Japan 2010: 13 - Where I Begin a Nomadic Trail

Due to a second day of spa relaxation I woke nice and early. I said my goodbyes to Dave and Adenata and the people at the Kagamaya and left shortly afterwards. Today was the start of a long stretch where I would be staying only for a single day at each spot until I reached Tokyo once more.

I got a rice ball at the family mart and some of that delicious Sapporo Mandarin juice (in a silver bottle, and more common in the southern half of Japan. Its basically the juicy bits from a mandarin with a bit of liquid, it's fantastic to drink on a hot day) and then got on the tram.

Although traditionally I would head directly to the station and head off to the next place, my next stop was Kokura, which was more of a convenient stop-off than a place to sightsee according to my trusty JBR book. Since I was planning on spending some time in Shin-Yamaguchi, it made sense to only dedicate a small amount of time to my stopover.

So instead, I had headed out early and got on the #5 tram. I was going to find that Confucian Shrine. This time round, I would be getting off at Ishibashi, the stop recommended on the map, in broad daylight, rather than trying to guess in the darkness of the night before. Predictably, the shrine was a pretty easy find as a result, having plenty of signposts to direct me, although negotiating a packed tram was not easy with my worldly possessions on my back.

I walked down the side street with the high walls of the shrine grounds to my right; they were painted a garish orange, and they purposefully stood out from their surroundings. Rounding the corner, the well kept entrance gave me a glimpse of the treat within. I got my ticket (600yen) and asked the lady behind the counter to store my big bag for me, and then went in.

The pleasant Koi pond glistening with the light rain, with it's toy bridge and manicured trees sat opposite the entrance, a detailed decorated roof sheltered a row of heavy set doors and ornamental pillars. A pair of stone dog statues posed chatting as they guarded it. The ornaments and decoration were both recognisable and distinct from traditional Japanese styling.
The central open area was probably the setting for many exhibitions, but today it was deserted, apart from twenty pure white stone statues facing each other from across the open area. Each one was different rather than being from the same mould, representing some of the Confucian followers through the ages. Behind them were roofed aisles with the occasional statue or ornament dotted throughout.
At the end stood the shrine. A large two storey building in the same design was guarded by another pair of stone dogs, and was surrounded by several other stone carvings of monks, ornate totems and large plinths with beautiful twisting dragons, cranes and other creatures set into them.
Inside were kept some of the riches from the golden age of the shrine; gold-leafed treasure boxes, delicately detailed furniture, and the large ornate shrine as the centrepiece. Sprinkled amongst them were candelabras which during one of their evening ceremonies must have given the place a seductive glow. How much of this was original and how much had to be replaced or recovered from the wreckage of the bomb I do not know, but the whole place had been largely wrecked, and it took 20 or more years to re-open.

Behind the shrine I was surprised to find another area containing more statues of Confucian followers, standing either side of a bridge linking the shrine building to a second, more modern one in a different, almost Mediterranean style. Nestled away under the bridge was a fancy table and chair set, which unfortunately lost some of its authenticity by being next to a Coke machine. But no matter, I sat and munched my rice ball and had a drink before heading in.

The second building was a Chinese museum. Taking the upper entrance, I went straight in (the museum was included in the ticket price) although I was told not to do any photography, as the contents of the museum were a rare time when the Chinese agreed to let some of their cultural artefacts out of the country.

What was inside was certainly impressive, and if you find yourself in Nagasaki I recommend a visit (if the beauty of the shrine so far hasn't convinced you). Some of the most detailed and beautiful hand-made items were in here, from massive 3 foot diameter lacquered decorative plates to divisive yet beautifully carved ivory elephant tusks, huge china vases, to intricate wood carvings of chocolate-box scenes; one showing a delicate curved walking bridge over a stream, with an obsessively detailed tree made of cork hanging over it, complete with thousands of minute branches and leaves.

The third floor showed off many oriental Chinese wood block stamps used as proof of authority and identity (much like a royal seal in wax), and some of the many archaeological finds from expeditions into the more ancient and untouched parts of the country, going back on a helpful timeline ribbon around the room, to 10,000BC. Aside from a brief moment when some noisy teens came in, scoffed at what they thought was boring stuff and then headed out again, it was deadly quiet and abandoned. It was just past 9am though which may have had something to do with it.
I got a sneaky picture of some of the terracotta warriors on the section between floors (I think I was allowed as they looked like you could pose with them) and then headed to the basement, where a large and comprehensive tourist shop beckoned. Not expecting to see genuine Chinese gifts again for a while (I say genuine - they were probably just knockoffs made in China or somewhere.. no wait..) I bought some small bits and pieces that would fit in my bag, and then headed out.

Before picking up my bag, I spied the 'feed the fish' sign, so for ten yen I spent a relaxing five minutes throwing pellets into the pond from the bridge and watching the fish go mental as the stream of tourists turned from a drip to a flow. I got my things back and headed back to the trams. I got on the #3 and transferred at Tsuki-machi to a #1, which took me the rest of the way to the station.

Both the trams and the foot traffic around the station were starting to get heavy, and at about 11.20 I got into the station; the next train to Hakata, a stop with a little more touristy promise than Kokura was leaving in 5 minutes with the next one an hour later. I managed to get the ticket after some sweaty queuing and then had an argument with the barriers, but eventually made it on board with a minute to spare.

Hakata was about 3/4 of the way along my route, so the next hour and a half involved a bit of diary writing and staring out of the window. The weather was a bit dull, carrying on from the changeable theme of the morning at Nagasaki which was also a bit iffy. This next stage of the journey back to Tokyo would be several days of rushing for trains which on paper sounded fairly easy (especially as I had tried to ensure that the distances between stops were more manageable this time) but now I was less sure about.
Before long, Hakata rolled up, and I headed out into a large city. Hakata station is large and in the advanced stages of getting a refit. The building looked pretty complete, although the outside plaza was a maze of construction boards and large holes in the ground. I was getting a bit low on folding again, so cashed my second travellers cheque at the nearby post office (with crazy sign), then I headed back to the station.

I had planned to follow two recommendations by the JBR book. One was to take a pleasant train and ferry loop from Hakata station down a local line to nearby Saitozaki, and then from the nearby ferry port back to Hakata, and then the bus back to the central station. Then head to Kokura and see the castle and the city hall.

The local JR train left reasonably promptly, and made its way through several stations heading north around the coast of Hakata Bay. It was a pleasant, but unspectacular sight from the windows of the train, largely due to the large sand dunes obscuring most of the sea views.

Heading out at the quiet end of the landstrip (and going in completely the wrong direction for the nearby Marine World which I didn't know about at the time grr!), I plodded over to what I guessed was the ferry terminal. All was quiet round here, and the terminal building, a small, purpose built structure little larger than a beach house was almost deserted. A couple were heading out of the door towards the sea as I entered, and there was a boat just coming into dock, so I negotiated the automatic machine as best I could and got my ticket (430yen) and then headed through the doors.

A handful of people got onto the two-level catamaran with me, and we set off about 2pm. Initially thinking of staying downstairs, instead I braved the cool air and the mizzle and headed onto the top deck. The breeze was getting increasingly bracing the further north I headed, but it was just about warm enough to stick your face into without it stinging. The hazy sun tried to burn the clouds away and just succeeded enough to get the odd shimmer on the sea.
At the other side, Hakata port - a major trading hub - welcomed us and the ship joined a couple of others exchanging passengers. My camera battery was looking low by this point, so I used it sparingly, (I had forgotten to charge it the previous night). However, I had exhausted most of the sights that I had time to see, and the eventual #48 bus ride at half past three from the port to the station (220yen) was not particularly picturesque, taking me through the sort of high-rise streets I was used to seeing in big city business districts like Tokyo.
I took the ride alongside a business-suited middle-aged guy who took interest in my stature as we stood at the station; we were headed in the same direction but he seemed as clueless as me about which bus to use. We chatted a little on the bus but the subjects we could cover quickly exhausted themselves and we concentrated on the journey.

The Shinkansen from Hakata station left just after four, and again, I was just in time to make it. The bus had taken a winding route through the block structure of the business district and inconsiderately stopped at all the other bus stops in between. It was a very short 15 minute ride to Kokura, during which I could barely perceive we were moving, as it was such a smooth ride.

Kokura is right at the northern edge of Kyushu and is the gateway city. By coincidence, the city was the original target for the bomb that eventually dropped on Nagasaki, but it was spared at the last minute due to the cloud cover. I decided to head direct to the hotel as it was quite close to the enormous station complex and drop off my bags. By now, it was half past four and the light was closing in. Kokura castle, the nearest attraction that I knew about was 15 minures away, and Japanese attractions such as castles tend not to remain open past 5, so the second part of the tourist trail would have to wait until the morning. I dumped my bags and flopped onto the bed, a little deflated.
I woke at 7pm, having inadvertently fallen asleep. The only thing left to do was eat, so I headed back to the AMU plaza in the station, which apparently had a load of restaurants on 6F. I chose one - Abashi-Cuisine, which was an Indian, and sat down.

Along came the waitress, who unsurprisingly didn't speak any English, and the menu was no better. However, I thought I could at least let them know what I wanted by such keywords as 'masala' or 'naan'. Unfortunately the waitress replied with a blank stare to all of these, so instead I pointed at the most promising-looking picture on the menu and made do. (every sane bone in my body told me not to go again given my previous experiences with Japanese Indian restaurants but by this point it was too late to consider the others - in hindsight I wish I had). As it turned out, it was a soupy sort of chicken curry with some sticky rice and a garlic naan. It wasn't as bad as some, but still disappointing. For desert I ordered what looked in the picture like a crème bruleé, but was in fact a cup of coffee. I hate coffee. 2560 yen for the lot didn't go down that well either.
I headed back to the hotel the long way around the plaza, looking aimlessly into the shops I passed without finding anything of great interest and stopping to observe the underside of the monorail as it glided past. Disappointingly early, I settled down for bed before 9, the day had been a bit of a let-down. I was a long way from the beauty of Aso or the tropics of Naha and the people I had met there. Hopefully the night would end soon and I could have a more interesting day tomorrow.

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