New friends in Fukuoka

Eidan and NaoEidan and Nao
Eidan and Nao13-Jul-2014 14:16, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.04 sec, ISO 800
 
Eidan and Nao bowlingEidan and Nao bowling
Eidan and Nao bowling13-Jul-2014 14:00, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 320
 
Auto-Shoeser is not a word, but it really should beAuto-Shoeser is not a word, but it really should be
Auto-Shoeser is not a word, but it really should be13-Jul-2014 13:12, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 320
 
All of us with Nao and EmmettAll of us with Nao and Emmett
All of us with Nao and Emmett13-Jul-2014 14:34, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.04 sec, ISO 800
 

Maria arrived in Fukuoka about 5 weeks before me and the boys, and she started taking advanced Japanese lessons soon after she got here. The nearby ACROS center offers lessons once per week, for free (the teachers are volunteers). Maria and her teacher, Nao, became fast friends. The boys and I are taking lesson with her now too. We’re taking one free lesson per week at ACROS, and then paid lessons with her twice per week, so we are working hard!

We had dinner with Nao, her two kids, and her boyfriend Emmet a few days after we arrived, and then they took us bowling last weekend. We went to the overwhelming Round One center, which is less than a 10 minute walk from our apartment:

Round One, a vast amusement center next to the Toei Movie Theater, is always open. How about some tenpins? Or mini-basketball on the rooftop? Or mini-tennis? Or the batting cage? You’re already sweating – why not exercise? Speaking of sweat – no problem – they have showers! Indoors, there’s karaoke, a planetarium, darts, billiards, and the kitchen sink, which they’re planning to use for an amusement activity, too! Pay 110 yen for 10 minutes, and you can do anything you like on the premises as long as it’s legal. Cheaper if you are a student or a member.

The only hitch for me was getting bowling shoes that fit. My shoe size is beyond the range of what the Japanese consider normal, so the “auto-shoeser” automatic shoe dispenser couldn’t help me. Fortunately they had a small stash of larger shoes behind the counter.

Some of the other volunteer teachers and students came along too, so it was a fun group outing.

Nao is a great teacher, and Emmet is from the US, so it’s nice to have a fellow American to spend some time with too.

Here is the Tenjin Round One website (Japanese only)

The Yamakasa festival finale race

The biggest annual event in Fukuoka happened to take place less than a week after I arrived here with the boys: Hakata Gion Yamakasa. It’s a festival that has events that take place over a two week period, culminating in a race on the last day:

The highlight of the festival kicks off at exactly 4:59am on July 15th when thousands of men from seven districts race through the streets carrying decorative one-ton floats. But there’s more to Yamakasa than just the main race…

Yamakasa can be traced back some 750 years ago to a Buddhist priest named Shoichi Kokushi. In order to eradicate an epidemic, Kokushi was carried on a platform while he prayed and sprinkled holy water. The religious ceremony was held annually to keep the epidemic away, slowly evolving into the festival it is today…

Most Fukuokans are unaware of the enormous work required to prepare for the festival. Numerous meetings and ceremonies are held at Kushida Shrine throughout the year, with the major preparation starting from the first of June. Members from each nagare begin by selecting a theme and constructing their race float with the assistance of one of the famous doll makers…

Each of the seven nagare covers a rather large area, which is then sub-divided into smaller ku or districts, thereby forming the base of an extensive hierarchy. The tents set up in each ku serve as the center of all activities for the length of the festival. Meetings and planning sessions, meals, socializing, drinking, and sometimes even sleeping take place in the close-knit, familial sphere of the tent.

The boys were emphatically uninterested in getting up at 4am to walk across town to stand in a crowd that they aren’t tall enough yet to see over. Maria was going to join me, but ended up having to stay up late for a work meeting (the US east coast is 13 hours behind us), so she didn’t make it.

I arrived at Kushida Shrine, the starting point of the race, after the first few teams had already started. The area was packed and I couldn’t get very close. I worked my way behind the shrine and got a pretty good view of the final team, getting ready to proceed to the starting line. From there, I spotted some people who looked like they knew what they were doing, and followed them through some back streets, which led to a great spot to watch the race teams go by. The whole experience lasted about two hours, and it was a lot of fun.

Part of the reason each float has such a large group running with it is that the floats are extremely heavy. No one lasts very long while helping to carry a float, so the men are constantly rotating positions. They take practice runs before the final race, to work out patterns for successfully rotating team members.

I put together my best clips in the video above, and my pictures are below. Enjoy!

Breakfast tables ready for the runners
Breakfast tables ready for the runners15-Jul-2014 04:07, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 500
A Yamakasa race team at the starting line
A Yamakasa race team at the starting line15-Jul-2014 04:25, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 400
The Kazariyama team getting ready to move to the starting line of the Yamakasa race
The Kazariyama team getting ready to move to the starting line of the Yamakasa race15-Jul-2014 04:27, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 250
 
Runners in the Yamakasa race
Runners in the Yamakasa race15-Jul-2014 04:39, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 5.0, 10.889mm, 0.02 sec, ISO 800
One of the Yamakasa race teams carrying their one ton float
One of the Yamakasa race teams carrying their one ton float15-Jul-2014 04:43, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 200
Boys participate in the Yamakasa race too, but not carrying the floats
Boys participate in the Yamakasa race too, but not carrying the floats15-Jul-2014 04:50, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 250
 
A team does one last sprint with their float, after the Yamakasa race is over
A team does one last sprint with their float, after the Yamakasa race is over15-Jul-2014 04:54, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 250
A Yamakasa float, after the race
A Yamakasa float, after the race15-Jul-2014 04:57, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 5.0, 13.25mm, 0.025 sec, ISO 800
A Yamakasa float, after the race
A Yamakasa float, after the race15-Jul-2014 04:57, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 5.0, 13.25mm, 0.02 sec, ISO 800
 
A Yamakasa team destroying their float, after the race
A Yamakasa team destroying their float, after the race15-Jul-2014 05:08, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 5.6, 19.091mm, 0.02 sec, ISO 800
Some boys dressed up for the Yamakasa race
Some boys dressed up for the Yamakasa race15-Jul-2014 05:09, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 5.0, 10.367mm, 0.02 sec, ISO 800
The head from the destroyed float
The head from the destroyed float15-Jul-2014 05:12, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 4.0, 7.249mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 320
 
Kids dressed for the Yamakasa festival
Kids dressed for the Yamakasa festival15-Jul-2014 05:16, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 200
One the Yamakasa teams eating after the race
One the Yamakasa teams eating after the race15-Jul-2014 05:34, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 800
 

The Kyary Pamyu Pamyu truck invades Tenjin

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is a pop music sensation in Japan. She is often referred to as the Lady Gaga of Japan. Personally I find J-pop in general, and Pamyu Pamyu in particular, utterly insipid. So when I hear the truck advertising her upcoming tour come rumbling down the streets of our neighborhood in Tenjin, blasting her music, I run for cover. But I did suffer through it briefly yesterday, for you, my blog readers, so I could bring you this short video:

CNN did a pretty good story on Pamyu Pamyu, which attempts to explain the inexplicable:

It was only a matter of time…

…until I came across an unwitting store name like this in Fukuoka (the old man staring at it is a nice touch):

I knew it was just a question of time before I came across a name like thisI knew it was just a question of time before I came across a name like this
I knew it was just a question of time before I came across a name like this15-Jul-2014 11:24, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.02 sec, ISO 100
 

English words are considered cool in Japan, and are often used for store names, on t-shirts, etc. without full knowledge of what they really mean. I saw someone wearing a t-shirt the other day that said “you are a victim” on the front, and “we need cacophony” on the back.

I have a collection of pictures of signs with dubious store names like this from previous Japan trips (the Holy Bitch salon is my favorite).

A day at Keya beach

Keya beach in Itoshima - one of Japan's top 100 beachesKeya beach in Itoshima - one of Japan's top 100 beaches
Keya beach in Itoshima - one of Japan's top 100 beaches12-Jul-2014 11:52, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 8.0, 4.3mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 100
Keya beach in Itoshima - one of Japan's top 100 beachesKeya beach in Itoshima - one of Japan's top 100 beaches
Keya beach in Itoshima - one of Japan's top 100 beaches12-Jul-2014 11:50, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 3.5, 5.958mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 100
 
Kai and Eidan at Keya beachKai and Eidan at Keya beach
Kai and Eidan at Keya beach12-Jul-2014 11:49, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 5.9, 21.5mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 100
Finishing up lunch at Keya beachFinishing up lunch at Keya beach
Finishing up lunch at Keya beach12-Jul-2014 12:48, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 100
 
Checking out the boats near Keya beachChecking out the boats near Keya beach
Checking out the boats near Keya beach12-Jul-2014 14:22, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 100
Abunai! Beware the anthropomorphic waveAbunai! Beware the anthropomorphic wave
Abunai! Beware the anthropomorphic wave12-Jul-2014 14:25, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 100
 

Saturday! It was my first real day off in at least 6 weeks, and we decided to make it a beach day, since Eidan was very excited to go. The Fukuoka area is known for its beaches, and both Fukuoka Now and Finding Fukuoka have excellent beach guides. They both put Itoshima city’s Keya beach right at the top of their lists, so that’s where we decided to go.

It’s a half hour subway ride north to get about halfway there, and then another half hour on a bus. That was the plan anyway. But we couldn’t figure out what the story was with the bus once we got off the subway, even with Maria’s excellent Japanese [see below for details on the bus if you're in the area and want to go - we figured it out later]. There was a bus stop with a sign showing some departure times, but no way to tell which bus went where (and so, no way to know how long we’d wait for ours). So we grabbed a cab, for a pricey but much quicker ride to the beach. Maria had a lively conversation with the driver, in Japanese. She told me later he thought at first she was native Japanese, and asked her in a gruff but light-hearted way, “so where are those 3 from?” She also learned that Itoshima is known for its oysters.

We rented some floats for the boys, which I did without Maria’s help, speaking Japanese to the attendant. I succeeded, but I was definitely way over my head in the conversation. Maria told me beforehand the word for float (ukiwa), and when I said it, the attendant must have assumed my Japanese was pretty good, for me to know a word like that, so she didn’t slow down for me at first (but she did once she realized I was clueless). The tricky part was understanding there was a deposit, separate from the rental fee.

The boys had a great time, and there were plenty of other people there having fun too. There were some families with kids, and interestingly, many had small tents. You don’t generally see people taking tents to the beach in the US, but it makes sense. The crowd was mostly young people though. Some were playing volleyball or swimming, but most were using the barbecue area. You can rent a table with a built-in grill. There were at least a couple dozen tables, and they were almost all in use. The popularity may have something to do with the fully stocked bar. We got our lunch from the concession stand – yakisoba for me and the boys, and Maria had the fried squid legs (“gesso” – essentially big pieces of calamari), which were great.

It started to rain after a couple hours, so we caught the bus back. The folks at the concession stand were kind enough to call the bus company to find out the schedule for us, and where to walk to find the stop. We had a little extra time, and the rain died down, so we checked out the harbor area nearby. Next time we visit, we might try the boat tour to see the unusual rock formations at Keya-no-Oto.

How to get there

The Fukuoka Now beach guide says: “Take a Showa bus from JR Chikuzen-Maebaru Sta. to the final stop at Keya (30 min.). From there, it’s a 10-minute walk to the beach.” But we couldn’t figure out the bus situation at the station. Afterwards, Maria spent about 20 minutes on the Showa bus web site hunting down the bus schedule. You need to exit the north side of the station (kita), as there are different buses on the south side. Here is the schedule. You have to click the tab at the very, very bottom for the Keya beach schedule (芥屋 – second from the right). The station is the first stop, and Keya beach is the last stop. So on the left side of the schedule, the station is first and Keya is last. The right side is vice-versa.

Tempura for lunch, at Tempura no Hirao

Tempura for lunch - yum!Tempura for lunch - yum!
Tempura for lunch - yum!10-Jul-2014 12:30, HTC EVO, 2.0, 3.63mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 148
 

Tempura no Hirao is down the street from us, and it’s a popular lunch spot. It has a no-frills, eat and run diner atmosphere, but the tempura is delicious. You order your meal from a vending machine in front of the shop, which gives you a ticket for the meal you picked. You then wait inside on benches that ring the outer wall, and slide your way along as the people in front of you are seated. When it’s your turn, you take a seat at the U-shaped bar counter, and they take your tickets. They make sure to seat groups together, which is nice. They then bring the tempura to you one piece at a time. Within seconds of each piece being done cooking, it’s brought to you, so it’s nice and hot. It was some of the best tempura I’ve ever had, and was inexpensive. Eidan was disappointed at first with our choice of restaurant, but once he started eating, he didn’t stop until he ran out of food.

First day in Fukuoka

One of the huge Yamakasa floats on display, ahead of the upcoming Hakata Gion Yamakasa (festival)One of the huge Yamakasa floats on display, ahead of the upcoming Hakata Gion Yamakasa (festival)
One of the huge Yamakasa floats on display, ahead of the upcoming Hakata Gion Yamakasa (festival)09-Jul-2014 10:05, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 200
 
Kai trying his first bowl of Hakata ramenKai trying his first bowl of Hakata ramen
Kai trying his first bowl of Hakata ramen09-Jul-2014 10:44, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.05 sec, ISO 1250
Eidan is onigiri manEidan is onigiri man
Eidan is onigiri man09-Jul-2014 11:34, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 125
 
Ultraman sells out - big timeUltraman sells out - big time
Ultraman sells out - big time09-Jul-2014 11:10, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 2.7, 4.3mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 100
Interesting anti drunk-driving poster. The person on the bottom represents what the person on top is doing to himself.Interesting anti drunk-driving poster. The person on the bottom represents what the person on top is doing to himself.
Interesting anti drunk-driving poster. The person on the bottom represents what the person on top is doing to himself.09-Jul-2014 09:59, Canon Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS, 5.6, 17.222mm, 0.013 sec, ISO 160
 

After writing my long blog post at 3:30am the night we arrived, I started our first full day here by walking a few blocks to the nearest Family Mart convenience store (“konbini”) to pick up some breakfast. Unlike American convenience stores, Japanese ones have inexpensive food that won’t kill you. I picked up some typical Japanese breakfast food – broiled fish, rice, and tamagoyaki (rolled omelet). I had a little trouble at the checkout – I failed to notice the gigantic computer screen facing me from the register, letting me know the total price. I’ll blame the jet lag and sleep deprivation. I did manage to muster an “ikura desu ka?” (“how much is it?”), and I was pleased I understood the answer (and she politely pointed to the gigantic screen). Eating the breakfast back in our apartment, it tasted like the best thing ever, but that was mostly due to the fact that I was starving, and that I hadn’t had a breakfast like that in years (konbini food isn’t bad, but it’s not that good).

After we were all reasonably awake, we headed over to the Tenjin station area for some shopping. It’s home to a truly massive shopping complex, which I’m sure I will write an excruciatingly detailed post about later. This is where we saw the Yamakasa float pictured above, which is part of the 2 week Hakata Gion Yamakasa (festival) that is underway. It culminates in a few days with floats like this being carried through the streets:

You’ve probably already spotted some half-naked men running around town. These men in loincloths are participants in Fukuoka’s most anticipated annual festival, Hakata Gion Yamakasa. The highlight of the festival kicks off at exactly 4:59am on July 15th when thousands of men from seven districts race through the streets carrying decorative one-ton floats.

This is a huge festival and after it happens I’m sure I’ll have pictures to share.

As we walked past shop after shop, Kai started chanting for ramen. Fukuoka is known for its ramen, and there are hundreds of ramen shops here. So it was ramen for lunch. Hakata style ramen is the local favorite, which features a broth made from pork bone, and noodles that are thinner than usual. Our first experience with it was not thrilling however – the random shop we picked in the shopping center turned out not to be the best choice, but it wasn’t bad.

After some window shopping and letting the boys pick out a some little things at Tokyu Hands, which is a great department store, we headed back to the apartment for the rest of the day. We’re here for 6 months, so this isn’t a vacation – Maria and I had to get to work! We can both work from the apartment, which is nice, so we can have the boys with us.

BOS → IAD → NRT → FUK

Arriving in Fukuoka airport after 24 hours of travelArriving in Fukuoka airport after 24 hours of travel
Arriving in Fukuoka airport after 24 hours of travel09-Jul-2014 04:35
 

It’s 3:30am and I’m in the bathroom of our apartment in the Tenjin neighborhood of Fukuoka, with my laptop perched atop the washing machine. It’s the only place I can be without waking up someone. I just woke from about 5 hours of sleep, which actually isn’t bad after a 13 hour time change (so my body thinks it’s the middle of the day). I can’t sleep on planes, so I was up for almost 30 hours getting here. But that’s ok – I’ve found that staying awake for a really long time like that helps me adjust to the time change more quickly (my sleep cycle gets so disrupted that my body is happy to start sleeping anytime).

We chased the sun around the globe, so it was sunny out the entire time we were traveling. The boys were real troopers; they kept a positive attitude almost the whole time. I distinctly remember the look on Eidan’s face at 6 and a half hours into our 14 hour flight to Tokyo, when he asked for the fifth time if we were almost there, and I said we were now almost halfway there. That’s when it fully sunk in for him this was going to be a really long flight. But our flights were all on time and there were no problems or bad weather. At the time we left Boston, Typhoon Neoguri was due to hit Fukuoka the day after we arrived, as a category 2 or 3 storm. By the time we landed in Tokyo, the forecast changed for it to arrive a full day later, and as only a tropical storm. So I was very relieved to see that news!

Highlights so far:

  • When we were approaching for our landing at Dulles, Eidan complained about the pressure in his ears. I explained to him that he should close his mouth, hold his nose, and blow – the air would go out his ears to equalize the pressure. This was one of those moments you love being around kids. First he looked at me like I was pulling his leg. Then as I kept talking about it and he realized I was serious, he thought I was crazy. Then when I convinced him to try it, and it worked, he thought it was the most ridiculous and funny thing EVER.
  • Maria had already told me our apartment is in the heart of the nightlife part of town. But I had to see it to fully appreciate what she meant. She took Eidan and I for a short walk around after we got in last night (Kai had already gone straight to bed, as he hadn’t slept on the flights either). We are surrounded by several little alleys, packed with small restaurants, bars, and shops. The cars, bikes, and pedestrians all share the road, so you need to keep your wits about you while walking. We are going to have fun living here!
  • Our apartment is also amazingly tiny. You can walk across each room in just a few steps. It’s like those little plastic puzzles with square interlocking pieces where you can only move one piece at a time. If I want to walk in the bedroom, Maria has to get up from the tiny dining room table, because the chair is in front of the bedroom door. Only one person can put on shoes at a time at the front door, and you definitely have to put your shoes away when you come in, because there’s nowhere to leave them without probably causing someone to trip. Etc, etc.
  • Our taxi driver for the ride from the airport to the apartment was without a doubt the most anxious taxi driver I’ve ever encountered. Maria met us at the airport, and we took two cabs home, since we were four passengers with a ton of luggage. So Kai and I were in a cab following Maria and Eidan. Our driver made several attempts to talk to me in Japanese, for help navigating, and each time he nervously started with “eto, eto, eto, eto, eto” (the Japanese version of “um”). He said it slowly each time, rising out of his seat a bit each time he got to each “t” sound and then sitting again at the end of each “o.” He would then say a few Japanese words slowly. I then repeated the words back to him, so he’d know I heard the sounds, and then I would add “wakarimasen, gomen nasai” (“I’m sorry, I don’t understand”). That didn’t stop him from continuing to try – we repeated this ritual a few times. Before we got in the car, Maria had explained the route to him, he was following the other cab, and he had the route in his navigation computer, so I’m not sure what he was trying to ask me. But we got to the apartment without any problems – as we drove down our alley and he realized he was close, he shouted “ush!” (or something similar) a couple times and lifted himself a bit out of his seat each time he said it. Maria told me later her driver spoke English. He told her he worked on the side as a baseball umpire and was looking forward to going to Florida soon, for umpire school.
  • Before going to bed, Eidan told Maria and I “this has been the most boring day ever, and the most exciting day ever!”

Today I’ll do some work, and we’ll get settled – unpacking, grocery shopping, etc. We’ll see if I can stay awake until tonight.

Typhoon Neoguri, here we come

The boys and I are almost done with our two week visit to Newport, where we are visiting with my family before we leave for Japan. It’s been a good trip, and I’ll have more to say about our visit here when I have more time to write. We are flying out of Boston tomorrow, and our journey involves 3 flights for getting us to Fukuoka. A trip like that with the boys is enough to handle, but on top of that, there’s a category 5 typhoon bearing down on Fukuoka. We’re arriving Tuesday evening, and it’s due to arrive Wednesday morning (I’ve added Fukuoka to the map below). So we’ll reunite with Maria by hunkering down together for the storm.

Typhoon Neoguri is due to hit Fukuoka right after our flight landsTyphoon Neoguri is due to hit Fukuoka right after our flight lands
Typhoon Neoguri is due to hit Fukuoka right after our flight lands
 

Japanese toilet, ready for liftoff

Maria sent a picture of the toilet control panel in our apartment in Japan. It has 18 buttons. I can’t imagine what they all do. The toilets I remember from when we were there in 2007 didn’t have half as many buttons (and even then it seemed absurd – but what do I know, I’m just a Neanderthal American).

The toilet in our apartment in Fukuoka has 18 buttonsThe toilet in our apartment in Fukuoka has 18 buttons
The toilet in our apartment in Fukuoka has 18 buttons07-Jun-2014 06:29, Sony C2004, 2.8, 3.49mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 440
 
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