Thursday, 18 June 2009

Japan Diaries, part II: Nagasaki Cabaret

Our time in Fukuoka included breakfast, shrines, weddings (please note the plural), eyelid corrections and designer dogs. Those last two on signs outside shops. The main aims of the day however included adjusting to the 7 hour time difference and travelling to Nagasaki. There were two special points of interest for me in that city: the atom bomb memorial (impressive) and the former island Deshima.

Deshima was where the Dutch traders were stationed in the 17th century. During that time in the Tokugawa shogunate Japan was completely closed off from the world. Only two foreign nations were allowed to trade with Japan: China and Holland. From Europe and the colonies in Indonesia and the Americas the Dutch ruled the Seven Seas. And consequently the world. Under the joint venture of the VOC the Dutch enriched themselves without scruples. (Therefore when today’s pm tells us that what Holland is missing is a bit of ‘VOC-mentality’ BEWARE!)

The Dutch got to trade with Japan but were to have no contact with the Japanese population. The red-haired bignoses were supposed to stay on their little island all year except for one mission a year to present a gift to the shogun in Edo (Tokyo). Nagasaki has rebuilt the tiny area of Deshima, really no more than one short street. This weird era of Dutch-Japanese relations fascinates me (can you tell?) and so we visited.

However, my friend and I did not visit Deshima until the next day. First we found our hostel (Akari, highly recommended) where we had reservations. In the evening we struck out on a mission to find us some real Japanese food. There are plenty of noodle bars and western style eateries in Nagasaki but we wanted to celebrate our arrival in Nippon with something classier. And so, upon spotting one of those quaintly closed-yet-open fronts that mark Japanese restaurants, we decided to move aside our hesitations and the sliding door and step inside. Bold Dutch, eh?

The astonished faces of staff and clientele were our first clue. The all-Japanese, no-picture menu the second. This restaurant was not used to western guests. At all. The waitress ushering us to the first low table (tatami with cusions, sunken pit to leave legs under table) was positively panicking. But: once inside, you’re inside. That we took our shoes off went without saying. That is something you get used to almost immediately in Japan. We stole some glances at our neighbours to see if we had to use the provided slippers. (Probably.) The poor waitress sent the cook to explain the menu to us. Not that he spoke anything but Japanese. The menu included two set meals with fixed prices (luckily in Arabic figures) and in his explanation I could just make out ‘sashimi’, ‘miso’ and ‘tempura’. Me so proud. Point, nod, smile, arigato and hope like hell. (This is something we did a lot in Japan.)

The meal was absolutely beautiful. The tastes but also the presentation. I am an absolute sucker for chinaware and it was a feast for the eyes as much as the tongue. Only thing: S had bravely decided to put aside her dislike of fish for the trip, and failed miserably. Poor thing could hardly eat anything unless completely soaked in soy sauce.

In the mean time, our appearance did not exactly go unnoticed in this two-table-one-bar restaurant. We were very obviously the evening’s entertainment. Japanese will never directly stare at you but they’re somehow still good at looking without looking. Of course this is exactly the moment when the sushi decides to fall off the chopsticks and into the soy sauce (_SOY STAR!_) but okay. Poor S, though, had to find a way to not eat her clam miso and sashimi without the cook noticing. She did quite well.

How do you ask for a check in a restaurant where the cook is discussing you with the regulars at the bar and the waitress is hiding in the kitchen?

After we stepped outside (door nervously opened by nerve-wrecked waitress) we actually waited a short while to see if we heard laughter. We didn’t. Still, we figured that providing the cabaret for the evening was a good way of thanking the Japanese people. :)

Japan Diaries, part I

(Photo: the festival 'float' we saw during the night.)
We left on a Friday and arrived in Japan on a Saturday, somewhere in the afternoon. We flew to Tokyo first and then had a connecting flight to Fukuoka which is on the southern big island of Kyushu. There were a few hours to kill in Tokyo and because the long flight had made us tired and sticky we decided to have a shower at the airport. World’s best decision – it made us all human again. We had bought our vouchers for our railpasses in the Netherlands. It is not possible to buy them in Japan, and they are really only for foreigners on a tourist visa. But you need to activate them in Japan and exchange them for the real pass. We did that at Narita airport in Tokyo and used them immediately to travel to the city. Hurray! We were in Tokyo!
The imperial palace is not far from Tokyo’s main train station and it is surrounded by extensive gardens. This made a good destination for our short trip. This is where I made some pictures of the Pirate’s first encounter with Japan – and Hello Kitty. :) (For the Pirate’s pics, check his blog:

The flight to Fukuoka was a short one and we arrived there late in the evening, around 10.30 or 11. Oh how wonderful of me to have booked a hostel bed for us at a great internationally acclaimed, amazing traditional place. A very helpful (and English-speaking!) boy at the airport showed us how to get to the subway (walked us all the way there, like 10 minutes). We were the last flight to arrive, it was the end of his shift but he took the trouble of showing us how to use the ticket machine and everything. Sweet dude. So we took the subway (guy told us where to get off) and walked a block to the hostel. It looked truly amazing with a small tea garden en those paper slide doors and everything. S praised my booking skills. And then it turned out I had made a wrong booking.

The booking I had made was for Sunday. We were there on Saturday. And the hostel was packed full. Not a bed left. Argh. There we were, two tired chicks from Amsterdam with bulging backpacks… Would the hostel guy know another place perhaps? He called another place. No, the lady there explained to me in broken English. She didn’t have a bed for us either. But we should try the Riverside Hotel. The hostel guy wrote it down for us (LIBERSAIDO) and told us how to get there. It was not far.

There we went, walking through Fukuoka at night. The streets were almost deserted yet I felt strangely safe there. There was absolutely no feeling of unsafe, like you sometimes get in cities at night. We were walking and suddenly found ourselves in a temple complex in the middle of the city. We walked underneath a shrine portal (torii) and were surrounded with beautiful wooden temples and stone lanterns. There was also a huge high structure, like a festival float, with gods and demons or heroes and kings, animals and flowers. Staring at us at midnight. Absolutely magic.

We walked on, determined to visit the shrine during the daytime, and found Riverside in a shopping arcade. It was full, no rooms at all. Right, what next? The Riverside night guard knew another place, he would give them a call. It was called New Port and he told us how to get there. Wrote down the address in Japanese in case we wanted to show a taxi driver. We decided to find a taxi and lo and behold! there was a taxi stand not far away. We showed them the address. This was the start of a five-driver (plus one wife) address finding frenzy. They all had to look at the address, a map was spread out on a taxi hood, navigation systems were used. It was two blocks down, across the bridge. Walkeable distance.

With a big smile and a domo arigato gozaimas we left the grinning taxi drivers to find New Port. Did you know that Japanese do not really use street names? Or signs? Especially not in another language than Japanese? We tried comparing Riverside’s writing with signs. We tried counting streets. We tried the lot but couldn’t find New Port. 00.30 hours, in Fukuoka, Japan. Argh. Also Saturday night so at one point a (lucky?) guy comes cycling through the street with two hip chickies by his side. But: he stops, without us asking, because when people are in need of help, you help. The chickies did not entirely agree. The guy stared at the address. Stared at our little map that the Riverside gave us. Agreed that this would be the street but where was the hotel? And then just when he decided to give in to the chickies and leave us again, he turns around to us and points to a blue Japanese sign. New Port!

Yeah, if you give your hotel an English name, don’t bother with the English writing…

So we found the hotel. The owner did not speak a word outside of Japan but he knew the two American (...) girls were coming. He gave us a room. We crashed and slept like there was a tomorrow filled with shrines, Japanese people and grins. There was.