/Luck,Fuku=Luck,Matrix’ by Nam June Paik, the worldly famous genre founder of video art, is installed. The fragments of images picked by Paik, including sophisticated and vulgar images, Western and Asiatic landscape images tangle up on as many as 180 TV monitors, making an information chaos.”
Inside Canal City on Friday evening, we create this story: Once upon a time, a boy and girl from America but living in Kobe bought a Pokemon spoon and some stickers, gazed longingly at sickeningly overpriced Ultraman goods, avoided dozens of clothing stores, and ate spicy ramen at a place called Ichiran, before getting an Oreo milkshake for dessert at exotic restaurant ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’. After this they bought a small bar of soap at the FamilyMart, then went back to their guest house.
Saturday is a day of no plan except “go north,” and north is where we go, strolling through a Bic Camera shop, an extravagant underground shopping district, a tall shopping mall called TENJIN CORE, and onward past a supermarket and a bunch of nothing. The snow we see is unlike anything we’ve had in Kobe so far, huge big flakes and clusters whiting out the air but not accumulating. We grab a standard Indian lunch at a standard Indian restaurant and Jessy boldly storms out (after finishing her meal) in protest of the Japanese businessmen smoking cigarettes while she is trying to eat.
To repent for her haste, she allows me to stop into the slightly pervy and very otaku-looking store next door, called MANDARAKE, which is officially the greatest store in history and my new favorite place in Japan. On the second floor, squatting in an aisle of figurines, is a slightly portly man who seems to be examining a plastic fifteen-year-old’s breasts, preventing me from accessing the rest of the area. I go around the other side and he is still there, looking, entranced. I grab another, nearby figure and find myself drawn in as well, considering the fact that even if I stared at her plastic jubblies for an hour it would not be nearly as long as either That Guy or the person that originally designed the toy.
As we go I geek myself senseless through four floors of games, systems, manga, toys, action figures, DVDs and other crap, ultimately buying an original Donkey Kong Game & Watch from 1982 for about thirty bucks (first game to ever use a directional pad) and an animation cel from the movie Spriggan for about three bucks (a guy getting his teeth kicked out). Things sadly left un-purchased: original animation cel from an episode of Evangelion (280 dollars) and a mint condition in-the-box contest reward Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch (1300 dollars!).
Later on we trek out to the middle of nowhere to take an elevator up to the middle of nowhere: the Fukuoka Tower, a discomfortingly tall structure with a little meter inside the elevator which tells you exactly how many meters up you are. I plunk a hundred yen into a pair of the big binoculars that you can use to see far away from the upper deck, and find myself staring into an occupied apartment in the high-rise just across the way. The binoculars have already been angled into this apartment by the person that used them before me, and, I figure, perhaps the person before them, and I wonder for how many hours the binoculars have been pointed at this particular apartment. I look into the other ones that have lights on just for good measure–welcome to Japan, your mind is now ruined.
Our evening meal, almost the last of the trip, is spent at one of the many Fukuokan specialties: the yatai, a street-side food vendor bigger than what you’d call a stand and a little smaller than what you’d call a restaurant. Inside we are surrounded by plastic sheets to insulate us from the cold, and we enjoy beer and sake with a variety of other talkative locals who seem much more friendly here in close quarters. We eat ramen, gyoza, mentaiko wrapped in omelet (Fukuokan specialty, spicy fish eggs), grilled pork on sticks, and massive potato korokke, the Japanese approximation of croquette, a deep-fried ball filled with mashed potatoes and topped with ketchup. I talk to the man running the stand and compliment his cast iron saucepan: it is thirty-nine years old, he says, then wipes the side of it and displays the grease to me. I am proud of him for his pan.
In the station the next morning we stock up on omiyage which is Japanese for “gross snacks for your coworkers meant to reflect the fact that you are thinking of them and of work even while you are enjoying your personal life.” The ones we bought are a sort of cake with a kind of cream filling inside. I have my theories about what it’s made of exactly, but it would not be an errant guess to figure it is some sort of fermented bean paste, perhaps mixed with sugar and something rotting. I assume (rightly) that because I find them semi-repulsive, my coworkers will love them.
Ultimately it’s all just a bunch of stuff to buy, new places to buy it, and for different prices–but in changing our environment if only a little superficially I feel new, unaware, in my exploration a new city. Even if we discover things we already know, the experience of striking out rings true, and I find the mundanity of comfortable life eroded slightly. How strange that the comfortable life is now a city in Japan, with all its alleys and vending machines, convenience store nudie mags and gashapon stores, plastic-wrapped rice balls and old men carrying Nintendo DSes and cans of coffee. On the Shinkansen home I feel reinvigorated, immersed in modern Japanese society, wondering what’s next. On Monday I board the same old train to work, vertically-packed green bean with five more weekdays to go.