a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Friday, June 8, 2012

Japan Part 1: Fukuoka

This spring has been a huge travel time for Stephen and me. Three big international trips over three months. By the end of  May, my passport was totally filled up and I had to get additional pages added! One of those trips was a 10-day tour of Japan. It was incredible! My favorite trip yet in my life and that's pretty remarkable given all the places I've been recently. But Japan is my dream country, as it turns out, so I'm devoting three separate blog posts to describe our time there; one for each of the cities we stayed in.
We flew into Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu. Fukuoka is where Stephen's mother was from so it seemed like a nice place to start our tour of Japan. Stephen had never been to Japan before this trip. And I had only landed in the Tokyo airport on my way to Thailand. Neither of us really knew what to expect. What we found was something unexpectedly delightful at every turn.
One of the first things we noticed, was that the streets of Fukuoka are astonishingly quiet. Cars idle quietly at stop lights, drivers don't honk their horns, even people walking on the sidewalks don't shout or talk loudly. When we took a walk to a shopping center, we noticed a traffic guard holding up a sign to direct traffic, no whistle blowing for him. In Phnom Penh, traffic guards seem to love their whistles as they blow them incessantly when school lets out at 11 and again at 4:30. What a difference then for us to experience Fukuoka city streets. It's the most restful peaceful feeling to be right in the middle of the city but have such little junk noise that if you closed your eyes you might imagine you were in the countryside.
There is a lot of beauty throughout all the cities of Japan; trees, bushes, flowers are everywhere. Even vertical gardens.
The shopping mall we visited had plants up and down the walls and pools in between the walkways.
Biking is quite common as a way of commuting; we saw people riding bikes and lots of bikes parked. But unlike in Amsterdam where the bikes were often parked sloppily, the bikes in Japan are parked neatly. And you can pay to park in reserved spaces similar to the way we pay to park cars in the US.
The Japanese know how to use space efficiently. Japan is roughly the size of Montana; both are approximately 147,000 sq miles. But Japan's population is a little over 126 million people and Montana's population is slightly less than 1 million people. With a high population density, the Japanese have had to be creative. :) Like a parking lane for bikes under the over pass and double decker car parking - sorry no picture. :(
Before our trip, my knowledge and impressions of Japan were limited to movies. But The Last Samurai is my favorite movie, and not because of Tom Cruise though I think he did a great job. No, I love the attention to detail and striving toward excellence in everything on the part of the Japanese people that was artfully portrayed in that film. We found this to be just as true in real life Japan as the fictionalized depiction in The Last Samurai. Care is given to every area of life that we noticed. Trees are pruned to be similar to the small bonsai only large.
Packaging for food is exquisite.

And speaking of food, it all was delicious! I didn't think about "Japanese cuisine" before we got there and based on the little Japanese food I've had in the US, I wasn't expecting to find much I liked. Boy was I mistaken! The food in Japan is fresh and of high quality. We only bought one thing that wasn't absolutely melt in your mouth wonderful, and the lady really tried to talk us out of it. On our first night in Fukuoka we found an amazing grocery store. People were giving out samples of everything. I even had a sample of raw spicy sausage. :) In the bread department they would announce when something just came out of the oven and was hot and fresh. The produce was of such vibrant colors that we couldn't resist buying some strawberries. Much to our surprise and delight they actually tasted as good as they looked.
This market, where we found just a dizzying array of wonderful produce, meat, breads and pastries, was in the subway station. The subways are happening places in Japan. Shopping and restaurants are on many levels. People can grab hot croissants on their way home from work as they get ready to leave the subway. Or a freshly made crepe filled with one of the 20 choices for breakfast in the morning on the way to work. It's great. I remember the subway stations and trains of London when I visited in 1994 as being dark, dirty, unpleasant places. Certainly no shopping or restaurants. There were vending machines with Cadbury chocolate in them. Japan even does vending machines well! On the second day in Fukuoka we were walking for a long time trying to find a restaurant that looked good and I was losing energy. Vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan so we just stopped at one and I bought a coffee drink. Much to my surprise the can was hot! And of course, yummy!
Shortly after this stop we did find a restaurant and though the owner spoke what he called "baby English" we were able to order two of his set meals of the day and found them to be, what else? delicious. Actually the cup of coffee he served us at the end of the meal (I think he included that to be welcoming and generous to foreign visitors) was really the most perfect cup of coffee I had in Japan. And if you've been reading this blog since the beginning, you know that I am quite particular about my coffee.:)
Of course Americans know the beauty and tranquility of Japanese gardens as there are gardens in many cities. Of the 100's maybe 1000's of gardens to see throughout Japan we managed to enjoy quite a few.

Stephen also found this beautiful park on a lake. People were feeding the giant fish. 
And paddling around in Swan boats. 
It was quiet and beautiful and public. A place in the city that everyone can enjoy. Stephen's pretty sure his mother must have walked there as it is the largest park in the city. 


Almost from the minute I got off the plane in Japan I tried to soak up every detail of everything about the country. And I noticed something curious to me pretty quickly: women in Japan wear incredibly high heel shoes! I started taking pictures to try to capture the most outrageous ones. The women in Cambodia wear heels every day too, but they don't have to walk much in them; they mostly get around on their motos. But in Japan, with the wonderful mass transit system, people walk everywhere. Maybe it's the ballet classes that Japanese girls attend when they are young?? Maybe it's just that walking is an integral part of daily life so they have strong feet and legs?? Maybe they are thin enough that it's not that big of a deal?? It's pretty rare to see an overweight person in Japan. Or maybe Japanese women just have a high tolerance for pain in the name of fashion. :)

I on the other hand bought a pair of sandals with a "reverse heel" to walk all over Japan in. And I was exceedingly happy with them. :) I won't be copying Japanese fashion in shoes any time soon I don't think. :) 
On our last night in Fukuoka we went to a famous Ramen noodle place. What a whole new concept on Ramen noodles for me! Absolutely delicious!
The restaurant had a wonderful high energy vibe. The servers seemed to really enjoy and take pride in their job. Our waitress gave us an English menu but didn't speak much English. Still she was able to be very clear in verifying that she had the order right. She asked us if we wanted a second bowl but when we didn't understand her Japanese or her gesture she just went and got the extra bowl for us. She also took my purse and put it in the basket under the chair specifically provided for that purpose. Awesome!
Fukuoka was the city we spent the least amount of time in of the three cities, but what a wonderful first exposure to the country. We had a fabulous time. And with short fairly inexpensive flights from Cambodia, we are already dreaming of when we can visit again. :)

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