Friday, 19 September 2014

Mooching in Kyushu: Kumamoto day 1

So due to the sabotage of my Okinawa trip, I had to find something to do at short notice. This meant something that I could research relatively quickly, and also something that wouldn't be ruinously expensive to do impromptu. Also, no more planes. That ruled out my wish to visit Hokkaido (too complicated to do on 24 hours notice). Since I'm flying out from Osaka at Chrimbo I expect to spend a few days in the central part of Japan checking out Osaka, Tokyo and maybe Kobe or Kyoto, so I don't particularly want to do that at the moment - plus, it's even hotter than Fukuoka.

In the end I've settled on a fairly simple circuit around northern Kyushu. I took the shinkansen (bullet train) south to a place called Kumamoto, capital of Kumamoto prefecture. This isn't a massive tourist spot, but it has several noteworthy things to see, although I suspect its main salience to the Japanese is Kumanon, its mascot. For various reasons I decided to spend a couple of days here, whereas other places on my planned tour will only get one.

Because I arrived at lunchtime and carrying a heavy bag, I didn't want to immediately start dashing around. A nice lady at the station booked a hotel for me - I've decided this is far simpler than trying to do it online, where painstakingly working out what kind of hotel something is, scrabbling around for pricing information and eventually finding that the rooms are all full takes ages. I was slightly bemused at her insistence on announcing me to various hotels as "a foreign customer looking for a room", something that sounds weird and borderline No Blacks No Irish to English ears, although I assume it has different cultural resonance here.

As my hotel wasn't available for check-in until 4pm, I was delighted to find that the station had lockers! I don't remember the last time I saw one in the UK except at gyms. I wedged my rucksack into one with only minor trepidation, and set out into town. Although there's a tram, I wanted to do some actual walking around a town for a change so I could get a feel for it. Also, that meant not having to work out how the trams work or find correct change. This is a bigger problem than you might think, because foreigners taking out lump sums from the bank to minimise charges tend to end up carrying Y10000 notes - which is all I had on me - while tram fares are things like Y150 and don't provide change. They still use very small denominations here, so the Y1 coin is basically a halfpenny bit, but nothing costs Y1 or anything like it. There's also various taxes added to the nominal prices of goods, so that rather than things being Y100 or Y99 (as the UK would do it) they always end up as Y238 or so on, which means you get a heap of small change. Between eagerness to offload heavy change whenever possible, and reluctance to constantly ask people to change what is essentially £50, I always end up going through my smaller monies and ending up stuck with only large notes.

Lockers! Thankfully the screen offers English instructions, because they were a bit fiddly to use.

No idea, but it looks cool. Apparently the one on the right is an obake no Kinta based on a supposed soldier called Kinta. The monkeys are a kind of charm made from clay; there are multiple set designs (presumably with different sets of named monkeys?) are intended to have different effects, like averting disaster or protecting children.

This also puzzles me. Apparently this is a kijiguruma, a wooden pheasant toy. These two exhibits are just randomly embedded in the walls in the station, in an underpass area.

Anyway! It was a moderate and not particularly interesting walk through the downtown of a different city from the downtown I normally walk through, and there was a bit of a breeze so it wasn't that hot. I've undoubtedly been spoiled by upbringing and early jobs, but I still can't get used to the idea of walking for an hour through a city and never passing a piece of greenery larger than my shirt. This isn't something unique to Japan by any means, and not all of Japan is like this, but it's rather soulless. The poor imprisoned rivers cry out for freedom.

This building just caught my eye for some reason.

These multi-story mini car parks are relatively common now. They were, of course, first predicted by Thunderbirds many years ago, in the 1966 episode Move and You're Dead, featuring the Parola Sands car park. That was actually even more complicated than this real-life arrangement:

This seems to be a typical bar-cum-noodle-bar. There are lots of these around, and their main features seem to be: minimal information, distinctly bijou scale, fading exterior in a rather traditional style, and complete opacity to the passing observer. This one is shut right now, but even the open ones baffle me. It's a nice change from British-style massive sheet glass windows, in all fairness.

Most things are going on above your head. If you don't recognise or understand the signs, like I don't, then most of the time you'll have very little idea what's around you.

As I wandered towards the city centre, I stumbled across an entrance to an underground shopping centre called Center Plaza. As often happens, this displays only an English name in the flesh, but is referred to be a different, Japanese name if you try to look it up... this turns out to be センター駐車場側, "center car park", which is less, um... evocative.

It reminded me of St Johns, except that there's an unexpected luxury-looking bit of slightly posh foodstuffs. I can't tell whether the slightly grubby exterior and cheap-and-cheerful food was misleading, or if in fact that kind of Japanese foodstuff shop has a veneer of poshness to me but is not actually posh per se. Ah, cultural differences.

Anyway, I took the chance to eat ramen because it was already lunchtime, and this would spare me needing to look out for further restaurants until I'd been to my hotel. It wasn't quite as nice as the ramen near our school, but cheap and filling. I even ate the egg, which is my first ever boiled egg. Unlike a certain famous compatriot, I am not generally the Eggman.

This isn't quite as black as it looks in the photo, but it was very very dark broth. The vegetables are a kind of thin leek.

Naturally, I ended up taking a different exit and getting a bit lost, but I did eventually get back on track for my first destination.

Besides the weird bear, Kumamoto has a couple of other interesting features. One is a very impressive castle, which I'm saving for tomorrow when I have a full day to look around it, as it's pretty extensive and deserves a proper look. The grounds apparently contain a second very impressive feature, the Hosokawa Mansion, a former samurai residence that's the sort of equivalent to a National Trust country house. Oh, and there's a massive temple next door. So that's going to be a pretty full day.

For my first day, with only the afternoon to spare and hotel-checking to do, I opted to seek out the former residence of Lafcadio Hearn. This very interesting gent was a major contributor to Japanese-Western cultural relations, naturalising here and throwing himself into teaching, writing and translating. I saw his Dublin residence when we were over there a couple of years back. He's of particular interest to me not only for that cultural and linguistic interest, which I share, but because he's the source of Skeealyn Scaanjoon, one of the first works of fiction available in Manx Gaelic, through the efforts of Rob y Teare. Very good it was too. So I thought I'd like to see his house.

What we're after is the lower-right yellow dot just under the pink rectangle. It's labelled "Former Kumamoto Residence of Yakumo Koizumi", his Japanese name. Note the complete lack of labelled geographical features between "you are here" and my destination. It's just a maze of generic shops.

The house was a devil to find. I did my best with the map, but I was coming from a slightly anonymous retail area, and Japan is infuriatingly short on street names, so even when I did know the name of the street I hoped to be on, it was rarely possible to confirm whether that was true. The grid pattern doesn't help here, as many streets are so long that you can't really nip to the end to check for a sign. I was cruelly led astray for a while by a sign that some wag had turned 90 degrees!

Thankfully another one led me back, and I eventually worked out that the little building by the uninspiring bit of open ground was actually the place I was looking for. Cue pause to eat the panettone I'd miraculously acquired in a bakery. It was delicious!

I started by just admiring the outside and its little bit of garden. This was slightly awkwardly curtailed by one of the staff coming out to beckon me inside, clearly under the impression that I was nervous about coming in. They were very pleasant, and one gentleman attached himself to me for a little while to chat about Hearn. This was slightly embarrassing as I already knew most of the stuff, but he was interested to learn I was English, and we had a brief discussion about Irish Gaelic, Manx and whether or not Guiness is a kind of beer (no). After showing me around he left me to wander at my own speed and take some photos - I did ask as old houses don't always like that.

With the doors open, you can see right through to the back garden. I don't know whether someone with this kind of house might have done that at one time, or whether it's purely for visitors' convenience. I do wonder how much grounds the house might originally have had? These sorts of houses always look like they should have expansive gardens.

As I've never been in a Japanese house, let alone a traditional one, it was very interesting just in that regard. There's only so much to say about Lafcadio Hearn and he only lived there for a few years before his death, but there were various displays and most had some English one. These included some student testimonials about his brilliant note-free teaching. On reflection, I wonder whether this was not heavily influenced by his major visual problems (one eye and serious myopia) that would have made working from notes very difficult, encouraging him to get used to remembering things and working orally.

It was a very nice house and I was quite jealous of it. Elegant plainness, all dark wood and paper and soothing tatami reed mats. The spaciousness was also a big source of jealousy for me! So many rooms... I really wanted to move in there and just enjoy having room for once, in this cool and elegant space. On the downside, it was probably both cold and noisy, as they didn't really have insulation and the walls are mostly paper.

Very simply decorated. I can't help noticing that, although it's very nice, I would be suffering from lack of book storage. Ah, property ownership, scourge of the modern age. See also: electricity. This was a kind of living room, although as far as I understand Japanese culture, rooms are usually multipurpose; the minimal furnishing helps with that.

The inner and outer doors seem to be very moveable, so you can allow in as much air and sunlight as you want, move a screen to block an annoying bit of light, and so on.

The actual study, where he did all his work. It seems a horribly small table to me. I need my space to sprawl on (and also I write at about a 45' angle).

Because of the tatami floors, you don't wear shoes of any kind in here. You can also step out onto this sort of veranda affair, so you can be outside but shoeless. It was quite nice wandering around on these mats, I can see why they're popular.

A nice collection of Hearn's works.

On the way back, I spotted a rather nice-looking Catholic church, the biggest church I've seen so far in Japan. I might take a look at it if I'm back in the area tomorrow, but I just wanted to get my stuff and check in. It seems to be Tetori Church and looks rather nice from the photos on their website. There's something slightly odd, though, about going to Japan to (as Stella Gibbons would put it) look at old churches.

After another walk back to the station that set my feet to aching, I picked up my bag, managed to change a Y10000 note and hopped on the tram to my hotel. I'd been lucky in that unlike many places, the hotels in Kumamoto are often right next to the interesting parts of town (downtown and the historic quarter) so everything should be close tomorrow. At this point I realised my head was also hurting and I was worn out, so I let myself collapse for a bit. I woke to a pounding headache and lack of appetite, but it was obviously sensible to get some food.

Hotel room is about as spacious as my apartment, and rather better-equipped.

A long walk to the local supermarket ended with the discovery that it had unaccountably closed down, so I scrabbled together a couple of edibles at a convenience shop. The range of things you can get in these is very different from the UK and a bit troublesome if (like me) you want something simple and undemanding when you're ill. They sell a lot of sweets and snacks, plus various ready-made lunchboxes with rice and vegetables and things. No bread, no fruit. Fine, but not ideal when you're in a microwave-free hotel room and really just want something very plain and simple. I will pass over the bread (to everyone's undoubted relief) and simply report that I did manage to assemble and eat something resembling a sandwich.

Retiring to my room, I wondered whether the headache might have something to do with only getting one cup of tea all day. I'd had water on the way here, soupy ramen for lunch with only more water to drink, accidentally bought mugicha (a sort of rough barleycup equivalent) on my walk back, and got one cuppa at the station cafe before setting out again. So I cracked open one of the surprisingly limited selection of drinks (two) in my room. It had plum blossoms on it and was called (roughly) Plum Tea, so presumably it was green tea with plum added, like how jasmine tea works.

A beautiful, promising greenish-pink colour promises fruity goodness.

Nope. Very much not. Yech!

On investigation, 梅こんぶ茶 (umekonbucha) is a beverage made from pickled sour plums and seaweed. It's a bit like miso soup, and nothing like tea. It also isn't what I want to drink right now, especially since it doesn't contain even a scrap of caffeine! Another time, knowing what I was getting into, it might be acceptable.

After some scrabbling, I found an instant coffee machine hiding in a corner of the lobby. I'm deeply confused about why there isn't a pile of tea sachets in the room, given the Japanese attachment to tea. I'm beginning to think that, although tea is culturally and traditionally important here, tea as a fresh hot beverage just isn't as popular as in Britain. There's loads of chilled bottled tea in vending machines, and people drink lots of coffee. I wonder whether, by the time it reached the cheap-and-plentiful stage that would make it universal as in Britain, they already had alternatives? Or maybe it used to be popular but has lost that position now that alternatives are available. Also, of course, it's hot here. Caffs will always ask whether you want your tea chilled or hot, a question I have never encountered in Britain.

These photos have nowhere to go

Sometimes I just want to take a photo.

These chairs were deep in the bowels of the bus station, shrouded in gloom and with no company but the nearby rumblings of buses. Not a human was in sight. I found something deeply lonely and melancholy about them, which is in no way captured by this hacklike photo.

Is this not an intriguing door? It proclaims "Adventure!". Most likely it belongs to an accounting firm, the delivery entrance of a printer paper manufacturer's office, or a 36-year-old assistant sales executive called Takeshi who works six-day weeks and enjoys drinking beer while watching television and eating instant noodles.

What lies up this dark, intriguing-yet-discouraging staircase? Surely, surely, it is the office of some secret society or a branch of MI6?

It claims to be a purveyor of Korean snacks. So would I, mate, so would I.

This building has a row of wooden placards outside it and lanterns, very reminiscent of the temples I've visited. Initially I wondered if it was a small, discreet and rather unusual shrine, or some Shinto-related premises at least. I'm not sure if this is a deliberate reference or just coincidence, since on closer inspection it's apparently a bar listing the names and prices of the drinks available.

1 comment:

  1. Wait, you'd never had a boiled egg before??? (Note that's the one thing I'm siezing on here).