So after arriving in Japan on Sunday night, buying a small amount of food and heading to bed, I slept pretty well and woke up in good time for the first day of school. Except it wasn't school, due to a bank holiday; instead, there was an excursion arranged with some locals.
We were going to Akizuki, a castle town about 25 miles (by road, less as the crow flies) from Fukuoka.
The bus trip took quite a long time, about an hour - I'm not entirely sure why it's so time-consuming, as it's mostly highways as far as I can tell. I was getting very hungry by this point. My body clock being quite confused at this point, I've been getting randomly hungry throughout the day, but never have enough appetite to eat a substantial meal. So I thankfully devoured the tiny pack of crackers and cheese I'd saved from the plane. This would shortly prove to be a good move.
Disembarking from the bus, we wandered over to some kind of park, where we were all given a bento, labelled "Vegan Deli". I was somewhat surprised, somewhat perplexed and somewhat impressed. I assumed that maybe there were vegans and vegetarians in the group, and rather than worry about meeting dietary requirements, someone had bought a stack of vegan lunches.
I didn't particularly expected to like it, but that's another matter. Veganness aside, my poor bento had apparently suffered in transit.
You can imagine that I was further perplexed and further puzzled to find that the meal included deep-fried oysters and some kind of herbed fish in breadcrumbs. After much conversation, we decided that some enterprising Japanese restaurant had settled on the name "Vegan Deli" as having a cool (English, therefore cool?) and healthy vibe, either ignorant of or not caring about the actual meaning of the words.
This is all very well, but I feel like there's some words that languages really shouldn't carelessly borrow and use at random. That definitely includes words indicating specific dietary requirements and health matters. I don't feel it's okay for a Japanese firm to call itself Vegan Deli and sell non-vegan foods, any more than I think it's okay for a British butchers to add a bit of flair by idly decorating their produce with the word כָּשֵׁר (that is, "kosher"). That's particularly true because some vegans are allergic to certain animal products, and would assume their "vegan" meal is safe.
Anyway, it turned out I found about three-quarters of the food revolting, so I ate the rice and salad, and was profoundly grateful to KLM for that packet of crackers.
On the bus over, we'd signed our names into one of seven groups, which dictated the order in which we'd do things. This seemed eminently sensible, so it was a shame that any semblence of order dissipated during the meal. When the people I'd sat with finished eating, we discovered that half the people had already sloped off. There'd been a perfunctory effort at telling people to form into groups, but nothing organised enough to include actually getting people to form up, or checking groups had all their people before leaving. Not very impressive, particularly since this meant a real possibility of people straying and having no real idea what to do all day.
Anyway, I managed to latch onto a few other people and we went around together. One of these people was J-san, who I'd met a couple of years ago. We were mutually surprised to see each other, since last I heard she was moving to Osaka. It was nice to catch up and we chatted a lot as we walked around.
The town is full of white-and-blue ceramic tile notices explaining points of interest, which I really liked. There's also a big map near the main entrance to town, also tiled.
With J-san on a historic bridge, 目鏡橋 (eye-mirror bridge; I'm not sure if it can also be read as Megane Hashi, which would be a homophone for "spectacles bridge" and possibly could be an alternate spelling. This stuff gets complicated...).
It's quite a nice country town. One of the interesting things for me (and also, a mildly melancholy one) is that historic places in Japan often feel relatively modern, because the traditional architecture is mostly wooden and doesn't last well (also, earthquakes) while there was a boom in concrete building in the last sixty years or so, without much interest in bricks. You don't get the kind of gently-aged buildings you can find in countries where bricks or stone weather over time and become moss-grown and stately. Old places seem to be a mixture of old-fashioned wood (but refurbished relatively often) and concrete elements that feel out-of-place to my eyes. My brother, an engineer, reckons that brick is about the only architectural element that grows more aesthetically pleasing with age, and I'm inclined to agree.
We ambled down some side streets and, after browsing through a couple of artsy shops, ended up at Honshoji Temple. We didn't really go in but took a few photos. There was a service of some kind going on (we could hear chanting inside at least one building) and didn't want to interrupt anything if the inner grounds were in use.
Some of my group went to take photos of the graveyard. The Japanese people found this weird and a bit unsettling, and I didn't particularly feel the urge, so I just have this long-distance shot which helpfully illustrates how sunny it was. Shame the railing is the only thing standing out.
That's better. It's a nice temple, although due to my total ignorance of temple architecture I have to admit they tend to look the same to me.
Somehow we ended up not actually having time to go to the castle ruins. This was perhaps a downside to having an activity sheet to follow, although not having seen it I don't know how much of a loss it was. This is, I think, one of the stone bridges leading that way.
A very pleasing arch and path. More like this, please! Like I said, aged stone and moss is the sort of thing that really gives a sense of age to my eyes. I'd be interested to know what the cultural differences are around this perception.
So one of the reasons for choosing Akizuki was apparently that it's a good place in cherry blossom season. There were stalls and shops open along some cherry-lined streets, imploring us to try various sweets and other souvenirs (mostly edible). Again, being a group in a bit of a hurry, we didn't spend much time here, although we did all have one adzuki bean-filled mochi bun. Yum.
The Paper Factory
The second reason for going was that Akizuki is home to one of a small number of surviving traditional Japanese paper factories: 筑前秋月和紙処.
Unfortunately, somewhere around this time my camera's SD card decided it should start to break. Thankfully it didn't give up the ghost entirely (and I'm still not at sure what's wrong with it) so it lost quite a few pictures in the factory (none of which are remotely salvageable, it saved just a few kb of data for each) but not everything I'd taken.
But yeah, sorry for the relative unimpressiveness of the photos. If it's any consolation, there were so many people with large rucksacks standing awkwardly in the small factory that it was quite hard to see or hear properly anyway. I really wish they'd had people leave their rucksacks somewhere; or gone in smaller batches; or perhaps insisted that everyone cycle round to make sure everyone could get a proper look. As it was, even when some people obviously weren't interested in going to look at/listen to something, they were just sort of standing absently in the way and blocking everything with their huge bags. Not cool. It was a bit disappointing because I'm pretty much always interested in these practical, manufacturing and arts-type bits of tourism. I blame being raised by an engineer.
These strips of wood will be used to make paper, after soaking, boiling in chemical mixtures, and shredding.
A thin screen is dipped in water containing plant fibre pulp, and carefully tipped back and forth to let the fibre settle evenly while the liquid runs off. The fibres align into a mat during this process, and a cord is added, which the fibres bond around.
The screenful of pulp is laid carefully on top of a pile, then the screen is peeled off, leaving a distinct layer. It will be pressed for a day to force the water out. When the cord is pulled, the whole layer should peel off neatly. It will be drief and brushed very quickly on a plate over an oven, then peeled off and left to settle.
There's a cool video of the process on Youtube of course (from another factory). Their machinery is a little different, perhaps less traditional? but the process seems very similar.
Although western-style paper is considered better for most purposes - it's cheaper and faster to make, more consistent, and otherwise just a much more practical and efficient method, which is presumably how it became the dominant form in the first place - Japanese paper is still used for a lot of art, particularly calligraphy. It has a pleasing texture and a bit of idiosyncratic character, and I think the particular ink-absorbing properties are useful.
For a while it looked as though we were heading back to Fukuoka via a series of incredibly windy, rather alarming forest mountain roads. Then after about ten minutes, most of the way up a mountain, it became apparent that the bus driver had just made a wrong turn and had no way of turning round! Eventually we did manage to turn round and head back. It was the most exciting (and occasionally nerve-wracking) part of the trip, but sadly no usable photos survive.
Akizuki seems a bit of a pain to get to from Fukuoka - it's surprisingly slow for the distance. It's a relatively quiet place without very much going on, from what I can tell. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, go for it. It has a ruined castle (which I can't vote on one way or another), several temples that are apparently nice (the one I saw was okay), some interesting little gift shops, lots of stalls and shops selling edibles in the springtime, and was generally pleasant. The paper factory was also interesting and if it is possible to visit it as a lone tourist, I strongly recommend doing so. You can at least go and get some interesting paper items in the shop.
One thing to bear in mind about all these places is that Japan really isn't big on pavements.* This means taking a stroll through a quiet country town actually means walking in the main road most of the time, which has only paint-marked pedestrian and/or bike lanes. Side lanes won't even have that. This was the case in Kusano as well. From what I've seen, it's only really cities that have pavements in most places, and even that seems to be largely restricted to the biggest roads - turn off the main thoroughfare in the central business district or main shopping streets of Fukuoka and you're walking on tarmac.
For any American readers, pavement is the thing humans walk on, not the bit cars drive on. I don't know why you call that a pavement. It's not, you know, paved. Anyway, there are definitely bits of tarmac for cars to go on, so don't get confused.