Japan 2010: 7 - Where I Clean Blood off the Walls

I knew today it was important to get up and conscious quickly. At 10.30am, my plane to Kagoshima would take off and I had to be on it, or all my future stopoffs would be up the spout. Once I was back on the mainland I could relax, but at this point it was most important to get some sleep. However, long before that I was given a shock.

My world was shaken awake in the middle of the night. There was someone at the door of my room, banging and calling my name. Bleary-eyed, I looked at the alarm clock. It was 3.30am. Barely having the wherewithal to check that I wasn't about to be mugged, I opened the door. The bright light of the landing forced me to lower my gaze; first I saw his legs, and then his body, and finally John's face. His blood-covered face. Barely able to stand, John was stood before me with a confused and horrified expression, looking as if he had been through hell.

Once my brain had caught onto the situation, I helped get him up the steps into the communal room and found him a tissue. The building was empty and quiet, but it was clear John had been here before. Bloodied hand-marks decorated the walls, with splashes of congealed blood here and there on the floor also. It was concentrated in the communal bathroom, where the mirror, walls, toilet - and bizarrely, the pot plant - were all covered in it.

John recounted his evening. After we had parted company, he had decided that the beer needed to flow a little more and so had headed back out to Kokusai. Finding a pub, he had made friends with a couple of Americans and a woman who was a girlfriend of one of them. Things went well - he had even taken pictures of them all larking about - until John received a consolatory hug from the girlfriend after telling her of his girl dumping him. This apparently triggered a jealous twinge in one of the guys, and the resulting beating was particularly one-sided.

Me, John and Aoi (who I had woken up to help sort things out) sat on the steps outside as he recited his story, and a lot more besides. We sat and talked for a while, mostly to try and stop John who was now convinced he was going to leave Okinawa and go back home, from letting this incident spoil his holiday. Eventually, we managed to persuade him to clean himself up a bit and then head to bed, while we got with whatever cleaning materials we could find and started the process of cleaning his blood from off the walls, both inside the hostel and out. At about 5 am, we staggered back to our rooms and tried to sleep.

My already jittery nerves were jangled still more a little later when I thought I heard giggling coming from the street below through waves of sleep, but I was too comatose to put two and two together at the time. I should have gone and had a look.

In the morning, I checked on John, who was sprawled out asleep on his bed. I gathered my things together (which thankfully was 90% packed from the night before) and headed out for a drink from the machine on the street.

Except my shoes had gone.

I had left the shoes under a little rack in the stairwell on 4F just outside my room the night before. Now they had gone. I ran downstairs to 3F. The gate was ajar. John must have staggered through it and not locked it behind him. Then I remembered the voices. My mind rushed to take a stab of the last night's activities - maybe the gits had followed John back to the Sora house, seen my shoes and decided to nick them, thinking they were his. They could be anywhere.

It was all speculation, but I ran barefoot down the steps and out into the street in my nightclothes. The road outside was a picture of quiet; a pedestrian gave me a funny look and a cyclist sped past. And then there was the gently flowing canal that split the road. I looked in vain but I knew that if they had been thrown in there, they would be several hours downstream by now, and there was no way I could retrieve them.

Nori-san was calmly watering the plants on the steps as I returned. I gaspingly explained my situation, and her eyes lit up. 'I saw a shoe next to the bikes', she said. I hurried back down to where the bikes were, and sure enough, one of my shoes was there between them. But where was the other? The bikes were down a dark and narrow dead-end passageway, with a ledge that overlooked a cramped space between it and the next building. There was little hope that I could retrieve anything if it had been thrown down there. I descended to the ground floor and squeezed myself as much as I could into the dark, dirty passage, and peered into the gloom. Nothing.

With a single shoe in my hand, I trudged back upstairs, considering the possibilities of either racing barefoot (or even worse, in those bloody sandals) around Naha to try and find a shoe shop that sold westerner-sized shoes, or hop the rest of the way. I decided to take one final look around the bikes, but there was nothing, so I headed back up the steps. As I turned in the stairwell, something caught my eye. There was a ledge connected to the next building that overhung where the bikes were, and there was something on it. I raced back down, and when stood on tiptoes could just see it - the other shoe.

A certain amount of balancing later and I was just able to reach it while stood on the balcony. Breathing a massive sigh of relief I headed back up to my room, with my shoes firmly in hand. Japanese etiquette could go hang for the moment, these were coming inside with me.

I got washed and dressed, and headed to the communal area. It was about 8.30am, and no-one was up yet, save for Nori-san. I took her to one side and explained the situation as best I could about the blood she might find here and there, John's bruised and battered face, and the possibility of some nicked or vandalised stuff (although shoes excepted, I couldn't find any). Nori-san thanked us for trying to sort it out and bade me farewell. I called in on John, who had by now reduced his sleep to a catnap. We said our goodbyes, and I waved to Aoi on the way out, and asked her to keep an eye on John while I was gone. And with that, I was.

One more small surprise was in store. I waited quietly for the 9am opening of the nearby post office so I could get out some folding for the next stage of the journey, but when I entered my card and tried to remove 20,000 yen, it said I had been refused! In a clammy sweat I tried again with 10,000 yen and thankfully it allowed it. But why had it refused 20,000? Had my account been hijacked? Did I only have 10,000 yen funds left? Had it been emptied thanks to a hacker responsible for my weird Ueno experience? My already jumpy mind was coming to all sorts of nonsensical conclusions, but time was tight and I had little time to do anything about it. There was a plane to catch.

The final few hours of my time in Okinawa had given my mind a lot to think about as I stared out of the window to the beautiful scene I had called home for the past four days. There was no doubt that my experience had been poisoned by the little bastards who had a go at John, but I had also been to many interesting and beautiful places, met lots of lovely people, and I had even semi-acclimatised to the temperature. I can say now that I am home that I really want to return to Okinawa some day, but at the time my feelings were certainly mixed, and my nerves were jangling.

I sat in the same tourist café I had visited on the way in, watching the planes in the same seat as before. I downed a not particularly healthy or breakfasty bacon pizza as I waited, and then lugged the now considerably heavier backpack to the departures lounge. I headed through the security and got on the plane in a rather melancholy trance, not knowing quite what to think of things, and that's how I stayed on the whole flight back.

I arrived at Kagoshima airport just before noon. Coming out of the air-conditioned airport and into the open air, it was refreshingly several degrees cooler.
I waited patiently in line for a Limousine bus which for 1200yen took me to Kagoshima Station in about an hour. It took the expressway round the coast and through several miles of hilly woodland before it fell away to reveal the outskirts of the city. I had chosen a hotel close to the rail station specifically to make the next leg to Nobeoka easier (as it was quite a long trip), but there was still the streetcar system to navigate.

Kagoshima is sometimes called 'the Naples of the Orient', which when you see it's remarkably continental-themed city streets, temperate weather and beautiful sea views, you can understand why. The massive and imposing train station is several stories of modern-looking featureless panelling with a cinema, shops and a ferris wheel tacked on for good measure, but move away from it and you are greeted with pleasantly decorated shops and houses, and streetcars (160yen per ride, flat rate) that seem to float along on grassed lawns. It was all very pleasant to ride through, once on the bus, and then again on the tram as it turned out I stayed on the bus one stop too many.

Hotel Review: Hotel & Residence Nanshukan (5000 yen/night, 1 night)

Hidden down a backstreet behind a Buddhist temple, this place is pretty well tucked away from view off the main tram road. The hotel was recently refurbished, and the rooms were very spacious for a Japanese hotel. The staff spoke some English and were very helpful. I spent a very comfortable and luxurious night here in a large bed with silken sheets, and got a free nibble from some Doctor Fish in the lobby in the morning! I would happily stay again. 9/10

I took a lucky guess at the road I needed to head down, every other one seemed to be one of the covered market types often seen in Japanese cities. I dropped off my things and after a rest and a look at the city map, headed out west towards the intriguing forested hills behind the city known as Shiroyama Park. I chose this not just because of it's imposing presence above the city, or it's ideal spot for getting some good pictures of both the city, the coast, and Sakurajima bathed in sea fog in the distance, but because it was last on a snaking route around the roads leading up to it.
Starting up the road, I passed a couple of silver statues debating politics and under a giant stone Torii bestriding the wide road. Just beyond a set of koi ponds sunk into the pavement was the Kagoshima Prefectural Museum, which sounded worth a look. It was an old building, kitted out some years ago with various stuffed animals and models in the natural history vein, as well as a few live specimens in tanks. The place was split over three floors, each brimming with excitable kids on a school trip, running up and down the stairs in small groups with little clipboards. I sidled up to the reception desk, slightly unsure if I was over the age limit for visitors, but was instead greeted with some enthusiasm by the ladies at the counter, who seemed happy that a foreigner had come to visit them.

Reflecting back the happy, I smiled and gave them a bow before turning and beginning my exploration. The lower floor housed little more than a few tanks of overly-large fish, but the second floor was quite interesting, giving a history (in Japanese only, unfortunately) of the wildlife in that part of Japan, although the polar bear did look a bit out of place, especially when it was stood over a sea turtle and was being occasionally poked, prodded and hugged by curious children.

The third floor was dedicated to a movie theatre and reading room, and I had arrived about 30 seconds too late for the former, so I took a look in the latter. Quiet and empty compared to the rooms below, the room had generous windows allowing you to look out on the city.

On my way out I was collared by the women again, who plopped a small plastic sachet into my hand - it was a free sample of volcanic dust from Sakurajima's rather angry outburst in 2009. I thanked them and, deftly avoiding tripping over a curious child right behind me, went on my way.

The town map had mentioned a archaeological museum somewhere, but after wandering into the nearby MBC building - what seemed to be the closest match to the spot on the map - I was helpfully accompanied by a woman who seemed sure she knew what I was looking for quite a few blocks away.
I ended up at an art museum, and not wanting to cause offence, I thanked her and let her go back to her reception desk. Not particularly wishing to double back and try my hand again at finding it, I headed round the rather large building and took a look inside. The rather grand insides comprised a small free exhibition on the ground floor, and signs to something rather larger up the grand central staircase. Heading upwards, the sections to both the left and right were bustling with young, fashionable types cooing at various pictures on the walls, something I could see from beyond the ticket desk. Feeling a little out of place, I decided to decline, and after using their super-squidgy leather sofa to recheck my position, I left.

The map was being less than accurate. The upcoming castle ruins turned out to be a library (only the castle walls remained) and after scaling them to see what was on the other side (thanks to some out-of-place metal steps) I found myself underwhelmed at a massive grey featureless building containing - from what I could tell - a pre-Meiji exhibit of some sorts. Shame it was closed.

Not having much luck, I exited the generous grounds of the building across a bridge spanning a dried-up moat that must have protected the castle from intruders. Now it sat rather overgrown and in need of some repair. I sighed at the busy road beyond, and decided that Shiroyama Park - the final intended stop - would have to be next. By good fortune, the park had it's northernmost entrance just up from the bridge, headed by the memorial to the retainers of the Satsuma kingdom, whose castle had burned down some time ago.

The noise of the cars quickly subsided as the steep and ancient-looking pathway snaked it's way through the trees. Branches hung low above my head, many of which covered with large cobwebs and spiders that were best left alone. As the pathway straightened and levelled out, it became clear it would be a picturesque but long walk, especially when the map hoved into view, that showed the main path as a rather indecisive snake making it's way with apathy to the summit.

Once I reached the top, having been shown up by several elderly gents jogging their way up as I wheezed and sweated in their wake, the sun was getting low in the sky. This was slightly worrying as any trail down would be steep and done in the semi-dark. However, it did mean that the view of the city would be pretty great.

As I arrived at the viewing platform - an open circle of land covered by a dense tree canopy with a section cut out to see the mountain in the distance - I was greeted by a trio of elderly gents, who might have been waiting for me to arrive as at least one of them had passed me sometime earlier. In friendly but slightly mischievous spirits, they offered to take my picture against the mountain backdrop, but after several attempts fiddling with the settings, got little more than a silhouette. I thanked them and they seemed satisfied with their work, and I took a couple more pics of the rather smoggy city and the mountain beyond once they had gone on their way.

The day was coming to an end and at 5pm the light was quickly disappearing. A cat was stretching out on the warm top of the drinks machine as I got myself a soda. After a quick look at the summit of the hill - a sizeable clearing in the trees that must house several gatherings in the year but unfortunately not today - I headed down the pathway at the other side, a journey that looked much more like it was the one tourists would head up, because it was lined with a selection of souvenir shops, each equipped with an elderly lady who gave a smile as I passed, as they were putting their wares away and shutting up shop for another day.

I quickened my pace slightly with the encroaching evening. At the end of the line of shops was a bus terminal, and it was not immediately clear whether another one would be due at this time, having found myself at the mercy of early stopping times in Okinawa. I decided to ignore the buses and carried on down what appeared to be the walking route, which became increasingly like a tatty and unkempt backwater track as I headed further down to city level. However it did manage to keep itself from becoming impassible long enough for me to make it to the bottom, and by good fortune I emerged out at the giant Torii I had seen on the way in.

After tickling the koi in the pond for a while, I heard my stomach rumble, so I retraced my steps along the route I had taken while being guided by the woman from the MBC building, as I had noticed on the way a Tempura bar over the road. I waved to the MBC woman walking home from her day at work and she gave a cheery wave back, and then I was there. The bar was small and inconspicuous aside from the little sign on the road outside, and sat comfortably next to an even smaller Italian restaurant, in case I lost my nerve. I wasn't given the opportunity. A bald man opened the door as I stood indecisive outside and invited me in. His English wasn't perfect, but he was able to make me feel I couldn't refuse, and the Italian wouldn't open anyway for another hour.

I was the first customer of the night. The man (who was the owner) seemed a little busy once I had got sat down at the long horseshoe-shaped table that comprised half of the ground floor. His head was cocked to one side, holding a phone to his shoulder, seemingly clinching a deal for a batch of fresh ingredients. After a degree of hurried conversation about where I had come from and where I was going, interspersed by more phone calls, he apologised and motioned to what seemed to be his head chef, who was asked to give me the works. With that he disappeared upstairs to more conversations.

A refreshing bit of Oolong tea was accompanied by some strange starters. Some looked like slugs, which I quietly sidled under the plate, and others looked like snails, which I had a go with and were actually quite nice. A bowl of miso soup with mushrooms (nice), a side salad with radishes in sauce (less nice), and then the tempura started coming. Rather than receiving it all at once, the chef unloaded it to the plate as it came out of the pan, so it was hot and fresh. There were all sorts of battered things passed to me; scallops, green beans, cuttlefish (knobbly, chewy meaty stuff), cod, pineapple (odd but very nice), melons, eggplant and a few others.

The boss returned a little later to see me surrounded with plates, trying to keep up with the chef who was fortunately coming to the end of his tempura burst. Seemingly finished with his buying and selling, we talked more at leisure (over a free sherbet ice cream!) about my experiences both this time (I neglected to mention the morning's activities) and my previous trip, and he told me of his passions to expand his restaurant empire, which currently comprises two in Kagoshima and another up in Fukuoka.

Pleasantly full, I left just as the place was starting to get busy. A group of tired-looking older men who had probably just finished a hard day at the office came in and greeted the boss warmly, before heading upstairs to what I assume was a more cosy atmosphere reserved for the regulars. It was 8pm, and now almost completely dark. Although it was still early, the day had taken it's toll on me, and I wanted for little more than bed. I strolled back towards the hotel in the evening air, and after sending an email to John to see how he was, went off to bed.

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